Children's Literature - History


According to Aspects and Issues in the History of Children's Literature from the International Research Society for Children's Literature, the development of literature for children anywhere in the world follows the same basic path. All children's literature, whatever its current stage of development, begins with spoken stories, songs and poems. In the beginning the same tales that adults tell and enjoy are adapted for children. Then stories are created specifically for children, to educate, instruct and entertain them. In the final stage literature for children is established as separate from that of adults, having its own genres, divisions, expectations and canon. The development of children's literature is influenced by the social, educational, political and economic resources of the country or ethnic group.

Before 50 BC

Every people group has its own mythology, unique fables and other traditional stories told for the instruction and entertainment of adults and children. The earliest written folk-type tales include the Panchatantra from India, composed about 200 AD, it may be "the world's oldest collection of stories for children", though other sources believe it was intended for adults. The Jakatas, stories from India about the birth of Buddha, go back to the second or third centuries BC A few of these stories, particularly those where Buddha took the shape of an animal, would have been enjoyed by children. The source stories for The Arabian Nights, perhaps also originally from India, have also been traced back this far.

As an example of oral stories that certainly would have been enjoyed by children, the tale of The Asurik Tree goes back at least 3,000 years in Persia, now Iran.

The greatest ancient Greek poet, Homer, lived sometime between 1200 BC and 600 BC. Author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, Homer's work contributed to the development of all Western literature, including that for children. Between 750 and 650 BC Hesiod told stories that became a major source of Greek mythology.

Irish folktales can be traced as far back as 400 BC. These stories of witches, fairies and magic spells were preserved by storytellers traveling across the island. For centuries Ireland's geographic isolation helped preserve them.

50 BC to AD 500

Papyri from the 400s AD tell versions of Aesop's fables.

In Imperial China, children attended public events with their parents, where they would listen to the complicated tales of professional story-tellers. Often rhyming, the stories were accompanied by drums, cymbals and other traditional instruments. Children would also have watched the plays performed at festivals and fairs. Though not specifically intended for children, the elaborate costumes, acrobatics and martial arts would have held even a young child's interest. Smaller gatherings were accompanied by puppet shows and shadow plays. The stories often explained the background behind the festival, covering folklore, history and politics. Story-telling may have reached its peak during the Song Dynasty from 960-1279 AD. This traditional literature was used for instruction in Chinese schools until the Twentieth-century.

Greek and Roman literature from this age is thought to contain "nothing that could be considered a children’s book in the sense of a book written to give pleasure to a child". However, children would have enjoyed listening to stories such as the Odyssey and Aesop’s Fables, since Aesop and Homer, along with the Greek playwrights were "at the heart of early reading and writing" in Greece at this time.


The Panchatantra was translated from Sanskrit into Kannada in 1035 AD. The first children's book in Urdu may be Pahelian by the Indian poet Amir Khusrow, who wrote poems and riddles for children in the 1200s-1300s.

Buddhism spread in China during the early part of this period, bringing with it tales later known as Journey to the West. Chinese children would have enjoyed many of these stories of "fantasy, the supernatural, demons and monsters."

There are two schools of thought about children and European Medieval literature. The first developed from the writings of Philippe Ariès in the 1960s and holds that, because children at this time were not viewed as greatly different from adults, they were not given significantly different treatment. Those holding this point of view see no evidence of children's fiction as such existing in Europe during the Middle Ages, although they recognize that instructional texts in Latin were written specifically for children, by clerics like the Venerable Bede, and Ælfric of Eynsham.

Those who disagree with Ariès make several arguments, explained by Gillian Adams in her essay Medieval Children's Literature: Its Possibility and Actuality. One is that just because a culture does not view childhood as modern Western societies do does not mean children's literature cannot develop there. Another is that modern Western scholars have defined literature for children too narrowly, and fail to acknowledge what does exist. for example, they point to Marie de France's translation of Aesop's fables, and the Play of Daniel from the 1100s. Daniel Kline, in Medieval Literature for Children says modern and Medieval literature for children have common goals: "conveying the values, attitudes, and information necessary for children and youth to survive or even advance within their cultures." Kline divides children's literature in Europe during this time into five genres: Didactic and Moral, Conduct-related, Educational, Religious, and Popular.

