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Childhood

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Note 1876 on your calendar as the year Americans discovered childhood. That year Mark Twain published The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

The opening chapters seem perfectly tame today, but they must have shocked readers in 1876. Here was a real live boy, just like the one next door. And here was an aunt who talked and thought and acted like all aunts everywhere. Tom has just swiped some cookies from the kitchen, and Aunt Polly is on the lookout for him.

Neither Tom nor Aunt Polly fit the stereotypes of 19th century children's books, where boys like Little Lord Fauntleroy dressed in velvet and lace and spoke with such elegance as to suggest that they had already spent at least a year at Harvard. The best-selling novel of the day, Wide, Wide World sent its child heroine, Little Ellen, out into the world as an orphan, where she was beset with villains, scheming relatives, and false friends, each of which she overcame by looking to heaven. In contrast to Tom Sawyer, where there is not a single look skyward.

Didn't anyone before Mark Twain ever notice that children were not miniature adults? That their body proportions were different from grownups? Pick up any antique doll or look at drawings of children from early books, look at the small adult heads and slim bodies.

No wonder then that we did not notice that children were also different inwardly—in their thoughts and feelings. That is why we dressed them like grownups, expected moral perfection at the age of seven, taught them to speak like refined adults, and sent them out to work twelve-hour shifts in our mills, factories and fields alongside men and women.

Shortly after 1876, after the publication of Tom Sawyer and similar books, the United States began to pass a series of child labor laws, preventing the worst of the abuses.

Mark Twain's gift to children was not limited to a single delightful book; his greatest gift was the breathing space we now call “childhood.”

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.