Three questions about the history of children’s books

It is necessary to distinguish between the so-called “children’s books” and those that constitute “children’s and young adult literature”. It would take centuries to pass from the first to the second, and this literature would then continue to change. Let’s lay out some of the highlights of this complex story, which we’d be forgiven for simplifying in this way.

The first texts to be placed in the hands of children are school “tools”, introductory writings, excerpts from literary works … This has existed since ancient times. Children are also fed by oral literature of mythological tales and fables. The Middle Ages would produce the same kind of texts that would become books, first manuscripts, and then printed.



Read more: What were the first children’s books like?


The first book written for a fifteen-year-old and his younger brother between 841 and 843 at Uzis by Dhoda, Duchess of Septimania, is entitled guide for my son (Translated by Pierre Ricci, 1975). This mother wrote this book to make her son an ideal Christian aristocrat: It is a civic and religious educational guide. from thirteenAnd In the last century, one will also find didactic works written by ordinary people for their children, religious books are clearly intended for them: “Hours for girls” or “for boys”, also “Psalms for children”.

When does children’s literature appear?

In fiction that produces morals to be inculcated in childhood, the role of Aesop’s fables must be noted. from the fifteenthAnd century, we printed a small text, in large letters and wooden symbols, a text translated into French, for famous readers and a childlike public, which was not the only goal of these early publishers. Note, however, an Inconapola printed in Lyon in 1484 which bears the marks of capture by the child who drew the book and commented on it.

The wolf and the fox, Aesop’s fables, preceded by his life, translated from Latin into French by Brother Julian, from Augustine of Lyon, 1484.
BNF, GalicaAnd Introduction by the author

in the sixteenthAnd and the seventeenthAnd Centuries, the stock of children’s books, scholastic, religious, moral, and fictional, continues to expand until the advent of literature for young people.

The birth of this literature occurred in France in two stages, at the end of the seventeenth centuryAnd And the middle of the eighteenthAnd a century. We will mention only the first stage, which foretells children’s literature about princely education and literary games in the salons, while the second stage will widely distribute children’s books by authors increasingly specialized in writing for a young audience.

Two names symbolizing the first stage: Fénelon and Perrault. François de Salineac de la Motte Fenelon (1651-1715) published in 1687 his A message in girls’ educationin which it is recommended, so that children want to learn to read, for

Tell them amusing things from a book in their presence […]. Give them a good book, golden even on the edge, with beautiful pictures and well-formed characters. Everything that delights the imagination makes studying easy: try to choose a book full of short and wonderful stories […] “.

Adventures of Telemachus by Fenelon Decorated with engraved figures modeled on designs by C.Monnet, the King’s painter, by Jean Baptiste Tilliard.
INHA, Agustin de Saint-Aubin / Wikimedia

In 1689, he became tutor to the seven-year-old Duke of Burgundy and to his brothers, the six-year-old Duke of Anjou and the three-year-old Duke of Berry, grandsons of Louis XIV. Then he wrote them a literature graded by age. For the little ones he produces tales and fables from them A trip to the island of pleasures (Fables, VIII), one of the archetypes of tales of gluttony, with an island made of sugar, mountains of compote and rivers of brew, and the sleeper awakes at night on the ground vomiting “boiling streams of foamy chocolate”.

After that he narrates the lives of the philosophers (Summary of the lives of the ancient philosophersHe writes imaginary interviews between great men.conversations of the deadThus, she studies history and morals, and ends with the first novel for teenagers in our literature, which is Adventures of Telemachus (1699). He chose the novel to gently seduce his pupil, thus circumventing the character of the proud and quick-tempered Duke of Burgundy. If the Télémaque was a great success in bookshops, this building of children’s and adolescent literature still initially fell into a private princely education.

Illustration to the Tales of My Mere l’Oye, dating from 1695.
Morgan Library / Wikimedia

Charles Perrault scores for him Mother Goose tales (1697) in a literary salon game for adults, as Madame de Olney did in her collection of 1697 and 1698. Nevertheless, these two authors formally demonstrated a desire to reach a child audience. Perrault, in his 1695 introduction, advised fathers to wrap hard facts “in acceptable accounts proportionate to twice their ages”. He appears to have carefully observed the children’s reactions.

As for Madame de Olney, to put herself within reach of children, she uses a style often described as silly and childish. But Perrault’s tales and Madame de Olney’s tales have effectively become part of children’s literary heritage.

