“Man’s unhappiness, says Descartes, is due to his having first been a child.”
Simone de Beauvoir in The Ethics of Ambiguity, II Personal Freedom and Others.

As with all art forms, children’s literature is a product of the society it is constructed in and so it unavoidably contains embedded ideology. Our ideas about the world and ourselves as human beings are continuously changing, and so our stories must change to reflect them. When stories could only be passed on orally, they were easily adapted to the needs of the audience, but with the invention of the printing press in the sixteenth century stories began to be confined to text. In doing so they became detached from the people that created them and their malleable nature became more static. In book format stories became a commodity accessible to only wealthy and elite people; any stories still told in villages and beside fires were trivialised as primitive. This is evident in the recording of folk tales by the Brothers Grimm. No sooner were they first published in 1812, then they were tailored to children, who were encouraged to enjoy them in the leisure time which their parents could afford them. The ideology that informs contemporary literature for children is rooted in the idea of childhood innocence and a kind of primitive, carefree nature. “Children’s fiction has never completely severed its links with a with a philosophy which sets up the child as a pure point of origin in relation to language, sexuality and the state” (Rose, 1984). The canon of literature especially for children gained traction in the nineteenth century during the Romantic period in which many nations were searching for their national identity in Europe and literature designed for children was seen as a way of passing along authentic traditions. But childhood as a category of human experience is not a universal and historical norm – it evolved alongside technological and economic developments which allowed children time to be educated, instead of having to be sent to work. To fully understand how we use children’s books today, I have looked back at the history of how we have experienced childhood.

In hunter-gatherer communities, children collected berries and foraged alongside their Mothers while the men went to hunt, subsequently, men would take boys on the hunt to teach them how to catch animals. There was less  of a differentiation between the roles of children and adults, and between girls and boys. Agricultural communities which superseded hunter-gatherer ones, changed this dynamic because men were required to work the land and women were required to rear many children to who would grow up to help run the farm. Due to the labour demands of running farms, and more food available from harvests, families grew in size, though there were still many childhood deaths due to disease, famine and even accidents. Girls were required to marry earlier and often were engaged to partners at a very young age – an economical and political move, joining families with land together to dominate farming areas. These economic and technological changes meant gender roles persisted in classical civilisations – school was mostly for upper class boys and some girls; girls were seen more as bargaining commodities and lower class children were sent to work to help to support the family. Even in India, where Hinduism taught that children were spiritual beings and revered, at the age of eight years old, they were also sent to work.

In classical civilisations, there was some recognition of children having need of nurture and education as can be found in the writing of the Grecian philosopher Plato. In his book The Republic, Plato gives advice on pedagogy: “We must look for artists and craftsmen capable of perceiving the real nature of what is beautiful, and then our young men, living as it were in a healthy climate, will benefit because all the works of art they see and hear influence them for good, like the breezes from some healthy country, insensibly leading them from earliest childhood into close sympathy and conformity with beauty and reason” (Plato, trans. Lee 2007:98).  Despite this ideal being reality for some ancient Roman youths, to survive in a hierarchical society, slave families of the same era were sent to work – including children. As classical empires declined, so did the view of the child as an individual to nurture and educate for the sake of posterity and legacy. “Ancient society… may well have understood the difference of childhood and grasped the necessity of children’s development, whereas medieval civilisation seems to have either abandoned or mislaid such a recognition to await its discovery in modernity” (Jenks, 1996:63).

As the dark ages proceeded, organised religion and its ideas took hold. Hinduism was already being practiced in Asia, but from 500 – 1450 AD Judaism, Christianity and Islam spread rapidly all of which taught that humans had a soul – a divine essence. A higher vale of life meant, to differing extents, religious law set about protecting childrenIn the Middle East Islam gave rights of inheritance to orphaned and adopted children and a book on child rearing by Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya was published. In Europe, Christianity promoted the image of the Virgin Mary and Jesus as the picture of dutiful motherhood and infanticide was outlawed. Conversely, it also taught that humans are born with original sin and that babies are not redeemable before baptism. Throughout the middle ages, religions became the pillar of communities and as a result, was the main source of formal education for medieval children. In Europe: “The church was to become central, playing a role in their [childrens’] lives similar to that of school today… congregations would hear readings from the new testament, suggesting that children who had been baptised might have a greater value in gods eyes, even than their elders” (Cunningham and Morpurgo, 2006). It was not until the sixteenth century that books were cut loose from their role exclusively as disseminators of religion, though they still had a religious overtone. The first illustrated books for young people were text books such as Jost Amman’s Kunst und Lehrbüchlein (1580) and John Amos Comenius’ Orbis Sensalium Pictus (1658) and were general primers for children – like an illustrated encyclopaedia. 

1. A woodcut illustration by Jost Amman for Kunst und Lehrbüchlein (1580)
2. Page 1 of ‘Orbis Sensalium Pictus’ by John Amos Comenius (1658)

At this time, stories for leisure were mainly distributed by chapmen who copied stories, jokes and recipes etc by printing them in small pamphlets using recycled typography and illustrations discarded by printing presses (Muir, 1954 & Salisbury, 2007). These were sold around villages and towns and were read by adults and children alike, they were also retold orally in communities (Muir, 1954). A literature especially for children didn’t truly begin until the sixteenth century when Puritanism, a faction of Catholicism which thought the church had too much power, gained popular support. However, Puritan literature was extremely didactic and fear-mongering – authors included John Bunyan (A Pilgrim’s Progress, 1678) and James Janeaway (Looking Glass for Children, 1671).

