A quick history of children’s books

Stories and poems that appeal to children are as old as literature itself, but the children’s book as such has only been around for about 250 years, and for much of that time was mostly made up of what adults thought children ought to be reading.

Up until the middle of the 1700s, children’s reading was largely confined to stuff published for any and all readers, such as Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, translations of ancient myths and such like. Simplified versions of these books started appearing, intended specifically for youngsters, which shows that there was a ready audience for them.

One of the first major figures in English children’s publishing was John Newbery, who took over a publishing house by marrying the previous owner’s widow! He had his finger in a number of pies, and actually made most of his money from selling medicines, but he had a big influence on children’s publishing, and on educational publishing especially. He aimed for books with lots of pictures, and with a high moral tone (meaning that they taught lessons in right and wrong). Above all, he aimed to make them cheap. One of his biggest successes was called A Little Pretty Pocket Book, issued in 1744. It contained rhymes, stories, games plus (and how modern is this?!) it came with a free gift of a ball and pincushion, “the use of which” proclaimed the cover “will infallibly make Tommy a good boy and Polly a good girl”. And all for eightpence.

The children’s book trade expanded rapidly from the second half of the eighteenth century onwards for the simple reason that there were more children about. Population rates were on the up, and improved health care meant more children were surviving childhood. The early children’s books, although they set out to provide moral guidance, still had a tone that was largely meant simply as fun. But in the first half of the nineteenth century, as children’s books increased in number and as they began to be surveyed with a critical eye by adults, the emphasis on morality and lesson-teaching became heavier.

When the first translations of tales by the Brothers Grimm appeared, they were roundly condemned by granite-faced grown-ups as dangerous nonsense. And so they became instant bestsellers. What’s remarkable is that the heavy-handed preaching and educational content of children’s books of the time often came wrapped in dark and amazingly violent stories. Some of the work of the popular writer Mary Sherwood, for example, ended up having to be toned down because the punishments suffered by characters who strayed from the path of Good Behaviour were so ghastly. But of course it was the nasty bits, rather than the moral bits, that the children read and enjoyed most.
Hand-in-hand with moralising, the Victorian children’s book took on a gooey, misty-eyed view of childhood as a time of sweet, innocent joy. For instance, Mrs Charlesworth’s Ministering Children, published in 1854, was a novel dripping with sentimental syrup about kind deeds and poor wee suffering orphans, while at the same time totally ignoring the Victorian system that had made the poor wee orphans suffer so much in the first place. What’s important, though, is that old-fashioned ideas about children being wicked little creatures who need correcting was replaced with a view of children as innocent young lambs who just need a bit of guidance. In the end, what won the day were stories full of adventure and gruesomeness, simply because it was preferred to all the moral and the educational stuff.

Perhaps the biggest nail in the coffin of the sternly moral children’s story was Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, still one of the most influential children’s books ever written. Lewis Carroll, whose real name was Charles Dodgson, was a tutor in mathematics at Oxford University. He first made up the story for Alice Liddell, the 10-year-old daughter of the Dean of his college. From the moment she appeared in 1865, Alice marked a dramatic move in kids’ literature towards stories which were more imaginative and far more centred around children’s own view of the world, and children’s own experiences.

Right up until the beginning of the 20th century, the sort of thing that older children would read, once they’d progressed past the simplest books, was still pretty much interchangeable with what adults would read. William Gladstone, the Victorian Prime Minister, is known to have been a big fan of both Treasure Island and Little Lord Fauntleroy. What changed was that adults stopped liking imaginative literature. With the ever-increasing presence of the children’s book on the literary scene, adults started to restrict themselves to a narrower range of fiction. Kids’ books became strictly for kids. And it’s only at that point that books specifically for older children began to appear.

Twentieth century children’s publishing went through various cycles. Stories of the 1920s and 1930s tended to seal themselves up into their own little worlds. This was the era of Rupert Bear and Just William, Swallows and Amazons and Winnie-the-Pooh. Things had loosened up a bit by World War II, though. Quite a few children’s characters, especially in comics, put their all into the war effort. A character called Biggles, who flew aircraft on his adventures, is credited with encouraging recruitment into the Royal Air Force.

The 1950s and ‘60s saw the biggest change. A large number of new children’s writers appeared, and children’s fiction deliberately swung away from the imaginative and towards gritty realism. Perhaps too far towards gritty realism: the only stuff that hit the headlines was the stuff that dealt with 'issues’ and tough real-life problems. However popular the more entertaining stories were, they weren’t treated as serious writing. And that was an attitude which dragged on almost until the arrival of Harry Potter, boy wizard, in the last years of the twentieth century. Let’s examine a couple of the most important figures in the history of children’s literature (apart from Lewis Carroll, that is!).

