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Before there were books, there were stories. Today's literature for children has grown out of oral traditions that exist in every society. Suzanne Langer has argued that "imaging is the mode of our untutored thinking and stories their earliest product." We can assume, then, that in all human societies, stories and poems that were passed on by revered storytellers or griots and retold by the common people were likely enjoyed by a wide audience of adults and children.

Eventually, in many cultures, these oral stories came to be preserved in more permanent forms—on cave walls, sculptures, and carvings, as well as in objects that more closely resemble today's books. The Epic of Gilgamesh was recorded on clay tablets as early as 2100 B.C. China has a 3,000-year history of literature written in a single language, a literature that is as much visual as verbal. An African (Egyptian) papyrus that dates from approximately 1295 B.C. depicts a humorous tale that includes an antelope and a lion seated on chairs engaged in a game of senet. The Mayan codices (which used a combination of glyphs and pictures) that survived the Spanish invasion suggest a written literary tradition has long existed in the Western Hemisphere. Although we have no evidence that any of this literature was written for a child audience, we can assume that some children were entertained by the same literature that adults in various societies enjoyed.


In medieval Europe—from the fifth to the fifteenth century—stories were told around the fires in cottages or sung in the great halls of castles. Young and old alike listened, with no distinction made between stories for children and stories for adults, just as there was little difference in the work they did, the food they ate, or the clothes they wore. All gathered to listen, to be entertained after a hard day's labor.

The Oral Tradition

In the Middle Ages, there were differences between the kinds of stories told in the cottages and the kinds told in the castles, and in the ways they were told. In the castles and great manor houses, wandering minstrels or bards told the heroic tales of Beowulf or King Arthur or the ballad of Fair Isabella, whose stepmother had her cooked and served in a pie. By contrast, the tales told around the peat fires in the cottages or at the medieval fairs were about simple folk—farmers, woodcutters, and millers—or were beast tales about wolves, foxes, and hens. Frequently, the stories portrayed the poor peasant outwitting the lord of the manor or winning the hand of the princess by a daring deed. These tales were told over and over for generations until they were finally collected by scholars and thus passed into recorded literature.

The Earliest Manuscripts

Before the invention of movable type, the first books that European children might have read were picture Bibles or lesson books. Picture Bibles included such types as the Bible Moralisée, Biblia Pauperum, and Bible Historiale and were remarkably similar to modern picture books in their page design and balance of image and word. Mostly religious or instructional, these were intended only for the wealthy or for use by teachers in monastery schools. Such handwritten books were extremely valuable; houses and lands were often exchanged for a single volume.

Most early lesson books followed one of two forms, which continued in popularity up to the early twentieth century: (1) a dialogue between the pupil and teacher, usually in the form of questions and answers, or (2) rhymed couplets, which made for easy memorization. Aldhelm, abbot of Malmesbury during the seventh century, is credited with introducing the question-and-answer approach. Also during this century, the Venerable Bede translated and wrote some forty-five books for his students at the monastery at Jarrow in England.

Another type of book, the Elucidarium, or book of general information for young students, was developed by Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury during the twelfth century. This type of book, a forerunner of the encyclopedia, treated such topics as manners, children's duties, the properties of animals and plants, and religious precepts.
These early books are important to the history of children's literature only in that they represent some concession to developing specific books for the instruction of children. Another six centuries would pass before John Newbery would add the word amusement to the word instruction.

However, it is likely that many children were entertained by stories that were written for adults. The Gesta Romanorum (Deeds of the Romans), compiled in Latin in the early fourteenth century, served as a sourcebook for stories for the clergy for instruction and for enlivening sermons. This compilation of stories included many myths, fables, and tales from as far away as India. These tales were often dressed up with suitable morals and then told to children.

Only one well-known work remains from medieval manuscripts, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Although written for adults in 1387, the tales are full of legendary stories and folktales that were known to children as well as adults of the period.

The Printed Book

The earliest printed books originated in China as early as A.D. 175 and were printed from stone rubbings. China also preceded the West in the development of woodblock printing in the eighth century and movable type in the eleventh century. Some historians maintain that Western printing first began in Holland sometime between 1380 and 1420.11 However, in the 1450s, Gutenberg in Germany devised a practical method for using movable metal type, far superior in quality to the Dutch type. William Caxton, an English businessman, went to Cologne, Germany, to learn the printing trade. Returning to England, he set up a printing press in Westminster about 1476. Among the first books he published were A Book of Curteseye (1477), the Historye of Reynart the Foxe (1481), and Aesop's Fables (1484). Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur first appeared in printed form in 1485. Caxton is credited with publishing some 106 books, including traditional romance literature, ballads, texts, and religious books. His books were of high quality and expensive, which made them available only to wealthy adults, not children. The impact of the printing press can be seen, however, in the number of books owned by some individuals. Before the invention of the press in the 1450s, even scholars and physicians possessed only a few books. A century later, to give one example, Columbus of Seville (the son of Christopher Columbus) owned a library of more than fifteen thousand titles.

