Engines of Mischief: The Best Children’s Books of 1964

Wally the Wordworm

by Clifton Fadiman
Macmillan, 64 pp., $3.50

The Untold Adventures of Santa Claus

by Ogden Nash
Little Brown, 47 pp., $2.95

How to Catch a Crocodile

by Robert Pack
Knopf, 40 pp., $3.25

How the Whale Became

by Ted Hughes
Athenaeum, 100 pp., $3.50

Squawky

by Stephen Potter
Lippincott, 48 pp., $3.75

Tom and Tabby

by John Symonds
Universe Books, 63 pp., $4.95

Elisabeth the Cow Ghost

by William Pène du Bois
Viking, 41 pp., $3.00

The Young Man Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn

by Eric von Schmidt
Houghton Mifflin, 48 pp., $3.25

The King Who Loved Candy

by Peter Hughes
Abelard-Schuman, 64 pp., $3.25

Meeting with a Stranger

by Duane Bradley
Lippincott, 128 pp., $3.75

The Takula Tree

by Elizabeth P. Fleming
Westminster, 175 pp., $3.25

Children of Africa

by Louise A. Stinetorf
Lippincott, 157 pp., $3.25

The Letter on the Tree

by Natalie Savage Carlson
Harper and Row, 116 pp., $3.50

A Day Without Wind

by William Mayne
Dutton, 64 pp., $3.50

The Coriander

by Eilis Dillon
Funk and Wagnalls, 211 pp., $3.25

The Alley

by Eleanor Estes
Harcourt Brace, 283 pp., $3.50

Harriet the Spy

by Louise Fitzhugh
Harper and Row, 298 pp., $3.95

I Go by Sea, I Go by Land

by P.L. Travers
Norton, 233 pp., $3.50

Knights Beseiged

by Nancy Faulkner
Doubleday, 213 pp., $3.25

Save the Khan

by B. Bartos-Höppner
Walck, 242 pp., $4.00

The Burning of Njal

by Henry Treece
Criterion, 191 pp., $3.50

The Book of Three

by Lloyd Alexander
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 217 pp., $3.75

To Catch a Spy

by Amelia Elizabeth Walden
Westminster, 224 pp., $3.50

Damn them!” wrote Lamb to Coleridge in 1802. “I mean the cursed Barbauld crew, those blights and blasts of all that is human in man and child.” Lamb was in a temper because, having gone to Newbery’s bookshop to buy “the old classics of the nursery,” he had been fobbed off with “Mrs. Barbauld’s and Mrs. Trimmer’s nonsense”; and he was sure that the “knowledge insignificant and vapid” that they conveyed would only serve to give a child an absurd conceit of himself—

when he has learnt that a horse is an animal, and Billy is better than a horse, and such-like; instead of that beautiful interest in wild tales which made the child a man, while all the time he suspected himself to be no bigger than a child. Science has succeeded to poetry no less in the little walks of children than with men.

Coleridge was just as down on the improvers:

Give me the Arabian Nights Entertainments, which I used to watch till the sun shining on the bookcase approached it, and glowing full upon it gave me courage to take it from the shelf. I heard of no little Billies, and sought no praise for giving to beggars, and I trust that my heart is not the worse, or the less inclined to feel sympathy for all men.

Lamb and Coleridge had good reason to be so cross. Mrs. Barbauld and the other improvers—John Day and Mrs. Trimmer in England, Samuel Goodrich in New England—were intolerably prosy as well as moral. “Happy would it be for the animal creation,” so Mrs. Trimmer spells out the message of her History of the Robins, “if every human being, like the good Mrs. Benson, consulted the welfare of inferior creatures.” Worse still, the Barbauld crew actively campaigned against everything that (in retrospect, at least) had lit up Lamb’s and Coleridge’s imaginations in childhood. They condemned fairy-tales as “useless” or “prejudicial nonsense,” smelt corruption even in Robinson Crusoe, and judged the most harmless of old-wives tales to be a potential “engine of mischief.” Yet where did their passion for instruction lead? To harmless enough books like Crusts in Soak for Children to Peck, but also to appalling books by early Victorian Strangeloves, like The Art of Making Fireworks, Detonating Balls etc. “containing Plain and Easy Directions for Mixing and Preparing the Ingredients and Making and Finishing the most simple Devices in the Ingenious Art; by Christopher Grotz, Real Engineer.” Better trolls and hobgoblins than such explosive knowledge!

Today we think better of fairytales and old wives’ fables. Yet the Mrs. Barbaulds are still hard at it. They go to work more slyly than their originals; morals are implied, not rammed home; instruction is given a livelier disguise. They cast their net wider, eager now to condition the reader’s feelings as well as his behavior, to implant healthy social attitudes as well as correct morals. In their view, children must learn about ants …

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