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To Instruct and Delight

A History of Children’s Literature

As a term, “children’s literature” does not easily fit into any cultural or academic category; rather, it is a diverse and paradoxical area of study. Its richness is reflected in the vast amount of theories that permeate and surround the term. From feminist studies to new historicism, literary theory places the child/text/context relationship on varying ideological and political axes. The reconceptualization of its history and the postmodern growth of radical alternative literary “histories” further complicate a retelling of the history of children’s literature. Consequently, it becomes not only a difficult but also a contentious task to both identify general features that constitute children’s literature and trace its history. But it is because its boundaries are so ambiguous that children’s literature is so exciting and rich.

Defining children’s literature initially seems simple: literature for children. Yet, identifying the parameters of the term “literature,” as Karin Lesnik-Olberstien observes, has caused “oceans of ink” to be spilt (Hunt 1999). And, crucially, what does it mean “literature for children”? If it is “for” children, is it still a children’s book if it is read by adults or if it is an “adult” book also read by children? Indeed, one of the key problems of defining “children’s literature” is that adult and children’s literature constantly slip into each other. If these two terms present a problem, then “children” alone proves to be equally problematic. Childhood changes from place and time and can be radically different in non-Western counties. If Karin Lesnik-Olberstein is right that children’s literature is a “category of books the existence of which absolutely depends on supported relationships with a particular reading audience: children,” then children’s literature is defined by audience in a way other literature tends not to be (Hunt 1999). Yet if we argue that a recognizable children’s literature requires a recognizable childhood, then children’s literature as a formal category would go back only as far as the eighteenth century when the concept of “childhood” was philosophically created.

Despite the problems defining “children’s literature,” we can identify two recurring themes in tracing its history: (1) children’s literature is a constant battle of dulcis et utile (or, pleasure and instruction) and (2) children’s literature is a site of multiplicity and intertextuality that absorbs and assimilates anything it likes.

The Greek and Roman Eras: 50 B.C.-A.D. 500

The Greeks and Romans treated children as creatures to be trained for adult life and, consequently, the classical literature for the most part really had nothing that could be considered a children’s book in the sense of a book written to give pleasure to a child. Because there were very few works composed for children, children borrowed from stories they enjoyed listening to such as the Iliad, the Odyssey, and Aesop’s Fables. Plato specifically mentions children’s education in Book VI of The Republic. Though he holds rather liberal views on education and directly states that children’s lessons should “take the form of play,” Plato held less liberal views of stories. He would have censored legends and myths which he thought encouraged bad behavior and instead he would “employ storytellers and poets” who are severe rather than amusing (Townsend 1996).

The Middle Ages: 500-1500

During the Middle Ages, children were not highly valued--at least, not by present-day standards. They were thought of as adult members of the family, and personal affection was secondary to the family’s economic well-being. Children, especially if they were poor, spent most of their day laboring and, consequently, few of them could read. In addition, before the introduction of the printing press, books were rare and precious (Bingham and Scholt 1980). Amusing books written specifically for children would have been economically and psychologically impossible (Townsend 1996). Children would probably have listened to adult works such as Beowulf, Song of Roland, El Cid, King Arthur, and Robin Hood. Children and adults also enjoyed folk tales and literature rich with fantasy and imagination, as myth was the way they made sense of their world. While there were no manuscripts devoted specifically to “children’s literature,” there were manuscripts that embodied lessons for children, specifically in the courtesy books. Though these manuscripts were written in mnemonic rhyme, they were strictly for instruction, not entertainment (Townsend 1996).

