Children’s Lit: The Field Revealed

Like Mother Goose’s rhymes and stories, literature as a field originated from the oral traditions of illiterate populations.  Before books became household commodities, throngs of people gathered to hear bards recount folktales as a means of entertainment. As such, the tales told by local storytellers were not intended for specific audiences, but for the town or village as a whole.  This helps to explain why many children’s stories and rhymes contain subject matter that does not seem appropriate for youngsters. 

 It was not until well after the advent of the printing press that literature was produced specifically with children in mind.  Beginning around the 16th century, the first books published for the young were mainly instructional, teaching children manners and how to behave properly.  These books often had religions slants and taught using allegories from the Bible as examples.

In fact, it was religious groups that had a large impact on the development of children’s literature.  The Puritans held a firm belief that reading was essential for the betterment of society, kids not excluded.  Their belief in the concept of original sin also helped to promote the notion that it was important for children to receive a spiritual education.  In a time when the chances of an infant reaching adulthood were not always great, religious education and texts directed towards the young helped ensure that the child’s soul would be saved in the event of an untimely death.

Around the same time period, the teaching of philosophers like John Locke helped to promote the idea that children held the same capacity for learning as adults.  This ideology spurred the production of children’s literature as well, placing the responsibility of a younger generation’s education on adults.

From these revolutionary perceptions of the education of children came an array of works published that targeted the young.  A most notable member of these early pioneers of the field was John Newbery.  He was the most successful seller and publishers of children’s books in the 18th century, and produced his works with the intention of providing kids with entertainment as well as education.  Not only is Newbery accredited with spreading the popularity of Mother Goose stories in the English-speaking world, but his achievements have left him the namesake of an annual award given to the most prestigious contributions to the genre.

From the 18th century on, the field of children’s literature morphed further from purely didactic literature to what present day audiences read to their little ones.  However, remnants from each step of the evolution of the genre can be seen in the books that are still produced for children.



David L. Russell, Literature for Children: A Short Introduction(New York and Boston: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc., 2001), 3-10.

Judith Hillman, Discovering Children’s Literature (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1999),  21-31.


%d bloggers like this: