What's Your Story?

By Kate Hesseldenz, LHHS Curator of Collections and Exhibitions Published:

Most everyone has a favorite book from his or her childhood. Many people have strong relationships with stories they heard or read as children. “What’s Your Story? Favorite Children’s Books” is an exhibit that showcases storybooks from the Frankfort/Franklin County community and the Brown family.

Presented by Liberty Hall Historic Site, this exhibit consists of 17 books donated or loaned by community members along with explanations about why their books are special to them. Also featured are the works of children’s author and Brown family descendant, Margaret Wise Brown, as well as several books from the LHHS collection.

From a 1906 first edition of “The Little Colonel: Maid of Honor” to a 1976 copy of “Blueberries for Sal” by Robert McCloskey, this holiday exhibit opened the first night of Frankfort’s Candlelight Weekend. The exhibit runs through Dec. 15 at the Orlando Brown House.

‘Once upon a time …’

Today, storybooks are written for and about children, but this wasn’t always the case. Stories and children do, however, have a long past. Prior to the printed word, there was a tradition of oral storytelling. Tales such as Aesop’s Fables were told to children as long ago as the sixth century BCE.

In America, the Puritans greatly influenced children’s literature because they were concerned about the spiritual lives of their children and used books to teach young people about the Bible and correct ways of living. Highly didactic, the first book published in America was John Cotton’s “Spiritual Milk for Boston Babes in Either England” (1641, 1647).

Throughout the 18th century, retold fairy tales became more and more popular. Not written directly for children, they were enjoyed by them.

Examples include: Charles Perrault’s “Tales of Mother Goose” (1729) and Grimm’s “Fairy Tales” (1812 and 1814). By the mid-18th century, a shift in children’s literature began as English publisher John Newbery published “A Little Pretty Pocket-Book” in 1744, considered the first book solely aimed at children and not merely adapted for them. Newbery opened up the market for children’s literature, making it a profitable business.

There was a surge in children’s literature in the 19th century because of the affordability of paper, an emerging market, and society’s increasing understanding of the value of childhood. Stories moved away from heavy moralizing and teaching and focused more on imagination and humor. Distinct genres grew out of this period: fantasies, adventure stories, school stories, domestic stories, and books where the illustrations dominated.

Stories also began to use children as characters. A landmark book, Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” (1865) tells the story of a young character named Alice and was written purely for enjoyment. It also marks the beginning of the fantasy genre.

A golden age

After the American Civil War, children’s publishing grew further. This period, which roughly corresponds to the Victorian era, is referred to as the Golden Age of children’s literature. Adventure stories such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” (1883) and Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” (1876) were written.

Coming-of-age stories like Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” (1868) and Lucy Montgomery’s “Anne of Green Gables” (1908) emerge with female heroines and depictions of realistic family life.

By the end of the 19th century, illustrations became more prominent, seen in books such as “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” (1901) by Beatrix Potter.

Previously, there were few or no illustrations. In fact, picture books became extremely popular in the 20th century, as authors such as Dr. Seuss [Theodor Geisel] introduced books with easy-to-read rhyming verse combined with imaginative illustrations. Today, the market is flooded with books aimed at young readers as the overwhelming popularity of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series (1997-2007) indicates. Children’s literature is alive and well.

A literary family

The Browns were avid readers as Liberty Hall Historic Site’s extensive book collection demonstrates. The LHHS book collection spans four generations of Brown family members and their various owners signed many of the books. Among many classics in the collection, there is an 1881 edition of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll and an 1897 edition of “The Jungle Book” by Rudyard Kipling.

John Brown, the patriarch of the Browns and the builder of Liberty Hall, felt strongly about the value of books. In an 1826 letter to his son Orlando, John writes, “Let good and wise men or good books be your constant companions – from them you will insensibly derive improvement.”

Their mother, Margaretta Brown, gave early children’s books in the collection to the Brown children. A lover of literature, especially poetry, Margaretta encouraged her children to read and used the books to teach her children at home.

In a book included in the exhibit, “Frank Part II” by Maria Edgeworth (1808) there is an inscription: “Orlando Brown from his affectionate Mother. M. Brown.” Another inscription in Frank reads, “Euphemia H. Brown’s 1814.” Margaretta gave the book originally to her second son, Orlando, and then it was passed down to his little sister Euphemia.

Margaretta also encouraged her children to write. Euphemia wrote poems when she was just five years old. In an 1819 letter to Orlando, who was away at college, Margaretta tells him, “Do not neglect to send me further ‘extracts’ – they will always interest me; for though I am passionately attached to poetry I am feelingly alive to the beauties of prose...”

In 1833, Orlando Brown became the joint owner and editor of The Frankfort Commonwealth.


Wise Brown

Margaret Wise Brown followed in the Brown family tradition, as she not only revered literature, she made writing her vocation. Brownie, as her friends called her, was Sen. John Brown’s great-great granddaughter and a beloved children’s author.

Margaret was born in 1910 to Robert and Maude Brown. Her father, Robert Bruce Brown, was the great-grandson of John Brown. Best known for the bedtime classic “Goodnight Moon” (1942) and “The Runaway Bunny” (1947), Brown wrote more than 100 volumes in her brief life. In 1952, at the age of 42, she died unexpectedly of an embolism following a routine operation.

Margaret grew up on Long Island and attended Hollins College in Virginia receiving a BA in English in 1932. She later attended the Bank Street College of Education in New York City for teacher training. At Bank Street, she was inspired to write for children.

Brown learned about the “here and now” philosophy, an approach that focuses on the perspective of the child. She incorporated this idea into her writing as she wrote about the everyday world of children. Brown also participated in the Bank Street Writers Laboratory, which became the basis for the Little Golden Book series. She published several Little Golden Books in the 1950s, including “The Color Kittens,” “The Whispering Rabbit,” and “Seven Little Postmen.”

Brown became one of the first authors to write for very young children, ages 2-5. She was foremost a picture-book writer and believed that illustrators should receive equal pay as authors.

Brown’s most famous collaborations were with illustrators Clement Hurd and Leonard Weisgard. Brown felt that a book should “…make a child laugh or feel clear and happy-headed…and perhaps lift him for a few moments from his own problems of shoe laces that won’t tie and busy parents and mysterious clock time into the world of a bug or a bear or a bee or a boy living in the timeless world of story.”

While Margaret grew up in New York, there is evidence that she was interested in her Kentucky roots. Of several pen names she used, one was Kaintuck Brown.

According to Leonard Marcus, Brown’s biographer, Margaret visited Liberty Hall in the summer of 1929 to trace her family’s ancestry. She also refers to her Kentucky relatives in “The Days Before Now: An Autobiographical Note” by Margaret Wise Brown, 1994, adapted by Joan W. Blos. In this autobiographical note she says:

“My mother and father came from Virginia and Kentucky and Missouri and I always heard of those places. Once my great-aunts from Kentucky who, I had been told, were giants – they were very tall and beautiful –arrived in our house for dinner and I came down in front of the fire to meet them. They were going across the ocean on a boat next morning.”

About the author

Kate Hesseldenz started in June 2012 as the new Curator of Collections and Exhibits at LHHS, replacing Beth Carter. A Lexington native, she has worked in the museum field for more than 15 years. She has experience in education, collections management and exhibition development.

Kate holds an MA in Anthropology and Museum Studies from the University of Denver and a BA in Art History from Indiana University. She has previously worked at the Kentucky Historical Society, the Denver Art Museum, and the University of Kentucky William S. Webb Museum of Anthropology.

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