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Lobato’s predecessors

Children’s books by Brazilian authors were already circulating in the late 19th century

Reproductions Eduardo Cesar Cover of Versos para os pequeninos, a previously unpublished book written between 1886 and 1897…Reproductions Eduardo Cesar

In late February 2017, Versos para os pequeninos [Verses for little ones] was finally released, after remaining unpublished for at least 120 years. Written between 1886 and 1897 by João Köpke (1852-1926)—law school graduate, educator, and native of Rio de Janeiro State—these 24 children’s poems were recovered by researchers at the University of Campinas (Unicamp). They have joined the ranks of discoveries by specialists from other universities around the country that have uncovered Brazilian authors and shed light on the workings of the publishing market for children’s books in the late 19th through early 20th centuries. A network of publishers, writers, promoters, and readers had begun taking shape decades before the 1920 release of A menina do narizinho arrebitado [The girl with the little pug nose], the first book by São Paulo writer José Bento Renato Monteiro Lobato (1882-1948), author of a vast and valued collection of works (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue nº157 and special issue Pequisa FAPESP 50 Years). Recent studies echo the finding that Lobato modernized Brazilian children’s literature but did not create it, contradicting what past researchers and writers had said. One of the author’s first biographers, São Paulo writer Edgard Cavalheiro (1911-1958), discarded any forerunners when he said that “children’s literature practically didn’t exist in Brazil” and “there were only tales of a folk nature” before Lobato—observations often cited in the research.

“In a 1919 letter to a friend, Lobato remarked that he had nothing to read his children except João Köpke’s book of fables. He was referring to the quality of available works, which were adaptations of European books and even books by Brazilian authors, but this isn’t the absolute truth,” says Marisa Lajolo, professor at both Unicamp and Mackenzie University, who explored the topic in her book Literatura infantil brasileira: Uma nova/outra nova história [Brazilian children’s literature: A new/another new history] (FTD-PUC Press, 2017), written in collaboration with Regina Zimmermann and released in April 2017. “In 1920, the print shop that was preparing the first edition of A menina do narizinho arrebitado informed Lobato that Köpke’s Primeiro livro de leitura [First reader] would serve as the model in printing the story.” According to Lajolo, Lobato brought radical change to children’s literature, “as the Brazilian modernists of 1922 did to adult literature.” Starting in the 1930s, Lobato was much more in the public eye than any other author before him.

Reproductions Eduardo Cesar …excerpt from one of the book’s poems, “O balançoReproductions Eduardo Cesar

Köpke’s oldest son, Winckelmann Köpke (1886-1951), was the first holder of the original 54-page manuscript of Versos para os pequeninos; the handwritten poems were ordered sequentially and accompanied by full-page illustrations cut from other books, meant to serve as a reference for whoever might redraw them. Winckelmann probably gave the manuscript to his son José, who passed it along to his oldest daughter—and João Köpke’s great-granddaughter—Maria Izabel Köpke Ramos. One of Maria Izabel’s sisters, Maria Lygia Köpke Santos, mentioned the book in her doctoral dissertation, defended in 2013 at the University of Campinas School of Education (FE-Unicamp). She later gave the originals to her advisor, Norma Ferreira, professor at FE-Unicamp. Ferreira analyzed Versos in her postdoctoral thesis, presented in 2014 and now published in book form, along with the poems.

In 1886, after forging a respected career as an educator at schools in the cities of São Paulo and Campinas, Köpke moved to Rio de Janeiro and founded the Henrique Köpke Institute, named after his father. Through 1897, the institute functioned as a private school and afforded Köpke a platform from which he could launch his own primers and literacy books for children. On the cover of the manuscript of Versos, in large handwritten letters, Köpke presents himself as director of the institute. According to Ferreira, Köpke’s idea in writing the book was to provide children with an enjoyable reading experience and also apply the analytical literacy teaching method that he had developed in other books, the first of which was released in 1884 by the Francisco Alves publishing house.

Reproductions Eduardo Cesar João Felpudo on the cover of the magazine O Tico-Tico, 1925Reproductions Eduardo Cesar

The poems in Versos recount happy stories about the moon, grandparents, games and toys, animals, and children’s songs in the form of simple rhymes (excerpts from the poem “O balanço” [The swing] appear in the background illustration). “Versos para os pequeninos reveals another facet of João Köpke, and more strikingly than his published works: that of an author who wants to win over young readers by portraying a children’s universe that questions knowledge, truth, and reality,” Ferreira wrote in her postdoctoral thesis.

Ferreira believes that the free-spiritedness and informal nature of the poems did not conform to the predominant teaching methods of the early 20th century, which prized edifying poems and well-behaved children, like those presented in Livro das crianças [Children’s book], by São Paulo educator Zalina Rolim (1867-1961), published in 1897. “Köpke was quite critical of the era’s educational proposals, such as the pedagogical plan adopted in establishing kindergartens, which, he argued, had crowded, closed classrooms, short breaks between classes, and inexperienced teachers,” says Ferreira. “Decades later, the poems’ irreverent tone became a trademark of Lobato’s style.”

