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.

15 Fascinating Facts About Beatrix Potter

Getty Images
Getty Images

Even today, more than 75 years after her death on December 22, 1943, celebrated children’s author Beatrix Potter's beautifully illustrated tales—featuring animals and landscapes inspired by her beloved home in England’s Lake District—are still hugely popular. Below are 15 fascinating facts about The Tale of Peter Rabbit author.

1. Beatrix wasn't Potter's real first name.

Potter was born in London on July 28, 1866 and was actually christened Helen after her mother, but was known by her more unusual middle name: Beatrix.

2. The Tale of Peter Rabbit was inspired by a letter.

The first edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
Aleph-bet books via Wikimedia // Public Domain

Potter’s most famous book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit , was inspired by an illustrated letter Potter wrote to Noel, the son of her former governess, Annie, in 1893. She later asked to borrow the letter back and copied the pictures and story, which she then adapted to create the much-loved tale.

3. Peter Rabbit and her friends were partly based on Beatrix Potter's own pets.

Peter was modeled on Potter’s own pet rabbit, Peter Piper—a cherished bunny who Potter frequently sketched and took for walks on a leash. Potter's first pet rabbit, Benjamin Bouncer, was the inspiration for Benjamin Bunny, Peter's cousin in her books. Potter loved sketching Benjamin, too. In 1890, after a publisher purchased some of her sketchers of Benjamin, she decided to reward him with some hemp seeds. "The consequence being that when I wanted to draw him next morning he was intoxicated and wholly unmanageable," she later wrote in her diary.

4. Potter’s house was essentially a menagerie.


Riversdale Estate, Flickr // Public Domain

Potter kept a whole host of pets in her schoolroom at home—rabbits, hedgehogs, frogs, and mice. She would capture wild mice and let them run loose. When she needed to recapture them she would shake a handkerchief until the wild mice would emerge to fight the imagined foe and promptly be scooped up and caged. When her brother Bertram went off to boarding school he left a pair of long-eared pet bats behind. The animals proved difficult to care for so Potter set one free, but the other, a rarer specimen, she dispatched with chloroform then set about stuffing for her collection.

5. Peter Rabbit wasn’t an immediate success.

Potter self-published the Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1901, funding the print run of 250 herself after being turned down by several commercial publishers. In 1902 the book was republished by Frederick Warne & Co after Potter agreed to redo her black-and-white illustrations in color. By the end of its first year in print, it was in so much demand it had to be reprinted six times.

6. Beatrix Potter understood the power of merchandising.

In 1903 Potter, recognizing the merchandising opportunities offered by her success, made her own Peter Rabbit doll, which she registered at the Patent Office. A Peter Rabbit board game and wallpaper were also produced in her lifetime.

7. Potter was a naturalist at a time when most women weren’t.

Potter was fascinated by nature and was constantly recording the world around her in her drawings. Potter was especially interested in fungi and became an accomplished scientific illustrator, going on to write a paper , “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae, ” proposing her own theory for how fungi spores reproduced. The paper was presented on Potter’s behalf by the Assistant Director of Kew Gardens at a meeting of the Linnean Society on April 1, 1897, which Potter was unable to attend because at that time women were not allowed at meetings of the all-male Linnean Society—even if their work was deemed good enough to be presented.

8. Potter sometimes wrote in secret code.

Between 1881 and 1897 Potter kept a journal in which she jotted down her private thoughts in a secret code . This code was so fiendishly difficult it was not cracked and translated until 1958.

9. Potter was reportedly a disappointment to her mom.


Wikimedia // Public Domain

Despite her huge success, Potter was something of a disappointment to her mother, who had wanted a daughter to accompany her on social calls and make an advantageous marriage. In 1905 Potter accepted the marriage proposal of her publisher Norman Warne. However, her parents were very against the match as they did not consider him good enough for their daughter, and refused to allow the engagement to be made public. Unfortunately, Warne died of leukemia just a few weeks after the engagement. Potter did eventually marry, at age 47, to a solicitor and kindred spirit, William Heelis.

