In all our talk on children’s literature, its various genres, its attractions, its future, and so on, we often forget the person who mediates the child’s introduction to literature. Almost everywhere, children learn language from their mothers. They hear the mother’s voice, watch her lips change shape as she speaks, they repeat words after her – in short, their immersion in language begins with the mother. And mothers don’t stop with introducing the child to language. They also transport the child into the fascinating world of literature in various ways. They croon lullabies, play games, narrate stories, and sing songs. When the child is a little older, they introduce the alphabet to the child and teach her, to decode those abstract symbols, ie., to read. It is mothers therefore who deserve the credit for making the child love the act of reading.
There is a Kannada saying that sometimes gets lost in the cacophony of commercialized education – “Maneye modala paathashaale, Tayeeye modala guru” – meaning the home is the place where learning begins, and the mother is the first teacher. I was reminded of this when I read about the Jane Johnson Nursery Archive consisting of 438 pieces including manuscripts, alphabet cards, story cards, lesson cards, and word chips.
Jane Johnson (1708-1759) developed these between 1740-59 for her children’s use. The cards and other materials not only served as aids to reading but also to teach the children the arts of conversation, good manners, intonation, reading aloud and enactment of texts. By making magnificent use of the visual element, Jane Johnson also ensured that her children developed aesthetic awareness and creativity.
The Jane Johnson collection is housed in the Bodleian Library, Oxford University, the Lilly Library, Indiana University, and a part of it is privately held.