15 Children's Books No One Reads Now

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

These books and stories filled children's school desks and bookshelves before falling out of favor.

1. RAGGEDY ANN BY JOHNNY GRUELLE

A rag doll with red yarn hair and holding a tiny teddy bear is sitting in front of an open book that reads "Once upon a time..."
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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

Rows of little wooden dolls with red pointed caps and extended noses.
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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

A page of an old-fashioned children's book with illustrations depicting men throwing a ball.

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.

5 Facts About Shirley Jackson

Photo illustration: Shaunacy Ferro. Images: Penguin Random House
Photo illustration: Shaunacy Ferro. Images: Penguin Random House

Midcentury American writer Shirley Jackson has long been known for her spooky short story "The Lottery," which caused widespread controversy when it came out in The New Yorker in 1948 and continues to appear in short story anthologies today. Her equally haunted novels are less widely read. But ever since her 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House was turned into a hit Netflix series, her work has been experiencing a critical and popular revival more than 50 years after her death. (A well-reviewed 2017 biography as well as new releases of some of her short stories and previously unpublished writings in the last few years have no doubt helped.)

If you’re just catching on to Shirley Jackson mania, here are five things to know about the master of gothic horror.

1. Many modern writers cite her as an inspiration.

Shirley Jackson has a number of fans among modern writers. Stephen King has called The Haunting of Hill House one of the two "great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years,” and he has said he wrote The Shining with Jackson’s The Sundial in mind. Writers like Neil Gaiman and Joyce Carol Oates sing her praises, and Donna Tartt has called her stories “among the most terrifying ever written.” Sylvia Plath was a fan, too, and hoped to interview her during summer internship at Mademoiselle in 1953. It didn’t work out, but Plath would go on to write works with plenty of parallels to Jackson’s.

2. Shirley Jackson was her family's chief breadwinner.

Jackson’s husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, was a writer, too. A literary critic who taught literature at Bennington College, it was his job that brought the couple to the small Vermont city, where Jackson often chafed at being placed in the role of faculty wife. Yet it was Jackson’s work that supported the family. (Like many wives of her day, she also did all the cooking, cleaning, taking care of their four kids, and driving the family around town—as one of Hyman’s former students wrote of him, “Stanley never did anything practical if he could help it.”)

In addition to the fees she earned selling short stories and novels, Jackson had a lucrative career writing lighthearted essays on motherhood and family life for women’s magazines, which she eventually parlayed two successful memoirs.

3. Shirley Jackson claimed to be a witch.

In keeping with the haunted themes in her writing, Jackson studied the history of witchcraft and the occult, and often told people she was a witch—though that may have been in part a publicity tactic. As Ruth Franklin writes in her 2017 Jackson biography Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life:

"During her lifetime, she fascinated critics and readers by playing up her interest in magic: The biographical information on her first novel identifies her as ‘perhaps the only contemporary writer who is a practicing amateur witch, specializing in small-scale black magic and fortune-telling with a tarot deck.’ To interviewers, she expounded on her alleged abilities, even claiming that she used magic to break the leg of publisher Alfred A. Knopf, with whom her husband was involved in a dispute. Reviewers found those stories irresistible, extrapolating freely from her interest in witchcraft to her writing, which often takes a turn into the uncanny. ‘Miss Jackson writes not with a pen but a broomstick’ was an oft-quoted line."

It’s not clear whether she actually performed any magic rituals, but she referenced them often, usually in a tongue-in-cheek way. She often joked with her editors about bringing about victories for her favorite baseball team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, through her magical abilities.

Her interest was definitely real, though. She started studying witchcraft while writing a paper as a student at the University of Rochester, and later took up tarot reading. Her personal library was filled with hundreds of books about witchcraft, and in 1956, she wrote a children’s book, The Witchcraft of Salem Village, about the history of the Salem witch trials.

4. Shirley Jackson considered becoming a professional cartoonist.

Jackson wasn’t just good with words. She loved to draw, and even considered becoming a professional cartoonist at one point, according to Franklin. While her favorite subjects were cats, she regularly made minimalist, humorous sketches of herself and the people around her (particularly her husband), keeping a kind of cartoon diary of her life.

