Children's literature

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Basic Characteristics

There is some debate as to what constitutes children's literature. Some would have it that children's literature is literature written specially for children, though many books that were originally intended for adults are now commonly thought of as works for children, for example Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper, or Huckleberry Finn. The opposite has also been known to occur, where works of fiction originally written or marketed for children are given recognition as adult books. Witness that in recent years, the prestigious Whitbread Awards were twice given to books marketed as children's books: Philip Pullman's The Amber Spyglass, and Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. The Nobel prize for literature has also been given to authors who made great contributions to children's literature, such as Selma Lagerlf and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Often it is hard to reach consensus on the question of whether a certain book is a children's book or not, for example, The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien.

Additionally, there is some debate as to whether or not non-fiction is literature (and a separate debate over whether non-fiction should be called non-fiction or informational). While the ALSC has an award specifically for non-fiction, the Sibert Medal, non-fiction books have also very occasionally won the Newbery Medal, the premier children's book award in the United States (notably, Russell Freedman's 1988 Lincoln: A Photobiography).

Many authors specialize in books for children. Other authors are more known for their writing for adults, but have also written books for children, such as Alexey Tolstoy 's The Adventures of Burratino, and Carl Sandburg's "Rootabaga Stories". In some cases, books intended for adults, such as Swift's Gulliver's Travels have been edited (or bowdlerized) somewhat, to make them more appropriate for children.

An attempt to identify the characteristics shared by works called 'children's literature' leads to some good general guidelines. No one rule is perfect, however, and for every identifying feature there are many exceptions, as well as many adult books which share the characteristic.

Characteristic Children's book counter example(s) Adult book which fits the profile
Marketed to or written for children To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee was not written for or marketed to children originally, and is now primarily a children's book. The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieszka is extremely popular among adults, possibly more so than among children.
Has children as protagonists My Friend Mr. Leaky by J.B.S. Haldane is a children's book with an adult protagonist. All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy is an adult book with a child protagonist. Note that many adult books with child protagonists become de facto young adult books when they are assigned as classroom reading.
Does not contain adult themes and is 'appropriate for children' -- a problematic criterion, as many specialists argue that an issue that children confront (eg. eating disorders, rape, sexual abuse, prison, war) is appropriate by default. Junk by Melvin Burgess is about heroin use, No Laughter Here by Rita Williams-Garcia is about FGM. A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro has no 'inappropriate themes', nor does much adult genre fiction.
Relatively short Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling, Summerland by Michael Chabon Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach
Contains illustrations, in particular books intended for younger children The Tulip Touch by Anne Fine is an unillustrated book for younger children. Maus by Art Spiegelman is a graphic novel for adults.
Written in simple language Skellig by David Almond The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston
Plot-oriented with more dialogue and events, fewer descriptions and ruminations The Red Pony by John Steinbeck Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton
Deals with themes of growing up, coming to age and maturation Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr Fox James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, though see the note above about adult books with child protagonists.
Didactic, educational, or attempts to educate children about societal and behavioral issues; otherwise, contains tales of fantasy and adventure Encyclopedia Brown by Donald J. Sobol The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Happy ending, in which good triumphs over evil Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia, Lauren Myracle's Rhymes with Witches Catherine R. Coulter's The Nightingale Legacy

Publishers have attempted to further break down children's literature into subdivisions appropriate for different ages. In the United States, current practice within the field of children's books publishing is to break children's literature into pre-readers, early readers, chapter books, and young adults. This is roughly equivalent to the age groups 0-5, 5-7, 7-11 (sometimes broken down further into 7-9 and pre-teens), and books for teenagers. However, the criteria for these divisions are just as vague and problematic as the criteria for defining children's books as a whole. One obvious distinction is that books for younger children tend to contain illustrations, but Picture books which feature art as an integral part of the overall work also cross all genres and age levels. As a general rule the implied reader of a children's or young adult book is 1-3 years younger than the protagonist. (counter example: Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, not necessarily written for children, but co-opted by a child and young adult audience)


