Children have not always been seen as a separate readership from adults. Why and how did a literature for children come into being? In the first of a series of articles on the history of children’s books, writer and critic John Rowe Townsend explains.
The history of children’s books is quite a short one. Books themselves only go back a few thousand years. Printed books go back a few hundreds. Books intended specially for children to enjoy go back about 250. In relation to the length of time that humanity has been on the earth it is the blinking of an eye.
But the story of story itself goes back beyond history into the farthest mists of time. It is hard even to imagine an age when people did not tell stories to each other. The greatest ancient myths were attempts to explain the world by means of story: who made it, out of what, and why; how life started, how humankind arrived on the scene, how events are ordained and by what powers. And it could be said that story is still a means, and an important one, by which we try to understand the world.
The Greeks and Romans from whom our civilisation regards itself as descending (though actually it is more complicated than that) saw children as small men and women to be trained for adult life rather than as creatures with their own special needs and interests. Plato, in his Republic, put forward some new ideas. He suggested for instance that children’s lessons should ‘take the form of play’. (He also thought that women should have an equal right of entry to the class of Rulers who were to control society.) But in general his blueprint was for an authoritarian, almost a fascist state.
Plato would have censored art and literature, and kept away from children the great body of Greek myth and legend, on the ground that it brought gods and heroes into disrepute. That same body of myth and legend has been repeatedly raided in later times on behalf of children, but it was not designed for them. There is nothing in classical literature that could be called a children’s book in the modern sense. (Aesop’s fables were traditional tales from various sources; it is doubtful whether Aesop himself ever existed.)
Britain was a backwater in classical times, and its natives seen as outlandish. The enlightened Roman governor Agricola, in the first century A.D., nevertheless thought highly of ‘the untutored Britons’, and took steps to ‘educate the sons of leading men in the liberal arts’. This meant education in Latin, and in the dark ages that followed the Roman withdrawal Latin remained the foundation of such learning as survived. Its refuges were the monasteries.
By the time of Alfred the Great, in the ninth century, the whole system was in decay. Alfred, our first great force in education, thought it was time children were taught in English, and set up a school in which ‘almost all the children of noble birth in the whole country, and even many of humbler birth’ learned to read and write in both languages. But for many centuries the literate were a small minority, and the ladder of learning led into the Church.
Before the introduction of printing, books were rare and precious, and to produce them for the amusement of children would have been an economic as well as a cultural impossibility. The poor scholar of Oxford who figures in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales was notable for having at his bed’s head, in spite of his poverty, ‘full twenty bookës, clad in black or red, of Aristotle and his philosophy’. That was riches, and it was serious stuff. I do not know of anything surviving from the age of manuscript that could be called a children’s story, though there was a good deal of instructional and admonitory material meant for children.
Printing changed everything. The first book that William Caxton produced in 1474 was the Histories of Trove, and he followed it with (among others) the Fables of Aesop, Reynard the Fox, and the Morte Darthur. The way was open for the production and sale in quantity of all sorts of popular literature: medieval romances, tales of Robin Hood, traditional stories such as those of Guy of Warwick, Bevis of Hampton and many more. None of this was intended specially for children, and the idea of a story meant only for them would still have been a strange one. A tale was for all.
Writers on education, in Caxton’s day and for long after, were inclined to think that stories were actually bad for children. Hugh Rhodes, in a well-known passage in his Book of Nurture (1554), wanted children to be kept from reading ‘feigned fables, vain fantasies, and wanton stories and songs of love, which bring much mischief to youth’. And the material which, for two and a half centuries after Caxton, children were meant by their elders and betters to read was far from being entertaining.
First, there were schoolbooks, beginning with primers and ABCs in various forms, intended to lead on to the reading of the Bible and, for the more advanced scholars, large doses of Latin. There were ‘courtesy books’, which taught children how to behave, and numerous books of moral exhortation from father to son and mother to daughter. And in the seventeenth century, there were the notorious ‘good godly books’ of the Puritans, praising pious children who died young in a rapture of prayer and threatening the less virtuous with everlasting fire. A Looking-Glass for Children, published in the 1670s, contains a verse warning from one Abraham Cheare in the person of a young girl tempted to the sin of vanity:
What pity such a pretty maid
As I should go to hell!
The change came in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when the belief that children were steeped in original sin, which must be beaten out of them, gave ground to the image of the empty page, on which the right messages could be written. The credit for this new approach is usually given to the philosopher John Locke, whose hugely influential treatise, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, was published in 1693; but in fact his ideas had already been in the air for some time.
According to one modern writer, Penelope Mortimer, Locke ‘invented the child’. He suggested that children could be persuaded to ‘play themselves into what others are whipped for’. And he thought a child that learned to read should be given ‘some easy pleasant book’ which would reward it for its trouble without filling its head with ‘useless trumpery’. But he found nothing suitable for the purpose except Aesop and Reynard the Fox, both of which had been put into print by Caxton two hundred years earlier.
There was a vacancy here. In Locke’s own day and soon after it, sporadic efforts were made to produce books that would educate by means of play. But it took a commercial genius to exploit the possibilities. This was John Newbery, a London bookseller and publisher who was also a purveyor of quack remedies. The medicines made Newbery rich, but the books were his justification. He was an admirer of Locke, who is referred to as ‘the great Mr Locke’ in the foreword to Newbery’s first publication for children, A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, ‘intended for the Instruction and Amusement of Little Master Tommy and Pretty Miss Polly’. This appeared in 1744 and was a collection of rhymes about children’s games, illustrated with primitive woodcuts.
Newbery continued until his death in 1767 to bring out attractive pocket-sized books for children. They sold in their thousands and were remembered affectionately by literary figures of the next two generations. The best known title is Little Goody Two-Shoes, which Newbery published in 1765 and proclaimed with superb cheek to have been printed from ‘the Original Manuscript in the Vatican at Rome, with Cuts by Michael Angelo’. Newbery’s books had no apparent authors, and he may well have written them himself. Dr Johnson said that ‘Newbery is an extraordinary man, for I know not whether he has read or written most books.’ He was also a great innovator in marketing techniques: Nurse Truelove’s New Year Gift was to be ‘given gratis to all little Boys and Girls, they paying for the Binding, which is only Two Pence each book’.
The Newbery books are important in the history of publishing for children, but their literary quality was almost zero. Alongside them, for newly literate adults and children alike, circulated the chapbooks: little, crudely-printed booklets sold for a penny or two and containing all kinds of popular and traditional material. These had if anything even less literary merit. The books that were to have continuing influence and to inspire writing for children as well as for adults were three masterpieces of general literature: John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726). Their themes – the perilous quest, the desert island, the miniature or giant world – have been and still are in constant service.
But to well-meaning adults of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the child as a consumer of literature was seen as a receptacle for information and instruction. Newbery’s imitators and successors, lacking his innovatory spark, produced increasingly dreary and admonitory stuff. It took another sea-change of attitudes to bring into being a literature designed for children’s pleasure and inspired by energy and imagination.
John Rowe Townsend has been writing, and writing about, books for children and young people for many years. Three of his books – Gumble’s Yard, The Intruder and Noah’s Castle – have been serialised on television. His history of English-language children’s literature, Written for Children, published by The Bodley Head at £9.99, is in its sixth and, he says, final edition.
From Morals to Magic: in the next article in this series, John Rowe Townsend takes the story of children’s books into the Victorian age.