Who are the first children’s publishers?

From the middle of the eighteenthAnd Century, really books for children are authors and booksellers in the process of specialization. It is a matter of introducing children’s fictional literature, and for this, new authors have created children’s characters: Madame Leprince de Beaumont, Madame de Ebenai, Madame de Genlis, Arnaud Berquin.

In fifty years, great progress has been made in the quality of observation of children, in thinking in psychology and in education. This led to an editorial frenzy to publish a large number of children’s books, as noted in 1787, at the Leipzig Gallery, the German language teacher, L.F. Gedike.

But this is not enough to create large specialized publishers. For this, we have to wait for the first third of the nineteenth century.And Century, with two publishers specializing in children’s books who were also authors, Pierre Blanchard (1772-1856) and Alexis Blaise Emery (1774-1854). However, their economic and industrial base is still rather weak, and a little later the role of publishers leaves their mark in the children’s book market.

Rowan the book and the child 1700-1900Armel Sentells.
ENS . versions

While new literature for young people was invented in the 1830s, the Guizot Act of June 28, 1833, increased education and thus the number of child readers. To this growing demand for children’s books, there is first of all an “industrial” response, which is mainly due to the Catholic regional publishing houses, some of which are already in the Ancien Régime (Barbou in Limoges, Mame in Tours, Lefort in Lille, Mégard in Rouen, Périsse in Lyon, Aubanel in Avignon, Douladoure in Toulouse) or appeared in the first trimester of 19And century (Ardant in Limoges, in 1804, Lehuby in Paris succeeded Blanchard in 1833).

These houses create libraries for young people, employ thousands of workers, equip themselves with modern machines and concentrate all tasks – printing, binding, illustration. Mammy in 1855 had 1,500 workers and was tying 10 to 15,000 volumes per day. Migard produced six million volumes during the Second Empire, while Mami produced the same number annually. In 1862, six regional publishers, Migard, Barbeau, Ardant, Peres, Mammy, and Lefor, published nearly ten million volumes. Parisian houses do not have such productions, but they are more creative in terms of literary quality and the groups created.

The journal was created by Louis Hachette Children’s Week in 1857 and Bibliothèque rose Illustrée in 1858. Hetzel published the first issue of Education and entertainment store in 1864. The big names in children’s literature were published in Paris, Comtesse de Ségur with Hachette, Jules Verne with Hetzel, and many others. This distortion between the regional publishing world and the world of Paris is accompanied by debates about what a children’s book should be.

Were these early children’s books intended to entertain or educate children?

Discussions about children’s books draw on different ideological positions and visions of childhood. For Catholic publishers, it is a matter of forming young people in Christian values ​​according to the vision of passive childhood and youth to be saved through their formation through education and through readings approved by the episcopate.



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Pierre-Jules Hetzel professes his contempt for this kind of industrial literature, with authors paying for the quantity of books, and works which he considers “without taste or fragrance, these flat and flat books, these stupid books, I want to say a word, to whom it seems the undeserved privilege of being first Who speaks to what is the finest, finer, and subtler in the world, to the imagination and to the hearts of children” (Preface to Louis Ratisbon, kids comedyHetzel, 1860).

Children’s Week, Miss Lily at the Tuileries.
Lorenz Frolich / Wikimedia

at Stal’s albumsHetzel shows young children cartoons full of tenderness by Frölich, and moreover, by publishing Jules Verne, he introduces teens to a scent of adventure and exotic lands. For her part, Hachette, by publishing the Countess of Segur, does not always give a representation of the good and pious children, but goes so far as to present to her young readers the awful children, whose exploits Trim tells us with illustrations by Bertal, in albums for ages three to six years. And so we begin to pay attention to the youngest.

We even go so far as to design custom-displayed “children’s” books in the 1860s, knowing that the term borrowed from English “baby” relates to young children, not infants. We note attempts in periodicals for children between 1862 and 1878, and the publisher Théodore Lefevre, writing under the pseudonym of Madame Dudette, publishes “Bibliothèque de Bébé”, with twenty titles between 1871 and 1900, intended for children as young as four. to eight. We also started using the phrase “books for young children,” which would become the majority after World War I. But it’s only in the second half of XXAnd The century in which “real” children will have the right to their books.

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