A Century of Whimsy

by Kyle Holcomb

When we think of “rare books” our first thought might be ancient religious texts or old anatomy tomes, and while those kinds of books are on the shelves here, we also have a sizable collection of classic children’s literature. The majority of these classics were published in the century between 1850-1950.

Before big publishing firms became established, books were considered too expensive to create for children. Inexpensive books were not readily available to most consumers until the mid-19th century. The rising middle class, higher literacy rates, and cheap production costs allowed for the industry to experiment with a new demographic.

Alice illustrated by John Tenniel.

In the century that followed, many of the most iconic children’s literature were published. Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is credited as one of the first big blockbuster successes of the genre. The novel, originally published in 1865, established motifs that inspired other up-and-coming authors. A child’s journey through a colorful nonsense world full of whimsical characters became a key component to the genre; many of the characters that inhabit these worlds are talking animals or inanimate objects.

Dorothy, The Scarecrow, The Tin-man, The Lion and Toto illustrated by William Wallace Denslow.

Following in Carroll’s footsteps, other authors took their readers on a journey through a fictional world much like Wonderland. L. Frank Baum published his smash hit, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, in 1900, this was the first in a series of stories set in the charming Land of Oz. Baum followed the tropes laid out by Carroll which helped to fill his fictional world with color. The first few years of the 1900’s saw a lot of other famous stories published such as The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter, Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling, and The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame.

Peter and Wendy cover page illustrated by F. D. Bedford.

In 1906, J.M. Barrie published Peter Pan in Kensington Garden. This children’s story was originally published as chapters within an earlier adult novel by Barrie called The Little White Bird. The chapters featuring Peter Pan as a flying infant were popular enough to be printed as its own standalone children’s book. In the interim between these two publications Barrie went on to write a play called “Peter and Wendy” in 1904, which was published as a book in 1911. The island of Neverland was not originally a part of Peter Pan’s story, but was the setting for the play. Neverland also had many similar characteristics to Wonderland and Oz.

The story of a child who explores a new, whimsical world often mirrors the process of growing up and what trying to make sense of the seemingly nonsensical adult world can feel like.