Amazing Kids! Magazine

John Newbery: The Father of Children’s Literature

By Aazan Ahmad


During the 18th century, the English working people experienced great prosperity and wealth. Their financial security enabled them to have more pastime with their children. Along with leisure time, social progress allowed children to be simply children; it was actually during the 18th century when the people began to perceive childhood as an important part of children’s lives, a part in which the children should have the liberty to play and enjoy. (However, before the turn of the century, when there was more religious influence in England, the Puritans viewed children as lambs who needed responsible adults in their lives to discipline them.) Since parents allowed children to enjoy their childhood, children had more time to read books for entertainment other than just to learn; unfortunately, there weren’t many books published primarily for children’s enjoyment. It wasn’t until John Newbery took the initiative in publishing children’s books and even a periodical for children that other publishers, realizing the commercial success of publishing children’s literature, began to imitate John Newberry.

In 1713, John Newbery was born into a family of publishers with the exception of his father, who was a farmer. Although Newbery received education fit for a farmer, his keen desire for books led him to becoming a printer’s apprentice when he was 16 years old. In order to take on apprenticeship, he moved nine miles away from Waltham, his hometown, to Reading. After Newbery mastered his printing skills, his master, William Carnan, made him his assistant; together they published William Carnan’s newspaper Reading Mercury.

John Newbery was 24 years old when he inherited half of the printing press after William Carnan’s death while Carnan’s brother inherited the other half of the printing business. By marrying Carnan’s widow, Jordan Mary, Newbery secured higher authority over the printing business. Under Newbery’s diligent management, the Reading Mercury became one of the bestselling newspapers of the time.

In 1744, John Newbery’s publication of his first book, A Little Pretty Pocket-Book Intended for the Instruction and Amusement of Little Master Tommy and Pretty Miss Polly, sold over 10,000 copies. This gave him an incentive to move to London in 1945, where he founded the Bible and Sun publishing company. His company made immense profits selling children’s literature, especially during Christmas holidays. Not only did Newbery write and publish books for entertainment purposes; he also wrote and published books for educational purposes as well. In 1746, Newbery published Circle of the Sciences: Writing and Circle of the Sciences: Arithmetic. Noting that adults had periodicals to read but children didn’t, Newbery published the first children’s periodical, The Lilliputian Magazine, in 1751. After publishing Fables in Verse under the pseudonym of “Abraham Aesop” in 1758, Newbery translated the French author Perrault’s Tales from the Past with Morals— commonly known as Tales from Mother Goose— into the English vernacular. Despite his many literary compositions for children, it was actually Newbery’s bestseller The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes that became known as the first children’s literary novel.

Although John Newbery died in 1767 at the age of 54, his legacy lived on. His descendants superintended the publishing company, which eventually ceased publishing activities in 1801. Despite that, many other publishing companies continued publishing children’s books, following in Newbery’s footsteps. Approximately 155 years after Newbery’s departure, American Library Association instituted Newbery Award for children’s literature in 1922. In Newbery’s honor, the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) annually bestows the award to the recipient who makes “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.”