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5 Little PIgs

We can learn much about how a his­tor­i­cal peri­od viewed the abil­i­ties of its chil­dren by study­ing its chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture. Occu­py­ing a space some­where between the pure­ly didac­tic and the non­sen­si­cal, most children’s books pub­lished in the past few hun­dred years have attempt­ed to find a line between the two poles, seek­ing a bal­ance between enter­tain­ment and instruc­tion. How­ev­er, that line seems to move clos­er to one pole or anoth­er depend­ing on the pre­vail­ing cul­tur­al sen­ti­ments of the time. And the very fact that children’s books were hard­ly pub­lished at all before the ear­ly 18th cen­tu­ry tells us a lot about when and how mod­ern ideas of child­hood as a sep­a­rate cat­e­go­ry of exis­tence began.


“By the end of the 18th cen­tu­ry,” writes New­cas­tle Uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor M.O. Gren­by, “children’s lit­er­a­ture was a flour­ish­ing, sep­a­rate and secure part of the pub­lish­ing indus­try in Britain.” The trend accel­er­at­ed rapid­ly and has nev­er ceased—children’s and young adult books now dri­ve sales in pub­lish­ing (with 80% of YA books bought by grown-ups for them­selves).

Gren­by notes that “the rea­sons for this sud­den rise of children’s lit­er­a­ture” and its rapid expan­sion into a boom­ing mar­ket by the ear­ly 1800s “have nev­er been ful­ly explained.” We are free to spec­u­late about the social and ped­a­gog­i­cal winds that pushed this his­tor­i­cal change.

Afloat with Nelson

Or we might do so, at least, by exam­in­ing the children’s lit­er­a­ture of the Vic­to­ri­an era, per­haps the most inno­v­a­tive and diverse peri­od for children’s lit­er­a­ture thus far by the stan­dards of the time. And we can do so most thor­ough­ly by sur­vey­ing the thou­sands of mid- to late 19th cen­tu­ry titles at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Florida’s Bald­win Library of His­tor­i­cal Children’s Lit­er­a­ture. Their dig­i­tized col­lec­tion cur­rent­ly holds over 6,000 books free to read online from cov­er to cov­er, allow­ing you to get a sense of what adults in Britain and the U.S. want­ed chil­dren to know and believe.

Zig Zag

Sev­er­al gen­res flour­ished at the time: reli­gious instruc­tion, nat­u­ral­ly, but also lan­guage and spelling books, fairy tales, codes of con­duct, and, espe­cial­ly, adven­ture stories—pre-Hardy Boys and Nan­cy Drew exam­ples of what we would call young adult fic­tion, these pub­lished prin­ci­pal­ly for boys. Adven­ture sto­ries offered a (very colo­nial­ist) view of the wide world; in series like the Boston-pub­lished Zig Zag and Eng­lish books like Afloat with Nel­son, both from the 1890s, fact min­gled with fic­tion, nat­ur­al his­to­ry and sci­ence with bat­tle and trav­el accounts. But there is anoth­er dis­tinc­tive strain in the children’s lit­er­a­ture of the time, one which to us—but not nec­es­sar­i­ly to the Victorians—would seem con­trary to the impe­ri­al­ist young adult nov­el.

Bible Picture Book

For most Vic­to­ri­an stu­dents and read­ers, poet­ry was a dai­ly part of life, and it was a cen­tral instruc­tion­al and sto­ry­telling form in children’s lit. The A.L.O.E.’s Bible Pic­ture Book from 1871, above, presents “Sto­ries from the Life of Our Lord in Verse,” writ­ten “sim­ply for the Lord’s lambs, rhymes more read­i­ly than prose attract­ing the atten­tion of chil­dren, and fas­ten­ing them­selves on their mem­o­ries.” Chil­dren and adults reg­u­lar­ly mem­o­rized poet­ry, after all. Yet after the explo­sion in children’s pub­lish­ing the for­mer read­ers were often giv­en infe­ri­or exam­ples of it. The author of the Bible Pic­ture Book admits as much, beg­ging the indul­gence of old­er read­ers in the pref­ace for “defects in my work,” giv­en that “the vers­es were made for the pic­tures, not the pic­tures for the vers­es.”