The debate on interpretaion aside, scholars cite this period as the time as when "many of the genres that continue to feature in writing for children emerge." Examples of literature children would have enjoyed during this time include Gesta Romanorum, the Roman fables of Avianus, the French Book of the Knight of La Tour-Landry and the Welsh Mabinogion. In Ireland many of the thousands of folk stories were being recorded in the Eleventh and Twelfth centuries. Written in Old Irish on vellum, they began reaching through Europe, influencing other folk tales with stories of magic, witches and fairies.


During the Byzantine Empire the Bible and Chritian hymns and stories were popular. The takeover of Greece by the Ottomans meant the enslaved Greeks had to rely on songs, lullabies, and other easily shared methosds of cultural preservation. According to Vassilis Anagnostopoulos in The International Companion Encyclopedia of Children's Literature, these verses constitute the first children's poetry.

Hornbooks appeared in England during this time, teaching children basic information such as the alphabet and the Lord's Prayer. In 1484 William Caxton published Aesop's Fables, followed by Le Morte d'Arthur in 1485. These books were intended for adults, but enjoyed by children as well. Geoffrey Chaucer's writings were retold for children by the late 1400s, and often European printers released versions of Aesop's Fables in their native languages.


Russia's earliest children's books, primers, appeared around this time. An early example is ABC-Book, an alphabet book published by Ivan Fyodorov in 1571.

The first Danish children's book, The Child's Mirror by Niels Bredal in 1568, was an adaptation of a book of courtesy for children by the Dutch priest Erasmus. Finland had Abckiria, a primer released in 1543, but very few children's books were published there until the 1850s. A Pretty and Splendid Maiden's Mirror, and adaptation of a German book for young women, became the first Swedish children's book upon its 1591 publication.

In Italy Giovanni Francesco Straparola released The Facetious Nights of Straparola in the 1550s. Called the first European storybook to contain fairy-tales, it eventually had seventy-five separate stories and was written for an adult audience. Giulio Cesare Croce also borrowed from stories children would have enjoyed for his books.

Chapbooks, pocket-sized pamphlets that were often folded instead of being stitched, were published in Britain and spread to the United States. Illustrated by woodblock printing, these inexpensive booklets reprinted popular ballads, historical retellings and folk tales. Though not specifically published for children at this time, they would have been enjoyed by them. Johanna Bradley in From Chapbooks to Plum Cake says that chapbooks kept imaginative stories from being lost to readers under the strict Puritan influence of the time.


The first picture book published in Russia, Karion Istomin's The Illustrated Primer, appeared in 1694.

During this time the concept of childhood changed drastically in Europe. They began to be seen as separate beings, innocent and in need of protection and training by the adults around them. Because of this shift in thinking books now began to be printed and distributed specifically for children. In 1634 the Pentamerone from Italy became the first major published collection of European folk tales. Charles Perrault began recording fairy tales in France, publishing his first collection in 1697. They were not well received among French literary society, who saw them as only fit for old people and children. In 1658 Jan Ámos Comenius in Bohemia published the informative illustrated Orbis Pictus, directed at children under six learning to read. It is considered to be the first picture book produced specifically for children.

The Puritans, mainly in England and North America, also played a major role in developing writing for children, publishing books intended to teach children to read and to instruct them in religious teachings. Some of the longest used and most popular were by James Janeway, but the one book to come out of this movement that is still widely read today is The Pilgrim's Progress (1678) by John Bunyan.

