Fairy Tales in Easy Words by Mcloughlin Brothers. 1903, McLoughlin Bros: New York. 39h3947 c.3
What does it mean to be a child reader? To hold a book in your hands and know that there are a thousand or more characters to meet, adventures to take, and worlds to conquer? The entire literary realm is open to you, as fresh to your mind as the ink just off the printing press. And while this can be an exciting stage in a young reader’s life; it is hard to see how children interacted with books over the years.
This is why the Baldwin Library is such a magical collection! I can pick up a copy of fairy tales from the early 20th century and discover (by looking at the paratextual elements inside) that it once belonged to a child who loved those stories just as much as I do. By paratextual items I mean things that exist in or on a book that the original author did not intend to be there. Take for instance this copy of Fairy Tales in Easy Words published by the McLoughlin Brothers. This is a fairly old book, originally printed in 1903, used to encourage children to read famous fairy tales in an easily digestible vocabulary and text size. On the inside cover is an inscription, a fairly common paratext, where a girl has possibly written her name and the date twice. From the inside inscription we can see that this book belonged to Ruth Cleary and it was most likely a gift she received on Christmas of 1916. The first time her name was written it is a childish scrawl that brings to mind a young child who is still unsure and sloppy when forming their letters. The second time is clearly steadier and more defined, maybe a parent writing her name again or Ruth as an older woman. These brief markings allows us to gain some insight into who this previous owner was, and perhaps imagine what she was like and her experience with the book.
What is a more interesting and meaningful paratext (to me anyway!) is when a child scribbles or colors in the book. Ruth’s colorings are typical of any little kid, there’s a random mish-mash of color choices and subjects, and usually they are a little messy and can escape outside of the lines. For me, this really allows me to imagine this little girl reading back and, as I turn the pages of Fairy Tales in Easy Words, I start to get a clearer image of a little girl at her desk, maybe swinging her legs back and forth as she leans over her book coloring in her favorite pictures.