The holiday season is just around the bend, whether we’re prepared to admit it or not, and here’s a great gift idea for the devoted children’s literature fans in your life. Frederick Warne, part of Penguin Random House, has just released Classic Children’s Tales: 150 Years of Frederick Warne, and it’s a beautifully designed thing of wonder.
As the book’s Foreword notes:
The publishing house of Warne was begun in London in 1865 and grew quickly,
establishing an office in New York in 1861. From the very beginning, Warne was
a pioneer in children’s books and colour picture books in particular, publishing
many of the greatest authors and illustrators at a time when few publishers
strayed into the children’s market.
This year is their 150th anniversary, so they’re celebrating with a volume of stories by Kate Greenaway, Randolph Caldecott, Edward Lear, and Beatrix Potter. Potter’s story, in fact, is unusual in that she wrote and illustrated it with failing eyesight toward the end of her career, and the illustrations were never quite completed. The story, The Sly Old Cat, was published posthumously in 1971.
Each story is lovingly reproduced “as they would have first appeared,” the publisher notes. There’s no fuss or bother here. There are no unnecessary additions or flourishes, save an introduction to each story by a working author or illustrator (Eleanor Taylor, Paul O. Zelinsky, Jan Pieńkowski, and Lee Bennett Hopkins). Each story shines in its uncluttered, pristine glory, though a few inclusions, as you’ll read below, are merely selections.
Caldecott’s story—the classic nursery rhyme “Sing a Song for Sixpence,” which all kicks off with a child and a coin—is sublime. And Paul O. Zelinsky’s reverent introduction reminds readers of the debt contemporary picture books owe the British illustrator:
Whenever you see an illustrated book in which an extended section deploys across
multiple pages; whenever you turn a page and pause on a spread with no words at
all, you’re seeing tropes that were new with Caldecott. Whenever you find slyly
painted clues in the pictures that suggest subplots not apparent in the text,
that is Caldecott. Before movies, his books were cinematic.
Caldecott’s name may be attached to the most distinguished award for picture books in this country, but in England it’s Kate Greenaway, for whom the British children’s literary award, the Kate Greenaway Medal, is named. Like the Caldecott, the Greenaway Medal is given for illustration. Classic Children’s Tales includes an extract of Greenaway’s A Apple Pie, originally published in London in the late 1800s (oddly enough, the letter “I” never appeared in the story, since when it was first composed, “no distinction was made between the written forms of ‘I’ and ‘J’ ”), as well as a selection from Greenaway’s Mother Goose, 12 rhymes total from the latter.
Finally, a selection of Edward Lear’s Nonsense Songs & Stories, as well as a selection from The Book of Nonsense, closes this book. “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat” leads the charge in all its charm, and the wonderfully absurd nonsense rhymes that wrap it all up end the book on a high note.
The only change I’d like to see is the addition of the original publication dates for each story. Some of the contemporary authors and illustrators note publication dates in their introductions, but for other stories I was left wondering when the tale first saw the light of day. Unless I’m missing something, I don’t see that listed and ended up looking that up myself.
But all in all, this is a keeper—a handsomely crafted collection of tales from four masters in children’s literature. It’s a charmer—and one for the home bookshelf.
Classic Children's Tales: 150 Years of Frederick Warne: Illustrations copyright Frederick Warne & Co., 2015.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.