Juvenile Jurisprudence: Law in Children’s Literature
The exhibition, titled “Juvenile Jurisprudence: Law in Children’s Literature,” presents four centuries of books and documents that have taught and amused young people with various aspects of the law: from civics lessons on the American Constitution to adventurous tales of swashbuckling outlaws.
The exhibition, titled “Juvenile Jurisprudence: Law in Children’s Literature,” presents four centuries of books and documents that have taught and amused young people with various aspects of the law: from civics lessons on the American Constitution to adventurous tales of swashbuckling outlaws. “Juvenile Jurisprudence” was conceived and curated by professor emeritus of Yale Law School Morris Cohen, who started his own collection of legal books for youngsters while accompanying his young son, a budding book collector, on buying missions.
Some of Cohen’s own books will be displayed in the exhibition, which draws extensively from the Betsy Beinecke Shirley Collection of American Children’s Literature at the Beinecke.
The books have been organized according to such classifications as “Animal Trials,” “Law Enforcement,” “Rights of the Child,” “Illustrated Classics” and “Pirates.”
Many of these books were used in classrooms. One genre of textbook, “Catechisms,” with questions and responses to be memorized and recited by students, exemplifies the blending of religion and civics in the moral instruction of the child. That knowledge of the law at an early age was deemed necessary preparation for adult responsibilities in a democratic society is evident in the broad cross-section of explicitly didactic works represented in the exhibition. The list includes “A Brief Grammar of the Laws & Constitution of England”; lessons for his children on the British government by the Earl of Warrington (1652-94); and numerous primers and anthologies of historical documents for youth, which were common schoolroom fare throughout America in the 19th century.
The exhibition also presents a sampling of textbooks for lawyers and law students on juvenile law, the oldest being the1697 treatise, “Law Both Ancient and Modern Relating to Infants.” Among the more contemporary publications offering lessons in juvenile jurisprudence is an illustrated pamphlet published in 1979, “Going to Family Court.” The booklet uses simple line drawings and elementary text to explain to children what to expect in that unfamiliar, and perhaps intimidating, setting.
While much of the literature for children on the subject of the law was meant to instruct, legal themes in factual history and fiction have provided generations of children with pure entertainment. The exploits of pirates and cowboys, cops and robbers fill several display cases. Dostoyevsky’s novel, “Crime and Punishment,” not standard bed-time reading for tots, is here presented as a comic book in the vintage “Classics Illustrated” series.
Illustrated editions of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland,” Mark Twain’s “Pudd’n head Wilson” and Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist,” are evidence of the enduring appeal of fictional trials to children.
The exhibition’s display of children’s books on historic criminal trials-including the prosecutions of Lizzie Borden and Sacco and Vanzetti-and landmark court cases such as Dred Scott and the Scopes Monkey Trial, bear witness that debates, however passionately they are argued by adults, can be brought to a level children can understand.
“Juvenile Jurisprudence,” which is free and open to the public, will be at the Beinecke Library from January 30 through April 11.
On January 30 at 5:15 p.m., Morris Cohen will give an opening lecture titled, “Who Killed Cock Robin? Law & Crime in Children’s Literature.”