Robert Louis Stevenson: igniting the imagination of young readers

August 1, 2022 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, journalism, writers, writing.

One book that should be on the shelf of every pre-teen is a well-illustrated copy of Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. For more than 140 years, Treasure Island has fired the imagination of young readers all over the world. 

Its central character, Jim Hawkins, is a young boy who finds himself in the middle of a cast of interesting and sometimes dangerous characters caught up in a situation where lives and treasures are at stake.

The location is a pirate ship and a faraway island, all designed to excite the thoughts of children who imagine adventures for their own lives. It is, in the words of G.K. Chesterton, the “realization of an ideal,” a great story grippingly told.

The book has given us many things, including the stereotypes that we have of pirates and buccaneers, the romance of sailing the high seas, and the independent thinking that even children can show in difficult situations. Another concept that it embedded into our cultural brains is the idea of the treasure map, a guide to some far-off place where hidden between rocks or under soil is a chest full of jewels and golden coins.

Indeed, Robert Louis Stevenson’s original thought in coming up with the idea for the book was a map. Stevenson, who suffered from bronchial trouble for most of his life, was on a holiday in a cottage in the Scottish highlands with his wife and stepson, a young man named Lloyd Osbourne.

Lloyd had been coloring a map that he had drawn with a set of watercolors when Stevenson came into the room. The author, reports the stepson, was an ever-affectionate father and always took an interest in what Lloyd was doing.

Lloyd later wrote:

I shall never forget the thrill of Skeleton Island, Spyglass Hill, nor the hard stirring climax of the three red crosses! And the greater climax still when he wrote down the words “Treasure Island” at the top right hand corner!

As Stevenson worked on the map, he began to form a story around it. He was much influenced by the works of Washington Irving, Daniel Defoe, Sir Walter Scott, James Fenimore Cooper, and many others in constructing the plot and the characters of the story. The original title was The Sea Cook: A Story for Boys. It was serialized in Young Folks magazine in 1881 and 1882 under the title of “Treasure Island or the Mutiny of the Hispaniola.” The author was originally named “Captain George North.”

The story was so popular that a London publisher wanted to bring it out in book form. Stevenson sent off the manuscript to the publishers, and separately he sent the original map of Treasure Island. The publishers never received the map, and it was never found.

The loss of the map was both frustrating and heartbreaking for Stevenson. The book had to have a map, and Stevenson painfully reconstructed it from the story in the book, but he was never satisfied with that map. He sent it off to the publisher, and that is the one that was used in the first edition of the book.

What happened to that second map?

The answer is that we do not know. The publisher lost or discarded it. 

More than 40 years after the original publication of the book in 1883, the American author Alfred Edward Newton claimed to be the owner of the map and to have it in his vast collection of books and papers. That collection was auctioned off after his death. If he did indeed have that second map, it too has been lost to us.

Treasure Island was Robert Louis Stevenson’s first commercial success. He continued to write and was able to leave readers with great pieces of literature such as Kidnapped, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, A Child’s Garden of Verses, and the Master of Ballantrae. As a native of Scotland, Stevenson saw himself as a great storyteller in the tradition of Sir Walter Scott.

Stevenson was a prolific author, turning out dozens of poems, short stories, political journalism articles, plays, and novels. He was also an incessant traveler and observer. He was always seeking a place where his health would improve and unfortunately never finding it. He died on the island of Samoa in 1894 when he was only 44 years old.

The literary abundance of Stevenson’s work has placed him today in the great triumvirate of Scottish authors that include Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns. His Treasure Island and other stories will live forever in the hearts of children who seek adventure.

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