July 31, 2010

A Brief History of Children's Literature

The Odyssey of Homer

All literature begins with storytelling. In fact, storytelling is an important part of every world culture. Long ago, people did not distinguish between adult and children's literature. Children heard the same stories as their parents ... tales of heroes as retold by Homer in The Iliad and The Odyssey and, of course, the tales gods, demons and talking animals. These are found all over the world.

Western civilization has its roots in the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, which flourished between 500 BC and 400 AD. This was the Classical Period. Our culture is filled with references to Classical stories; we often speak of "Archilles' heel", the "Midas touch" and "Pandora's box". Planets, galazies and stars ... as well as track shoes and Tiger Woods' shirts ... all bear names of classical gods and heroes. There are part of our cultural heritage.

Arthur Drawing the Sword
From the Stone
THE MIDDLE AGES ~ 476 AD to 1453

After the Roman Empire fell in 476 AD, European civilization declined. The period between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance (in the 14th century) is called the Middle Ages because it fell between the Classical and Renaissance periods.

During the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church was dominant and responsible for education. But education was a luxury and few people could read or write. Books were very expensive as they had to be copied by hand on expensive parchment. So, just as it was in the Classical period, storytelling was the primary entertainment for most people.

Biblical stories and stories about saints were most popular. The lives of saints were used to set examples for children. Secular stories were also popular. The romantic tale of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table likely thrilled many adults and children. The battle scenes, heroes and magic made it a popular story in the Middle Ages and it remains so today.

THE RENAISSANCE ~ 14th to 16th Centuries

A new era began in Europe around 1400. It was called the Renaissance because people saw it as a re-introduction of the ideals of ancient Greece and Rome, including their art, literature, philosophy and respect for learning.

During this time, Johannes Guttenberg invented the printing press. This was considered to be the greatest invention of the past 1,000 years. The printing press made it possible to make books in a fraction of the time it took to copy them by hand. Books became plentiful, opening the door to mass education. Most books for children were textbooks or other types of educational reading matter.


By the mid-1700s, the publishing of children's books began. A little Pretty Pocket-Book (1744) by John Newbery is one of the first children's books designed to entertain as well as teach. It is considered a landmark in children's literature. No copy of the first edition has been found.

An Illustration from Cinderella by Charles Perrault
Prior to the 19th century, children's books were intended to instruct ... usually morally. But about this time period, children's folktales from the oral tradition also became popular. Folktales were printed in England as early as 1729, when Charles Perrault's Tales of Mother Goose was translated from French to English. These retellings of old stories included "Cinderella", "Little Red Riding Hood" and "Sleeping Beauty in the Wood". These stories became staples for English children.

By the mid-18th century, Mme. de Beaumont retold many fairy tales, including "Beauty and the Beast". In 1791, Elizabeth Newberry published the first children's edition of Tales from the Arabian Nights, featuring "Sinbad the Sailor" and "Aladdin and His Lamp".

The Grimm brothers published many folktales at the beginning of the 19th century, although not expressly for children. The Grimms' tales are considered to be the most famous of all fairytale collections.

THE VICTORIAN ERA ~ 1837 to 1901
The Golden Age of Children's Literature

The Victorian Era was characterized by rapid change and development in nearly every sphere ... from advances in medical, scientific and technological knowledge to changes in popularion growth and location.

By the end of the 19th century, there was an emergence of talented writers with an interest in writing entertaining stories for children. This emergence is attributed to a number of social developments: A lower infant mortality rate; the technology to produce books inexpensively and in color; the rise in the status of women; mandatory education in the U.S. and England (thus creating a literate audience); and the growth of the middle class (thus broadening the audience).

In the second half of the 19th century, children's literature was dominated by adventure or boys' stories. The major British boys' story from that era is Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. The most prominent writer of stories in America was Samuel Clemens (writing as Mark Twain), author of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) ... the later considered one of the greatest American novels ever written.

America author Susan Warner (writing as Elizabeth Wetherell) wrote one of the early domestic novels, The Wide, Wide World (1850). But the most famous of all domestic novelists was Louisa May Alcott. Her Little Women (1868) is considered a masterpiece not only because of its strong characters but also for its entertainment value.

Fantasy was the gold of this age: First with Charles Dodgson's (writing as Lewis Carroll) Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and then the much-loved Tale of Peter Rabbit (1901) by Beatrix Potter, who set a high standard for illustrated children's books.

Perhaps due to its puritanical routs, America during this period was not as fond of fantasy as the British. The exception, of course, is The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) by L. Frank Baum.

THE EDWARDIAN ERA ~ 1901 to 1915

Conceptions of childhood underwent a cultural change in the Edwardian period, seeing the child become central to 'childhood' and childhood central to the Zeitgeist in a way that had not been seen previously and would not endure in the same way after the outbreak of World War I.

J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan (1904) was immensely popular during this period as was the most endearing animal fantash A Wind in the Willows (1908), by Kenneth Grahame.

Voyages of Doctor Dolittle
BETWEEN THE WARS ~ 1920 to 1940
Many notable fantasy figures of children's literature emerged during this period, most of them British. Hugh Lofting's The Story of Doctor Dolittle (1920) and A. A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) are two famous children's pieces from this period as well as P.L. Travers' Mary Poppins (1943). Tolkien's The Hobbit; or There and Back Again (1937) introduced children to Bilbo Baggins and his adventures.

The most famous American children's author during this period was Laura Ingalls Wilder whose Little House in the Big Woods (1932) was the first in her popular series of books about her own frontier family.