1. Children's literature
Children’s literature, the body of written works and accompanying illustrations produced
in order to entertain or instruct young people. The genre encompasses a wide range of works,
including acknowledged classics ofworld literature, picture books and easy-to-read stories written
exclusively for children, and fairy tales, lullabies, fables, folk songs, and other primarily orally
Children’s literature first clearly emerged as a distinct and independent form of literature
in the second half of the 18th century, before which it had been at best only in an embryonic
stage. During the 20th century, however, its growth has been so luxuriant as to make defensible
its claim to be regarded with the respect—though perhaps not the solemnity—that is due any
other recognized branch of literature.
Definition of Terms
All potential or actual young literates, from the instant they can with joy leaf through a
picture book or listen to a story read aloud, to the age of perhaps 14 or 15, may be called children.
Thus “children” includes “young people.” Two considerations blur the definition. Today’s young
teenager is an anomaly: his environment pushes him toward a precocious maturity. Thus, though
he may read children’s books, he also, and increasingly, reads adult books. Second, the child
survives in many adults. As a result, some children’s books (e.g., Lewis Carroll’s Alice in
Wonderland, A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh, and, at one time, Munro Leaf’s Story of Ferdinand)
are also read widely by adults.
In the term children’s literature, the more important word is literature. For the most part,
the adjective imaginative is to be felt as preceding it. It comprises that vast, expanding territory
recognizably staked out for a junior audience, which does not mean that it is not also intended for
seniors. Adults admittedly make up part of its population: children’s books are written, selected
for publication, sold, bought, reviewed, and often read aloud by grown-ups. Sometimes they seem
also to be written with adults in mind, as for example the popular French Astérix series of comics
parodying history. Nevertheless, by and large there is a sovereign republic of children’s literature.
To it may be added five colonies or dependencies: first, “appropriated” adult books satisfying two
conditions—they must generally be read by children and they must have sharply affected the
course of children’s literature (Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s
Travels, the collection of folktales by the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, the folk-verse
anthology Des Knaben Wunderhorn [“The Boy’s Magic Horn”], edited by Achim von
Arnim and Clemens Brentano, and William Blake’s Songs of Innocence); second, books the
audiences of which seem not to have been clearly conceived by their creators (or their creators
may have ignored, as irrelevant, such a consideration) but that are now fixed stars in the child’s
literary firmament (Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Charles Perrault’s fairy
tales; third, picture books and easy-to-read stories commonly subsumed under the label of
literature but qualifying as such only by relaxed standards (though Beatrix Potter and several
other writers do nonetheless qualify); fourth, first quality children’s versions of adult classics
(Walter de la Mare’s Stories from the Bible, perhaps Howard Pyle’s retellings of the Robin
Hood ballads and tales; finally, the domain of once oral “folk” material that children have kept
alive—folktales and fairy tales; fables, sayings, riddles, charms, tongue twisters; folksongs,
2. lullabies, hymns, carols, and other simple poetry; rhymes of the street, the playground, the
nursery; and, supremely, Mother Goose and nonsense verse.
Five categories that are often considered children’s literature are excluded from this
section. The broadest of the excluded categories is that of unblushingly commercial and
harmlessly transient writing, including comic books, much of which, though it may please young
readers, and often for good reasons, is for the purposes of this article notable only for its
sociohistorical, rather than literary, importance. Second, all books of systematic instruction are
barred except those sparse examples (e.g., the work of John Amos Comenius) that illuminate the
history of the subject. Third, excluded from discussion is much high literature that was not
originally intended for children: from the past, Jean de La Fontaine’s Fables, James Fenimore
Cooper’s Leatherstocking tales, Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre,
Alexandre Dumas’ Three Musketeers, Rudyard Kipling’s Kim; from the modern period, Marjorie
Kinnan Rawlings’ Yearling, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, The Diary of Anne Frank, Thor
Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki, Enid Bagnold’s National Velvet. A fourth, rather minor, category comprises
books about the young where the content but not the style or point of view is relevant (Sir James
Barrie’s Sentimental Tommy, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, F. Anstey’s [Thomas Anstey
Guthrie] Vice Versa). Finally, barred from central, though not all, consideration is the “nonfiction,”
or fact, book. Except for a handful of such books, the bright pages of which still rain influence or
which possess artistic merit, this literature should be viewed from its socio-educational-
The Case for AChildren’s Literature
Many otherwise comprehensive histories of literature slight or omit the child’s reading
interests. Many observers have made explicit the suspicion that children’s literature, like that of
detection or suspense, is “inferior.” They cannot detect a sufficiently long “tradition”; distinguish
an adequate number of masterworks;or find, to use on thoughtful critic’s words,“style, sensibility,
Others, holding a contrary view, assertthat a tradition of two centuries is not to be ignored.
Though the casefor a children’s literature mustprimarily rest on its major writers (including
a half dozen literary geniuses), it is based as well on other supports that bolster its claim to artistic
Children’s literature, while a tributary of the literary mainstream, offers its own identifiable,
semidetached history. In part it is the issue of certain traceable social movements, of which the
“discovery” of the child is the most salient. It is independent to the degree that, while it must meet
many of the standards of adult literature, it has also developed aesthetic criteria of its own by
which it may be judged. According to some of its finest practitioners, it is independent, too, as the
only existing literary medium enabling certain things to be said that would otherwise remain unsaid
or unsayable. The nature of its audience sets it apart; it is often read, especially by children
younger than 12, in a manner suggesting trance, distinct from that of adult reading. Universally
diffused among literate peoples, it offers a rich array of genres, types, and themes, some
resembling grown-up progenitors, many peculiar to itself. Its “style, sensibility, vision” range over
a spectrum wide enough to span matter-of-fact realism and tenuous mysticism.