Elfin Rhymes

This is not an author, or per­haps a type of lit­er­a­ture, one might sus­pect, that thinks high­ly of children’s aes­thet­ic sen­si­bil­i­ties.  We find pre­cise­ly the oppo­site to be the case in the won­der­ful Elfin Rhymes from 1900, writ­ten by the mys­te­ri­ous “Nor­man” with “40 draw­ings by Car­ton Moorepark.” Who­ev­er “Nor­man” may be (or why his one-word name appears in quo­ta­tion marks), he gives his read­ers poems that might be mis­tak­en at first glance for unpub­lished Christi­na Ros­set­ti vers­es; and Mr. Moorepark’s illus­tra­tions rival those of the finest book illus­tra­tors of the time, pre­sag­ing the high qual­i­ty of Calde­cott Medal-win­ning books of lat­er decades. Elfin Rhymes seems like a rare odd­i­ty, like­ly pub­lished in a small print run; the care and atten­tion of its lay­out and design shows a very high opin­ion of its read­ers’ imag­i­na­tive capa­bil­i­ties.

Elfin Rhymes 2

This title is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of an emerg­ing genre of late Vic­to­ri­an children’s lit­er­a­ture, which still tend­ed on the whole, as it does now, to fall into the trite and for­mu­la­ic. Elfin Rhymes sits astride the fan­ta­sy boom at the turn of the cen­tu­ry, her­ald­ed by huge­ly pop­u­lar books like Frank L. Baum’s Wiz­ard of Oz series and J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. These, the Har­ry Pot­ters of their day, made mil­lions of young peo­ple pas­sion­ate read­ers of mod­ern fairy tales, rep­re­sent­ing a slide even fur­ther away from the once quite nar­row, “remorse­less­ly instruc­tion­al… or deeply pious” cat­e­gories avail­able in ear­ly writ­ing for chil­dren, as Gren­by points out.

All Around the Moon

Where the bound­aries for kids’ lit­er­a­ture had once been nar­row­ly fixed by Latin gram­mar books and Pilgrim’s Progress, by the end of the 19th cen­tu­ry, the influ­ence of sci­ence fic­tion like Jules Verne’s, and of pop­u­lar super­nat­ur­al tales and poems, pre­pared the ground for com­ic books, YA dystopias, magi­cian fic­tion, and dozens of oth­er children’s lit­er­a­ture gen­res we now take for grant­ed, or—in increas­ing­ly large numbers—we buy to read for our­selves. Enter the Bald­win Library of His­tor­i­cal Children’s Lit­er­a­ture here, where you can browse sev­er­al cat­e­gories, search for sub­jects, authors, titles, etc, see full-screen, zoomable images of book cov­ers, down­load XML ver­sions, and read all of the over 6,000 books in the col­lec­tion with com­fort­able read­er views. Find more clas­sics in our col­lec­tion, 800 Free eBooks for iPad, Kin­dle & Oth­er Devices.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The First Children’s Pic­ture Book, 1658’s Orbis Sen­su­al­i­um Pic­tus

The Anti-Slav­ery Alpha­bet: 1846 Book Teach­es Kids the ABCs of Slavery’s Evils

The Inter­na­tion­al Children’s Dig­i­tal Library Offers Free eBooks for Kids in Over 40 Lan­guages

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (50)
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  • Rana Riaz Saeed says:

    Great work and ser­vices to new gen­er­a­tion!

  • apple says:

    mom­ma like

  • Irene Fenswick says:

    This is a very inter­est­ing post about such impor­tant things like chil­dren’s books. I think that peo­ple fre­quent­ly do not pay enough atten­tion to the qual­i­ty of books their chil­dren read. We love to talk about fic­tion, mod­ern authors, but we rarely think about high-qual­i­ty chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture. There­fore, I am grate­ful for the awe­some oppor­tu­ni­ty to know more about his­to­ry the of chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture.

  • Me gus­tan las obras se pueden ten­er en español.

  • Dirk van Wyk says:


  • Great resource. Thank you.

  • Beth Anderson says:

    What a trea­sure trove! Thanks for shar­ing this!