The Brothers Grimm

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm came from a large German family. Their dad was a lawyer, and at first they studied law and it looked like they would follow their father into the legal profession. However, they both became librarians and academics, eventually ending up as professors at various universities. Their main interest was in language and its history.

At the time, the early 1800s, Germany wasn’t one single country as it is today. It was made up of a jigsaw-puzzle of different states, and the German language was one of the few things all these states had in common. The Grimms wanted to examine the language, its words and origins, in minute detail. The fairy tales they collected, and which came to have a lasting impact on children’s stories, were mostly an off-shoot of their other studies. They drew up a set of rules by which words move from one language to another, and how they change their sounds in doing so (the word 'apple’ in English, for example, is 'apfel’ in German). These rules became known as Grimm’s Law.

The biggest project of their lives was a massive dictionary explaining the origin of every single word in the German language. Only one volume of this was published while they were still alive. It was well over a thousand pages long, and only got as far as the 'B’s! The entire thing was finished by teams of later experts, and wasn’t complete until 1960.

As part of their historical studies, Jacob and Wilhelm started collecting up folk stories and traditional tales from about 1806 onwards. Usually, they would simply ask people around the various German states to tell them any old fairy tales they happened to know, although they also searched through old volumes of myths and folklore. Jacob was the one who usually did most of the research, while Wilhelm was the one who converted it all into words on paper.

Their first anthology, Tales For Children And The Home, appeared in 1812, and became very popular. Over the next few years, this was followed by several others. The Grimms collected many stories that are very familiar to us today, including Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin, Hansel And Gretel, Cinderella and The Frog Prince. Some of them had their roots in French or Italian legends. Cinderella, for example, is a story which appears in different forms in the traditions of a large number of countries around the world, but was probably encountered by the Grimms through the earlier collections of the French author Charles Perrault. Taken together, the Grimms’s various volumes of folktales gathered over five hundred stories of various types. It’s no exaggeration to say that their work has turned out to have enormous cultural significance.

Hans Christian Andersen

The work of the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen came long a few decades after the Grimms’s. His father was a shoemaker and his mother took in other people’s washing to makes ends meet. The family was very poor, but Andersen’s parents had a few books, including stories from the Arabian Nights, and encouraged him to read and use his imagination. His father would take him to the town’s theatre, and performances the young Andersen saw there had a big influence on him.

He had very little education in his early years. He was a dreamy kid, very emotional and highly-strung. He was also unusually tall, with a rather beaky nose, and this made him feel awkward and self-conscious. At the age of fourteen, having found that being a tailor’s apprentice didn’t suit him, he went to Copenhagen hoping for a life on the stage, as he had a fine singing voice. That didn’t work out either, so when he then got the chance to finally attend a school it seemed that his luck had changed. It hadn’t. He hated the place, and the headteacher took an instant dislike to his sensitive new pupil.

What made Andersen even more uncomfortable that usual was the fact that he was the oldest in his class by several years. He wasn’t a good student. He’d already started writing, and once school was out of the way by the late 1820s, he began to turn out short stories, poems and novels, all for grown-ups. They were successful, and in 1833 he received a small grant from the King of Denmark, which allowed him to go travelling around Europe. He found he enjoyed himself so much that he ended up making many trips abroad during his life and wrote a lot about his travels.

On one of his journeys to London in 1847, he met his hero Charles Dickens. The two became friends, although Andersen seriously outstayed his welcome to the point where it’s been said that Hans Christian Andersen was the inspiration for Uriah Heap, a creepy, grovelling character in Dickens’s novel David Copperfield.

Andersen’s collections of fairy tales were only a small part of his work. The first book was published in 1835, with another two published over the following two years. They weren’t exactly a hit, to begin with. It took years for their quality to be widely appreciated. Unlike the Brothers Grimm, who retold old stories, Andersen wrote original tales. Although he was clearly influenced by the folklore he’d heard from his parents as a child, only a dozen or so of the 156 fairy tales he wrote were based on earlier stories. He gave the world a long list of all-time favourites like The Princess And The Pea, The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Snow Queen, Thumbelina, The Ugly Duckling, The Little Mermaid, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and The Tinderbox.

In 1872, he managed to injure himself so badly by falling out of bed that he never fully recovered. He died in 1875, by which time he was known and respected throughout Europe and beyond, and was regarded as a national treasure by the Danish government. To this day, there’s a statue of The Little Mermaid in the harbour at Copenhagen, commemorating one of Denmark’s leading writers.