15 Children's Books No One Reads Now

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

These books and stories filled children's school desks and bookshelves before falling out of favor.

1. RAGGEDY ANN BY JOHNNY GRUELLE

A rag doll with red yarn hair and holding a tiny teddy bear is sitting in front of an open book that reads "Once upon a time..."
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A few decades ago, there were few children’s bedrooms not adorned with Raggedy Ann and Andy paraphernalia. Raggedy Ann Stories, the first book about the doll duo, came out in 1918, followed by Raggedy Andy Stories in 1920. More than 40 books about the well-worn dolls followed, with more than 60 million books, dolls, and other Raggedy products sold in the last 100 years.

2. READ WITH DICK AND JANE BY WILLIAM GRAY AND ZERNA SHARP

Many baby boomers grew up learning how to read with these primers, which were, by nearly all accounts, incredibly boring and repetitive. A gripping excerpt: Come Dick. Come and see. Come, come. Come and see. Come and see Spot. Look, Spot. Oh, look. Look and see. Oh, see.”

One good thing did come out of the Dick and Jane series, though: The Cat in the Hat. The director of Houghton Mifflin’s educational division read a Life magazine article about how deadly dull young students found Dick and Jane. He suggested that Theodor Geisel—a.k.a. Dr. Seuss—put his fantastical illustrations and way with words to work on a book that would help children learn basic words.

“The only job I ever tackled that I found more difficult was when I wrote the Baedeker that Eskimos use when they travel in Siam,” Seuss later said.

3. THE HISTORY OF LITTLE GOODY TWO-SHOES PUBLISHED BY JOHN NEWBERY

You’ve no doubt heard the phrase “goody two-shoes” to describe someone who always follows the rules and does the right thing. But unless you’re a big fan of 18th-century children’s literature, you probably haven’t read the story that popularized the saying. 

Goody Two-Shoes, published in 1765, is the tale of an orphan girl who was so impoverished that even a pair of shoes was out of grasp; she had to make do with just one. She receives her nickname when she eventually receives a full set. Goody Two-Shoes grows up to be a teacher and marries rich, thus teaching children that being virtuous pays off.

4. ORBIS SENSUALIUM PICTUS BY JOHANN AMOS COMENIUS

Published in 1658, Orbis sensualium pictus is the first book intended for children that included illustrations to help with visual learning. Though it originated in Germany, the popular book was quickly translated to other languages, including English in 1659. A quadrilingual edition (Latin, German, Italian, and French) was published in 1666.

5. THE ADVENTURES OF PINOCCHIO BY CARLO COLLODI

Rows of little wooden dolls with red pointed caps and extended noses.
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Almost everyone is familiar with Pinocchio—the movie. But you might be hard-pressed to find a child who has recently picked up the book, which was originally published in full in 1883. At one point, the story of the little wooden boy with the lie-detector nose was one of the best-selling books in the world, with 35 million copies sold.

6. CADDIE WOODLAWN BY CAROL RYRIE BRINK

A Newbery Medal winner in 1936, the pioneer adventures of 11-year-old Caddie Woodlawn were partially based on the life of Carol Ryrie Brink’s grandmother, Caddie Woodhouse Watkins. (You can still visit the real Caddie’s house in Menomonie, Wisconsin.)

7. THE WATER-BABIES, A FAIRY TALE FOR A LAND-BABY BY CHARLES KINGSLEY

When you know the real purpose of The Water-Babies, it seems implausible that it became a beloved children’s book at all: Author Charles Kingsley viewed his 1862 work as satire that supported Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. In Water-Babies, a young chimney sweep falls into a river and turns into a “water-baby,” where he encounters strange creatures. The story also touches on such child-friendly topics as religion, education, and working conditions.

Nevertheless, the tale was a hit with children. But it’s no surprise that the story no longer resonates. As The Guardian reported in 2016, “Today The Water-Babies itself is close to unreadable due to the way it presents the casual prejudices of its time: the division of the world into racial hierarchies, the completely nonchalant caricaturing of Irish people.”

8. THE STORY OF LITTLE BLACK SAMBO BY HELEN BANNERMAN

Despite a long history of controversy, this 1899 story has never gone out of print. In it, a little boy named Sambo is hunted by tigers in the jungle. The tigers fight amongst themselves, chasing each other so fast that they turn into ghee. Sambo’s father finds the pile of butter and his mother uses it to make a giant stack of fluffy pancakes (naturally).

Though the tale itself is a rather benign, Kipling-esque folk story, the illustrations depicted a degrading “pickaninny” stereotype of African-Americans, a particularly baffling choice given that the story setting suggested India. Poet Langston Hughes deemed the drawings “amusing undoubtedly to the white child, but like an unkind word to one who has known too many hurts to enjoy the additional pain of being laughed at.”

