Dartmouth College Library Bulletin

Casting Characters:

An Introduction to the History of Juvenile Literature to 1900


How have children come to obtain the dazzling abundance of juvenile literature they enjoy today? Only a few books for children have ever been written by children themselves, and virtually none have been published by them. So young people have been obliged to read those works considered suitable by their elders, or co-opt those considered unsuitable. The process toward a separate children's literature began millennia ago, in the caves of Lascaux and Altamira, in sand on the shore, on rocks in the American West, and anywhere humans lived and wished to leave messages for another or for unseen powers. Drawings, inscriptions, petroglyphs, and pictograms married idea with image in various ways. Children's literature, in particular, has been about the support of texts by illustration and the reverse, and has always been influenced by adults' attitudes toward children.

It is safe to assume that whatever was told by, sung by, or written by adults would at some point fall on the ears and eyes of children, although only some children ever learned to read. Bibliographies of published juvenile literature begin with the European medieval period, but Gillian Adams has successfully argued that

an imaginative literature which may or may not have been originally composed for younger children or directed at them, but which was considered particularly suitable for them and to which they were regularly exposed

is indicated by surviving clay tablets in Sumerian, from the period of the Third Ur Dynasty (2112) to 1000 BCE, excavated at school sites (edubba). Analysis of the content of these texts organizes them into five categories: exercises for writing practice; the lullaby; proverbs and fables; stories of schoolboys' lives; and dialogues or debates [1]. Each of these categories, with the exception of the first, is recognizable throughout the history of children's literature to the present day.

From its very beginnings, children's oral and written literature had a twofold purpose: to instruct, and to comfort or entertain. Both text and illustration play greater or lesser roles in these purposes at different periods. The history of juvenile literature is the story of a continual movement around these two purposes, with occasional periods of relative equilibrium between enjoyable and instructive fare.

Gillian Adams indicates that instruction during the Third Ur Dynasty fell into three parts. First, the skill of writing was practiced; then, the skill of composition. Finally, the proverbs, dialogues, and stories the youth (boys from age nine to thirteen) read were designed to inculcate the moral values of the society, and to indoctrinate them in social behavior. Literature as a means to character building was a social and political imperative, and a hallmark of all extant Sumerian edubba tablets. The concept of literature as a way of inculcating moral values remains a theme running through a great portion of written children's literature to 1900.

Yet the importance of oral-tradition literature cannot go unmentioned. Children may not have had access to tablets, scrolls, or books, but they were constantly being sung to, and told stories. They also participated as observers at ceremonies, rituals, and, eventually, dramas. In each of these, literature formed a core, and thus was imparted to children. At stone-age ceremonies at Stonehenge and Avebury, at Greek theater at Epidauros, at medieval pageant and mystery plays, children were exposed to literature and responded to that which most moved them. The durability of themes and tales that best capture youthful imagination can be gauged by how certain of them have withstood the test of time. The fables of Aesop, the tale of Jack the giant killer, stories of twins and mistaken identities, and tales of heroes and heroines from history and the imagination, appear again and again.

Very few wealthy early-medieval children ever encountered a manuscript or book, and certainly children from other walks of life never met with any but oral literature. But after the twelfth century, children might have been exposed to texts at home or court if they were wealthy, or in the cathedral schools.

The ubiquity of the fable or moral tale in children's literature is significant. Most scholars agree that such witty fables as those of Aesop or Marie de France appeared as oral tales and were only later written down, the former in Latin or ancient Greek, the latter in Anglo-Norman French. Aesop's and other classical fables, which served not only as models for behavior, but, in their written form, as models of logic and argument, were used in late medieval and early modern school texts [2].

There were also contemporary fables of every period up to and including our own. In the vernacular, these consisted of jokes, rhymes, songs,and oral and written narratives. Harriet Spiegel attributes the popularity of the fable as literature for children to its 'combination of whimsical fantasy and moral example.'[3]

Early modern European children encountered written literature with their parents or other adults, most often spiritual teachers or schoolmasters. First in Latin and later in the vernacular, this literature was most often the Bible, a catechism, or a book of manners. With the invention of moveable type and printing in the mid-fifteenth century, the access of all, including children, to literature, significantly increased, although published juvenile literature, as distinct from the general body of literature, did not exist as a separate entity before the second half of the eighteenth century.