3. Other measures of its maturity include an extensive body (notably
in Germany, Italy, Sweden, Japan, and the United States) of commentary, scholarship, criticism,
history, biography, and bibliography, along with the beginnings of an aesthetic theory or
philosophy of composition. Finally, one might note its power to engender its own institutions:
publishing houses, theatres, libraries, itinerant storytellers, critics, periodicals, instruction in
centres of higher learning, lectureships, associations and conferences,“book weeks,” collections,
exhibitions, and prizes. Indeed, the current institutionalizing of children’s literature on an
international scale has gone so far, some feel, as to cast a shadow on the spontaneity and lack
of self-consciousness that should lie at its heart.
Robert Louis Stevenson
Coretta Scott King Book Awards
Costa Book Awards
Some General Features and Forces
The discovery of the child
A self-aware literature flows from a recognition of its proper subject matter. The proper
subject matter of children’s literature, apart from informational or didactic works, is children. More
4. broadly, it embraces the whole content of the child’s imaginative world and that of his
daily environment, as well as certain ideas and sentiments characteristic of it. The population of
this world is made up not only of children themselves but of animated objects, plants, even
grammatical and mathematical abstractions; toys, dolls, and puppets; real, chimerical, and
invented animals; miniature or magnified humans; spirits or grotesques of wood, water, air, fire,
and space; supernatural and fantasy creatures; figures of fairy tale, myth, and legend; imagined
familiars and doppelgänger; and grown-ups as seen through the child’s eyes—whether Napoleon,
Dr. Dolittle, parents, or the corner grocer. That writers did not detect this lively cosmos for two
and a half millennia is one of the curiosities of literature. At any moment there has always been a
numerous, physically visible, and audible company of children. Whether this sizable minority,
appraised as literary raw material, could be as rewarding as the adult majority was never asked.
And so, almost to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, children’s literature remained
recessive. The chief, though not the only, reason is improbably simple: the child himself, though
there, was not seen—not seen, that is, as a child.
In preliterate societies he was and is viewed in the light of his social, economic, and
religious relationship to the tribe or clan. Though he may be nurtured in all tenderness, he is
thought of not as himself but as a pre-adult, which is but one of his many forms. Among Old
Testament Jews the child’s place in society replicated his father’s, molded by his relation to God.
So, too, in ancient Greece and Rome the child, dressed in the modified adult costume that with
appropriate changes of fashion remained his fate for centuries to come, was conceived as a
miniature adult. His importance lay not in himself but in what Aristotle would have called his final
cause: the potential citizen-warrior. A girl child was a seedbed of future citizen-warriors.
Hence classical literature either does not see the child at all or misconstrues him. Astyanax and
Ascanius, as well as Medea’s two children, are not persons. They are stage props. Aristophanes
scorns as unworthy of dramatic treatment the children in Euripides’ Alcestis.
Throughout the Middle Ages and far into the late Renaissance the child remained, as it
were, terra incognita. A sharp sense of generation gap—one of the motors of a children’s
literature—scarcely existed. The family, young and old, was a kind of homogenized mix.
Sometimes children were even regarded as infrahuman: for Montaigne they had “neither mental
activities nor recognizable body shape.” The year 1658 is a turning point. In that year a Moravian
educator, Comenius, published Orbis Sensualium Pictus (The Visible World in Pictures, 1659), a
teaching device that was also the first picture book for children. It embodied a novel insight:
children’s reading should be of a special order because children are not scaled-down adults. But
the conscious, systematic, and successful exploitation of this insight was to wait for almost a
It is generally felt that, both as a person worthy of special regard and as an idea worthy of
serious contemplation, the child began to come into his own in the second half of the 18th century.
His emergence, as well as that of a literature suited to his needs, is linked to many historical
forces, among them the development of Enlightenment thought (Rousseau and, before him, John
Locke); the rise of the middle class; the beginnings of the emancipation of women (children’s
literature, unlike that for grown-ups, is in large measure a distaff product) and Romanticism, with
its minor strands of the cult of the child (Wordsworth and others) and of genres making a special
appeal to the young (folktales and fairy tales, myths, ballads). Yet, with all these forces working
for the child, he still might not have emerged had it not been for a few unpredictable
geniuses: William Blake, Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, George MacDonald, Louisa May
Alcott, Mark Twain, Collodi, Hans Christian Andersen. But, once tentatively envisaged as an
5. independent being, a literature proper to him could also be envisaged. And so in the mid-18th
century what may be defined as children’s literature was at last developing.
Shifting visions of the child
Even after the child had been recognized, his literature on occasion persisted in viewing
him as a diminutive adult. More characteristically, however, “realistic” (that is,
nonfantastic) fiction in all countries regarded the discovered child in a mirror that provided only a
partial reflection of him. There are fewer instances of attempts to present the child whole, in the
round, than there are (as in Tolstoy or Joyce) attempts to represent the whole adult. Twain’s Huck
Finn, Erich Kästner’s Emil (in Emil and the Detectives), Vadim Frolov’s Sasha (in What It’s All
About), and Maria Gripe’s delightful Josephine all exemplify in-the-round characterization. More
frequently, however, children’s literature portrays the young as types. Thus there is the brand of
hell of the Puritan tradition; the moral child of Mrs. Trimmer; the well-instructed child of Madame
de Genlis; the small upper class benefactor of Arnaud Berquin; the naughty child, modulated
variously in Catherine Sinclair’s Holiday House and in the books of Comtesse de Ségur, E.
Nesbit, Dr. Heinrich Hoffmann (Struwwelpeter), and Wilhelm Busch (Max und Moritz); the rational
child of Maria Edgeworth; the little prig of Thomas Day’s Sandford and Merton; the little angel
(Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy); the forlorn waif (Hector Malot’s Sans Famille);
the manly, outdoor child (Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons); etc. The rationale behind
these shifting visions of childhood is akin to Renaissance theories of “humours” or “the ruling
passion.” Progress in children’s literature depended partly on abandoning this mechanical, part-
for-the-whole attitude. One encouraging note in realistic children’s fiction of the second half of the
20th century in all advanced countries is the appearance of a more organic view.
A third universal feature: children’s literature appears later than adult and grows more
slowly. Only after the trail has been well blazed does it make use of new techniques, whether
of composition or illustration. As for content, only after World War II did it exploit certain realistic
themes and attitudes, turning on race, class,war, and sex, that had been part of general literature
at least since the 1850s. This tardiness may be due to the child’s natural conservatism.
