In spite of competition from video games and ebooks, print publishing continues to thrive, especially with books for children. In 2014, US sales reached $1.89 billion, and continue to grow.
But children’s literature is a relatively new phenomenon in book publishing. Books written specifically for children began to be printed in the 18th Century, and by the 19th Century, children’s literature – and a concept of childhood that supported the market – had become commonplace for those families that could afford it. Now, there are books for toddlers, babies and preschoolers – everyone in the family.
But these books were severely moralistic in tone and instilled the idea that the perfect child was respectful, innocent and unspoiled. Such children did not behave in any manner that a parent or nanny would have recognized.
They were role models rather than realistic characters. That changed with the times, and children’s literature today covers a vast range of styles, from gritty reality to enchanting flights of fancy. Of all the children’s authors that have helped to reinvent the genre over the years, five remarkable talents stand out.
In the late 19th Century, fantasy was strictly segregated from reality, with writers such as Lewis Carroll, who sublimated his imaginings into a young girl’s dream, or the well loved Kenneth Grahame, who channeled his whimsical observations of humanity into animal characters.
This was considered acceptable for children. But working quietly behind the scenes was a brilliant rebel who would change children’s literature forever. Edith Nesbit was never very conventional. She raised her husband’s two illegitimate children as her own, never took her husband’s name, and was a committed socialist.
The books she wrote for children include Five Children and It, The Railway Children and other famous titles. Nesbit is credited with inventing the children’s adventure story, in which ordinary children from ordinary working class backgrounds get embroiled in exciting adventures with fantasy characters – quite a radical concept at the time.
She was described by Gore Vidal as “the best of the English fabulists who wrote about children, after Lewis Carroll”. Perhaps even better than Carroll, as she never disappointed her readers with the words, “It was all a dream.”
In the 1970s, the whole world was starting to change, as previously unrepresented groups such as ethnic and sexual minorities began to demand a greater say in their destinies.
With the release of her first children’s novel, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, Blume gave a voice to young, repressed preteens, and that voice expressed all kinds of opinions and anxieties on matters never discussed in children’s literature, such as divorce, sex and menstruation. It was raw, honest and shocking, and kids loved it.
Blume continued to write for kids of different age groups, addressing their real concerns and not the things adults thought they should be worrying about. She broke new ground and was a true revolutionary of children’s literature.
This British writer of fantasy said he never actually wrote for children – he wrote for himself, and children enjoyed reading his books.
Children were also his main characters. In his first two books, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, were pretty much straight adventure fantasy, about two children who discover another world existing on Alderley Edge (an area of Cheshire where Garner lives).
Later he produced novels such as Red Shift and The Owl Service, which were more edgy and experimental, but no less loved by his young fans. What Garner did to revolutionise children’s literature was to understand that many children have a far more sophisticated reading ability than was previously suspected. He offered the voracious appetites of his readers brain food – and they gobbled it up.
The Roald Dahl revolution is best summed up by his own words – “Parents and schoolteachers are the enemy.” In the war between the generations, Dahl aligned himself solidly with the kids.
He revolutionised children’s literature by allowing his child characters to be gross, witty, insulting and cheeky – and to always get the better of the generally stupid adults.
His most famous book is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and the movies made from his books show how he has managed to even infiltrate the sticky sweet world of children’s movies, including hits like James and the Giant Peach and Matilda.
The British author and creator of the Harry Potter novels did not exactly revolutionise the children’s book genre at first. The boarding school setting was a familiar one to most British readers, with the magical elements an added treat.
What Rowling did with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (The Sorcerer’s Stone in the USA) was revolutionise reading all over again. Teachers, parents and librarians had long lamented that video games and rented home movies had sounded a death knell to reading.
Kids just didn’t like books anymore. Then along came Harry, and suddenly kids were reading again. Rowling’s books opened the floodgates for other authors, mainly of fantasy.
All of these five children’s writers gave the lie to beliefs that children should only be fed safe, moralistic material, that their understanding of complex themes and ideas was limited, and that they never gave a thought to matters that were believed to be adult domains. They also give the lie to the belief that the book is dead. No doubt future children’s writers will continue to challenge the genre and keep it alive.