Der Struwwelpeter in Brazil
Meanwhile, historian Patrícia Raffaini was nearing the end of her postdoctoral research at the University of São Paulo (USP). In early 2016, she was investigating old newspapers on the National Library site when she stumbled across the following advertisement, in the December 4, 1860, issue of the Rio de Janeiro newspaper Jornal do Commercio: “João Felpudo – Happy stories for mischievous children with 24 exquisite paintings.” The ad constituted a record of the first Brazilian edition of Der Struwwelpeter, released in Germany in 1844 to great success. Written by physician Heinrich Hoffmann for his 3-year-old son, the book featured plentiful illustrations and short stories about children who were severely punished because they did not like to take baths or eat their soup. Raffaini had discovered that the original translator was Judge Henrique Velloso de Oliveira (1804-1861), possibly one of those responsible for the Brazilian title, João Felpudo, or “slovenly John,” an adaptation from the original title of Struwwelpeter, which translates literally as “slovenly Peter.”

Reproductions Eduardo Cesar Advertisement for the 1860 Brazilian edition (above); and drawing from the original book, 1844Reproductions Eduardo Cesar

Raffaini later came across other advertisements for João Felpudo in the newspaper Jornal do Commercio, signaling one of the ways that Editora Laemmert publishing house promoted its books. Raffaini had already noted that Rio de Janeiro publisher Pedro Quaresma (1863-1921), owner of Livraria do Povo bookstore, invested in half-page ads to promote the 1894 re-launching of a Brazilian book entitled Contos da carochinha [Bedtime tales]—because the first run of 5,000 copies had sold out in less than a month. Contos da carochinha was the first in a series of books edited by Rio de Janeiro journalist Alberto Figueiredo Pimentel (1869-1914), which aimed to use colloquial language to retell fables of talking animals, werewolves, saints, and fairies originally written by European authors. Quaresma hoped to create a more popular brand of children’s literature with these books, by offering simpler, cheaper editions than the refined translations put out by German-owned Laemmert, French-owned Garnier, and Francisco Alves, a Portuguese publishing house.

“The market for children’s and young adult books was thriving in the late 19th century, a time when we thought there was little or almost nothing available for young readers,” says Raffaini. “Publishers were investing in this market, and many books, like João Felpudo, had already been translated. The production of books written by Brazilian authors was getting started.” Raffaini began her research with a list of 20 titles of children’s books published from 1860 to 1920, identified at the National Library and the Royal Portuguese Reading Room, both in Rio de Janeiro. By scouring used bookstores across the country over the next three years, she gathered 70 different titles.

Reproductions Eduardo Cesar Books by Brazilian authors: Álbum das crianças [Children’s album], by Figueiredo Pimentel, 1897…Reproductions Eduardo Cesar

“One of the forerunners of Brazilian children’s literature was the novelist Júlia Lopes de Almeida (1862-1934),” reports Nelly Novaes Coelho, professor emeritus at USP and one of the leading experts on the subject, in her book Panorama histórico da literatura infantil/juvenil [Historical panorama of children’s and young adult literature] (Amarilys, 2010). In 1886, Júlia Lopes published Contos infantis [Children’s stories], featuring 60 stories in prose and verse, written in collaboration with her sister Adelina Lopes Vieira. This was followed in 1907 by Histórias da nossa terra [Stories of our land] and in 1917 by Era uma vez [Once upon a time], all of which went into second printings. “Concomitant with an increase in the number of translations and adaptations of literary books for the children and young adult public,” writes Coelho in her book, “there was a growing awareness in Brazil that the country urgently needed its own literature for Brazilian children and youth, a literature that valued that which is Brazilian.” She also sees Pimentel as “the first intellectual to popularize books, through more accessible editions of classic authors.”

Beyond literary criticism
Writers before Lobato had already been cited in a number of books and sites, such as Unicamp’s Memory of Reading project (, which presents 19 authors from 1880 to 1910, along with their major works. Further research turns up a representative of an even more distant past, Rio Grande do Norte native Nísia Floresta (1809-1885), an educator who opened a high school for girls in Rio de Janeiro and who wrote poems, novels, and novellas. Conselhos à minha filha [Advice for my daughter] came out in 1842, while the novellas Fany ou o modelo das donzelas [Fany, or the model of young maidens] and Daciz ou a jovem completa [Daciz, or the compleat young woman] were released in 1847.

