Books

Back to the Future: A Review of the ‘Childcraft’ Books

TIMEDecember 1, 2021

The small North Carolina town in which I lived from ages 5 to 12 had no public library. A book mobile did visit our street, at least during the summers, and the arrival of that van brought moms and kids streaming from their houses and yards, excited to board this library on wheels and take home a few books.

The town’s drugstore carried a variety of comic books and magazines, and there too I managed to find refreshment that slaked my thirst for the printed word. Here were “Archie,” the character Sgt. Rock, and other comics, but my favorites were “Classics Illustrated,” what today might be called graphic books. The “Classics Illustrated” series introduced me to such masterpieces as “Romeo and Juliet,” “Call of the Wild,” and “The Red Badge of Courage.”

Mr. Weatherwax, the pharmacist, allowed me to sit on the floor by the window in the magazine section. There I read to my heart’s content and often paid the 12 cents for one of the classic comics.

And then there were the books in our home: the World Book Encyclopedia and the 14-volume “Childcraft” series, of which I today possess the first 12 books.

Whether my parents purchased these sets through some offer in the mail or from some college kid peddling them door-to-door during summer vacation, I don’t know, but these constituted the literary goldmine of my childhood and adolescence. They introduced me to a wider world. They brought hours and hours, days and days, of reading pleasure, and they no doubt help explain my lifelong love of literature and history.

Three_Musketeers-in comic books
The first run of the comic book series “Classics Illustrated” ran from 1941 to 1969. (Public Domain)

Visits to Long Ago

First published in 1934, the “Childcraft” books have undergone extensive revisions over the years. The tattered set in my possession, for instance, has a publishing date of 1949.

Leafing through some of these books while writing this article roused astonishing childhood memories. In Volume 2, for example, “Storytelling and Other Poems,” I vividly recollect reading such verse as Rosemary and Stephen Vincent Benét’s “Daniel Boone,” Alfred Noyes’s “The Highwayman” with its illustration of a tragic heroine strapped to a bedpost by soldiers seeking to arrest her beloved, “Grandpa Dropped His Glasses” by Leroy Jackson about a man whose purple-stained spectacles change his vision of the world, and Mildred Meigs’s wonderful “Pirate Don Durk of Dowdee.”

Volume 5, “Life in Many Lands,” contains perhaps my favorite boyhood story in the entire set, “Locked In.” Featured here are two girls, Garnet and Citronella, who become so engrossed in their reading in their local library that they find themselves alone and locked in for the night. Though they are eventually rescued before night’s end, this story enthralled me. To my 10-year-old book-starved self, there seemed no greater adventure in the whole world than to be imprisoned overnight in rooms filled with stories and poetry.

Pictures From the Past

The illustrations throughout these “Childcraft” volumes, particularly in the first three, which are aimed at the younger set, depict an innocence, joy, and sense of adventure and fun in children. As I recently paged through Volume 2—my West Virginia son borrowed Volume 1 months ago with its many nursery rhymes to read to his little ones—I see happy children playing in the snow, celebrating holidays, and forging their way through difficulties. We also see boys and girls getting into mischief, as in Eugene Field’s “Jest ‘Fore Christmas,” where a rambunctious kid puts aside his misbehavior before Santa pays a visit:

“Most all the time, the whole year round
there ain’t no flies on me,
But jest ‘fore Christmas
I’m as good as I kin be!”

Many of these pictures have remained in my memory, perhaps in part because I read some of these poems and stories to my own children, but mostly, I think, because they are vivid, reassuring, and sweet, and so appealed to my boyhood self.

Childcraft books set
Vintage Childcraft books vary greatly in content from today’s sets. (KAD Photo / Shutterstock.com)

Manuals for Parenting and Family Life

One fascinating aspect of this set, which understandably escaped me as a child, is that the editors devoted Volumes 8 through 12 as guides for parents in the rearing and education of their children.  Volume 8, for instance, titled “Creative Play and Hobbies,” contains such chapters as “Making the Most of Your Home,” “Planning a Party,” “Drawing and Painting,” and “Cooking Up Fun.” Other volumes include “The Growing Child,” “Guidance for Development,” “Ways of Learning,” and “Guide and Index.” The two missing volumes from my set, I believe, featured music and art.

That the editors of “Childcraft” devoted well over 1,000 pages of this set to child development, school, play, physical health, and mental well-being is … well, stunning. They gathered dozens of experts to write these articles. In her piece “Games for Indoors and Outdoors,” for example, Caroline Horowitz, who’d written many popular books on children and play, spent 31 pages explaining the rules to dozens of games ranging from Old Maid and Tiddlywinks to Prisoner’s Base and Blind Man’s Bluff.

Gone Away

Yet my edition of “Childcraft” would never fly in today’s culture.

Though the set includes “Volume 5: Life in Many Lands,” minorities in these volumes are not only underrepresented but also almost invisible. The children portrayed in the illustrations are almost all Caucasian, and most of the stories focus on either Americans or Europeans.

Some of the historical figures depicted in “Volume 6: Great Men and Famous Deeds” might also raise hackles these days, with its positive views of such Americans as the Pilgrims, Daniel Boone, Robert E. Lee, and George Washington.

In this same volume is a section titled “Bible Stories.” Here are accounts based on Scripture about such figures as Joseph, Moses, King David, and Jesus. These mini-biographies would be a definite no-go in a work intended for today’s general public.

Here we might note that the inclusion of both the historical and biblical figures depicted in these volumes reveal the enormous sea change that the United States has undergone in the last 70 years. Subjects once deemed admirable and normal have become verboten.

And though the World Book publishers apparently still put out the “Childcraft” set, now titled “Childcraft: How and Why Collection,” the books now aim for an international audience and focus on such subjects as science and nature. In the publisher’s blurb on this latest set, we read, “Give your young learner the books that inspired you as a child.” That comment brought a wry smile from me. From what I could gather, the newest edition is as distant from what I read as a child as the earth is from the sun.

And the Point Is?

By now, readers may be asking themselves why a set of out-of-print books deserves a review.

The answer is simple. These volumes remind us of this great truth: The home is the cradle and the bastion of our culture and our civilization.

The ancestral editors of “Childcraft” understood that truth, which explains their selections of poetry and prose, the beauty of the art in each of these books, and their extended advice to parents and teachers. They recognized that the family and the home are the heart of civilization.

The old “Childcraft” books may be gone—you can still find them for sale online if you search—but the stories and poems contained in those books, the histories and biographies, are still available to us. They are sitting on the shelves of bookstores, secondhand shops, and libraries, and will speak to us if we are willing to search them out and listen to them. Truth, beauty, and goodness still breathe and live in their words.

Oddly enough, then, if we want to safeguard the future of our civilization and culture, we must begin by going backward. If we wish a different future, we must turn away from the path we have followed for so many years and seek out and listen to the wisdom from the past.

And we can begin that reversal with our children. We can bring the good old books—the nursery rhymes and fairy tales, the poetry and the classic stories—back to the place they belong: home.

Jeff Minick
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust on Their Wings,” and two works of non-fiction, “Learning as I Go” and “Movies Make the Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.