From the Reading Room: Jack the Giant-Killer

John Newbery’s A Little Pretty Pocket-Book (1744), is one of the first books published in English explicitly for the diversion and moral education of children. Of particular interest to my dissertation research at the Beinecke are the textual and material innovations devised by early children’s book publishers to instruct their impressionable readers.

As one example, the publisher sold “A Ball and Pincushion; The Use of which will infallibly make Tommy a good Boy, and Polly a good Girl” along with the Pocket-Book for an additional two pence. The directions for use of the toy, laid out in a letter from the fictional “Jack the Giant-Killer,” are simple: one side of the ball or pincushion is red and the other is black, the ball/pincushion is to be displayed in a highly visible location, and ten pins are to be inserted into it based on the child’s behavior (for “every good Action…a Pin shall be stuck on the Red Side, and for every bad Action a Pin shall be stuck on the Black Side”). Thus, each pin becomes both a remembrance of a past good or wicked action and a unit of measurement in the calculation of the child’s character. Far from mere child’s play, this book and others found in the Betsy Beinecke Shirley Collection are animated by contemporary empirical thought.

Pictured here is the first American edition of A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, published by Isaiah Thomas in Worcester, Massachusetts [1787].  Beinecke Call Number: Shirley 4242.

Heather Klemann is a graduate student in Yale’s Comparative Literature department, and was a Graduate Student Fellow in the Beinecke Library this summer.  Her project is entitled “Literary Souvenirs: Didactic Materialism in Late 18th- and Early 19th-Century Fiction.”

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