Banned Books of the Past: Robert Dodsley’s Chronicles of the Kings (1740) “Altogether Abominable”

Eighteenth-century children helped themselves to fictional travellers’ tales such as  Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1729) or Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) that were not intended principally for them.  Both characters having gone to sea against their fathers’ commands were not good role models for boys, who might acquire a desire to “ramble” from their reading.   In spite these concerns, the process of repackaging Crusoe and Gulliver as abridgments that were unmistakably children’s books was underway by the 1760s.

But other books for adults that children consumed have never factored into the history of their reading during the 1700s.  One of the more surprising ones is Robert Dodsley’s The Chronicles of the Kings of England (1740) supposedly written by the rabbi Nathan Ben Saddi in the style of the King James’ version of the Bible.  Dodsley (1704-1764), the son of a schoolmaster, apprentice to a stocking-maker, footman to well-connected London families, and poet, established himself as one of the most important literary publishers of the times.  As an upstart and outsider, he also made his mark as a satirist  of George II’s reign in popular works like The Chronicle,which are unread now even by specialists.

When Dodsley’s mock-history enjoyed a surge in popularity during the 1790s, one edition was reissued for young readers illustrated with handsome portraits of the kings and queens by Thomas Bewick by a group of children’s book publishers that included Elizabeth Newbery,  Darton and Harvey, and Vernor and Hood.  Elizabeth Newbery’s catalogue described it as “written in a Style adapted to impress upon the Memories of Youth the Elements of History.”

Mrs. Trimmer begged to disagree and attacked it as a very dangerous book in one of her longest and most negative reviews in the Guardian of Education:  “It was evidently composed with a most prophane and invidious design, to depreciate the Sacred Writings, and to bring contempt and ridicule upon the memory of the sovereigns who have successively filled the British throne, and through them to glance derision, upon monarchy itself.”   Although it not written with for children in mind, she pointed out that far too many of them seemed to be familiar with the Chronicles:  “We hear to our impressible concern, that it is extensively circulated, and that in some families children learn chapters of it by heart, as other children learn chapters in the Bible.  Nay, we ourselves have seen this book recommended…in a work professedly written to direct ‘Parents and Teachers in their Choice of Books in every Branch of Education.’”

Trimmer is still regarded with some justification as a paranoid reactionary responding to the turmoil unleashed by the French Revolution.  Because she saw it as her duty to expose conspiracies to the public does not mean that she was always wrong.  In the case of Dodsley’s Chronicles, her calling it  “obscene to a very high degree” was quite true.  Here is Dodsley’s version of the incident that set off Wat Tyler’s revolt during the reign of Richard II:

One of the tax-gatherers came to the house of a certain tyler…commonly called Wat the tyler, and demanded the tax for one of his daughters.

And Wat the tyler said unto him, Nay, verily, but thou shouldst not demand the tax of my daughter, for the maiden is not yet fifteen years old.

Howbeit the tax-gatherer believed not the words of her father, for the virgin was fair and comely to look on.

Wherefore he stopped down, and put his hand beneath the garments of the maiden, to see if peradventure the signs of her womanhood might not appear; and he discovered her nakedness”

The passage  about Sir Robert Carr doesn’t exactly mince words about the nature of his relationship with King James I:

Wherefore he [James] an eye of favour upon Sir Robert Carr, a gentleman of Scotland, of such exquisite beauty, and so delicate a composure of body, as if nature had framed on purpose to be a king’s favourite.

And the king loved him, and he pleased the king; nor was any man partaker of the royal influence like unto him; all matters of grace and favour passing from the kind by kind, insomuch that the queen was jealous.

She was even more scandalized by the impiety of  Dodsley’s praise of Elizabeth, which might serve an attractive model for children to learn how  to joke, scoff, and blaspheme in the language of Scripture, treating it not with reverence, but as material “on which to exercise their sprightliness of imagination, and their talent for ridicule.”

And woe unto you, Spaniards; woe unto you, ye haughty usurpers of the American seas; for at the lightning of her eyes, ye were destroyed, and at the breath of her mouth ye were scattered abroad; she came upon your Armada as a whirlwind and as a tempest of thunder she overwhelmed you in the sea.

Wisdom and strength were in her right hand, and in her left were glory and wealth.

She spake, and it was war; she waved her hand, and the nations dwelt in peace.

From Trimmer’s perspective then, it was irrelevant that Dodsley meant to call to account abuses perpetrated by  Sir Robert Walpole, George II’s prime minister that could have terrible consequences for the nation.  She did not have the power to halt the distribution or publication of the Chronicles, but she could call it out in the strongest of terms to dissuade parents and teachers purchasing or circulating it.

