11 Rare Children's Books from the Library of Congress

Denslow's Humpty Dumpty
Denslow's Humpty Dumpty / Library of Congress // Public Domain

The Library of Congress has a collection of books that would make any bookworm turn green with envy. One of their most fascinating collections is their rare children's book library. Visitors can read the books in their entirety from the Library of Congress's online catalog. Here are 11 of our favorites.

1. A Apple Pie by Kate Greenaway (1900)

This book by Kate Greenaway was designed to acquaint children with the alphabet. With simple sentences and elaborate drawings, A Apple Pie is kind of like an old-timey Sesame Street special. The book seems pretty promising as it starts with "A apple pie, B bit it, C cut it," until it gets to the last page, where the last six letters are stuffed onto a single page. Spoiler alert: UVWXYZ "all had a large slice and went off to bed."

2. The Arabian nights: Their Best-Known Tales, edited by Kate Douglas Wiggin and Nora A. Smith; illustrated by Maxfield Parrish (1909)

The Arabian Nights: Their Best-Known Tales
The Arabian Nights: Their Best-Known Tales / Library of Congress // Public Domain

While some editions of Arabian Nights—also known as One Thousand and One Nights—contain hundreds of stories, this children's edition focuses on the best and brightest of the bunch. The pages of this collection contain the well-known adventures of Aladdin and Sinbad. But don't expect to see this edition in most children's classrooms; the language was translated from Arabic to French to English, and the old-fashioned vocabulary of this edition is a closer cousin to Shakespeare than books like Where the Wild Things Are.

3. The Baby’s Own Aesop: Being the Fables Condensed in Rhyme, With Portable Morals Pictorially Pointed by Walter Crane (1887)

Like The Arabian Nights, The Baby's Own Aesop aims to bring well-known stories to a younger audience. This edition puts Aesop's fables into poems about animals that closely resemble nursery rhymes.

4. The Cheerful Cricket and Others by Jeannette Marks; illustrated By Edith Brown (1907)

In this book, the cheerful cricket and his friends—a crew of this bookinsects and other animals—teach children about important life lessons, like sharing and cooperation. For musically inclined families, little sing-alongs wrap up each story for parents to sing with their kids.

5. The Circus Procession by McLoughlin Bros. (1888)

The Circus Procession
The Circus Procession / Library of Congress // Public Domain

The Ringling Brothers Circus was initially founded in 1884 and likely inspired the printing of McLoughlin Bros' The Circus Procession, which was printed only four years later. The book details a parade of animals and characters, including elephants, kings, and clowns.

6. A Curious Hieroglyphick Bible, or, Select Passages in the Old and New Testaments, Represented with Emblematical Figures, for the Amusement of Youth: Designed Chiefly to Familiarize Tender Age, in a Pleasing and Diverting manner, with Early Ideas of the Holy Scriptures by Isaiah Thomas (1788)

In 18th-century America, becoming well-acquainted with the books of the Bible was an important task for youngsters. In 1788, Isaiah Thomas published a copy of the religious text that replaced certain words with representative pictures. For instance, instead of using the word "dove" while explaining the story of Noah's ark, a picture of a dove is placed in line with the text. This book is one of the oldest in the Library of Congress' children's book collection.

7. Denslow’s Humpty Dumpty, adapted and illustrated by W.W. Denslow (1903)

We all know how the nursery rhyme goes: "Humpty-Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty-Dumpty had a great fall; All the king's horses, and all the king's men, cannot put Humpty-Dumpty together again." But you might not know that this simple rhyme has an entire backstory to it. In this book, Humpty-Dumpty is introduced as a "smooth, round little chap with a winning smile" and not a care in the world. That is, except for the fact that he wishes he could be hard boiled so his heart wouldn't "wabble." And so the epic story begins.

8. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum; illustrated by W.W. Denslow (1900)

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz / Library of Congress // Public Domain

This book by Frank Baum captures the famously well-known story of Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz—as it was originally published. This book was also illustrated by the same guy who drew for Humpty-Dumpty.

9. The Slant Book by Peter Newell (1910)

One of the most creative titles on the Library of Congress' children's book list, The Slant Book explains all of the misadventures that occur when things are on a slant. (It's also pretty nifty that the book is literally on a slant itself.)

10. Gobolinks, or Shadow-Pictures for Young and Old by Ruth McEnery Stuart and Albert Bigelow Paine (1896)

Gobolinks is probably one of the strangest (and creepiest) titles on the list. Its pages contain different ink splotches that are coupled with well-known stories. (On one page, Little Red Riding-Hood's wolf lurks next to a piece of the story.) The book also explains how to make the inkblot monsters. Back then, making images from inkblots was better known as Klecksography; Hermann Rorschach would create the first systematic approach to interpreting inkblots in 1921.

11. A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, Intended for the Instruction and Amusement of Little Master Tommy, and Pretty Miss Polly by Isaiah Thomas (1787)

A Little Pretty Pocket-Book is the oldest children's book in the Library of Congress' collection and is generally considered to be the first children's book in print. The book also aimed to teach children the basics of the alphabet with short, rhyming poems. When the book was first marketed, it came with either a free ball or pincushion, depending on the gender of the child who received the book.

For more fascinating facts and stories about your favorite authors and their works, check out Mental Floss's new book, The Curious Reader: A Literary Miscellany of Novels and Novelists, out May 25!

A version of this story ran in 2013; it has been updated for 2021.