With the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century, and its gradual integration into society, people at last had access to literature. It was William Caxton who first saw the opportunity to make money by printing and selling those stories and fables hitherto told by word of mouth.
At this time, literature did not have age-specific target audiences. Inevitably, some stories appealed to children more than others. Robin Hood was especially popular, while Aesop’s fables offered entertainment and life lessons to adults and children alike.
It is, of course, impossible to say exactly when and how literature was identified as a useful tool in teaching morality to children. It is speculated that there was no concept of ‘childhood’ before the eighteenth century, although historians debate this, as historians are apt to do. Whatever one’s view on this, it cannot be denied that the older generation has throughout history seen the necessity to teach the younger, in aspects of life both moral and practical. This has been true across time, space and cultures, although methods and ideologies vary. This article will focus on Europe, and particularly England, as it is here that the author’s knowledge lies.
The Seventeenth Century
We begin with the seventeenth century, when moral anxiety was rife among Puritan families, particularly where their children were concerned. The Puritans have been identified as the first group of people to write extensively for children. The young were vulnerable to death, especially in the disease-ridden London, which was devastated by plague in the year 1665. Children’s health was constantly at risk, and therefore so were their immortal souls.
This anxiety is reflected in the majority of books written and recommended for children by Puritans at this time. The most famous of these is widely accepted to be James Janeway’s A Token for Children, being an Exact Account of the Conversion, Holy and Exemplary Lives, and Joyful Deaths, of several young Children (1671-2). The title itself tells us a good deal about the text, which urged children to behave well and to protect their souls and, by extension, their parents’ peace of mind.
It was not until 1697 that Charles Perrault published his Tales of Mother Goose. While fairytale lovers may flock to tell you that children were not and are not the only intended audience for such stories, it is true that Perrault wrote his tales primarily for children. Here, at last, young readers could escape into a world of magic and fantasy. Still, Perrault’s stories contained morals, perhaps the most famous of these woven into the narrative of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’. It was not until the Grimms’ version in 1812 that Red would be rescued by the woodcutter, while Perrault’s version ends: ‘Children, especially attractive, well bred young ladies, should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf.’
The Eighteenth Century
In the early years of the eighteenth century, parents were less anxious for their children’s immortal souls and more anxious about their conscious and subconscious minds. Chapbooks - cheap books, often sold by wandering pedlars - contained light and entertaining reading, such as rhymes, fantasy and ghost stories.
Middle-class parents did not approve, and neither did theologian Isaac Watts. As a counter-measure against the evil influence of chapbooks, he published in 1715 Divine Songs, Attempted in Easy Language for the Use of Children. Like the Puritan texts that preceded it, Divine Songs warned children of Hell and eternal damnation, should they misbehave.
Throughout the eighteenth century, many writers produced literature for children, much of it with moral undertones. Notable examples include John Newbery’s A Pretty Little Pocket-Book (1744) and Sarah Fielding’s The Governess (1749). The latter charts the moral progression of nine young girls, while Newbery’s work suggests that he was a pioneer of ‘edutainment’; A Pretty Little Pocket-Book contains instructions and descriptions of games, the playing of which leads to moral learning.
Just about everyone has heard, and perhaps used, the insult ‘Goody Two-Shoes’. This originates in another work by John Newbery, The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes (1765), a story based on the classic fairytale ‘Cinderella’. The heroine, Margery, has only one shoe, until her outstanding moral behaviour leads her to earn a complete pair and go on to lead a useful and happy life.
Moral books continued to be written throughout the remainder of the eighteenth century, from Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s Lessons for Children (1778-9) to the more varied and ideologically diverse Evenings at Home by Barbauld and John Aikin (1792-6). This book contained a variety of literary forms, topics and lessons, and emphasised the experiences of childhood and the voices of children. As such, it may be considered a precursor to the less anxious ‘golden age’ of children’s literature.
The Nineteenth Century
Where children’s literature is concerned, the golden age refers to a long period beginning in and around the 1830s, and continuing into the early twentieth century. Writers were beginning to preach at children less, and feed their imaginations more.
Throughout this century, both prior to and during the golden age, the Brothers Grimm were publishing numerous editions of their fairytales. They tweaked and re-tweaked them for various reasons, including the question of how suitable they were for children. The brothers edited out pregnancies and changed uncaring mothers to evil stepmothers, but there remained much violence, and the villains often met with harsh punishments. Andersen first published his famous fairytale collection, also laced with violence, in 1835. Such stories’ suitability for children was, and is, for parents to decide. Arguably the Grimms’ work is more moral than Andersen’s, as their stories tend to end happily for the good and unhappily for the bad. In Andersen’s work this is sometimes the case, but not always.
Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1871) are both much beloved, famous and enduring golden age children’s novels. Alice does try to behave as she should, but so does any literary hero or heroine worth his or her salt and, like Alice, they will not always succeed. Other notable nineteenth century golden age texts include Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies (1863) and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883). Stevenson composed a poem to introduce this work, expressing the hope that it would feed an appetite in young readers for far-fetched adventure stories (anyone wishing to read this poem should look for the title, ‘To the Hesitating Purchaser’).
There was plenty of moralising to be found in some children’s books of this era, but still they were woven into charming and entertaining stories. The angry girl was a popular figure in Victorian children’s literature. She would often be contrasted against a more perfect, angelic female character, being physically as well as emotionally different to them, often either tall and thin or short and stout. Perhaps the most famous of these is Jo March, of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868). While all four of the March sisters have lessons to learn throughout the book, Jo is the least what a lady ought to be, and learns her biggest lesson when her anger leads youngest sister Amy to fall through some thin ice. Another famous example of an angry girl is the titular character in Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did (1872). Katy disobeys her aunt’s instructions and plays on banned swing, which turns out to be dangerous and renders her an invalid for an extended period of time.
The Twentieth Century to Present Day
Golden age texts being published in the early twentieth century include J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (1902), Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908), and various works by E. Nesbit such as Five Children and It (1902) and the more reality-based The Railway Children (1906). Particularly interesting, at least in terms of changing ideals and morality, is Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (1911) as the heroine, Mary Lennox, is a subverted angry girl figure. She displays similar characteristics to those such as Jo March and Katy Carr, but in Mary’s case it is her disobedience and tenacity that lead to the recovery of her sick cousin Colin.
A great many famous children’s books were written during and around the time of the Second World War. Enid Blyton, one of the most popular and successful children’s authors of all time, published a vast and eclectic range of stories between the years of 1922 and 1968. Blyton’s extensive works, written in the context of her unconventional life and pathologically immature mind, certainly warrant further reading. To generalise in terms of our topic, however, her books were written to entertain and delight rather than to moralise. She is perhaps best known for writing far-fetched adventure stories, perhaps most notably her Famous Five series. Blyton’s contemporary, C.S. Lewis, famously wrote The Chronicles of Narnia between the years of 1949 and 1954. This is a series of fantasy adventure stories, all with deep Christian moral undertones (although some readers say that these went over their heads when they read the books as children).
In the latter half of the twentieth century, many children’s books were written that reflected more child-centred ideals. Mary Norton’s The Borrowers (1952) teaches us that adults’ prejudices may be wrong when the young Borrower Arrietty befriends a human boy, against her parents’ advice. Roald Dahl’s Matilda (1988) teaches us that some adults are trustworthy, while others are not, and children must recognise which to befriend and which to rebel against.
J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was first published in 1997. The success of the series is widely known, with the seventh and final novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, being released in 2007. There are surely numerous reasons for the stories’ appeal, one of them being the ideologies reflected within them. Like Dahl’s Matilda, young Harry and his contemporaries must rely on their own judgement to survive and succeed. Trust is a prominent theme in these books, and the young protagonists do rely on adult help; but they identify allies and enemies for themselves, rather than doing as they are told and submitting to authority without question.
Another recent success is Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games (2008) and its two sequels (2009-10), which follow a teenage protagonist relying on her own resources in her fight for survival. The trilogy examines the effects of violence, suggesting a moral message. While ideologies have changed, and children are given more intellectual freedom than they once were, they are still taught and offered guidance by adults. A big difference is that now, children are encouraged to question things and to use their judgement. These ideals are reflected in contemporary children’s literature. The fairytales touched upon earlier are still loved so much that they are frequently retold and adapted - by authors such as Cameron Dokey, Margot Lanagan and a great many others - to reflect modern ideals.
Many children’s stories remain timeless, as they are loved by generation after generation, but their contemporary morals and ideologies still linger within their pages. It is not uncommon now for a child to read a book from the golden age of children’s literature, and to chuckle at the way the child protagonist is expected to behave. That is not to say that the lessons are now irrelevant, but of course, that is for the modern child reader to decide.
Hugh Cunningham, The Invention of Childhood (BBC Books, 2006).
Nigel Suckling, Werewolves (Facts, Figures and Fun, 2006).
Seminars at Kingston University, September 2007-January 2008.
Wikipedia, which helped me to fill in some of the gaps.
For You: A Writing Challenge
Write a story or poem for children that reflects a moral or morals which you value.
Additional Challenge: Newbery’s Goody Two-Shoes is an adaptation of ‘Cinderella’. When writing your piece, begin with an existing story, from any time and any tradition. Adapt, twist and change it as much as you like to get your message across.