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Early books for children tend to be educational and moralising, but it’s important to bear in mind,

just because a book seems dull or disciplinary to us today, this doesn’t mean that children at the time didn’t enjoy it.

Grenby, M.O. The origins of children’s literature

I find it difficult to believe that many children would have been excited by James Janeway’s A token for children: an exact account of the conversion, holy and exemplary lives and joyful deaths of several young children . According to the Oxford Companion, Janeway believed in “a doctrine of original sin that damned all children“. Charming.  Having said that, children at the time would have been far more familiar with death, especially of young brothers and sisters, so perhaps it was a comfort. Grenby points to evidence of “young readers’ genuine enjoyment of these descriptions of heroic and confident, if doomed, children“.

Not every moralistic book was dry. Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) uses allegory to describe Christian’s journey from his hometown to the Celestial City and has never been out of print. I got an abridged copy in modern English for Christmas when I was ten, and I loved it (wonder where it is?) It was a journey, an adventure, and while the allegory was blindingly obvious, it didn’t get in the way of the story (although I remember puzzling over how to pronounce slough).  Apologies, Mr Bunyan. I appreciate that wasn’t necessarily the effect you were hoping for.

Isaac Watts, Divine songs attempted in easy language for the use of children (1715) “endeavoured to sink the language to the level of a child’s understanding”. Possibly one of the first books ever written for children.

I didn’t realise Robinson Crusoe was published so early (1719). Like many ‘classics’ the story is familiar, not through the book, but through endless retellings on television, film and references in popular culture. Children’s versions were made available soon after publication.

A Little pretty pocket book, intended for the instruction and amusement of little master Tommy and pretty Miss Polly was first published in 1744 by John Newbury (see separate blog). It was small, attractive and illustrated to appeal to children.

Maria Edgeworth was not a name I would have included as a children’s author, associating her with more Austen-like novels. However, she had strong principles about education and wrote several volumes of Tales for young people, heavy on the moral content, and argued against adventures.

the taste for adventure is absolutely incompatible with the sober perseverance necessary to success

Maria Edgeworth, Essays on Practical Education, Volume 1


Carpenter, Humphrey and Prichard, Mari. Oxford companion to children’s literature (Oxford, 1984)

Farrell, Maureen. The History of Children’s Literature. Powerpoint delivered Tuesday 29th September 2015.

Grenby, M.O. The origins of children’s literature, http://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/the-origins-of-childrens-literature. Accessed 8th November 2015

University of Delaware Library. World of the child: early works  http://www.lib.udel.edu/ud/spec/exhibits/child/early.htm. Accessed 8th November 2015