Take a moment and complete the following sentence: CHILDREN ARE [fill in
the blank]. In our culture, there is a wide variety of stereotypes about children; children
are innocent and imaginative; children are greedy and selfish; children are vulnerable and
easily manipulated; children are consummate manipulators of adults. These stereotypes
may or may not be accurate – they are certainly contradictory. In this course, we will not
attempt to find out the “true” answer to the question of what children are like – because
we are not studying children, only books written by adults for children – and those books
will reflect adults’ changing and often contradictory views of what children are like, what
they need, and what they can cope with.
A short history of childhood will help put this question into historical context.
1) The Puritans
The Puritan view of childhood (dating back to the 1500s) is based on the doctrine
of Original Sin – the Puritans believed that we are born with an inherently sinful nature, a
nature that resists obedience to and worship of God; therefore, the role of childhood
instruction is to discipline the unruly, sinful spirit. In this period, children were seen as
smaller adults, with the same needs as adults for spiritual and religious instruction, and
the role of religious instruction was to prepare one to die well, so that one could go to
An early poem for children bears this out:
Possess not pride in any wise
Build not your house too high
But have always before your eyes,
That ye be born to die. (Robert Smith, d. 1555, “The Exhortation
of a Father to his Children)
This poem may seem morbid to us, but at the time it was written, infant mortality was
high – children, like adults, needed to be prepared for the possibility of death, and the
purpose of literature was to remind people of their mortality.
Another early poem focuses more on manners:
Pick not thy nose, and, most especial,
Be well ware, and set hereon thy thought,
Before they sovereign scratch nor rub thee not.
There is an amusing contrast here between the archaic language and nose-picking subject
matter, but this poem is closer to our own sense of children’s needs – we continue to train
children to treat their bodies a certain way in public – certain parts should not be shown
Both these poems are heavily didactic – that is, they are designed to teach, and
there is very little attempt to entertain; the idea that children need to be entertained has
not really entered into the landscape.
2) Locke and Rousseau 2
The most significant challenge to the Puritan view of childhood arose from the
work of two philosophers: John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In 1690, John
Locke’s “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” argued that we come into this world
as a tabula rasa (a blank slate) – not sinful, but very impressionable, to be shaped entirely
by our environment. Locke’s ideas began to change the way people saw children, and
put new emphasis on the importance of childhood experiences.
In 1762, Jean Jacques Rousseau took Locke’s ideas a step further, arguing that
children are not miniature adults, but instead are innocent, naturally good and benevolent
until they are corrupted by society – he believed that the source of evil is not Original Sin
but instead society itself. Rousseau’s ideas still contribute a lot to our popular
stereotypes about children.
3) Romantic movement
In the early 1800s, William Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality”
(1807) explored the idea that before we are born our souls exist in heaven with God. One
implication of this idea is that children are not simply innocent, but actually have a closer
connection to the divine than adults have. Wordsworth suggested that as we grow up, we
lose our faint memories of heaven, our spiritual nature is trampled on, and we lose our
imagination, spontaneity, and creativity. Therefore, adults can actually learn from
children – an extreme position, but one that is still popular today.
By the middle of the 19th century, these new ideas about childhood started to
trickle into children’s literature – people begin writing books specifically for children,
and not just manuals on moral behaviour.
The twentieth-century saw a bit of a backlash against the excessive idealization of
children encouraged by the ideas of Rousseau and Wordsworth. Sigmund Freud’s work
explored the darker side of childhood – his theories assumed that children possess deep-
seated rage and resentment of their parents. By the mid- to late twentieth century, works
for children began to incorporate this perspective, depicting children as troubled, angry,
and sometimes violent.
The purpose of this historical survey is to demonstrate that our “common-sense”
ideas about children are in fact very much open to question and debate. As you begin to
consider the works on this course, resist the temptation to analyze children’s literature by
making grand generalizations about what “children” are like. Remember that we are
studying children’s literature, not children themselves – we don’t have at our disposal the
methods to conduct reliable sociological research on children’s actual responses. Instead,
this is a literature course where we will be learning and applying methods of literary
analysis to a particular set of novels, poems, and stories.
1) How does the Puritan concept of childhood differ from the Romantic concept?
2) How did the ideas of Locke, Rousseau, and Freud affect the concept of childhood?
Discussion Questions 3
Feel free to post your responses to any of these questions to the Discussion board, along
with any other questions or comments you might have.
1) How do we distinguish between children’s literature and regular literature? What is
the definition of children’s literature?
2) What makes a children’s book good or bad? Are there certain things that children
should not be allowed to read?
