Children’s Literature: A History
Children’s literature is a fascinating subject of study, partly because it transcends any time period, culture, nation, or movement in history. It is so diverse and broad in its scope that it seems to be everywhere in history.
Children’s literature, simply defined, is stories for kids. Yet there is so much more to the subject than that. What are the different story subjects? What are the lessons? How were/are these stories shared? Who created the stories? Why were they told?
Another interesting part of children’s literature is how interwoven it is with literature for adults. So often, the two are packaged together so that both adults and children can enjoy and learn from the stories being told. Sometimes literature written for an adult audience is simplified and tweaked so that children too can understand and enjoy it. Then you get children’s tales that blossom into rich epics that only a grown-up could appreciate.
Romans and Greeks viewed their offspring as adults in training, so there is very little in the way of children’s stories. However, children in Greece and Rome around 2,000 years ago no doubt heard the famous epics of Homer, and it’s probable that some storytellers catered those famous tales to a child audience.
As time went on and the Middle Ages came about, children were less valued than they are today. They were, however, put to work at a very young age. They spent the majority of their day doing manual labor, and the vast majority of them could not read. Therefore, it was impractical and economically inconceivable to create children’s literature at that time. Still, children would have sat down with their families and listened to popular adult works being recited at home or performed in the streets.
It’s really the social upheaval of the Renaissance that paved the way for children’s literature in the Western world. Once books could be mass produced at little cost, and once families embraced science and education and began teaching their children to read, it was only a short matter of time before booked aimed specifically at children began to be published. By the latter half of the 1700s, children’s literature began its golden age.