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A Brief Introduction to the History of Children’s Books from the Biblio Book Collecting Guide

A Brief Introduction to the History of Children’s Books


Children’s literature as we know it today, full of imaginative picture books and deeply moving young adult literature, is a modern development. Many variables, including advances in printing technology, cultural beliefs about childhood, improvement in poverty levels, and rising literacy rates have all supported the growth and development of books for young people.

Before the 16th century there was no children’s literature; if children learned to read, they read adult texts. Fairytales like Rapunzel and Cinderella, although collected in books at this time, were not thought of as primarily children’s tales.

Only during the 17th century did the concept of ‘childhood’ - children being different from adults - begin to emerge. In 1690 the English philosopher John Locke developed his theory of the human mind as a “tabula rasa,” or “blank slate” in his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Locke recommended the creation of picture books to help facilitate a desire to read and learn in children, instead of forcing religious and didactic texts on them as though they were disciplined adults.

But Locke was ahead of his time. When children’s literature first emerged it was primarily didactic - entertainment was not a factor. The purpose of reading stories to children was to ingrain in them moral and religious values. Most children learned to read on ‘horn books’ - a parchment covered wooden tablet that included the alphabet and a prayer (usually the Pater Noster - “Our Father” in Latin) and protected by a thin transparent sheet of horn.

Spiritual Milk for Boston Babes, a catechism written by the minister and New England Puritan leader John Cotton, was the first children’s book published in the United States when it was released in 1656. Two years later Orbis Pictus (The Visible World in Pictures) was published by John Amos Comenius, a Czech philosopher widely regarded as the father of modern education. Orbis Pictus combined illustrations with text in order to teach children about various topics such as religion, plants and animals, and is considered by some to be the first illustrated children’s book.

In 1744 John Newbery, considered the Father of Children’s Literature and after whom the prestigious Newbery Medal is named, published A Little Pretty Pocket-Book Intended for the Instruction and Amusement of Little Master Tommy and Pretty Miss Polly. Newbery’s book included toys as an added sales incentive, with the option of a pincushion or ball at purchase.

As literacy rates improved along with the ability to print pictures in the 18th century, children’s books became a viable part of publishing in England. The early 19th century brought Hans Christian Andersen (April 2nd 1805 – August 4th 1875) who traveled around Europe collecting over 3,300 fairy tales, and the Brothers Grimm, professors who strove to preserve traditional German tales, publishing Children's and Household Tales in two volumes in 1812 and 1815 containing a total of 156 tales. The Grimm brothers did not illustrate their tales, but later editions included illustrations, one of the most famous and valuable being by Arthur Rackham in 1909.

E. T. A. Hoffmann's story "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" was published in 1816 in a German collection of stories for children, Kinder-Märchen. The fantastic tale of a young girl traveling to a different world and having bizarre experiences with fantastic characters led the way for a change in children’s literature later epitomized by the publication of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland (1865).

The Water-Babies, A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby (1862), by Reverend Charles Kingsley, a moral fable about a young chimney sweep in England, was also published in England during this time, and remained popular for many decades.

This era also signaled the beginning of ‘Kid’s First’ literature, where the child, or children are the main problem-solvers and adventurers of the story, with little or any adult interference. In the US, children's publishing entered a period of growth after the American Civil War in 1865. In 1868, Little Women, the fictionalized autobiography of Louisa May Alcott, was published. This "coming of age" story established the genre of realistic family books in the United States.


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