There are sources that reference hornbooks brought from England by the Puritans to help educate their children before 1633. The first children's book published in what would become the United States was a catechism for children written in verse by the Puritan John Cotton. Known as Spiritual Milk for Babes]], it was published in 1646, appearing both in England and Boston. Another early book,

The New England Primer was in print by 1691, and continued to be used in schools for 100 years. The Primer begins "In Adam's fall We sinned all..." and continues through the alphabet. It also contained religious maxims, acronyms, spelling help and other educational items, all decorated by woodcuts.


China still had no separate stories for children. Dream of the Red Chamber, written in in this period and published in 1791, told a story of romance and friendship that children would have enjoyed.

Greece was still under control of the Ottomans. During the last half of this century Greeks living throughout Europe had children's books translated, printed and sent to Greek schools, bring European influence into Greece's children's literature.

In Russia, Peter the Great's interest in modernizing his country through Westernization helped Western children's literature to dominate the field through the 1700s. Catherine the Great wrote allegories for children, and during her reign Nikolai Novikov started the first juvenile magazine in Russia.

Sweden had published fables and a children's magazine by 1766. In the Netherlands Hieronymus van Alphen is still remembered for the children's poems he began publishing in 1778. By the late 1700s writing for children had exploded there. According to the contemporary novelist Betje Wolff, "This is the era, in which one writes for children."

1719 saw the publication of Robinson Crusoe by Danial Defoe, an English Puritan. The first contemporary adventure novel, it quickly became "one of the most popular books in all English literature". One year after its publication it was translated into French, and by 1769 forty editions and adaptations had been published in German. At this point most children's literature in Germany, including juvenile magazines and encyclopedias, was translated, usually from French.

In 1744 Englishman John Newbery published A Little Pretty Pocket-Book. Considered a landmark for the beginning of pleasure reading marketed specifically to children, it reflected Jean-Jacques Rousseau's new theories that children should be allowed to develop naturally and joyously. His idea of appealing to a children's natural interests took hold among writers for children, but their stories remained basically didactic. Popular examples included Thomas Day's The History of Sandford and Merton, four volumes that embody Rousseau theories, and Maria and Richard Lovell Edgeworth's Practical Education: The History of Harry and Lucy (1780), which urged children to teach themselves. What may be Italy's first children's book appeared in 1768. Domenico Soresi's collection of stories, Instructive and Pleasant Tales, was a result of Rousseaus' ideas.

Rousseau's ideas also had great influence in Germany, where they developed into German Philanthropism, a movement concerned with reforming both education and literature for children. As its leader, Johann Bernhard Basedow adapted an encyclopedia to better suit children, including many illustrations by Daniel Chodowiecki. Another follower, Joachim Heinrich Campe's adaptation of Robinson Crusoe went into over 100 printings. He became Germany's "outstanding and most modern" writer for children. According to Hans-Heino Ewers in The International Companion Encyclopedia of Children's Literature, "it can be argued that from this time, the history of European children's literature was largely written in Germany."


Children's literature boomed during this time for several reasons. Paper and printing became widely available and affordable and more people were learning how to read. The population boom across the West meant there was a greater children's market, and European colonization spread books, including those for children, around the globe.

In India, Christian missionaries established the Calcutta School-Book Society in 1817, establishing children's books as separate genre in that country. Magazines and books for children in native languages soon appeared. In the latter half of the century Raja Shivprasad wrote several well-known books in Hindi. A number of respected Bengali writers began producing Bengali literature for children in the 1800s, including Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, who translated some stories and wrote others himself. Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore wrote plays, stories and poems for children, including one illustrated by painter Nandalal Bose. They worked from the end of the 1800s into the beginning of the Twentieth-century. Tagore's work was later translated into English, with Bose's pictures. Behari Lal Puri was the earliest writer for children in Punjabi. His stories were didactic in nature. Aesop's Fables were translated into Telegu by Kandukuri Veeresalingam in 1898.