3. A spread from ‘Divine Emblems’ by John Bunyan (1686)

In the early eighteenth century, the Enlightenment movement challenged the control of the dominating theological narrative. Philosopher John Locke disputed the idea of original sin and, influenced by classical writings now widely available through the printing press, wrote on the education and rearing of children. “A more child-centered concept of human rights and family began to emerge from the European Renaissance in the late fifteenth and sixteenth century. John Locke (1632-1704) espoused the contractual nature of marriage and wrote of the value of self determination”  (Jenks, 1996:50). Jean Jaques Rosseau condemned the use of swaddling to wrap the baby up so his or her limbs would not move and advocated children were unfettered by adult assumptions and prejudice. John Locke was outspoken on the benefits of reading the fables of Aesop to young people and, around this time, fairy tales became fashionable amongst adults, particularly in France; children also enjoyed and, according to Muir ‘adopted’ them. By the middle of the eighteenth century, “…anthropomorphic animals; chivalric heroism; and adventures on sea and land…” (Muir, 1954:43) were coming together to form the essential elements that would form a literature for children.

The ‘golden age’ of children’s literature dawned with Romanticism, alongside the imperialism, when wealthy middle and upper classes began to see children as individuals and more evidently value the family institution. William Blake demonstrated society’s changed opinion of children – and ourselves as humans – no longer tainted with sin, but free and innocent beings worthy of a good quality of life. In western Europe and the USA, attendance at school was commonplace from the 1860s onwards. The narrative of childhood as a time of leisure and learning coincided with progress in print technology. Thomas Bewick developed a new way of wood-engraving which allowed book plates to be more detailed and refined.

4. An illustration of ‘The Crow and The Pitcher’ by Thomas Bewick from ‘The Fables of Aesop and Others’ (1818)

Ideologically, the modern model of childhood had emerged by the nineteenth century and gained sway in the Western world, as it continues to do so across the world. The criteria of the modern model, according to historian Peter Stearns, are: 1) children should not work; 2) consequently, children are an economic liability to the family so the birth rate reduces; 3) therefore there is a heightened attention to individual children by parents and guardians; 4) there is increased interest from the nation state that children do well and support the economy (Stearns, 2011). These changes meant that the quality of life of families grew, state health and social care gradually became established in western Europe and the USA, lengthening life expectancy. During the proceeding centuries, through the World Wars, the Cold War and Communism, the world continued to globalise.

The confluence of childhood becoming more idealised, and the globalisation of the world, resulted in international laws being formed to protect children – the UN convention on the rights of the child was passed in 1989. However, it is not easy for every nation in varied situations of economic development and political stability to always follow the western-backed advice. For instance, multinational banks lent to developing nations on the condition government spending be reduced, causing poorer people to fall further into poverty and children having to remain in work (Stearns, 2011). Trade was affecting how children lived and what media they consumed. At present, despite incredible technological and pedagogic advances, we currently still live in a world where there are huge discrepancies between levels of education and the availability of literature for children. Organisations such as the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) do important work to try to bridge gaps in local literatures for communities all over the world, which is addressing this issue.

The children’s book has been, and continues to be, a commodity dominated by the UK and USA markets but this trend seems to be changing. Teri Tan, a New York-based journalist for the International magazine Publishers Weekly, reports a trend in children’s books changing from imports to local stock. “Overall, picture books – local and translated – remain a big game this side of the world. And while rights agencies used to go after European and American publishing houses for both exports and imports, more deals are now inked with neighbors instead. China, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Thailand, for instance, represent newer markets that are seeking more (and newer) content, but are reluctant to spend big bucks on American or European titles. Both cultural and geographical proximity are tipping the balance in favor of regional rights trading” (Tan,2011). It will be interesting to see if the publications created in these countries make it to the UK and US markets, or if ebooks will enable people more liberty to buy translated titles.

Today, qualities of storytelling are being refocused on as a method of teaching such as in the Talk for Write programme, recognising the cognitive benefits of oral tradition (Corbett and Strong [online]) and children’s literature is a worldwide, growing industry. Stories have  intrinsic patterns and themes which have been refined over time. These themes are evident in many stories arising in different parts of the world (Propp, 1968) and are being recognised as very successful ways of teaching children many subjects, as they always did.


Image Sources


  1. Amman, Jost (1580) Kunst und Lehrbüchlein [online] Accessed 11/02/2017
  2. Comenius, John Amos (1658) Orbis Sensalium Pictus [online]—orbis-sensualium-pictus-first-childrens-picture-book-1728-193189-p.asp Accessed 11/02/2017
  3. Bunyan, John Divine Emblems (1686) Accessed 09/02/2017
  4. Bewick, Thomas (1818) Aesop’s Fables [online] Accessed 11/02/2017


Cunningham, Hugh and Morporgo, Michael (2006)  The Invention of Childhood BBC Radio 4 series

International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) Accessed: 11/02/2017

Muir, Percy (1954) English Children’s Books B.T.Batsford LTD:London

Rose, Jaqueline (1984) The Case of Peter Pan Or the Impossibility of Children’s Fiction The Macmillan Press LTD: London and Basingstoke

Plato translated by Lee, Desmond (2007) Penguin Classics

Propp, Vladimir (1968) Morphology of the Folktale

Salisbury, Martin (2007) Illustrating Children’s Books 

Stearns, Peter (2011) Childhood in World History Routledge

Talk 4 Writing devised by Pie Corbett and supported by Julia Strong [online] Accessed: 11/02/2017

Tan, Teri (2011) Children’s Publishing in Asia [in] Publishers Weekly [online] Accessed: 11/02/2017

UNICEF [online] Accessed: 11/02/2017




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