In April 1953, eleven-year old Brian McLaughlin wrote to psychiatrist Fredric Wertham in response to the latter’s article in Reader’s Digest, “Comic Books – Blueprints for Delinquency.” The boy asserted confidently: “Anybody that goes out and kills someone because he read a comic book is a simple minded idiot. Sound silly? So does your item.” McLaughlin was not the only young person to critique Wertham’s argument about comics: dozens more wrote him in 1953 and 1954.

In the late 1940s and culminating in 1954 with the publication of Wertham’s book Seduction of the Innocent and the televised hearings on comics held by a United States subcommittee, comic books were the most contested form of print. Young readers could not get enough of them, purchasing more than a billion new comic books issues a year in the early 1950s. Adult critics such as Wertham feared, that by reading these four-color pamphlets full of stories of superheroes, cowboys, and jungle queens, young people would stunt their cultural development, ruin their eyesight, and fall into lives of depravity.

This presentation draws in part from Wertham’s manuscript collection at the Library of Congress and the archival record of the 1954 Senate hearings to document and analyze some of the ways young readers challenged and protested adults’ understanding of comic book reading. Carol Tilley, Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, did not expect to find letters from young comics readers when she explored these collections. The discovery of these narratives has prompted me to extend this investigation into locating more descriptions of children’s reading experiences – many of which are unfiltered and unmediated by adults—that can serve as potent evidence to enrich scholarship in children’s print culture.”


Carol L. Tilley is an Assistant Professor in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where she teaches courses in comics’ reader’s advisory, media literacy, and youth services librarianship. Part of her scholarship focuses on the intersection of young people, comics, and libraries, particularly in the United States during the mid-twentieth century. Her research has been published in journals including the Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology (JASIST)Information & Culture: A Journal of History, and Children’s Literature in Education. A former high school librarian, she is also co-editor of School Library Research, the peer-reviewed online journal of the American Association of School Librarians.

Select Articles Available at UBC Library

Peoples, B. & Tilley, C. (2011). Podcasts as an Emerging Information Resource. College & Undergraduate Libraries, 18:1, 44-57. Link:

Tilley, C. (2012). Seducing the Innocent: Fredric Wertham and the Falsifications That Helped Condemn Comics. Information & Culture: A Journal of History, Volume 47, Number 4, 2012, 383-413. Link:

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Arts and Artists in Children’s Books Bibliography

A work of historical fiction, this graphic novel explores the technological imagination of the 19th century from the vantage of two extraordinary entrepreneurs. Readers encounter an alternate world that once existed: a bygone world of gaslight, sideshows and horse-drawn cabs to be sure, but also a forward-looking world shot through with experimental media, profit-oriented entertainments for the masses, and grandiose visions of the future. Written by media historian Jillian Lerner and illustrated by Marc Olivent, The Peerless Prodigies of P.T. Barnum entices us to recollect how identities were made and ideas were hawked in a pre-electronic age. Nicholas Meyer is desperate to invent himself and meet the celebrated inventors of his day. It is 1857 and New York City is awash with young men who are comparably wily and determined. But Nicholas is something of a technical prodigy, with a background in clockmaking and a keen instinct for publicity. He jumps at the chance to work in the studio of celebrity portrait photographer Mathew Brady and acquaint himself with the outlandish attractions of P.T. Barnum’s American Museum. Spurred on by mentors and rivals, talking automatons and bearded ladies, Nicholas explores the emerging forms of photography, robotics, showbusiness and advertising.

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