Early Childhood Literacy & Purple Prose

Image: greenmountainwriting.com
*Shaggy Dog Story Alert*

A Confession

I must confess that I have a fondness for purple prose–although not, of course, in contemporary writing. Perish the thought! Writing of the florid persuasion must stay strictly a nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century affair.

A Little Backstory

Toronto, c. 1920 Velma is on the left. Seated on the step below her is her friend Winifred Barnstead. The woman behind them is their boss.

When my mother was writing a family history of her matrilineal line, several years ago now, she made a point of telling me how important education had been to her mother’s parents. They had worked very hard to ensure that both of their children–my grandmother Velma and her brother Fred–had the opportunity for a university education. Unlike some at the time, my great-grandparents wanted Velma and Fred to escape the family farm in Economy Point, Nova Scotia.

Given how important education was to Velma, I thought I’d supplement my mother’s family history by checking into some online archives to see what specifics I could find about her  studies.

I learned that Velma earned a bachelor’s degree with distinction from Dalhousie University in 1918, with a major in biology and a minor in English.  After earning a teaching certificate and teaching for a year in rural Colchester County, Velma set off for Toronto in 1919 to train as a librarian.

Where Early Childhood Literacy Comes In

Imagine my surprise when I found not only the entire curriculum for Velma’s librarianship training, but whom she had studied under–including none other than Clara Whitehill Hunt, whose work as the children’s librarian for the Brooklyn Public Library was influential in promoting the importance of public libraries to ensure that children have access to the best available books.

Whitehill’s accomplishments also included overseeing the design of the world’s first library built solely for children and chairing the American Library Association committee that established the John Newbery Medal for children’s literature in 1921.  Was I ever impressed!

Clara Whitehill Hunt (l), Grace Donaghy (r), 1936 (Image: Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection)

Where Purple Prose Comes In

Just out of curiosity, I searched Internet Archive to see if Clara Whitehill Hunt had written any books. Sure enough, she had. I found a full-text version of What Shall We Read to the Children, published in 1915, which includes this gem of a paragraph:

The baby’s first taste of poetry should be given not later than a month after he alights, trailing his clouds of glory and with the music of his heavenly home attuning his ears to a delight in rhyme and rhythm long before mother’s songs convey word meanings to his mind. There never was a normal baby born into this world who did not bring with him a love for poetry; and the fact that so few adults retain a trace of this most pure delight points to the need of conscious effort on the parent’s part to foster the child’s natural gift.

Where the Point of This Post Comes In

What is most striking to me about Hunt’s book is how closely her ideas for supporting the intellectual development of babies and young children align with those of early childhood educator Jennie Fitzkee in her blog A Teacher’s Reflections.

In fact, the first chapter of What Shall We Read to the Children (which starts with a young mother’s falling victim to a door-to-door salesperson) fits Jennie’s descriptions of “emergent curriculum” to a T:

Click image to enlarge.

This close alignment has led me to ask where reading aloud as emergent curriculum falls on the historical continuum for early childhood education.

And now that I think about it, are young children drawn to purple prose? Does it help or hinder their ability to make word pictures in their minds? I’d think it would be a hindrance, but I could be wrong!

A Bonus: Spoken Word Poetry Isn’t Just for Babies Anymore

Have a listen to slam poet Jack McCarthy’s performance of his poem “Careful What You Ask For” to see what I mean. I had the pleasure of listening to him perform several of his poems at an in-person poetry slam. He went on to win the competition. (Sadly, he passed away in 2013. Here is a link to his commemorative website, if you’d like to know more about his work: https://standupoet.net/)


Province of Nova Scotia, “Pass List, 1918: University Graduates’ Testing Examinations,” in “Being the Semi-Annual Supplement to the Report of the Superintendent of Education for Nova Scotia,” supplement, Journal of Education, 3rd ser., IX, nos. 1918-19 (April 1918): 85, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uiug.30112106949099;view=1up;seq=239.

