These books and stories filled children's school desks and bookshelves before falling out of favor.
1. RAGGEDY ANN BY JOHNNY GRUELLE
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
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
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.