9. THE HISTORY OF SANDFORD AND MERTON BY THOMAS DAY

Thomas Day’s 1783 tale about two 6-year-old boys from different economic classes was meant to indoctrinate children in the teachings of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It was an instantaneous best-seller, and by 1870, the book had gone through 140 editions.The tome eventually inspired a satirical book called The New History of Sandford and Merton which proclaimed that it would “teach you what to don’t.”

10. A PRETTY LITTLE POCKET-BOOK BY JOHN NEWBERY

A page of an old-fashioned children's book with illustrations depicting men throwing a ball.

John Newbery’s title as “the father of children’s literature” is well-earned—the publisher was the first to see the merit and need for dedicating a chunk of the literary market specifically to children. Published in 1744, his first book for kids, A Pretty Little Pocket-Book, consisted of simple rhymes that helped children learn the letters of the alphabet. The book was originally sold with a ball for boys and a pincushion for girls.

11. HITTY, HER FIRST HUNDRED YEARS BY RACHEL FIELD

Long before Toy Story, there was Hitty. Hitty, a 1930 Newbery Medal-winning book, is the story of a wooden doll who comes to life in 1829 when she’s carved out of a piece of ash in Maine. Readers follow a century of Hitty’s adventures, including meeting Charles Dickens and surviving a shipwreck.

The book was a hit with children, and it didn’t take long for them to demand Hitty dolls of their own. Though Rosemary Wells and Susan Jeffers updated Hitty’s adventures in 1999, the new version hasn’t inspired the same craze as the original.

12. TOOTLE BY GERTRUDE CRAMPTON

Ask anyone about anthropomorphic trains and their first response is likely to be Thomas the Tank Engine. Or, if you’re a purist, The Little Engine That Could. Tootle, first published in 1945, is likely way down the list, if he even comes up at all. But for many years, the industrious engine was on track to become one of the best-selling books of all time.

13. WHEN WE WERE VERY YOUNG BY A.A. MILNE

You may know Milne for creating Winnie-the-Pooh and the other citizens of the Hundred Acre Wood, but this collection of poetry came out two years before his book about the honey-loving bear—and at one time, it was almost as popular.

14. THE HARDY BOYS SERIES

The Hardy Boys have made plenty of appearances on bestseller lists over the years, but these days, their popularity seems to be coming to an end as quickly as their plotlines. The Boys are almost 90 years old, and their age is showing—even with modern-day tools like cell phones and computers, most of their sales come from nostalgic parents.

15. THE TOUCH ME BOOK BY PAT AND EVE WITTE

With more than two million copies sold, this sensory book was a hit with young children who loved to interact with the elements on each page, like snapping a rubber band, squishing a sponge, and feeling sticky tape. Sensory books were still a bit of a novelty in 1961 when The Touch Me Book was first published, but today, they’re a dime a dozen—and The Touch Me Book just doesn’t seem to have the staying power of Pat the Bunny, another early touch-and-feel book that still tops best-seller lists.

8 Proper Facts About Jane Austen

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

More than 200 years after her death, English novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817) continues to be celebrated for her sharp, biting prose on love's various entanglements. The strong female characters in books like Pride and Prejudice and Emma are as resonant today as when Austen first pressed her pen to paper. Though her bibliography totals just six novels (alongside some unfinished novels and other works) in all, Austen's books and her insightful quotes have been subject to hundreds of years of analysis and—for the Austen die-hards—numerous re-readings. For more on the writer's life, influences, and curious editing habits, take a look at our compendium of all things Austen below.

1. Austen's dad did everything he could to help her succeed.

Austen was born in Steventon, Hampshire, England on December 16, 1775 to George Austen, a rector, and Cassandra Austen. The second-youngest in a brood of eight kids, Austen developed a love for the written word partially as a result of George's vast home library. When she wasn't reading, Austen was supplied with writing tools by George to nurture her interests along. Later, George would send his daughters to a boarding school to further their education. When Austen penned First Impressions, the book that would become Pride and Prejudice, in 1797, a proud George took it to a London publisher named Thomas Cadell for review. Cadell rejected it unread. It's not clear if Jane was even aware that George approached Cadell on her behalf.

Much later, in 1810, her brother Henry would act as her literary agent, selling Sense and Sensibility to London publisher Thomas Egerton.

