Defining children’s literature is unexpectedly tricky. “To begin with, what is a children’s book?" asks F. Gordon Roe. It is not, it seems, simply a book written for children. Talking of childhood reading in Victorian times, Roe continues:
Some of the works I shall mention were not primarily written for children at all. So far from the works of Scott and Dickens being looked upon as impositions, they were read eagerly by many juveniles, though some of their elders were doubtful about Mr Dickens, who wrote about quite vulgar folk — even pickpockets!
Just as “adult" books like Redgauntlet, say, or Oliver Twist were appropriated by children, books written for children reached an adult audience too, and not only through the business side of things, either. Having been selected by the publisher or his reader, books were then selected by parents and teachers for individual children (certainly until the later decades of the century), and often read aloud to the youngest of those children. Children’s writers have always been very much aware of the adults reading over children’s shoulders. Then, books that enthralled in childhood stayed with their readers into adulthood. Thackeray explains, “The boy-critic loves the story: grown up, he loves the author who wrote the story. Hence the kindly tie is established between writer and reader, and lasts pretty nearly for life" (“De Juventute"). Thackeray is talking mainly of Sir Walter Scott here, but he also refers to “Frank" in Maria Edgeworth’s Moral Tales for Young Children (1801). Perhaps most importantly, some of the greatest children’s books of the mid-nineteenth-century onwards seem to have been written, at least subconsciously, to satisfy the needs of adults. U. C. Knoepflmacher feels that Thackeray, George MacDonald, Lewis Carroll, Jean Ingelow, Christina Rossetti and Mrs Ewing all owed much toRuskin, explaining that:
The double perspective of child and adult he had implanted in his 1841 text [The King of the Golden River] would be perfected in their more complicated fantasies for young readers of both sexes. By turning to such child readers, these writers tried, as had Ruskin, to confront their own self-division between adult and child selves.
Books that addressed such a fundamental psychological dilemma inevitably appealed to adult readers as well as children. An example here is Rossetti’s Goblin Market (1862), which was quickly perceived to have two levels of meaning for the two distinct audiences (see Knoepflmacher, Ch. 9).
The parameters of children’s literature are blurred in another way. When can this amorphous body of literature be said to have begun? In the later medieval period, perhaps, with hornbooks (which carried The Lord’s Prayer or sometimes a religious verse), or conduct books for young courtiers? Or in the sixteenth century, with chapbooks, however bawdy and probably forbidden? Chapbooks were still circulating into the nineteenth century, by which time some were being specifically put out for children, an interesting proof that children could drive the book market even then. These cheap popular tales were precursors of the Penny Dreadfuls. Or did children’s literature start, in the same century, with the publication of the old romance, Sir Bevis of Hampton, which Bunyan loved as a child? A version of Sir Bevis of Hampton was published for children in 1846; Richard Jefferies’ young hero in the children’s classic Wood Magic (1881) and its sequel Bevis: The Story of a Boy (1882), is nicknamed “Sir Bevis" as a small child (Wood Magic, Ch. 1). Or did children’s literature really take off later in the seventeenth century, with James Janeway’s A Token for Children and Henry Jessey and Abraham Chear’s A Looking-Glass for Children (both of which appeared in 1672)? Some might prefer to point to Bunyan’s much-loved Pilgrim’s Progress (1678): the preface to Part II (1684), in which Christian’s wife Christiana and their four sons set out to follow in Christian’s footsteps, suggests that Bunyan had child readers in mind by now. He went on to write “A Book for Boys and Girls (later entitled Divine Emblems) in 1686. But the legacy of instructional writing faded in the later Victorian period, while Britain’s strong nursery rhyme tradition proved to be an important influence on future nonsense writing, so might not the appearance of Tommy Thumb’s Song Book in 1744 mark a better starting point?
Most children’s literature researchers settle on the two sets of religious tracts published in 1672, for they set the tone for what Sylvia Kasey Marks describes as the first real “burst" of writing for children — and a grim, moralistic tone it was too. The difficulty here is that their legacy did fade. According to Marks herself, in 1839 this type of writing for children came “full circle" (12) with the publication of Catherine Sinclair’s Holiday House. Not everyone would agree with the placing of Holiday House at the end of that tradition; it can be put instead at the beginning of another. But at any rate it was clearly pivotal. For by now the whole concept of childhood was in flux. As one social historian has said, thanks to the "veritable explosion of information about this period of physiological and cognitive development in human beings [i.e., childhood]," the material used in the literary child figure was changing irrevocably, enabling it to function as "a central vehicle for expressing ideas about the self and its history" (Steedman 5). Like any new departure, this one "established itself by publicly annihilating its predecessors. This meant Victorian moralism generally, and the exemplary children of religious tracts in particular…" (Keating 219).
