A Blank Slate: The Rational Child

a young boy and girl reading a book


Interior page from Orbis Sensualiam Pictus

By Johann Amos Comenius, London, 1659 (1658)

Enlightenment philosopher John Locke pictured a newborn's mind as a tabula rasa, or blank slate primed for learning, and believed that a child's capacity for reason increased naturally over time. Locke argued that earnest Puritans who exhorted their four-year-olds to read the Bible failed to realize that children so young might simply not be up to the task. 

What books were suitable? In Orbis Sensualium Pictus (The Pictured World), educator Johann Amos Comenius was among the first to show that illustration worked wonders to concentrate a young reader's attention.


Interior page from Some Thoughts Concerning Education

By John Locke 3rd ed., London, 1695

Endorsing this view, Locke, in Some Thoughts Concerning Education, added humor, brevity, and a reasoned appeal for good behavior to his trail-blazing checklist of children's literature dos and don'ts. 

Let the young relish—and reflect on—Aesop's fables, Locke declared; let "Learning be made...Play and Recreation." Locke's recommendations helped spawn an unprecedented demand for children's books and educational games, an opportunity that publisher-booksellers from London to New England enthusiastically seized.

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Interior page of Orbis Sensualiam Pictus

By Johann Amos Comenius, London, 1659 (1658)

Orbis Sensualium Pictus

(The Pictured World)

Written by Johann Amos Comenius



Cover of Some Thoughts Concerning Education

By John Locke 3rd ed., London, 1695

Some Thoughts Concerning Education

Written by John Locke



Title page of the facsimile of the first edition of

the Enclopedia Britannica, 2005

Facsimile of the first edition of the Encylopedia Britannica



Title page of A Little Pretty-Pocket Book

By John Newbery, Isaiah Thomas, 1787 (1744)

A Little Pretty Pocket-book

Written by Isaiah Thomas



Road to the Temple of Honour and Fame board game cover

Illustrated by John Harris, London, 1811

Road to the Temple of Honour and Fame

Illustrated by John Harris



Title page of The New-England Primer

Boston, 1843

The New-England Primer



Title page of Aesop's Fables

Illustrated by Ernest Griset, Boston, 1878

Aesop's Fables

Written by Aesop

Illustrated by Ernest Griset



Cover of The Lion and the Mouse

By Jerry Pinkney, Little Brown and Co., 2009

The Lion and the Mouse

Written and Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney



Cover of Songs of Innocence

By William Blake,  London, 1926 (1789)

Songs of Innocence

Written and Illustrated by William Blake

Originally Published 1896



Cover of See and Say

By Antonio Frasconi, Harcourt, Brace and World, 1955

See and Say

Written and Illustrated by Antonio Frasconi


Visions of Childhood
A Blank Slate: The Rational Child