Or Else: Cautionary Tales for Children

The Rare Book Room in Philadelphia's Free Library is running an exhibition on children's books where "happily ever after" is not always the end goal. "Or Else: Cautionary Tales for Children" examines 250 years of the evolution of danger and morality in children's literature, exploring early Calvinist beliefs on moralism and later works that provide room for humor and laughter in tandem with moral guidance.

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                                                                                                                                                         The show starts with material from the 18th century because until then "children read the same books as adults," said curator Caitlin Goodman. The show's inflection point--when books started to be written exclusively for the education of children--comes with Henrich Hoffmann's gruesome Struwwlpeter (Slovenly Peter). "Hoffmann's book was a different species of cautionary tale because it was didactic and entertaining," said Goodman. Hoffmann's stories were meant to frighten children into behaving, and paved the way for modern classics like Where the Wild Things Are and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. "Though Slovenly Peter demonstrates a turning point in children's literature, it's still a far cry from Maurice Sendak's Pierre. Most of the kids in the Slovenly Peter series die." (In Sendak's dark classic, Pierre is swallowed by a lion because he "doesn't care," but is rescued.) 

Over 100 items from the Free Library and the Rosenbach collections are on display, including Isaac Watts' Divine Songs Attempted in Easy Language For the Use of Children, William Blake's radical poems on childhood (which were never intended for children in the first place), Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and Tomi Ungerer's The Three Robbers.

A reading nook set up especially for young visitors also doubles as a board game area, with a duplicate of a Victorian-era morality race game called "The Mansion of Bliss." It is similar to "Shoots and Ladders," except that the goal is to get to heaven, and the game is hard to win. "No one has succesfully played through during the exhibition," Goodman said. "People get frustrated and think the game is unfair, but our modern standards of fairness are very different from Victorian beliefs." The reading corner is also stocked with modern favorites, like Mo Willems' Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus and A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket. "These books are extremely popular, yet manage to be instructive," Goodman explained, and they continue the tradition of cautionary tales into the 21st century.



"The Mansion of Bliss: A New Game for the Amusement of Youth."  1822. Reproduced with permission from the Free Library.


The Rare Book Department is open from 9am to 5pm Monday through Saturday. "Or Else: Cautionary Tales for Children" is on display through July 23. If you can't make it to Philadelphia before the show closes, all of the materials in the exhibition have been scanned and may be viewed here. For more information, visit free.library.org/rarebooks.