Fourth, the tempo of development varies sharply from country to country and from region
to region. It is plausible that England should create a complex children’s literature, while a less-
developed region (the Balkans, for example) might not. Less clear is why the equally
high cultures of France and England should be represented by unequal literatures.
The didactic versus the imaginative
The fifth, and most striking, general feature is the creative tension resulting from a
constantly shifting balance between two forces: that of the pulpit-schoolroom and that of the
imagination. The first force may take on many guises. It may stress received religious or moral
doctrine, thus generating the Catholic children’s literature of Spain or the moral tale of Georgian
and early Victorian England. It may bear down less on morality than on mere good manners,
propriety, or adjustment to the prevailing social code. It may emphasize nationalist or patriotic
6. motives, as in Edmondo De Amicis’ post-Risorgimento Cuore (The Heart of a Child) or much
Soviet production. Or its concern may be pedagogical, the imparting of “useful” information,
frequently sugarcoated in narrative or dialogue. Whatever its form, it is distinguishable from the
shaping spirit of imagination, which ordinarily embodies itself in children’s games and rhymes, the
fairy tale, the fantasy, animal stories such as Kipling’s Jungle Books, nonsense, nonmoral poetry,
humour, or the realistic novel conceived as art rather than admonition.
Children’s literature designed for entertainment rather than self-improvement, aiming at
emotional expansion rather than acculturation, usually develops late. Alice in Wonderland, the
first supreme victory of the imagination (except for Mother Goose), did not appear until 1865.
Frequently the literature of delight has underground sources of nourishment and inspiration: oral
tradition, nursery songs, and the folkish institutions of the chapbook and the penny romance.
While the didactic and the imaginative are conveniently thought of as polar, they need not
always be inimical. Little Women and Robinson Crusoe are at once didactically moral and highly
poetical. Nevertheless, many of the acknowledged classics in the field, from Alice to The Hobbit,
incline to fantasy, which is less true of literature for grown-ups.
Children’s Classics of the Nineteenth Century
1812 The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann Wyss
1843 A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
1864 Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne
1865 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson)
1865 Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates by Mary Mapes Dodge
1868 Little Women by Louisa May Alcott 1869 Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea by Jules Verne
1871 Throughthe Looking-GlassbyLewisCarroll (CharlesDodgson)1872Aroundthe WorldinEightyDays
by JulesVerne 1876 The Adventuresof TomSawyerbyMark Twain(Samuel Clemens) 1877 Black Beauty
by Anna Sewell 1883 Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson 1883 The Adventures of Pinocchio by
Carlo Collodi (Carlo Lorenzini) 1884 Heidi by Johanna Spyri 1886 Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson
1886 Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances H. Burnett 1894 The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling 1900 The
Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
7. Oral literature
The Development of Children’s Literature
Keeping these five general features of development in mind, certain criteria may now be
suggested as helpful in making a gross estimate of the degree of that development within any
given country. Some of these criteria are artistic. Others link with social progress, wealth,
technological level, or the political structure. In what seems their order of importance, these
1. Degree of awareness of the child’s identity.
2. Progress made beyond passive dependence on oral tradition, folklore, and legend.
3. Riseof a class of professional writers,as distinct from moral reformers, schoolteachers,clerics,
or versatile journalists—all those who, for pedagogical, doctrinal, or pecuniary reasons turn
themselves into writers for children. For example, a conscious Italian literature for young people
may be said to have begun in 1776 with the Rev. Francesco Soave’s moralistic “Short Stories,”
and largely because that literature continued to be composed largely by nonprofessionals, its
record has been lacklustre. It took more than a century after the Rev. Francesco to produce
a Pinocchio. And only in the 20th century, as typified by the outstanding work of a professional
like Gianni Rodari (e.g., Telephone Tales), did children’s literature in Italy seem to be getting into
4. Degree of independence from authoritarian controls: church,state, schoolsystem,a rigid family
structure. Although this criterion might be rejected by historians of some nations, one must
somehow try to explain why the Spanish, a great and imaginative people, took so long—indeed
until 1952—to produce, in Sanchez-Silva, a children’s writer of any notable talent.
5. Number of “classics” the influence of which transcends national boundaries.
6. Invention of new forms or genres and the exploitation of a variety of traditional ones.
7. Measure of dependence on translations.
8. Quantity of primary literature: that is, annual production of children’s books and, more to the
point, of good children’s books.
9. Quantity of secondary literature: richness and scope of a body of scholarship, criticism,
10. Level of institutional development: libraries, publishing houses, associations, etc.
To these criteria some might add a vigorous tradition of illustration. But that is arguable.
While Beatrix Potter’s words and pictures compose an indivisible unit, it is equally true that a
8. country may produce a magnificent school of artists (Czechoslovakia’s Jǐrí Trnka, Ota Janec
and others) without developing a literature of matching depth and variety.
The criteria applied: three examples
West versus East
The first application of such standards reveals the expected: a gap separating the achievement
of the Far East from that of the West. Some Eastern literatures (New Guinea) have not advanced
beyond the stage of oral tradition. Others (India, the Philippines, Ceylon, Iran) have been
handicapped by language problems. Professional children’s writers are rarer than in the West:
according to D.R. Kalia, former director of the Delhi Public Library, “No such class exists in Hindi.”
In Japan, authoritarian patterns—filial piety and ancestor worship—have operated as brakes,
though far less since World War II. A low economic level and inadequate technology discourage,
in such countries as Burma, Sri Lanka (Ceylon), and Thailand, the origination and distribution
of indigenous writing. A towering roadblock is the tendency to imitate the children’s books of the
It is true that this vast Eastern region, considered as a whole, has produced a number of works
ranking as “classics.” Most advanced is Japan. Its literature for children goes back at least to the
late 19th century and by 1928 was established in its own right. Japan’s “discovery” of the child
seems to have been made directly after World War II. In Iwaya Sazanami, Japan has its Grimm;
in Ogawa Minei, perhaps its Andersen; in the contemporary Ishii Momoko, a critic and creative
writer of quality; in Takeyama Michio’s Harp of Burma (available in English), a high-quality
postwar controversial novel. But, though less markedly in Japan, the basic Oriental inspiration
remains fixed in folklore (also, in China and Japan, in nursery songs and rhymes), and
the didactic imperative continues to act as a hobble. By most criteria the development of Eastern
(as compared with Western) children’s literature still appears to be sparse and tentative.
