Skip to main content

How are different representations of children and childhood reflected in children's literature.

  • Author:
  • Updated date:

Claire studied autism, childhood and psychology at The Open University and has 20 years experience caring for children with special needs.

Children's books have changed a lot over history. There was a time when there were no books specifically written for children and yet today children have a massive choice of both fiction and non-fiction written especially for them and to suit all ages. The sort of books available for children, how they are written and what material they contain changes based on how the author and society in general view children and childhood.

Books fore fill a variety of purposes, from simply telling a story as entertainment to teaching children or showing them how life can be for other people or at other times in history. Books can be used to deliver moral and social lessons in a discreet way that maybe less likely to be met with resistance. Children listening to the story will often put themselves in the characters position and think about what they would do, how they would cope and who might be able to help them if they had the same problems or events happening in their own lives. Children can learn many things, good or bad even though the book is not directly instructing them in anything

The romantic discourse of childhood and John Locke's influence on literature for children.

Even before children had books especially written for them there were still a lot of stories that where passed on orally between family members. At this time it was widely believed that children were naturally sinful and needed correction. Followers of this puritan view of childhood believed that giving children fiction to read may encourage their natural tenancies towards wrong doing and should therefore be avoided. Childcare manuals of the time encouraged the reading of the bible but strictly stated that fairy stories and songs of love, among others should be avoided. Instructional texts such as A family well ordered by Cotton Mathers were written for children detailing the dire consequences of bad behaviour and un-dutifulness towards parents and god.

In 1693 a philosopher named John Locke wrote his thoughts concerning the education of children. He had a very different view of how children develop and believed that their minds were more like blank slates that could be written on and filled with anything: based on what they were taught and saw in day to day life. He believed that if given the right type of stories children could in fact benefit from reading fiction. Locke's belief in this discourse of childhood, known as tabula rasa had an influence on a publisher of the time known as John Newbury. Newbury had a great respect for Locke and his work and he went on to become one of the best known publishers of early children's books. His belief in John Locke’s work and the tabula rasa discourse led him to write and published books aimed at entertaining children and also teaching them without being overly instructional and rigidly didactic. In 1765 John Newbury published the book The History of Little Goody Two Shoes, telling the tale of two orphaned siblings. The young boy is sent away to become a sailor while his sister Margery stays behind. Margery teaches herself to read and eventually becomes a teacher. When her brother returns from sea, Margery buys the estate of a tyrannical squire and returns it to its original separate tenancies for the town’s people. While entertaining the children with its tale of Margery's generosity and kindness the book also shows that even with a difficult start in life children can be caring and think for and make decisions for themselves which can enable them to become better people. The History of Little Goody Two Shoes teaches the good of hope, education and faith in oneself.
In line with Newbury and Locke's views the story clearly illustrates the theory that children are greatly influenced by their experiences in life and are not just evil by nature. Margery can be seen as someone children would like and may aspire to be like. Therefore by reading the book they are encouraged towards good behaviour and being good people without the need for strict instructional texts full of negativity and subservience.

John Locke's views on children and childhood had a profound effect on the books written and published for children.

John Locke's views on children and childhood had a profound effect on the books written and published for children.

In 1762 Jean – Jacques Rosseau proposed a new set of theories. He advocated a natural upbringing, without moral instruction until the age of 15. He claimed that reading books was unnatural and may corrupt a child's education. Rosseau recommends just one book for teenagers to read: Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. Poets and writers of the romantic movement of this time adopted Rousseau's ideas of a natural child and wrote about childhood as a fragile state of innocence that should be protected because once it was lost it could never be regained. Followers of these romantic ideals believed that children should be protected from the corruption and imperfection of the adult world. Stories for children reflected these beliefs and tales of hope and survival against the odds such as Robinson Crusoe became popular.

Scroll to Continue

At the end of the 19th century and well into the 20th century these romantic notions of childhood innocence and children needing protection could be seen in the books written and produced for them. Books such as The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett and Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne are full of goodness, hope and fun. Even characters that started out sad or alone are transformed by friendships or good experiences. Adults often did not feature at all in children's books and the troubles and hardships of the adult world where also nowhere to be found. This was due to the belief that children should be spared from knowing of those kind of things in order to preserve their innocence and stop them from growing up damaged by any negativity.

