History of literature for children

The field of children's literature, as all literature, grows out of the oral tradition. Pre-literate peoples gathered around the fire to hear storytellers spin tales that would teach and entertain. Many of these storytellers had priestlike powers, as they were charged with keeping an exact account of history alive within their minds and passing this history along to succeeding generations.

The oral tradition continued in the courts and cottages of the Middle Ages, as minstrels and balladeers roamed the countryside sharing popular tales that were later recorded by the Brothers Grimm. Even after William Caxton established a printing press in England in 1476, the oral tradition continued, with an emphasis on both entertainment and instruction. The first children's books were published solely with instructional intent, and the content was usually religious, with horribly didactic titles such as A Token for Children of New-England, or Some Examples of Children in Whom the Fear of God Was Remarkably Budding before They Died.

Among the first nonreligious books published for children were chapbooks, small and crudely printed books that were sold by 17th- and 18th-century street vendors. These roughly illustrated, eight-page books had stories about the adventures of Robin Hood and other popular tales with appeal to a young audience. Mother Goose rhymes and fairy tales also found their way into print in the 1700s.

The beginning of "children's literature" is said to have begun in 1744 with the publication of A Pretty Little Pocketbook by John Newbery, the man for whom the Newbery Medal is named. Newbery's book was the first that was specifically written and published to entertain and amuse young children. Other books designed for children followed, and while a didactic focus remained, a body of literature designed for a young audience began to emerge.

The 19th century saw tremendous growth in books written for children. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm recorded the old stories that had been popular in Europe for so long. Hans Christian Andersen wrote his famous fairy tales. American authors like Washington Irving and Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote stories that were popular with youngsters. Although the moralistic trend continued in many books, a growing number of books with no didactic or moralistic intent were written solely to entertain. Louisa May Alcott's Little Women and Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn appeared toward the end of the century. Jules Verne introduced his popular science fiction stories; Rudyard Kipling wrote his famous animal stories; Lewis Carroll wrote the fantasy Alice's Adventures in Wonderland; Edward Lear produced his humorous limericks. These and other books were written and illustrated solely to entertain readers, young and old alike.

In the 1800s, colour was introduced in printing, and illustrators began to gain recognition. Pictures were transformed from rough woodcuts and sketches to works of art capturing the mood and tone of the stories and the storytellers. In the 20th century children's literature has truly come into its own. There has been a proliferation of books for children and the value of these books has come to be recognized and respected. In the early decades of the 20th century, picture books became exceedingly popular, while stories like L. M. Montgomery's Anne of the Green Gables and Kate Douglas Wiggins's Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm provided reading for older children. Animal fantasies like Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit and A. A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh arrived on the literary landscape. Special collections of poetry for children appeared. Books for children came to be part of classroom instruction.

Today's teachers are witnesses and beneficiaries of the more recent history of children's literature. Books like E. B. White's Charlotte's Web and Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are have sold well over one million copies.

Early Books for Children

As far back as the Middle Ages, books intended for youngsters existed in limited numbers in the form of handwritten texts for the extremely wealthy. However, because literature aimed at young readers always will reflect society's attitudes about children, these early books were meant to indoctrinate. The stories worth reading were available not in books but from the storytellers – fairy tales, myths, ballads, epics, and other stories from our oral tradition. Of course, these stories were not meant for children, although they were allowed to listen. Over time, these magical tales have become the property of childhood.

By the same token, books that were printed in the early days of the printing press, books meant for adults, were also enjoyed and adopted by children. William Caxton, an English businessman and printer, produced several such books, including Aesop's Fables (1484), which was decorated with woodcut illustrations. From that time for­ward, children have claimed many books meant for adult audiences, including such well-known titles as Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719); Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726); Walter Scott's Ivanhoe (1820); and J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit (1937).

Literature intended specifically for children and published from the 15th through the 17th centuries still was designed to indoctrinate. The so-called horn-books, or lesson paddles, existed as reading material for children for more than two centuries, beginning in the 1440s. Generally made of wood, these small paddles (about 3 by 5 inches) had pasted to them pieces of parchment on which were printed the alphabet, verses from the Bible, or the like. The term hornbook comes from the thin, transparent sheet of horn that covered and protected the parchment. Hornbooks were particularly popular among the Puritans in Colonial America, who believed children to be basically wicked, like adults, and therefore in need of saving. This pious attitude is clearly evident in the first book published for American children, John Cotton's catechism called Spiritual Milk for Boston Babes in Either England, Drawn from the Breasts of Both Testaments for Their Souls' Nourishment. First published in England in 1646, it was revised and published in America in 1656.

Despite the preachy, often unpleasant nature of children's literature in the early days of printing, one especially bright spot appeared in 1657. Johann Amos Comenius, a Moravian teacher and bishop, wrote Orbis Pictus ("The World in Pictures"), which is often called the first children's picture book. Orbis Pictus is filled with woodcut illustrations that work in harmony with the simple text to describe the wonders of the natural world.

In 1697 Charles Perrault, who had set about collecting the French fairy tales, published his enduring collection, Tales of Mother Goose, which included such old favourites as "The Sleeping Beauty" and "Cinderella." Here we find the first mention of Mother Goose, a figure popularized in many subsequent books and stories. Although Perrault’s stories were popular with adults in the court of King Louis XIV his fairy tale collection contains a frontispiece showing an old woman (presumably Mother Goose) spinning while telling stories to a group of children.

Even as early as the 16th century, a form of "underground" reading became popular. Called chapbooks, these crudely printed booklets were often sold by peddlers for pennies. Chapbooks became extremely popular in the 17th and 18th centuries and were the first real break from the oppressive, didactic, you-are-a-sinner books for children. Of course, the Puritans decried these tales of Robin Hood, King Arthur, and even an early rendition of "Froggie Went A-Courting." Yet, children and adults reveled in them, though often on the sly.

Chapbooks may have been indirectly responsible for what is perhaps the most important development in the history of children's literature – John Newbery's children's publishing house. Certainly Newbery was influenced by John Locke, who dared suggest that youngsters should enjoy reading, so it seems likely that he observed the popularity of chapbooks among children and decided that there was a market for true children's books. In any case, Newbery ushered in the age of children's books by beginning to publish exclusively for young readers. He released his first children's book in 1744. A Pretty Little Pocket-Book taught the alphabet not with catechism but with entertaining games, rhymes, and fables. Newbery published hundreds of titles (some of which he may have written himself), the most famous and enduring of which is The History of Little Goody Two Shoes (1765). So great was Newbery's contribution to children's publishing that the oldest of the world's children's book prizes bears his name, America's John Newbery Medal. Still, the moralistic tale continued to dominate much of children's literature. Didacticism ruled well into the 19th century.

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