11.7 The Reading Girl (up to 1860)

Her Half of History

Is there anything better than books? Today I’m not talking about the compulsory part of books at school (that’s a later episode in this series), I’m talking about reading for the love it. Reading because as Meg Ryan’s character said in You’ve Got Mail, “When you read a book as a child, it becomes part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does.”

Most historical girls were illiterate, unfortunately, but even for those who could read, the growth of literature intended for them was slow. Early books tended to be (1) educational or (2) religious or (3) manuals on good manners (“laugh thou not too loud nor yawn thou not too wide”).

In the 18th century, publisher John Newbery (later to have a children’s book award named after him) began specializing in books for children, and he tried to make them fun. It was a revolutionary idea that would only gain speed in the early 19th century.

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