Fairy stories generally focused on rights and wrongs or good and evil in life. Magic often featured and good triumphed over evil more often than not. Psychoanalysts studied fairy tales and believed them to be important in that they could help children overcome difficulties in their lives and that the stories also reflected what goes on in children's minds. Fairy stories where often used to convey messages and morals to children in ways that where seen as suitable for them and could be used to teach them without being rigid and instructional. Over time fairy stories are often adapted and rewritten based on the beliefs of the time and to teach the morals people believed were necessary.

Early in the history of children's books a character such as a princess would be pretty and timid, most likely well behaved, pleasant and often in need of rescuing by a handsome prince. The prince would be successful in his mission, fall in love with and marry the princess and then they would live happily ever after. Any killing that was done would be brief and bloodless and generally not gone into other than to say something along the lines of 'the prince fought the dragon and slayed it'. This fitted in with the general beliefs about childhood at the time in that it was believed that children should be protected from the realities and hardships of the adult world and enjoy stories full of joy and goodness. Evil is always defeated and the stories had a happy ending. This kind of story was also full of the kind of stereotypes present at the time for example: that young girls are timid and polite, wear pretty dresses and need rescuing or help from men to get along in life and that all men are strong and brave. Today these types of stereotypes are seen as offensive and inaccurate by many people and it is believed that they can be a harmful influence on children's beliefs about themselves and others in society. Many people believe that if a child does not want to or cannot fit into these stereotyped roles it may lead to them feeling negatively about themselves. A princess in a modern day fairy tale may ride a motorbike and not be interested in boys or getting married and a prince may not be strong and brave and although he is a man still do what has in the past been seen as women’s work such as house cleaning, laundry and looking after other’s needs. Characters showing such a reversal in stereotypes and roles can found in Babette Cole's books Princess Smartypants and Prince Cinders. Both books also show that although you may not fit in or are different from your peers you can still be loved, triumph and have a happy ending in life. As life becomes more diverse these sorts of messages are seen as being good for children. More and more people believe that children are able to understand what is being put across and are very able to accept and deal with things in life that are difficult, controversial and difficult without the experience having a negative effect on them or their development.

As the 20th century continued although some people still worried about what subjects where suitable for children to be reading about and believed that they should be protected from anything that may harm or upset them, it has also become apparent that most children where in fact more competent than they had previously been given credit for and didn't need to be constantly protected and fussed over. People even started to believe that exposure to and learning about the adult world if carried out appropriately could be good for children, help and educate them and in some cases be a source of comfort and support to a child.

When it was published in 1996, the award winning teenagers fiction book Junk by Melvin Burgess was the focus of much heated debate around its suitability for children due to the story focusing on drugs and drug use. People protested that drugs had no place in a children's book and that children did not need their innocent minds and worlds tainted by knowing about drugs or people using them. In reality, sadly many children will experience drug use first hand either because a family member or friend is a user or because they have used drugs themselves. So not having drugs in any books they may of read hasn't protected them at all. Melvin Burgess wanted to show this reality and felt that perhaps his book would in fact benefit children, rather than harm them by

educating them about the hardships, damage and pain that can be caused by drug addiction as well as teaching people about how and why people fall into drug use. Rather than thinking that children should be protected and kept in the dark about an issue that is in fact already a reality for many children and their families he believed in telling them the truth and also that children were able to understand and cope with the books content without it being harmful to their developing minds.

Another author who isn't afraid to write stories for children that are realistic and relate to what is actually going on in many children's lives is Jacqueline Wilson. Despite her books being the subject of much controversy due their content she has sold over 25 million books in the Uk alone and won many awards for her writing. Like Melvin Burgess's Junk, Jacqueline Wilson writes books focusing on matters that many people still believe should be kept hidden from children but in fact many children face and live with every day such as divorce, domestic violence and death. Many children are able to identify with the characters in her books having experienced the issues raised within them or because they know someone who has. This can help them feel that they are not alone and reassure them about any worries they have about what will happen to them next in their lives. Having this reassurance can help them not to feel quite so negativity and that they have done something wrong or deserve the bad things that are happening to or around them.

Today more and more it is becoming more and more accepted that in fact children don't need protection from all aspects of the adult world and that based on their ages and abilities if they are taught and shown things that happen in life they can benefit. Research and experience has shown that rather than the knowledge damaging their development it may aid it and help them grow into better, stronger and more understanding and responsible adults.

© 2013 Claire

Related Articles