Tom suffers cruel treatment and harsh working conditions all without the love or care of a family. Hope comes when Tom is transformed into a water baby and finally gets the shelter and affection he needs from the magical Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby. Books such as The Water Babies clearly highlighted the need for social reform in the lives and childhoods of such children and gradually the romantic discourse gained popularity and momentum during the end of 19th century which continued into the 20th century.
The influence of the romantic model can also be seen in children’s literature of the 20th century with the rise in popularity of rural adventure stories. These were directed at all age groups from, Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) by A. A. Milne for younger children to Anne of Green Gables (1908) by L. Montgomery, and the Secret Seven, by Enid Blyton (1949-1963) with older children as lead characters. In The Secret Garden, 1911, by Frances H. Burnett and Tom’s Midnight Garden, 1958, by Philippa Pearce, the garden is a metaphoric symbol of a sheltered natural environment to nurture the innocence and growth of the children.
Romantic ideals can clearly be seen in the innocence and natural goodness of the lead characters set against the idyllic country settings which aimed to engage and entertain children while demonstrating subtle moralistic values in line with the Romantic model. Alternative literature was also still available during this time, particularly among religious groups, who felt the focus of literature should remain didactic, primarily for teaching and correcting sinful children.
For example, the bestselling History of the Fairchild Family, told the story of a little girl ‘brought up without the fear of God’ who dies in an accidental fire, the consequence of her unrestrained and unreligious upbringing. First printed in 1818, it stayed in print until the early 20th century, reflecting how some sections of society remained firm upon the Puritanical model of childhood. Technological advances and economic potential of books in the late 20th century, coupled with promotion of reading by educationalists saw a massive increase in books published for children.
The didactic purpose of books, in particular issues of racism, sexism, religious and sexual orientation were hotly debated during this time period. These debates notably affected children’s literature as recent authors have attempted to challenge traditional values and themes in children’s books, for example, having protagonists from a wider variety of backgrounds, or exploring children’s anger and emotions as in Where The Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak (1963) or in the case of Princess Smartypants by Babette Cole (1988) challenging stereotypical and gendered female roles.
Such literature attempts to depict and promote a childhood based on equality and tolerance, questioning social or cultural norms or restrictions. While fantasy and magic have long been disapproved of by strict religious groups, recent children’s literature has also included highly controversial and challenging themes such as teenage drug use in Junk (1996) and teenage sex in Lady: My Life as a Bitch (2001), both by Melvin Burgess.
Such books would have been unthinkable during the Puritanical dominated 16th century for being unreligious and explicit and even during the romantically focused 17th and 18th centuries for exposing young readers to adult issues and themes, from which they should be protected. However they attract attention today as they aim to reflect of the uncomfortable truths and realities of modern-day society, which some parents will feel are appropriate themes for teenagers.
As more books containing controversial themes gain popularity and attention, current children’s literature can be seen to reflect a more liberal and modernistic attitude to childhood apparent within society. In conclusion children’s literature is a good reflection of popular attitudes towards childhood at the time of print. As new theories and ideas about childhood emerged, children’s literature also changed to accommodate and promote these ideals. Notably, all literature conveys a message or moral undertone, weather subtle or direct. The earliest books for children reflected the puritanical model of childhood dominant in the 17th century.
A significant change can be seen in the 18th century books of John Newbery who was influenced by the concept of childhood as a ‘blank slate’, as theorised by John Locke. His books promoted a kind and loving upbringing for children who were nurtured through enjoyment and encouragement. The mid-18th century Romantic Movement had a highly significant impact and Romantic ideals of a pure and innocent childhood, free from dangers and harsh realities of life have been traceable in children’s literature since the 18th century and are still dominant today.
Contemporary literature has attempted to promote equality and tolerance in childhood and has also pushed the boundaries of traditional fiction. Like the social reformers of the 18th and 19th century, modern writers such as Melvin Burgess have shown how children’s literature plays an important part not only in portraying and promoting ideals, but also in questioning and debating social attitudes and ideas about children and childhood.
Word count – 1714 References 1. Hall, C. (2003) ‘Children’s literature’, in Kehily, M.J. and Swann, J. (eds. ) Children’s Cultural Worlds, Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd. in association with the Open University, pp. 133-182 2. The Open University (2003) U212, Childhood, Video 3, Band 5, ‘Children reading’, Milton Keynes: The Open University 3. The Open University (2003) U212, Childhood, Video 3, Band 6, ‘Storytelling’, Milton Keynes: The Open University 4. The Open University (2003) U212, Childhood, Audio 5, Band 5, ‘Writing for children’, Milton Keynes: The Open University.