Floyd Cooper (1956-2021): Picture Book Historian of Black Americans

Three-time winner of the Coretta Scott King Award for the most distinguished portrayal of African American experience in literature for children or teens, Floyd Cooper passed away July 16 2021 from cancer. He was sixty-five.

So many of the 110 books he illustrated brought out the heroic, intimate, and joyful dimensions in American Black lives past and present, beginning in 1988 with Eloise Greenfield’s Grandpa’s Face. Over the years Cooper collaborated with notable Black writers for children and young adults Eloise Greenfield, Joyce Carol Thomas, Walter Dean Myers, Nikki Grimes, Patricia McKissack, Jacqueline Woodson, Howard Bryant, and Carole Boston Weatherford.  The last book he illustrated, Weatherford’s Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre, drew on his grandfather’s memories as a survivor of the tragedy.  Nikki Grimes told Publisher’s Weekly, that the book was “a good note to go out on. He left us all wanting more.”

Cooper was a native of Tulsa, Oklahoma and one of his earliest memories was scratching shapes into the side of the house  at age three.  Art kept him grounded during a childhood unsettled by divorce: in each of the eleven elementary schools he attended, he connected with the art teachers and showed them his work.  His talent was recognized by the award of an art scholarship to the University of Oklahoma, where he graduated in 1978 with a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts.  After college, he headed out to Kansas City to start work in the greeting card design department of Hallmark. The unpromising job of erasing and changing old cards was the genesis of the “subtractive process” that gives his illustrations their distinctive look. In 2018 he described in illuminating detail his unique approach to picture making, a process of erasing shapes from a background of oil paint.

Cooper’s art radiates a warmth that is partly grounded in capturing the individuality of the figures on the pages.  He typically used models, often  drawing his sons, their friends, and family members.  In an interview with Brown Bookshelf, he explained that “I tend to focus on the humanity of my subjects, the details of expression that add a certain reality to the work. Real faces = real art. That’s the goal anyway.”   The uniqueness of the brown faces in every book linger in the mind.In Sprouting Wings: The True Story of James Herman Banning, the First African American Pilot to Fly Across the United States by Louisa Jaggar and Shari Becker (New York: Crown, 2021), the reader also feels the young pilot’s excitement  when he pulls the plane up off the ground for the first time.

The climax of Ben and the Emancipation Proclamation by Pat Sherman (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010) shows the moment in the slave prison when young Benjamin Holmes no longer has to conceal his ability to read. One night word gets around the prison that Abraham Lincoln has freed the slaves and the illiterate inmates pool their money to buy a newspaper to see if the rumor is true. They ask Ben to read it to them and he does so with all the gravity the occasion demands.

Hands as a symbol of the dignity of work recurs in Cooper’s art.  Charles R. Smith Jr. tells the story of enslaved men’s unappreciated contribution to the construction of the White House in Brick by Brick (New York: Amistad, 2013).  Cooper draws hands skillfully wielding tools, lifting heavy burdens, and perhaps most poignantly, mixing clay, sand, and water to make bricks.  The weary boy looks at some point in the distance as he works.

A grandfather’s still nimble fingers can teach his grandson to tie his shoes, pick out a tune on the piano, throw a baseball, and knead bread dough.  Yet those skilled hands were stigmatized as dirty and forbidden by his employer Wonder Bread to touch the dough because white customers wouldn’t eat the product if they knew who made it. These Hands by Margaret H. Mason (Boston: Houghton Mifflin,2010) celebrates the Black workers successful labor action against discriminatory labor practices at the Detroit Wonder Bread bakery in the 1960s.

The young Frederick Douglass’s face is a study in just anger against an agent of cruel and arbitrary injustice, an anger strong enough to sustain resistance, even if it means risking death.  This remarkable illustration appears in Walter Dean Myers’ Frederick Douglass: The Lion Who Wrote History (New York: Harper, 2017).

Rosa Parks, her hair pulled primly back, in Aaron Reynolds” Back of the Bus (New York: Philomel, 2010) doesn’t strike the reader as the kind of a woman who sets out to make trouble.  Yet her quiet face looks as if she has decided not to be frightened  an image of an ordinary person who has discovered power deep within to protest disrespectful treatment against her people. The focus of this illustration of Black Wall Street in Carole Boston Weatherford’s Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre (Minneapolis: Carolrhoda, 2021) is the confident, stylish lady who stands out in the crowd of other prosperous-looking shoppers.  Is she a symbol of the resentment White Tulsans harbored against the prosperous Black community that boiled over in 1921?Cooper’s joy in celebrating Black beauty takes its most irresistible form in his portraits of children.  This illustration of a little girl exploding with laughter is just as beguiling as the more famous one on the cover of Joyce Carol Thomas’s poems in Blacker the Berry (New York: Joanna Cotler Books, 2008).   In this fiercely partisan age we are living through, the compassion that shines through Floyd Cooper’s picture books will be missed.