Hornbooks, ABCs, and Primers

The first children's books to be influenced by the invention of printing were then the only children's books: lesson books or textbooks. In the mid fifteenth century, young children learned to read from "hornbooks." A hornbook was really a little wooden paddle to which was pasted a sheet of parchment printed with the alphabet, the vowels, and the Lord's Prayer. A thin sheet of transparent protective horn bound with strips of brass covered the text. Most hornbooks were tiny, measuring two by five inches. Sometimes a hole in the handle made it possible for the child to carry the book on a cord around his or her neck or waist. This also lent them their nickname battledore, for they were often used to bat around a shuttlecock in a game of badminton. What made these little "books" unique was that now the child could handle them and see the print close up, rather than merely look at a manuscript held by the teacher.

Children advanced from hornbooks to ABC books and primers. These had more text than hornbooks but were still of a religious nature. The first primers developed from the books of hours, which were intended as private devotionals for laypeople, with prayers for eight specified times of the day. In 1514 an alphabet was added to a book of hours for use by children. When Henry VIII came to the throne, he authorized printing a set of English primers for children that presented his religious beliefs. These little books, appropriately called King Henry's Primer, appeared about 1548.

Lasting Contributions of the Period

Children were not much better off after the invention of printing than before. They still derived their enjoyment from the told story. True, some concession had been made to their youth in devising special books of instruction for them. But only crudely written and printed chap-books provided a kind of underground literature of enjoyment for both adults and children. The two lasting and nine children. This primer was in print for more than a century and sold about three million copies.

In England in 1671, James Janeway published his book of gloomy joy titled A Token for Children, Being an Exact Account of the Conversions, Holy and Exemplary Lives and Joyful Deaths of Several Young Children. In his preface to Part 1, Janeway reminds his readers that they are "by Nature, Children of Wrath." Cotton Mather added the life histories of several New England children and published an American edition of Janeway's book in Boston in 1700 under the title A Token for Children of New England, or Some Examples of Children in Whom the Fear of God Was Remarkably Budding Before They Died.

Religious leaders also could give approval to the moral and spiritual instruction in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, first printed in 1678. No doubt children skipped the long theological dialogues as they found adventure by traveling with the clearly defined characters.

Primers and instructional books continued to be popular during this time. Edward Topsell's Historie of Four-Footed Beasts, published in 1607, was perhaps the first work of nonfiction written for children. Many of these educational books were emblem books. They followed a pictorial format developed in Germany and the Netherlands in which each verse or couplet was illustrated with a small picture. Johann Amos Comenius's Orbis Pictus (The World in Pictures) was influenced by this style. It was translated into English in 1659 and published with many woodcuts illustrating everyday objects. Orbis Pictus is often referred to as the first picture book for children.

Lighter Fare

Luckily, there was some relief from the doom and gloom of the religion-oriented books of the Puritans. Chap-books—small, inexpensive, folded-paper booklets sold by peddlers, or chapmen—first appeared in the late 1500s, but they achieved real popularity in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Sold for a few pennies, these crudely printed little books brought excitement and pleasure into the lives of both children and adults with tales about Dick Whittington, Sir Guy of Warwick, Robin Hood, and other heroes. A ballad of a "most strange wedding of the froggee and the mouse" was licensed as early as 1580. Other chapbooks gave accounts of crimes and executions, descriptions of the art of making love, and riddles. Although these books were decried by the Puritans, they were read and reread by the common people of England and America. Their popularity with children is said to have influenced John Newbery's decision to publish a book solely for children. The chapbooks' greatly abbreviated texts and crude woodcut illustrations suggest that they were fore books of this period are Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Thomas Malory's collection of Arthurian legends, later published in 1485 by Caxton under the title Le Morte d'Arthur. Neither of these books was written for children, but children probably knew the stories from hearing them told by bards and minstrels.

What strikes a twenty-first-century reader as remarkable about this period is how few books there were and how long they stayed in print. Many of the books published by Caxton in the 1470s were still in print in the late 1600s, more than two hundred years later. This seems almost unbelievable when compared with today's publishing world, where some books go out of print in less than a year.


In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, many books for children in the Western world were meant to be educational rather than entertaining. Over time, however, authors, illustrators, and publishers began to present children with books that were meant to delight as well as to inform. It should be noted, nonetheless, that the children who were soon to be delighted by books written for their enjoyment came mainly from the white middle and upper classes. A literature for all the world's children was still many years in the future.

The "Goodly Godly" Books of the Puritans

Books of the seventeenth century were dominated by the stern spiritual beliefs of Puritanism. The Puritans considered children to be miniature adults, and thus equally subject to sin and eternal damnation. Concern for the salvation of children's souls became the central goal of their parents and teachers. Given the high mortality rate of infants and young children (more than half did not live to reach the age of 10), instruction in the fear of God began early. John Cotton's catechism, Spiritual Milk for Boston Babes in Either England, Drawn from the Breasts of Both Testaments for Their Souls' Nourishment, was originally published in England in 1646, and revised for American children in 1656, the first book written and printed for children in the American colonies.