The Renaissance: 1500-1650

Several developments during the Renaissance prompted a range of social changes that would begin to pave the way for a genuine literature for children. Perhaps the most significant development was the invention of the movable-type printing press that made it possible to print books in quantities, increasing literacy and dissemination of knowledge. The crusades of the eleventh and twelfth centuries opened trade routes and introduced new texts into Europe which in turn furthered knowledge and literacy. In addition, the development of the “New World” created wealth and opportunity that spawned a new middle class of merchants who now had the time and the means to pursue education (Bingham and Scholt 1980). As children in particular became more literate, more was printed for them--though nearly all were school books or books of morals or manners, such as the Book of Martyrs, an anti-Catholic work with bloody scenes of violent deaths (Hunt 1995). Johann Amos Comenius published one of the earliest children’s illustrated books in 1658 titled Orbis Pictus or Visible World, though the book’s aim was essentially didactic. Childhood during the Renaissance was not a time of innocence, and Comenius showed life as it really was in all of its war, torture, disease, and deformities (Hunt 1995).

The Rise of Puritanism and John Locke: Late 1600s

During the seventeenth century, two factors redefined childhood: the rise of Puritanism and John Lock’s philosophy of tabula rasa, or the mind as a blank slate. Puritanism placed an emphasis on the individual’s own salvation, which required that even children needed to read and understand the Bible. Children in particular were viewed as young souls to be saved or, more probably, to be damned. The Puritans, therefore, directed a good deal of literature at children in the hopes of preparing them for death and rescuing them from hellfire. While their children were not appreciated and understood according to present-day notions, Puritans were very much concerned with their children, especially their spiritual lives (Bingham and Scholt 1980). Authors such as James Janeway, Abraham Chear, and John Bunyan wrote “good godly books” about children facing death and hell. The first book published in America for children was John Cotton’s Spiritual Milk for Boston in either England (1641), which was eventually included in the most dominant American text, the New England Primer. While the first widely distributed texts for children were by Puritan writers, these texts were not really “literature” but still more instruction written for children (Hunt 2001).

In 1693, John Locke published his Some Thoughts Concerning Education in which he argued that the child was not corrupt at birth but was a blank page (tabula rasa) waiting to be taught and filled and molded. This shift in philosophy prompted a change in the concepts of childhood. Locke advocated a milder form of teaching in which children should be given “some easy pleasant book.” Indeed, by the end of the century, the child became a new creature altogether (Hunt 1994).

Beginning of Children’s Literature: Late 1700s

The 1740s are commonly regarded as the decade in which both the English novel and the English children’s book were born (Townsend 13). Changes in philosophical thought as well as the rise and growing refinement of the middle class allowed children to become more sheltered and more innocent. In addition, as the novel (which was generally viewed as more sophisticated fiction) began to replace more “unsophisticated” fantastic tales, a space for children’s literature was created. John Newbery (1713-1767) did more than anyone at the time to take advantage of this space and essentially created the genre known today as children’s literature. Newbery’s Pretty Pocket Book (1744), which pays tribute to the “great Mr. Locke,” was the first significant publication for children that sought both their edification and also enjoyment. It was also one of the first commercial, mixed-media texts that contained pictures, rhymes, and games. While Newbery wrote many children’s books, his greatest significance is that he developed the children’s side of his publishing business so that this class of book could be seen as worth the artistic and financial investment usually devoted only to adult books. Besides Goody Two-Shoes, most of his books are now forgotten, though his name lives on in the John Newbery Medal, which is annually awarded by the American Library Association to the author of the year's outstanding American book for children (Hunt 1995).

France's Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s (1712-1778) influence on children’s literature is comparable to Locke’s. While Locke wanted a rational and more liberal approach to education, Rousseau’s text Emile described raising a boy in naturalness and simplicity. Rousseau advocated the language of the “noble savage,” the unspoiled nature of the child. While Lock argued children were the tabula rasa upon which ideas could be impressed, Rousseau countered by saying children developed at their own pace and on their own terms. Though Locke's and Rousseau’s philosophies seem opposed, they both highlight the role of children’s books in the creation of childhood (Townsend 1996).

