From the first cautionary advice by Dr. Spock, read by an anxious mother holding in her hand an anguished infant, to the giddy goose rhymes or “Pat-the-Bunnies” read at bedtime, to the cereal boxes of champions on the breakfast table, to the scout manuals memorized, the fugitive diaries, the Peanuts cartoons, and to those first chapter books, a child is raised by arms of print. Those who survive lessons in one-, two-, and three-syllable words travel beyond the rearing borders of home and street through the agency of literature, the fiction and nonfiction journey of the mind.
The culture of print for children and youth is so vast and unexplored a journey that it calls, in all of its fluidity, for definition and identification. The effects of such naming acquire ever more perplexing significations and demand critical elasticity when applied to youth and the palimpsest of print. Acts of definition are anywhere problematic, since the academic culture potentially can define, marginalize, and erase otherness. As Edmund Burke observed over two centuries ago, when we define, we risk circumscribing nature within the bounds of our own notions. Yet in defining the culture of print for youth—an area of innocence if not experience—where do we move beyond our own boundaries?
In defining print culture for youth, what is “print culture”? I will offer a brief survey of scholarship in the field and then look toward the specialized nature of a print culture of childhood and youth in the modern America of the last century. With a grounding in popular culture, reader response, and the history of the book, the study of print culture is a complex social, literary, and bibliographic discourse into the form and function of print in social