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children's literature

The Beginnings of Children's Literature

The earliest of what came to be regarded as children's literature was first meant for adults. Among this ancient body of oral literature were myths and legends created to explain the natural phenomena of night and day and the changing seasons. Ballads, sagas, and epic tales were told by the fireside or in courts to an audience of adults and children eager to hear of the adventures of heroes. Many of these tales were later written down and are enjoyed by children today.

The first literature written specifically for children was intended to instruct them. During the Middle Ages the Venerable Bede, Aelfric, St. Aldhelm, and St. Anselm all wrote school texts in Latin, some of which were later used in schools in England and colonial America. More enjoyable and enduring fare came later when William Caxton, England's first printer, published Aesop's Fables (1484) and Sir Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur (1485). The hornbook, invented at the end of the 15th cent., taught children the alphabet, numerals, and the Lord's Prayer. Alphabet books were popular in battledore and in chapbook form. The New England Primer (1689), the first children's book published in the American colonies, taught the alphabet along with prayers and religious exhortations.

The first distinctly juvenile literature in England and the United States consisted of gloomy and pious tales—mostly recounting the deaths of sanctimonious children—written for the edification of Puritan boys and girls. Out of this period came one classic for both children and adults, John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (1678). Later works written for adults but adapted for children were Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726).

In 1729 the English translation of Charles Perrault's Tales of Mother Goose became popular in England. A collection of Mother Goose rhymes was published in 1765 by John Newbery, an English author and bookseller. Newbery was the first publisher to devote himself seriously to publishing for children. Among his publications were A Pretty Little Pocket Book (1744) and The Renowned History of Little Goody Two Shoes (1765). Pirated editions of Newbery's works were soon published in the United States by Isaiah Thomas and others.

By the end of the 18th cent., juvenile literature, partly under the influence of Locke and Rousseau, had again become didactic. This time the didacticism was of an intellectual and moralistic variety, as evidenced in the sober, uplifting books of such authors as Thomas Day, Mary Sherwood, and Maria Edgeworth in England and in the United States by Samuel Goodrich (pseud. Peter Parley) and Martha Finley (pseud. Martha Farquarson), who wrote the famous Elsie Dinsmore series.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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