As Hallett and Karasek explain in the introduction to Folk and Fairy Tales, there
are three types of fairy tale: the folk tale, the literary tale, and the revisionist tale. Folk
tales are based on oral literature, created by the “folk” (that is, the peasantry), both men
and women. The stories exist in many versions, since they are changed each time they
are told, and parallel stories may also exist in many cultures (for instance, some
folklorists claim that “Cinderella” was originally a Chinese story, with its emphasis on
small feet as a sign of beauty). The most popular folk tales in our culture were collected
first by Charles Perrault and then by the Grimm brothers. These collectors did not invent
the stories they published, but they did exert considerable influence over the versions that
came down to us, choosing which version to use, and modifying the tales to suit their
Literary fairy tales, on the other hand, are written by a single author who follows
fairy tale conventions – one of the best known creators of this kind of fairy tale is Hans
Christian Anderson, author of “The Little Mermaid” and “The Snow Queen”.
Revisionist fairy tales work in one of two ways: (1) they may take a single,
recognizable fairy tale and give it a twist, or (2) they may tell a new story that follows
enough fairy-tale conventions to be recognizable but includes some kind of startling
break from tradition. Revisionist fairy tales usually derive their force from the reversal of
Here are a few fairy-tale conventions that you should pay attention to (this list is
by no means exhaustive):
1) “once upon a time” – This traditional beginning establishes the setting: vaguely
medieval, safely distant, timeless. (Fairy tales have never been set in contemporary life,
not even at the time they were originally produced – they have the quality of tales handed
down from the distant past.)
2) “happily ever after” – The happy ending is very common, but not universal – examples
of stories with sad endings are “The Little Mermaid” (Hans Christian Anderson) and
Charles Perrault’s “Little Red Riding Hood” (note, however, that both stories have been
retold with a happy ending).
3) magic: Enchanted objects (mirrors, apples), giants, witches, fairy godmothers, spells,
talking wolves – magic elements are taken for granted in an otherwise realistic world;
characters do not express surprise when they encounter magic.
4) good vs. evil: Fairy-tale characters are not usually morally complex – the distinction
between good and evil is clear-cut: good people are usually beautiful, while evil
characters are often ugly (but not always – some tales depend upon the reversal of that
expectation – in “Snow White,” the villain is a beautiful woman, while in “Beauty and 4
the Beast” and “The Frog Prince” ugly beasts are princes in disguise).
5) animal villain: The animal villain is usually the wolf, who appears in more than one
story, reflecting a world where animal predators are a genuine threat.
6) evil stepmother: Young maidens are usually good, but older, married women are often
7) absent mother, neglectful father: Fathers are usually idealized in fairy tales, even
though their negligence often imperils the children (see “Hansel and Gretl” or
8) youngest sibling: The protagonist is often the youngest of the family, which is the
“underdog” position in a society that follows the rule of primogeniture, where the bulk of
a family’s property passes to the eldest son.
9) royalty: Although these stories have their origins among the “folk,” fairy tale plots
usually revolve around a prince or princess. These are not, however, stories of social
mobility – rarely are they about a true peasant who climbs the social ladder – instead they
are about the restoration of the social order. Cinderella, for instance, is not a rags-to-
riches story about a servant who marries a prince; instead, it’s a riches-to-rags-to-riches
story about a daughter of the house who is degraded to the position of a servant but then
restored to her true social standing. “The Goose Girl” is even more politically
conservative, as the maid is brutally punished for her attempt to usurp the princess’s
identity and social position.
10) prohibition: Fairy tales often begin with a warning, and the action of the story begins
when those instructions are disobeyed (see “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Bluebeard”).
This list of conventions provides a map of the general characteristics of fairy
tales; the particular form of a given fairy tale depends very much on the motivations of
the teller. The best-known collectors of fairy tales – and the men whose work has had the
most lasting influence on the fairy tales – are Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm.
The Grimm brothers published their collection of German folk tales in the early 1800s.
The stories were not initially intended for use as children’s literature – they had a
nationalistic purpose, to provide a common ground of folklore binding together the
German people (at this point in history, Germany was only beginning to come into
existence; the country needed to develop a national identity that would unite the
previously separate kingdoms of Prussia, Bavaria, etc.). The brothers did not actually go
out into the villages and collect stories from the peasantry, relying instead on other
middle-class informants, but they did have a motivation to preserve the stories in close to
their original form (as told by the peasants themselves): the whole point of their
collection was to create and preserve an authentic German identity. Charles Perrault, on
the other hand, was a French aristocrat who polished up the stories for consumption in the
court of Louis XIV in the 1700s. Where the Grimm brothers wished to retain an
appearance of rustic authenticity, Perrault’s goal was to create a much more sophisticated
style that would be subtle, witty, and humorous.
A good way to appreciate this contrast in style is to compare Perrault’s
“Cinderella” to the