Nowadays libraries and bookshops seem to be full of books for children: from picture books to novels, from Alice to Alfie, Robinson Crusoe to Bilbo Baggins, Jennings to Adrian Mole, a wide ranging literature both in style and date.
But the idea of books written specifically for children is a relatively recent one, as, indeed, is the idea of children themselves as a readership group. As society's attitude to childhood has changed, so has the literature provided for children. Books that may seem unsuitable, unattractive, or downright unpleasant to us today were written by authors with very different perceptions of children and childhood to our own.
Before there could be children's books, there had to be children--children, that is, who were accepted as beings with their own particular needs and interests, not merely as miniature men and women.
Written for children by John Rowe Townsend.
Until the end of the 17th century, the only books written for children were school text books or books of moral and religious teaching, and books that we now think of as "children's classics", such as Pilgrim's progress (1678) Robinson Crusoe (1719), or Gulliver's travels (1726) were originally written for an adult readership.
Various themes occur within children's books, both past and present. Examples have been brought together as follows:-
The noble savage, in whom nature, simplicity and virtue combined, was the creation of Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712--78). His teachings were followed by, among others, Thomas Day, the purpose of whose History of Sandford and Merton was to train the child--wilful and undisciplined as it was by its very nature--to become an acceptable adult. The didactic account of naughty Tommy Merton's gradual transformation to something resembling Harry Sandford's natural and simple virtue is interspersed with accounts of natural history, moral fables, and scientific titbits which were probably more attractive to its readers than the conversations of the sanctimonious Mr. Barlow.
Day made it very clear, though, that not all children were to be trained to become the same class of adult.
"And should you not like to be a king too, little Harry?"
"Indeed, madam, I don't know what that is; but I hope I shall soon be big enough to go to plough, and get my own living; and then I shall want nobody to wait upon me."
"I cannot help, therefore, asserting," said (Tommy's father) very seriously, "that this little peasant has within his mind the seeds of true gentility and dignity of character; and though I shall also wish that our son may possess all the common accomplishments of his rank, nothing would give me more pleasure than to feel a certainty that he will never in any respect fall below the son of Farmer Sandford."
History of Sandford and Merton by Thomas Day.Chapter 1.
Mrs. Sherwood's History of the Fairchild family (1818) is notorious for some of its (to a modern reader) horrific passages:
"Have you any desire to see the corpse, my dears?" asked Mr. Fairchild: "you never saw a corpse, I think?"
"No, papa," answered Lucy: "but we have a great curiosity to see one."
"I tell you beforehand, my dear children, that death is very terrible. A corpse is an awful sight."
"I know that, papa," said Lucy; "but we should like to go."
When the intrepid children reach the cottage where the corpse is on view,
..they perceived a kind of disagreeable smell, such as they never had smelt before; this was the smell of the corpse, which, having been dead now nearly two days, had begun to corrupt.
History of the Fairchild family by Mrs Sherwood.'On the death.'
Punishments inflicted on the youngsters by their stern but loving parents included beatings and incarceration in a dark attic. Some chapter headings will give a flavour of the book itself: "Story on the secret sins of the heart", "A prayer for a happy death", and "Fatal effects of disobedience to parents". However, it was a best seller throughout the 19th century, and was still being reprinted (though with some omissions) in the early 1900s. Lord Frederick Hamilton, a child of the mid-century, recalled that, "There was plenty about eating and drinking; one could always skip the prayers, and there were three or four very brightly written accounts of funerals in it." (cited in Mrs Sherwood and her books for children, M. Nancy Cutt)
Mrs. Sherwood's Evangelical Christianity reinforced her belief in the innate sinfulness of the child (and humanity in general): in Little Henry and his bearer Boosy, the hero (aged eight) confesses on his death-bed:
"I was a grievous sinner … I hated all good things … He washed me from my sins in his own blood."
Her books and those of her contemporaries were not written to entertain or amuse the child, but to educate, evangelise and discipline them, training these potential adults to make them fit the social position allotted to them: whether to marry advantageously, become pillars of the Empire, or hard-working, obedient and subservient manual labourers. Mrs. Sherwood's History of Susan Gray was "intended for the benefit of young women when going to service &c." Girls could be as young as 12 or 13 when they went out to service, and obviously needed not only to be saved from their sinful natures:
"Sarah," replied Mrs. Neale, "with God all things are possible. Know you not that the purifying of the heart is not the work of man, but that of the Holy Spirit? We will, God permitting, use the appointed means for rescuing this little girl from her present state of sin and ignorance, and will humbly wait God's blessing upon our endeavours."
