A Brief History of Children's Books

The fascinating evolution of children's literature from the Pentamerone to Dog Man

April 2 is International Children’s Book Day. Created by the International Board for Books for Young People which was founded in Switzerland in 1953, an international organization dedicated to promoting children’s literature worldwide. They chose this date to honor their countryman, and children’s book author Hans Christian Anderson’s, birthday. A relatively new event, it began in 1967, it honors an equally new genre whose history reflects our growing understanding of childhood as well as its place in an increasingly complex world.

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Where It All Began

Modern books descend from the oral tradition when an entire community would gather to hear a talented sage tell a tale of heroes and their deeds. During this time, no real understanding of the progression of brain development that differentiates adolescent from adult thinking meant that children were viewed as mini-adults, with adult understanding and responsibilities. This division into a separate stage began in the 1600s. Once this shift in perspective happened, the creation of products, including books, for them began. As with most beginnings, the folktales from the oral tradition were collected and once again bridge all ages of readers with the Pentamerone (Tale of Tales) and, later, Charles Perrault’s giving us many fairytales that exist today. The chapbooks created for kids early on, however, were instructional and on the didactic side.

The Start of Leisure Reading

The first book designed for children’s pleasure reading came in 1744. A Little Pretty Pocket Book contained illustrations and rhymes designed to both teach the alphabet and delight. Written by John Newbery, this opened the gates to the genre we have today, the paper supply increased, expanded, and drove book production for everyone. The addition of mass-produced books in color began in the 1920s, setting off the picture book boon, and introducing characters we still read today such as The Little Engine that Could (1930), Babar (1931), and Madeline (1933). For his role in kickstarting this new book form, a yearly medal given by the American Library Association for the best young adult novel bears his name.

New audience, new themes, new stories

As this genre grew, authors realized that younger audiences needed different types of stories than those aimed at adults, leading to new types of stories. The adventure story, such as The Swiss Family Robinson gave kids fast-moving tales of daring and heroics, filling the space left behind with the oral story age and their focus on heroes. Lewis Carroll’s Alice adventures opened a different, more interior sort of adventure tale, one with its roots in the imagination. The concerns of moving out of the world of childhood lead to the coming-of-age stories such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Little Women. Each involves characters having to decide their values and make their first adult decisions.

More Complex World, Gritter Books

As this art form “grew up,” it went into more morally grey territory. The worlds of Narnia and Middle Earth introduced fantasy into young adult books, along with its traditional exploration of current events through a fantastical lens. Books that dealt with real issues that kids face like The Bridge to Terabithia, Are You Their God? It’s Me, Margaret and The Outsiders gave kids a safe space to explore big topics seldom discussed such as death and grief, the changes you encounter growing up, and social inequality. This continues with books like The Hate You Give, the Rainbow Boys series, and, of course, Harry Potter.

The Problems with Boy Wizards (and others)

Because what we read as kids stays with us and influence the people we become, it is often under a microscope. This leads to some of the gritter books finding themselves challenged or banned. From comics to The Catcher in the Rye, Mary Poppins (yes, that Mary Poppins) to Harry Potter all have needed to fight for their right to stay on the shelves. Yet, this isn’t the only issue modern children’s literature faces.

The world of publishing has its collection of issues and biases. The need for books that are more inclusive and allow all minorities representation. While progress has been made, 23% of books now feature a person of color as a lead character, we have much work yet. Fortunately, resources for those looking to find diverse books have become easier to find with sites like Everyday Diversity or Diverse Book Finder.

Another monster from the past and present: how do we deal with the works and people whose words are racist, sexist, or homophobic? Some recent quandaries include Laura Ingalls Wilder’s representation of indigenous people and people of color in her series resulted in her name being stripped from an award, the decision of Dr. Suess’ publisher to stop printing new copies of his more problematic (and, admittedly, less popular) books as well as the controversy around J.K Rowling’s opinion of transgendered people. This highlights a hard truth, that not even the “innocent” world of children’s literature escapes the zeitgeist of the times. And the answer they come up with can prove as controversial as the books and authors themselves. Young adult books have grown up, with all the pains that suggest.

No books have the power to shape us like the ones we loved as children. The fact that many books from as far back as the 1930s and beyond remain in print and beloved means that they can cross generations in a way few pieces of popular culture can. This power means that all of us have the responsibility to ensure that every child finds ‘their’ book, the one that shows people that look like them, their families, and their neighborhood while giving them a taste of the wider world and instilling a love of reading. The book leads them to a better future.

Visit www.everylibrary.org to learn how you can support access to children’s literature.