Even alphabet rhymes for the youngest emphasized the sinful nature of humans. The New England Primer, first advertised in 1677, includes "In Adam's fall/We sinned all." This primer also provided a catechism, the Ten Commandments, verses about death, and a woodcut of Martyr John Foxe burning at the stake, watched by his wife runners of today's comic strips, still read by both adults and children.

Another source of enjoyment for children came in the form of fairy tales; the first was printed in France in 1697 by Charles Perrault. Titled Histoires ou contes du temps passé, avec des moralités (Stories or Tales of Times Past, with Morals), the collection included "The Sleeping Beauty," "Cinderella or the Glass Slipper," "Red Riding Hood," "Puss-in-Boots," and "Blue Beard." These tales were in fashion at the French court of the Sun King, Louis XIV, where they were told to adults. The frontis-piece of Perrault's book, however, showed an old woman spinning and telling stories to children. The caption read Contes de ma Mère l'Oye (Tales of Mother Goose); this was the first reference to Mother Goose in children's literature. Translated into English in 1729, these fairy tales have remained France's gift to the children of the world. Following the success of Perrault, other French authors, including Mme. d'Aulnoy, created original fairy tales. Only one remains well known today and that is "Beauty and the Beast," rewritten from a longer version by Mme. de Beaumont.

The Arabian Nights is a collection of old tales from India, Persia, and North Africa. Galland published these tales in French in 1558, but not until about 1706 were they available in English. Intended for adults, such stories as "Aladdin," "Ali Baba," and "Sinbad the Sailor" were quickly appropriated by children.

Children of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries would also have enjoyed nursery rhymes, those that have traditionally been called Mother Goose rhymes and that included counting-out rhymes, finger plays, and alphabet verses. No one knows for sure the exact origin of these rhymes, but they are likely to have originated in the spoken language of both common folk and royalty. Some have been traced as far back as the pre-Christian era. The association of these traditional rhymes with a character called Mother Goose is unclear.

The oldest surviving nursery rhyme book was published by Mary Cooper in 1744 in two or perhaps three little volumes under the title Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book;
a single copy of volume 2 is a treasured possession of the British Museum. John Newbery is supposed to have published Mother Goose's Melody or Sonnets for the Cradle about 1765, although the book was not advertised until 1780, which is the more likely date of its publication. No copy of this edition exists. However, Isaiah Thomas of Worcester, Massachusetts, produced a second edition of Mother Goose's Melody in 1794.
Books written for adults during this time were often adopted by child readers. Daniel Defoe did not write his account of the eighteenth-century hero Robinson Crusoe for them, but children made his story part of their literature. The Life and Strange and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719) was later printed in an abridged and pocket-sized volume that became a "classic" of children's literature. Children, no doubt, did not understand the scathing satire about high society in Swift's Gulliver's Travels, but they did find enjoyment in the hero's adventures with the huge and tiny folk and the talking horses. Thus young and old alike enjoyed this tale of adventure, first published in 1726.

Newbery Publishes for Children

In the mid-eighteenth century strict religious beliefs about child rearing began to give way to ideas influenced by such thinkers as John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and David Hume. With the rise of the Enlightenment, a literature for childhood emerged. This transformation usually dates from 1744, the year the English publisher John Newbery printed A Little Pretty Pocket-Book. Newbery was influenced by John Locke's Thoughts Concerning Education (1693) in which Locke maintained that as soon as children know their alphabet they should be led to read for pleasure. Locke advocated the use of pictures in books and deplored the lack of easy, pleasant books for children to read, except for Aesop's Fables and Reynard the Fox, both dating back to Caxton's times. In A Little Pretty Pocket-Book Newbery included John Locke's advice that children should enjoy reading. The book itself attempted to teach the alphabet "by Way of Diversion," including games, fables, and little rhymes about the letters of the alphabet. What was significant about the book was that Newbery deliberately and openly set out to provide amusement for children, something no other publisher had had the courage or insight to do.

Newbery's books were all illustrated with pictures based on the text, rather than just any woodcuts available, as was the custom of other printers of the day. Many of his books were bound with Dutch gilt paper covers, which made for a gay appearance. Even though moral lessons were clearly there for young readers, Newbery's stories did emphasize love and play rather than the wrath and punishment of God. Newbery is also responsible for Little Goody Two Shoes, "the first piece of original English fiction deliberately written for children."13 Except for Little Goody Two Shoes, none of his work has lasted, but we honor the man who was the first to recognize that children deserve a literature of their own.

Didactic Literature

A body of literature that resembles modern children's literature did not emerge overnight. During the last half of the eighteenth century, women writers entered the field of juvenile literature, determined to influence the moral development of children. In 1749, Mrs. Sarah Fielding published The Governess, which included character-building stories about Mrs. Teachum's School for Girls. Mrs. Sarah Trimmer published a magazine titled Guardian of Education, which contained articles on moral subjects and book reviews. Mrs. Trimmer did not approve of fairy tales or Mother Goose. "All Mother Goose tales . . . were only fit to fill the heads of children with confused notions of wonderful and supernatural events brought about by the agency of imaginary beings."

