How Did Children’s Literature Evolve From Prim Morality Tales to the Likes of Captain Underpants?

Tina Kügler

Children’s literature has a long and complex history, not least because the definition of “children’s literature” is so contested. Does the genre describe books for kids? Books kids read? Is it meant to instruct young people or delight them, unleash their imaginations or awaken their morality? Does it play for Team Order or Team Nonsense? What if it does all these things?

Literary critic and University of California–San Diego professor Seth Lerer is an expert on the subject. He’s the author of Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History from Aesop to Harry Potter, a wide-ranging, captivating, and extremely fun work of scholarship that won the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism in 2008. Slate chatted with Lerer about the very first children’s books, how libraries once taught kids the ABCs of American citizenship, and the juggernaut phenomenon of Harry Potter. This conversation has been edited and condensed.

What were the very first children’s books?

The first children’s books that were actually printed and published and sold as children’s books emerged in the 1740s. They came courtesy of John Newbery—the first English publisher to set up a press explicitly for such literature—and they had titles such as Little Goodie Two Shoes and A Little Pretty Pocket Book.

Before Newbery, though, many adult works were recalibrated and reframed for children. In classical antiquity and then into the Middle Ages, you had the epics of Homer and Virgil, you had manuscripts of passages from those poems used as schoolbooks. You had romances, adventure stories. Aesop’s fables. All of these were copied and circulated for children.

Wikimedia Commons

So it’s a twofold question: How did preprint manuscript culture adapt adult literature for the purpose of education? And the answer is all the classical poetry and medieval romance that was excerpted and shaped and dispersed before the advent of the printing press. Then, how do you decide you want to go into the business of printing books for children, once you have print? That’s where Newbery comes in.

What were Newbery’s books like? How were they—and the other early works for children—different from today’s literature for kids?

The earliest kids books, including Newbery’s, were largely designed to teach moral behavior. They were about social decorum and a particular way of being a child, especially in relation to parents and teachers. Some children’s books—many of the early medieval romances, for instance—had an adventure quality to them, but always a moral and spiritual quality too.

Is there one particular period that’s considered the “golden age” of children’s literature?

The conventional wisdom is that the so-called Golden Age of children’s literature runs from about the 1850s until the 1920s. That is the age of Lewis Carroll and The Railway Children and Mary Poppins. And one of the reasons why many people, especially people in Britain, constructed it this way is that they saw Victorian and Edwardian England as the Golden Age of English culture. After World War II, the prewar world was an Eden, an age where Britain ruled, colonized, and controlled. Many of the books of this “Golden Age,” even though we may read them today as delightful, benign adventure stories, are stories of colonization.

Wikimedia Commons

One thing that interests me is why so many modern children’s books look back on this Victorian and Edwardian period as a place to set the child’s imagination.  … C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe, which is a book written in the 1950s, imagined an Edwardian world. Scholars of J.R.R. Tolkien have come to realize that his are books of nostalgia for a pre–World War I society. The hobbit lives in a little Britain of Tolkien’s childhood. We want to imagine this world before all of the horrible things of the 20th century, this world of innocence, even though so many of the books written then are filled with colonialism, caricature, or weird sexuality.

In the 19th century … Victorians imagined childhood as a time of unbridled wonder. Many of the children in works written for kids were represented as figures who are dazzled by the world, who regard their experiences with an idealized and innocent awe. That can take the direction of the child becoming a leader, a figure of intensely positive virtue. Or the child becomes naïve, abandoned, abused. Those were the two versions of children in the Victorian period, which sentimentalized the orphan, the lost child.

A lot of people think that childhood is a modern, invented category. But each culture invents childhood in its own way. In the Victorian era, children were idealized figures who could somehow teach adults to see the world from a brighter, more benign perspective.

The great heir to that tradition is Harry Potter. His world is Victorian: Diagon Alley is straight out of Dickens; so are the transparent, funny names of the teachers; etc. But this is a story about an orphan boy who through a combination of wonder, intelligence, and spunk will teach elders something they don’t already know and achieve greatness.

