Pet Book Report #1 – The Water Babies, a Fairy Tale for a Land Baby

For my Pet Book this semester, I have decided to “adopt” The Water Babies, a Fairy Tale for a Land Baby by Charles Kingsley. Originally published in 1863, this work currently has two separate editions that are located in the Northeastern University Library Special Collections. In regards to this assignment, I have chosen to focus my research on the earlier edition, which was published in 1888. As an early fairytale with just under 200 pages, it was published by Ginn & Company Publishers of Boston as a book in their ‘Classics for Children’ collection. I was mainly interested in pursuing this work originally because of the content. While looking through the database of available works in the Special Collections catalogue, it was the first and only fairytale I remember seeing on the list. My earliest knowledge of fairytales begins and ends with The Brothers Grimm and Hans Andersen, so I thought it would be exciting to look more closely at this book that I had never heard of that is presented to readers as a fairytale.

The small book, with wide-set, legible type would have been the perfect short novel for young children, either to read on their own or to have read to them each night before bed. The cover of the book is light brown, with black decorative framework surrounding the title, author, and publisher names. The illustrations featured on the cover appear to be heavily influenced by the ancient Greeks: above the title are drawings of charioteers and their horses, while below it are five laurel wreaths. To the left of the title there is a colosseum pillar, with what appears to be a banner flowing across the ‘wall’ behind it. This infusion of ancient Greek art and culture was one of the first things that struck me when I saw this book, and part of why it appealed to me so greatly. It’ll be interesting to see as my research progresses whether other books included in the ‘Classics for Children’ series were designed in the same fashion.

The cover of the book itself appears to be made out of cardboard, and the edges of the decorative cover have begun to peel up from the corners and the sides, as if it was paper that had been pasted on and is gradually wearing away over time. Two large watermarks occupy the left side of the cover, which was also something that caught my attention as a key marker of readership – someone had owned, or borrowed, this book, and accidentally spilled something on it that never really dried. Throughout the work, each paragraph is numbered, with the count starting over after one chapter ends and another begins which is something I have never seen in a book before and plan to research further – were the number markers to help children remember where they left off?

When I first started to look at the text in person, I was immediately drawn in by the book’s frontispiece, a circular illustration done in only line-work. Even the title page itself is beautifully illustrated – an ornate font that looks almost like winding tree branches spells out the title with flowers that appear to be waterlilies in the background. The words “water babies” look like they’re dripping wet, a testament to the content of the novel itself. The illustrations are already one of my favorite aspects of this novel, and I am excited to learn more about them both in the context of the work itself and in terms of who the illustrator was that created them.

I have only visited my “pet book” twice, I am excited for the semester to progress and for me to continue to discover new aspects of the novel that I had not noticed before with every turn of a page.

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