The purpose of this exhibit is to survey roughly the first 100 years of books for children with settings in the American West, highlighting some of the characteristics of the genre and drawing on a range of examples from the DeGolyer collection.

“Western” juvenile books mirror many of the same preoccupations of American children’s literature as a whole.  In the earliest period, the didactic impulse tends to dominate.  After the Civil War, with the appearance of dime novels, the ingredients for the formulaic western become established, and juvenile books participate in this popular trend.  Entertainment, rather than stern moral instruction, is given free rein. In fact, one of the great practitioners of formula fiction, Horatio Alger, also wrote “westerns,” in which his heroes follow the same upward trajectory out on the prairies and in the mountains as they do on the streets of New York.

Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is now regarded as a classic of American literature but in our exhibit it is placed in its original context, with other “boys’ books” of the 1880s. By the end of the period, the series book comes to fore, with both male and female protagonists. The “Ranch Girls” series is particularly notable.

Children’s books are not only fun to read (whether readers are 8 or 80) but they also tell us a good deal about the times in which they were written and published. One could study, for example, the way Native Americans are depicted in children’s books, or family life, or the westering experience itself.

Children’s books on the American West published in Europe for European audiences have seldom been studied. Many of the authors were prolific and deserve to be better known and studied in the context of the publishing economy of the time.  In short, these “small books” can support interesting advanced research projects.