In the beginning there really was NOT a children’s literature. Arguably, children’s literature is a relatively new phenomenon. But the earliest myths, legends, fables and tales are now dumped into the category of children’s literature. There is nothing child-centered about a tale exploring the origins of the universe or the seasons or of the founding of a great civilization. These earliest stories were attempts for people to come to some understanding of life the universe and everything, to store some of their native wisdom and values, to record their history.
In the porquoi (“why?”) tale “Why the Ant is Almost Cut in Two” the Kiowa explore a zoological phenomenon (the shape of the ant) and the larger natural realities of death and suffering. Perhaps some believed the story literally, most certainly the story can be read symbolically. In either case, contemporary adults are likely to dismiss the story as too fantastic with its talking ant and size-changing god Saynday who seems to want advice on how to run the universe. Still, this was not originally a children’s story; most myths were not invented for children.
So why are they now read almost exclusively by children? Perhaps because they are generally primitive, fantastic (fantasy, unless it’s in the form of a Tom Clancy or a Stephen King novel, is generally considered kids’ stuff), child-like tales. Also, the story teaches a lesson, and literature that is overtly preachy or teachy (?) is generally given over to children who seem (to some) to need lots of teaching. Finally, kids just plain like these stories.
This brings us to two truths about children’s literature: 1.Children’s literature is didactic (teaches/preaches); even the best of children’s literature is didactic. 2. Children acquire anything they like, whether it was designed for them or not.
To illustrate the first truth, one need only look at a few classic fables. The stories are delightful (I’m particularly fond of the Finnish sauna in “The Rooster and the Hen”), but clearly they are designed to teach; often the moral or lesson is included at the end of the fable (e.g. “It really does not pay to pretend to be what you are not”). These lessons are certainly true for adults, but the literature is reserved for children.
Excellent examples of the second truth appeared in the 17th and 18th centuries. Four books written for adults were among the most popular stories read by children (when they could get their hands on them): Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1600s), Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726). Readers of this lecture will probably be able to recall “adult” books they read (by choice) as children 🙂
And where/when did children’s literature as children’s literature begin? I vote for the 18th century England, but there are some other reasonable candidates.
In the early 8th century Aldhelm (a religious leader, sometimes referred to as “the father of Anglo-Latin poetry”) was said to have authored the first textbook (in Latin, of course) for children.
In the late 15th century (following the invention in the West of movable type), William Caxton, the first great English printer, printed Reynard the Fox (1481), The Fables of Aesop (1484), and Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur (1484)–all classics enjoyed to this day by children.
Johann Amos Comenius prodeced his Orbis Sensulium Pictus (1658 or 1659) which was a reference book for children, about children’s subjects, in English! The opening epigram (taken from Latin) of the book reads, “Come along. I will show you everything. I will name all things to you.” Comenius is often considered the earliest major figure in children’s literature.
In the 17th and 18th centuries Puritans in England and America dominated thinking about the education of children. The first book published in America for children was John Cotton’s Spiritual Milk for Boston Babes in Either England (1641, 1646). The purpose of the book was to teach the Bible, to guide behavior, to instill strict Puritan morals.
In the Late 17th century Charles Perrault and Jean de la Fontaine (called (le fablier) produced tales (really for the French court).
where the Newbury Award comes from
Then in 1744 in England (remember my vote?) John Newbery settled in London and opened The Bible and Sun in St. Paul’s churchyard. This was the first major press and bookstore specifically for children’s books. He also signed several notable writers to produce children’s books, and they were decently paid, AND THE BOOKS SOLD! Many see this as the defining event in the beginning of true children’s literature. Two of his works more popular works were Little Pretty Pocket Book (1744) and Little Goody Two Shoes (possibly written by Oliver Goldsmith, 1765)–the first novel written for children.
Recent Newbery Medal Winners
2007: The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron
2006: Criss Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins
2005: Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata (Young Readers/Simon & Schuster)
By the 19th century things were hopping in England and America:
- Edward Lear’s Book of Nonsense
- Frederich Hoffman’s Struwwelpeter
- Lewis Carrol’s Alice books
- Rudyard Kipling’s Just so Stories
- Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus Stories
- works by Robert L. Stevenson, George MacDonald, Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne
- illustrations by Randolph Caldecott, Kate Greenaway, Arthur Rackham, Sir John Tenniel, Walter Crane
And now, in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries?
A wonderful reversal: adults are now acquiring children’s literature. A growing number of smart, witty, lovely children’s books are so well-made, adults often buy them as presents for other adults. They’ve replaced the art-and-architecture coffee table books in some homes.
Brief History of Children’s Literature
CONCEPTS TO REMEMBER:
The Ancient World [ancient Rome; 50 BCE to 500 CE]
- oral tale; composed not to be read but to be heard
- children borrowed stories they enjoyed from ones adults told
- very few works composed for children
- 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]
- fewer children could read; little written for them
- childhood generally ignored and kept as short as possible
- Medieval Epics
- children had to be content with adult works which held some interest for them
- Beowulf, Song of Roland, El Cid
- Medieval Romances
- King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table [high middle ages: 12th-13th C]
- Robin Hood
- 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
- miracles were as real as taxes
- the literature was rich with childlike imagination, full of wonder, mystery, excitement
The European Renaissance [1500-1650 CE]
- The Printing Press [mid 15th C]
- movable type printing press
- possible to print books in quantities–reducing time, labor and cost; therefore more accessible
- most important technical innovation since the wheel
- increased literacy, growth of education, dissemination and advancement of knowledge
- Social Changes
- Crusades of 11th-12th C opened trade routes to the East as far as India
- strong central monarchies harnessed warring feudal lords–encouraged peaceful commerce and industry
- European arrival in the Western Hemisphere (“New World”) and wealth and opportunity
- created a new middle class of merchants which valued education
- Instructional Books
- children more literate
- reading materials were instructional books (Books of Courtesy) and works written primarily for adults
- still had Aesop’s Fables
- Book of Martyrs (1563), anti-Catholic work of horrific scenes of violent death for the sake of religion, most popular reading material for children
- Earliest children’s illustrated book–Latin through pictures (Orbis Sensualium Pictus)–1658, a Latin vocabulary book
- 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
- The Puritans
- knowledge of the Bible was necessary for every human being
- consequently, the ability to read and to understand the Bible was a principal requirement for Puritan children
- in 1636 established a college–Harvard–to emphasize their commitment to the primacy of education
- Bible stories were the staple of Puritan children
- horn books contained rudimentary language lessons (alphabet, numerals, etc.)
- The New Primer–first appearing 1685-90 and continuing in print until 1886. A Puritan publication introducing young children to the alphabet through rhymes (A: In Adam’s fall/We Sinned all)
- John Locke
- 1693 wrote a famous essay Thoughts Concerning Education, in which he formulated his notion that the minds of young children were similar to blank slates (tabula rasa) just waiting to be written upon and this instructed.
- 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
- sought their edification and also their enjoyment
- a collection of songs, moral tales, crude woodblock illustrations
- 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
vthrough the early 19th century there was little to distinguish children’s literature
- 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
- 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
- influenced by the Romantic Movement which idealized childhood and lead to a greater interest in children
- first-rate authors and illustrators began to turn their talents to children and their books
- 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
- greater appreciation for quality
- numerous book award established
- Newbery Medal, most distinguished American book written for children in a given year
- Caldecott Medal for the most distinguished American contribution to children’s book illustration