Curiouser and Curiouser: The Early Years of Children's Literature

"Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, 'and what is the use of a book,' thought Alice, 'without pictures or conversations?'" Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll (1865)

Today it would be difficult to imagine our children growing up without books — and yet, before the 18th century, there was a notable absence of literature specifically designed for young readers.

This isn’t to say that young people didn’t read. For centuries, the books that children enjoyed most were originally intended for a more mature audience; charming fairy stories, for example, or tales of intrigue or adventure, were marketed to adults and then eagerly consumed by juvenile readers. It wasn’t until the 18th century that children were catered to as a unique demographic, and the earliest examples of children's literature, (full of moralizing and religious overtones), were not wholly embraced by young readers. By the mid-18th century, a revolution had begun in children’s literature that was influenced by theories on education by philosopher John Locke, and put into motion by author John Newbery — the general consensus in the publishing world was that not only should children be provided with literature specialized to their varying abilities, they should also be entertained by said literature, and engage with it in an enjoyable fashion. This conceptual development was of great benefit to children everywhere, and it also benefitted the publishing industry, which was already thriving due to the help of recent technical innovations and the expansion of reader demographics. Thus, the genre of children’s literature was born.

Although morality and religious opinion remained on the fringes of many examples of children’s books, there was a newfound interest in making books genuinely fun for young readers. Even the earliest examples of children’s literature, such as Newbery's 1744 A Pretty Little Pocket Book, could be identified by bright, vividly-colored illustrations and even visually entertaining, intricate covers, (some which would be influenced by the aesthetics of the “fine-press” movement). With the growth of children’s literature as a unique demographic, the publishing industry produced ever-more examples of work that could cater specifically to young people, some of which were immaculate in quality and design. As the Victorian era approached, the popular “Cult of Childhood” once again brought both adult and young readers into close proximity. Youth and childhood, which had just recently been recognized as a distinct state in human development, were revered by authors who attempted to eternalize childhood in their writing — Lewis Carroll and J.M. Barrie are prime examples of this “youth-craze” phenomenon, and their idolization of the inherent innocence, humor, and nobility of childhood remains today as an integral part of the legacy of children’s literature.

Analog Resources

“From Few and Expensive to Many and Cheap: The British Book Market 1800-1890, Modernity and Print II: Europe 1890-1970 .” A Companion to the History of the Book, by Simon Eliot and Jonathan Rose, Wiley-Blackwell, 2017.
This Eliot and Rose anthology, (a required text for Professor Drucker’s History of the Book class), is a fantastic text for acquiring context and basic information on the development of children’s literature. Although the cited chapters focus mainly on 19th-century examples, their explanation of how children’s literature grew to soaring popularity, (which is mainly attributed to an “illustration revolution” that allowed images to be printed at greater speeds, with more vivid colors and precise details), remains relevant, and is necessary in order to attain a deeper understanding this unique literary phenomenon.

Edwards, Margaret A. The Fair Garden and the Swarm of Beasts: The Library and the Young Adult. American Library Association, 2002.
For any student of library science, (or any other curious readers), interested in the development of children's literature, The Fair Garden and the Swarm of Beasts is an integral text. Although Margaret Edwards was writing in a period far off from the early days of children’s literature, (in the relatively recent 1960’s), this text is considered canonical for students of youth services because it advocates the following set of beliefs; firstly, that children and young readers deserve a place among books and in our libraries, secondly, that reading for young people, particularly pleasure reading, carries with it a set of lifelong benefits, and, thirdly, that young readers won’t just read anything — it’s up to authors and librarians to observe what children like to read, and provide them with similar examples in order to turn young library patrons into avid, lifelong readers.

Digital Resources

"Perceptions of Childhood", Kimberley Reynolds
In this article, Professor Kimberley Reynolds proposes that a mass societal change in the perception of youth and childhood created the perfect climate for the flourishing of children's literature. Reynolds traces the conception of childhood back religious doctrine, (specifically the idea of "original sin"), and marks the ways in which changes in philosophical thought, (exemplified in Rousseau's 1762 "On Education"), and trends in the arts, (such as those sparked by the 19th-century Romantic movement), allowed childhood to transition into "an idealized state of innocence."

"The Origins of Children's Literature", M.O. Grenby
M.O. Grenby is a highly-respected scholar in the field of children's literature and its history. In this particular piece, Grenby returns to the roots of children's literature and emphasizes its transition from dry, religiously-motivated moralizing to vividly-illustrated works that young readers could engage with and enjoy.

"Fantasy and Fairytale in Children's Literature", M.O. Grenby
M.O. Grenby attempts to dispel the notion that children's literature can be neatly dividided into two highly-contrasting types -- on one hand, many associate early examples of children's literature with preachy sermons full of moralizing and religious allusions. However, many others associate children's books with imagination and flights of fancy. Grenby insists that the two aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, and maintains that fantasy will always be something elusive, "amorpheous and ambiguous."

