With the explosion of recent blockbuster books such as the Harry Potter series, books written and sold specifically for children and young adults have become a multi-billion dollar industry in the United States. In fact, it is estimated that over 100 million Potter books have sold around the world. There is no doubt that children’s literature is witnessing a time of great prosperity. Yet, the popularity of books written specifically for children and young adults is not new. Children’s literature has been a thriving art form in America since colonial times.
The first book published for children in America was John Cotton’s Spiritual Milk for Boston Babes in Either England (1641, 1647). The book had a clear purpose to teach the Bible to young people as well as to instill in them right ways of living based on Puritan teaching. This was followed by one of the longest published and used textbooks for children, The New England Primer (1683). This book was used as the basic text for children in early grade school in New England longer than any other text book in the history of America. The book contained religious maxims, woodcuts, alphabetical assistants, acronyms, catechisms, and moral lessons.
The Puritans, in fact, played a large role in the development of children’s literature in America. Though many of the texts that children read were not specifically written for children, children were still expected to read such morally and spiritually instructional texts as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. These texts were instrumental in forming the imagination that later American writers would bring to their own work. Indeed, some scholars have argued that the place of such “serious” texts in the early reading life of American children has played a historic role in how children’s texts are written today; didactic books that often have children deal with very adult issues.
The Victorian era brought about a renaissance of sorts in children’s writing. In England, writers such as Lewis Carroll and his The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland introduced fantastical worlds to the genre. Books began to be written not just for children, but about children. Children were transported to magical lands, and though the focus of many of the these novels was still on making a moral point, such teachings and instructing were wrapped up in magical worlds. In the U.S. during this time, another strain of children’s writing also became popular. These were writings that introduced children as main characters, but involved them in the real life drama of the world around them. Novels such as Alcott’s Little Women and Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables display this particular brand of realism.
During the twentieth century, books for children became much more focused on targeting specific age groups. This was the century in which the children’s picture book became extremely popular and authors such as Dr. Seuss introduced books with easy-to-read rhyming verse and fantastical pictorial landscapes. A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh series continued the tradition of storytelling and fantastical lands, as did C.S. Lewis’s “Narnia” series, while new genres also developed for older children, teenagers, and young adults. Perhaps the most important writer of the twentieth century for these latter books was Judy Blume, who wrote of teenage anxiety and explored issues of gender and sexuality in a period when such issues were generally frowned upon for open discussion.
Madeleine L’Engle’s “Time” quartet also introduced a new genre of children’s literature, fusing the worlds of science and science fiction into the genre. These books, which were followed by other authors, introduced characters to religious, social, and political tension within the world and opened the door for the acceptance of feminine lead characters in children’s writings.
In the late twentieth century and into the twenty-first, children’s literature has expanded to include issues such as post-colonialism, gender-equality, race and ethnicity, and political commentary. Recently, books written for children such as Phillip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy have offered a critique of religion. This suggests how diverse the landscape of children’s literature has become since its beginnings in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. As more and more books written specifically for children and young adults gain in popularity, we will no doubt see its genres and themes stretched and explored with childlike imagination.