About "Book of Short Stories"
A book of grade schoolers' stories is always worth a gander, a safe bet for "ahhh, kids say the darnedest things". My own memorable fourth grade essay chronicled a day at my father's office, me summing up his duties as "sitting around all day cussing people out". So it's doubly intriguing to stumble upon a collection of fifth graders' stories from 1931! February 18, to be exact. Consider the world into which these kids were born. The first generation born following "the Great War" with its bloody new technologies: trench warfare, air forces, and mustard gas -- these children also entered a world decimated by the Spanish flu pandemic wherein 50-100 million people died worldwide. Now "carefree" grade schoolers, aged ~10 to 11, when -- cue the Great Depression! Liven things up a bit more with that distraction the Dust Bowl and locusts -- you've quite a lively childhood (more of their childhood events).
Aside from the collapsing world, what must have seemed an End Time-esque onslaught by man and nature, consider the book. First, it's a BOOK! Again, how can we appreciate what it meant to have a bound, typeset permanent keepsake such as this little book when we can reproduce it in minutes, having copies delivered world-wide through no more effort than a couple more clicks? (whiny aside: it's taking me hours, many many coffee soaked hours to re-type these stories on a computer) But back then of course, back in 1931, someone collected handwritten pages, had them typeset, printed, bound -- all by hand, and then, some months later and at a cost that no matter how small during that economically devastated period must have seemed vast, these books were handed to proud parents. It's amazing is all I'm saying.
The introduction by Josephine Muscia captures a bit of the wonderment and the accomplishment: "[the stories ] may not be exactly like the work of great authors, but they are your thoughts...".
The tone of the stories vary greatly, some echoing the lamentations of exasperated parents, rather scolding morality tales ( such as "Safety First"), often with the students themselves playing Gofus' part whereas some stories are terrific "slice of life" snapshots, albeit reading a bit like an Our Gang episode (I'd forgotten about the many backyard carnivals we neighborhood kids had held until reading Robert Schmerbach's "Little Owl Golf Course"). Still other stories with their science fair cum book report air give you glimpse into their school days (I've learned much about sulphur, sugar, and oyster fishing, to name but three). Lastly, some show real story telling ability that echoes today in McSweeney's or Russell Banks odd spins ("Pretending", told from the point of view of an arithmetic book is truly clever).
I hope you enjoy them as much as I have.
Though I'm fairly certain this book was produced by Buffalo, New York's schools -- and the stories' provide ample clues as to the schools' whereabouts, all consitent with a New York locale -- I'd love to hear from any of you with more info on this area and hopefully, some details about the students. If you're related or think you know about any of these kids -- please contact me!
As regards this site I've tried to remain true to the book, eschewing neat-o webbie frills and resisting the sepia-toned nostalgia-wash I know you probably wish I'd used. The nice decoration above, in the header, comes from the book's title page and is, in fact, the only ornament in the book. I did give in slightly, distressing the graphics a wee-bit, but the stories are the stars here, and any ornament not in service to them had to go. Or so was the thinking.
This is a website, however, so unlike the book every story lives on its own page, a conceit admittedly serving the search engines, but also done to ensure no story goes unrecognized because it had appeared near the bottom of a page. The other layout change was to include the students' names directly beneath their story titles. In the book names appear after the stories.
With stories describing paintings I've added, where possible, thumbnails of the paintings.
The header of each book page has, on even pages, "By Fifth Grade Pupils", and on the right or odd-numbered pages, "A Book of Short Stories".
Download all the stories in a single, Acrobat PDF, (375KB) which closely approximates the actual book.
Radio is ascendant, films are silent, those telephones are catching on fast, moving from offices to well heeled homes (powered by an army of switchboard operators, nearly all women, working "private branch exchanges" -- it's a pre-direct dial era), Los Angeles' Pacific Electric leads the country's mass transit systems with an enviable 1,200 miles of electric "Red Car" trolley service, but most people live and work on farms anyway.
Welcome to the roaring '20's.
These kids don't know it yet, can't know it, but they are "The Greatest Generation".
1931, the year this book was published, will be a very big year for motion pictures: "Frankenstein", "Dracula", and Charles Chaplin's "City Lights" all are released in 1931. For most of their lives, however, it's been the silent movies in picture palaces that have dominated their imaginations. "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1923) and "The Phantom of the Opera" (1925) have made Lon Chaney the horror king.
The features were more grown-up fare, however, instead kids packed Saturday matinees watching serials staring Rin Tin Tin, or the shorts from Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, or Our Gang! And while he'd jumped on the screen in "Steamboat Willie" (1928) no one could have guessed that it would be Mickey Mouse, not Felix the Cat who would endure into the next century. Also in theatres were Looney Tunes and Betty Boop while Popeye was still just a nascent comic strip.
For reading these kid's were just of the age where "Winnie-the-Pooh" (1926) would have been on their nursery shelves, alongside Baum's "Wizard of Oz" series, "The Wind in the Willows", and Beatrix Potter's "Tale of Peter Rabbit". Many of our childhood classics, "Eloise" to "Little House in the Big Woods" were as yet unpenned.
On the news scene "Lucky Lindy" had, in 1927, completed his solo flight across the Atlantic (Amelia Earhart will duplicate the feat in 1932), gangsters and "public enemies" are on everyone's mind following the St. Valentine's Day Massacre (February 14, 1929), Bonnie Parker has just met Clyde Barrow (January 1930), Gandhi has undertaken "civil disobedience" in protest of British rule of India, and look, in the sky -- we have a new planet, Pluto, Hubble's "Planet X" is discovered,
1931 finds Nevada on the cusp of legalizing gambling and the Empire State building going up -- at the rate of four and a half stories per week!
However, for this generation the Great Depression will be the overpowering force shaping their lives. Hoover has begun the public works programs, but the effects of "Black Thursday's" stock market crash will be felt until the outbreak of World War II, under a decade away but looming as Hirohito's enthroned as Emperor of Japan, 1928, and Hitler, riding the success of "Mein Kampf" and the rising Nazi party power seizes the moment as the Depression rolls into Germany in 1930.
With so many auspicious events ahead of these children who'd write these stories it's impossible not to sigh and hope it was, as childhoods go, a fine time to be loose in the fastest growing industrialized country in the most tumultuous and exciting century of human history.
This work (Book of Short Stories: Your Little Friend the Fifth Grade Book, by Various Authors), identified by Courts Carter, is free of known copyright restrictions.
These works were published without any copyright notice in the state of New York in 1931 and subsequently fall into the Public Domain under US law (see Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United Staties for brief explanation).
All book photos are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
My photos of the book are made available under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.