Masterpieces of Children’s Literature

Earlier this week, a reader used the words ‘masterpieces of children’s literature’ in a search engine, and as a result they came upon my blog. I’m not sure whether they went away disappointed, or if they found what they were looking for, because I’ve never really written about the broad scope of children’s literature here; it is my primary passion in life, and yet I’ve never actually gone into it in any detail.

In honour of that blog searcher, then, I’d like to write a little about children’s literature, its history and development, and some of the masterpieces of the genre.

I promise it won’t be boring. There’ll be blood and gore and highly inappropriate content, and everything. Sort of.

Is it just me, or is this really creepy? *shudder* Photo Credit: Stewart Leiwakabessy via Compfight cc</a

Is it just me, or is this really creepy? *shudder*
Photo Credit: Stewart Leiwakabessy via Compfight cc

So, it’s probably not news to anyone that the idea of ‘children’s literature’ didn’t really exist until the mid to late eighteenth century; before that, texts were written for children, of course, but they were without exception things like ‘horn books’, or primers to help them learn to read, primarily composed of Scripture excerpts and lessons. Early literature didn’t really distinguish between ‘adult’ readers and ‘child’ readers in the sense that nobody wondered whether kids would like to read stuff that appealed to their imaginations – in fact, it was precisely this sort of flightiness that literature for children sought to keep under wraps. Early writing for young readers was all about control and instruction. Even fairy tales (now considered the foundation of children’s literature) weren’t originally designed for child readers, and were sanitised thoroughly by nineteenth-century moralists to make them ‘suitable’, which is a shame.

I recently attended a lecture about children’s literature in which the speaker discussed Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift, as a story which is full of allusions to things kids wouldn’t have a clue about, like history, politics and sexuality but which is, nevertheless, for children. I was inclined to agree. A tale which deals with changing body size, the arbitrary nature of justice in a world you don’t understand, and being utterly lost, are all things familiar to anyone who loves to write or read children’s books, even now. It’s incredible to think it dates from the 1720s.

Throughout the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, texts and stories written with children in mind began to proliferate. However, they were heavy on the moralistic didacticism, and light on the fun. Swiss Family Robinson, published in 1812, is a great adventure story but it was designed to teach. At the Back of the North Wind, from 1868, is a good example of a story which is full of wonder and imagination, but also stuffed with the sickly-sweet idealisation of childhood; between its goody-two-shoes narrator and its puke-tastic ending, it wouldn’t last two seconds with a modern child reader. Little Women was also published in 1868, and it’s admittedly a masterpiece – but it’s also full of lessons, despite being as different from North Wind as it’s possible for two texts to be. I’m not really a fan of either.

Argh! Scary, no? Photo Credit: chicks57 via Compfight cc

Argh! Scary, no?
Photo Credit: chicks57 via Compfight cc

Oscar Wilde did a good job, in my opinion, of marrying the didacticism with wonderful stories. His fairy tales, including The Happy Prince, are still considered masterpieces – though, again, I’m not sure what modern children would make of them. They’re probably more appealing to adults, these days.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland dates, scarily, to 1865; it’s definitely a masterpiece, though it’s also stuffed full of lessons and allusions, not that you’d notice them because the story is so much fun. Considering that this was originally cooked up to keep three little girls amused on a summer’s afternoon, I think it definitely passes the ‘was this intended for children?’ test with flying colours. With Mark Twain and his The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, books about adventure which try to teach the world a lesson, as opposed to the children doing the reading, come into their own. I’m not sure how ground-breaking Huck’s relationship with Jim was perceived at the time these books were new, but I can guess that it was pretty spectacular. As the nineteenth century drew to a close we had stories like Kidnapped and Treasure Island and The Jungle Book, all of which are considered masterpieces of children’s literature but which, to me, illustrate the changes in taste between then and now; I’m not sure modern readers have the patience for such monumental works. Kipling’s Stalky & Co., from 1899, would probably be classed as ‘YA’ literature these days; slightly on the risqué side, the stories which make up this book were based on the author’s own recollections of his younger days.