  • Linda says:

    Awe­some, won­der­ful and thank you

  • Fredric Mintz says:

    I would like to give a dona­tion but I refuse to give out my tele­phone address.

  • geraldine says:

    won­der­ful. do you have any of the pook­ie books. Cheers Geral­dine

  • Aura Amaya says:

    This is AWESOME TERRIFIC!!! pic­ture books, audio books it’s like if he was think­ing of all chil­dren with spe­cial needs and with­out!!! Amaz­ing
    Thank you for shar­ing

  • Evelyn says:

    Fab­u­lous! Thank you. I have a num­ber of old chil­dren’s’ books that belonged to my moth­er and my grand­moth­er. I’ve brought them out for my chil­dren and grand­chil­dren and about to be time to share with my great-grand­daugh­ter. She loves books, but still a bit rough on them. All of these are rem­i­nis­cent of books that I grew up with, though none quite the same, the era, they style is there.

  • Ann Turner says:

    Try­ing ro find chil­dren book that I enjoyed in the late 30s and ear­ly 40s. The book was in black and white. Mine was appar­ent­ly soft cov­er, front cov­er gone. Sto­ries I remem­ber, Andro­cles and the Lion, Stone Soup, Water Buf­fa­lo, The crow that stole and car­ried things back to his nnest. Sto­ry about a moth­er in try­ing to pro­tect her chil­dren fom the Indi­ans and hid them under big ket­tles, A sto­ry about Robert Burns. Hop­ing you can fig­ure out which book I’m look­ing for . AnnTurn­er

  • Julia Lagrua says:

    The Turned-Into’s by Eliz­a­beth Gor­don is my favorite. It was my moth­er’s book which she dav­ed for her chil­dren. The illus­tra­tions by Janet Lau­ra Scott are exquis­ite. Over the years I bought three more copies for my three daugh­ters.

  • Leong Hung Leng says:

    Fun and mem­o­ries of read­ing under blan­ket by torch­light !!!

  • Nancy Patz says:

    What a trea­sure trove! I can­not wait to get into it!
    Thanks so much for shar­ing—

  • Ronald Farnsworth says:

    Do you have any Holling C Holling?

  • hmeichuan says:

    Thanks for shar­ing

  • Diane Benjamin says:

    Does any­body remem­ber a book from the 40s that was about a young girl who dress like a boy to fight in the Civ­il War? Is it some­thing about sug­ar or dad­dy or sug­ar lips… I can’t remem­ber the title. I read it at Lan­don school in Pitts­burgh Penn­syl­va­nia where Miss Pow­ers was our inspi­ra­tional librar­i­an

  • valerie scovell says:

    just won­der­ful

  • Caroline Harrington says:

    Am look­ing for a book that was in my family’s library when I was a child ((1940’s).
    II remem­ber two of the char­ac­ters names
    as “Sophie Spoil All” and “Scis­sor Man”
    Hope you can help. Car­o­line

  • Brenda Robinson says:

    Look­ing for an ear­ly copy of Night Before Christ­mas. HARD COVER in green — I believe there was a black out­line of SAn­ta and sleigh on the front. Bright,colorful pic­tures. Book is approx 3″ x 5″. Pos­si­bly pub­lished in Cana­da. Thank you.

  • Maria del Rosario del Collado says:

    Won­der­ful new I can see an fan­tas­tic tales and his­to­ries there thank you very much for shar­ing it

  • Emma says:

    If it’s for the same age as Hardy Boys and Nan­cy Drew, and about boys and not teens, it is what we today wound call Mid­dle Grade, not Young Adult. Young Adult genre is con­sid­ered to have start­ed with the pub­lish­ing of Sev­en­teenth Sum­mer in 1942.

    The pop­u­lar­i­ty of YA fic­tion today is unde­ni­able, but it’s no excuse for the num­ber of arti­cles writ­ten from out­side the field that refer to Mid­dle Grade and even chap­ter books like Ramona as YA.

  • jishu nath says:

    Great Job!! High­ly appre­ci­at­ed!!

  • Shauna says:

    Wow — these are beau­ti­ful!

