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Nursery library challenges previous concepts of reading and literacy

STANFORD -- While Gainsborough was painting his celebrated "Blue Boy" and other aristocratic children of the mid-1700s as prim, stylized little adults, other voices in British society of the day were defining a very different image of children, according to Stanford researcher Shirley Brice Heath.

"A lot of literature would say that children were not seen as children until the late 18th or early 19th century," said Heath, a professor of English and linguistics. "But this new set of materials shows us that there clearly was a sense of the need to appreciate children as children -- as thinking, imaginative, reasoning creatures -- much earlier than that."

The "materials" Heath refers to are a 438-piece nursery library that was discovered in 1982, wrapped in newspapers on a closet shelf in a 27-room Indiana home. Handmade by Jane Johnson, an Anglican vicar's wife, the sets of alphabet and word cards, stories, and tiny books are the first of a kind to be found. But Heath is convinced that similar caches of ephemeral materials exist and are waiting to be uncovered.

"One of the reasons I'm so sure [there are other collections] is found in Jane Johnson's letters," said Heath, who was given access to Johnson's personal correspondence by family members. "When she wrote to friends, she made frequent reference to the importance of children learning to read before they were 8. And she talked about it in a way that was so familiar, that you know the person she was writing to also would have participated in the same kind of activities with her children."

Heath has been studying the collection for the past decade, ever since it was discovered in Indiana and turned over to the Lily Library at Indiana University. Last month she presented her findings at "Scrapbooks and Chapbooks," a conference she organized at Cambridge University for more than 100 invited attendees, including academics from Britain and the United States and award- winning children's writers Jill Paton Walsh and John Rowe Townsend. In connection with the conference, an exhibition of Jane Johnson's materials is being held at Cambridge's Fitzwilliam Museum through May 21.

"I'm particularly interested in the Johnson collection for what it represents as an archaeological find," said Heath. "Prior to finding it, the thought was that there was not much going on in terms of education, particularly for girls, before industrialization. We knew there were some village schools, and certainly some private schools for the very wealthy, but they were mostly for boys.

"These alphabet cards and books, however, show us how much Jane Johnson valued her four children as children, and give us strong insights into the views mothers had of children. They also tell us about their expectations of literacy."

The alphabet cards found in the Johnson collection should be familiar to readers of Jane Austen. In one particularly memorable scene from her novel Emma, Austen writes about Emma showing off a set of cards she had made to a gathering of friends.

"Everybody makes a big deal over how beautiful the cards are," said Heath. "They would have been used the way we play Scrabble, to create words and sentences. But they also were a way for men and women, who couldn't talk directly with one another, to pass secret messages back and forth in social company."

Individual items in the 438-piece collection, which pre-dates Mother Goose by a decade, range in size from tiny, fingernail-size books to letter and word cards that measure three inches by one inch. All were mounted on "penny ballots," similar to today's newsprint, and backed by Dutch gilt papers imported from Amsterdam. Johnson decorated the cards with illustrations of people, birds, animals and objects that she cut from magazines and newspapers and painted by hand with watercolors. Many of them have silk threads attached as hangers.

"We think she must have hung the cards on an easel and then had her children arrange the letters and words to form sentences," said Heath. "A typical sentence might say something like, 'Master Ambley, carrying his sheep across his horse, was on his way to market.' There were paraphrases of Bible verses and recommendations for behavior, too."

Finding the Johnson collection, said Heath, was like "stepping back 250 years and having an intelligent woman sit there and tell me her views of children and her notions of how women were perceived in the society of her day. It was and is just extraordinary."


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