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Evolution of Children's Literature in Western Culture

Updated on March 30, 2016
Jessie Wilcox Smith's "Fairy Tales"
Jessie Wilcox Smith's "Fairy Tales" | Source

Children’s Literature in Western Culture

Children’s literature has evolved through the generations. In ancient times children did not have their own stories. Children listened to oral storytellers recite tales intended for adults. As time passed focus shifted to a child’s needs. Educational writing and didactic stories were written with children in mind. When printed children’s books became more easily available stories moved from merely educational to entertaining as well. Children’s literature today now features child focused stories that offer views of real life as well as delightful fantasy. The evolution of children’s literature through the generations has progressed from the early oral folktales to the modern child-centered stories of today.

Seventeenth Century

The seventeenth century ushered out the Renaissance and began the modern era. Literature for children during the Renaissance focused on education. The Puritans of the seventeenth century followed this example by creating educational reading tools for children. School books, called Hornbooks, were used during this time (Russell, 2009). They were primitive wooden slabs with information written on parchment attached. These laminated lesson books could be used repeatedly. Children raised as Puritans followed a strict religious culture that was reflected in the writing available to children in that period. The school books provided lessons on the alphabet using religious rhymes. Besides Puritanism, the philosophy of John Locke influenced seventeenth century children’s literature.

Child with Horn Book
Child with Horn Book | Source

In 1693 John Locke published “Thoughts Concerning Education” (Russell, 2009). This essay provided the philosophy that children are blank slates waiting to be filled. Locke believed that all children could learn and had equal potential. This was a unique philosophy. Locke did not believe that heredity had anything to do with the potential to learn. All children were born with the capability to learn and adults had a responsibility to provide a proper learning environment (Russell, 2009). Locke’s idea of necessary education was moral coaching, good breeding and manners, wisdom, useful knowledge, and a dedication to serve the country (North Carolina State University, n.d.). Locke did not approve of fairy stories and folktales, and he warned against the frightening nature of fairy tales encouraging stories from everyday life (Encyclopedia of Children, 2008). He considered these stories inappropriate, and the Puritans viewed them as a form of witchcraft (Encyclopedia of Children, 2008). Despite these warnings, folk literature in this period marks a time when the oral stories of the past began to be written down (World of Tales, 2012).

Newbery's "Pretty Little Pocket Book"
Newbery's "Pretty Little Pocket Book" | Source

18th and Early 19th Century

The early eighteenth century continued the trend of children reading books that were written for adults. In 1744 John Newbery published the first book for children “A Little Pretty Pocket Book” (Russell, 2009). This book featured illustrated pages based on the alphabet and included several fables as well (Indiana University, n.d.). Newbery’s idea of creating books specifically for children changed children’s literature from this point, and the American Library Association honors him by giving an award in his name to the best children’s book in the United States Annually (Russell, 2009).

Another person who was influential to children’s literature in the eighteenth century was Jean Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau was a French philosopher who placed high value on a child’s moral development which he wrote about in his book “Emile” published in 1762 (Russell, 2009). This philosophy encouraged writers for children to take a more didactic approach to literature. These were simple stories with moral lessons. This focus on moral lessons brought a revival to old folktales (Russell, 2009). The “Mother Goose” stories offered the tales of “Cinderella” and “Beauty and the Beast.” These folktales included didactic messages. “Cinderella” provides the lesson that kindness is rewarded, and “Beauty and the Beast” offers the message not to judge by appearances.

Robinson Crusoe by Offterdinger & Zweigle 1880
Robinson Crusoe by Offterdinger & Zweigle 1880 | Source

The Victorian Age

With the growth of the industrial revolution children’s literature blossomed into the “Golden Age of children’s books” (Russell, 2009, p. 12). Publication of children’s books increased with technological breakthroughs allowing literature to be available to many more children. The middle class grew creating a larger reading audience. Women’s status improved in this period, and because women were the primary authors this affected children’s literature. The Romantic Movement, at the end of the eighteenth century and into the beginning of the nineteenth century, idealized childhood and celebrated imagination encouraging the children’s literature movement (Russell, 2009).

