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Children's literature

    Basic Characteristics

    There is some debate as to what constitutes children's literature. Some would have it that children's literature is literature written specially for children, though many books that were originally intended for adults are now commonly thought of as works for children, for example Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper, or Huckleberry Finn. The opposite has also been known to occur, where works of fiction originally written or marketed for children are given recognition as adult books. Witness that in recent years, the prestigious Whitbread Awards were twice given to books marketed as children's books: Philip Pullman's The Amber Spyglass, and Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. The Nobel prize for literature has also been given to authors who made great contributions to children's literature, such as Selma Lagerlöf and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Often it is hard to reach consensus on the question of whether a certain book is a children's book or not, for example, The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien.
    Additionally, there is some debate as to whether or not non-fiction can be considered literature (and a separate debate over whether non-fiction should be called non-fiction or informational). While the ALSC has an award specifically for non-fiction, the Sibert Medal, non-fiction books have also very occasionally won the Newbery Medal, the premier children's book award in the United States (notably, Russell Freedman's 1988 Lincoln: A Photobiography).
    Many authors specialize in books for children. Other authors are more known for their writing for adults, but have also written books for children, such as Alexey Tolstoy's The Adventures of Burratino. In some cases, books intended for adults, such as Swift's Gulliver's Travels have been edited (or bowdlerized) somewhat, to make them more appropriate for children.
    Certain characteristics are shared by most works of fiction commonly acknowledged as children's literature, though for each characteristic there are dozens of counter-examples, making it difficult to define children's literature according to them. Works of children's literature often:
    • Have children as protagonists (counter examples: My Friend Mr. Leaky by J.B.S. Haldane is a children's book with an adult protagonist; The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger is an adult book with an adolescent protagonist)
    • Do not contain adult themes and are 'appropriate for children'. These are problematic criteria, as many children's literature specialists argue that any issue that children need to deal with (eg. eating disorders, rape, sexual abuse, heroin, prison, war, and FGM) are children's themes by definition and therefore appropriate; all have appeared in award-winning or critically-acclaimed children's and young adult books. (examples: Junk by Melvin Burgess, No Laughter Here by Rita Williams-Garcia)
    • Are relatively short (counter examples: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling)
    • Contain illustrations, in particular books intended for younger children (counter examples: many graphic novels are considered adult books, and many books for children contain illustrations)
    • Are written in simple language (counter examples: Skellig by David Almond)
    • Are plot-oriented with more dialogue and events, fewer descriptions and ruminations. (counter example: The Red Pony by John Steinbeck)
    • Deal with themes of growing up, coming to age and maturation (counter example: Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mister Fox)
    • Deal with social and behavioral issues, such as anger, or any of the 'inappropriate for children' themes mentioned above (counter example: Joan Aiken's Black Hearts in Battersea)
    • Are educational, or else contain tales of fantasy and adventure (counter example: A Crack in the Line by Michael Lawrence)
    • Have a happy end, in which good triumphs over evil. (counter examples: Katherine Paterson has written books with difficult if not unhappy endings, such as Bridge to Terabithia and The Great Gilly Hopkins, and Lois Lowry's The Giver ends ambiguously. in Lauren Myracle's Rhymes with Witches, evil wins)

    Publishers have attempted to further break down children's literature into subdivisions appropriate for different ages. In the United States, current practice within the field of children's books publishing is to break children's literature into pre-readers, early readers, chapter books, and young adults. This is roughly equivalent to the age groups 0-5, 5-7, 7-11 (sometimes broken down further into 7-9 and pre-teens), and books for teenagers. However, the criteria for these divisions are just as vague and problematic as the criteria for defining children's books as a whole. One obvious distinction is that books for younger children tend to contain illustrations, but Picture books which feature art as an integral part of the overall work also cross all genres and age levels. As a general rule the implied reader of a children's or young adult book is 1-3 years younger than the protagonist. (counter example: Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, not necessarily written for children, but co-opted by a child and young adult audience)


    Because of the difficulty in defining children's literature, it is also difficult to trace the history of children's literature to a precise starting point. In 1658 Jan Ámos Komenský published the illustrated informational book Orbis Pictus; it's considered to be the first picture book published specifically for children. John Newbery's 1744 publication of A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, sold with a ball for boys or a pincushion for girls, is considered a landmark for the beginning of pleasure reading marketed specifically to children. Previous to Newbery, literature marketed for children was intended to instruct the young, though there was a rich oral tradition of storytelling for children and adults; and many tales later considered to be inappropriate for children, such as the fairy tales of Charles Perrault, may have been considered family fare. Additionally, some literature not written with children in mind was given to children by adults. Among the earliest examples found in English of this co-opted adult fiction are Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur and the Robin Hood tales.


