A Brief History of Children’s Literature


A Brief History of Children’s Literature

Natalie Bright

We are blogging about what we write this month on WordsmithSix. Some of the stories in my head are for children.

While cleaning out cabinets, I discovered an old textbook and since I also write for children, the history of Kid Lit was fascinating to me. “Tell me a story” is as old as time, and generations have passed down embellished family tales for centuries. I hope you find this interesting.

The Ancient World [ancient Rome; 50 BCE to 500 CE]

  • oral tale; composed not to be read but to be heard
  • children listened to poems of Homer, the Iliad, the Trojan War, the Odyssey
  • adults might be drawn by love story; children by adventure, monsters
  • Aesop’s Fables–animal tales with pointed morals

The Middle Ages [500 to 1500 CE]

  • Reading
    • fewer children could read; little written for them
    • childhood generally ignored and kept as short as possible
  • Fables and other tales
    • The Deeds of the Romans [late 13th C] collection of moral tales and fables; sources of plots for centuries]
    • animals’ stories have always been favorites of children
    • biblical stories; lives of saints; local legends
    • no distinction between fantasy and reality; storytellers freely mingled magic, enchantment, the ludicrous, and the serious
    • the literature was rich with childlike imagination, full of wonder, mystery, excitement

The European Renaissance [1500-1650 CE]

  • Instructional Books
    • children more literate
    • reading materials were instructional books (Books of Courtesy) and works written primarily for adults
    • still had Aesop’s Fables
    • by end of the 17th century social changes were well underway and there was a path cleared for a genuine literature for children.

The 17th Century

  • childhood began to take on new importance
  • adults began to recognize the special needs of childhood, including the need for childhood reading
  • two specific influences brought a heightened sense of special needs of the child
    • Religious: rise of Puritanism, that placed special emphasis on the individual’s need to tend to his or her own salvation
    • Intellectual: work of John Locke, the English philosopher who believed every child possessed the capacity for leaning and that it was the responsibility of adults to see to the proper education of children
  • Bunyan, Defoe, Swift
    • children continued to adopt certain adult works of literature–Pilgrim’s Progress, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels

The 18th and Early 19th Centuries

  • John Newbery
    • Little Pretty Pocket Book (1744) first significant publication for children
  • Rousseau and the Moral Tale
    • expressed his ideas about education in Emile (1762), emphasized the importance of moral development–through simple living
    • books taught children how to be good and proper human beings
    • children¹s writing was considered inferior to adult writing and therefore mostly composed by women
  • Rise of the Folktales
    • 1729–Tales of Mother Goose by Charles Parrault, retellings including Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty
    • throughout the eighteenth century, more and more retellings appeared
    • beginning of 19th century–Grimm brothers
    • folktales were not considered expressly for children
    • some adults felt them unsuitable for children as they contained adult themes, alarming frankness and violence, lack of moral messages however children, nevertheless, continued to read and love the old tales

The Victorians: The Golden Age

  • during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) children’s literature first blossomed as first-rate authors and illustrators began to turn their talents to children and their books
  • Fantasies
    • 1865, Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson–math prof at Oxford) published Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and began a new era in children¹s literature
    • first significant publication for children that abandoned all pretense of instruction and was offered purely for enjoyment
    • Kingsley’s The Water Babies (1863); MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin (1872); Baum’s The Wizard of Oz (1900); Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908).
  • Adventure Stories (for boys)
    • especially popular Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883); Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1976) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)
    • British children seemed to prefer stories set in faraway and unfamiliar places; Americans more attracted to adventure stories set in America and rags-to-riches stories
    • Dime Novels–sensational, lacking style and depth, cheap–were immensely popular
  • School Stories (for boys)
    • antics of boys at boarding schools: Tom Brown’s School Days (1857)
    • school stories (virtually always coming-of-age tales) occasionally appear in the 20th century, such as The Chocolate War
  • Domestic Stories (for girls)
    • tales of home and family life focusing on the activities of a virtuous heroine, usually coming from dire straits and achieving good fortune and ultimate happiness in the person of a handsome young man
    • Alcott’s Little Women (1868) and Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables (1908)
  • Children’s Book Illustration
    • books of 18th century and earlier either lacked illustrations altogether or contained crude woodblock illustration–serious artists did not draw for children’s books
    • At the end of the 19th century, changes in publishing and printing attracted great illustrators
    • by end of the 19th century, stunningly illustrated children’s books were available at reasonable prices
    • by 1st quarter of 20th century, libraries were designating children’s rooms–or at least children¹s shelves–children’s literature had at last come of age.

Twentieth Century: Widening Worlds

  • greater diversity in children’s books
  • picture books to poetry to fantasy to realistic fiction to informational books

BIO: Natalie Bright is the author of a middle grade series for kids, TROUBLE IN TEXAS: Book 1 Hangin’ Day; Book 2 The Great Train Caper; and coming soon Book 3 Murder in the Morning. She also writers true rescue horse stories for kids, easy readers for 3rd/4thgrade level: Flash: The Story of Meand TAZ & THE BIG FLAPPY THING.