IT is unlike the British publishing industry to miss any date worth commemorating, but precious little seems to be happening to mark today’s 250th anniversary of the death of John Newbery, the Englishman who became known as “The Father of Children’s Literature” and whose name is commemorated in the US’s prestigious Newbery Medal, the world’s oldest children’s book award which is presented each year to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children as judged by Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association.

Newbery was also one of the first proponents of the idea that play was a better force for good in children rather than punishment.


QUITE simply he was the man who invented publishing books especially for children and every children’s author since then, from Lewis Carrol to Enid Blyton and from Roald Dahl to JK Rowling and so many more, owes him a debt of gratitude.

John Newbery was born the son of a farmer in Berkshire on July 9, 1713. He largely taught himself to read and write before serving an apprenticeship as a printer in a business that was taken over by one William Carnan. He died and left the business to both his brother Charles and Newbery who duly married William’s widow, Jordan Mary, adopting her three children to which they added three of their own.

Newbery established his own publishing business which quickly outgrew its Reading base, the firm and Newbery’s family moving to London after his success with a prototype children’s book “A Pretty Little Pocket Book” published in 1744. It was apparently inspired by the philosopher John Locke whose teachings Newbery devoured. Lock believed that children should be allowed to experience life for themselves and not be whipped into line, and that picture books were better than great swathes of text.

Newbery proved Locke right and developed his own theories, such as combining books with small toys. He was also a shrewd businessman, and believed in the power of advertising.

He died 250 years ago today in London at the age of 54 by which time he had revolutionised the publishing industry by devising best-selling children’s books and sometimes writing them himself.


BEFORE Newbery no one seriously considered producing books for children. After him, just about every publisher did because he was so successful. Though only a fifth of the 500 or so books he published in his lifetime were aimed at the children’s market, Newbery was the pioneer of that arm of the industry and was soon acclaimed as one of the leading publishers in England.

Many of the books he published were of the educational and inspirational type, with nursery rhymes, poems, pictures and moral lessons abounding.

His greatest success was fictional, however, as he struck gold with the Cinderella-type tale “The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes” which he published just two years before his death and which has long outlived him. It gave the English language a phrase we still use to describe and over-earnest do-gooder, and it earned Newbery’s family a fortune with 29 editions over the next 40 years.

Serious writers did not want to be associated with children’s literature back then so we do not know who exactly wrote the book which has been attributed to Oliver Goldsmith but may also have been written by Newbery himself.


APART from publishing books he devised the Lilliputian Magazine, the world’s first periodical for children and forerunner of every comic under the sun.

He was also a merchant of some renown, and made a fortune selling a “fever powder” that he claimed would cure everything from gout to scurvy. An overdose of it may have killed Oliver Goldsmith some years after Newbery himself died, but the money it earned Newbery enabled him to support writers such as Goldsmith and his friend Samuel Johnson. The character of Dr Primrose in Goldsmith’s “The Vicar of Wakefield” was based on Newbery, who is thus immortalised in print even if British publishing appears to have forgotten him.