Different critics may choose different books to illustrate this "annihilation," but the appearance of fantasy probably dealt the fatal blow, with Lewis Carroll’s Alice driving it home: here is a child character unlike any who had gone before, who had once, we are told, "really frightened her old nurse by shouting suddenly in her ear, ‘Nurse! Do let’s pretend that I’m a hungry hyaena, and you’re a bone’" (Through the Looking Glass, 1871, Ch.1). It must be admitted, however, that this kind of thing gets much of its charge from its rebellion against the past. In other words, the voices of the earlier moralists were, in a sense, still being heard (see Bratton 208).
As regards dating, there is also the commercial aspect. John Sutherland says that "It was not until the 1850s that a stable commercial infrastructure for children’s fiction was established." He would date the enterprise of children’s fiction, as an enterprise, from the setting up of magazines such as the RTS’s Sunday at Home and the emergence of ‘name’ novelists such as George E. Sargent whose Roland Leigh, The Story of a City Arab (1857) pioneered a string of similar chronicles of ragged but indomitably virtuous heroes. The 1850s also saw the emergence of Charlotte Maria Tucker (‘ALOE’), the most gifted writer of children’s fiction to date. (122-23)
This overlooks some earlier commercial successes, such as Mrs Sherwood’s, but it is certainly true that sales of children’s books now became an important part of the publisher’s trade. From 1875 to 1885, for example, the average number of new adult fiction titles appearing each year was 429, while the figure for "juvenile works" was 470 (Keating 32). Interestingly (and substantiating my earlier point about adults reading children’s books), in 1894 the Publisher’s Circular announced that it would stop counting the juvenile titles separately, because "so-called juvenile works are nowadays so well written, that often they suit older readers quite as well as those for whom they are primarily intended" (qtd. in Keating 32).
Finally, how do we categorise children’s literature? Can it really be called a genre, when it includes so many different types of writing for such a wide range of ages, from toddlers on the brink of comprehension to teenagers on the brink of adulthood? As the inside front-jacket blurb of the indispensable Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature, by Humphrey Carpenter and Mari Prichard, puts it:
The range of literature covered includes traditional narrative materials such as legends and romances;fairy tales; chapbooks; genres such as school stories, adventure stories, doll stories, and science fiction;ABC and other learning books; children’s magazines, comics and story papers; picture books; teenage novels; children’s hymns…
And so on. Animal stories, nonsense writing, poetry and plays are not even mentioned here, though well represented in the book itself.
Hard as it is to define, children’s literature is now recognized as an important field of study, both in itself and for the insights it yields into literature as a whole — as well as into the family life, society and thinking of any given period, and the minds of the many major authors influenced by it. On all counts, it is a fascinating and rewarding subject.
Bratton, J. S. The Impact of Victorian Children’s Fiction. London: Croom Helm, 1981.
Carroll, Lewis. Adventures of Alice in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass. London: Heirloom, 1949.
Jefferies, Richard. Wood Magic. Cassell, Fetter, Galpin & Co, 1881. Text available here.
Keating, Peter. The Haunted Study. London: Secker & Warburg, 1989.
Knoepflmacher, U. C. Ventures in to Childland: Victorians, Fairy Tales, and Femininity. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1998.
Marks, Sylvia Kasey. Writing For the Rising Generation: British Fiction for Young People, 1672-1839. Victoria, BC: University of Victoria (ELS Monograph Series No. 89), 2003.
The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature, by Humphrey Carpenter and Mari Prichard. Oxford & New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1995 impression.
Carolyn Steedman. Strange Dislocations: Childhood and the Idea of Human Interiority, 1780-1930. London: Virago, 1995.
Sutherland, John. The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction. London: Longman, pbk ed. 1990.
Thackeray, William Makepeace. "De Juventute." Roundabout Papers. The Complete Works. Vol. 22. New York: Harrap, 1903. Text available here.