I’ve recently been re-reading some of the Puritan stories for children about the deaths of children who have been favoured by God, including the most famous examples featured in James Janeway’s A Token for Children (1671-22). Now that this project has sharpened my focus on how readers are represented, it strikes me that these offer the earliest examples of ambivalent representations of readers in children’s literature. “Ambivalent” might be too kind a term, for there is something deeply disturbing about the way these children – figures we are intended to admire and emulate – read. What they are reading is, of course, the Bible and other “good” books; doing so makes these “good” children who are granted “good” deaths. But even allowing for the distortions of presentism, it is hard not to see these readers are irritating. Let me give you some examples.
Janeway’s third paragon is Mary, “a little Girl that was wrought upon, when she was between Four and Five years Old”. Mary is a great reader, and at several points Janeway describes what and how she reads.
Her book was her delight and what she did read, she loved to make her own […] and many times she was so strangely affected in reading of the Scriptures, that she would burst out into Tears, and would hardly be pacified….
She was very Conscious in keeping the Sabbath, spending the whole time in Reading or Praising, or learning her Catechism, or teaching her Brethren and Sisters…
Mary didn’t just read or confine her teaching to her siblings; she gathered together local children in the neighbourhood and told them how to spend their Sundays. You don’t get any sense that they appreciated her counsel.
Like Mary, most of Janeway’s child paragons are dedicated readers of the Bible who have clearly not mastered the art of silent reading. They weep and groan and expostulate to such an extent that in the case of one little boy who “When he was left at home alone upon the Sabbath days, he would be sure not to spend any part of the day in idleness & Play, but busied in praying, reading in the Bible, and getting of his Catechism,” a neighbour is driven to complain about the way the he is carrying on.
Previously I had assumed that the first question marks about how readers are represented to children were placed around readers who were reading the wrong kinds of texts or reading them in the wrong way, but my return to these very early texts is making me think again….