An Overview of Children's Literature

The inner life of children is rich and fantastic. Young people are naturally interested in good stories and creative use of words, such as in the rhythm of poetry. They are the best listeners to stories, and the most critical ones, too. In addition, children are inherently creative and possess their very own literature of rhymes, songs, and stories. All children who lead a normal childhood are exposed to some form of child literature, oral or written, ages old or shining new.

The early words

Babies are surrounded by sounds they cannot make out the meaning of as yet. Big persons around them will talk incomprehensibly amongst themselves and to the baby. They also use language actively to soothe or excite the young creature, by lulling it to sleep with song or by amusing it with nonsensical nursery rhymes. These two genres are created specially for very young children.

Lullabies exist in every culture of the world. Their primary function is getting a child to sleep, and so are all slow, melodious and calm. Some consist solely of euphonious words, others are pieces of sheer poetry. Some lullabies contain wishes for the child when (and if) it grows up, a good many lament the sorrows of the world, possibly to avert the evil eye from the child.

Nursery rhymes are more boisterous affairs. They are often accompanied by hand or body movements, and are sometimes sung. Their morals, or lack of them, shows that they are not really meant to be understood by the child. They can be sad, pitiless or brim full of sex and politics.

The private world of the child

All normal children are born with an inherent ability to express themselves in a language. From its first babble, a child contributes to the creative process that being human is. As children grow older, they teach and learn bits of the great literary canon of children's oral tradition - counting-out rhymes, song games, jokes, ghost stories and many other types that often aren't even shared with adults.

Children's versions of these genres are often very different from the adult ones. They tend to find different things funny or scary. Without a proper understanding of sexuality, for example, they will retell raunchy jokesin their own way, making up their own punchlines. So-called irrational fears, of ghosts, burglars or monsters, make them appreciate ghost stories properly, with the required amount of belief in the scary.

Paper fairies

Although children are good at telling stories among themselves, they're always eager to get adults to share the wealth of their minds. Tell me a story is a demand that resounds through the ages. Children have listened while elders have told, tales, fables and legends, to teach them something about the world or just to entertain.

Children would learn ethics and rules for good conduct, why the world is as it is and let their imagination grow along with the colourful beanstalks of words.

A powerful educational tool in traditional societies, tales told by the hearth gradually fell out of fashion in the upper classes of Western society. Lies and dreams, they decided, could only be damaging for a child. It should rather be exposed to facts and religious teachings. Books intended for children were, in the beginning, made according to this teaching, both boring and uninspiring. Luckily things would change dramatically.

Charles Perrault was the first who put fairy tales in print for children. He mangled a lot of tales quit badly in order to insert a moral of his liking in them, but he also brought the tales into the limelight, which is a good thing. By collecting traditional tales and doctoring them to make them more acceptable to the tender ears of children, he started a tradition which people like the Brothers Grimm would carry on to glorious heights.

Another innovator in children's literature was John Newbery. This English publisher was the first who produced interesting and beautiful picture books for children on a large scale. His books still mostly tried to teach something, but they also had a clear entertaining function. At about the same time, authors like Daniel Defoe and Sir Walter Scott created novels of adventure and supense. These works were apppreciated by adults as well as children, but the development of exciting books for children had begun. Louisa May Alcott's Little Women was the first in a genre of books that taught good manners to young girls. Her contemporary, but opposite Lewis Carroll introduced the weird and whimsical into the world of children. The modern counterpart for this tradition can be found in the wacky and wonderful Roald Dahl. These two aimed to divert without preaching, valuing the imaginative spirit of the child.

The Future

The market of children's literature has exploded since scientists discovered that kids are people, too. There are so many books now, some good, others not so good. Children's books have reached a new popularity among adults with Harry Potter, the immensely popular series that can be read by all ages.

At the same time, other activities clamour for children's attention, primarily television shows and computer or video games. I do not know whether they are good or bad for the imagination, but they are definitely different from the broad category of what we call children's literature.

Certainly, children are bombarded from all direcions by entertainment, information and commercials. Hopefully, they themselves will be able to pick what is best for them. There are children's classics that never grow boring and books that are forgotten the next year. Children's literature is a vivid, ever changing field, but one feature remains: It has to contain a good story.

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