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University of Delaware Library

Special Collections Department


Two Hundred Years of Children's Books

curated by
Iris R. Snyder

An exhibition at the Hugh M. Morris Library
University of Delaware Library
Newark, Delaware

The exhibition is on view in the Special Collections Gallery
February 17 - June 12, 1998.

Copyright Statement











Obedient miniature adult, mischievous free spirit, or mini-consumer--the image of the child in society has changed many times over the past three hundred years. The books given to children are meant to mold or train the young mind to the values of their elders. For this reason, children's literature is often more reflective of the adult society than of the intended readers.
In western Europe, there was no separate category of books for children before the eighteenth century. The Bible, stories of saints and martyrs, and bestiaries or books about exotic animals, were probably the first printed books available to children. The woodcut illustrations of these early works would be intriguing even for those unable to read the text. As early as the fourteenth century, children learned to read using horn books. These earliest primers consisted of a piece of paper or parchment fit into a recess in a tablet of wood or leather. On the paper the letters of the alphabet, a set of Roman numerals and perhaps the words of the Lord's Prayer were written or printed. As the student learned to read, the simple letters would be replaced by longer sentences.

With the rise of Puritanism in England early in the seventeenth century and the establishment of the colonies in North America by the Pilgrims soon after, literature for children turned strongly moralistic. Seeing children as amoral savages needing to be taught right from wrong, society used stories filled with death and damnation to frighten children into good behavior. Humor and imagination were banned, replaced by stories of boys and girls who suffered grisly fates for misbehaving. The Sunday School Movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, which aimed at bringing religion to the working class, continued the didactic tone in the thousands of cheap tracts of simple stories distributed throughout England and the United States.

The eighteenth century saw the translation into English of the classic fairy tales such as "Cinderella" and "Little Red Riding Hood" and the beginnings of the English novel with Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver's Travels. While these may not have been written specifically for a young audience, the stories of romance and adventure appealed to readers of all ages, both in their original forms and in the many illustrated and simplified editions that followed.

Until the middle of the nineteenth century, books were available only to middle and upper class children. Reading for the unsophisticated and the working-class child consisted mainly of chapbooks and religious material. Chapbooks, small crudely produced paperbacked books, were sold by itinerant traders and contained short fairy and folk tales. As books became more readily available to the growing middle class, the attitude toward the child's reading changed and reading for pure pleasure became acceptable.

The Victorian era was a golden age for childrens' books. It was the time of classic books -- Alice in Wonderland, Tom Sawyer, and Little Women--and great illustrators-- Kate Greenaway, Edward Lear, and Howard Pyle to mention a few. Books and games for children became plentiful and inexpensive. The twentieth century continued a thriving publishing industry for young people with adventure stories, series books like the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, science fiction and fantasy. Recent years have brought books tied to movies and commercial products from Disney to Star Wars as well as the psychologically-oriented young adult novel.

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Last modified: 12/21/10
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