Children’s Books – To Educate or To Entertain, That Is The Question
During the 300 years following the invention of Gutenberg’s press, any books for children were primarily written for the purpose of instruction in basic reading & numeracy skills, as well as the expectations & moral values of the parents.
During these 300 years, we encounter both Shakespeare’s plays & the Puritans arrival in America. Representative of two distinct types of writing, English literature from this time period includes entertaining oral traditions in the form of plays & an elementary primer.
The Plays of the Renaissance
The next couple of centuries (1500s & 1600s) saw the English writing of Sir Thomas More & Shakespeare, as well as John Calvin & Queen Elizabeth.
The work of Shakespeare’s time is considered the beginnings of Modern English, though the language has seen much change since his time. The distinction between what is old or middle vs. modern is that you can pronounce the words, though we may not understand all the shades of meaning.
Elizabethan England would have been familiar with oral stories, especially plays performed to entertain the royal court. Oral traditions changed, but were not lost.
The Puritan Influence
Like the ancient bards, the English Crown recognized the influential power of printed story. In 1637, it placed a limit on the number of cities that were allowed to produce print.
The Puritans who were already experiencing political & religious tension saw this restriction as the last straw. Believing that many of the stories in chapbooks were inappropriate for children & that the aim of children’s books should emphasize their moral instruction, the Puritans began to produce their own writing for their children.
By the colonial times of North America, their The Pilgrim’s Progress was “required reading” & their The New England Primer (1690-1830) had become the most popular educational book for children. The Primer was an alphabet & catechism used to instruct children to prepare themselves spiritually for the real possibility of early death.
Though philosophers (& Fairy Tale authors) may have suggested otherwise, the concepts of childhood or children’s books were not really given serious weight at this time. However, these ideas & stories were influential in laying foundations that paved the way for what came next. Fairy Tales were the first printed children’s books to entertain in Europe, but consisted of stories that were already known from the oral tradition.
First Adventure Books
In 1719, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe was published. Seven years later, Jonathan’s Swifts Gulliver Travels arrived on the scene. Both included shipwrecks & were considered tales of adventure. Neither were traditional tales that had been repeated & passed down, but were new in both their content & the way they were told (or written!). Though written for adults, children liked the tales which were different than many of the instructive stories they were used to (such as The Pilgrim’s Progress).
Childhood, Children’s Books, & the Start of a New Market
In the 1740s, as the middle class became more established in both Europe & North America, the concepts of childhood & children’s books began to gain traction. The development of the middle class meant more education, more readers & more books.
During this time, a British man named John Newbery began to publish entertaining children’s stories. Newbery noticed the chapbooks that children seemed to enjoy most & he began both to write original & to print traditional stories. Today, a Newbery award is given each year to a prized children’s author in a market now very much established. Charlotte’s Web is an example of a Newbery Honor Book that everybody loves.