We’ve shared so many children’s books over the years that bring history’s most wonderful real-life heroes to life for kids. From specific heroes like Frederick Douglas (whom a few adults need to read more about too, ahem) and Josephine Baker; to pioneers of space and sports and science;  our favorite artists, activists and revolutionaries; and of course dozens of rebel women.

(Hey! We have some pretty awesome children’s book recommendations over the years!)

But one thing I haven’t seen is a children’s book about the father of children’s books, John Newbery. Until now.

From the very first page, kids just know that Michelle Markel’s Balderdash!: John Newbery and the Boisterous Birth of Children’s Books is going to be engaging and irreverent, smart and fun.

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I think even reluctant young readers will be sucked right in from the intro which explains (in a totally non-scold-y way) just how lucky they are to be able to read a book written just for them:

“[Back in 1726] children had to read preachy poems and fables, religious texts that made them fear that death was near, and manuals that told them where to stand…because the future champion of children’s books was just a lad.”

Death! I mean, come on, the book starts with kids being threatened about death in their books. Instant grabber.

Markel describes just what life was like for kids before Newbery –kids would save pennies to buy ugly adult books from street hawkers, while parents were scared that fun books would turn their children “as wild as beasts!” — and how remarkably inventive it was for a farmboy turned printer to create a children’s book publishing empire, starting with the first “pocket book” just for kids.

Packaged with a toy, no less.

(So maybe you can blame Newbery for all that Happy Meal marketing.)

Related: 11 inspiring children’s and YA books about historic women for our girls — and especially, our boys. 

Even the printing press style typography brings the 18th century to life, but the highlight are the wonderful illustrations by Nancy Carpenter. In fact, her style reminds me of Maurice Sendak in the best possible way; kids will want to comb every corner of every page to find clever hidden details and mini stories-within-the-story, with your guidance.

(Can you spot Newbery creating the letters ABC with his body?)

I imagine the story might even make some kids more grateful when someone surprises them with a book for their birthday, and not a toy. Although John Newbery would probably do both.

Find Michelle Markel and Nancy Carpenter’s Balderdash!: John Newbery and the Boisterous Birth of Children’s Books at our affiliate Amazon or support your local indie bookseller.