In Russia juvenile literature reached children through a number of magazines which introduced Russian folk tales to readers spread around the large country. Aleksandr Afanasyev collected over 600 traditional stories, releasing a special children's edition of his eight-volume Russian Folk Tales in 1871. One of the first women writers for children was Aleksandra Ishimova, editor of two girl's magazines, publishing popular books of history and Bible stories in the 1840s. By the 1860s literary realism and non-fiction dominated children's literature. More schools were started, using books by writers like Konstantin Ushinsky and Leo Tolstoy, whose Russian Reader included an assortment of stories, fairy tales and fables. Books written specifically for girls developed in the 1870s and 1880s. Publisher and journalist Evgenia Tur wrote about the daughters of well-to-do landowners, while Aleksandra Annenskaya's stories told of middle-class girls working to support themselves. Vera Zhelikhovsky, Elizaveta Kondrashova and Nadezhda Lukhmanova also wrote for girls during this period. And in Russia, poet Alexander Pushkin published Russian folklore-based fairy tales in verse.

In Norway two scholars, Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe, were collecting Norwegian fairy tales and publishing them in pamphlet form. Their book, Norwegian Folktales is often referred to simply as Asbjørnsen and Moe. In compiling these stories they preserved Norway's literary heritage and helped create the Norwegian written language. 1890 to World War I is considered the Golden Age of Children's Literature in Denmark. Erik Werenskiold, Theodor Kittelsen and Dikken Zwilgmeyer were especially popular, writing folk and fairy tales as well as realistic fiction. The 1859 translation into English by George Webbe Dasent helped increase the stories' influence.

Children's literature in Western Europe and the United States began to change in the 1800s. The didacticism of the previous age began to make way for more humorous, child-oriented books. Chapbooks were still being published, many now specifically for children, abridging classic fairly tales and popular novels like Robinson Crusoe. Danish author and poet Hans Christian Andersen traveled through Europe and produced many well-known fairy tales in the first half of the century. In Switzerland a pastor's son released his father's manuscript, a story in keeping with the didactic nature of Swiss children's literature, in 1812 and 1813. The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss became popular after Isabelle de Montolieu translated and adapted it into French. The next Swiss classic to be embraced by the rest of the world was Johanna Spyri's tow-oart novel Heidi in 1880 and 1881. The brothers Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm began to preserve traditional tales told in Germany. They were so popular in their home country that modern, realistic children's literature began to be looked down on there. This dislike of non-traditional stories continued there until the beginning of the next century. The Grimm's contribution to children's literature goes beyond their collection of stories, as great as that is. As professors, they had a scholarly interest in the stories, striving to preserve them and their variations accurately, recording their sources. They established folklore as "a field for scholars", and set the stage for children's literature as a field suitable for research.

A number of foundational English language books appeared during this time. William Roscoe's story poem The Butterfly's Ball in 1802 is considered a "landmark publication" in fantasy literature. Tom Brown's School Days by Thomas Hughes, which appeared in 1857, is considered the foundational book in the school story tradition. Lewis Carroll's fantasy Alice's Adventures in Wonderland appeared in 1865 in England. The first "English masterpiece written for children", its publication opened the "First Golden Age" of children's literature in Great Britain and Europe that continued until the early 1900s. It was also a foundational book in the development of fantasy literature. In 1883 Carlo Collodi wrote the first Italian fantasy novel, The Adventures of Pinocchio, which was translated many times.

In the United States, Clement Moore's Christmas classic A Visit from St. Nicholas appeared in 1822. Publisher and writer Peter Parley began publishing his geography, biography, history, science and adventure stories, "selling a total of seven million copies by ... 1860." After the American Civil War ended in 1865 children's publishing entered a period of growth. Boys' book writer Oliver Optic published over 100 books. 1868 brought the publication of the "epoch-making book", Little Women, the fictionalized autobiography of Louisa May Alcott. This coming of age story established the genre of realistic family books in the United States. Mark Twain released Tom Sawyer in 1876, and in 1880 another bestseller, Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, a collection of African American folk tales adapted and compiled by Joel Chandler Harris, appeared.