English children had access to the Book of Curtesye(1477)and Caxton's Aesop by 1484. The translation of classical works, for example those of Ovid, into English during the Renaissance also made these texts available, not only to Shakespeare and other writers, but to the reading population at large. During the Puritan era, John Foxe's martyrology, Actes and Monuments (1563), was considered suitable for children's reading. Its moral message was considered to justify its grisly and detailed accounts of torture and murder. Another oft-mentioned work, attractive to children because of its many illustrations, was Comenius's Orbis Sensualium Pictus or Visible World, which appeared in English in 1659.

Children probably listened to others reading from these books rather than read them themselves, but the presence of illustrations in many adult books was certainly further impetus for juveniles actually to open such volumes, read them, and begin to appropriate them for themselves.

The seventeenth century brought the first real children's books. In 1686, John Bunyan produced A Book for Boys and Girls; or, Country Rhymes for Children. Also unillustrated, the book was a popular one, its intent almost entirely to amuse, and the market for children's literature was established. Bunyan's effort was preceded by John Taylor's Thumb Bible (circa 1650), but also in 1672 by James Janeway's A Token for Children, tales of the 'Exemplary Lives and Joyful Deaths of . . . Young Children,' a grimly puritanical and morbid account in the tradition of John Foxe's Actes, still commonly read until about 1790 in both England and the colonies. Firmly based in the concept of original sin, and intended to frighten youth into compliance with strict codes of morality, this book exemplifies an attitude toward children that was punishing and admonitory. The harsh Puritan attitude in choices of reading and in writing for children persisted in some form or another as an undercurrent until the late nineteenth century in England and America.

Illustration seldom accompanied fiction before the nineteenth century, but many other attributes attracted young people to writing for adults. The illustrated spiritual allegory, Pilgrim's Progress (1678), was extremely popular with children for the next 150 years, evidenced even then by Jo March's tales of struggle with self-mastery in Little Women. As Steven Mailloux notes,

Alcott uses Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress to organize her narrative, inspire her characters, and figure their growth in self-discipline. . . . [it] not only supplements the Bible as a "guide-book" for the girls, but it also functions as an explicit gloss on their inner struggles.[4]

Insofar as the development of strong moral values and mindfulness of God were driving forces of English and American society, this book was made available to children, and, it seems, quite popular. Other books of the period appropriated by children as their own included Gulliver's Travels (1726) and Robinson Crusoe (1719), both no doubt attractive for their exciting plots and evocative settings, which stimulated youthful imaginations as much as those of their elders.

From 1700 on, European Enlightenment ideals would have a strong impact on attitudes about children, and upon the reading provided to them. The philosophies of John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were of considerable influence not only in political spheres, but also in cultural attitudes about religion and education. The child was seen as a pure creature of nature, come into the world untainted and open. These ideas were revolutionary, and fostered new attitudes toward youth and education on the part of adults. The elders' moral imperative regarding children evolved toward honoring the child's purity, and treating the young one with gentleness and care. Gone were the harsh threats of puritanical times; this was an age of valuing the mind of the child as a blank slate (tabula rasa)[5] upon which to be written, and Locke saw distinct advantages in the child's being encouraged to learn through pleasurable experience. Adults were encouraged to apply 'formal discipline' in keeping with Enlightenment cultural and educational principles, but this discipline did not use fear in its enforcement.

