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Books of Instruction. 0482: Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Lessons for Children. Parts 1-4

Author: Barbauld, Anna Laetitia (Aikin)
Title: Lessons for children [comprised of] Part I. For children from two to three years old [and] Part II. Being the first for children of three years old [and] Part III. Being the second for children of three years old [and] Part IV. For children from three to four years old
Cat. Number: 0482
Date: 1801
1st Edition: 1778-1779
Pub. Place: London
Publisher: J. Johnson, no.72, St. Paul's Church-Yard
Price: 6d each
Pages: 4 vols., 56, 83, 95 and 108pp.
Size: 9.5 x 8 cm
Illustrations: None

Images of all pages of this book

Page 001 of item 0482

Introductory essay

Barbauld (1743-1825) published the first part of Lessons for Children in 1778, and the second, third and fourth a year later, because, she wrote, 'amidst the multitude of books professedly written for children there is not one adapted to the comprehension of a child from two to three years old' ('Advertisement', the first page of which is missing from the Hockliffe copy; but quoted in Carpenter 1984: 309). The book was immediately successful inspiring such diverse figures as the Edgeworths and Sarah Trimmer to emulate Barbauld's method. The work is still regarded as a 'landmark in the approach to the reading of the very young child' (Thwaite 1972: 58-59).

The secret of Barbauld's success was that, for probably the first time, she wrote for a child that was maturing as he or she progressed through the books. The prose became successively more complex, using longer words, less facile subjects, and more complicated narrative structures. The book was printed in a large, clear typeface, with large gaps between the words, designed to facilitate an adult pointing to each successive word. Barbauld makes reference to the practice of pointing to words with a pin on I:6. The large print also had the effect of decreasing the leap which children would have to make from their hornbooks, battledores or alphabet blocks to their first book, and the small size of the volumes made them easy for a child to hold.

Barbauld also took care to represent only simple, everyday subjects, which became something of a sine qua non for the children's literature of the following generation. The subjects covered in the first volumes include things like the days of the week, the months of the year, the Seasons, and so on, gradually progressing to very simple narratives, such as the story of a boy hurting a robin (2:73f.). By the last two volumes, more complicated subjects were attempted: descriptions of different minerals, the points of the compass, a caterpillar metamorphosing into a butterfly (3:32ff.) and a description of France (4:63ff.). Volume four even included several full-blown moral tales and fables, such as that of two fighting-cocks and a fox (4:5ff.). At least one of Barbauld's stories - the three cakes (4:13ff.) - was evidently deemed of such quality that it was separately printed later by another publisher: see 0236.

Unlike John Newbery, a generation earlier, who congratulated his young readers on their reading as if they had achieved something unusual and praiseworthy, Barbauld clearly assumed that children would learn to read. She chided her protagonist, Charles, for any slowness or unwillingness to learn. 'If you do not learn [to read], Charles,' she taunted, 'you are not good for half as much as Puss. You had better be drowned.' (3:6-7). Barbauld also insisted on rational behaviour. When, very early in the book, Charles complains 'I have hit my head against the table, naught table!', Barbauld's representative in the text replies 'No, not naughty table, silly boy!' 'The table did not run against Charles, Charles ran against the table', she explains, 'The Table stood still in its place.' (1:44) Yet for all her insistence on sensible behaviour and her occasional hectoring, Barbauld's tone in the book was not unkind, and the patient teacher - enthusiastic pupil relationship she dramatised went onto become a standard feature of much writing for children.

The Hockliffe Collection also contains another edition of volume I (from the 1794 edition: 0483), an undated edition in one volume (0484), and two French translations, but published in London by Darton and Harvey, one of 1818 (0485), and the other consisting only of volume three and four from 1793 (0486).

Carpenter, Humphrey & Pritchard, Mari, The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature, Oxford: OUP, 1984

Thwaite, Mary F., From Primer to Pleasure in Children's Reading: An Introduction to the History of Children's Reading in Britain, Library Association, 1963 rpt. 1972