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Axel Scheffler
Photograph: Axel Scheffler

The British Library wants kids to make tiny books like the Brontë children did

Create a tiny masterpiece of your own to contribute to the National Library of Miniature Books


Not many people will remember this, but in the early ’00s, there were adverts on TV for slightly deranged collectors’ items called ‘mini classics’. These were Lilliputian versions of classic novels and plays, recreated at 67mm x 52mm, sold with a magnifying glass so you could read the microscopic text. You could buy Dickens’s ‘A Christmas Carol’, or Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ and Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ from The Miniature Classics Library, to store together on a pocket-sized bookshelf. 

Photograph: The Infant's Cabinet of Trades, created by John Marshall, c. 1802
Photograph: The Infant's Cabinet of Trades, created by John Marshall, c. 1802

But the history of tiny books goes back much further. In around 1800, publisher John Marshall created The Infant’s Library, a set of little books designed for children to read to their dolls. Each was no longer than a matchbox. When author Charlotte Brontë was 12 years old, she self-published her first work by stitching together a miniature book of a short story written for her little sister, Anne. The Brontë children continued to make smallscale ‘novels’ out of salvaged sugar wrappers, designed for a collection of toy soldiers, each filled with their minuscule, spidery handwriting. 

Photograph: Brontë little book, courtesy of The British Library
Photograph: Brontë little book, courtesy of The British Library

Now the British Library is encouraging people to do as the Brontës did, and start creating shrunken books from home. A full activity guide has been uploaded to the library website, offering ideas and advice for creating a book 57mm high and 47mm wide (‘around the same length as a mouse’s tail’). The idea is to share the handmade miniature books on Twitter (@BL_Learning using the hashtag #DiscoveringChildrensBooks). 

Anna Lobbenberg, lead producer of the British Library’s Digital Learning Programme says the idea is to ‘help young learners gain confidence in their relationships with books, partly thanks to the fact that they get to step out of their roles as learners and instead can play the part of authors, illustrators, bookbinders, librarians and teachers’.

By taking part, these home bookbinders will be contributing to a digital National Library of Miniature Books for the toy world. ‘We will commission an illustrator to create a bookshelf into which we will Photoshop the work children make in response to our call-out’, Lobbenberg explains. For children who do not have access to computers, the library is working on a printed pack which can be posted to teachers around the country. There are also plans to hand them out at food banks and in sheltered accommodation, to reach as many children as possible.  

Jacqueline Wilson
Photograph: Jacqueline Wilson

Illustrator of ’The Gruffalo’ Axel Scheffler and writer Jacqueline Wilson have already contributed teensy-weensy hand-drawn texts of their own, along with videos of themselves doing readings from their tiny pages. Listen to Scheffler read his story about Fipsy, a squirrel that’s adjusting to life in lockdown by placing a rainbow drawing in the window of his tree trunk home.  

The campaign is aimed at children, but don’t let that stop you indulging your fascination with all things mini. Writing a whole novel in lockdown is a pretty daunting task. So start small, really small, and create an itsy-bitsy book of your own. 

Prefer your books regular size? Find an independent London bookseller for your next order.

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