In India many writers of stature in Hindi began writing books for children. The first full-length children's book was Khar Khar Mahadev by Narain Dixit, serialized in one of the popular children's magazines in 1957. Other writers include Premchand and poet Sohan Lal Dwivedi. In 1919 Bengali language nonsense rhymes written and illustrated by Sukumar Ray appeared, along with Barngtarbratn by artist and children's writer Abanindranath Tagore. Benagli children's literature flourished in the later part of the twentieth century. Educator Gijubhai Badheka published over 200 children's books in the Gujarati language, many of them still popular. Children's Book Trust publishing was founded in India in 1957 by political cartoonist K. Shankar Pillai. The firm became known for high quality children's books, many of them released in several languages.One of the best writers was Pandit Krushna Chandra Kar in oriya literature who wrote many good books for childrens like "Pari Raija","Kuhuka Raija","Panchatantra" ,"Adi Jugara Galpa Mala", He wrote biography of many historical personalities like "Kapila Deva". In 1978 it organized a writer's competition to encourage quality children's writing. The following year the Children's Book Trust began a writing workshop and organized the First International Children's Book Fair in New Delhi. Children's magazines, available in many languages, were widespread throughout India during this century.

The Chinese Revolution of 1911 and World War II brought political and social change that also revolutionized children's literature in the country. Western science, technology and literature became fashionable, and the first pieces of literature intended solely for Chinese children were translations of Aesop's fables, Western fairy tales and The Arabian Nights. China's first modern publishing firm, Commercial Press, established several children's magazines, including Youth Magazine and Educational Pictures for Children. The first Chinese children's writer was Sun Yuxiu, an editor of Commercial Press, whose story The Kingdom Without a Cat was written in the language of the time instead of the classical style used previously. Yuxiu encouraged novelist Shen Dehong to write for children also. Dehong went on to re-write twenty-eight stories based on classical Chinese literature specifically for children. In 1932 the first full-length Chinese novel for children was published - Big Lin and Little Lin by Zhang Tianyi.

The Chinese Revolution of 1949 changed children's literature again. Many children's writers were denounced, though Tianyi and Ye Shengtao continued to write for children, creating works that aligned with Maoist ideology. The 1976 death of Mao Zedong saw more changes sweep China. Many writers from the early part of the century were brought back, their work becoming available again. 1990 saw the release of General Anthology of Modern Children's Literature of China, a fifteen-volume anthology of children's literature since the 1920s.

Children's non-fiction gained great importance in Russia at the beginning of the century. A ten-volume children's encyclopedia was published in 1913-1914. Vasily Avenarius wrote fictionalized biographies of important people like Nikolai Gogol and Alexander Pushkin around the same time, and scientists wrote for books and magazines for children. Children's magazines flourished; by the end of the century there were sixty-one. Lidia Charskaya and Klavdiya Lukashevich continued the popularity of girl's fiction. Realism took on a gloomy turn, often showing children from lower-classes being mistreated. The most popular boys' material was Sherlock Holmes and similar stories from detective magazines.

The October Revolution of 1917 saw the state taking over control of children's literature. Maksim Gorky edited the first children's magazine under Soviet rule, Northern Lights. The 1920s have been called the Golden Age of Children's Literature in Russia, led by Samuil Marshak, the "founder of (Soviet) children's literature". As head of the children's section of the State Publishing House and editor of several children's magazines Marshak exercised enormous influence, recruiting Boris Pasternak and Osip Mandelstam to write for children.

1932 saw the formation of the USSR Union of Writers, the writer's organization of the Communist Party. With a children's branch, the official oversight of the professional organization brought children's writers under the control of the state and the police. Communist principles like collectivism and solidarity became important themes in children's literature. Biographies were written about revolutionaries like Lenin and Pavlik Morozov. Alexander Belyayev, writing in the 1920s and 1930s, became Russia's first science fiction writer. According to Ben Hellman in the International Companion Encyclopedia of Children's Literature, during the Soviet period "war was to occupy a prominent place in juvenile reading, partly compensating for the lack of adventure stories." More political changes in Russia after World War II brought further change in children's literature. Today the field is in a state of flux, with some older authors being rediscovered and others abandoned.