2. Her works were published anonymously.

From Sense and Sensibility through Emma, Austen's published works never bore her name. Sense and Sensibility carried the byline of "A Lady," while later works like Pride and Prejudice featured credits like, "By the Author of Sense and Sensibility." It's likely Austen chose anonymity because female novelists were frowned upon for having selected what was viewed at the time as a potentially lewd, male-dominated pursuit. If she was interrupted while writing, she would quickly conceal her papers to avoid being asked about her work. Austen was first identified in print following her death in 1817; her brother Henry wrote a eulogy to accompany the posthumous publications of Persuasion and Northanger Abbey.

3. She backed out of a marriage of convenience.

Many of Austen's characters carry great agency in their lives, and Austen scholars enjoy pointing to the fact that Austen herself bucked convention when it came to affairs of the heart. The year after her family's move to the city of Bath in 1801, Austen received a proposal of marriage from Harris Bigg-Wither, a financially prosperous childhood friend. Austen accepted but quickly had second thoughts. Though his money would have provided for her and her family (and, at the time, she was 27 and unpublished, meaning she had no outside income and was fast approaching Georgian-era spinster status), Austen decided that a union motivated on her part by economics wasn't worthwhile. She turned the proposal down the following day and later cautioned her niece about marrying for any reason other than love. "Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection," she wrote.

4. She took a decade off.

Because so little of Austen's writing outside of her novels survives—her sister, Cassandra, purportedly destroyed much of her correspondence in an effort to keep some of Austen's scathing opinions away from polite society—it can be hard to assign motivations or emotions to some of her major milestones in life. But one thing appears clear: When her family moved to Bath and subsequently kept relocating following her father's death in 1805, Austen's writing habits were severely disrupted. Once prolific—she completed three of her novels by 1801—a lack of a routine kept her from producing work for roughly 10 years. It wasn't until she felt her home life was stable after moving into property owned by her brother, Edward, that Austen resumed her career.

5. She used straight pins to edit her manuscripts.

Austen had none of the advancements that would go on to make a writer's life easier, like typewriters, computers, or Starbucks. In at least one case, her manuscript edits were accomplished using the time-consuming and prickly method of straight pins. For an unfinished novel titled The Watsons, Austen took the pins and used them to fasten revisions to the pages of areas that were in need of correction or rewrites. The practice dates back to the 17th century.

6. She was an accomplished home brewer.

In Austen's time, beer was the drink of choice, and like the rest of her family, Austen could brew her own beer. Her specialty was spruce beer, which was made with molasses for a slightly sweeter taste.

Austen was also a fan of making mead—she once lamented to her sister, "there is no honey this year. Bad news for us. We must husband our present stock of mead, and I am sorry to perceive that our twenty gallons is very nearly out. I cannot comprehend how the fourteen gallons could last so long."

7. Some believe Austen's death was a result of being poisoned.

Austen lived to see only four of her six novels published. She died on July 18, 1817 at the age of 41 following complaints of symptoms that medical historians have long felt pointed to Addison's disease or Hodgkin's lymphoma. In 2017, the British Library floated a different theory—that Austen was poisoned by arsenic in her drinking water due to a polluted supply or possibly accidental ingestion due to mismanaged medication. The Library put forth the idea based on Austen's notoriously poor eyesight (which they say may have been the result of cataracts) as well as her written complaint of skin discoloration. Both can be indicative of arsenic exposure. Critics of the theory say the evidence is scant and that there is equal reason to believe a disease was the cause of her death.

8. She's been cited in at least 27 written court decisions.

As Matthew Birkhold of Electric Lit points out, judges seem to have a bit of a preoccupation with the works of Austen. Birkhold found 27 instances of a judge's written ruling invoking the name or words of the author, joining a rather exclusive club of female writers who tend to pop up in judicial decisions. (Harper Lee and Mary Shelley round out the top three.) According to Birkhold, jurists often use Austen as a kind of shorthand to explain matters involving relationships or class distinctions. Half of the decisions used the opening line from Pride and Prejudice: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." The sentence is often rewritten to reflect the specifics of a case: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a recently widowed woman in possession of a good fortune must be in want of an estate planner," as one 2008 tax court case put it.

Others invoke characters like Fitzwilliam Darcy to compare or contrast the litigant's romantic situation. In most cases, the intent is clear, with authors realizing that their readers consider Austen's name synonymous with literary—and hopefully judicial—wisdom.