10. Potter wrote much more than you. (Probably.)

Potter was a prolific writer , producing between two and three stories every year, ultimately writing 28 books in total, including The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin , The Tale of Mrs Tiggy Winkle , and The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher . Potter’s stories have been translated into 35 different languages and sold over 100 million copies combined.

11. Potter asked that one of her books not be published in England.

In 1926 Potter published a longer work, The Fairy Caravan . It was at first only published in America because Potter felt it was too autobiographical to be published in England during her lifetime. (She also told her English publishers that it wasn’t as good as her other work and felt it wouldn’t be well-received). Nine years after her death in 1943, the book was finally released in the UK.

12. Potter's later books had to be cobbled together from early drawings.

As her eyesight diminished it became harder and harder for Potter to produce the beautiful drawings that characterized her work. As a result many of her later books were pieced together from earlier drawings in her vast collection of sketchbooks. The Tale of Little Pig Robinson was Potter’s last picture book, published in 1930.

13. A lost work of potter's was published in 2016.

A lost Potter story , The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots , was rediscovered in 2013 and published in summer 2016. Publisher Jo Hanks found references to the story in an out-of-print biography of Potter and so went searching through the writer’s archive at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Hanks discovered a sketch of the kitty in question, plus a rough layout of the unedited manuscript. The story will be published with supplementary illustrations by Quentin Blake.

14. Potter was an accomplished sheep farmer.

Potter was an award-winning sheep farmer and in 1943 was the first woman elected President of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders’ Association.

15. You can visit Hill Top, Potter's home.


Strobilomyces, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0 

When Potter died in 1943 at the age of 77, she left 14 farms and 4000 acres of land in the Lake District to Britain’s National Trust, ensuring the beloved landscape that inspired her work would be preserved. The Trust opened her house, Hill Top, which she bought in 1905, to the public in 1946.

Mental Floss is partnering with the Paper & Packaging – How Life Unfolds® “15 Pages A Day” reading initiative to make sure that everyone has the opportunity (and time) to take part in The Mental Floss Book Club. It’s easy! Take the pledge at howlifeunfolds.com/15pages.

This article has been updated for 2019.

No, Ernest Hemingway Didn’t Write That Six-Word ‘Baby Shoes’ Story

Ernest Hemingway and actor Gary Cooper (right) leave a cinema on the Rue Royale in Paris, France in 1956.
Ernest Hemingway and actor Gary Cooper (right) leave a cinema on the Rue Royale in Paris, France in 1956.
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Journalist-turned-novelist Ernest Hemingway was known for his clean, restrained writing style. Which makes it conceivable that he's the author of the most famous six-word short story of all time.

The story goes that Hemingway wrote the gut-punching line "For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn" to win a bet against his writer friends. But there's no evidence that such a bet ever took place, and it's likely that one of the best-known works attributed to Hemingway has nothing to do with the author at all.

According to Open Culture, the urban legend sets Hemingway in a hotel (usually the Algonquin, but the location varies) some time in the 1920s. He was allegedly having lunch with a group of writer pals when he bet them he could write a story with a full narrative in just six words. After his friends put their money down, Hemingway jotted down a few words on a napkin and passed it around the table. Though brief, the other writers couldn't deny that "Baby Shoes" was indeed a full story.

Chances are this story actually originated years after Hemingway's 1961 death. It first appeared in print in the 1991 book Get Published! Get Produced!: A Literary Agent’s Tips on How to Sell Your Writing by agent Peter Miller. When recounting the anecdote, Miller wrote that he first heard the tale from an unnamed newspaper syndicator in 1974.

The story spread from there and its original source only became murkier. A retelling of the tale was included in the one-man biographical Hemingway play Papa in 1996, and then in a Reader's Digest essay in 1998. The internet—for which Hemingway's punchy, compact style was a perfect fit—got "Baby Shoes" in front of more eyeballs than ever.

Though it's been cited in articles and books numerous times, no one has ever been able to trace the story back to a first-hand source. As for the true author of "Baby Shoes" if it isn't Hemingway, flash fiction fans may never know his or her identity. It's possible that the line was never meant to be a fictional story in the first place: Real ads that bear striking similarities to the legendary work predate the myth.

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