North versus south
In western Europe there is a sharp variation or unevenness, as between north and south, in the
tempo of development. This basic feature was first pointed out by Paul Hazard, a French critic,
in Les Livres, les enfants et les hommes (Eng. trans. by Marguerite Mitchell, Books, Children and
Men, 1944; 4th ed., 1960): “In the matter of literature for children the North surpasses the South
by a large margin.” For Hazard, Spain had no children’s literature; Italy, with
its Pinocchio and Cuore, could point only to an isolated pair of works of note, and even France in
order to strengthen its claims had to include northern Frenchmen: Erckmann-Chatrian, Jules
Verne—and the classic Comtesse de Ségur came from Russia.
Hazard wrote in the 1920s. Since then the situation has improved, not only in his own country,
but in Italy and in Portugal. Yet he is essentially correct: the south cannot match the richness of
England, Scotland, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries. To reinforce his position, one
might also adduce the United States, noting that the Mason–Dixon line is (though not in the field
of general literature) a dividing line: the American South, even including the Uncle Remus stories,
has supplied very little good children’s reading. As for nursery literature,
9. though analogous rhymes are found everywhere, especially in China, the English Mother
Goose is unique in the claims made for it as a work of art.
Why is the north superior to the south? The first criterion of development may be illuminating. It
simply restates Hazard’s dictum: “For the Latins, children have never been anything but future
men. The Nordics have understood better this truer truth, that men are only grown-up children.”
(“Adults are obsolete children,” says the American children’s author “Dr. Seuss.”) Hazard does
not mention other factors. Historically, the south has shown greater attachment to authoritarian
controls. Also, up to recent times, it has depended heavily on reworked folklore as against free
invention. Besides, there is the mysterious factor of climate: it could be true that children in Latin
countries mature faster and are sooner ready for adult literature. In France a
special intellectual tradition, that of Cartesian logic, tends to discourage a children’s literature.
Clear and distinct ideas, excellent in themselves, do not seem to feed the youthful imagination.
Again applying the chosen criteria, familiar patterns are recognizable: unevenness, as compared
with the United States; belatedness—in Argentina the cuento infantil is hardly detectable before
1900; and especially an unbalanced polarity, with didacticism decidedly the stronger magnet. The
close connection of the church with the child’s family and school life has encouraged a literature
stressing piety, and this at a time when the West, at least in its northern latitudes, is concerned
less with the salvation than with the imagination of the child. Fantasy emerged only in the 1930s,
in Brazil and in Mexico, where a Spanish exile, Antoniorrobles (pen name of Antonio Robles),
continued to develop his inventive vein. And realistic writing about the actual life of the young
evolved even more deliberately, being generally marked by a patriotic note. Though
understandable and wholesome, this did not seem to help the cause of the imagination.
Folklore has been vigorously exploited, often by scholars of high repute. It is largely influenced
by the legendry of Spain. Cuba, however, has produced interesting Afro-American tales for
children; Argentina offers some indigenous folk stories and tales of gaucho life; and Central
America is rich in native traditional verse enjoyed by children.
Latin American literature in general displays a special characteristic, part of its Iberian heritage: a
partiality for linguistic decoration, which is unpalatable to the relatively straightforward taste of the
young reader. Also the Latin-American view of the child remains tinged with a sentimentality from
which many European countries and the United States had by 1914 more or less freed
themselves. Thus verse for children, a medium specially cultivated in Latin America, has run to
the soft, the sweet, even the lachrymose rather than to the gay, the humorous, or the sanguine—
moods more congenial to the child’s sensibility. This is true even of the children’s verse of the
Nobel Prize-winning poet Gabriela Mistral. To these two weaknesses one must add a third: the
practical difficulty involved in the fact that most families cannot afford books. The absence of a
powerful middle class has had a retarding effect.
Children in Latin America often complain that the authors write not for them but for their parents.
They are given lectura (“reading matter”) rather than literatura, which is but to say that in Latin
America the admonitory note, considered so useful by church, state, and parent, continues to be
10. In summary, and applying the criteria: some less advanced Latin-American countries can hardly
be said to have a children’s literature at all. Others have produced notable writers: Brazil’s José
Bento Monteiro Lobato, Argentina’s Ana Maria Berry, Colombia’s Rafael Pombo,
Uruguay’s Horacio Quiroga. Yet the quality gap separating Latin-American children’s literature
from that of its northern neighbour is still wide.
Historical Sketches Of The Major Literatures
The English have often confesseda certain reluctance to say good-bye to childhood. This curious
national trait, baffling to their continental neighbours, may lie at the root of their supremacy in
children’s literature. Yet it remains a mystery.
