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A potted history of children’s literature in English

Comenius; a page from Orbis Pictus

1600s

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.

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