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.

Top Ten from SCBWI-OK 2014

Top Ten from SCBWI-OK 2014

Natalie Bright


The Oklahoma chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators held a meeting in Oklahoma City. If you aspire to write stories for children, this group is a must. www.scbwi.org

SCBWI hosts a huge con in August in LA and a NYC con in February of every year. If you’re low on funds or time and can’t make the journey, consider attending one of the local workshops close to you. I usually make at least one of the Oklahoma meetings every year, which is just up the interstate from where I live. Time and family are the issues for me, but several nights away is doable. Sure you could go shopping or take a vacation, but how about making an investment in your writing career instead?

You’ll meet creative writers, editors, agents, come away with tons of inspiration, and find new friends who love stories just as much as you do. Now here’s the big secret that only conference goers know: most of the big publishing houses are closed to un-agented submissions but these editors make an exception for attendees when they speak. They’re furnished with a list of names and those people can submit a manuscript and bypass the slush pile. Did you get that? You have to go. It’s only for those who attend the meeting. What a fantastic opportunity!

Here’s my top ten from SCBWI Oklahoma 2014:

  1. Twist the cliché character and turn what we’ve already seen on it’s side. Tricia Lawrence, Erin Murphy Literary Agency.
  2. Have you considered the visual language of comics? They can say one thing and show the opposite. Colleen AF Venable, FirstSecond Books.
  3. Figure out your character’s pain point. Ask them questions, and then torture them. Tricia Lawrence, Erin Murphy Literary Agency.
  4. Use family to create characters. Family dynamics shows a character as who they really are. Andrew Harwell, Harper Collins.
  5. Study the work of craft. Not just reading. Take it apart and look at stories from a writer’s perspective. Melissa Manlove, Chronicle Children’s.
  6. Trend chasing books usually fall flat. Challenge yourself to look outside your day-to-day existence. Which truths would make great fiction? Kristen Miller-Vincent, D4E0 Literary Agency.
  7. Family relationships can bring more emotion to create empathy and sympathy for your character. Andrew Harwell, Harper Collins.
  8. Give your character an objective in each scene. Pit them against an obstacle. Liza Kaplan, Philomel Books.
  9. Use those familiar family conflicts that we’ve all experienced, but amp them by 1000 times for your book. Andrew Harwell, Harper Collins.
  10. Your brain is a machine made for generating ideas and ideas come to writers like lightening bolts. More importantly, it is the lightening bolt that hits somebody who has been habitually cranking the generator. Those are the best ones. Melissa Manlove, Chronicle.

Thanks to SCBWI Oklahoma for a great conference. I can hardly wait until September!




By Natalie Bright

Do you know about this group?  If you aspire to write for children, this group is a MUST.

The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators is an international professional organization with over 70 regions throughout the world. Closest to my area, I try to attend at least one regional conference every year.

One Day of Inspiration

The recent North Texas conference in September proved to be an inspirational day with creative writers. The tools shared for story craft were exceptional, and the presentations were well worth my time and travel expense. The main reason I made the trip to Dallas several weeks ago was to hear the founder of SCBWI.

Lin Oliver organized the very first children’s writers conference along with co-worker Steve Mooser, in 1972. Before that, there wasn’t any resources for writers who wanted to craft stories for children. Lin knows this because she tried to find one. A managing board was formed from the faculty who provided how-to talks on craft to about fifty people. Lin mentioned that her own mother made the potato salad for that first gathering. Today SCBWI has grown to 25,000 members representing regions all over the world. From an organization with beginnings in volunteerism, friendship and a great love for children’s literature, SCBWI has become a powerful force in the field.


Participating in an organization is important for your writing career. Not only can you stay updated on market trends, story craft techniques, and the publishing bizz in general, you can talk to other writers. There’s nothing more inspiring than lunch with 100+ children’s authors. The creative energy is electrifying, and you’ll come home armed with confidence and with renewed energy to keep writing.

For more information go to scbwi.org.