But, if it cannot be accounted for, it can be summedup. From the critic’s vantage point, the English
(as well as the Scots and the Welsh)mustbe credited with having originated or triumphed in more
children’s genres than any other country. They have excelled in the school story, two solid
centuries of it, from Sarah Fielding’s The Governess; or, The Little Female Academy (1745) to,
say, C. Day Lewis’ Otterbury Incident (1948) and including such milestones as Thomas
Hughes’s Tom Brown’s School Days (1857) and Kipling’s Stalky & Co. (1899); and the boy’s
adventure story, with one undebatable world masterpiece in Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883),
plus a solid line of talented practitioners, from the Victorian Robert Ballantyne (The Coral Island)
to the contemporary Richard Church and Leon Garfield (Devil-in-the-Fog); the “girls’ book,” often
trash but possessing in Charlotte M. Yonge at least one writer of exceptional vitality;
historical fiction, from Marryat’s vigorous but simple Children of the NewForest (1847) to the even
more vigorous but burnished novels of Rosemary Sutcliff; the “vacation story,” in which Arthur
Ransome still remains unsurpassed;the doll story, from Margaret Gatty and Richard Henry Horne
to the charming fancies of Rumer Godden and the remarkable serious development of this
tiny genre in Pauline Clarke’s Return of the Twelves (1962); the realism-cum-fantasy novel, for
which E. Nesbit provided a classic, and P.L. Travers a modern, formulation; high fantasy (Lewis
Carroll, George MacDonald, C.S. Lewis, Alan Garner); nonsense (Carroll again, Lear, Belloc);
and nursery rhymes. In Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe,
the English furnished two archetypal narratives that have bred progeny all over the world, and
in Mary Norton’s Tom-Thumb-and-Gulliver-born The Borrowers (1952) a work of art. In Leslie
Brooke (Johnny Crow’s Garden) and Beatrix Potter (e.g., The Tale of Peter Rabbit) they have two
geniuses of children’s literature (and illustration) for very small children—probably the most
difficult of all the genres. In poetry they begin at the top with William Blake and continue
with Christina Rossetti, Robert Louis Stevenson, Eleanor Farjeon, Walter de la Mare, A.A. Milne,
and James Reeves. In the mutation of fantasy called whimsy, Milne (Winnie-the-Pooh) reappears
as a master. In the important field of the animal story, Kipling, with his Jungle Books (1894, 1895)
and Just So Stories (1902), remains unsurpassed. Finally the English have produced a number
of unclassifiable masterpieces such as Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows (which is surely
more than an animal story) and several unclassifiable writers (Mayne and Lucy Boston, for
11. The social historian, surveying the same field from a different angle, would point out that the
English were the first people in history to develop not only a self-conscious, independent
children’s literature but also the commercial institutions capable of supporting and furthering it.
He would note the striking creative swing between didacticism and delight. He would detect the
sources in ballads, chapbooks, nurses’ rhymes, and street literature that have at critical moments
prompted the imagination. What would perhaps interest him most is the way in which children’s
literature reflects, over more than two centuries, the child’s constantly shifting position in society.
Prehistory (early Middle Ages to 1712)
“Children’s books did not stand out by themselves as a clear but subordinate branch of English
literature until the middle of the 18th century.” At least one critic has used “prehistorical” to
designate all children’s books published in England up to 1744, when John Newbery offered A
Little Pretty Pocket-Book.
Before that, and as far back as the Middle Ages, children camein contact with schoolroom letters.
There was the Anglo-Saxon theologian and historian the Venerable Bede, with his textbook on
natural science, De natura rerum. There were the question-and-answer lesson books of the great
English scholar Alcuin; the Colloquy of the English abbot Aelfric; the Elucidarium of
the archbishop of Canterbury Anselm, often thought of as the first “encyclopaedia” for young
people. Not until the mid-14th century was English (the genius of which somehow seems fitter
than Latin for children’s books) thought of as proper for literature. For his son “litel Lowis” Geoffrey
Chaucer wrote in English the “Treatise on the Astrolabe” (1391). The English child was also
afflicted, in the 15th and 16th centuries, by many “Books of Courtesy” (such as The Babees
Boke, c. 1475), the ancestors of modern, equally ineffective manuals of conduct.
Along with these instructional works, there flourished, at least from the very early Renaissance,
an unofficial or popular literature. It may not have been meant for children but—no one quite
knows how—children managed to recognize it as their own. It included fables, especially those of
Aesop; folk legends, such as those in the much read Gesta Romanorum; bestiaries, which, along
with Aesop, may be ancestral to that flourishing children’s genre, the animal story; romances,
often clustering around King Arthur and Robin Hood; fairy tales, of which Jack the Giant Killer was
the type; and nursery rhymes, probably largely orally transmitted. Perhaps the most influential
underground literature consisted of the chapbooks, low-priced folded sheets containing ballads
and romances (Bevis of Southampton, and The Seven Champions of Christendom  were
favourites), sold by wandering hawkers and peddlers. They fed the imagination of the poor, old
and young, from Queen Anne’s reign almost through Queen Victoria’s. These native products of
fancy were, in the early 18th century, reinforced by the first English translations of the classically
simple French fairy tales of Charles Perrault and the more self-conscious ones of Madame
Against this primitive literature of entertainment stands a primitive literature of didacticism
stretching back to the early Middle Ages. This underwent a Puritan mutation after the Restoration.
It is typified by that classic for the potentially damned child, A Token for Children (1671), by James
Janeway. The Puritan outlook was elevated by Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), which, often
in simplified form, was either forced upon children or more probably actually enjoyed by them in
lieu of anything better. Mrs. Overtheway (in Juliana Ewing’s Mrs. Overtheway’s Remembrances,
1869), recalling her childhood reading, refers to it as “that book of wondrous fascination.” A
softened Puritanism also reveals itself in Bunyan’s Book for Boys and Girls: or, Country Rhymes
12. for Children (1686), as well as the Divine and Moral Songs for Children by the hymn
composer Isaac Watts,whose “How doth the little busy bee” still exhales a faint endearing charm.
The entire pre-1744 period is redeemed by two works of genius. Neither Robinson
Crusoe nor Gulliver’s Travels was meant for children. Immediately abridged and bowdlerized,
they were seized upon by the prosperous young. The poorer ones, the great majority, had to wait
for the beginning of the cheap reprint era. Both books fathered an immense progeny in the
children’s field. Defoe engendered a whole school of “Robinsonnades” in most European
countries, the most famous example being Wyss’s Swiss Family Robinson (1812–13).
On the whole, during the millennium separating Alcuin from Newbery, the child’s mind was
thought of, if at all, as something to be improved; his imagination as something to be shielded; his
soul as something to be saved. And on the whole the child’s mind, imagination, and soul resisted,
persisted, and somehow, whether in a dog-eared penny history of The Babes in the Wood or the
matchless chronicle of Gulliver among the Lilliputians, found its own nourishment.
