What today is regarded as children’s literature, was actually first meant for adults. Early story telling of myths and legends were created to explain things in both natural phenomena and things as simplistic as the changing of the seasons. Bards would tell tales, sometimes in rhyme or song, to an audience of adults and children – all eagerly listening to hear tales of adventure and heroes. Eventually, many of these tales were written down to preserve them, and are enjoyed by children today.
Early literature that was written specifically for children was intended to instruct and educate. During the Middle Ages school texts were written in Latin, some being used later in England and the colonial United States. Some of the more enjoyable tales were published in 1484 as Aesop’s Fables. Later books were written to teach children the alphabet, numbers and prayers such as the New England Primer published in 1689. Alphabet books later became popular in chapter book form.
With the intent to teach, some of the early books were filled with gloomy and pious tales aimed at teaching Puritan children what a bad end can come to willful and sanctimonious children. One classic from this period was John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress in 1678. Later books, originally intended for adults, were adapted for children like Daniel Defoe’s wonderful adventure Robinson Crusoe in 1719 and Jonathan Swift’s uncomparable travels to Lilliput in Gulliver’s Travels in 1726.
Soon afterward came the English translation of Charles Perrault’s Tales of Mother Goose. This was so popular in England that a collection of Mother Goose rhymes was published in 1765 by the renowned John Newbery. He became the first publisher to devote himself seriously to publishing books for children.
Think back on early childhood stories you learned. As an adult I have often wondered “what were they thinking?!?!” with some of the stories written for children. Think of early poems and lullabyes like “Rock a bye baby”. Seriously?!? This is meant to soothe a child into a peaceful night’s sleep? “When the bough breaks the cradle will fall and down will come baby cradle and all?!” Yikes! Give me “Goodnight Moon” any day! I like to think the realm of children’s literature has matured and is not quite as intent on scaring the kids to death, but rather to entertain them and stimulate their imaginations.