  • Susan Cole says:

    Hi Car­o­line, if you are still mon­i­tor­ing this. I’m pret­ty sure the book you are think­ing of is “Sloven­ly Peter,” pub­lished orig­i­nal­ly in Ger­man as “Struwwelpeter.” Note to all not famil­iar with this book: Although appar­ent­ly it was intend­ed to be light-heart­ed, I found it hor­ri­fy­ing as a child and I still do. It’s full of grim and gory ideas and images about what hap­pens to “bad” boys and girls. I would not let a sen­si­tive child any­where near it.

  • shikha says:

    Its like some­one left the trea­sure box open .…

  • margie smith says:

    Very inter­est­ing read­ing.

  • Amane Motomura says:

    I would love to read these chil­dren’s books.

  • Mike Chuang says:

    Thanks for the free books.

  • Paula Dougherty says:

    I usu­al­ly type all 9’s and if that does not work, enter a pho­ny num­ber, if you real­ly want to donate.

  • Bernice Ramsdi-Firth says:

    What an inter­est­ing site! I must, as a chil­dren and young adult book author myself, have a look more deeply into these books. I had many favourites myself, but ‘The Secret of the Sun God’s Cave’, a great adven­ture about Rak, an ear­ly man, was my most favourite. Won­der­ful illus­tra­tions. I would love to find it and read it again. Anoth­er favourite was the Chil­dren of the Sea, about a boy who saves a young ‘dol­phin that had been bit­ten by a shark. ‘Lad a Dog’ by Albert Payson Ter­hune is anoth­er. ‘Win­nie the Pooh’. So many out there.


    I have a small book that teach­es A B Cs, that is over a 100 years old. Would you be inter­est­ed in this book. one of the pages has a black woman on it.

  • Luis Maria Echeverría Fernández says:

    Me parece fenom­e­nal esta ini­cia­ti­va. Repar­tir cul­tura por todas partes.

  • Chandrashekara says:

    Edu­ca­tion is not a lean­ing of facts but train­ing to mid thik

  • Barbara Green says:

    I have my moth­er’s copy of Struwelpeter. I agree, it is grim.

  • Roberta Prada says:

    I have not so far been able to dis­cov­er how to search by author or title

  • Juanita says:

    Thank you

  • Juanita says:

    Thank you.…

  • Marilyn Brager says:

    Thank you!

  • Leigh says:

    thank you

  • Karen says:

    I agree that pro­vid­ing high qual­i­ty lit­er­a­ture to our chil­dren is so impor­tant. What I read as child inspired me and shaped my future! This is a trea­sure that has been pro­vid­ed to us!

  • Judy Dowden says:


  • Carmen ling says:

    hi how are you?My name’s Car­men ling and I’m eight years old.I live in Klang.I study in (SJK©Kong How)
    My favourite sub­ject in school is Art.I love bad­minton and swimming.I always watch tele­vi­sion on Weekends.What’s your favourite spot and subject?Please write back soon.bye

  • Sreeja Menon says:

    Iam Sree­ja, I am moth­er of 11 year old twins,all three of us are fond of read­ing books

    This seems to be a great oppor­tu­ni­ty for my chil­dren to read qual­i­ty lit­er­a­ture.
    Thank you.

  • Melville & Co. Books says:

    We have a won­der­ful copy of Minn of the Mis­sis­sip­pi for sale on Ama­zon. It’s signed AND inscribed by both of the Hollings, even has a Dust jack­et.

    Those 2 were amaz­ing. Beau­ti­ful sto­ries, fan­tas­tic art­work.

    I think most of what they did is still in print, and there are lots of cheap­er used copies avail­able too.

  • Barbara Williamson says:

    I am look­ing for a book I had as a child about a lit­tle Indi­an boy and his fam­i­ly who came to be known as Lit­tle Buf­fa­lo and whose father was called Big Buf­fa­lo. Also pic­tured was his moth­er and baby sib­ling. It was beau­ti­ful­ly illus­trat­ed and not long. Big­ger than a lit­tle gold­en book as I remem­ber. Have had no luck find­ing this book from the 40s prob­a­bly .

  • gordon says:

    His­to­ry is that sure­ness cre­at­ed where the blem­ish­es of mem­o­ry meet the insuf­fi­cien­cies of doc­u­men­ta­tion.

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