Books read by the authors of juvenile literature had significant influence in shaping writing for youth. Gillian Avery, a British social historian, reflects on what is for her

one of the most fascinating things about the study of children's books: the way that one can detect in them the books that moved their authors when they themselves were children, and how many of these mingle with memories of their own childhood, and are overlaid with the fashionable approach of the moment. [6]

Both religious and cultural climates of the time dictated the contents of books. Because children were considered innocent and impressionable, this was even more true of books written specifically for them. The contrast of the literature produced following the Enlightenment with the works of Foxe and Janeway could not be more stark. Merchants seized the opportunity to write and publish books entirely for children. In London in 1744 John Newbery produced A Little Pretty Pocket-Book; many similar volumes followed from his press in Old St. Paul's Churchyard. Each was filled with good quality verse (some say that Oliver Goldsmith was a contributor) and original illustrations produced for these books alone. Newbery struck a balance between instruction and amusement and between education and improvement, which proved extremely popular with his readership; indeed, his books were even admired by Dr. Johnson. [7] Imitations flooded onto the market, and modern book publishing for children was born.

Books for children in the American colonies and in the early republic came almost entirely from England. Aside from those already mentioned, there was a vast trade in chapbooks. These cheaply-produced hand-size (3 1/2 x 5 1/2" for adults; 2 1/2/ x 3 1/2" for children) pamphlets were available everywhere in early America, and their pictures, crudely carved woodcuts from a variety of sources, played an important role in their popularity. Other important illustrated books included all those engraved by Thomas Bewick, [8] many of those engraved by his American follower Alexander Anderson, and the magnificently written, engraved, painted, and colored Songs of Innocence by William Blake (1789), certainly the most successful marriage of text and illustration for children before the late nineteenth century. Among other early books for children in America were the extreme-punishment cautionary verse-tales from German, such as Strewelpeter, the Comtesse d'Aulnoy's Court of Queen Mab(1752), and other fairy tales.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, literacy in the United States was reasonably widespread, but there was little reading done, and even less writing. Emphasis was placed on worship, the planting of crops (the young nation was 80% rural), and elementary instruction. By this time, according to Jack Larkin, 'most white American children between five and fifteen spent a few weeks, up to a couple of months, in school every year.' About three-quarters of the adult male population could read; girls were less often sent to school because of the value of their work at home, and 'Slaves were kept unschooled and illiterate by conscious policy and in many Southern states by law.'[9] In school, aside from grammars, alphabet books, arithmetics, almanacs, books of facts, and religious tracts, children read evangelical stories. The reading of fiction was, on the whole, condemned as the consumption of falsehoods, and the fairy tale was completely out of favor until about 1818. (It was, however, kept alive in oral tradition and by the chapbooks.)

At home, some of the most popular juvenile books at this time were the works of British writer Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849); Mrs. Sherwood (1775-1851); Samuel Goodrich (1793-1860), also known as 'Peter Parley'; and Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864). In Practical Education (1798), Maria Edgeworth and her father Richard Lovell Edgeworth summarized prevailing attitudes, particularly those in America, that were modified from pure European Enlightenment philosophy by the strong Puritan presence. [10]

The ideal was of 'alert, independent, socially minded young people, learning from experience,' and informed by strong moral values. [11] Edgeworth saw interaction with a child as an opportunity for instruction. The Edgeworths, Goodrich, and many others held that Greek myths, fairy tales, and romances were too violent and belonged to the past; that science and practical matters along with the building of character were more suitable subjects for youthful reading. They held that edification and instruction of the young should be effected by the reading of the truth, and, in fiction, works should be of moral and instructive content. Virtues to be explored included honesty, kindness to the poor, industry, sharing, and obedience to adults. There would be rewards for proper behavior, but punishment would come from the operation of one's own conscience-individuals were responsible for their own salvation. [12]

Goodrich's Tales About the United States

The books exemplifying these theories proved wildly popular. Maria Edgeworth's stories were much more influential in America than in her native England, where Avery says they were considered deficient in religious content and too challenging to the social order. [13] Goodrich wrote over 116 different titles, printed in seven million copies, and is credited with doing more than any other single individual to produce a distinctly American, as opposed to British, children's literature. Despite his principle that only the truth would do, his entire body of work rests on his creation of a fictional character, the venerable 'Peter Parley,' who imparts the information from his perspective of well-traveled old age. Goodrich was in his thirties at the time of his character's creation, and had traveled little, yet it seems he did not wrestle with the moral implications of these facts; the books sold too well. [14]