As children’s literature grew in prominence changes ensued. Stories in Great Britain and the United States varied from one another. Although each followed similar patterns of adventure, fantasy, and domestic stories Great Britain’s literature was influenced by internationalism and the United States reflected the pioneer spirit and isolation that was prominent in American culture (Russell, 2009). An example of a popular story from Great Britain was Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe.” An example of a popular American story was “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” by Mark Twain. Another major shift in children’s literature in this period was the addition of more complex illustration. Earlier works had either no illustration or crude and rudimentary drawings. With the growth of the children’s literature industry artists began to recognize the medium. George Cruikshak was notably one of the earliest illustrators with his work in Grimm’s fairy tales and Dickens’ “Oliver Twist” (Russell, 2009). The Victorian era stories related realism but also followed the folk tale themes of heroism.

Between World War I and World War II

As the world faced the destruction and devastation of war children’s literature shifted focus to fantasy as a means of escape. A.A. Milne’s “Winnie the Pooh” describes the adventures of a boy and his toys. Milne’s own son plays the role of the boy. J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” offers a fantasy about an unlikely hero who takes part in battles while meeting strange and fanciful characters (Russell, 2009). Another means of escaping the realities of war was by focusing on the past. The American stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House in the Big Woods” continued the frontier adventure as did Carol Ryrie Brink’s “Caddie Woodlawn” (Russell, 2009).

Illustration took a giant leap in this generation with the first popular the picture books. Building on folktale Wanda Gag’s “Millions of Cat” was one of the first popular picture books (Russell, 2009). Others to come would be “The Story of Ferdinand” by Munro Leaf illustrated by Richard Lawson, and Dr. Suess’ “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street” (Russell, 2009).

World War II to Present

As the war ended social focus recognized the need for education as a means to eliminate ignorance and prejudice, and the work of child specialists, such as Jean Piaget and Dr. Benjamin Spock, sent children’s literature in a different direction. Although fantasy stories still remained popular, for example C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” works became more child-focused with less didactic tones (Russell, 2009). Children’s book authors considered children’s likes and dislikes to create child centered stories that would appeal to this new generation. Realistic fiction became more realistic tackling problems that children faced like sexuality, violence, drugs, and war (Russell, 2009). Cultural diversity was finally recognized as children’s books for African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, and other cultures became available. Another notable factor about children’s literature in modern times is that the media has adapted many literary works (Encyclopedia of Children, 2008). The Disney Corporation has offered many popular movie and television versions of the folk and fairy tales of the past re-introducing these old stories to a new generation.

Jessie Wilcox Smith "A Garden of Children's Verses"
Jessie Wilcox Smith "A Garden of Children's Verses" | Source

Each generation offered a different view into children’s literature. The folk literature and oral stories of ancient times evolved through this process. What is not greatly marked in this evolution is the variety of cultures in society. Literature was often available only to people of means. As children’s literature became more available this became less of an issue, but various cultures were not widely recognized in children’s literature until modern times. Children of different cultures had to rely on oral stories and folk tales from their culture as a means of relating. This unfortunate disparity finally has been recognized, but as with all change it will take time.

References

Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society. (2008). Children’s literature. Retrieved from http://www.faqs.org/childhood/Ch-Co/Children-s-Literature.html

Indiana University. (n.d.). John Newbery. Retrieved from http://www.iupui.edu/~engwft/newbery.htm

North Carolina State University. (n.d.). John Locke. Retrieved from http://www.cals.ncsu.edu/agexed/aee501/locke.html

Russell, D.L. (2009). Literature for children: A short introduction (6th ed.) Boston, MA; Pearson/Allyn Bacon

World of Tales. (2012). Stories for children. Retrieved from http://worldoftales.com/fairy_tales.html

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    • LisaKoski profile image

      LisaKoski 3 years ago from WA

      Very fascinating look at the evolution of children's literature. I appreciate all the research you seem to have done to put this together. I love looking at how different types of literature have grown and changed over time. Of all genres, I think children's literature is the easiest for most people to overlook because of their target audience. Thanks for sharing!

    • Glenis Rix profile image

      Glenis Rix 24 months ago from UK

      Very interesting hub. I love children's literature and miss reading it now that my children are adults. The Jessie Wilcox Smith illustration is so pretty. I intend to work my way through your related hubs when I have some time on my hands.

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