Essay: Children's Literature Timeline

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[. . .] On this score, we might leap ahead to compare Hoffmann with someone like Dr. Seuss (Theodore Seuss Geisel). The Cat in the Hat was written as part of a campaign to produce educational literature for the youngest readers, with a simple vocabulary that had been selected in advance by a panel of education experts. Seuss promptly took what is essentially a curriculum plan, and turned it into a rhyming romp, milking the limited vocabulary for as many rhymes and as much sheer verbal amusement as he could manage. To some degree Hoffmann represents the old educational paradigm -- fear and disgust, a cautionary tale -- and Seuss represents the new paradigm, in which the goal is to produce something that children will actually read and like (without realizing that it is solidifying their vocabulary skills in the guise of telling a story).

These are basically the major trends over the course of the timeline: it begins with the collection of extant oral storytelling, then moves into imitation of that sort of storytelling (with all its sexlessness and supernatural devices), until finally the question is asked whether all these stories are providing a child with anything more than escapism. The urge to tame children's literature and make it serve "useful" educational functions may have come as a reaction to the escapism and flights of fancy and supernatural goings-on in many of the original stories.

But there are different ways to accomplish the task of writing books for children that do teach. Mildred Taylor's Newbery-winning novel Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is read by many children every year. (My youngest sister recently had to read it in high school.) Taylor is writing a novel with a child protagonist, but she does not write down. Taylor is also an African-American woman, and she writes about African-American characters in a time period when tremendous social change was affecting the African-American community. Taylor manages to teach tolerance simply by being herself and endowing her characters with realistic and relatable stories, and actual depth and complication in their characterization. And coming to the present day, it now seems like the world's major writers of children's literature -- Joanne Rowling in the U.K., Stephenie Meyer in the U.S.A. -- are women. This represents a step forward, in terms of trying to accomplish gender parity in the arts, although it is also close to women's traditional role as child-rearers. But it is a massive step forward to combating the strain of Antifeminism -- and "depiction of negative female stereotypes" (Russell 202) -- that has been part of the ineherited corpus of folk tales and stories.

Children learn from literature. It behooves us to make sure that they have the best literature to learn from. The early heavy-handed and bullying introduction of messages and morals in such children's writing as Hoffmann's could very well have the opposite effect to what was intended, if a child reads a book which is trying openly to manipulate her and her behavior. The simple fact is that so many great works of children's literature -- whether Little Women or Where the Wild Things Are -- demonstrates a fantasy space in which the child is allowed to imagine what it would be like to be freed of adult supervision, while at the same time undertaking adult activities for the first time, or getting a real taste of the solitude and self-determination that is the prerogative of adults in our society. The Grimms merely wanted to record these stories. Hoffmann wanted to tell stories to scare children into behaving better. But I think today we understand that the educational value of literature comes more easily in the absence of heavy-handed manipulation and moralizing. Adults who lie to children quickly exhaust their credibility. And adults who do so "for the good of the child" end up seeming like Heinrich Hoffmann -- someone who probably accomplished a lot more harm, simply by writing a book which was not intended to meet kids on their own level, but to threaten them with horrific penalties if they did not behave in the way adults expected them to. Reading Struwwelpeter can improve no child's behavior -- whereas reading a work like Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry may very well have a positive effect in combating prejudice or ignorance, especially concerning the issues covered in its text. [END OF PREVIEW]

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Cite This Essay:

APA Format

Children's Literature Timeline.  (2011, February 19).  Retrieved June 25, 2019, from

MLA Format

"Children's Literature Timeline."  19 February 2011.  Web.  25 June 2019. <>.

Chicago Format

"Children's Literature Timeline."  February 19, 2011.  Accessed June 25, 2019.