Starting with the evolution of thought surrounding children and their development in the early 1700s, in our last post we saw nearly two centuries of children’s books that focused on impressing morals, lessons, and proper ideals on children. In the late 1800s, however, the publication of books like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Treasure Island (1883), and Jungle Book (1894) started to change the genre of children’s books. We’re continuing our exploration into the fascinating progression of the genre that defines our daily life here at Peachtree.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
original cover art

Unlike the two centuries preceding it, the 20th century was a time of abundance and a variety for children’s books. From The Wonderful Wizard of Oz published in 1900, to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone published in 1997, the 20th century witnessed an explosion of wonderful stories and characters all specifically geared to kids. Of course, the abundance of children’s books, especially illustrated children’s books, could not have been possible without the literacy and technology advances of the first decade of the 1900s.


Literacy and Technology in the 20th Century

Today we are used to the children’s section of a bookstore being colorful and bursting with fun figures and images, but widespread illustrated books were not accessible to most children until the beginning of the 20th century. In “Picturing Childhood: the Evolution of the Illustrated Children’s Book” Cynthia Burlingham remarks on the development of four-color processing and photography in creating illustrated children’s books. With the advancing technology surrounding printing and publishing, these colored picture books meant for children became less expensive to produce, and therefore less expensive to purchase.

Additionally, literacy in developed countries was on the rise at the turn of the 20th century. Specifically in the U.S., literacy rates increased by 13.3% from 1870 to 1910. More children were attending schools at younger ages, so the increasing availability children’s books was matching the demand from those families and children who had the ability and context to read.

The Effect of Modernism

Technology and literacy were advancing, and more kids wanted books, but the beginning of the 20th century also introduced a change in the content of children’s books. In her lectures entitled The Modern Scholar: Children’s Literature Between the Covers (2011), Professor Kimberly Reynolds discusses both the presence and rejection of Modernism in children’s literature during the early 1900s. At its simplest, Modernism represented a cultural and societal movement to break from classical or traditional practices. It’s interesting to note that the books that are perhaps best remembered from this time period are those that were posing a rejection of Modernism.
The Tale of Peter Rabbit
original cover art

The settings behind the most popular stories of this time like The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902), The Wind in the Willows (1908), Swallows and Amazons (1930), and Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) are peaceful countryside scenes. Even in The Wind in the Willows when a car enters the story, it is noisy and destructive. Although Modernism was affecting art, literature, and culture in general, children’s stories remained an outlet for many authors to reminisce about older times when country gentlemen were not confined to a desk at a bank or a factory.

These children’s books were also traditionally built stories. Although some Modernistic literary techniques such as an emphasis on identity, stream of consciousness, narrative authority, and the presence of social evils can be found in Winnie-the-Pooh for example, the focus in these stories was more often what would happen next, rather than stylistic structure. With children as their main audience, the authors behind these famous books understandably put more weight on the story or plot, than the possible analysis of literary elements.

The World Wars

Of course, we cannot talk about this period without touching on the effect of the World Wars on the content and focus of children’s books. For example, books specifically for boys carried messages and viewpoints on the consequences and possibilities of wartime. From before World War I to the time after World War II, the messages behind war-focused books shifted and adjusted in step with societal feelings.

J.M. Barrie’s famous character Peter Pan was a type of boy soldier that represented a certain ideal before any real breakout of war. Peter Pan was willing to die young for a noble cause. The romanticized notion of soldiers before the wars focused on the nobility and heroism of the young men who were willing to die for their country. Additionally, G.A. Henty’s stories (The Young Carthaginian (1887), Wulf the Saxon (1894), and Won by the Sword (1899)) consistently featured young soldiers fighting bravely to the end for what often seemed like hopeless causes. Once the wars began, however, writers were more aware of and willing to address the pain and suffering of wartime in books.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s illustration of the Shire

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, the Shire represented a peaceful, beautiful England. However, the threat of war is imminent, as it appeared in the reality of 1937, the year The Hobbit was published and the year before the start of World War II. War was now seen as a dreaded atrocity rather than an opportunity for heroics. During and after World War II, the purpose behind children’s books shifted yet again to help bring up a generation that could build a better world out of the destruction of the world wars. It was at this time that books began addressing current and important social issues; books became a medium for the younger generation to learn about and be aware of the world around them.

Even within the first half of the 20th century, we can see how much the purpose behind children’s books could change and shift with society. The explosion of production in children’s book publishing during this time made the genre as diverse as adult level books had been for centuries. Children’s books became embedded as a cultural medium that we are seeing advance and grow even today.

We’ve got so many more children’s books to talk about with the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century to cover. So, stay tuned for more discussion on the purposes and perspectives of children’s books then and now.

In the meantime, if you’re interested in learning more about all the changes in children’s literature through the centuries on your own, here are some resources to explore:

  • A Critical History of Children’s Literature by Cornelia Meigs, Anne Thaxter Eaton, Elizabeth Nesbit, Ruth Hill Viguers 
  • The Modern Scholar: Children’s Literature Between the Covers by Kimberly Reynolds