Clara Whitehill Hunt, “The Poetry Habit,” in What Shall We Read to the Children (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1915), 14-15.

“Treasures of Childhood: Books from the Hunt Collection of Children’s Literature, Curated by Leonard S. Marcus,” Brooklyn Public Library, accessed March 17, 2019, https://www.bklynlibrary.org/events/exhibitions/treasures-childhood-books.

“The Department of Education Training School for Librarianship, 1920,” Ontario Library Review and Book Selection Guide V, no. 3 (February 1921): 2.

196 thoughts on “Early Childhood Literacy & Purple Prose

  1. How interesting. I studied Children’s Literature while carrying my first daughter, so consequently read all the books aloud to her. Love the idea that children are born with a love of poetry…if only so…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a powerful example of when we begin to teach the babies and children very young, and continue to do so, what any of us can achieve. Very impressive post, one in which I totally enjoyed. I love reading or viewing inspirational material which in turn inspires me. Thank you so much for sharing this.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I read aloud to all of my children…I had a book of children’s poems given to me by my mother. I remember her reading that same book to me when I was little. I remember it so vividly. I so looked forward to that collection.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow, what a fabulous post. So many twists to the thread! So cool about your grandmother! You also reminded me how I rocked my son reading Whitman. How do I research my grandmother’s college education? And a big shoutout to Jennie, everybody’s favorite teacher.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Luanne! I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. (It did come with a shaggy dog story warning. 😉 ) I knew where my grandmother grew up (county and town), and I found provincial annual reports on Internet Archive, which gave me her grammar and secondary school information. I also knew where she got her bachelor’s degree (Dalhousie University). The Dalhousie Library Archives gave me all the details about her university education. Their archives are all online and accessible to the public. Her immediate post-graduate education was a little trickier. All I had was a photograph of her with a group of other young women posed in front of a normal school, which led me to think she had trained as a teacher, which my mother adamantly denied. An historical society had taken over the normal school’s records, and they were able to confirm her attendance and completion of a teaching program. I found her teaching history (one year) in the provincial annual reports. Her library training was a little trickier because the program she completed had undergone a number of name changes and sponsors around that time. I ended up finding all the information in the Ontario Library Review, again on Internet Archive.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. In the DNA, in the womb, on the page, on the tomb. We all respond to poetry at one time or another. Thank you for helping me give a name to a recently novel I read. Purple prose, deep purple. Some passages perhaps, but a whole novel was just overwhelming. The narrative was overpowered.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Wonderful family history. Amazing research on your part.

    I think like all art, purple prose can and has evolved to fit contemporary writing. It’s just a balancing act that’s very difficult/tricky to do.
    If I have or raise children, I’ll definitely put on some performances while reading to ém.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Quite the revelational tale that you’ve discovered in your search for a better understanding of your family history. The fact that your grandmother studied under Clara Whitehall Hunt. Her contribution to creating that collection of literature spanning such a time period is surely such an asset to any who might stumble across it and see it as a reading list, a genre spanning over 2 centuries in such a digestible manner to bring about growth and education that isn’t a singularity, but a constant.

    I admire your continuation of passing along these qualities of curiosity, enabling one to have a rich, vivid, and beautiful catalyst for communication, comprehension, and being able to do as if one is a polyglot- but interwar of different languages, types of language that spans from being able to elicit imagery, emotions, and better able to take on the difficulties we may encounter in life.

    Educators should be given their dues, they’re not only able to do, but they can help others learn to do. It takes an exceptional person to be able to reach an individual on such a level as if they’re a winding vine seeking the sunlight that escapes its tendrils. The sun that shines on us all, it allows us to exist and we have your family to thank for these tools readily available to anyone with internet connection or a library card.

    Thank you and all that your family has brought to the podium that is your perch in which the curious hope to gain some insight by becoming ensnared by the compassion and love that is given to all that might find themselves on your class roll or even a WordPress fan ;). Thanks again ❤

    Liked by 1 person

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