Constructing Childhood: A Brief History of Early Children’s Literature in Western Civilization
What is “children’s literature?” What is “childhood?” Meaning of “childhood” is ideological—socially constructed, constantly evolving Books “for children” reflect dominant cultural ideals Reinforce ideas about behavior, morality, gender roles, class structure, etc.—shape reader Reflect ideological lens of writer, culture—not created in vacuum Image: Rosemary Adcock, “Orphan Series”
Analyze children’s literature in order to . . . Uncover culture’s ideal views of “childhood” Examine society’s concept of self Interrogate individual author’s relationship to broader cultural contexts Viewed across time, provides insight into our own concepts of childhood and “normalcy” Image: Arthur B. Houghton, Mother and Children Reading, 1860
The “Golden Age” of Children’s Literature Ideology of the nuclear family takes shape in early 19th century Home & family as haven in heartless world Source of stability in increasingly materialistic, fractious world Powerful “cult of childhood”—child as icon of “lost” innocence, emblematic of past golden age of humanity Tensions: hierarchies, gender, class, race, literary marketplace
What did “childhood” mean?Historical Highlights 400 years ago: children born in state of sin ; childhood reading about religious guidance, indoctrination 250-300 years ago: “invention of childhood” as modern concept; children’s minds “a blank slate”—fill with proper information—logical, didactic texts 200 years ago: children naturally innocent; moral compass to society—imaginative texts 40 years ago: children need to read about harsh realities of life
Protestantism & Roots of “ModernChildhood” (17th & early 18th centuries) Ideal of universal literacy; importance of print culture Children products of original sin; prepare for adult religious experience Instructional books, conduct books Primers: teach reading, but also turn innately sinful children into spiritual beings Themes of death, damnation, conversion Image: From New England Primer, circa 1690
A little light bedtime reading . . . Popular reading for Protestant children: Book of Martyrs (1563); The Day of Doom (1662) Anti-Catholic account of “Bloody Mary” reign Poem of damnation of world Horrific scenes of violence, mutilation, murder Images: Thomas Foxe, Book of Martyrs, 1563; Michael Wigglesworth, The Day of Doom, 1662
The Enlightenment (late 17th, 18th centuries): Enter Modern Childhood John Locke (1632-1704) Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693) Young mind as tabula rasa (blank slate) Children not burdened by original sin Logical beings awaiting proper education—rational writings Whole new construction of childhood —distinct phase of life Image: John Locke
18th Century Groundbreakers John Newbery Bookseller/publisher Little Pretty Pocket Book (1744) — first significant story book specifically for children Songs, poems, moral tales, illustrations Instruct AND entertain Image: John Newbery, Little Pretty Pocket Book, 1744
18th Century Groundbreakers Jean-Jacques Rousseau Emile (1755)—Children should be raised in natural settings, free to imagine Children naturally innocent, moral – “The child is the father of the man” (Wordsworth) Books should free children’s imaginations Romantics influence writers of Golden Age Image: Jean-Jacques Rousseau
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