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Children’s literature is any literature that is enjoyed by children. More specifically, children’s literatura comprises those books written and published for young people who are not yet interested in adult literatura or who may not possess the reading skills or developmental understandings necessary for its perusal.
In addition to books, children’s literature also includes magazines intended for pre-adult audiences.
The age range for children’s literature is from infancy through the stage of early adolescence, which roughly coincides with the chronological ages of twelve through fourteen. Between that literatura most appropriate for children and that most appropriate for adults lies young adult literature. Usually young adult literature is more mature in content and more complex in literary structure than children’s literature.
Most of the literary genres of adult literature appear in children’s literature as well. Fiction in its various forms—contemporary realism, fantasy and historical fiction, poetry, folk tales, legends, myths, and epics—all have their counterparts in children’s literature. Nonfiction for children includes books about the arts and humanities; the social, physical, biological, and earth sciences; and biography and autobiography. In addition, children’s books may take the form of picture books in which visual and verbal texts form an interconnected whole. Picture books for children include storybooks, alphabet books, counting books, wordless books, and concept books.
Literature written specifically for an audience of children began to be published on a wide scale in the seventeenth century. Most of the early books for children were didactic rather than artistic, meant to teach letter sounds and words or to improve the child’s moral and spiritual life. In the mid-1700s, however, British publisher John Newbery (1713– 1767), influenced by John Locke’s ideas that children should enjoy reading, began publishing books for children’s amusement. Since that time there has been a gradual transition from the deliberate use of purely didactic literature to inculcate moral, spiritual, and ethical values in children to the provision of literature to entertain and inform. This does not imply that suitable literature for children is either immoral or amoral. On the contrary, suitable literatura for today’s children is influenced by the cultural and ethical values of its authors. These values are frequently revealed as the literary work unfolds, but they are a means to an end, not an end in themselves.
Authors assume a degree of intelligence on the part of their audience that was not assumed in the past.
In this respect, children’s literature has changed dramatically since its earliest days.
Another dramatic development in children’s literatura in the twentieth century has been the picture book. Presenting an idea or story in which pictures and words work together to create an aesthetic whole, the picture book traces its origin to the nineteenth century, when such outstanding artists as Randolph Caldecott, Kate Greenaway, and Walter Crane were at work. In the 1930s and 1940s such great illustrators as Wanda Gag, Marguerite de Angeli,
James Daugherty, Robert Lawson, Dorothy Lathrop, Ludwig Bemelmans, Maud and Miska Petersham, and Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire began their work. Many of these and other equally illustrious artists helped to bring picture books to their present position of prominence. Since 1945 many highly talented illustrators have entered this field.
With the advent of computer-based reproduction techniques in the latter part of the twentieth century, the once tedious and expensive process of full color reproduction was revolutionized, and now almost any original media can be successfully translated into picture book form. Although many artists continue to work with traditional media such as printmaking, pen and ink, photography, and paint, they have been joined by artists who work with paper sculpture, mixed media constructions, and computer graphics.
The changes in literature for older children have been equally important. Among the early and lasting contributions to literature for children were Works by Jack London, Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Hans Christian Andersen. These writers, however, considered adults their major audience; therefore, they directed only some of their literary efforts toward young readers. Today, large numbers of highly talented authors have turned to younger readers for an audience and direct most, if not all, of their writings to them.
Another major change in publishing for children has been the rise in multicultural children’s literature.
Prior to the mid-twentieth century the world depicted in children’s books was largely a white world. If characters from a nonwhite cultura appeared in children’s books they were almost always badly stereotyped. The civil rights movement alerted publishers and the reading public to the need for books that depicted the America of all children, not just a white majority. Although the percentage of children’s books by and about people of color does not equate with their actual population numbers, authors of color such as Virginia Hamilton, Mildred Taylor, Alma Flor Ada, Walter Dean Myers, Gary Soto, and Laurence Yep, and illustrators such as Allen Say, Ed Young, John Steptoe, Jerry Pinkney, and Brian Pinkney have made major contributions to a more multiculturally balanced world of children’s books.
Not only are there larger numbers of talented writers and artists from many cultures at work for children, but the range of subject matter discussed in children’s fiction has also been extended remarkably.
Topics that were considered taboo only a short time ago are being presented in good taste. Young nearly true than ever before that children may explore life through literature readers from ten to fourteen can read well-written fiction that deals with death, child abuse, economic deprivation, alternative life styles, illegitimate pregnancy, juvenile gang warfare, and rejected children.
By the early twenty-first century it had become more nearly true than ever before that children may explore life through literature.