What is Children's Literature? - History, Themes & Examples

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Angela Gentry

Children's literature, the only genre defined by audience, is a rich enigma that includes some intriguing paradoxes. Learn more through a discussion of its history, themes, and examples.

We also recommend watching Allegory in Literature: History, Definition & Examples and What is Catharsis? - Definition, Examples & History in Literature and Drama

When we think of a children's story in our contemporary times, we probably think of it as entertainment, rather than as a tool for moral instruction. Even though the genre is defined by its audience, children and adults alike enjoy stories intended for children, and this is one of a few interesting paradoxes we find in the subject. Present in several forms, children's literature includes books, poems, plays, etc., which also adds to the potential expanse of the topic. Let's delve back into history and see what we can learn about its many forms and purposes.



Due to its oral tradition, it's difficult to trace the origin of the first children's story. Because many cultures viewed children as people already on their way to adulthood, they didn't perceive childhood as its own sacred time that they should value for its experience; it was about preparation. Prior to the mid-19th century, children's stories consisted mainly of moral principles and/or a realistic perspective of the world. Let's look at a few of the primary highlights from the past, particularly during the 'Golden Period' for the genre, where children's literature moved into the realm of entertainment for all ages.

The Renaissance Period

A crucial time for many new developments, this era saw the development of the first movable printing press, which paved the way for faster and more diverse publication. Some children's literature existed at this time, but it was primarily in the form of textbooks or books for moral instruction, such as Foxe's Book of Martyrs and The Pilgrim's Progress. Even these examples were not originally written with children in mind; children were drawn to the adventures and images in them.

The Rise of Puritanism

In this era, John Locke's philosophies on the mind of a child as a blank slate became extremely popular, thus beginning the evolution of the child in a different stage than an adult and the progression of childhood as we know it today. Parents became more concerned about the mental, and especially the spiritual, minds of their children.

If writers did write with children in mind, it was frequently to use hell or another such punishment to scare them into obedience. At this time, one form of literature children did have access to was the chapbook, a small, saddle-stapled book that usually included a fairy tale, poems, almanacs, and so on. This type of book was also much more affordable for the common layperson. The first tales of Jack, the giant, and the beanstalk were printed in the late 18th century.

Jack and the Beanstalk

John Newbery's Influence

When we look at history, we can see that philosophies about children and childhood were directly proportional to the popularity and production level of children's literature. The 19th century is considered to be the Golden Age for the genre, but what occurred socially in order for this to be possible? One answer: John Newbery. (You may be familiar with the popular award for children's books today - the John Newbery Medal.) Newbery created Newbery's Pretty Pocket Book (1744), which was the first multi-media book meant for both children's enjoyment and enrichment. Moreover, he developed the children's side of his publishing house so that it printed even more books for children.


The Golden Age for Children's Literature

As society grew to respect childhood more (and certainly we can partially attribute this to the growing middle class and the amenities the Industrial Revolution provided), children's literature absolutely blossomed. Writers such as Lewis Carroll (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland), Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island), and Mark Twain (Huckleberry Finn) moved away from the moralism of earlier productions and turned instead to writing imaginative pieces to entertain. Notably, the literature of this period did still reinforce stereotypical gender roles. For instance, we see in Little Women by Louisa May Alcott a heroine who, while embracing her independence briefly, does still marry and grow into a submissive wife.

Contemporary Children's Literature

Today, children's literature is more expansive and diverse than at any other time throughout history. Changes in technology and even more modern amenities/luxuries have birthed a greater level of entertainment. Today, we see that children's literature encompasses many genres in and of itself, from historical fiction to fantasy. Toddlers enjoy pop-up books; pre-teens have early readers; teenagers immerse themselves in graphic novels. Literature has also developed immensely in its topic selection; what once only existed for moral development now exists to explore any number of subjects from environment preservation to sexual orientation.


As mentioned above, prior to the Victorian age (from the early 1800s until the turn of the century), writers created literature for children that was moralistic. In other words, it imparted to children the values of the elders in a given society. These lessons would have centered on proper behavior, how to respect adults, and how to behave in school; they were essentially books on manners and morals designed to protect a child from an end in damnation.

As attitudes toward children changed, and as the middle class expanded and more people began to read, children began to enjoy reading, and adults began to desire to create the market for children's literature. Children first started to read books about exotic adventures, such as Treasure Island, that were originally written for adults, but then adults began writing specifically for the enjoyment of children. Mark Twain was one of the front-runners of those writers who would write about children for children.

Contemporary themes are as diverse as the ecosystems on the planet. What children once read to instill fear (such as Foxe's Book of Martyrs), children now read to become immersed in a world of fantasy. Other popular themes include coming of age, education, friendship, clubs, mysteries, and so on.


Since children's literature is so broad and varied, let's take a representative example from three different time periods: Pre-Golden Age, the Golden Age, and Contemporary Literature.

Pre-Golden Age

Probably the most famous example from this period, and one that is still loved today, would be Fables, of Æsop: and other eminent mythologists: with morals and reflexions and other eminent mythologists: with morals and reflexions. Originally published in 1474, this book was one of the first printed.


Interestingly enough, the collector of these tales, Sir Roger L'Estrange, included a section of discussions that elaborated on the morals of the tales. This was in keeping with the values of the times, because parents perceived these stories as acceptable for children since it did teach morals.

The Golden Age

A trendsetter for the Golden Age and many of the writers in it was George MacDonald. One of his most famous books, The Princess and the Goblin, showcases the fantasy and magical elements we would later see in writers such as C.S. Lewis and Madeleine L'Engle. In the novel, underground goblins strategize to kidnap 8-year-old Princess Irene and marry her to the goblin prince, Harelip, so they can force the humans above ground into submission. This is truly a departure from previous stories that primarily focused on moral training.

Contemporary Literature

One of the most popular series in the last decade, Harry Potter, drew crowds from all ages. As we've seen, literature from the Golden Age to our contemporary times in children's literature has largely showcased fantasy and has provided children with the outlet to explore magical landscapes and exotic destinations in their imaginations.

Lesson Summary

Children's literature has seen quite a few different movements in the past few hundred years. What was not even a genre has blossomed quickly as society began to value childhood and the development of a child's imagination.

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