Reproductions Eduardo Cesar …and Cantigas das crianças e do povo [Children’s and folk songs], by Alexina Magalhães Pinto, 1911Reproductions Eduardo Cesar

What researchers in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Mato Grosso, Ceará, and other states have done is look beyond the stories told in the books. “We’ve left behind the angle of literary criticism—which only highlights what was good—and entered into cultural history, which considers what was read, regardless of its quality; who produced it and how and where; and who consumed it,” explains historian Gabriela Pellegrino Soares, professor at the USP School of Philosophy, Literature and Human Sciences (FFLCH) and author of the book Semear horizontes [Sowing horizons] (Editora da UFMG, 2007), which examines the formation of the publishing market for children’s books in Argentina and Brazil. “Exploring the mechanisms behind the production and circulation of books is a very fruitful way to learn about an era’s ideas and its representations of the world,” she adds.

Throughout the 19th century, books for adults and children circulated mainly in Brazil’s state capitals, despite the high illiteracy rate, which stood at 80% in 1872, when the first nationwide census put the country’s population at nearly 10 million. It is believed that the rate was lower—perhaps 50%—in Rio de Janeiro, then the federal capital. “Brazil had been heavily importing books, including children’s, since the 18th century,” says Márcia Abreu, professor at Unicamp’s Institute of Language Studies. Abreu heads a research project on the trans-Atlantic circulation of printed matter (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue nº 240) and is author of Os caminhos dos livros [The paths of books] (Mercado de Letras, 2003). “Reading was one of the greatest sources of entertainment back then, and free men bought a number of books every year. This made for a busy publishing sector and brisk book trade; books were often imported and, after 1808, a great deal of printing was done in Brazil as well.”

A consumer market was taking root, comprised of a growing contingent of immigrants, free men, and liberal professionals or wage earners. By 1860, the city of Rio de Janeiro boasted an estimated 17 bookstores and 30 print shops. Today, even though bookstores are closing their doors one after another, children’s literature constitutes a vibrant market. In 2014, 7,802 children’s titles were published in Brazil, totaling 37 million books, according to the Brazilian Book Chamber.

Patrícia Hansen / Hemeroteca National Library Advertisement featuring the work of LobatoPatrícia Hansen / Hemeroteca National Library

After Lobato
“Monteiro Lobato was so important that he overshadowed earlier writers. Nobody talks about Olavo Bilac or Tales de Andrade anymore,” says journalist Laura Sandroni, author of the book De Lobato a Bojunga – As reinações renovadas [From Lobato to Bojunga: mischief-making renewed] (Agir, 1987), as well as creator and director of the National Foundation for Children’s and Young Adult Literature (FNLIJ) for nearly 20 years. Lobato staked his claim with a body of work encompassing 22 books written in irreverent, lively colloquial language that addressed the issues of the day rather than talking about some far-off land of the future, as previous school books had done. His books were backed by heavy promotion (Lobato himself set aside 500 copies of A menina do narizinho arrebitado to send to schools and hasten the title’s welcome), and by 1943 over one million copies had gone to print.

“Lobato was a genius, as a writer and editor, and he himself fostered the idea that he was a pioneer,” says historian Patrícia Hansen, who currently resides in Lisbon. While researching the digital collection of old newspapers at Brazil’s National Library, Hansen found an ad in the November 15, 1933, issue of the magazine O Tico-Tico, which later appeared in other publications; it introduced História do mundo para crianças [A children’s history of the world] as the most recent release by Companhia Editora Nacional and described the São Paulo writer as “the creator of children’s literature in Brazil.” “It was a marketing tactic that worked,” Hansen concludes. “They didn’t question the source.”

Read moreIntellectuals in action and Versos para os pequeninos (in Portuguese)

Reading fiction in childhood: 1880-1920 (nº 13/00454-1); Grant Mechanism Postdoctoral research grant; Principal Investigator Elias Thome Saliba (USP); Grantee Patrícia Tavares Raffaini; Investment R$240,377.83.

Scientific article
HANSEN, P. S. A biblioteca dos jovens brasileiros: Do caráter didático da literatura infantil aos usos dos livros pelas crianças no início do século XX. Escritos. Vol. 5, No. 5, pp. 79-96. 2011.

SOARES, G. P. Semear horizontes: Uma história da formação de leitores na Argentina e no Brasil, 1915-1954 [Sowing horizons: a history of the formation of readers in Argentina and Brazil]. Belo Horizonte: Editora UFMG, 2007.
ABREU, M. Os caminhos dos livros [The paths of books]. Campinas: Mercado de Letras/ALB/FAPESP, 2003, 382 pp.
COELHO, N. N. Panorama histórico da literatura infantil/juvenil [Historical panorama of children’s and young adult literature]. São Paulo: Amarilys, 2010, 320 pp.
SANDRONI, L. De Lobato a Bojunga – As reinações renovadas [From Lobato to Bojunga: mischief-making renewed]. Rio de Janeiro: Agir, 1987, 181 pp.
FERREIRA, N. S. de A. Um estudo sobre os versos para os pequeninos, de João Köpke [A study of João Köpke’s verses for little ones]. Campinas: FAPESP/Mercado de Letras, 2017, 276 pp.