Victorian Children's Books Gain Latter-Day Following

Article excerpt

Parents are snapping up books from the 19th century that tout traditional values, good breeding, modesty and courage, especially swashbuckling yarns written by Victorian boys' book author G.A. Henty.

They sell in the thousands each month, an impressive clip for children's book sales.

"Books written in the 1880s and 1890s had compound, complex sentences. They assume the reader will think for a moment," says Don Reisler of Jo Ann Reisler Ltd., a Vienna-based specialist in old children's books.

"As you work your way through the 20th century, you saw the dumbing down of children's books and the conscious decision to take away any demands on readers. The classics weren't easy, but they were rich. Books used to place demands on you; that was the excitement of reading and thinking."

Other late 19th-century and early 20th-century children's books - featuring Tom Swift, the Little Colonel, Horatio Alger and the Hardy Boys - are also hot. Michael Farris, president of the Home School Legal Defense Association, calls the return to such classics the "No. 1 trend" in home schooling.

"The Henty books have helped reflect the thinking of Western civilization," he said. "Children are also reading Plato, `City of God' by St. Augustine, and getting truly a classical education."

George Albert Henty, born in 1832 and died in 1902, penned 144 books suffused with that era's high moral expectations. Eighty of them are his boys' books, mostly stories about teen-age protagonists who find themselves embroiled in such 19th-century conflicts as the Boxer Rebellion and the Crimean and Turko-Serbian Wars.

"For the Temple," a book about the conquest of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70., caught the attention of Preston Speed, a small publisher in Mill Hall, Pa.

"I'm a home-schooling mother," says co-owner Bev Schmitt, "and when I saw some of the history books available, I was not pleased. A few were acceptable but by the time you got to adolescence, there's nothing there that's of quality."

She and her husband, Doug, found out about Henty, whose books sold in the millions in Britain and the United States a century ago. They devoured his books, discovering there just the right kind of hero: the dashing and manly 19th-century lad full of pluck, loyalty and patriotism.

"A Henty hero is a cross between a John Wayne and an Errol Flynn," Mrs. Schmitt says. "All the girls want to marry someone like that. We have dads and sons arguing who gets to read Hentys first."

Preston Speed published "In the Temple" in April 1995. It sold so well that they followed up with several more, then set up a World Wide Web site (www.prestonspeed.com) with a Henty bulletin board. A Henty chat room is in the works. The site, she says, gets 1,000 hits a day and the books are selling at a rate of several thousand a month to readers ages of all ages in several countries.

"The stories are excellent," she says. "There's a dearth of good literature on the market and the area that's really selling is the alternative education movement. They can't get them fast enough. This is history - not rewritten history or politically correct history, but real history."

Lost Classics Book Co. of Lake Wales, Fla., which started printing Henty books last year, reports selling more than 5,000 copies of "With Lee in Virginia," about the Civil War, and "A Tale of the Western Plains," also known as "Redskin and Cowboy," about the California Gold Rush. …