Other didactic writers of this period maintained that they followed Rousseau's theory of education by accompanying children in their natural search for knowledge. These stories frequently contained lengthy "conversations" that tried to conceal moral lessons under the guise of an exciting adventure. The children found in these books served as models of behavior for nearly a hundred years.

In this period, poetry for children also emphasized religion and instruction. However, John Newbery printed Pretty Poems for Children Three Feet High and added this inscription: "To all those who are good this book is dedicated by their best friend." Although Isaac Watts spent most of his time writing hymns, he did write some poetry for children. In the preface to Divine and Moral Songs Attempted in Easy Language for Use of Children (1715), Watts wrote that his songs were to be memorized, which was how children were to be given "a relish for virtue and religion." Though written by a Puritan, these hymns such as "Joy to the World" and the lovely "Cradle Hymn," were kind and loving, and the collection made up a real child's book. The engraver and artist William Blake wrote poetry that children enjoyed, but the poems constituting Songs of Innocence (1789) were not specifically written for children. Blake's poetry was filled with imagination and joy and made the reader aware of beauty without preaching. Children still respond to his happy poem that begins "Piping down the valleys wild,/Piping songs of pleasant glee."

As the eighteenth century neared its end, most of the stories for children were about how to live the "good life." Information about the natural world was peddled in didactic lectures sugarcoated with conversational style. Exceptionally well-behaved children were models for young people to follow. However, there was now a literature directed to a child audience, even if that audience was exclusively Caucasian and predominantly middle and upper class. Authors and publishers were aware of a new market for books. Parents and teachers were beginning to recognize the importance of literature for children.


In the nineteenth century, the genres written for children expanded greatly. Children could choose to read about a wide variety of topics. Books and magazines sought to present children with works of literature that celebrated their unique enthusiasms and explored their special worlds. Children's literature in the nineteenth century, however, still represented an "Anglo world."

Books of Instruction and Information

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, most of the books published for children in English were produced in England. Following the American Revolution, however, there was a rush to publish textbooks that reflected the changing social purposes and interests of the new nation. Noah Webster's Blue Backed Speller, Simplified and Standardized, first published in 1783, was widely used. Revised many times, the third part of the series contained stories and became America's first secular reader. It sold more than eighty million copies during the nineteenth century. Reading for patriotism, good citizenship, and industry was the purpose of the well-loved Eclectic Readers by William H. McGuffey. They were used so widely from 1834 to 1900 that one could almost say these readers constituted the elementary curriculum in literature.

In the early nineteenth century, Samuel Goodrich was responsible for eliminating the British background in books for American children. Influenced by both the English and the American Sunday school movements, which produced moral tales for the uneducated masses of children who could attend school only on Sunday Goodrich wrote more than a hundred books for children. He created the venerable Peter Parley, an elderly gentleman who told stories to children based on his travels and personal experiences. History, geography, and science were included in his Tales of Peter Parley about America (1827). The Little Rollo series by Jacob Abbott became as popular as the Peter Parley books. Abbott wrote about Little Rollo learning to talk, Rollo learning to read, and Rollo's travels to Europe. In the first books of the series, published in 1834, Rollo was a natural little boy, but as he became older and traveled about the world, he became somewhat stuffy.

Family Stories

In the first half of the nineteenth century the didactic school of writing continued to flourish, with perhaps one exception. In 1839, Catherine Sinclair, whose many other books were highly moral and sedate, published Holiday House, "certainly the best original children's book written up to that time and one of the jolliest and most hilarious of any period." Her characters were children who got into mischief, and they were sometimes aided in this by an adult—their irreverent and fun-loving Uncle David.
For the most part, however, women writers in the early nineteenth century wielded influential pens, condemned fairy stories, and relentlessly dispensed information in lengthy dialogues between parent and child. Mrs. Martha Sherwood, a prolific writer, produced more than 350 moralizing books and religious tracts. Sherwood is remembered best for a series of stories including The Fairchild Family, the first part of which was published in 1818, the third and last in 1847. Considered one of the first "family" stories, it contained some frighteningly realistic passages. In one scene, to teach his quarreling children a lesson, Mr. Fairchild takes them to see something "very dreadful, . . . a gibbet on which the decomposed body of a man still hangs in irons. The face of the corpse was so shocking the children could not look at it."

In contrast to the religious severity of The Fairchild Family, Charlotte Yonge described the milder Victorian experiences of the eleven motherless children of the May family in The Daisy Chain (1856). Women were always portrayed in the Victorian novel as inferior to men. This attitude is reflected in The Daisy Chain when Ethel May is advised not to try to keep up with her brother Norman in his university studies because "a woman cannot hope to equal a man in scholarship." Yonge had an ear for dialogue and was a superb storyteller who wrote more than 120 books.

