The world of children’s books

Created date

October 30th, 2019
People of all ages love a good story, and children's books often bring a magical quality to storytelling.

People of all ages love a good story, and children's books often bring a magical quality to storytelling.

It’s difficult to comprehend, but children’s stories are older than the Bible itself. As long as there have been people, there have been tall tales meant to teach and entertain. 

But what started as an oral tradition practiced around crude campfires is now arguably the most expansive literary genus. Its tendrils reach out like vines, around the world and through time, and are interwoven with a spectrum of age groups.

While most of us associate children’s books with classics like Hansel and Gretel, The Three Little Pigs, Pinocchio, and Winnie the Pooh, the breadth of such books today is mind-boggling. 

For instance, as a departure from olden yarns full of moralistic talking animals, authors like Brad Meltzer have, in recent years, dove into a more advanced form of the children’s market. Already well known for his adult thriller novels, Meltzer can also lay claim to a best-selling series of illustrated books that chronicle the lives of historical figures like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Jane Goodall, and Amelia Earhart.

The result, of course, is a series that trades inanity and condescension for lessons in character.

‘A lot smarter’

“When it comes to children’s books, you have to remember, first and foremost, that kids are a lot smarter than we think,” he says. “And I’m always conscious of that with every installment I write.”

In doing so, Meltzer gives his young readers a trifecta of benefits: They learn about history; values like courage, honor, and integrity; and perhaps most important, it keeps them reading.

Then there are the young adult volumes that resemble novels more than they do sparsely written art galleries. Going back to the 1800s and into the turn of the century, authors such as Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island, 1883, and Kidnapped, 1886), L. Frank Baum (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, 1900), and Lucy Maud Montgomery (Anne of Green Gables, 1908) were wildly popular with young readers.

“Simply put, people of all ages love stories,” says Meltzer. “We can travel the globe without getting out of bed; meet great leaders that lived hundreds of years before us; and take away lessons from those who, in spite of hardship, accomplished remarkable things through bravery and determination.”

New concept…in the 1600s

This is especially true when it comes to children. For example, the concept of childhood was a relatively new but very powerful concept in seventeenth-century England. 

Philosopher John Locke was an ardent proponent of this view. In his treatise An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), he argued that, when we are born into the world, all of us enter with blank slates, that we all require guidance, instruction, and exposure to the world that surrounds us. 

“Children may be cozen’d into a knowledge of letters; be taught to read, without perceiving it to be anything but a sport,” he once wrote. But they would absorb more, get more out of their reading if you gave them “easy, pleasant books” to develop their minds.

And that’s precisely what happened. Among the contemporary examples were Charles Perrault's Tales of Mother Goose (1697) and illustrated pocket-sized pamphlets called chapbooks. 

Accessible and inexpensive, these fold-up booklets were especially popular with children and contained folk tales, ballads, and stories about historical figures.

But if you want to discover the origins of the modern children’s/young adult stories, you will almost invariably find yourself back in the good old twentieth century, books frequently written as installments in series like Mary Poppins, Dr. Seuss, Thomas the Tank Engine, and Curious George.

Still, as Meltzer reminds us, no matter what time period you live in, chances are you love stories; and there’s no better time to cultivate this love than in childhood.