13 children die within the pages of this children’s book. It’s perhaps hard to imagine the appeal for children of accounts of other children dying, but when this book was first published, in 1671-72, attitudes to death were very different. Child mortality was high, attendance at church was governed by law, and belief in heaven and hell as real places rather than imaginary concepts was the norm. James Janeway wrote this book to provide examples from the lives and ‘joyful deaths’ of children so that the reader could learn how to avoid Hell and attain Heaven. Puritans like Janeway believed that every child was born sinful and had to accept God, and live a pious life, in order to earn salvation. In the Preface, Janeway states:
How art thou affected, poor Child, in the Reading of this Book? Have you shed ever a tear since you begun reading? Have you been by your self upon you knees; and begging that God would make you like these blessed Children? or are you as you use to be, as careless & foolish and disobedient and wicked as ever?
When the book was first printed it was not illustrated, but later editions extended the work with prayers and added woodcuts to enliven the text. The book was still in print in 1875, and its popularity suggests that children may have enjoyed it – perhaps in a rather ghoulish way; perhaps because the pious children described in the book were shown in positions of spiritual authority within their family; or possibly just because parents still wished their children to learn the lessons Janeway had been endeavouring to teach.