This text explores three developments pertaining to children and reading in seventeenth-century England. The author aims to show how profoundly death was implicated in the development of thought about children’s reading as well as in the emergence of a literature for children in the early modern period. The first chapter discusses the negative reaction to the growing phenomenon of children reading romances and adventures in chapbook form. Escapist literature was believed to make one forget one’s mortal lot, which in turn decreased one’s motivation for piety. Through a discussion of the threat chapbook romances posed to pious reading, the chapter establishes the historical context for a related development, the creation of a religious or moralizing literature that children would find compelling. In their quest for gripping settings, authors latched on to the deathbed scene for its felicitous blend of inherent theatricality and religious resonance. By early seventeenth century, a few women writers even used the pretext of deathbed advice to pen their own conduct-of-life manuals in an otherwise male-dominated marketplace. The second chapter discusses the prefatory rhetoric used by the two most successful female writers in this genre. The remarkable success of maternal deathbed advice literature suggests that books in Protestant culture absorbed the near-superstitious value of Catholic icons and relics. The genre also implies a Protestant adaptation of the Catholic veneration of the mother. Comfort for the motherless child no longer came from prayer to Mary, but through the reading (and perhaps holding of) a book of advice by a model (and dead) Protestant mother. An analysis of the prefaces enables a close reading of the self-fashioningof model mother-authors. The third and final chapter discusses the starring role of death in the first English-language children’s book, A Token for Children, by James Janeway. The chapter explores the literary interest in the early deaths of ordinary children of extraordinary piety. By reference to the doctrine of predestination, the author speculates that these books had a comforting as well as a preparatory function, allowing parents and children to rehearse (through reading) a model death of a child undoubtedly bound for Heaven. By no means a comprehensive treatment of the connections between death culture and children’s reading in the early modern period, the thesis is intended to indicate how pious reading functioned as a reminder of one’s mortality and a spur to self-scrutiny. The “looking glass” of the text displayed idealized and heaven-bound children and parents compared to whom the reader may have felt sorely in need of increased vigilance.
About Heather Miller
Heather Miller is an American educator and writer with expertise in the teaching of reading and writing. She holds graduate degrees from Harvard and MIT. While at MIT, she founded the Young Historians Program, an organization that engages middle and high school students in historical inquiry and digital arts. For much of her career, Miller has worked as an editorial director overseeing the design and development of large-scale reading and writing programs. As an educational consultant to charter and public schools, she has helped schools achieve marked improvement and overall high achievement in test scores (and hopefully in much more that education is all about, too). She has worked in educational technology in the US, India, China and France.
Thesis: The Book as Looking Glass: Improving Works for and about Children in Early Modern England