In Great Britain and Europe the Golden Age of Children's Literature ended with World War I. The period between it and World War II was much slower in children's publishing through Great Britain and most of Europe. The main exceptions in England were the publications of Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne in 1926 and The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien in 1937. Europe experienced a similar slow-down, though the "one of the first mysteries written specifically for children," Children's paperback were first released in England 1941 under the Puffin Books imprint, and their lower prices helped make book buying possible for children during World War II. Erich Kastner's popular novel Emil and the Detectives was published in Germany in 1930.

In the 1950s the book market in Europe began recovering from effects of two world wars. In England C. S. Lewis published the first of installment of his Chronicles of Narnia series in 1950. Children's Fantasy literature remained strong in Great Britain through the 1900s. The historical novel also became popular with children, but the adventure novel did not regain its former popularity. The first juvenile science fiction novel was The Angry Planet by John Kier Cross, published in England in 1947. In Wales the Welsh Joint Education Committee and the Welsh Books Council encouraged the publication of children's books in the Welsh language as well as books in English about Wales. Efforts in Ireland in the 1980s saw the founding of similar publishers in Ireland. The period during and following World War II became the Classical Age of the picture book in Switzerland, with works by Alois Carigiet, Felix Hoffmann and Hans Fischer. 1963 was the first year of the Bologna Children's Book Fair in Italy, "the most important international event dedicated to the children’s publishing". For four days it brings together writers, illustrators, publishers and book buyers from around the world.

American children's literature saw the publication of one of its most famous books in 1900, when L. Frank Baum's fantasy novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published in Chicago. "By combining the English fondness for word play with the American appetite for outdoor adventure", Connie Epstein in International Companion Encyclopedia Of Children's Literature says Baum "developed an original style and form that stands alone". Baum was to write thirteen more Oz novels and the Oz series was continued by other writers into the 1960s.

North America between the wars saw continued growth in the field, due in large part to the growth and influence of libraries in both Canada and the United States. Children's reading rooms in libraries, staffed by specially trained librarians, helped create demand for classic juvenile books. Reviews of children's releases began appearing regularly in Publishers Weekly and The Bookman magazine, and the first Children's Book Week was launched in 1919. That same year Louise Seaman Bechtel became the first person to head a juvenile book publishing department in the country. She was followed by May Massee in 1922 and Alice Dalgliesh in 1934.

The American Library Association began awarding the Newbery Medal for children's books in 1922, the first children's book award in the world. The Caldecott Medal for illustration followed in 1938. The first book by Laura Ingalls Wilder about her life on the American frontier, Little House in the Big Woods appeared in 1932. In 1937 Dr. Seuss published his first book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. The young adult book market developed during this period, thanks to the popular writers John R. Tunis' sports books, the novel Seventeenth Summer by Maureen Daly and Helen Dore Boylston's "Sue Barton" nurse books.

The already vigorous growth in children's books became a boom in the 1950s and children's publishing became big business. In 1952 American journalist E. B. White published Charlotte's Web, "one of the very few books for young children that face, squarely, the subject of death." Maurice Sendak illustrated more than two dozen books during the decade, establishing himself as an innovator in book illustration. The Sputnik crisis that began in 1957 provided increased interest and government money for schools and libraries to buy science and math books and the non-fiction book market "seemed to materialize overnight."

In 1997 J. K. Rowling published the first book in The Harry Potter Series, in England. Despite its huge success, the children's book market in Britain suffered at the end of the century. A difficult economy, competition from television and video games, and rising books costs have been blamed, though picture books continue to do well.


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