History of Susan Gray by Mrs Sherwood.
but also to be taught how to fill their place in the social hierarchy appropriately.
Remember Susan Gray, and let her example be ever in your mind; and let it not be your wish to be rich and great, to seek for distinction and pleasure in this world, but to do your duty in that humble state in which God has placed you. And, however lowly and poor that state may be, yet fear not that you will fail of your reward: God is no respecter of persons, but he will reward every man according to his deeds.
History of Susan Gray by Mrs Sherwood. Authorial last words
As the 19th century progressed, so did technology. Improved printing methods meant that more books could be produced, feeding the appetite of a growing population which was also--thanks to widespread schooling--becoming more literate. A large number of books were presented to children as Sunday school or school prizes, and while moral and didactic stories predominated, the genres offered now began to include adventure stories, historical novels, and school stories.
In her books, such as Fern's hollow, The children of Cloverley, or In prison and out, as well as addressing social problems about which she felt passionately, Hesba Stretton also produced exciting and appealing stories. Jessica's first prayer, possibly her most popular book, was first serialised in the magazine Sunday at home in 1867, went into numerous editions, and was reproduced in penny pamphlets, lantern slides, and even a film (in 1906). It led to a whole school of writing about poor homeless orphans, rescued from poverty and vice by a benevolent (middle-class) Samaritan. In this book and in others on the same subject (Little Meg's children, Alone in London), she writes movingly about the plight of the "street arab," in such a way as to capture any child's imagination.
Stooping down to a basket behind his stall, he caught sight of two bare little feet curling up from the damp pavement, as the child lifted up first one and then the other, and laid them one over another to gain a momentary feeling of warmth. Whoever the wretched child was, she did not speak; only at every steaming cupful which he poured out of his can, her dark eyes gleamed hungrily, and he could hear her smack her thin lips, as if in fancy she was tasting the warm and fragrant coffee.
Jessica's first prayer by Hesba Stretton. Chapter 1.
Enjoyable and instructive though her own books were, Hesba Stretton was still very clear that ideally books should be secondary to moral teaching within the family.
There were not so many little books in those days as there are now; but the good woman possessed an old Reading made Easy, and a Bible: and I will venture to say that with these books, if there were no others in the world, a careful mother, with the divine blessing, might give her child as much knowledge as she would ever need for the regulation of her conduct, either in reference to this life or the next. In these days there is a mighty stir about new books and new plans of teaching; but to render any plans serviceable it is necessary there should be good fathers and mothers; mothers who, while they are going about their household work, will have an eye upon their children, taking care that they learn and practise the holy lessons contained in the books which are given to them; and pious fathers, who, when they return from their work at night, will take their little ones upon their knees and speak to them of heaven and hell, of their God and Saviour, and other holy things.
Waste not, want not by Hesba Stretton. Chapter 1.
These were still books being bought for children, and not necessarily by them. Children with access to "adult" books relished the swashbuckling historical novels of William Harrison Ainsworth.
A soldier, armed with a pike, strove to hurl him from the ladder, but the man was shot by Careless, who followed the king closely. Again, while springing over the parapets, Charles was opposed by a musketeer, but he cut him down, and next moment the heroic young monarch was joined by Careless, and instantly afterwards by a dozen of his body-guard, and their number was quickly augmented. Charles was now master of the fort, for the Republican soldiers, after an ineffectual resistance, were put to the sword. In the struggle, Colonel James discharged a pistol at the king, but missed his mark, and in his turn was attacked by Careless.
"I told you we would soon be with you," cried the Cavalier. "Yield, and I will spare thy life."
"I would not accept life at thy hands," rejoined the commandant. "Look to thyself!" And beating down Careless's point with his heavy blade, he stepped quickly backwards and disappeared. He had, in fact, dashed down a narrow staircase communicating with the lower chambers of the fort, and secured his retreat by pulling a trap-door over the entrance.
Boscobel by William Harrison Ainsworth. Chapter 1.
Echoes of this heroic dialogue can be found in the games played by the children in E. Nesbit's stories about the Bastable family a generation later. By then the 'cross-over' between adult and juvenile literature seems to have been completed.
