We could learn something from the penny dreadfuls

My latest read is a departure from my normal fiction fare: Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her. We start off getting some biographical details of Edward Stratemeyer, who headed the Stratemeyer Syndicate—which, far from being the organized crime ring the name sounds like, was the company that created Nancy Drew back in the 20s.

Stratemeyer got his start in the late 1800s writing for penny dreadful magazines, the newspaper equivalent of dime novels for kids. The first chapter goes into a brief history of St. Nicholas magazine, and here’s the point of my post today, a quote from chapter 1:

The very existence of so many papers for children was a relatively new phenomenon. Most of the early nineteenth-century children’s magazines had been connected to religious orders of one sort or another . . . and all of them had a tendency to be didactic and somewhat dull. But by the middle of the century, secular papers that took as their task merely the amusement of children were beginning to make their presence felt. . . . Just prior to its [St. Nicholas’s] launch, Mary Mapes Dodge—St. Nicholas’s editor and the author of the international children’s bestseller Hans Brinker; or, The Silver Skates (1865)—announced that, in something of a departure, the magazine would contain “no sermonizing . . . no wearisome spinning out of facts, nor rattling of the dry bones of history . . . the ideal child’s magazine is a pleasure ground.”

That last part is an important one, and one to remember for those writing children’s books. “The ideal child’s [book] is a pleasure ground.” Of course, that doesn’t mean that we won’t absorb facts along the way or learn a little history as we set off on adventure, but the most important thing to remember when spinning your tales is that it’s about entertaining your readers. If there’s a lesson to be learned, it will be natural to the course of the story because it springs from character growth, not the other way around.

2 thoughts on “We could learn something from the penny dreadfuls

  1. Thanks for the reminder on making children’s writing enjoyable, Stacy, and for plucking the lesson from history, no less. The museum where I work has a wonderful collection of old St. Nicholas magazines bound in book form. They continue to be a pleasure ground to this day, even for adults who are not old enough to have grown up with them. (That’d be me!)

  2. Ironically, I think sometimes people do forget that fact. I’ve had far too many people tell me the difference between genre and “good” books is the genre just tries to entertain as if that somehow depreciated it’s value. If you can’t hold the attention of a child, how can you hope to shape its soul?

Comments are closed.