The twentieth century saw Oz, which nobody can argue with; full of allusions and references which children might miss but their parents would not, it and its sequels are definitely masterpieces. The Wind in the Willows and The Reluctant Dragon, from Kenneth Grahame, and Winnie the Pooh from A. A. Milne still charm children today. E. Nesbit’s work, spanning the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is wonderful – The Story of the Treasure Seekers,The Railway Children and more. She influenced writers like Edward Eager whose novels mention some of her characters, entwining them with his own in a sort of ‘story-Otherworld’, which is fantastic. Eager’s The Time Garden is a charming children’s novel from the 1950s, which I love. Her Bastable children also turn up in C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, and her influence stretched as far as Diana Wynne Jones and other writers who place ordinary children into extraordinary, magic-tinged scenarios. Marjorie Phillips’ Annabel and Bryony, from 1953, is a sweet (if very old-fashioned) story about fairies which hasn’t aged as well as some of its contemporaries, but which is still beautiful. Alan Garner appeared as the 1960s dawned, and remains one of the towering greats of ‘children’s’ literature (even though he never actually defined himself as a writer for children); everyone should read The Weirdstone of BrisingamenThe Moon of Gomrath and Elidor, and that’s just for starters.

And… I should’ve guessed this would take up more than one blog post! The ‘Golden Age of Children’s Literature’ was considered to have taken place in the nineteenth century, but in some ways I think we’re living through it now. Since the mid-twentieth century, I think more masterpieces of children’s literature have been written than existed in the entirety of human culture up to that point, but there’s no room left in this post to talk about them.

I’m sure I’ve missed hundreds of books which others would consider masterpieces, and which I’ve either forgotten about or not managed to read yet. What would you add to the list of Children’s Literature Masterpieces?

8 thoughts on “Masterpieces of Children’s Literature

  1. Salubri

    Swallows and Amazons. Despite being a little heavy on “message” sometimes (and possibly a touch dated) they are some of the best children’s books ever written. (And heavy on sailing which will never go out of date).

  2. calmgrove

    I’ve always considered Kingsleys ‘Water-Babies’ a great if flawed masterpiece — didactic, moralising yes, but also loving, fantastic, vivid and even packing a green message in a most positive way. Don’t underrate the influence of Anderson, whose bittersweet tales must have influenced Wilde. And — much derided — Blyton who got so many children reading, and Uttley, Henry Treece and Geoffrey Trease, though I suppose these would all fall into a lesser pantheon (and Blyton banished beyond the Styx if some had their way).

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Excellent suggestions, all. It is a shame that Blyton’s reputation has had such a battering lately; she did certainly perform a miracle in terms of children’s literacy, and literature, and I’d like to be able to have a separate legacy for her work and her personal life, if such a thing were possible! I have never read any Uttley, Treece or Trease, so that will have to be remedied. 🙂 Thank you for helping me to round out my collection of wonderful children’s writers.

  3. E Smith

    found your blog by accident,a little behind times! The sequels to the enchanting (no pun intended) Annabel and Bryony were published 50 years later, they make a very powerful and still beautiful set,it’s a pity OUP didn’t continue with them at the time.

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Sorry for the delay in getting back to you! Wow – I had no idea there were sequels to Annabel and Bryony. I really will have to look them up. I think A&B is such a charming little story. Thank you so much for this! 🙂

      1. E Smith

        The sequels are:Annabel and Tawny,Annabel and Curlie,Annabel and the Blue Hills. There is an unpublished book Annabel and the underground House, and another which has been lost.
        They were published by the family at a small publishers called Curved Air press(which has now closed) so I think it is a case of haunting the second hand market. It would be worth it as each book builds the path to the next. Stuff in A&B makes sense reading the rest.Mrs Phillips obviously had a plan!

      2. SJ O'Hart Post author

        Yes – my edition of A & B is actually the Curved Air Press edition. Sorry to hear they have closed. Thanks so much for the names of the sequels; I really will make an effort to find them.

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