Having acquired a taste for such books, some children might also be tempted to buy the "Penny dreadfuls"--cheaply produced broadsheets containing sensational and lurid stories--although these too were primarily aimed at the older generation. It was to combat the pernicious influence of such stories that the Boy's Own Paper first appeared in 1879, dedicated to the provision of wholesome, healthy, boyish literature. An increased demand for children's books slowly changed the nature of the literature. Amusement was no longer seen as idleness, and the books published as "suitable for prizes" included romances and fairy tales. Lending libraries were also being set up, and Victorian novelist Charlotte M. Yonge summed up the two tendencies in children's books: she felt that the library was the proper place for childish fiction which was "read in a week and passed on", while "prize fiction" should be more solid and worthy.
"Henry", said Mr Fairchild to his son, "I stand in place of God to you, whilst you are a child."
The history of the Fairchild family by Mrs Sherwood. 'Story of the absence of God'.
It was all right for these story-book boys, taking holidays with wonderful uncles in cabin-cruisers among the Western Isles or ye olde cottages in Cornish coves. They had every chance to meet smugglers and secret agents, to rescue kidnapped scientists and recover the stolen jewels.
The Maythorn story by Geoffrey Trease. Chapter 1.
Arguably the most liberating development in children's literature was the distancing of the ever-present, dominant, controlling adult figure. There were several ways to do this. Parents might be removed through death, or distance, or simply fade tactfully into the background, as in many of Malcolm Saville's books. Or the book might be set in a period of the past when young people could legitimately be independent, and could also face dangerous situations, as in the historical novels of Henry Treece (Viking's dawn, Viking's sunset, Legions of the eagle) and Geoffrey Trease. (Bows against the barons, Word to Caesar, The runaway serf). While the heroes of these books might be adult in years, they can be identified with by their young readers, unlike the characters of, say, Harrison Ainsworth.
One result is that books are now being written from the child's point of view, whether set in the enclosed world of a school (for instance the Chalet School series by Elinor Brent-Dyer) or the equally circumscribed world of a gang or close-knit family (for instance the Lone Pine adventures series by Malcolm Saville)
Fantasy stories can place their protagonists in situations and predicaments which are literally 'out of this world'. While Tolkien's "The hobbit" (1937) teaches the merits of courage, loyalty, and integrity in a way that would be recognized and admired by Victorian writers, it does so in a far more interesting setting than most children would ever come across in their day-to-day life. But Tolkein's book is "pure" fantasy, set in a self-contained world of its own. C.S. Lewis's Narnia stories are perhaps some of the earliest examples of a genre dealing with a parallel world, which exists alongside our own, and which impinges only occasionally. Bryan Morse's The Yonderley boy, and Pauline Fisk's The beast of Whixall Moss, are set firmly in contemporary Britain, but the fantastic breaks in, with frightening and even life-threatening results. Ann Ruffell's Firebird describes how 'magic' might work in the setting of an ordinary family in an ordinary town and her Cuckoo genius takes this idea to extremes, unleashing the comic potential of a misfit Genius (singular of genii) housed in an ostrich egg ("..I can tell you I get very cramped in that egg. Gives you bow legs."), a talking garden gnome, a magic paint-box, and a transformed toad into a family who quite calmly accept the supernatural.
In a way, things seem to have come full circle. Children's books are written to help children to make sense of the adult world which they will soon be joining, and which comes to meet them earlier and earlier every generation. They can read about children in their own situation (in trouble at school, facing prejudice, bereavement, etc) and be reassured that they are not alone. They can be entertained by books describing life as it once might have been, or as it might be in the future, or as it is never likely to be. The difference now is that the viewpoint in the books is usually that of the child, rather than that of an adult instructing the child. Susan Price's From where I stand describes the problems of racial prejudice and bullying as they affect their victims: solutions are sought by the young people themselves, rather than by adults who solve their problems for them. It's now seems to be accepted that children learn by living, rather than by moral precepts. One wonders what Mr. Fairchild would have made of Susan Townsend's Adrian Mole ....
There are pages on this website devoted to the following writers mentioned above:-
The following books by can be used for more information:
Boys will be boys, E S Turner (Penguin 1976) A history of popular literature, including comics and penny dreadfuls.
Written for children, John Rowe Townsend (Pelican 1976) General (very readable) survey of the history of children's literature
Tales out of school: a survey of children's fiction, Geoffrey Trease (Heinemann 1970)
Children and stories, Antony Jones; June Buttrey (Blackwell 1970)
Mrs Sherwood and her books for children, M Nancy Cutt: (OUP 1974)
The impact of Victorian children's fiction, J S Bratton (Croom Helm 1981)
Further information on the following topics can be obtained by following the links to other websites.
Page created 1 October 2002 and last updated
9 August 2005
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