Visions of Childhood

black and white illustration of a female figure wearing a crown

Sinful or Pure? The Spiritual Child

The New England Primer , featuring "An Alphabet of Lessons for Children"

Interior page of The New England Primer, 1843

Some early juvenile books addressed the state of the young person’s soul. A Puritan child, considered sinful at birth, could not hope to achieve salvation without first learning to read the Bible. The New-England Primer—for 100 years the most widely known juvenile book in North America—gave young New Englanders who lived, as Cotton Mather wrote, “under the dreadful Wrath of God,” the very stepping-stone they needed to set them on the right path.

Songs of Innocence by William Blake interior page, a small boy is holding an angels hand the title of the poem reads "The Little Boy Found"

Interior page of Songs of Innocence

By William Blake,  London, 1926 (1789)

But what if one believed, like William Blake, that a child was born not sinful but wonderstruck and spiritually knowing? Self-published in a first printing of 16 copies that he sold at his own shop, Blake's Songs of Innocence, a diminutive hand-bound volume of illustrated lyric poems, proved to be immensely powerful, pointing the way for generations of children’s writers and artists, from Hans Christian Andersen to Maurice Sendak, whose young heroes radiate inner knowledge and strength and are unafraid to say when the emperor has no clothes.


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Visions of Childhood