Balderdash!: John Newbery and the Boisterous Birth of Children's Books

Book review by
Jan Carr, Common Sense Media
Balderdash!: John Newbery and the Boisterous Birth of Children's Books Book Poster Image
Lively biography of the man who gave birth to kids' books.

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

History of publishing, children's publishing, and bookselling. History of child rearing. Types of early children's books and stories. Information about typography and printing. Images of 18th century London and America. Mention of philosopher John Locke.

Positive Messages

"Reading should be a treat for children." Lots of people enjoy reading. A young person with an idea of how to do something better can actively work to make his dream come true. "The grand design in the nurture of children is to make them strong, hardy, healthy, virtuous, wise, and happy."

Positive Role Models & Representations

John Newbery was a young man with a radical idea of how to make reading fun for kids. He apprenticed himself to the printing trade and was an entrepreneur, setting up his own shop. His books were a success and changed kids' lives for the better.

Violence & Scariness
Language

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Balderdash!: John Newbery and the Boisterous Birth of Children's Books, by Michelle Markel and illustrated by Nancy Carpenter, is a biography of the 18th century publisher who championed children's books, and for whom the prestigious Newbery Award is named. While this sounds like bookish business, it's lively and fun. Before Newbery there were very few kids' books published, just the occasional "preachy poems and fables." So, "Lucky, lucky reader. Be glad it’s not 1726." Newbery made kids' books fun, and when he published his books, "The children gobbled them up like plum cakes." The illustrations show kids reading everywhere -- a girl walking her lamb, another in a hay cart, and a family walking down the gangplank of a ship arriving in America. The message rings loud and clear: Grab a book! Everybody's reading!

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What's the story?

BALDERDASH!: JOHN NEWBERY AND THE BOISTEROUS BIRTH OF CHILDREN'S BOOKS is the story of John Newbery, who pioneered the concept of books for children. Born on an English farm in the early 1700s, Newbery got an apprenticeship with a printer, then moved to London to open his own shop. Though publishing for adult readers was thriving, the few books for kids were dreary and moralistic.  Newbery agreed with philosopher John Locke: "Reading should be a treat for children." So he began publishing lively adventure and fantasy stories in small, attractively bound volumes that fit kids' hands. He paired some with toys and also published a kids' magazine with stories and riddles, and novels for kids, "One luscious story to savor for several days." Informational back matter provides more detail.

Is it any good?

One would expect a biography of an 18th century kids' book publisher to be popular with librarians and publishing folk, but the happy surprise is that this book's a delightful romp for all. Balderdash!: John Newbery and the Boisterous Birth of Children's Books is playful, fun, and lively, the very qualities Newbery himself valued in a kids' book. The writing is engaging, with a sly, cheeky tone. "Many mums and dads worried that if their little nippers read fun books, they’d turn wild as beasts!"

The art is a perfect match for the subject matter, evoking a period feel while brimming with humor. One spread shows a bookshop crowded with eager readers that include a pirate, pickpocket, and giant. Even the typography of this book is fun, with a variety of old-fashioned typefaces jumping off the page. Newbery published books "that were loved so hard, that were thumbed so often, they came apart at the spine." This book is quite happily in that tradition.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the old-fashioned "preachy" books described in Balderdash!: John Newbery and the Boisterous Birth of Children's Books. Do can you think of any books now that feel preachy?

  • Find all the people reading in the art. How many can you count?

  • What are your favorite types of books to read? Why do you like them?

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