    The success of a book for children often prompts the author to continue the story in a sequel, or even to launch into an entire series of books. Some works are originally conceived as series: J. K. Rowling has always stated in interviews that her original plan was to write no fewer than seven books about Harry Potter, and some authors, such as the prolific Enid Blyton and R. L. Stine, seem incapable of writing a stand-alone book. In several cases, series have outlived their authors, whether publishers openly hired new authors to continue after the death of the original creator of the series (such was the case when Reilly and Lee hired Ruth Plumly Thompson to continue The Oz series after L. Frank Baum's death), or whether the pen name of the original author was retained as a brand-name-de-plum for the series (as with Franklin W. Dixon and the Hardy Boys series, Carolyn Keene and the Nancy Drew series, and V. C. Andrews and the Flowers in the Attic series).


    Some noted awards for children's literature are:
    • United States: the major awards are given by the American Library Association Association for Library Service to Children. They include the Newbery Medal for writing, Caldecott Medal for illustration, Sibert Medal for informational, Wilder Medal for impact over time, Batchelder Award for works in translation, Coretta Scott King Award for work by an African-American writer, and the Belpre Medal for work by a Latino writer.
    • United Kingdoms and Commonwealth: the Carnegie Medal for writing and the Kate Greenaway Medal for illustration; the Nestle Smarties Book Prize; and the Guardian Award.
    • Internationally: the Hans Christian Andersen Award

    Famous Works of Children's Fiction

    • Fairy tale collections are one of the earliest forms of published fiction that have never lost their charm for children, though several of the classic tales are gruesome and were not originally collected for children. Famous collectors and retellers of Fairy Tales include Charles Perrault, the brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen and Andrew Lang.

    • Struwwelpeter (1845) by Heinrich Hoffman (published in English as Slovenly Peter).

    • Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1864) by Lewis Carroll (the pen name of Oxford mathematician Charles Dodgson), a novel about a little girl who follows a white rabbit into a land where logical puzzles come to life, gained worldwide popularity in the Victorian era and is considered a seminal work of children's literature. It was succeeded by Through the Looking-Glass.

    • Max and Moritz (1865) by Wilhelm Busch.

    • The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) by L. Frank Baum, later expanded into a series of books which were tremendously popular in America during the first half of the twentieth century.

    • Just So Stories for Little Children (1902), by Rudyard Kipling, fantastical accounts of the origins of natural phenomena.

    • The Railway Children (1906), by E. Nesbit

    • Anne of Green Gables (1908) by L. M. Montgomery.

    • Peter and Wendy (1911) by J. M. Barrie (better known as Peter Pan)

    • Winnie the Pooh (1928) by A. A. Milne.

    • Mary Poppins (1934) by Pamela Travers, and sequels.

    • Five on a Treasure Island (1942) by Enid Blyton, and sequels

    • Goodnight Moon (1947) by Margaret Wise Brown

    • The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950) by C. S. Lewis, and sequels.

    • Charlotte's Web (1952) by E. B. White, about a spider who befriends a pig and saves him from being slaughtered.

    • The Cat in the Hat (1957) by Dr. Seuss

    • The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960) by Alan Garner

    • Where the Wild Things Are (1964) by Maurice Sendak

    • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) by Roald Dahl, a novel about a young boy who receives a once-in-a-lifetime chance to visit the near-magical Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. It was succeeded by Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. Other children's books by Roald Dahl include James and the Giant Peach, Fantastic Mr Fox, and The Witches (winner of the 1983 Whitbread Award) and Matilda.

    • A Wizard of Earthsea (1968) by Ursula K. Le Guin, and sequels.

    • Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (1997) by J. K. Rowling, and sequels.

    See also

    External links