From “T.W.” to “Alice” (1712?–1865)
Napoleon called the English a “nation of shopkeepers,” and in England art may owe much to
trade. Children’s literature in England got its start from merchants such as Thomas Boreman, of
whom little is known, and especially John Newbery, of whom a great deal more is known.
Research has established that at least as early as 1730 Boreman began publishing for children
(largely educational works) and that in 1742 he produced what sounds like a recreational
story, Cajanus, the Swedish Giant. Beginnings of English children’s literature might be dated from
the first decade of the 18th century, when a tiny 12-page, undated book called A Little Book for
Little Children by “T.W.” appeared. It is instructional but, as the critic Percy Muir says, important
as the earliest publication in English “to approach the problem from the point of view of the child
rather than the adult.” In sum, without detracting from the significance of Newbery, it may be said
that he was merely the first great success in a field that had already undergone a certain amount
The elevation of the publisher-bookseller-editor Newbery (who also sold patent medicines) to the
position of patron saint is an excusable piece of sentiment. Perhaps it originated with one of his
back writers who doubled as a man of genius. In Chapter XVIII of The Vicar of
Wakefield (1766), Oliver Goldsmith lauds his employer as “the philanthropic bookseller of St.
Paul’s Churchyard, who has written so many books for children, calling himself their friend, but
who was the friend of all mankind.” There is no reason to believe that Newbery was anything but
an alert businessman who discovered and shrewdly exploited a new market: middle class
children, or rather their parents. Nevertheless this was a creative act. In 1744 he published A Little
Pretty Pocket-Book. Its ragbag of contents—pictures of children’s games, jingles, fables, “an
agreeable Letter to read from Jack the Giant Killer,” plus a bonus in the form of “a Ball and a
Pincushion”—are of interest only because, addressing itself single-mindedly to a child audience,
it aimed primarily at diversion. Thus children’s literature clearly emerged into the light of day.
13. The climate of Newbery’s era was nevertheless more suited to a literature of didacticism than to
one of diversion. John Locke’s Some Thoughts concerning Education (1693) is often cited as an
early Enlightenment emancipatory influence. But close inspection of this manual for the mental
conditioning of gentlemen reveals a strong English stress on character building and practical
learning. Locke thinks little of the natural youthful inclination to poetry: “It is seldom seen that
anyone discovers mines of Gold or Silver in Parnassus.” He does endorse, as a daring idea, the
notion that a child should read for pleasure, and he recommends Aesop. But the decisive influence
was not Locke’s. It came from across the Channel with Rousseau’s best-seller Émile (1762).
What is positive in Rousseau—his recognition that the child should not be too soon forced into
the straitjacket of adulthood—was more or less ignored. Other of his doctrines had a greater effect
on children’s literature. For all his talk of freedom, he provided his young Émile with
an amiable tyrant for a teacher, severely restricting his reading to one book Robinson Crusoe. It
was his didactic strain, exemplified in the moral French children’s literature of Arnaud Berquin and
Madame de Genlis, that attracted the English.
They took more easily to Rousseau’s emphasis on virtuous conduct and instruction via “nature”
than they did to his advocacy of the liberation of personality. Some writers, such as Thomas Day,
with his long-lived Sandford and Merton, were avowedly Rousseauist. Others took from him what
appealed to them. Sarah Kirby Trimmer, whose Fabulous Histories specialized in piety, opposed
the presumably free-thinking Rousseau on religious grounds but was in other respects strongly
influenced by him. The same is true of Anna Laetitia Barbauld, with her characteristically
titled Lessons for Children. But Mary Martha Sherwood could hardly have sympathized with
Rousseau’s notion of the natural innocence of children; the author of The History of the Fairchild
Family (1818–47) based her family chronicle on the proposition (which she later softened) that
“all children are by nature evil.” Of all the members of the flourishing Rousseauist or quasi-
Rousseauist school of the moral tale, only one was a true writer. Maria Edgeworth may still be
Though the tone varies from Miss Edgeworth’s often sympathetic feeling for children to Mrs.
Sherwood’s Savonarolan severities, one idea dominates: a special literature for the child must be
manufactured in order to improve or reform him. The reigning mythology is that of reason, a
mythology difficult to sell to the young.
Yet during the period from John Newbery’s Little Pretty Pocket-Book to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in
Wonderland, children’s literature also showed signs of antisolemnity. In verse there was first of
all William Blake. His Songs of Innocence (1789) was not written for children, perhaps indeed not
written for anyone. But its fresh, anti-restrictive sensibility, flowing from a deep love for the very
young, decisively influenced all English verse for children. Yet the poetry the young really read or
listened to at the opening of the 19th century was not Blake but Original Poems for Infant
Minds (1804), by “Several Young Persons,” including Ann and Jane Taylor. The Taylor sisters,
though adequately moral, struck a new note of sweetness, of humour, at any rate of
nonpriggishness. Their “Twinkle, twinkle, little star,” included in Rhymes for the Nursery (1806),
has not only been memorized but actually liked by many generations of small children. No longer
read, but in its way similarly revolutionary, was The Butterfly’s Ball and the Grasshopper’s
Feast (1807), by William Roscoe, a learned member of Parliament and writer on statistics. The
gay and fanciful nonsense of this rhymed satiric social skit enjoyed, despite the seeming
dominance of the moral Barbaulds and Trimmers, a roaring success. Great nonsense verse,
however, had to await the coming of a genius, Edward Lear, whose Book of Nonsense (1846)
was partly the product of an emergent and not easily explainable Victorian feeling for levity and
14. partly the issue of a fruitfully neurotic personality, finding relief for its frustrations in the
noncontingent world of the absurd and the free laughter of children.
In prose may be noted, toward the end of the period under discussion, the dawn
of romantic historical fiction, with Frederick Marryat’s Children of the New Forest (1847), a story
of the English Civil War; and of the manly open-air school novel, with Thomas Hughes’s Tom
Brown’s School Days (1857). A prominent milestone in the career of the “realistic” children’s
family novel is Holiday House (1839), by Catherine Sinclair, in which at last there are children
who are noisy, even naughty, yet not destined for purgatory. Though Miss Sinclair’s book does
conclude with a standard deathbed scene, the overall atmosphere is one of gaiety. The victories
in the field of children’s literature may seem small, but they can be decisive. It was a small,
decisive victory to have introduced in Holiday House an Uncle David, whose
parting admonition to his nieces and nephews is: “Now children! I have only one piece of serious,
important advice to give you all, so attend to me!—Never crack nuts with your teeth!”
