For Saint Nicholas’s Review: Children Naughty and Nice

Christmas comes but once and year and when it does it brings….annual performance appraisals of children. This belief  that St. Nicholas passes judgment on us may evaporate soon enough, but not before planting the idea that December means the person in authority gets to decide if you have been productive/nice or unproductive/naughty.   In the spirit of the season, let’s put under the microscope some child characters in eighteenth-century books, who were very, very good or very, very bad.

Kindness to animals often indicated a good heart in an age when cruelty to animals was tolerated to a degree unimaginable today.  In this illustration, Jacky Lovebook is buying a cat from a man, who had stolen it while it was playing on the steps of its house.  Afraid that the cat will be abused by its abductor, Jacky runs after the man and offers to take it off his hands.  The man names a shilling as the price, so Jacky gives him the sixpence in his pocket plus a top worth twelve pence (seen in his hand).  Even though he made a bad deal, Jacky happily returns the cat to its owner.  The second illustration shows a fly, who is the story’s hero and narrator, entangled in a spider’s web in a shop he flew into, lured by the delicious smell of barley sugar and molasses.  The little girl rescues him with her brush, only to nearly kill him with kindness by kissing him, unaware that exposure to the blasts of her hot breath would be unbearable to such a small creature.

Stephen Jones, The History of Tommy Lovebook and Jacky Playlove (London: E. Newbery, 1783) p. 46. Cotsen 6732.

Stephen Jones, The Life and Adventures of a Fly (London: E. Newbery, ca. 1787), p. 53. Cotsen 6777.

Sad but true, the bad children are more interesting than the tender-hearted ones, at least in fiction.  Despicable little girls are highlighted today in the interests of equal opportunity, horrid little boys having been the subject of a previous post. 

Here is six-year-old Fanny Dawdle, who has been coddled all of her short life.  Considered a delicate child, she has spent so much time lounging on the sofa that her legs and body have grown crooked.  Her mind has been completely uncultivated so she has not yet learned the letters of the alphabet or how to thread a needle.  Having nothing to do, she orders the servants around all day and they hate her.  She ought to make the acquaintance of Miss Fiddle Faddle who spends her time  “eating, drinking, gossiping, dressing, undressing, and sleeping.”   An eighteenth-century fashion victim, she sits in front of her mirror trying to place a beauty patch on her face.  If she can’t do it to her satisfaction after an hour, she may get so angry that she will break the mirror.

Richard Johnson, The Juvenile Biographer (London: E. Newbery, ca. 1790), p. 22. Cotsen 5362.

Richard Johnson, The Juvenile Biographer (London: E. Newbery, ca. 1790), p. 62. Cotsen 5362.

Literary critics usually turn up their noses at characters like Miss Fanny and Miss Fiddle Faddle as completely unbelievable compared to the rounded ones in today’s children’s books.   It is as if they believe children have no ability to distinguish the realistic delineation of character and the distortion of it for satiric purposes.  But lots of children find the grotesques in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory absolutely hilarious.  The young ladies from the eighteenth-century novels are surely sisters under the skin to Veruca Salt or Violet Beauregard: they are funny because they are all so awful.  And readers can congratulate themselves for being free from such obnoxious traits.

But will St. Nicholas give them a pass?  Probably not…  It will be switches and coal in their stockings for eternity.

Marlon Bundo and the Market for 21st-Century American Children’s Book Publishing

Am I the only person who remembers last March’s tempest in a tea pot?  When Last Week Tonight with John Oliver hustled into print a picture book allegedly about BOTUS Marlon Bundo (Bunny of the United States) a day before the publication date of the one by his owners Charlotte and Karen Pence, wife and daughter of Vice President Pence?

Independent booksellers called out Oliver for choosing Amazon as the distributor of a heart-warming but barbed story about the courtship and marriage of the rabbits Marlon and Wesley.  Its author Jill Twiss pointedly dedicated it to “every bunny who has ever felt different” and the last line is “it doesn’t matter if you love a girl bunny or a boy bunny, or eat your sandwich backward or forward.”  The first printing sold out overnight and for weeks Amazon couldn’t fulfill orders and offered no ship date without a word of apology.  I lost patience and got a copy within a few days from a small independent bookstore in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

Oliver and  Company got its fifteen minutes of fame until the media moved on to less amusing but more important events as they erupted on the national scene.  The two books have continue to sell. Today on Amazon’s list of the one hundred best-selling children’s books about rabbits, A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo is number two after Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd. Numbers four, seven, eight, and nine are, respectively Dorothy Kunhardt’s Pat the Bunny, Margery Bianco’s The Velveteen Rabbit, Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit, and Brown’s The Runaway Bunny The Pences’ Marlon Bundo made number thirty-four, barely ahead of the Kindle edition of Last Week Tonight’s Marlon Bundo and Bunnicula in a Box.  I won’t analyze these titles because that would be breaking butterflies on wheels.  It won’t be long until the field will be left again to Bianco, Brown, and Potter.  The conventional plots and pleasant but forgettable illustrations will not make either Marlon Bundo book a contender for the 2018 Caldecott Medal, whatever your politics.

John Oliver’s baiting the vice president for his views on gay marriage was the only angle the media covered.   Nobody thought to cover it as a formidable case of industrial espionage: just how did the Last Week Tonight team obtain advance knowledge of the Pences’ book and rush their illustrated satire through the press on time?  The Marlon Bundo affair is also, I’d argue, a timely reminder that the prevailing view of the children’s book market centers on firms with mainstream liberal values.  We are much more likely to have heard of Chronicle Books, the publisher of A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo, than Regnery Kids, the publisher of Marlon Bundo’s A Day in the Life of the Vice President.

Thanks to John Oliver and his merry pranksters, I  realized I had brushed up against the conservative book publisher’s existence when buying political children’s books during the 2016 election, but didn’t make the connection until later in March.   The motto of Regnery Kids is “Great Americans of today inspiring great Americans of tomorrow” and its brand consists of children’s books that are “non-partisan, entertaining, brilliantly written and illustrated by award-winning authors and artists.”  Its stable includes Fox News personalities such as Janice Dean and Rachel Campos Duffy and the nation’s ambassador to the Holy See, Callista Gingrich, creator of the “Ellis the Elephant” series.  Regnery’s Little Patriot’s Press has at least six titles featuring Charles M. Schultz’s Peanuts characters.

Who knew that Regnery is no newcomer to conservative publishing?  Founded in 1947, it has published notable writers like Russel Kirk, William F. Buckley Jr., and Donald Trump. Since 1993, it has been a part of Eagle Publishing,  a subsidiary of Salem Media Group, which is owned by the very successful and wealthy Christian broadcasters Edward G. Atsinger II and his brother-in-law Stuart Epperson.

For the benefit of future scholars of twenty-first century American children’s book publishing, the collection of the Cotsen Children’s Library really should include good samples of books produced by firms like Regnery Kids, along with the better-known award-winning authors and illustrators, which have traditionally set the ethos and aesthetics for the genre.  Silently passing over Regnery would be like refusing to collect the eighteenth-century children’s book publisher John Marshall because of his involvement in the Cheap Repository Tract project masterminded by archconservative Evangelist Hannah More to make sure the masses had reading that wouldn’t radicalize them….