5 Facts About Shirley Jackson

Photo illustration: Shaunacy Ferro. Images: Penguin Random House
Photo illustration: Shaunacy Ferro. Images: Penguin Random House
Midcentury American writer Shirley Jackson has long been known for her spooky short story "The Lottery," which caused widespread controversy when it came out in The New Yorker in 1948 and continues to appear in short story anthologies today. Her equally haunted novels are less widely read. But now that her 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House has been turned into a hit Netflix series, her work is on its way to a critical and popular revival more than 50 years after her death. (A well-reviewed 2017 biography as well as new releases of some of her short stories and previously unpublished writings in the last few years have no doubt helped.) If you’re just catching on to Shirley Jackson mania, here are five things to know about the master of gothic horror.

1. Many modern writers cite her as an inspiration.

Shirley Jackson has a number of fans among modern writers. Stephen King has called The Haunting of Hill House one of the two "great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years,” and he has said he wrote The Shining with Jackson’s The Sundial in mind. Writers like Neil Gaiman and Joyce Carol Oates sing her praises, and Donna Tartt has called her stories “among the most terrifying ever written.” Sylvia Plath was a fan, too, and hoped to interview her during summer internship at Mademoiselle in 1953. It didn’t work out, but Plath would go on to write works with plenty of parallels to Jackson’s.

2. Shirley Jackson was her family's chief breadwinner.

Jackson’s husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, was a writer, too. A literary critic who taught literature at Bennington College, it was his job that brought the couple to the small Vermont city, where Jackson often chafed at being placed in the role of faculty wife. Yet it was Jackson’s work that supported the family. (Like many wives of her day, she also did all the cooking, cleaning, taking care of their four kids, and driving the family around town—as one of Hyman’s former students wrote of him, “Stanley never did anything practical if he could help it.”) In addition to the fees she earned selling short stories and novels, Jackson had a lucrative career writing lighthearted essays on motherhood and family life for women’s magazines, which she eventually parlayed two successful memoirs.

3. She claimed to be a witch.

In keeping with the haunted themes in her writing, Jackson studied the history of witchcraft and the occult, and often told people she was a witch—though that may have been in part a publicity tactic. As Ruth Franklin writes in her 2017 Jackson biography Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life:
"During her lifetime, she fascinated critics and readers by playing up her interest in magic: The biographical information on her first novel identifies her as ‘perhaps the only contemporary writer who is a practicing amateur witch, specializing in small-scale black magic and fortune-telling with a tarot deck.’ To interviewers, she expounded on her alleged abilities, even claiming that she used magic to break the leg of publisher Alfred A. Knopf, with whom her husband was involved in a dispute. Reviewers found those stories irresistible, extrapolating freely from her interest in witchcraft to her writing, which often takes a turn into the uncanny. ‘Miss Jackson writes not with a pen but a broomstick’ was an oft-quoted line."
It’s not clear whether she actually performed any magic rituals, but she referenced them often, usually in a tongue-in-cheek way. She often joked with her editors about bringing about victories for her favorite baseball team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, through her magical abilities. Her interest was definitely real, though. She started studying witchcraft while writing a paper as a student at the University of Rochester, and later took up tarot reading. Her personal library was filled with hundreds of books about witchcraft, and in 1956, she wrote a children’s book, The Witchcraft of Salem Village, about the history of the Salem witch trials.

4. She considered becoming a professional cartoonist.

Jackson wasn’t just good with words. She loved to draw, and even considered becoming a professional cartoonist at one point, according to Franklin. While her favorite subjects were cats, she regularly made minimalist, humorous sketches of herself and the people around her (particularly her husband), keeping a kind of cartoon diary of her life. “They’re Thurber-esque in style, but they’re kind of edgy, too,” her son, Laurence Jackson Hyman, told The Guardian of the drawings in 2016. “There’s one in which she is trudging up a hill carrying bags of groceries, and my father is sitting in his chair, reading. ‘Dear,’ he says, without bothering to get up. ‘You know you’re not supposed to carry heavy things when you’re pregnant!’” Some of these drawings are held with Jackson’s papers in the Library of Congress, including sketches she made of how she imagined the layout of Hill House. Her unpublished illustrated ABC book for kids, The Child's Garden of New Hampshire, is also held there.

5. She died before finishing her last novel.

Jackson died unexpectedly from heart failure in 1965 at the age of 48. (At the time, newspapers listed her as 45, as she often lied about her age, perhaps to minimize the age difference between her and her husband, who was two years younger than she.) A significant chunk of her work has been published since her death, though. When she died, she was in the midst of writing a novel, Come Along With Me, which was published in its incomplete format by her husband in 1968. In 1996, Laurence Jackson Hyman found a crate of unpublished stories by his mother, and, with his sister, Sarah Hyman Dewitt, turned them into a collection called Just an Ordinary Day. In 2015, they edited and released Let Me Tell You, a collection of stories, essays and lectures from her archive that were mostly unfinished or unpublished at the time of her death.

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