BCTF Online Museum
Tomlie School class 1916 A senior third reader class at Tolmie School, 1916.
Image used courtesy of Saanich Archives;
accession number 2013-009-005.

What Were Students Reading? 

In the nickel-mining town of Thompson, Manitoba, in the early 1960s, my winters were punctuated by the monthly arrival of a fat, brown parcel from the provincial outreach library in Winnipeg.

Out would come the scissors and, with my mother cautioning me to “be careful and watch the dust jackets,” I'd snip open the package to reveal the trove of books we had chosen a few weeks earlier from the library's mail-order catalogue.

The stories of Thornton W. Burgess were my early favorites, particularly Old Mother West Wind with its tales of Reddy Fox, Jimmy Skunk, and all the other inhabitants of the Green Forest.

Interestingly, many of the stories I enjoyed 50 years ago had already been around for five decades or more. A list compiled by BCTF librarian Emily O'Neill shows that in 1917 children were enjoying many titles that would later prove to be classics, including Anne of Green Gables and the other splendid “Anne” books by L.M. Montgomery. L. Frank Baum's tales of Oz were a favourite too.

The Call of the Wild and White Fang, tales by Jack London that were set during the Klondike Gold Rush, weren't necessarily written for a youth audience. Initially serialized in popular magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post and later published in 47 languages, the novels feature animal protagonists navigating harsh and puzzling mileux within the world of men. In addition to London's beautifully detailed and descriptive prose, the perennial appeal of these narratives, and their popularity in 1917, may lie in the way children and youth are more able than adults to identify with the canine heroes and their struggles against overwhelming odds.

As a secondary school English teacher, I know that many teens prefer stories with an element of overt challenge and struggle. Most of today's youth will have encountered Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book either through Disney's 1967 animation, or by the 2016 live action/CGI production. In 1917, however, Kipling had a considerable readership for his tales set in the jungles of colonial India. Then as now, young readers would have related to a protagonist having to negotiate the rules of an alien environment, much as they found themselves trying to understand the protocols of the adult world.

A span of over 100 years offers many opportunities for adaptations and critiques of the imperialist assumptions of the era. The Jungle Book has inspired several films, a play, audiobook versions, comic books, and manga. Author Neil Gaiman put his own spin on the story in The Graveyard Book; rather than being raised by jungle creatures, an orphaned baby is raised by the dead residents of a cemetery.

Some titles popular in 1917 have melted into obscurity. Lucy Fitch Perkins's “Twins” series (The Dutch Twins, The Japanese Twins, The Irish Twins, and so on) were written for very young children, and offer glimpses of life in various countries 100 years ago. Unfortunately, the books also contain antiquated views of gender roles, even though the author herself wrote and illustrated in order to support her family following a financial setback.

The Bobbsey Twins series, about two sets of sleuthing boy-girl twins and their friends, has also disappeared from popular reading lists. I'm in favour of that deletion, since even I, an uncritical and omnivorous young reader in the 1960s, found the stories clogged with implausible plots and syrupy dialogue.

In thinking about the changes the world has seen since 1917, I'm heartened that many stories popular then still have currency today. I think it's time to peruse the list and reread some old favorites. After all, a good story is a good story. Romeo and Juliet, anyone? 

By Catherine Quanstrom, Smithers teacher 
Reprinted from Teacher magazine,Volume 29, Number 2, January/February 2017.