Both the Greeks and Romans regarded children as individuals whose sole purpose was to undergo training for adulthood. Plato, one of the most notable rulers of the time, held it that story-telling sessions should take the form of a play and he insisted that professional storytellers and poets be the ones in charge of the story delivery.
Plato also played an active role in ensuring that stories meant for children were censored well enough for this purpose. At the time very few stories had been composed specifically at children and various generations of children grew up listening to the very same stories. Stories from this period include the Odyssey and Iliad.
During this period, children were not given the high value they command today and in a family setting, they were regarded in the same way that the adults were. Parents dedicated a lot of their time trying to establish economic strengths and most of children who hailed from poor backgrounds would spend most of the day working alongside their parents. The levels of literacy were very law and this was made even worse by the unavailability of books (Bingham and Scholt, 1980).
It did not make any economic sense to print books for children and so most of the stories in this period were passed on from generation to the next by word of mouth. However, some manuscripts contained information that could appeal to children even though it was all purely for instructive purposes.
With every passing generation, the stories would acquire some new twist thanks to the highly active imagination of the adults of the time. Stories from this period include Robin Hood and King Arthur.
The most significant invention of this period that genuinely pushed the development of children’s literature was the movable-type printing press. Books could now be produced in bulk and this immensely increased the levels of literacy. The opening of trade routes resulted in the introduction of new stories to the west and with better economic circumstances more children were encouraged to take part in educational activities (Bingham and Scholt 1980).
This period marked the beginning of publishing texts specifically aimed at children. However, most of this texts still did not regard childhood as innocently as was required. Consequently, most of the children’s books such as the Book of Martyrs drew directly from real life portraying bloody scenes in times or war (Hunt, 1995).
During this period, John Locke’s philosophy of regarding the child’s mind as a blank slate received widespread acclaim. He proposed that children would develop better if they were given easy to read and pleasant literature at that tender age and then gradually learn the harsh realities of life as they grew up. For the first time, childhood was viewed as an innocent period of growth making the children appear like a newly discovered creatures (Hunt, 1994).
During this period, individuals from the middle class were starting to become more refined and they started treating their children with the innocence they (the children) deserved. It was during this time that the first proper children’s book was published (Townsend, 1996). The first novel featuring a highly creative story was also written during this time.
Various authors from this period including John Newbery began to move away from the traditionally uncreative stories and instead focused on more imaginative and pleasant specifically targeted at children. Newberry’s Pretty Pocket Book became the first published book to contain pictures, games and songs (Hunt, 1995).
As the world ushered in the nineteenth century, the world began to appreciate the value of children and the published books aimed for them carried stories that were given more thought as far as the fantasy and imagination aspect were concerned.
The writers of the time laid emphasis on the enjoyment rather than on the instructive aspects of the stories and this period saw a lot of experimentation as authors strived to see which barriers could be broken but still produce the desired effect.
The stories in this period also created a clear cut distinction between the genders by emphasizing the man’s role as one of establishing dominance over rivals by winning wars and the woman’s role as that of observing subservience to the man and taking care of the home (Hunt, 1995). Stories from this period included Huckleberry Finn and Treasure Island.
The 20th and the 21st centuries witnessed tremendous changes in the development of children’s stories. Authors and publishers have experimented with a number concepts including books entirely made of pictures to producing internet-based texts. The child in this period became even more protected.
Towards the end of the 20th century, the highly imaginative texts continued to sell but as the 21st century was coming in, some level of realistic writing began to receive appreciation. The rise of multimedia production and the advent of the internet also served to broaden the ways in which educational material could be presented including the likes of animation and podcasts. One of the most notable publications of this time is the Harry Potter series and its accompanying films.
Bingham, J. & Scholt G. (1980). Fifteen Centuries of Children’s Literature: An Annotated Chronology of British and American Works in Historical Context. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Hunt, P. (1994). An Introduction to Children’s Literature. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Hunt, P. (1995). Children’s Literature: An Illustrated History. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Townsend, J.R. (1996). Written for Children: An Outline of English-Language Children’s Literature. Lanham, MA: Scarecrow Press.