Title page of Edgeworth's Practical Education

Children in the first half of the nineteenth century would also have had access to the fiction of Wyss, Defoe, Dickens, and Brontë, all authors in some measure influenced by fairy tales, the Gothic novel, or the stage. Young people could also help themselves to a continuing flow of moral instruction manuals such as Jason Whitman's The Young Man's Assistant in Efforts at Self-Cultivation (1838) and Harvey Newcomb's The Young Lady's Guide to Harmonious Development of Christian Character (circa 1843). At the same time the concept of recreational literature was gaining acceptance, so that toy books, fairy tales, and fiction became well-established in the United States by the 1840s. Patriotic literature also began to appear after this time.

From its inception for juveniles in Philadelphia in 1812, the growing periodical industry brought fiction to this group, reaching full flower with Lydia Maria Child's Juvenile Miscellany (1826-1836), Horace Scudder's Riverside Magazine for Young People (1867-1870), and later, Mary Mapes Dodge's great St. Nicholas (1873-1943). The industry also brought illustration specifically drawn for young people, no longer taken from earlier works for adults. Color illustrations, aside from hand-coloring, had to wait until after the Civil War, when the technology was available to mass-produce them; prior to 1870, juvenile books (as opposed to magazines) were sparsely illustrated, if at all. A virtual visual explosion took place in books after the periodical industry forged the way, and the late nineteenth through early twentieth centuries ushered in the greatest age of illustration for young people before our own.

Title page of Child's The Juvenile Miscellany

The lives of children in nineteenth-century England and those in America were radically different, as were the experiences of children of different classes. The English upper and professional classes enjoyed a prolonged childhood in the nursery, filled with games, imaginative literature, play of all sorts, and marked by a lack of responsibility. Their socialization was to rule an empire, become a captain of industry, or manage a home. In tradesmen's and servant classes, and in America, children were much more a part of the adult world of physical work, individual responsibility, and the necessity to rely on oneself. The sense of household and its economy was much stronger in working-class England and in America, and it was accompanied by a distrust of leisure and a rational belief in hard work.

Because of the rigidly defined gender roles of the times, books tended often to be written for only one gender. Until around 1870, exemplary fictional female characters played little; remained in their station in life; were modest; chose to avoid fanciness or frivolity; and found their recreation in doing for others and their empowerment through suffering. Heroines to emulate tended to remain near home, and independence in thought or deed was discouraged. They learned in negatives what not to be. [15] Their struggles were often solitary. Girls were considered to have reached their majority at age eighteen.

Boys, on the other hand, were not regarded as adults until they became twenty-one. In fiction, they were allowed more obstinate characters, more coarseness, mischief, and somewhat more self-knowledge and independence. They learned in positives what to be. They might change their rank or station through their characters and often met their challenges as members of a team. Male characters were more likely to travel beyond the domestic circle, and to interact safely with those outside the family, household, or village.

Around mid-century, the question of socialization versus rebellion began to be raised, and many fictional works for both boys and girls explored this theme (e.g., Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott). Subversion has been identified by cultural observers as an activity of marginalized groups, and certainly nineteenth-century children were such a group. Any cultural confusion about the suitability of various sorts of behavior came to be explored in the literature of the time; seemingly unsuitable emotions and ideas were examined, and conclusions about their suitability reached in the fiction.

Fashions in education and thus in juvenile literature changed quickly in the nineteenth century, as they do today, and stories could soon become outdated and even incomprehensible to the next generation of readers. As the population of the United States grew and became more diverse, new national experiences provided new material for juvenile fiction. With expansion into the American West and the Civil War came novels of the frontier, the city, and the protected enclave. Affordable literature in the form of 'yellowbacks' or dime novels glorified the American experience. Herein the qualities necessary to survive on the frontier and in the inner city were examined, and luck rather than hard work alone could determine a person's fate.