"The History of Children's Books", C.M. Hewins
This article originally appeared in an 1888 edition of The Atlantic. C.M. Hewkins offers an alternative history to that of Grenby's, and begins at the earliest examples of children's literature, (all the way back in the 15th century). He goes on to explain the ways that varying influences, ranging from that of philosphers, (notably John Locke), to French fairytales, to an English printer by the name of John Newbery, played their part in shaping the genre of children's literature as we know it today.

Children's Books in the Victorian Era, from the Winnington-Ingram Collection
With its beginnings as a collaboration between the International Library of Children's Literature (ILCL), the University of Maryland, and the Internet Archive, this facinating site offers a host of resources on the subject of Victorian-era children's literature. The site provides access to a host of great images and digital scans, and is divided up into five main sections; early children's literature, chapbooks and fairytales, the dawning of the age of fantasy, the birth of adventure novels, and toybooks and early modern picturebooks.

The School Collection: Children's Literature at the Social Sciences, Health, and Education Library | University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
The "S-Collection" provides curious minds with a vast array of links to both print and online resources, and is impressively broad in the variety of its subject matter. If you are in need of further resources, this is your first stop! The "S-Collection" also hosts access to high-quality digitized texts and images.

Wardrobes and Rabbit Holes: A Dark History of Children's Literature | Cornell University, Division of Rare Book and Manuscript Collections
This site memorializes a spectacular exhibition that took place at Cornell University's Kroch Library between November of 2012 and March of 2013. The exhibition was produced as a response to a perceived "growing sense of darkness in children's books." Although parents today may worry over this encroaching darkness, the mission of this exhibition was to prove that this darkness has been at the side of children's literature throughout its entire long history.

A Pretty Little Pocket Book, Intended for the Instruction and Amusement of Little Master Tommy, and Pretty Miss Polly, John Newbery
Frequently hailed as the "Father of Children's Literature," John Newbery, (namesake of the Newbery Medal, which is awarded annually to outstanding books for young readers), published A Pretty Little Pocket Book in 1744, when it became an immediate success. Part of Newbery's genius resided in the financial sphere -- he was a shrewd businessman, and one of the reasons why it is speculated that A Pretty Little Pocket Book was so successful is because it utilized clever marketing ploys. Children whose parents purchased the book when it debuted would have also recieved a pincushion, (for girls), or a ball, (for boys). Readers can peruse this digitized version and decide for themselves the literary merit of Newbery's work.

"Preface" and "Chronology" from The Cambridge Companion to Children's Literature
This useful preface, followed by a chronology by Eric J. Johnson, provides some much-needed perspective on the history of children's books. The timeline is particulary detailed, and makes for an excellent resource when situating different movements within children's literature beside one another. Among other points brushed upon in the preface, some thought-provoking questions offered to readers include: How much should we consider the influence of adults when reading children's literature? In what ways to society's values and "norms" creep in between the lines of children's literature, and of what importance are illustrations in the history of children's books?

Library of Congress, Rare Books and Manuscripts Division | Digitized Print Materials -- Children's Literature
The Rare Books and Manuscripts Division of the Library of Congress has compiled an invaluable collection of digitized, early examples of children's literature. Access and use of this site is extremely user-friendly, and the image quality is impressive. The Library of Congress provides scans of illustrated texts by Kate Greenaway, Maxfield Parrish, and Walter Crane, and their scan of a book of Hans Christian Andersen tales, illustrated exquisitely by Edmund Dulac, is worth a glace.

The Blue Fairy Book, (5th Edition), Andrew Lang
This digitized version of Andrew Lang's The Blue Fairy Book is an absolute must-read for anyone interested in the history of children's literature, fantasy, fairytales, or even book illustration. The featured images by H.J. Ford and G. P. Jacomb Hood are delightful and typify an artistic movement in children's book illustration, and this particular volume, (scanned from the Harvard Library), is full of tales adapted from Perrault, Madame D'Aulnoy, the Brothers Grimm, The Arabian Nights, Gulliver's Travels, and various Scottish and Norse tales.

UCLA Children's Book Collection, via the Internet Archive
This massive collection of early examples of children's literature has been assembled with the help of the Internet Archive. With a countless array of digitized titles to choose from, a researcher could get lost on this site! Well-worth a look are gorgeous and difficult-to-access copies of The Swiss Family Robinson, New England Psalters, a Japanese fairytale and an exquisite verson of Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Walter Crane.

"On Fairy Stories", J.R. R. Tolkien
Originally delivered as a part of the Andrew Lang lectures at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, in 1939, Tolkien's "On Fairy-Stories" has become something of a building-block in the studies of children's literature, fantasy, and mythology. Tolkien's outspoken opinions sharply constrast with the popular opinion of his day -- he claims that there is no essential connection between children and fairy stories, and that fairy stories have been "relegated" to the nursery because they are, for the most part, unwanted by adults. Tolkien insists that fantasy and fairytales aren't for everyone, (including children), but rather that some among us may have a particular taste for them. Tolkien's comfortable writing style and his years of experience as both a scholar and author provide this entertaining read with a hefty dose of academic legitimacy.