A similar note was struckby Henry (later Sir Henry) Cole with his Home Treasury series,featuring
traditional fairy tales, ballads, and rhymes.The fairy tale then began to comeinto its own, perhaps
as a natural reaction to the moral tale. John Ruskin’s King of the Golden River (1851) and William
Makepeace Thackeray’s “fireside pantomime” The Rose and the Ring (1855) were signs of a
changing climate, even though the Grimm-like directness of the first is partly neutralized by
Ruskin’s moralistic bent and the gaiety of the second is spoiled by a laborious, parodic slyness.
More important than these fairy tales, however, was the aid supplied by continental allies: the
English publication in 1823–26 of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales; in 1846 of Andersen’s utterly personal
fairy tales and folktales; in the ’40s and ’50s of other importations from the country of fancy,
notably Sir George Dasent’s version of the stirring Popular Tales from the Norse (1859), collected
by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and J.E. Moe. Though the literature of improvement continued to
maintain its vigour, England was readying itself for Lewis Carroll.
Coming of age (1865–1945)
In 1863 there appeared The Water-Babies by Charles Kingsley. In this fascinating, yet repulsive,
“Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby,” an unctuous cleric and a fanciful poet, uneasily inhabiting one
body, collaborated. The Water-Babies may stand as a rough symbol of the bumpy passage from
the moral tale to a lighter, airier world. Only two years later that passage was achieved in a
masterpiece by an Oxford mathematical don, the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis
Carroll). Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland improved none, delighted all. It opened what from a
limited perspective seems the Golden Age of English children’s literature, a literature in fair part
created by Scotsmen: George Macdonald, Andrew Lang, Robert Louis Stevenson, Kenneth
Grahame, James Barrie.
The age is characterized by a literary level decisively higher than that previously achieved; the
creation of characters now permanent dwellers in the child’s imagination (from Alice herself
to Mary Poppins, and including Long John Silver, Mowgli, intelligent Mr. Toad, and—if Hugh
Lofting, despite his American residence, be accepted as English—Dr. Dolittle); the exaltation of
the imagination in the work of Carroll, Macdonald, Stevenson, E. Nesbit, Grahame, Barrie,
Hudson, Lofting, Travers, and the early Tolkien (The Hobbit ); the establishment of the art
fairy tale (Jean Ingelow with Mopsa the Fairy ; Dinah Maria Mulock Craik with The Little
Lame Prince ; Mrs. Ewing with Old Fashioned Fairy Tales ; Barrie’s Peter
Pan ; and the exquisite artifices of Oscar Wilde in The Happy Prince, and Other
15. Tales ); the transmutation and popularization, by Andrew Lang, Joseph Jacobs, and others,
of traditional fairy tales from all sources; the development of a quasi-realistic school in the fiction
of Charlotte M. Yonge (Countess Kate); Mrs. Ewing (Jan of the Windmill); and Mrs. Molesworth;
and, furthering this trend, a growing literary population of real, or at least more real, children (by
E. Nesbit and Ransome).
It is further characterized by the rapid evolution of a dozen now-basic genres, including the school
story, the historical novel, the vacation story, the “group” or “gang” novel, the boy’s adventure tale,
the girl’s domestic novel, the animal tale, the career novel (Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes, 1936),
the work of pure whimsy (A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh, 1926); the solution, a brilliant one
by Beatrix Potter and a charming one by L. Leslie Brooke, of the problem of creating literature for
pre-readers and beginning readers; and the growth of an impressive body of children’s verse: the
lyric delicacy of Christina Rossetti in Sing-Song (1872), the accuratereflection of the child’s world
in Stevenson’s Child’s Garden of Verses, the satirical nonsense of Hilaire Belloc in his The Bad
Child’s Book of Beasts (1896), the incantatory, other-worldly magic of Walter de la Mare with
his Songs of Childhood (1902) and Peacock Pie (1913), the fertile gay invention of Eleanor
Farjeon, and the irresistible charm of Milne in When We Were Very Young (1924).
Finally it is characterized by the dominance in children’s fiction of middle and upper middle class
mores; the appearance, in the late 1930s, with Eve Garnett’s The Family from One End Street, of
stories showing a sympathetic concern with the lives of slum children; the reflection, also in the
30s, of a serious interest, influenced by modern psychology, in the structure of the child’s vision
of the world; the rise, efflorescence, and decline of the children’s magazine: Boy’s Own
Magazine (1855–74), Good Words for the Young (1867–77), Aunt Judy’s Magazine (1866–85),
and—famous for its outstanding contributors—The Boy’s Own Paper (1879–1912); the beginning,
with F.J.H. Darton and other scholars, of an important critical-historical literature;
institutionalization, commercialization, standardization—the popularity, for example, of the
“series”;and the dominating influence of the better English work on the reading taste of American,
Continental, and Oriental children.
During these 80 years a vast amount of trashand treacle was produced. Whatwill be remembered
is the work of a few dozen creative writers who applied to literature for children standards as high
as those ordinarily applied to mainstream literature.
If the contemporary wood cannot be seen for the trees, it is in part because the number of trees
has grown so great. The profusion of English, as of children’s books in general, makes judgment
difficult. Livelier merchandising techniques (the spread of children’s bookshops, for example), the
availability of cheap paperbacks, improved library services, serious and even distinguished
reviewing—these are among the post-World War II institutional trends helping to place more
books in the hands of more children. Slick transformation formulas facilitate the rebirth of books
in other guises: radio, television, records, films, digests, cartoon versions. Such processes may
16. also create new child audiences, but that these readers are undergoing a literary experience is
open to doubt.
