“More than this, I believe that the only lastingly important form of writing is writing for children. It is writing that is carried in the reader’s heart for a lifetime; it is writing that speaks to the future.”
Children’s Literature Development Stages
Most of us remember some of our favorite children’s stories from childhood. In fact, today’s children enjoy slightly different versions of many of those same stories in the form of animated feature films such as Cinderella. The modern story of Cinderella, and many other children’s stories, originated in France. However, at one time, there was no separation between literature for adults and children.
The first of the literature development stages was the oral transmission of stories. Parents verbally passed on stories that they had been told by their parents as children free samples. Historically, many of these stories were myths or folk tales that reflected the cultural beliefs of the societies in which they originated. For example, the story of The Asurik Tree was transmitted orally in Persia over 3000 years ago.
Stories have both captured and helped develop children’s imaginations throughout history. Many consider the Panchatantra, composed in 200 A.D. to be the oldest collection of stories for children in the world. Before the invention of the printing press in Korea in 1377 and the introduction of Guttenburg’s mechanized version of it in Europe in 1440, literary works were painstakingly written and illustrated by hand.
Until the 18th century, children were largely considered smaller versions of adults. The concept of childhood itself became popularized in the 18th century, and with it, the concept of a separate genre of literature specifically for children. As early as 1765, advertisements for children’s literature in a form that appealed directly to children appeared in newspapers. For example, a publisher named John Newbury created demand for his newest volumes that included “The Renowned History of Giles Gingerbread” with an ad that invited
“all his little friends who are good to call for them at the Bible and Sun, in St. Paul’s Churchyard; but those who are naughty to have none.”
In the early children’s literature development stages, moral instruction was a common theme in children’s stories. Newbury described his volume entitled The Valentine Gift with the subtitle of
“how to behave with honour, integrity, and humanity; very useful with a Trading Nation.”
In addition to moral instruction, social and economic considerations were also addressed.
Modern Changes in Children’s Literature
While during the early literature development stages, one of the focuses of children’s literature was teaching them to conform to societal norms, that focus began to change in the 19th century. The creation of the sub-genre of young adult literature around 1920 was another of children’s literature development stages. The role of modern children’s literature began to include social criticism and a questioning of social norms. This change was reflected in such stories as “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”.
The value of children’s literature lies in the intellectual, social and emotional development it provides. Young readers responding to literature and developing their own opinions about it strengthens their cognitive abilities. It can also encourage meaningful personal and social interactions and increase mutual understanding, since people’s individual responses to literature tend to be based partly on their own life experiences. Other skills reading helps develop include analyzation, forming hypotheses, and learning to summarize. It can also be a valuable tool in learning about both their own culture and that of others.
The huge popularity of modern children’s stories such as the “Harry Potter” series and “The Hunger Games” series is a testament to the enduring power of literature. Just as in the oral tales of old, characters in modern children’s literature face difficult circumstances that require creative solutions. They also make moral choices that have personal and social consequences. For that reason, children’s literature which models important decision-making skills can be a tool in developing reasoning skills as well as emotional intelligence. Finally, children’s literature encourages creativity.
One of the latest children’s literature development stages has been that of recognizing literature that encourages active discussion. To encourage literary excellence for the benefit of young readers, several organizations and awards have been created. The Newbury Medal has honored excellence in children’s literature since 1922. Since 1938, the Caldecott Medal has also honored distinguished children’s literature. Australia has had the Children’s Book Council awards since 1945 and the U.K. the Carnegie Medal since 1936. Internationally, the Notable Books for a Global Society Award has recognized contributions to children’s literature from all over the world since 1996.
Children’s literature may be said to be a child’s introduction to the wider world limited only by the imagination.