Milestones in Children's Literature

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What Was the First Children's Book?

Johann Amos Comenius created the first book for children in 1658. Also the first picture book, his Orbis Sensualium Pictus, provided children with an elementary encyclopedia and employed a new educational technique: teaching kids with pictures. The woodcut images charmed children, and educators marveled at the method.

Storytelling Traditions

Fairy tales and nursery rhymes are as old as mothers and babies. In 1697, Charles Perrault’s Tales of My Mother the Goose featured the first published tales from storytelling traditions. Nearly 50 years later, Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book featured the first printed nursery rhymes, including favorites such as “Sing a Song of Sixpence,” “Bah, Bah, Black Sheep,” and “Hickere, Dickere, Dock.”

Adventures at Sea

Many consider Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, published in 1719, the first English novel. This and other amazing sea tales thrilled 18th-century readers as real-life sailors braved the sea to discover new lands.  Defoe’s inspiration, Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk, survived a shipwreck and occupied an uninhabited Pacific island with only guns, a hatchet, a pot, cheese, and a Bible.

A Little Nonsense Now and Then

William Roscoe wrote the first nonsense story, The Butterfly’s Ball, in 1806. Kids delighted in the ridiculous rhyme about a bug bash. Edward Lear’s Book of Nonsense followed in 1846 and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland in 1865.

All-American Heroes

Jacob Abbott introduced the first truly American children’s literary character in the 1830s. Readers tagged along with Abbott’s hero Rollo on his adventures through 14 humorous books as he learned to talk, read, write, experiment, and make his own miniature museum. Abbot’s contemporary, Samuel Goodrich, penned Tales of Peter Parley about America. Goodrich created the first children’s book series when he subsequently published additional Parley tales with formulaic plots.

Sunday School Stories

The Great Awakening, an early 19th-century religious revival, inspired millions of inexpensive books that taught children what to believe. These cheap tracts preached a good sermon but often told a poor story. More than 20 years after the decline of the movement, Mark Twain’s The Story of the Bad Little Boy (1875) parodied the tendency of many children’s books to substitute moral messages for superb storytelling and believable characters.

Mysteries in the City

The first detective story, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue, published in 1841, enthralled readers. The piece also highlighted how America had changed. On the farm, Americans knew their neighbors well. That changed when, by the 19th-century, strangers filled booming cities, and many crimes went unsolved. Readers admired literary sleuths who cracked the kind of cases that baffled real-life police, and Poe’s book inspired later generations of kid detectives like the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew.

Golden Age

The late 1800s marked a golden age of children’s books. Through such titles as Little Women, Tom Sawyer, and The Secret Garden, authors like Louisa May Alcott, Mark Twain, and Frances Hodgson Burnett celebrated children’s playfulness and imagination and fought the temptation to use books to browbeat kids into behaving.

Beautiful Books

In the late 19th-century, high-quality children’s publications both charmed the mind and pleased the eye. The new technology of chromolithography made possible colorful illustrations that still shine today. Young readers marveled at children’s magazines, too. St. Nicholas, for example, gave children monthly installments of original works by acclaimed authors like Rudyard Kipling, Jack London, and Mark Twain and great artists like Winslow Homer.

Cheap Reads

Around 1845, publishers introduced cheap, action-packed adventures called “Dime Novels.” Moral-reformer Anthony Comstock called them “Traps for the Young.”  Publishers originally marketed the genre to working-class adults, but kids found the uncomplicated plots, simple vocabulary, victorious protagonists, and romantic encounters irresistible.

A Guide to Good Books

In 1922, librarians and publishers created the Newbery Medal for the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children. The first recipient, The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem van Loon, provided a brief history of Western civilization. Sixteen years later, librarians established the Caldecott Medal for the best picture book, first awarded to Dorothy P. Lathrop’s Animals of the Bible: A Picture Book.

Fantasies from Fairy Tales

In 1937, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit refashioned fairy tales into a new genre: epic fantasy. World War I had killed the Victorian enthusiasm for fairy tales and most authors who survived machine guns and mustard gas wrote to confront real life. During their time in the trenches, Tolkien and C. S. Lewis found comfort in inventing tales and myths.

Confronting Reality

Before World War II, Elizabeth Enright became one of the only children’s books authors to illustrate her own titles. She also subtly confronted the effects of the Great Depression in her book Thimble Summer (1939), as her protagonist worried about retrieving the mail for fear of bills and also observed her father fretting about the drought’s effect on his crops. Most other children’s books during the era focused on the idealized family and not the harsh realities of poverty.

Books for the Masses

Simon and Schuster launched Little Golden Books in 1942. Filled with colorful illustrations and appealing tales like The Poky Little Puppy, these inexpensive picture books hooked kids all across America. Priced at a quarter and available in grocery stores, these volumes enabled parents to build libraries for their children.

Seuss on the Loose

In the 1950s, Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel) wrote children’s books filled with social commentary in seemingly nonsense verse. In Horton Hears a Who, Horton reminds the reader that “a person is a person, no matter how small.” And in Yertle the Turtle, Mack pronounces “all turtles are free/as turtles and maybe, all creatures should be.” Dr. Seuss challenged a decade marked by conformity.

Comic Book Culture

Bam! Pow! Oof! As the United States and the Soviet Union faced off in the Cold War, dormant comic book superheroes filled new pulp pages. Comic books heated the imaginations of baby-boom boys and girls with epic battles between invincible superheroes and their dastardly foes.

Social Consciousness

The turbulent 1960s introduced new levels of serious content in kids’ books. The civil rights movement demanded that black characters appear in children’s literature. My Side of the Mountain and Island of the Blue Dolphins reflected flower children’s love of the land. And for a generation mourning the loss of Martin, Bobby, and John, books on death, like A Bridge to Terabithia, became essential.

Self-Help Series

During the 1970s, popular advice manuals reassured readers, “I’m O.K., You’re O.K.”  Kids’ books gave life advice through laughter and loveable characters. Kids overcame sibling rivalry when reading The Berenstain Bears’ New Baby, accepted their bodies while reading Arthur’s Nose, and calmed nighttime fears through reading Franklin in the Dark. Entrepreneurial authors discovered their characters provided enough lessons to sustain sequels, series, and television syndication.

Harry's Magic

What explained Harry Potter’s success? It rolled into one story the best features of children’s books from the past 200 years. Author J. K. Rowling combined the suspense of mysteries, the excitement of adventures, the happy endings of fairy tales, and the magical settings of fantasies. Plus she mixed in lots of tummy-tickling nonsense, like Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans and the Weasley’s joke shop.

e-Books Boom

Today, children’s book publishers race to keep up with the new tech-savvy generation. Parents possess magic at the tip of their fingers, as they read classic bedtime stories from an iPad or iPhone. Whether a reader delights in the whimsical pop-up of Peter flying out over Neverland or watches enchanted as Alice magically grows taller on the iPad screen, kids and adults alike read e-books across America.