One of my earliest memories is sitting on the floor in my bedroom with a children’s book of fairy tales. The book was tall and wide and about a half-inch thick. The cover showed Rapunzel with her hair flowing while a prince in a pointy hat gazed up at her. Red Riding Hood is looking up, and there’s a unicorn in the background.
These memories rushed back to life when I started researching the second book in the Swan’s Nest trilogy. No title yet, but those of you who have read The Maverick Preacher will remember Pearl. This is her story. She needed a fresh start, so I packed her off to Cheyenne where she meets a troubled lawman with a five-year-old daughter. He’s a rough and tough ex-Texas Ranger, but he’s got a soft spot when it comes to his little girl. Every night, he reads a story to her.
That vision led to all sorts of questions. What would he read? Would he have purchased the book? Would it be a family heirloom? What would it have looked like? The story takes places in 1875 Wyoming. With the arrival of the railroad, the town had money and some culture. It seemed reasonable that his little girl could have a big book of fairy tales similar to mine, but I had to be sure.
And so the research began . . .
Fairy tales have been around forever, but children’s books the way we know them weren’t common until the late 1800s. In 1875 Wyoming, my little girl would mostly likely have a copy of “Mother Goose,” a collection of ten fairy tales collected by Charles Perrault in 1658 and translated into English from French. The first American edition, titled Mother Goose’s Melody or Sonnets from the Cradle was published in 1787 and had many of the stories we love today. Among them were Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty in the Wood and Little Red Riding Hood.
In addition to traditional stories, children’s books in the 19th century contained short rhymes, moral lessons and simple drawings. Some of the rhymes would be familiar to us all, things like “One, Two. Buckle My Shoe” or “Hey Diddle Diddle.” I can’t read those words without smiling. Both my sons (now grown) were fascinated with the idea of a cow jumping over the moon.
The most well known publisher of children’s books in the 19th century was the New York firm of McLoughlin Brothers. Their books had color illustrations which must have thrilled little girls just like the ones in my book thrilled me. The pictures were made using etched zinc plates, chromolithographs and photo engravings. They popularized well known illustrators including Thomas Nast and Ida Waugh.
When I wrote the scenes where my hero reads to his little girl, I pictured my well thumbed copy of The Tasha Tudor Book of Fairy Tales. The book itself is too modern for an 1875 setting, but the feeling of discovery would be the same. Like me, the child in my story would be magically transported to another place and time. My hat’s off to the men and women who illustrate these wonderful books, especially to Tasha Tudor. Her drawings gave me hours of pleasure and fueled my imagination. Who’d have thought? The little girl sitting on the floor with her big book of fairy tales grew up to write stories of her own.
Do you remember reading fairy tales as a child? Maybe you’re a mom or a grandmother or an aunt. Do you read stories to the children in your life? I’d love to hear about your favorites!
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