Children's Literature has evolved over the years in response to the world's changing ideas about children and childhood.
In the Beginning
Prior to the 1600's, children were not given their own literature. Children were viewed as small adults, and with the low survival rate for children, were not really considered when it came to development of literature specifically for them. Most stories and news were carried by spoken word by minstrels and bards who strolled from town to town, and regional differences in common tales can be seen today. The stories themselves were a mixture of poems, songs, tales and religious vignettes designed for the general audience...that is, adults. It wasn't until later that these stories became codified when some printers began to publish them in hard copy.
Most of society's literature was designed for entertainment, not designed for education or instruction. The entertainment side began to make itself evident when William Caxton, an English printer, began to publish stories from the oral tradition in the 1400's. Some of these were instructive lessons for children. (Later on, Charles Perrault in 1697 (France) and Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm in the 1820's (Germany) collected many of these lessons and codified them into stories specifically for children that many of us are familiar with today.) These were stories that held the audience through plot and character. The other type of literature, the instructive literature, was based on religious ideals. In the 1600s, Puritans began creating works specifically designed for the instruction of children's behavior. The Puritans believed that children were born in sin, and only through instruction could they achieve salvation. Thus, the material written for children was specifically designed to change the child from a hell-bound heathen to that of a good "godly" person. Essentially, the Puritans felt that in order to change or affect behavior, one had to be pushed or pulled into it, and the material written for children was rather dry and harsh. This began to change in the late 1600s when John Locke proposed the notion that a softer approach might be more effective in getting children to change their behavior... to lead them rather than to pull or push them. He was quite fond of material such as Aesop's fables, which presented life lessons, but used familiar animal figures symbolically in the material in order to present the reader with life lessons rather than dire predictions of hellfire or promises of eternal life in heaven.
Middle Class Life
With the rise of a middle class, especially in England, a new type of literature for children was created, published and distributed specifically for both the education and entertainment of children. The most prominent of these was John Newberry, who created pocketbooks in the mid-1700s that included some Mother Goose, some folk rhymes, including a little Shakespeare, as well as the retelling of standard tales from culture. In France, Rousseau presented a view exactly opposite to that of the Puritans... he proposed that children were a blank slate... a purity that was tainted by living in the world. His proposal was that children under the age of 12 were not to read any material, but were rather to experience the world with a chaperone of sorts whose purpose was merely to explain, but not direct. In other words, the adult was there for consultation, but all of the decisions as to what the child was to do were left up to the child. From this, a series of books that remain popular well into the 20th century arose in which simple stories, usually focusing on two specific characters, one good and one bad, presented the reader with the various options for action and reaction a person might take, as well as the consequences thereof. Very often, the BAD character was shown the light and modified his behavior by the end of the story. However, the material was not so direct as to make a specific didactic statement, but rather to show by example how one could be successful and happy in the world.
A New View
From the Puritan tradition came the SUNDAY SCHOOL MOVEMENT begun in 1780 which is essentially was a series of stories written for poverty-stricken children to instruct them as to how to live a moral life. However, with the Romantic movement and the rising Victorian middle class came the new view of the child... it was a belief and understanding that children had a world of their own, as equally complex and demanding as that of the adult world, but clearly separate from the adult world. It was a notion that childhood was a time of innocence that was to be nurtured and reflected in a special kind of literature that is still popular in the 21st century. The material from the Brothers Grimm and material from Hans Christian Andersen were translated into English, and others created new material specifically designed for the sensibilities of children that focused on a child's imagination and creativity. By the mid-1800s there were children's fantasy books, including the poetry and prose written by Lewis Carroll, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain and Louisa May Alcott. The characters were realistic, the plots interesting and exciting, and the material was obviously written for the juvenile reader. There was no overt moral message in the material, as much as the reflection of the attitudes and perspectives of children. Children's literature subdivided into various categories that mimicked that of standard literature written for adults... adventure, drama, fantasy, humor and even romance.
By the mid 20th century, children's literature was in full swing. Characters and plots were vivid, well developed and clearly designed for a very specific audience. This material included Mary Poppins, The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia and Charlotte's Web. This comprised the first Golden Age of children's literature. The second Golden Age of children's literature, spanning from the 1940s to the 1960s, seemed to ignore the understanding that while the material reflected that many of the values of the previous eras, the world was changing rapidly, and by the 1960s there was a new sensibility developing that reflected the experience of two world wars, the effect of television and automobiles on culture, and a new understanding of the life of children... an understanding that reflected that the children were well aware of the world's problems and often had to deal with them in their own ways. By the mid-1960s, there was a new group of writers who created material for children that had elements that were completely different from traditional children's literature, including fantasy, nonsense and humor, which had existed before, but with added elements of defiance, trouble and even frightening imagery and plot lines... in other words, the works reflected some of the darker aspects of humanity and childhood. This new material broached previously taboo issues such as racism, sexuality, poverty and other personal and social problems.
And Then Some Other Stuff Happened....
While the new children's literature is as strong as ever, there has been a resurgence of the more traditional material, including material from the 1950s and especially material that specifically is designed to instruct on specific moral or religious grounds. Moreover, there has been a recognition that the material written by children...including street rhymes and raps...are a reflection of children's literature as much as the material written by adults for children. As with any living, breathing entity, children's literature will continue to evolve and reflect both the culture of the adults that write for children as well as the children for whom the material is written.
Children's Literature Around the World
Major Figures in Children's Literature
The Brothers Grimm
Dr. Seuss, long version
Children's Literature Modes and Presentation Styles
Jokes, Riddles and Tongue Twisters
Myths and Legends
Saltman, Judith. Trade and Plumbcake Forever. The Riverside Anthology of Children's Literature, 6th ed. Houghton Mifflin, 1985.
© T. T. Eiland, August, 2006
Last modified: August 25, 2006