A Brief History of Children's Literature: Nasty, Brutish, and ShortBreaking News
tags: literature, childrens literature, literary history, fairy tales
Jennifer Traig is the author of Devil in the Details and Well Enough Alone, and the editor of The Autobiographer’s Handbook and Don’t Forget to Write. She holds a PhD in English from Brandeis, and lives with her family in Michigan.
Because I like to read, friends were surprised, when I had our daughter, that I read so little to her. The problem wasn’t the reading but the material, which bored both of us. Baby books never involve celebrity biography, and they’re almost always set in a barn; the vocabulary is mostly limited to meow and moo. I could be teaching my child Portuguese—why was I teaching her cat? Wouldn’t it be far more sensible to teach her things like TV catchphrases and trivia, things that would prove useful for game shows and cocktail parties? Also, wouldn’t it be far more entertaining for me? For this reason, I began reading to her from Us and Entertainment Weekly. Her second word, and I’m not making this up, was Oprah. Her third was cake, and this should give you a pretty good idea of how we spent our time.
Had I stuck to the books children were historically given, however, it could have been far worse. Her first word might have been moo or arf, or it might have been castration, beheading, or the N-word. For the history of children’s literature is a shocking affair, offering death, murder, abuse, death, racism, death, and damnation. There’s The Tragical History of the Children in the Wood and My Mother’s Grave; Agnes and the Key to Her Little Coffin and ABC in Dixie: A Plantation Alphabet (“C is fer Chawlie who waits on de table. He’s handsome and stylish en his cullah am sable”). Even the books that turn out to be harmless sound like a whole lot of trouble. For instance: Ragged Dick, Lo cunto de li cunti, The Faggot-House, and The Loneliest Ho in the World (as it turns out, a Christmas story).
Much of it, however, was not harmless. For most of history, authors have used their words to render children speechless. Some of the books scarred generations; some merely gave their readers insomnia that would last until puberty. It’s been bad from the beginning, when children’s literature was neither for children nor literature, but stories, transmitted orally, to audiences of adults and kids alike. Because these were, by definition, not written, we’re not sure what they were about, but given universal interests, it seems safe to assume they consisted mostly of animal fables, gruesome cautionary tales, and bathroom jokes.
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