American children wept pools of tears over the pious, sentimental Elsie Dinsmore. Writing under her maiden name, Martha Farquharson, Martha Finley initiated the Elsie Dinsmore series in 1867. The series contains eighteen books, published from 1867 to 1905, that follow Elsie, at all times righteous and good, from girlhood through motherhood and widowhood and into grandmother-hood. Unbelievable as the stories seem to us today, the Elsie Dinsmore books were tremendously popular.

The next year saw the publication of Little Women (1868) by Louisa May Alcott. This story must have blown like a fresh breeze through the stifling atmosphere of pious religiosity created by books like those in the Elsie Dinsmore series. As described by the irrepressible Jo (who was Louisa May Alcott herself), the March family were real people who faced genteel poverty with humor and fortitude. Louisa May Alcott didn't preach moral platitudes but described the joys, the trials, and the fun of growing up in a loving family. Jo, one of the first tomboys in children's literature, hates the false Victorian standards of the day and sets out to earn a living as a writer. Still loved today, Little Women has been transformed into many languages, including Russian, Arabic, Bengali, and Urdu.

Another vivacious heroine appeared in the celebrated Katy stories written by Susan Coolidge (pseudonym of Sarah Chauncey Woolsey). This series included such titles as What Katy Did (1872), What Katy Did at School (1873), and What Katy Did Next (1886). Harriet Lathrop, under the pseudonym Margaret Sidney, presented a lively family story about a widowed mother and her five children in a series starting in 1881 with Five Little Peppers and concluding in 1916 with Our Davie Pepper. Other authors wrote dramatic family stories with foreign settings. In Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates, Mary Mapes Dodge gave accurate glimpses of Dutch life in 1865. Johanna Spyri's well-loved Heidi was translated from the German by Louise Brooks and published in this country in 1884. Not only did readers share the joys and sorrows of Heidi's life with her grandfather, they "breathed" the clear mountain air and "lived" in Switzerland. Frances Hodgson Burnett described family conflict within the English aristocracy in Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886). Although born in England, Mrs. Burnett was an American citizen. Burnett's second book, Sara Crewe (1888), told of the pitiful plight of a wealthy pupil who is orphaned and reduced to servitude in a boarding school. Mrs. Burnett's best-written and most popular book is The Secret Garden (1910), which presents an exciting plot in a mysterious setting. This story depicts the gradual change wrought in two lonely and selfish children by a hidden garden. It is still read and loved by children today.

Tales of Adventure

The rise of family stories and series books for girls prompted more attention to tales of adventures and the development of so-called boys' series. The Swiss Family Robinson was written by Johann David Wyss, a Swiss pastor, and translated into English in 1814. Inaccurate in its description of flora and fauna (almost everything grew on that tropical island), it still delighted children's imaginations. Sir Walter Scott's novels Rob Roy (1818) and Ivanhoe (1820), while intended for adults, were frequently appropriated by young people. James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking novels of tales of Indians and pioneers in North America were avidly read by young and old alike. Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast (1840) describes the author's own adventures as a young seaman sailing around Cape Horn to California. Also written for adults, it provided adventure for children. British writers such as Captain Frederick Marryat and George A. Henty wrote books based on military histories and adventures that were read with enthusiasm by American children. At the same time, the American names Horatio Alger, Jr., Oliver Optic, and Harry Castlemon were well known to English readers. The emphasis in American series was more on individual achievement, usually against unbelievable odds. The stories by Horatio Alger epitomized this rags-to-riches theme. In fact, because his first successful novel, Ragged Dick (1868), was based on this formula, he saw no reason to change it in the more than a hundred books that followed.

Although most of these series books provided plenty of adventure, the characters and plots tended to be super-ficial and predictable. However, there was one superb adventure story written during the last half of the nineteenth century that included not only a bloody, exciting, and tightly drawn plot but also well-depicted characters. Serialized in an English magazine called Young Folks in 1881 and 1882, Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island was published in book form in 1883. For the first time, adults were drawn to a children's book for adventure, a reverse of the pattern of children reading adults' books. Treasure Island was an immediate success.

Gradually books written for boys changed in their portrayal of childhood, and obedient and dutiful characters became real live boys. Thomas Bailey Aldrich's The Story of a Bad Boy (1870) was based on his own life in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The tale of this Tom's pranks and good times paved the way for another story of a real boy's adventures in Hannibal, Missouri. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was published in 1876 by Mark Twain (pseudonym of Samuel Clemens). This book was soon followed by The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). Mark Twain combined realism, humor, and adventure in these realistic portrayals of growing up in a small town near the end of the nineteenth century.

Animal Stories

In A Dog of Flanders and Other Stories (1872), Louise de la Ramée presented a collection of stories that included the sad tale of a Belgian work dog and his friend, a boy artist. It has been considered the first modern dog story. Anna Sewell's Black Beauty appeared in 1877 as a protest against cruel treatment of horses. Children skipped the lectures calling for more humane treatment of animals and read the compelling first-person story of the life of Black Beauty. Some children today continue to enjoy Sewell's rather overdrawn and sentimental tale. Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Books (1894–1895) were exciting animal stories. Many children today know the story of Mowgli, a child raised by a wolf family, a bear, and a panther, although they might be more familiar with the animated movie than with the original book.

