The introduction of The Paris Review for Young Readers seems like a good time to think about one of its predecessors: St. Nicholas Magazine, which was published from 1873 to 1940. Though it wasn’t the only children’s magazine of its time, during its heyday St. Nicholas was generally considered the best—a showcase for fine adult writers and a lab for young ones.
Scribner’s, a magazine run by the famous publishing house, approached the successful children’s author Mary Mapes Dodge to be St. Nicholas’s editor. At its inception, Dodge wrote that her publication would not be just “a milk-and-water variety of the periodicals for adults. In fact, it needs to be stronger, truer, bolder, more uncompromising than the other.” She felt that because children spent their days at school, “their heads are strained and taxed with the day’s lessons. They do not want to be bothered nor amused nor petted. They just want to have their own way over their own magazine.”
The magazine contained writing, art, and puzzles for different age groups, and by dint of her time in the business, Dodge was able to bring a lot of friends on board as contributors: Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott, Rudyard Kipling, Frances Hodgson Burnett. A number of children’s classics began as St. Nicholas serials, including The Jungle Book, A Little Princess, and Eight Cousins.
The magazine had access to the Scribner’s artists and a decent budget, so St. Nicholas was also beautiful to look at. It was famous for its “St. Nicholas League,” which held monthly contests for the best reader-submitted fiction, essays, poetry, puzzles, art, and photography—a big deal for the winners of the Gold and Silver Badges, which boasted cash prizes. Over the years, winners included E. B. White (for an essay, obviously) and the overachiever Edna St. Vincent Millay, who took home a full seven poetry badges. (William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald only rated honorable mentions—in drawing and photography, respectively. They hadn’t really found their medium yet.)
St. Nicholas folded during World War II, but it has a legacy. Cricket was founded in 1973 explicitly as a “new St. Nicholas Magazine,” and the concept of reader-generated kids’ writing contests is going stronger than ever—Wattpad is essentially the same thing. In her first editor’s letter, Mary Mapes Dodge offered a credo: “Never to dim this light, young friends, by word or token, to make it even brighter, when we can, in good, pleasant, helpful ways, and to clear away clouds that sometimes shut it out, is our aim and prayer.”
Amen to that.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.