Author, Sally Yeshin.
A Brief History of Children’s Literature to the 1980s.
Writing a history of Children’s literature is difficult, not least because the definition of a Child’s book is unclear: children read books aimed at adults (Robinson Crusoe for
example) and adults read books aimed at children (Harry Potter spans the ages). It is also a vast subject. This is a brief history and covers just the key trends and developments. If your favourite book is not covered apologies.
The first books.
Early children’s stories were based on one of three things, fairy tales, myths or religious education. Aesop’s tales were first published in English by Caxton in 1484.
However, as a target for their own literature, children’s books were minimal until the 17th century when ‘moralising’ books dominated together with ‘books’ that would help children to learn to read.
This is an early ABC Hornbook with the ‘Our Father’ also inscribed.
It was not really until the late 17th century that books aimed at children began to emerge and these were not books in our terms. They were Chapbooks: cheaply
printed slim pamphlets that covered Romance, Dramas, Histories and Fairy Tales. For example, Tom Thumb was printed in a Chapbook as was The History of Mother
Shipton. The picture below shows the size of the Chapbooks:
A collection of Chapbooks.
The 18th Century.
During the 18th Century, the number of children increased, mainly because of greater
fertility but also fewer child deaths – a benefit of inoculations. There was also a growth in education with local village schools teaching the rudiments of reading and writing.
Perhaps the first publisher to recognise this growing market was John Newberry who
published what can be described as the first real children’s book: A Little Pretty Pocket Book (1744). There was still an emphasis on morals and learning as two of his other titles suggest, Goody Two Shoes and The Circle of Sciences.
Chapbooks continued and there is a demonstration of the cross-over in adult and child fiction when Robinson Crusoe was adapted for children in a chapbook. Most of the literature tended to continue with its moralising, often with very violent tales. For example, The Death of Cock Robin was published in Chapbook form at the end of the 18th Century.
The Victorian Era of the 19th Century.
This era saw significant growth in education and reading and consequent growth in the writing and publishing children’s books. Moralising continued and, of course, at this time Dickens was writing his books as much as a cry against the plight of the poor as entertainment. Oliver Twist was written in 1838. The
moralising is also demonstrated in the very violent. Struwwelpeter (translated into English in 1848), had stories describing what a horrible end naughty children would meet.
More entertaining was the development of various genres of stories for children. An early example of School stories was The Crofton Boys (1841) followed in 1857 by Tom
Brown’s Schooldays by Thomas Hughes and based on Rugby School.
It was an era that saw the development of gripping adventure stories: in 1814 The Swiss
Family Robinson and the first Walter Scott novel Waverley were published. While later in
the century Treasure Island and Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson emerged. Treasure
Island has serialised in the boy’s paper Young Folks.
Perhaps more targeted at females (yes gender stereotypes were
strong) was the world of romance and family life such as Charlotte
Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847) plus all the other Bronte novels – again
an overlap between adults and children. Also Louisa M Alcott’s
Little Women was published in 1868 and slightly later Anna
Sewell’s perennial book Black Beauty: was originally written to
highlight the plight of cab horses.
The world of fantasy continued to be represented during the Victorian era; Hans Christian Andersen’s Tales were first translated and published in 1846. Later Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1865) and subsequent books were also published.
Tales were often first serialised in magazines or papers. This was true of both Charles
Kingsley’s The Water Babies and E. Nesbitt’s The Book of Dragons. Books both depict
The 20th Century.
The early 20th Century seemed to produce a whimsical approach to children’s literature
with idealised or fantastical representations of the world of childhood. Hence the world of animals was often used to portray childhood. Think of Beatrice Potter’s books, her first, The Tale of Peter Rabbit was published in 1902 and Kenneth Graham’s Wind in the
Willows came out in 1908, while Winnie The Pooh by A A Milne appeared later in 1922.
Adventure stories continued to be popular. 1904 was when James Barrie’s Peter Pan appeared as a swashbuckling but whimsical tale of children. Famously the royalties from Peter Pan help fund Great Ormond Street Hospital. Perhaps more classic adventure stories were Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burrough (1914) and Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons (1930).
One book that arguably was the first to portray maladjusted children was Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (1911) but it still had a degree of whimsy and even mystery. All the books tended to be very middle-class in approach probably
because both the writers and their perceived audience were middle-class. An example is one of the first really humorous series of books: the Just William books by Richard Crompton.
Every illustration of William suggests the middle class. Inevitably the two world wars influenced children’s literature. The series of Biggles books, and stories about a flying ace started in 1938 with the book The White Fokker. By today’s standards, the early unedited books present unacceptable views on race and gender but were ripping good yarns. The Second World War saw some quite serious stories being written; for example, The Silver Sword by Ian Serrailler, a story about three Polish children on their own during and after the war.
It is not possible to talk about post-war children’s literature without
talking about Enid Blyton, arguably the most successful writer of the
genre until J K Rowling. Blyton covered many areas from pre-school
books such as the Noddy series (now not entirely PC) to adventure
stories for children with the Famous Five and The Secret Seven. She also
continued the trend for school stories with her Malory Towers series
based on her daughter’s school of Benenden. The first Famous Five book
Five on a Treasure Island came out in 1945. Blyton is criticised for the
simplicity of her writing but she was probably responsible for more
children taking up reading as a recreational hobby than any other writer.
A growth area for children’s fiction during the 1950s was the fantasy
novel with C S Lewis’s Narnia series and J R Tolkein’s Lord of The Rings. In the 1960’s Ursula Le Guin wrote The Wizard of Earthsea essentially a coming of age story. In fact, teenage angst became more and more realistically depicted with an emphasis on realism and a move away from the middle-class rural idyll to urban reality.
Another post-war trend that is worth highlighting was the growth of humour in children’s novels. This is perhaps best illustrated by the phenomenal success of Roald Dahl: James and the Giant Peach was published in 1961.
One area that has not really been covered in this history is the range of books that were
developed for younger children. Of course, the picture book has existed since the 18th
century but better printing and colour lead to an expansion of this category with classics
such as The Cat in the Hat by Dr Seuss (1950), The Very Hungry Caterpillar in 1969, The
Mister Men Series from 1971 and Raymond Briggs’ Fungus The Bogeyman in 1982.
As was said at the start of this piece it is impossible to cover every book that held a
a fascination for children of all ages but hopefully it has brought back some memories.