The Golden Age of Children’s Literature: Late 1800s

As childhood came to be more valued in the nineteenth century, children’s books became more respectful towards the child and imagination and less directly didactic. While the didactic side of children’s literature could still be seen in the works of Peter Parley and the materialistic utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham, there was a gradual move away from heavy moralizing as seen in Edward Lear’s A Book of Nonsense (1846) and John Ruskin’s the King of the Golden River (1851), as well as in the publication of Grimm’s folk tales and Hans Christian Anderson’s stories (Hunt 1995). The real change in writing for children was an empathetic rather than directive narrative relationship with children in the works of Lewis Carroll, George MacDonald, and Charles Kingsley. These writers abandoned all pretense of instruction and offered enjoyment for children; any didacticism (which is probably impossible to escape) was decidedly secondary. Furthermore, books such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883) and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (1884) jettisoned all moral attitudes which previous writers for children thought proper to maintain (Hunt 2001). As a total liberation from didacticism, these texts broke the rules for children’s writing by blurring traditional rules of right and wrong.

Children’s literature at this time also reflected geographical and gender differences. In Britain, children seemed to enjoy stories that were set in faraway fantastical places while American children enjoyed rags-to-riches stories set in America. In addition, many children’s literature subtexts argued that a man’s place was to win wars, build nations, and develop wealth, while a woman’s place was in the home where she was to remain pious, sexually submissive, and domesticated. That isn’t to say that girls didn’t read and enjoy adventure stories, but it remained the function of girls' literature to live a more virtuous life, as seen in Elizabeth Wether’s Wide, Wide World (1850) and Maria Cummins’s The Lamp Lighter (1854). Louisa May Alcott’s world in Little Women (1869) perhaps offers a more relaxed picture of the stiff and authoritarian stereotype of family life, but it still sets the fictional pattern for girlhood in the later nineteenth century where the heroin is virtuous, comes from humble beginnings, achieves good fortunes, finds happiness in a handsome young man, and more or less grows into a sweet and submissive woman (Hunt 1995).

An Explosion of Multimedia and Intertextuality: 1900s to Today

The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have seen a great increase in the diversity in children’s books, from picture books to flap books to online multimedia texts. In the early 1900s, childhood (at least in the middle class) became increasingly protected; consequently, explicit unpleasantness that would have been seen in, for example, Foxes’ Book of Martyrs, was rare. Instead, fear was transposed into fantasy, such as in Lucy Boston’s The Children of the Green Knowe or Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea (Hunt 1995). In the 1960s, fantasy continued to dominate, perhaps due in part to the drug culture. In the 1970s and 1980s, children's literature became more materialistic and realistic. The two outstanding books of these decades were Robert Cormeirs’ The Chocolate War and Judy Blume’s Forever, which gave a bleak view of school life and an explicit account of teenage sex, respectively. The 1990s saw an increase in the number of books dealing with social realism, such as Robert Swindells' Stone Cold (1994). In addition, the end of the twentieth century produced parodies of traditional folk tales, such as Fiona French’s Snow White in New York (1986) and Jack Zipes’ The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood (1993) and his collection of feminist fairy tales.

Multimedia is opening up exciting new possibilities in children’s literature today and, in a few years’ time, children’s books may appear in ways we can hardly imagine. According to Peter Hunt (1995), children’s books are becoming less “literary and reflective” and more “dynamic,” which perhaps is a reflection of competition from other media. He also suggests that internationalism in the form of the Internet may modify writing for children. Still, the international success of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter series suggest that traditional children’s books are healthy and lasting.

-- Posted January 29, 2008


Bingham, Jane and Grayce Scholt. 1980. Fifteen Centuries of Children’s Literature: An Annotated Chronology of British and American Works in Historical Context. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Hunt, Peter. 1994. An Introduction to Children’s Literature. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

------. 2001. Children’s Literature. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

Hunt, Peter, ed. 1995. Children’s Literature: An Illustrated History. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

------. 1999. Understanding Children’s Literature. New York, NY: Routledge.

Townsend, John Rowe. 1996. Written for Children: An Outline of English-Language Children’s Literature. Lanham, MA: Scarecrow Press.