History of Children’s Literature

There have been many changes related to the publishing of literature for children since the beginning of the 17th century when the only books published for children were school books to teach them the alphabet and spelling, as well as morals, manners, and religion. At that time, the content of school books was influenced by Puritan beliefs that children were inclined to evil and needed to be taught morals. However, during this time, cheaply published books called chapbooks containing popular stories and tales also began to be produced and sold. Since these books did not contain strictly moral stories, they were often criticized for departing from Puritan beliefs (Gangi, 2004). Puritanical thinking eventually gave way to the Enlightenment ideals characterized by the philosophy of John Locke, which marked a shift in the view of children to that of a “blank slate” that could be written upon. During this time, moral tales and fables were still published, but more light-hearted books featuring word play, riddles, rhymes, and games began to appear in children’s books as well. Children’s books also borrowed stories originally written for adults, such as Gulliver’s Travels, Ivanhoe, and Robinson Crusoe.

Before the 17th century, children were seen as small adults; however, during the Enlightenment and Romantic periods, childhood was viewed as a time of innocence that was distinct from adolescence (young adulthood) and adulthood (Avery & Kinnell, 1995). These changes in viewpoints created a new market for the writing and publishing of books specifically for children, who were seen as innocent and playful beings rather than mini-adults. During the 18th century, John Newbery, a writer of children’s books, greatly influenced children’s literature by starting the first publishing house dedicated to children’s stories. He published his own stories, as well as the works of other children’s book authors (Gangi, 2004). The idea of a publishing house just for children’s stories reflected a shift in how society thought of children. During the 19th century, greater numbers of books were written for children’s play and enjoyment, including the first picture book, which was written by Randolph Caldecott.1

This early history of children’s literature illustrates how societal changes influenced writers and book publishers to create and produce books specifically for children. As a market for children’s literature had become firmly established in the 18th and 19th centuries, changes in children’s literature in the 20th century were related to the content of books. For example, the period between World War I and World War II showed a proliferation of books depicting idealism and a pioneering spirit, such as the showcasing of small town life in the Little House on the Prairie series published between 1932 and 1943 by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1971). However, stories from this time period still included some serious and realistic writing, such as the simplicity and down-to-earth style of Margaret Wise Brown’s work for young children, or the realities and hardships of life depicted in stories like Strawberry Girl by Lois Lenski (1945) that shared the struggles of a poor, working farm girl (Hunt, 1995).2

The emergence of more realistic stories preceded the onset of a major shift toward realism that accompanied the social and political revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Between the 1930s and 1950s, writers became more willing to address topics related to societal issues and hardships, such as struggles associated with poverty; however, in the 1960s and 1970s, a flood of children’s books emerged centering on realism. Authors such as Beverly Clearly, Judy Blume and Paul Zindel wrote about growing up, death, obesity, and other issues, which marked a shift in the boundaries of what was acceptable, and arguably, even necessary for children to understand. These earlier authors paved the way for the writing of M. E. Kerr, Cynthia Voigt, and Robert Cormier, who wrote about homelessness, race, and sexuality. The realism of children’s literature in the 1960s and 1970s represented a radical shift at that time, similar to many of the other shifts throughout history related to historical, political, and societal influences.


1: John Newbery and Randolph Caldecott are recognized for their contributions to children’s literature through the Newbery Medal and Caldecott Medal, which are awarded to the most distinguished authors and illustrators in American children’s literature. Return

2: Margaret Wise Brown is most known for writing Goodnight Moon (2006) and has also written over one hundred books for children, including The Runaway Bunny (2006) and The Little Island (1993). These books artfully share big ideas, such as testing a mother’s unconditional love or discovering how all things on earth are connected. Return