Topics: Children's literature, Literature, John Newbery Pages: 12 (3138 words) Published: December 18, 2012


BY Matthew Grenby

Matthew Grenby’s essay, ‘Children’s Literature: Birth, Infancy, Maturity’ analyses the rise of children’s literature in the eighteenth century through to the great explosion of British children’s literature in the second half of the nineteenth century, and provides a revisionary take on received histories.

Grenby agrees with the customary location of the beginnings of anglophone children’s literature proper in the eighteenth century, with the first publication of novels and books written especially for children in which other children were the heroes and heroines. He warns, however, against espousing too uncritically a comfortable and teleological narrative in which children’s literature has got better, less moralistic, and increasingly child-focused. He writes of the wide variety of literature for children in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, discussing the ways that both child-readers and the authors who wrote for them subverted and resisted didacticism.

Children’s Literature: Birth, Infancy, Maturity


It is difficult to resist the temptation to identify precisely when children’s literature began. The majority of scholars have placed the start line in London in the early 1740s.

***Even more famous, and often seen as the first modern children’s book, is A Little Pretty Pocket-Book published by John Newbery in.

Critic sees it as:

- 'the work of a thoroughly trivial, commercial, and disinherited mind’

Newbery’s book is important simply because his firm: Newbery and his various heirs continued producing books for children for the rest of the century. These anonymous, almost ephemeral publications of the 1740s – what one critic has called the ‘incunabula of children’s literature’ – looked like nothing that had been published before. They may have been fundamentally didactic, teaching the alphabet, civic history and good behaviour, but the instruction was being contained within a framework of pictures, rhymes, riddles, jokes and stories designed to amuse children.


*** The line between instruction and delight in the newer type of book is often very blurred.

In any case, the argument that books designed to entertain children appeared only with Newbery and his competitors in the mid-eighteenth century is pretty easy to undermine – especially if we are open-minded about exactly what child readers would find fun.

It is even possible to argue that some of the less obviously playful Puritanical children’s books of the later seventeenth century would, in their way, have delighted children.


***Throughout the early modern period, children were reading fables, courtesy books, Chap-books (short, cheap popular stories often sold by peddlers)), even chivalric romances and novels.

‘Children’s literature in England, in terms of both content and readership, began in the middle ages’, meaning by 1400 at the latest. Going further back still, others have written about children’s reading in classical Rome and Greece, ancient Egypt and, most fascinatingly, in the earliest of all recognised civilisations, ancient Sumer (located in what is now Iraq and Iran).


This gallop back through the early history of children’s literature shows two things:

- First, we find that there is no simple way to define children’s literature.

• When we use the term, do we mean books read only by children? Or only books that children would have enjoyed? Or only those that were deliberately intended for their amusement?

- Second, whichever definition we use, we find that children’s literature has no easily discernible starting point.

• For as long as books (or manuscripts, or clay tablets) have been read, children have been reading them too, and their reading has throughout all these centuries often been entertaining...
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