Apropos of the Hallowe’en celebrations that occurred this past weekend, check out this article: How Gruesome Penny Dreadfuls Got Victorian Children Reading.
In the 18th century there was a form of adventuresome, frightening, sometimes even gory books, popular among the undereducated working classes in England, that were called “Penny Dreadfuls.” These simple books, were considered “dreadful” literature by the educated, and were sold for, you guessed it, just a penny (1d). Hence the name.
A penny over 200 years ago was not as worthless as pennies are these days. The penny was not even the lowest value of coin that people could hold in their hands back then. In fact, a penny in the 1800s was valuable, and as this Atlas Obscura article explains, poor folks, driven by the prospect of imaginatively charging up their meager lives, would put their farthing coins (worth just a quarter of a penny) together to purchase one of these captivating books and then share it with fellow investors by passing it around or having it read aloud to them by a literate person.
Why are “dreadful” books so important today? During those times there was no free public education nor libraries like we have now. There were also no child labor laws. Starving children were often already gainfully employed from as young as age 6. The literacy levels were very low in those days (40% of men and 60% of women could not read or write) and children from families without sufficient money for instruction were likely to remain unschooled and illiterate for life.
However, when children got their hands on “dreadful” books, exciting enough for them to make an effort to learn about books and reading, they somehow actually learned to read.
That is why, along with the glow of Hallowe’en still in the air, I’m shining a flickering candle’s light on helping parents and teachers clearly see the lure that similar books, today’s Penny Dreadfuls, might have on the eagerness of children to learn to read or to read better over time.
It’s not just wild and scary stories that create that desire. Anything that captures the imagination and energizes kids (and adults) to do the work it takes to learn to read can be acceptable reading material. This includes the world of carefully written imaginative and informative non-fiction books, reaching far beyond kids’ day-to-day experiences.
The promise of thrills and chills is how historians of the 1800s attributed the surprising literacy development in unschooled children. Penny Dreadfuls apparently lured them into reading.
Even today’s kids, lucky enough to be in school, with good teachers, and conscientious parents, spending time “beautifully reading” books to them, can get their youthful reading engines revved up with the fascinations found in such books of their own choosing.
Emotionally driven reading growth. That’s a lesson about children’s reading motivations that mustn’t be lost in inspiring them to seek out and embrace the full glories of books touching their taste for frights and other eye-opening surprises.