This essay will look at how different ideals and views of childhood are portrayed in children’s literature from a chronological perspective. The focus will be on English language literature printed for children and popular titles across different time periods will be discussed. The various discourses of childhood evident within literature will be highlighted, noting the changes that have occurred over time and the reasons behind this. One of the earliest examples of literature written specifically for children can be found in 15th century ‘courtesy books’.
These were often written in rhyming verse and had a clear instructional focus rather than a narrative form. For example, Child over men’s houses no stones fling Nor at glass windows no stones sling Nor make no crying, jokes nor plays In holy Church on holy days… (From The Babees’ Book (15th century) text modernised by John Rowe Townsend, 1990, p. 4, cited in Hall, 2003, p. 137) Courtesy books reflected the dominant Puritanical discourse of the time in Britain and America. This model of childhood was based on the Christian concept of ‘original sin’ and saw children as naturally sinful and in need of control and correction.
The ominous consequences of misbehaviour were sometimes given in explicit details to frighten children into obedience, warning of the ‘Curse of God’ and ‘Utter Darkness’ of Hell for those that disobeyed parents. During this period, story books were not considered necessary for children and fiction was generally disliked as it could lead to children developing vain fantasies and unchristian ideals. These attitudes can still be found today in more extreme faith groups, in particular towards the fantasy genre. (Hall, 2003, p. 137)
A turning point in popular attitudes in Britain came with the theories of philosopher John Locke published in this book Some Thoughts Concerning Education in 1693. He believed children were born with minds like ‘blank slates’, or tabula rasa in Latin, with individual thoughts and ideas. It was their experiences and upbringing that taught them how to behave. He suggested an education for children based on love, kindness and gentle nurture with positive promotion of learning where children could ‘play themselves in what others are whipped for’, which was in stark contrast to Puritanical concepts.
In terms of literature in particular, children should be given ‘some easy, pleasant book, suited to his capacity’ (Hall, 2003, p. 138) with enjoyment as the incentive for further reading. The influence of Locke’s concepts was wide reaching and was adopted by the famous publisher and author John Newbery, a pioneer in children’s print literature. John Newbery wrote, printed and sold books during the 18th century and is credited with popularising literature directed at and written for children, a new concept at the time.
He wrote over 30 books for children, including the Little Pretty Pocket Book in 1744, which was clearly aimed at engaging and entertaining children, with easy language, pictures and included simple incentives such as letters written by characters to the readers. One of his most popular works The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes, from 1765, told the story of an orphaned girl who teaches herself to read and becomes a successful teacher, ‘a model of enlightened teaching, kindness… patience in adversity’ leading a life of ‘unparalleled generosity’.