Friday, April 9, 2010

Suprises in the Little People's Scrap Book

The Little People's Scrap Book has been on the bookshelf in my office for years. This 19th century children's book has seen heavy use, and has the war wounds to prove it: childish pencil sribbles, torn pages, and some page stuck irreparably together. I always imagine it having been a favorite of Janet and Honoria when they were very little.

Not a story book with plot or characters, the Scrap Book's pages are instead filled with a wide assortment of spot illustrations. Like a girl's scrap book of the same era (the one shown at right is an image borrowed from The Curious Eye), the main intent is an attractive arrangement of pretty pictures.

These images range widely to include idealized pets, children at play, fairy tales, and anthropomorphized animals that remind me of a predecessor to later books by Beatrix Potter. Little captions are attached to each image, such as "A Sleigh Ride" (at left), "Pretty Ducks," or "Leap Frog." Some of the illustrations are a little remensicent of Kate Greenaway's work. It was probably a very good book to hand off to a child just under reading age since it would allow them to point and make up stories at will.

Although seems to indicate on the front page that it was originally published in 1853, the printing and children's costumes have always lead me to question this date. (For instance compare the more formal pinched waist in the 1865 illustration from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland at left with the relaxed, Colonial Revival costume in the illustration from the Scrap Book at right.) Perhaps a later, updated publication of an earlier book.

As I was paging through the book today, an illustration caught my eye for the first time. A kitten, depicted as a student in school, clutched a book and stared out at the reader with the caption "Kept in." From the window outside, friend-kittens peared in curiously--or mabye they are jeering; I can't tell.

It's a familiar story, right? Someone misbehaved and had to stay in for recess. But right away it made me think of another painting in the collections of the New York State Historical Association. It made me wonder if it was refencing the other image or just focusing on a popular moralistic theme.

"Kept In" is a well-known 1889 painting by E. L. Henry, whose late 19th century genre paintings were often treated as accurate depictions of historical life by their contemporaries. He frequently painted nostalgic scenes that prominently featured railroads, carriages, costumes, and sometimes racial issues (sometimes attributed to his stint in the Union Army during the American Civil War).

"Kept In" is an image that can, and has, be read in many ways (read novelist Jamaica Kincaid's remeniscences about it in the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Eye Level). Personally (as someone who spent a lot of recesses "kept in"), I always identified with the girl's defiantly relaxed pose and unrepentant gaze. The book at the girl's feet appears to be open where she gave up reading her assignment and instead turned to staring out the window.

But our little kitten in the Little People's Scrap Book has neither of those. Stripped of any possible racial readings by becoming another species entirely, his big eyes and hunched pose suggest to children's eyes that being kept in for bad behavior is a glory-less and unpleasant. This child too has books cast aside at his feet, but he hasn't given up working at his slate.

If is a reference to the Henry painting, which I tend to doubt, it has been rendered "appropriate" for its young audience. Cute and nonthreatening, this image is more likely a moralistic one that teaches the children who see it a useful lesson (behave, or else!).

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