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Exhibition on Law and Crime in Children's Literature Organized by Prof. Morris Cohen

Exhibition on Law and Crime in Children's Literature Organized by Prof. Morris Cohen

When Morris Cohen, former law librarian and professor emeritus of law at YLS, was asked to put together an exhibition at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale, he says he didn't have to think about what the subject of the show would be. He collects children's books related to the law, and he knew that the Betsy Beinecke Shirley Collection of American Children's Literature had many more volumes he could work with.

With an abundance of material, the question he had to deal with was how to organize it all. He had eight large cases to fill on the first floor of the library, and an additional 18 small cases upstairs.

A chronological approach didn't appeal to Cohen. "I wanted to mingle old, less visually attractive books with the sparkling modern books," says Cohen. He began to think of bunching the books in themes. "I was surprised at how some topics grew naturally from the collection--some that you wouldn't think would be a topic for children's books."

The result of Cohen's work is now on display in the exhibition "Juvenile Jurisprudence: Law in Children's Literature" at the Beinecke Library. A speech that Cohen delivered to open the exhibition is also available online (you must have RealPlayer to listen to the speech).

"Law in Children's Literature" may sound like an arcane topic, but Cohen insists that he "had too many good books--really interesting ones."

A key motivation of much of children's literature is pedagogical, and this is apparent in the first theme in Cohen's display, "Learning the Constitution." Cohen explains that in the nineteenth century, the leaders of the young republic believed that its survival depended on a knowledgeable populace. And so, people wrote and published a tremendous variety of books explaining the nature of the Constitution and the functioning of government to children. Two of Cohen's favorite examples are tracts written by Joseph Story, who was also a justice on the Supreme Court from 1811 to 1845, a professor at Harvard Law School, and the author of fundamental treatises on the law. Story hoped to teach young people to venerate the Constitution as "the only foundation on which to rest our national union, prosperity, and glory."

Lying beside Story's serious-minded texts are books that explain the Constitution with pictures, through fables, and by catechism, dating from shortly after the formation of the union to nearly the present day. One text begins at the beginning with an explanation of the name of the country: "'United' means together; so 'United States' means the states together."

The education of youth could also take a moral dimension in what Cohen designates "Narratives of Law and Morality" and "Narratives of Good Behavior"--in other words, models for children to embrace or to deplore. The titles in this section includeParliament in the Playroom; or Law and Order Made Amusing and A Young Gallant's Whirligigg, or Youth's Reakes. Just in the words of the titles, one can see the challenge of making good behavior seem as exciting as bad. After all, children's books have to be entertaining, and mischief has the advantage over propriety in that respect. But the miscreants in these stories regularly reach bad ends, while virtue is rewarded.

The challenge continues in the next case. With "Pirates and Highwaymen" on one side and "American Law and Government" on the other, one can't help but be drawn to the bright illustration of a brigand, standing steadily on the deck of his ship as seas swirl and storm winds howl, against the sober pages of type across the way. But Cohen points out that in the stories, brigands, highwaymen, and pirates often have rules of their own, though "radically different from our own."

The epitome of the order among thieves theme is the Robin Hood story, and Cohen selected four Robin Hood books to form their own sub-theme--a subsection of "Pirates and Highwaymen," which is a subsection of "Crimes and Perpetrators." Here the entertainment and the moral education luckily coincide.

One theme that emerged as Cohen put together "Juvenile Jurisprudence" that he says initially surprised him was "Debtor and Creditor." These are all books on display in a case on the second floor about what happens when someone is sent to prison for debt. However, Cohen points out, "That [debt] should be a subject for children's books makes perfect sense, since this was a real peril for families in the nineteenth century."

This sort of insight into social history, as well as legal history, has been one of the perks of putting together the exhibition, according to Cohen. In another example, he noted how one modern book depicted the Africans aboard the Amistad as heroes, while a nineteenth century text classified them as pirates. He also says that he gathered a lot about the changes over time in how adults see children from the books in his exhibition.

Cohen draws one more lesson about children's books on the law. "That there are so many and they continue to be published seems to indicate that they are being read."

While "Juvenile Jurisprudence" can teach a lot about how children are educated in the law, it's also meant to entertain. There are examples of humor sprinkled about the cases, from the bluster of the 1797 Juvenile Trials for Robbing Orchards, Telling Fibs, and Other Heinous Offences to the whimsy of House Mouse, Senate Mouse, which features illustrations of the "Squeaker of the House" and the "Senate Mouse-jority Leader."

Cohen's favorite book in the exhibition is one from his own collection that tells a part of the Cock Robin story. "I have a variant of the story that I haven't been able to find any copy of anywhere else," he says. Other books about Cock Robin focus on his murder by Sparrow or on the aftermath of this crime. Cohen's hand-colored book is called The Quarrel and Lawsuit between Cock Robin and Jenny Wren, and it tells the story of a legal fight arising from Robin's habit of visiting the Nightingale in the evenings to hear her sing. When Jenny Wren, Robin's wife, finds out about his nocturnal activities, she seizes the crumb of cake that Robin had brought as a gift for the Nightingale and flees. Robin sues to recover his property. But Jenny's attorney, "Counsellor Magpie," wins the case when he points out, "Besides in law, there is a flaw,/ A flaw which I'll explain,/ My client you call Jenny,/ Whereas her name is Jane!"

"It's so legal and a curious digression on the story of Cock Robin," says Cohen to explain his affection for this book.


"Juvenile Jurisprudence" is on display at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library (121 Wall Street), until April 11, 2003.