There aren’t many of us in modern times that can’t look back with fond memories at their first children’s book. Whether it was one of the Little Golden Book series with its distinctive gilt binding or something similar to the more modern Little Engine that Could standalone, that first childhood story has become a rite of passage and as common in households with young children as diapers, rattles or building blocks. It seems foreign, then, to imagine that children’s books as we know them today are a modern invention and much different from those read a few hundred or even a mere 100 years ago.
The earliest examples of books published solely for children begin to appear in the late 1600’s and early 1700’s. Back in these days, books were expensive and not something that every household could afford. In fact, many early books cost an exorbitant amount, had pages edged in real gold leaf and were meant for wealthy or royal families in England and France. Even if you were one of the lucky families that could get ahold of one of these treasures, the content within was far from what we’d consider children’s entertainment nowadays.
Early children’s books were mostly focused on moral upbringing or on educating young minds through instructions without much frill. Widely considered the first book published for children, Orbis Sensualium Pictus, released in 1658, was a Latin and German text book that taught proper pronunciation of the alphabet through noises made by animals. A far cry from “bah, bah, a black sheep”. Other books focused on religious and moral upbringing and even went so far as to teach table manners via thinly veiled allegory.
As it turns out, the modern inspiration for children’s stories, classic fairy tales, were never intended for children to begin with. Walt Disney may have toned down Cinderella and Snow White for modern children with glitzy animation and G rated storylines, but the original plots behind these classic stories were much darker. Gory violence, including the frequent lopping of heads, was a must and most stories were geared towards warning adults off immoral or abhorrent behaviors.
It wasn’t until the acclaimed John Newbery started publishing books aimed mainly at children in the mid to late 1700’s that the modern children’s book started to take form. Newbery believed that children would read and learn better with content that was created specifically with their interests in minds. Even these early books were mostly educational and stories for entertainment’s sake were rare. Newbery’s descendants would begin the tradition of combining classic fairy tales with modern children’s books to teach lessons in morals and good behavior that stuck with young and impressionable minds.
Modern life and the lifting of pressures to work and contribute from children began to contribute to the modern shifts in story telling in the early 1900’s. Classic fairy tale stories began to lose their cautionary edge and shifted towards entertainment. Modern breakthroughs in education and learning theories further contributed to a shift in children’s books in the 1960’s and 70’s. By this time, books published solely for children were a mainstay of any household that could afford them, and the genre hasn’t looked back since.
With the modern tendency of education as an entertaining past time, the trend towards combining work with pleasure when it comes to children’s literature looks like one that will continue to gain momentum. As technology continues to advance, so do children’s books with some even going so far as to integrate animations, sounds and read along features. As they have done throughout time books, and children’s books in particular, continue to advance along with society. From the beginning of known history man has always sought to explain and educate based on stories. It seems to be a given, then, that the children’s book will live on and evolve as long as there are young and imaginative minds to enjoy them.
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