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Reading Cause And Effect: The Origins Of Western Children’s Literature

The original illustration for Hans Christian Andersen's Thumblina, drawn by Vilhelm Pedersen

In reading Elizabeth Fremantle’s Watch The Lady and mulling over the books people read in past times, I started wondering about children’s books – what books did children read in times gone by? Of course this necessitated choosing a certain period so I chose my lifelong interest, the Tudor period.

I forgot something important. I suppose when you study a period and have a general interest in it, the most obvious ideas can be forgotten… or, at least, when I myself study a period, the most obvious ideas can be forgotten. So there are no Tudor children’s books (thing I didn’t know) because children were not considered as we consider them today (thing I did know). Or, at least, that second statement is what can be ascertained by everything that is to be found – in other words, we know it is true, but to my knowledge there are no primary sources from the Tudor period addressing the lack of young adult literature.

But children read; they must have. Learning was important, especially to those who had money. And they did read – children read books that taught subjects. We can assume that to some degree – based on age and learning – children read ancient literature. Aesop’s Fables, says one source; Chapbooks, books by tutors such as Roger Ascham – a name well-known to us. People had nursery rhymes, folk tales, and so forth.

I suppose this post was always going to spin off at some point:

Children’s literature – fiction, what we would call children’s literature – became a thing in the 1700s. Previously, in the 1600s, John Locke had suggested children should have some fun books to read, but it was the 1700s that made the mark, a century the Wikipedia article notes ‘the development of the concept of childhood’. Thomas Boreman produced a book of animals.

A Little Pretty Pocket-Book

But we have one John Newbery to thank in general. Called the Father of Children’s Literature, he was a publisher who started out publishing adult fiction. It seems the first children’s book he published was the sort of thing you might expect of a person venturing into such new territory – the book had no ‘author’ and was a compilation of rhymes for the letters of the alphabet. So we’re still in distinct teaching territory here, but it looks fun and surely a lot more simple than the Latin texts of the previous centuries. It contained the first written (typed?) reference to baseball in print – though considering it was English this actually meant ’rounders’ – and for a couple more pennies you could get a small toy or a pincushion with which the child could record their good or bad deeds.

That last bit doesn’t sound so fun, but I suppose it was good preparation for Christmas.

After I’d researched Newbery I found myself wondering about children’s literature in other countries. It may be that Newbery was the first to act on it, but surely others had considered it elsewhere?

Giambattista Basile

In Italy in 1600s, a poet produced a book of fairy tales. It wasn’t published as children’s literature but people considered it only good for children. Fairy-tale enthusiast Giambattista Basile is credited for the earliest known versions of Rapunzel and Cinderella. The Brothers Grimm’s interest brought Basile’s work back into the spotlight.

Denmark trumps Britain’s John Newbery – A Child’s Mirror was published in 1568. Sweden swiftly followed. Russia produced picture books in the 1600s.

Mine was a fruitless journey where the Tudors are concerned – I really should have looked into what adults were reading instead – but the information about the later years and the development of the concept of childhood are fascinating to read about.

What is your favourite fairytale?



March 20, 2017, 8:29 pm

I would be hard pressed to pick a favorite fairy tale as I grew up reading so many.

One of my most treasured sets of childhood books are the McGuffey Readers my grandmother bought for me. They are a wonderful example of how children were taught in the late 19th century. My grandmother was born in 1884, so I’m sure she used something similar as a child.

Laurie @ RelevantObscurity

March 20, 2017, 9:16 pm

A wonderful post!

Yes, it sounds like children were treated like little adults and were given watered down versions of the bible or other religious works to teach them morals. Even fairy tales were for teaching!

When I was a kid I came upon “The Little Match Girl” and it fascinated me. But it was so sad, though I guess many of the Anderson’s and Grimms tales were, in some way.


March 20, 2017, 11:44 pm

its hard to talk about children’s literature partly as you say the very concept of children wasn’t really recognised. They were just considered as small adults rather than people with individual needs so there was no drive for a separate type of book for them. The majority of scholars put the start point of literature specifically for children as mid 1740s – Newbery’s pretty little pocket book (1744) seen as the first modern children’s book because it wasnt purely didactic content



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