Humor and fantasy afforded escape from heavy responsibilities, never more perfectly realized than in the novels of Mark Twain, and in the revolutionary Alice's Adventures Under Ground. While exotic places from the British Empire to the Yukon and larger-than-life characters populated tales of adventure and fantasy, a significant place remained for the domestic novel.

In the realm of the nursery, oral-tradition fantasy and its imaginative re-creation in texts continued to thrive in the works of Howard Pyle, Oscar Wilde, and Kenneth Grahame. Illustration and the covers of the books were carefully crafted to enhance their overall effect, and thus contributed mightily to their popularity. One cannot imagine Alice without Tenniel's illustrations, or Pyle's books without his. Where previously children had been obliged to read words, and imagine the characters' appearances, they were now provided with gloriously colorful figures in the work of Arthur Rackham, Pyle, Winslow Homer, Kaye Nielsen, Maxfield Parrish, and N. C. Wyeth. These illustrations stand out as visual guides to youth in imagining where they might escape to and whom they might wish to become.

Frontispiece to Pyle's The Story of King Arthur and His Knights

It is a short trip from these illustrations to the more fully sequential art and fiction of the cartoon, and finally, to the moving picture, for which many of the great works of fiction for children provided the stories. In the late twentieth century, children see the film before reading the book. The durability of works of juvenile literature as cultural icons continues to be tested in the very latest Hollywood offerings, as writers and editors for children struggle for relevance. They also struggle to produce a literature that defines which values of today will build society and guarantee its future.

Suggestions for further reading:

Larson, Judy L. Enchanted Images: American Children's Illustration, 1850-1925: Catalogue Essay. Santa Barbara: Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1980.

MacLeod, Anne. A Moral Tale: Children's Fiction and American Culture, 1820-1860. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1975.

Miller, Bertha E. Mahony, Louise Payson Latimer, and Beulah Folmsbee. Illustrators of Children's Books, 1744-1945. Boston: Horn Book, 1947.

Nodelman, Perry. Words about Pictures: The Narrative Art of Children's Picture Books. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1988.

Pickering, Samuel F. John Locke and Children's Books in Eighteenth-Century England. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1981.

[1] Gillian Adams, 'The First Children's Literature? The Case for Sumer,' Children's Literature 14 (1986), 26

[2] Harriet Speigel, 'Instructing the Children: Advice from the Twelfth-Century Fables of Marie de France,' Children's Literature 17 (1989), 25-26.

[3] Speigel, 'Instructing the Children,' 25.

[4] Steven Mailloux, 'The Rhetorical Use and Abuse of Fiction: Eating Books in Late Nineteenth-Century America,' Boundary 2 17:1 (Spring 1990), 143

[5] Gail S. Murray, 'Rational Thought and Republican Virtures: Children's Literature 1789-1820,' Journal of the Early Republic 8 (Summer 1988), 159-177. See also John Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), and Locke, Some Thoughts on Education (1693).

[6] Gillian Avery, 'Children's Books and Social History,' in Research about Nineteenth-Century Children and Books, ed. Selma K. Richardson (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois graduate School of Library Science, 1980), 40.

[7] Janet Adam Smith, Children's Illustrated Books (London: Collins, 1948); Monica Mary Kiefer, American Children through Their Books, 1700-1835 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1948), 12.

[8] Among the most popular are Select fables, in Three Parts (1874); General History of Quadrupeds (1790); and History of British Birds(1797-1804).

[9] Jack Larkin, The Reshaping of Everyday Life 1790-1840 (New York: Harper and Row, 1988), 35-36.

[10] Murray, 'Rational Thought and Republican Virtues,' 161.

[11] Avery, Behold the Child,65.

[12] Murray, 'Rational Thought and Republican Virtues,' 171-172.

[13] Avery, Behold the Child, 65

[14] There were, however, instances in which children met Goodrich, and were shocked at his not being an old man. They were ashamed at having written to him as if he were an old man, only to find later that he was much younger (Avery, Behold the Child, 78-79).

[15] Laura Laffrado, '"If We have Any Littel Girls Amoung Our Readers": Gender and Education in Hawthorne's "Queen Christina,"' Children's Literature 17 (1989), 125.