“They’re Thurber-esque in style, but they’re kind of edgy, too,” her son, Laurence Jackson Hyman, told The Guardian of the drawings in 2016. “There’s one in which she is trudging up a hill carrying bags of groceries, and my father is sitting in his chair, reading. ‘Dear,’ he says, without bothering to get up. ‘You know you’re not supposed to carry heavy things when you’re pregnant!’” Some of these drawings are held with Jackson’s papers in the Library of Congress, including sketches she made of how she imagined the layout of Hill House. Her unpublished illustrated ABC book for kids, The Child's Garden of New Hampshire, is also held there.

5. Shirley Jackson died before finishing her last novel.

Jackson died unexpectedly from heart failure in 1965 at the age of 48. (At the time, newspapers listed her as 45, as she often lied about her age, perhaps to minimize the age difference between her and her husband, who was two years younger than she.)

A significant chunk of her work has been published since her death, though. When she died, she was in the midst of writing a novel, Come Along With Me, which was published in its incomplete format by her husband in 1968. In 1996, Laurence Jackson Hyman found a crate of unpublished stories by his mother, and, with his sister, Sarah Hyman Dewitt, turned them into a collection called Just an Ordinary Day. In 2015, they edited and released Let Me Tell You, a collection of stories, essays and lectures from her archive that were mostly unfinished or unpublished at the time of her death.

12 Surprising Facts About Evelyn Waugh

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Evelyn Waugh was one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century. From his early satires, like Decline and Fall, to his more serious works, like Brideshead Revisited, Waugh is beloved by both literary critics and readers. But many readers don’t know much about Evelyn Waugh, the man, who was born in London in 1903. Here are 12 facts about his colorful life and work.

1. Evelyn Waugh's first name caused confusion.

Waugh was often mistaken in print for a woman, thanks to his first name. In 2016, a TIME poll even named him the 97th "most read female author in college classes," a mistake that inevitably went viral.

This wasn’t even the strangest incident. When Waugh arrived in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia and Eritrea) in the 1930s, on assignment from the Daily Mail, he found that the Italian military's occupation of the city of Asmara had resulted in a population of seven white women and 60,000 men. Waugh's Italian host was ecstatic to hear about the arrival of the female-sounding Evelyn Waugh, and raced to the airport with a bouquet of flowers—and was sorely disappointed. Ironically, Waugh's given first name was Arthur (Evelyn was one of his middle names).

2. Evelyn Waugh’s first wife was also named Evelyn.

Waugh married Evelyn Gardner, an aristocratic socialite, in June 1928 despite the objections of her family; they thought Waugh lacked ambition and direction. Their friends called them He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn. The marriage broke down a year later, however, when Gardner had an affair with their mutual friend, John Heygate, and eventually left Waugh for him. In 1936, Waugh had his first marriage annulled and married Gardner’s cousin, Laura Herbert, in 1937. They had seven children.

3. Evelyn Waugh was incredibly old-fashioned.

According to NBC producer Edwin Newman, who filmed a TV interview with Waugh in 1956, the novelist wished he had been born 200 or 300 years earlier. He loathed the modern world and its technology; he refused to fly in a plane or learn to how to drive a car. He resisted using the telephone in favor of writing letters, which he did with an old-fashioned pen dipped in ink. His quirky eccentricity informed his conservative political leanings and his opposition to reforms in the Catholic Church, of which he was a devout convert.

4. Evelyn Waugh's brother wrote a bestselling novel at age 17.

Alec Waugh, Evelyn's older brother, wrote the semi-autobiographical novel The Loom of Youth based on his time at the elite Sherborne School, a boarding school in Dorset. The novel was incredibly controversial for its time—it depicted homosexual relationships between students as well as hypocrisies and prejudices in the school system—and it was also an immediate success when it was published in 1917. Alec was then fighting as part of the British army in World War I.

The Loom of Youth hit close enough to the truth that Sherborne's headmaster wrote to Alec and accused him of libel. He also told Alec that he was being expelled from the Old Shirburnian Society, a private organization for former Sherborne students; he remains the only student to have ever been booted from it.