The Rise of Folktale Collections and Fantasy

Early in the nineteenth century two German brothers went about asking servants and peasants to recall stories they had heard. In 1812 Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm published the first volume of Kinder und Hausmärchen (House-hold Stories). These serious scholars tried to preserve the form as well as the content of the old tales, which were translated and published in England by Edgar Taylor from 1823 to 1826. "The Elves and the Shoemaker," "Rumpelstiltskin," and "Snow White," in addition to many others, became part of the literature of childhood.

In 1846 Mary Howitt translated Hans Christian Andersen's tales under the title Wonderful Stories for Children. Now both English and American children could enjoy "The Princess and the Pea," "Thumbelina," and "The Emperor's New Clothes." In these stories, inanimate objects and animals like the heroic Tin Soldier and the Ugly Duckling come to life. The values and foibles of human life are presented in the stories with action and rich language.

Not until the last half of the nineteenth century were folktales and fantasy completely accepted for children. John Ruskin was influenced by the Grimm tales as he wrote his King of the Golden River (1851). Charles Dickens's The Magic Fishbone appeared first as a serial in 1868. The Wonder Book for Boys and Girls was published by Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1852, followed by Tanglewood Tales in 1853. Sir George Dasent translated Popular Tales from the North in 1859, making it possible for children to enjoy more tales from Scandinavia. Andrew Lang's famous series of collections of folktales began with The Blue Fairy Book. The Red, Green, and Yellow fairy books followed the 1889 publication of the first volume of folklore. Joseph Jacobs was also interested in retelling folktales especially for children. English Fairy Tales, Volumes I and II were published between 1890 and 1894. Joel Chandler Harris collected stories from the South for Uncle Remus, His Songs and Savings. Although the character of Uncle Remus later became a stereotype of the "happy slave," the stories themselves are vibrant reminders of our African American literary heritage.

The first stirrings of modern fantasy can be seen in a tale written by an English clergyman and scientist in 1863. The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley is a strange mixture of the fanciful overlaid with heavy doses of morality. Hidden within this little tale was Kingsley's social concern for the plight of the chimney sweeps, plus his attempt to reconcile the new science (Darwin's The Origin of Species had been published in 1859) with his religious beliefs. On a summer day in 1862 an Oxford professor of mathematics, Charles Dodgson, told a story to three little girls on a picnic. At the children's request, Dodgson wrote down that story (as "Alice's Adventures Underground") and presented it to his young friends as a Christmas gift in 1864. At the insistence of others, he decided to have it published. By 1865 the artist John Tenniel had completed the drawings, and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, published under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll, was ready for the host of readers to come. What made this story unique for its time was that it contained not a trace of a lesson or a moral. It was really made purely for enjoyment, and it has delighted both children and adults ever since.

The beginnings of science-fiction adventure stories came to us from France in the translations of Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1869), and Around the World in Eighty Days (1872). Modern readers might be surprised to note the early dates of these books. Other well-known fantasies were published near the end of the nineteenth century. George MacDonald was a friend of Lewis Carroll's; in fact, he was one of the persons who had urged the publication of Alice. However, his own "invented fairy-tale," At the Back of the North Wind (1871), has much more of the sad spiritual quality found in many of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales than the mad inconsistencies of the world of Lewis Carroll.

Even though many of the early books for children included the word amusing in their titles, their main purpose was to instruct or moralize. Undoubtedly, children enjoyed the broad humor in some of the folktales and the nonsense in Mother Goose, but few books used humor or nonsense as a central theme before the middle of the nineteenth century.
The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi first appeared in a children's newspaper in Rome in 1881; it was translated into English in 1892 under the title The Story of a Puppet. Children still enjoy this story of the mischievous puppet whose nose grew longer with each lie he told the Blue Fairy. Collodi's real name was Carlos Lorenzini.
The prototype for Amelia Bedelia, Miss Pickerell, Mary Poppins, and all the other eccentric women characters in children's literature can be found in the nonsensical antics of Mrs. Peterkin and her family. Published in 1880 by Lucretia Hale, The Peterkin Papers provided children with real humor. In one story, "The Lady Who Put Salt in Her Coffee," Mrs. Peterkin mistakenly substitutes salt for sugar in her coffee. The whole family troops to the chemist and the herb lady to find out what to do. Finally "the lady from Philadelphia" provides the answer—make another cup of coffee!

Also in the category of books for fun may be included the many books with movable parts. Harlequinades, or turn-ups, first appeared in 1766. They consisted of pages of pictures that could be raised or lowered to create other scenes. Later (from the 1840s through the 1890s), pictures were made like Venetian blinds to create another scene. Circular wheels could be turned to provide more action, and whole pop-up scenes created miniature stages.


