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A potted history of children’s literature in English

Comenius; a page from Orbis Pictus


It begins with Orbis Pictus (The World in Pictures) written by Czech educator Comenius. Orbis Pictus isn’t a story book or novel, but it is the earliest example of a picture book for children. In essence it’s an encyclopaedia or text-book. Written first in German and published in 1658, it is translated into English the following year and by 1666 is available in Latin and French too.

In 1671/2 (sources differ on this detail) comes the exhaustively titled A Token for Children. Being An Exact Account of the Conversion, Holy and Exemplary Lives, and Joyful Deaths of several Young Children. Written by James Janeway, a hardcore Puritan (is there any other type?), A Token for Children is an Evangelical tract. Heavily didactic, these stories are intended for instruction rather than enjoyment.

How art thou affected, poor Child, in the Reading of this Book? Have you shed ever a tear since you begun reading? Have you been by your self upon your knees; and begging that God would make you like these blessed Children? Or are you as you use to be, as careless & foolish and disobedient and wicked as ever?

From the preface to A Token for Children

This suggestion that children’s literature should be primarily didactic is not new; Plato writes in The Republic that educators should hire storytellers and poets who will censor the stories of the age to the suitability of children.

Up until now children are largely consuming the same literature as adults – the novel as a literary form has yet to be invented,  but bible stories, Greco-Roman myths and fables and folk-tales are popular. John Bunyan’s 100,000+ word Christian allegoryThe Pilgrims Progress  (1678) is thought particularly suitable for developing minds.

Fairy tales are collected by Perrault in 1697 but though they’re not considered suitable for children*, the genre of the literary fairy tale is born.

Robinson Crusoe, 1719

1700s and 1800s

Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1724), both nominally ‘adult’ novels, are adopted by children, possibly due to their fantastic content.

Children’s literature proper begins with A Little Pretty Pocket-Book  intended for the Amusement of Little Master Tommy and Pretty Miss Polly with Two Letters from Jack the Giant Killer  in 1744. The book is commercial and arguably low quality, written by a marketeer rather than an author, but still it marks a turning point. We are finally entering an age where children are beginning to be seen as something more than just short adults. A Little Pretty Pocket-Book is a collection of games and activities arranged alphabetically, with each page illustrated by a wood cut.  The book also contains short stories intended to be instructional as well as entertaining.

The first novel for children, The Governess, or Little Female Academy is published in 1749.

The Victorian era brings with it what some have called the cult of childhood, and children’s literature spawns sub-genres of its own. Adventure stories (Treasure Island); School stories (Tom Brown’s School Days); Fantasies (The Water Babies) and Domestic stories (Little Women) all have their roots in these years. The Victorians also begin to gender children’s literature, at once codifying and teaching gendered behaviour. Many Victorian children’s novels still enjoyed widely today.


IN 1902 Beatrix Potter published The Tale of Peter Rabbit  with Frederick Warne & Co. after being rejected by a number of other publishers. Heavily illustrated, The Tale of Peter Rabbit is among the first picture books to give equal importance to text and artwork, with pictures not just illustrating the text, but also augmenting it.

Peter Rabbit – up to no good.

The 1960s and 70s see a more dramatic move away from moralising children’s literature. ‘Gritty’ social realism, while by no means non-existent in the first half of the Twentieth century, is now embraced by children’s and young adult writers. This tradition continues today with children’s and young adult books now happily covering subjects such as child abuse (Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes),  sex (Forever), drug use (Junk), homosexuality (Annie on my Mind) and rape (Speak).


We have entered an era of multi-media deliveries of children’s literature. Modern children are increasingly technologically literate. They have access to an unprecedented range of digital media: narratives can be delivered on the television, cinema or computer screen; as interactive or passive experiences; singly or as a group. Meanwhile the old forms of storytelling flourish: today the business of children’s literature in print media is characterised by a strong proliferation, with growth of twenty-nine percent in value to the market between 2004 and 2007. Hard- and paperback novels, comics and graphic novels,  picture books – the demand for these products is high. In the early twenty-first century it seems almost inevitable that popular children’s literature will be translated into a variety of languages before it is recomposed as a block-busting cinematic release with the merchandising that entails.

Screen-shot from the forthcoming Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows pt.1 console game, by EA

*Though in a society where girls were considered marriageable at the age of 12 the notion of childhood is a fuzzy one at best.


2 responses »

  1. Oh, I really like this post (and the blog in general!). One question though – which section is the footnote from as I can’t work out where it fits.


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