5. Evelyn Waugh based his novel Scoop on his career as a journalist.

In 1935, Waugh and approximately 100 other journalists arrived in Abyssinia to cover the invasion of Benito Mussolini’s fascist military. Waugh didn't think much of being a journalist. According to The Guardian, he described journalists as "lousy competitive hysterical [and] lying." Waugh didn't even know how to use a typewriter and regularly predicted breaking news that never materialized. His distaste for journalism and the people who practice it inspired his satirical, semi-autobiographical novel Scoop.

6. Evelyn Waugh failed to deliver his one real scoop.

Portrait of Evelyn Waugh by Carl Van Vechten

While in Abyssinia, Waugh befriended some Italians, who gave him a heads-up when their leader was preparing to leave Addis—a move that meant the fascist invasion was imminent. It was the moment they had all been waiting for, and Waugh didn't want the tip to find its way into another journalist's hands. Waugh sent a telegram alerting his Daily Mail editors to this development, but wrote it in Latin. The attempt at subterfuge backfired: The editors thought it was nonsense and threw it away.

7. The Daily Beast is named as an homage to Evelyn Waugh.

The paper at the center of Scoop is the brazen tabloid The Daily Beast. In 2008, editor Tina Brown chose that name for her news website to honor Waugh's novel. But critics picked up on the fact that, just like its fictional counterpart, Brown’s project was owned and financed by a media baron. In her case, it was film and television executive Barry Diller; in Scoop it's the unscrupulous Lord Copper, which invited unwanted comparisons when The Daily Beast website launched.

8. Winston Churchill procured a military commission for Evelyn Waugh.

At the start of World War II, Waugh solicited his friend Randolph Churchill, the son of future prime minister Winston Churchill, to help him obtain a military commission. Waugh finally got a position in the Royal Marines because of the elder Churchill’s admiration for his dogged determination. While one of his subordinates said that he was "everything you'd expect an officer to be,” nothing in his plummy upbringing prepared him to lead rank-and-file soldiers.

9. Evelyn Waugh stole his children’s bananas.

After World War II ended, a shipment of bananas arrived in England for the first time in years. Laura Herbert Waugh managed to procure three bananas for her three oldest children. As son Auberon recounted in his 1991 autobiography, Evelyn snatched the fruit for himself, peeled each one, doused them in cream and sugar, and ate them as his children watched. "He was permanently marked down in my estimation from that moment," Auberon wrote.

10. Evelyn Waugh killed a Hollywood film of Brideshead Revisited.

MGM proposed a film version of Waugh's epic novel Brideshead Revisited in 1946, and offered a significant sum for the rights. When Waugh met the screenwriter in 1947, he realized that Hollywood saw Brideshead only as a love story with a happy ending—not a family and class saga interwoven with Catholic themes, as Waugh had written it. He sent the studio a condescending letter that effectively guaranteed the project would fall through.

11. Evelyn Waugh got his friend to change his will to avoid lawsuits.

While he was in Hollywood for the Brideshead discussions, Waugh visited the famed cemetery Forest Lawn Memorial Park, where numerous movie stars are interred. Forest Lawn aimed to erase signs of mourning by replacing headstones with brass plaques, giving corpses extensive cosmetic treatment and elaborate embalming, and naming sections of the cemetery Babyland, Graceland, and Eventide.

The visit inspired his 1948 novel The Loved One, which satirizes the funeral business and the movie industry. His publishers were concerned that he could get sued, since "Whispering Glades" in The Loved One could easily be recognized as Forest Lawn. So he got his aristocratic friend, Lord Stanley of Alderley, to vouch for the legitimacy of his prose by adding a codicil to his will stating that he wanted to be buried at Forest Lawn because it resembled the beautiful place described in The Loved One. The endorsement of a lord evidently carried weight: After 10 years without a lawsuit, Stanley removed the codicil.

12. Sunset Boulevard owes a debt to The Loved One.

When he couldn't secure film rights to The Loved One, director Billy Wilder used elements of the story in his masterpiece Sunset Boulevard. Wilder's main character, Joe Gillis, is a washed-up screenwriter like Waugh’s Dennis Barlow. Both men live with a faded Hollywood talent in a dilapidated mansion with an empty swimming pool: Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond was a silent film star and Waugh’s Sir Francis Hinsley is a former scriptwriter. And Waugh’s protagonist works in a pet cemetery, while Wilder's Norma mistakenly thinks that Joe has come to bury her pet monkey.

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