Among the genres that fell in favour, the old moral tale, if not a corpse, surely became
obsolescent but raised the question whether it was being replaced by a subtler form
of didactic literature, preaching racial, class, and international understanding. The standard
adventure story too seemed to be dying out, though excellent examples, such as The Cave (U.S.
title, Five Boys in a Cave ), by Richard Church, continued to appear. The boy’s school story
suffered a similar fate, despite the remarkable work of William Mayne in A Swarm in May (1955).
Children’s vese by Ian Serraillier, Ted Hughes, James Reeves, and the later Eleanor Farjeon,
excellent though it was, did not speak with the master tones of a de la Mare or the precise
simplicity of a Stevenson. In sciencefiction one would have expected moreof a boom; yet nothing
appeared comparable to Jules Verne.
Conversely, there was a genuine boom in fact books: biographical series, manuals of all sorts,
popularized history, junior encyclopaedias. Preschool and easy-to-read beginners’ books, often
magnificently produced, multiplied. So did specially prepared decoys for the reluctant reader. After
the discovery of the child came that of the postchild: conscientiously composed teen-age and
“young adult” novels were issued in quantity, though the quality still left something to be desired.
A 19th-century phenomenon—experimentation in the juvenile field by those who normally write
for grown-ups—took on a second life after World War II. Naomi Mitchison, Richard Church, P.H.
Newby, Richard Graves, Eric Linklater, Norman Collins, Roy Fuller, C. Day Lewis, and Ian
Fleming, with his headlong pop extravaganza Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1964), come to mind.
A post-World War II stress on building bridges of understanding was reflected both in an increase
in translations and in the publication of books, whether fiction or nonfiction, dealing responsibly
and unsentimentally with the sufferings of a war-wounded world. One example among many was
Serraillier’s Silver Sword (1958), recounting the trans-European adventures that befell four Polish
children after the German occupation. The Silver Sword was a specialized instance of a general
trend toward the interpretation for children of a postwar world of social incoherence, race and
class conflict, urban poverty, and even mental pathology. Such novels as John Rowe
Townsend’s Gumble’s Yard (1961); Widdershins Crescent (1965); Pirate’s Island (1968); Eve
Garnett’s Further Adventures of the Family from One End Street (1956); and Leila Berg’s Box for
Benny (1958) represented a new realistic school, restrained in England, less so in the United
States, but manifest in the children’s literature of much of the world. It failed to produce a
masterpiece, perhaps because the form of the realistic novel must be moderately distorted to
make it suitable for children.
In two fields, however, English postwar children’s literature set new records. These were
the historical novel and that cloudy area comprising fantasy, freshly wrought myth, and indeed
any fiction not rooted in the here and now.
There was fair reason to consider Rosemary Sutcliff not only the finest writer of historical fiction
for children but quite unconditionally among the best historical novelists using English. A sound
scholar and beautiful stylist, she made few concessions to the presumably simple child’s mind
and enlarged junior historical fiction with a long series of powerful novels about England’s remote
17. past, especially that dim period stretching from pre-Roman times to the coming of Christianity.
Among her best works are The Eagle of the Ninth (1954), The Shield Ring (1956), The Silver
Branch (1957), The Lantern Bearers (1959), and especially Warrior Scarlet (1958).
Not as finished in style, but bolder in the interpretation of history in terms “reflecting the changed
values of the age,” was the pioneering Geoffrey Trease. He also produced excellent work in other
juvenile fields. Typical of his highest energies is the exciting Hills of Varna (1948), a story of the
Italian Renaissance in which Erasmus and the great printer Aldus Manutius figure
prominently. Henry Treece, whose gifts were directed to depicting violent action and vigorous,
barbaric characters, produced a memorable series of Viking novels of which Swords from the
North (1967) is typical.
This new English school, stressing conscientious scholarship, realism, honesty, social
awareness, and general disdain for mere swash and buckle, produced work that completely
eclipsed the rusty tradition of Marryat and George Alfred Henty. Some of its foremost
representatives were Cynthia Harnett, Serraillier, Barbara Leonie Picard, Ronald Welch
(pseudonym of Ronald O. Felton), C. Walter Hodges, Hester Burton, Mary Ray, Naomi Mitchison,
and K.M. Peyton, whose “Flambards” series is a kind of Edwardian historical
family chronicle. Leon Garfield, though not working with historical characters, created strange
picaresque tales that gave children a thrilling, often chilling insight into the 18th-century England
of Smollett and Fielding.
In the realm of imagination England not only retained but enhanced its supremacy with such
classics as Tom’s Midnight Garden (1958), by Ann Philippa Pearce, a haunting, perfectly
constructed story in which the present and Victoria’s age blend into one. There is the equally
haunting Green Knowe series, by Lucy M. Boston, the first of which, The Children of Greene
Knowe, appeared when the author was 62. The impingement of a world of legend and ancient,
unsleeping magic upon the real world is the basic theme of the remarkable novels of Alan Garner.
Complex, melodramatic, stronger in action than in characterization, they appeal to imaginative,
“literary” children. Garner’s rather nightmarish narrative The Owl Service (1967) is perhaps the
The creation of worlds
Finally there is a trio of masters, each the architect of a complete secondary world. The vast
Middle Earth epic The Lord of the Rings (1954–55), by the Anglo-Saxon and Middle English
language scholar J.R.R. Tolkien, was not written with children in mind. But they have made it their
own. It reworks many of the motives of traditional romance and fantasy, including the Quest, but
is essentially a structure, conceivably but not inevitably allegorical, of sheer invention on a
staggering scale. It is also a sociocultural phenomenon, selling more than 50 million copies in
some 25 languages by the late 1990s and functioning, for a certain class of American teenagers,
as a semisacred cult object.
Tolkien’s fellow scholar, C.S. Lewis, created his own otherworld of Narnia. It is more derivative
than Tolkien’s (he owes something, for example, to Nesbit), more clearly Christian-allegorical,
more carefully adapted to the tastes of children. Though uneven, the seven volumes of the cycle,
published through the years 1950 to 1956, are exciting, often humorous, inventive, and, in the
final scenes of The Last Battle, deeply moving.