[(essay date 1998) In the following essay, West notes that The Story of a Bad Boy, despite its popularity in the nineteenth century, is now “largely read by historians of children’s literature.”]
The didacticism that had fettered the development of American children’s literature for the first two thirds of the nineteenth century began to break apart shortly after the Civil War. While this development occurred over a period of several decades, the year 1868 proved to be especially significant in the demise of didactic children’s literature, for this was the year during which both Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and Thomas Bailey Aldrich’s The Story of a Bad Boy were written.
These books introduced a genuine sense of realism to children’s literature. Unlike the two-dimensional characters found in earlier children’s books, the central characters in Alcott’s and Aldrich’s tales struck readers as being lifelike and for good reason. Both Alcott and Aldrich based their characters on either themselves or on people whom they knew during their childhoods in New England.
Although both of these books played important and similar roles in the history of American children’s literature, they have met with different fates in modern times. The popularity of Little Women has continued unabated since its original publication, but the same cannot be said of The Story of a Bad Boy. When the book was first published, it met with immediate success. Book reviewers praised Aldrich for creating one of the first believable child heroes in the history of American children’s literature. The book also achieved immense popularity. Nearly fifty editions came out during the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, however, the book has not fared as well. It has gradually been overshadowed by Twain’s classic books about Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn as well as by some more recent boys’ books, such as Booth Tarkington’s Penrod and Robert McCloskey’s Homer Price. Today The Story of a Bad Boy is largely read by historians of children’s literature, but it deserves a larger audience.
The Book’s Appealing Qualities
Aldrich’s tale is full of amusing escapades and memorable scenes. Although the book does not have much of a central plot, each chapter has its own interesting subplot. The episodic nature of the book is partly due to the fact that it was first published in serial form in the children’s magazine Our Young Folks. Since Aldrich knew that the readers of this magazine would read only one or two chapters per month, he made sure that each chapter could be enjoyed as a short story unto itself. In many cases, these chapters are quite humorous. In one chapter, for example, the boys in the town fire a battery of abandoned cannons during the middle of the night, resulting in comedic chaos. Other chapters are filled with tension and conflict, such as the one in which the boys from rival sides of the town engage in an escalating war fought first with snowballs and then with dangerous projectiles of ice imbedded...