Poetry for children began to flourish in the nineteenth century. In the first part of the century, poetry, like prose, still reflected the influence of religion and moral didacticism. The Taylor sisters, Ann and Jane, emphasized polite behavior, morals, and death in the poetry for their first book, Original Poems for Infant Minds (1804). While Jane Taylor wrote the often-parodied "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" for this collection and Ann provided the lovely "Welcome, welcome little stranger, to this busy world of care," the book also included some fairly morbid poems.

However, William Roscoe's The Butterfly's Ball and the Grasshopper's Feast (1807) provided pure nonsense, rhyme, and rhythm that delighted children. There were no moral lessons here, just an invitation: "Come take up your hats and away let us haste/To the Butterfly's Ball and the Grasshopper's Feast." Roscoe, an historian and botanist, wrote the book for the pleasure of his own child. It was so fresh and different that it generated many imitations.

Clement Moore, a professor who also wrote to please his own children, gave the world the Christmas classic A Visit from St. Nicholas. One of the first American contributions to a joyous literature for children, the book was published under that title in 1823, but it is now known by the title The Night Before Christmas. Mary Had a Little Lamb, first written by Sarah Josepha Hale in 1830, was included in McGuffey's Reader in 1837 and has since been recited by generations of American schoolchildren.

Dr. Heinrich Hoffman's Struwwelpeter (Shock-Headed Peter) was translated from the German in about 1848. His subjects included "Shock-Headed Peter," who wouldn't comb his hair or cut his nails, and Harriet, who played with fire. These cautionary tales in verse were meant to frighten children into good behavior. Instead, children loved the pictures and gruesome verse. Surely these poems are the forerunners of some of the modern verse by Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky.

The century's greatest contribution to lasting children's poetry was the nonsense verse of Edward Lear, a poet who, like Lewis Carroll, wrote only to entertain. Lear was by profession a landscape painter and illustrator. He wrote his first book, A Book of Nonsense, in 1846 for his child friends; More Nonsense (1877) appeared more than thirty years later. Generations have delighted in "Quangle Wangle" and "The Owl and the Pussycat." Lear did not invent the limerick, but he certainly became master of the form. His black-line illustrations are as clever as his poetry.

Some of Christina Rossetti's poetry is reminiscent of Mother Goose, such as the well-loved "Mix a Pancake." Other selections, such as "Who has seen the wind?" gave children vivid descriptions of the world around them. Many poems from Rossetti's book Sing Song (1872) are found in anthologies today.

The century ended with a unique volume of poetry that celebrated the everyday life and thought of the child. A Child's Garden of Verses (1885) by Robert Louis Stevenson was first published under the title Penny Whistles. Stevenson was a poet who could discover joy in child's play and enter the child's imaginings in such well-loved poems as "My Shadow," "Bed in Summer," "The Swing," "Windy Nights," and "My Bed Is a Boat."
Two notable American poets were writing for children at the close of the nineteenth century. Eugene Field's Poems of Childhood (1896) included "The Sugar Plum Tree" and "The Duel." James Whitcomb Riley employed dialect as he described local incidents and Indiana farm life. This Hoosier dialect has made most of his poems seem obsolete, except for "Little Orphant Annie" and "The Raggedy Man," which continue to give children pleasure.


Magazines formed a significant part of the literature for children in the last half of the nineteenth century. The first magazines, which grew out of the Sunday school movement, were pious in their outlook.

The first true children's magazine for English children appeared in 1853 under the title Charm. Stating that there would always be room for stories of the little people or fairies on its pages, it was ahead of its time and lasted only two years. The first magazine planned for children in America was published in 1826. The Juvenile Miscellany was edited by Lydia Maria Child, a former teacher who wanted to provide enjoyable material for children to read. The magazine was very successful until Child, an ardent abolitionist, spoke out against slavery. Sales dropped immediately, and the magazine stopped publication in 1834. The Youth's Companion survived the longest of all the children's magazines in America, beginning in 1827 and merging with The American Boy in 1929, which in turn ceased publication in 1941. It published such well-known writers as Kipling, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jack London, Mark Twain, and Theodore Roosevelt, among others.

In 1873 Mary Mapes Dodge, author of Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates, became editor of the most famous magazine for children, St. Nicholas Magazine. The publisher announced that in this magazine "there must be entertainment, no less than information; the spirit of laughter would be evoked; there would be 'no sermonizing, no wearisome spinning out of facts, no rattling of dry bones of history,' while all priggishness was condemned."

The magazine attracted well-known artists and writers such as Arthur Rackham, Reginald Birch, Howard Pyle, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Louisa May Alcott. Many of the novels that were first serialized in St. Nicholas Magazine were published as books and became classics of their day. These included Louisa May Alcott's An Old-Fashioned Girl (1870) and Frances Hodgson Burnett's Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886). This magazine guided children's reading for more than three-quarters of a century and set standards of excellence for the whole publishing field.

