A Brief History of Children's Literature

A Brief History of Children's Literature

By Deepshika Pasupunuri

Look through a 17th-century archive, and you’d think children’s books were inked by the grim reaper. 

Take, for instance, A Token for Children (1671), one of the most widely-read children’s texts, whose subtitle promises the ‘joyful deaths of several young children’; 13 to be exact. Lying on deathbeds, these kids narrate their sins some as petty as inattention during lessons — and spread the message of salvation as a kind of pious ‘happily ever after’. 

Yet, children weren’t actually scared by such graphic material; some suggest they might have enjoyed it. In fact, a note in the same book recommends that mothers and school-masters let their wards read the story “over a hundred times.”

 Long, Long, Ago, in 17th-Century Britain

Grim as this may seem today, the motif of death and sin — with diseases like measles, scarlet fever, and diphtheria on the loose — wasn’t as far-flung for 17th-century children. In one instance, infant mortality was so high that 36 percent of children in England died before the age of six. 


But realism alone didn’t prompt such deadly tales. James Janeway, the author of A Token for Children, had his own goal. As a Puritan minister, what Janeway wanted was a repertoire of ‘spiritual-improvement’ books aimed at children. 

He wasn’t alone in this either. For much of the seventeenth (and even eighteenth century), neither Britain nor America saw childhood as a separate stage in life, much less one that warranted exclusive works of literature. By the late 1600s, however, such attitudes began to change. Partly, this was because of a British philosopher named John Locke, who set out on a mission — to make reading fun. 

By 18th-Century, It Was An All-New Chapter 

Locke believed children's books needed to be different, where lessons were taught through "easy, pleasant" stories, games, and illustrations. By the 1700s, his theories took hold in England as well as the United States. Soon, a new wave of children’s books appeared on the scene — created by London publishers in the 1740s — explicitly with a young reader in mind. 

At first, these were small strides like Gigantick Histories (1740-43), an illustrated book on London landmarks, poking fun at the fact that they were actually very tiny and Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book (1744), where early versions of Bah, bah, a black sheep, and London Bridge is falling down were published as part of the first-known nursery rhyme collection. 

None, however, fully crossed the boundary into fantasy. "Locke was very suspicious of anything that might be thought to escape the real," explains William Gleason, a children's literature researcher and teacher at Princeton University. He adds, however, that fantasy did still exist — like the motif of talking animals — just not in the encompassing way we know today. 

Nonetheless, Edgeworth’s The Purple Jar (1796), published at the end of the 1700s, clarifies just how much children’s stories changed in one century. In the book, Rosamond has to choose between buying two things: a vase or the new shoes she will soon need. Rosamond’s mother, however, doesn’t offer any advice. Ultimately, our heroine chooses the vase, only to discover that the purple liquid in it has a putrid stench. When Rosamond pours this out, she is, regrettably, left with a rather dull jar. 


Compare this to the instructional lines from A Token for Children (1671) — “men shall not fight there, but praise God'' — and the change seems altogether drastic. Of course, pious texts were still in print. But these new books began giving a sense of individualism to young protagonists, allowing them to learn from their mistakes rather than by direct authorial command.

By the end of the 18th century, children’s literature was a flourishing wing of Britain’s publishing industry. As many as 50 children's books were printed each year with London at the centre of it, while Edinburgh, York and Newcastle also trailed behind. 

… And We Fell Down the 19th-Century Rabbit Hole

With the book industry booming, children’s literature, as we know it today, had begun. The more 'flat' characters of the eighteenth century became 'fully rounded' by the mid-nineteenth. 


A seminal case in point appeared in 1865: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. With a ground-breaking heroine, Alice’s bizarre plots baffled critics, embracing the full spectrum of childhood wonder, imagination, and curiosity. Alice’s two-volume collection not only became the most popular children’s book in England, it also became the most popular storybook in the world. 

Soon, a second wave of books — Peter Pan, Tom Sawyer, The Little Princess, The Secret Garden — also came out of the same rabbit hole, bringing the ‘golden age’ of children's literature. Moralistic books still remained in circulation, but in a sense, the ideas of what childhood really meant had definitively changed. Across middle-class homes in England, Europe, and America, perceptions of childhood became more positive, where it was viewed as a stage of innate innocence, full of freedom, sensitivity, and imagination. 

It’s no surprise that books, too, followed suit. To see how children’s literature around the world emerged and evolved throughout the centuries, watch this space for our next blogpost. 

With MerlinWand’s collection, childhood magic like this is just one page away. Personalize an original storybook where your child can be their own hero, choose their avatar, gender, and even pick their very own storyline. No child is the same — so there’s no reason their books should be.

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