Since my previous Christmas book recommendations were popular last year, I figured I’d try another one. This time around, however, we’re focusing on children’s books.
Today’s 1928 recommendations come from Agatha L. Shea, a former Supervisor of Children’s Services at the Chicago Public Library. While largely forgotten today, Agatha was known at the time for her pioneering work with revolutionary African American librarian Charlemae Hill Rollins to “develop new standards for children’s literature“1 through encouraging libraries to stop buying books with racist caricatures and instead “look for books with accurate portraits of black people…in which black characters spoke as they do in real life…books that avoided unnecessary use of derogatory terms…and books with themes that did not stress socioeconomic class differences between white and black characters“,2 which helped change public attitudes towards African Americans in a positive manner.
Back in 1928, however, Shea had only been working with Rollins for a year (she joined the Chicago Public Library in 1927), and so her Christmas book suggestions for the Tribune are utterly lacking in controversy of any kind. They’re still fairly interesting, however, with an emphasis on action and adventure titles as well as classic literature. Here are the books she recommended for boys and girls in 1928, split into two age ranges:
For “Older Boys and Girls”:
Re-Issued Classics, or “Old Friends in New Attire”
“Old favorites in new and attractive dress” were all the rage in 1928, with many old classics getting nicely illustrated revamped editions.3 Shae cites a number of reissued classics from Dodd, Mead & Company, a pioneering New York publisher at the time who are famous for publishing Agatha Christie.
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, illustrated by Mead Schaeffer
A popular choice for adults that same year as well, this version for children is both abridged and illustrated, which Shea points out is terrific for struggling readers: “an edition which should prove popular with the boy or girl who has long waited to read the story but has found the older edition rather long and difficult.”4 The six full color gorgeous paintings by Mead Schaeffer don’t hurt, either.
Masterman Ready, or the Wreck of the Pacific by Captain Marryat, illustrated by John Rae
Considered one of the most popular children’s book of the 1800s, Masterman Ready was written as a direct response to Johann Wyss’ The Swiss Family Robinson, which author Capt. Marryat felt was “too romantic.” In response, he wrote a tale of another family—the Seagraves—who get stranded on a dangerous desert island, but manage to survive thanks to the skills of veteran seamen Masterman Ready, who keeps them alive long enough to be rescued by another ship. The edition Shea mentions is part of the Louis Rhead Classics series, but was illustrated after Rhead’s death by John Rae, whose color and black and white illustrations are “worthy of that tradition in all respects.”5 If you want, you can read the entire thing here for free on Project Gutenburg, but be aware that it contains a lot of preaching, which modern readers may find off-putting. If you’re looking for a physical copy, there’s one for sale at Abe Books as well.
The White Company by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, illustrated by James Daugherty
While Doyle will always be remembered for Sherlock Holmes, he was also a prolific writer of historical fiction, and this was one of his favorite books. Set during the Hundred Years’ War, it follows a company of archers as they fight alongside Edward the Black Prince at the Battle of Najera. Unlike the beloved N. C. Wyeth edition (which is still in print today), the 1928 reissue is remarkable for its “modernistic” black and white illustrations by James Daugherty.6 You can also read the entirety of The White Company on Project Gutenberg for free, if you feel so inclined.
The Boys’ Ben-Hur, A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace
Another abridged classic of a popular American novel, Ben-Hur follows the adventures of Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince, as he escapes Roman slavery to become a Charioteer. His attempts to get revenge for being enslaved by the Romans ends, however, when he witnesses the Crucifixion firsthand, and then converts to Christianity. According to Shea, this edition features “good paper, excellent, clear type, and good illustrations,” making it “a very attractive book” for boys.7 Today, the story is mostly remembered for the 1959 film starring Charlton Heston, as well as a forgettable 2016 remake.
Drums by James Boyd, illustrations by N. C. Wyeth
“In this new illustrated edition it is no overstatement to say that a finer gift book could hardly be imagined,” says a period Tribune ad for Drums by James Boyd.8 Considered “a very fine tale of the American Revolution,” this historical novel follows the adventures of a young Johnny Fraser as he deals with divided loyalties during the revolution, and was extremely popular decades later as well.9 Shea recommends the book to “the boy who likes history and adventure particularly,” and apparently it still has appeal even today.10 Historian David McCullough cites Drums as one of the books that turned him on to history as a child.