Illustrators of the Nineteenth Century

Until the late eighteenth century illustrations had been, for the most part, crude woodcuts, due in great part to the lack of sophisticated color reproduction techniques. Illustrators were not identified, and pictures were frequently interchanged among books. During the nineteenth century, however, as engraving processes were refined and lithographic techniques developed, the quality of illustrations improved and the great book artists actually preferred to work in black and white. Illustrators of children's books began to achieve as much recognition as the authors. Several outstanding artists emerged as illustrators of children's books during this time. The engraver George Cruikshank illustrated the English edition of Grimm's Fairy Tales in 1823. His tiny, detailed etchings portrayed much action and humor, real characters, and spritely elves and fairies. His interpretations were so appropriate and seemed so much a part of these tales that they were republished in Germany with the original text.

The growth in popularity of the illustrated weekly newspaper attracted many artists to the field of illustration. Charles Bennett, a caricaturist for Punch magazine, lent his talents to some surprisingly lively illustrations in books for children from 1857 until his death in 1867. His Nine Lives of a Cat has a quality of page design and playfulness that are common in picture books of today. Richard ("Dicky") Doyle designed the original cover of Punch and later did the illustrations for John Ruskin's King of the Golden River (1851). In Fairyland (1870) is "considered to be among the finest picturebooks printed in color during the nineteenth century."

Both Bennett and Doyle worked with printer Edmund Evans. Evans's extraordinary talent as an engraver and his important improvements in color printing techniques were responsible for dramatic changes in picture books for children in the last half of the nineteenth century. In addition to artists such as Doyle and Bennett, Evans recruited artists who would become the best known illustrators of the nineteenth century—Walter Crane, Randolph Caldecott, and Kate Greenaway.

Walter Crane, the son of a portrait painter, knew that Evans wanted to print some quality illustrated books for children, something that interested Crane also. Crane created beautifully designed pictures for four nursery-rhyme books: Sing a Song of Sixpence, The House That Jack Built, Dame Trot and Her Comical Cat, and The History of Cock Robin and Jenny Wren. Evans and Crane convinced Warne to publish these high-quality "toy books" during the years 1865 and 1866. They were very successful, and Crane went on to design some thirty-five other picture books, including two well-known nursery-rhyme collections with music and illustrations, The Baby's Opera (1877) and The Baby's Bouquet (1878). Crane had a strong sense of design and paid particular attention to the total format of the book, including the placement of the text, the quality of the paper, and even the design at the beginning and end of the chapters. He characteristically used flat colors with a firm black outline, and his pages usually were decorated with elaborate borders.

The picture books by Randolph Caldecott established new standards of illustration for children's books. Caldecott filled his drawings with action, the joy of living, and good fun. His love of animals and the English countryside is reflected in his illustrations, which seem to convey much meaning through a few lines. Although Caldecott, like Crane, illustrated many books, he is best remembered for his series of picture books, also called toy books. These included The House That Jack Built (1878), The Diverting History of John Gilpin (1878), Sing a Song of Sixpence (1880), and Hey Diddle Diddle Picture Book (1883). On the Caldecott Medal for distinguished illustrations there is a reproduction of one of his pictures showing John Gilpin's ride, a reminder of this famous illustrator of the nineteenth century.

Kate Greenaway's name brings visions of English gardens, delicate prim figures, and the special style of costume worn by her rather fragile children. Her art defined the fanciful world of Victorian sentimentality. After the publication of her first book, Under the Window (1878), it became the fashion to dress children in Green-away costumes with large floppy hats. Greeting cards, wallpaper, and even china were made with designs copied after Greenaway. Her best-known works include Marigold Garden (1885), A Apple Pie (1886), and The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1888). The Kate Greenaway Medal, similar to our Caldecott Medal, is given each year to the most distinguished British picture book.

In America, Howard Pyle was writing and illustrating his versions of The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood of Great Renown (1883), Pepper and Salt (1886), and The Wonder Clock (1888). He created real people in his illustrations for these collections of folktales and legends. His characters from the Middle Ages were strong; the life of the times was portrayed with interesting, clear detail. Another of his important contributions was establishing classes for illustrators of children's books. Pyle's students included N. C. Wyeth, Maxfield Parrish, and Jessie Wilcox Smith, all of whom became well-known illustrators in the twentieth century.

By the close of the nineteenth century, children's literature was alive and flourishing in America and England. Pious, moralistic, didactic books were no longer being written. Gone were the make-believe accounts of impossible children. In their place were real live persons living in fun-loving families. Pure nonsense and the fanciful were welcomed in both poetry and fantasy. The old folktales and the fairies were accepted once again. Children's books were more beautiful, with illustrations by recognized artists and pictures playing an increasingly important role. A few magazines had given consideration to the place of literary criticism.

A literature for children, designed to bring them joy and happiness, had begun. However, this body of work was limited to books written for and reflective of the white mainstream culture. The idea that race, ethnicity, gender, or class should be reflected in the authorship or subject matter of children's books was unthinkable. Not until the latter part of the next century would books for children begin to reflect the reality of a multicultural world.

Charlotte Huck's Children's LiOnline Learning Center

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