What do you think makes certain children’s books—say, Harry Potter—particular wildfire phenomena?

They speak to a particular moment in history, a social anxiety. With Harry Potter, the theme of the books themselves is the theme of reading. That series encouraged children to find magic in reading, and the thing the kids loved about Harry Potter was that they could find themselves in the book as readers. Reading a paper book is no longer the norm today. It’s the exception. And if you think of yourself as an exceptional child, set apart from your peers, that’s appealing.

Illustration of Alice in Wonderland by John Tenniel, 1865.

Wikimedia Commons

The most popular boy’s books of the 1890s and early 1900s were not written by Rudyard Kipling, but by G.A. Henty. Henty published something like 100 novels; his books are the original so-called ripping yarns. They concern young white boys in colonial outposts of the British Empire who befriend young “natives” and find themselves in the middle of heroic history. We consider these books pernicious and racist and colonialist today. But they were so popular because they contained the fantasy that every young child would go off to Africa, India, and the Sudan and become a colonial hero. They spoke immediately to a social ideal and political view that has now become distasteful, even evil. Henty makes Kipling look benignly liberal.

More recently, there’s been the emergence of young women’s books. Judy Blume. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Harriet the Spy. The Weetzie Bat series by Francesca Lia Block. They redefined a lot of what matters in children’s literature, basically inventing the YA side of things.

Wikimedia Commons

And another thing I find interesting is that, over the last 30 years, young adult literature is increasingly focusing on young women, girls from the ages of about 12 to 16. How they achieve a certain level of control and mastery. How they become true heroines in the novel. When you look at the trajectory of modern books, Harriet the Spy, Judy Blume—books from the ’60s and ’70s—and then at Hermione in Harry Potter, who’s very much a modern YA heroine, and at The Hunger Games, you see children’s literature really moving toward an audience of younger women in particular, who face particular challenges and really develop their heroic lives.

What is your favorite children’s book of all time?

Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey.

You didn’t even hesitate!

No, I grew up in the 1950s and ’60s, in New York. And this book is about finding a home in the city, looking for a perfect park; it’s a book about family. Like most people, I had a pretty messed-up family. But one thing I realized when I became a scholar of children’s literature is that this book was published in September of 1941. The father duck says, “I’m going away for a while. Find a nice home for the kids, and I’ll be back.” It’s so clearly an allegory of the war, and because the father returns to a nice home, it’s a fantasy. And for me—that’s what fathers did, they went away. They went to work, to war, they got divorced, they went on business trips. Life was about waiting for dad to come home. Make Way for Ducklings gives the child a fantasy, or just a hope, that dad will come home to a nice nest in the park.

Has children’s literature, historically, always been designed to explicitly teach something?

To the extent that’s true, I think it goes back to what a lot of people perceive as the purpose of early kids books: “learning how to read.” It’s not just learning how to read big books, but learning how to read the world. To develop a real literate sensibility. So one of the things that’s very interesting about contemporary children’s literature is the way in which so many key events go on in libraries or involve interpretations of letters.

You see it in American libraries. The “children’s rooms” in the 1890s and early 1900s were not just about teaching kids how to read, but about making citizens. Children’s libraries were designed for the children of newly arrived immigrant families. They aided American citizens by teaching them several key things: that silence was a virtue; that you needed to have clean hands; that if you lost or damaged something, you had to pay for it. Libraries were where you learned, through reading, through interpretation, how to integrate yourself into grown-up American life.

So where did all the subversion and playfulness in children’s literature come from?

You need the didacticism in order to have the subversion; they go hand in hand. You have to know what you’re subverting. The moral, ethical, and social categories that were instilled in the children’s rooms, these are things that get challenged in the playful nonsense of Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear, in Shel Silverstein and Captain Underpants. None of these children’s books argue for subversion or nonsense or anarchy unbridled. There’s a space for it, but always a constrained space. In Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, Max can put on his wolf suit and go down with the wild things, but he’s home for dinner.