Heroes from Haklyut by Charles Finger, illustrated by Paul Honore
In a break from novels, this nonfiction title contains passages from the travel notes of Elizabethan travel writer Richard Haklyut, who was famous for promoting the colonization of North America through writing works like Divers Voyages Touching the Discoverie of America and The Principall Navigations, Voiages, Traffiques and Discoueries of the English Nation. This abridged collection of his work contains “striking color woodcuts and imaginative line drawings,” which presumably liven up a story that might otherwise be dry for kids, though apparently it’s been “sanitized” for them as well.11
Shea, however, describes it in glowing tones:
“…the story of England’s voyagers and sea rovers from the almost legendary days of King Arthur to the soul-stirring days of the 15th and 16th centuries. It is a book which leaves one dreaming of bleak, storm-ridden seas, of ships sailing gayly into the unknown, and of men who were unafraid.”12
Today, Richard’s contributions are remembered in the name of an English historical society which is dedicated to preserving travel writings from the past.
The Rose and the Ring by William Makepeace Thackeray, illustrated by J. H. Tinker
Originally published in 1855, this satiric fantasy by Thackeray of Vanity Fair fame revolves around the mythical kingdom of Paflagonia and four young cousins who are set to inherit it, plus a fairy called Blackstick who causes lots of trouble for them all. Written as a sort of a satirical fairy-tale that critiques the monarchy, it was considered suitable for children as well as adults, though it might go over a lot of children’s heads today. If you’re interested, there is a fun little review of it over at Vintage Novels as well.
Boy’s Trader Horn by Alfred Aloysious Horn
Another abridged version of a popular adult title, The Boy’s Trader Horn is a memoir of a British ivory trader Alfred Aloysious Horn’s experiences in Africa that’s been adapted for children. A lively tale of adventure meant for “the boy who longs for strange tales and stranger sights,”13 it follows the narrator as he “journeys into jungles teaming with buffalo, gorillas, and man-eating leopards, frees slaves, meets Cecil Rhodes (founder of Rhodesia) and liberates a princess from captivity.” Folks on Goodreads say it’s a lively and entertaining read which captures an Africa that’s very different from today.
It was eventually turned into an MGM movie as well. Apparently, it deviates quite a lot from the actual memoir, but was very influential in movie history. Not only was it the first talkie made by MGM, but also the first Hollywood movie to be shot on location in another part of the world, with its actors contracting deadly diseases and fending off wild animals on set. The general flavor comes through with these movie posters:
Robin Hood, a “new interpretation” by Edith Heal and Phillip Schuyler Allen of the University of Chicago
Perhaps the most interesting of the bunch, this 1928 edition features a unique retelling of the Robin Hood legend, thanks to the efforts of the University of Chicago. Phillip Schuyler Allen was a professor of Germanic languages at the University of Chicago who worked with Ms. Heal to offer a different vision of Robin Hood, who is:
“…not the merry, dauntless leader, outlawed by the inadvertent killing of the king’s deer, but a Saxon patriot whose idols are Thomas Beckett and Hereward, whose liege lady is the Virgin Mary, and whose avowed purpose in gathering together the loyal band in Lincoln green is to save his people from the hated Norman yoke. Going back to the sources for her material, the author has not feared to reject the more popular but no more authentic story of Robin’s origin, and by doing so has presented us with a hero, like, but strangely unlike the one we knew.”14
Though this is a very different idea of Robin from what we are accustomed to, according to folks on Goodreads, it’s well worth a read for fans of the Robin Hood legend.
For The “Small Folk”: Books for Younger Children
Davy and the Goblin by Charles E. Carryl
Essentially the first official piece of Lewis Carroll fan fiction, Davy and the Goblin follows Davy, a young boy, who falls asleep in front of the fireplace after reading Alice and Wonderland. In his dreams, a goblin appears in his fireplace and takes him away on a “believing journey” to a magical land where he meets many famous literary and folktale characters, including Sinbad the sailor and Robinson Crusoe.
The 1886 edition, with lovely illustrations by Edmund Birckhend Bensell, is available online for free through the New York Public Library’s internet archives.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving, illustrated by Arthur Rackham
Irving’s tale comes to life with gorgeous paintings by master illustrator Arthur Rackham. While the 1928 edition features less illustrations than previous versions (there are eight of them), they are no less charming. Shea says the artist’s “fantastic images” have always appealed to her, and they seem “particularly appropriate for this book.”15
Here are some sample illustrations. More can be found here at David Brass Rare Books, which is also selling a 1928 copy:
The Bastable Children by Edith Nesbit
Considered a bargain buy, this particular edition contains three books in one: The Treasure Seekers, The Would Be Goods, and The New Treasure Seekers. While the books focus on English characters, Shea felt that since the stories featured “real children with the problems and joys of universal childhood,” it should “appeal to all young readers” regardless of origin.16
Have you read any of these these books, dear readers? What did you think of them? Do you think kids would still enjoy them today? Please comment below, and happy holidays and best wishes to you all! 😀