Because of the difficulty in defining children's literature, it is also difficult to trace the history of children's literature to a precise starting point. In 1658 Jan mos Komensk published the illustrated informational book Orbis Pictus; it's considered to be the first picture book published specifically for children. John Newbery's 1744 publication of A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, sold with a ball for boys or a pincushion for girls, is considered a landmark for the beginning of pleasure reading marketed specifically to children. Previous to Newbery, literature marketed for children was intended to instruct the young, though there was a rich oral tradition of storytelling for children and adults; and many tales later considered to be inappropriate for children, such as the fairy tales of Charles Perrault, may have been considered family fare. Additionally, some literature not written with children in mind was given to children by adults. Among the earliest examples found in English of this co-opted adult fiction are Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur and the Robin Hood tales.


The success of a book for children often prompts the author to continue the story in a sequel, or even to launch into an entire series of books. Some works are originally conceived as series: J. K. Rowling has always stated in interviews that her original plan was to write no fewer than seven books about Harry Potter, and some authors, such as the prolific Enid Blyton and R. L. Stine, seem incapable of writing a stand-alone book. In several cases, series have outlived their authors, whether publishers openly hired new authors to continue after the death of the original creator of the series (such was the case when Reilly and Lee hired Ruth Plumly Thompson to continue The Oz series after L. Frank Baum's death), or whether the pen name of the original author was retained as a brand-nom-de-plume for the series (as with Franklin W. Dixon and the Hardy Boys series, Carolyn Keene and the Nancy Drew series, and V. C. Andrews and the Flowers in the Attic series).


Some noted awards for children's literature are:

Timeline of important works

Fairy tale collections are one of the earliest forms of published fiction that have never lost their charm for children, though several of the classic tales are gruesome and were not originally collected for children. Famous collectors and retellers of Fairy Tales include Charles Perrault, the brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen and Andrew Lang.

Orbis Pictus (1658) by Jan mos Komensk:Earliest picturebook

The Pilgrim's Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come by John Bunyan (1678); many later children's fantasies were modeled on this Christian allegory

A Little Pretty Pocket-Book (1744) by John Newbery:Earliest marketing tie-in and storybook marketed as pleasure reading

Struwwelpeter (1845) by Heinrich Hoffman (published in English as Slovenly Peter): One of the earliest examples of grotesque humor as well as of modern picturebook design

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1864) by Lewis Carroll:Early surrealism and children's novel as pleasurable and non-didactic.

Little Women (1868) by Louisa May Alcott.

Max and Moritz (1865) by Wilhelm Busch.

Pinocchio (1880) by Carlo Collodi.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) by L. Frank Baum, later expanded into a series of books which were tremendously popular in America during the first half of the twentieth century. One of the earliest children go to another world fantasies.

Peter and Wendy (1911) by J. M. Barrie (better known as Peter Pan)

Winnie-the-Pooh (1928) by A. A. Milne.

The Hobbit or There and Back Again (1937) by J. R. R. Tolkein: and early example of the modern lighthearted quest fantasy

Le Petit Prince (1943, English The Little Prince) by Antoine de Saint-Exupry

Pippi Longstocking (1944) by Astrid Lindgren.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950) by C. S. Lewis

The Cat in the Hat (1957) by Dr. Seuss: First high quality limited-vocabulary book, written for early readers

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) by Harper Lee: Pulitzer for book market to children; also seminal work on race

Where the Wild Things Are (1964) by Maurice Sendak

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) by Roald Dahl

A Wizard of Earthsea (1968) by Ursula K. Le Guin, and sequels.

Annie on my Mind (1982) by Nancy Garden: First children's book about homosexual characters with a non-tragic conclusion.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (1997) by J. K. Rowling, and sequels; worldwide publishing phenomenon, one of the bestselling books of all times and one of the most widely translated works of literature. Worldwide popularity caused resurgence of interest in children's literature.

See also

External links

eo:Porinfana literaturo fi:Lastenkirjallisuus hu:Gyermek- s ifjsgi irodalom it:Letteratura per ragazzi ja:児童文学 nl:Jeugdliteratuur pl:Literatura dla dzieci i młodzieży sv:Barnlitteratur zh:儿童文学


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