Children's and Adolescent Literature

views updated


At the end of a long, hard-fought war, Britain's American colonies became an independent, self-governed nation, the United States of America. British recognition of this new reality, however, was equivocal. At war with Napoleon, Britain intervened in U.S. sea trade and impressed American sailors (calling them deserters from Britain's navy) into service on British ships. The United States declared war on Britain in 1812.

While the War of 1812 had only minor political and territorial effects, it transformed the American psyche. It loosed a powerful nationalism, which colored all of American social history in the first half of the nineteenth century. Americans were aggressively proud of their country, eager to underscore their differences from—and superiority to—the Old World, in particular of course, Britain.

American children's literature was born of this fervent nationalism. While books for children existed in the earliest settlements in America, most were instructional—primers, catechisms, spelling books, geographies, and the like. Storybooks were few and almost always imported, principally from England. By 1820, however, these arrangements seemed unsatisfactory. When nineteenth-century Americans contemplated the future, pride and anxiety alike told them that the Republic's survival depended upon the moral character of the next generation and that sound republican values could not be learned from the literature of old, class-ridden societies. There must be an American literature for American children.

What publishers provided—quite promptly—fell into roughly three categories: schoolbooks, Sunday school books, and nonschool fiction. Differences among them were superficial until at least 1850. All might impart useful knowledge, but the strongest motive in any literature for children, school or non-school, fiction or nonfiction, was moral instruction: reading must improve the reader. Children's books of all kinds purveyed a Protestant, conventional moralism, with sectarian divisions blurred to ensure broad salability and difficult political and social problems evaded for the same reason. The intended audience was Protestant, literate but not highly educated, and middle class—which is to say, it was most Americans of the time.


Unquestionably the strongest influence on early American children's fiction was the work of Maria Edgeworth (1767–1849), often called the first English classic writer for children. Edgeworth's popular tales for children matched the American taste for realistic narrative and clear moral messages. Daughter of the educational theorist Richard Edgeworth, she shared her father's views on child nurture, advocating firm but gentle discipline, rational explanation, and reading taught through realistic, morally instructive stories entertainingly written. Their theories, set out in an essay jointly produced, Practical Education (1798), had great influence on American thinking about children and the literature written for them. The eldest of her father's numerous children (by four wives), Maria was deeply involved in all aspects of their upbringing, including reading. The Parent's Assistant (1796), a collection of stories she wrote for her step-siblings, became a landmark of moralistic literature for children and the premier model for early American writers of juvenile fiction. Though Maria's stories were indeed entertaining, their justification lay in their moral instructiveness. No author before mid-century recommended fiction purely for entertainment; in fact, fanciful tales were suspect. Authors understood that. "When I tell you stories of things that never happened," one told his child readers in 1836, "my real design is to give you lessons of importance" (Goodrich, Peter Parley's Book of Fables, p. 6).

Fiction provided models of both the moral character Americans wanted in their children and of the child nurture that would produce it. Teaching by example rather than precept (though the books were full of precepts) and by explanation rather than punishment and encouraging children to review their mistakes and learn from them—these were the recommended methods. Children's stories opposed corporal punishment and, except for a few produced by sectarian presses, did not hold that children were born sinful. For all the moral seriousness of these works, they were rarely harsh in their approach to children. American authors wrote to instruct children, certainly, but also to tutor parents in gentle (though firm) child nurture.

It was not an exciting literature, nor was it meant to be. After all, a great many Americans of the time disapproved of fiction for any reader because it was "untrue." Only a moral mission justified writing stories for children, and authors embraced that mission to the exclusion of most other elements of fiction. Staid, domestic tales centered on child, parent, and the small transactions of a middle-class family life dominated the literature at least until mid-century.

The market for children's books proved good, as it was for most print. Literacy rates were high in the nineteenth century thanks to the common schools, and reading was by far the most available form of both education and entertainment for Americans. In the course of the first half of the century, the nature of reading and of its public changed greatly. As access to print expanded, reading shifted from intensive—reading a few books many times over (in America, the Bible)—to extensive, that is, wider reading with fewer iterations. And the reading public was no longer an economic or educational elite but as broad as the literate population—which was very broad indeed. The 1840 census put overall American literacy at 78 percent; for whites, 91 percent. Though children's literature had a special mission, it also was simply part of the larger picture.


If readers were eager and available, so were writers. While it was nearly impossible until the last decades of the nineteenth century for an author to make a living "by the pen," writing could eke out a skimpy income from other sources: thus the goodly number of women and clergymen who wrote for every kind of publication—book or magazine, for child or adult readers. For women, authorship was a welcome addition to the short list of occupations open to them. And despite conventional opinion, there were many who needed to make their own way—women who were single or inadequately supported, widowed, or divorced. (Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey's Lady's Book, and Sara Parton, a.k.a. "Fanny Fern," an immensely popular columnist for the New York Ledger, were both divorced.) Clergymen and schoolmasters, reasonably well educated but badly paid, also seized their opportunities. As a group, writers for children were white, Protestant, educated, middle-class, and usually of the Northeast.

Most children's authors of the pre–Civil War period are long forgotten, though a literary historian might recognize the name Jacob Abbott (1803–1879). A respected educator, Abbott flourished in a second career as an author of didactic fiction for children. Probably his best-known publications were twenty-eight books about Rollo (1832–) as he grew from age five to near-adulthood. Rollo's family life, education, and moral development were models for American families to emulate. As tastes changed toward the end of the century, the Rollo stories became scorned examples of a preachy, outdated literature, but in the antebellum period they were not only typical but popular. Later, and more fun, were Abbott's 1850s Franconia stories. In these he was still teaching but less to adults and more to children, where his gifts as a teacher shone.

Probably the most financially successful children's author of the period was Samuel Griswold Goodrich, "Peter Parley" (1793–1860)—tireless author, publisher, and compiler of fiction, textbooks, histories, mythologies, astronomy books, geographies, and two periodicals for children, all overpoweringly moralistic. Goodrich was an exception to the rule; he did make a good living producing works for children. Some 170 titles, about 7 million of them sold by 1856, made him a wealthy man. But however popular and financially rewarding, Goodrich's work was all "slip-slop," according to Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864). And indeed, in his 1856 Recollections of a Lifetime, Goodrich himself acknowledged that he had not written for the ages: "I have written too much and done nothing really well" (2:333–334) he said mournfully (and accurately).

It was a little ungrateful of Hawthorne to be so critical. Goodrich published some of Hawthorne's early stories in his family annual the Token, hired him to compile material for Peter Parley's Universal History (1837), and commissioned him to write other works well before the young author's success as a serious novelist. Hawthorne awoke to the possibilities of the children's literary market and wrote four historical works for children, Grandfather's Chair, Famous Old People, The Liberty Tree, and Biographical Stories for Children, all published between 1840 and 1842, but they did not make him rich. The Scarlet Letter, which did make Hawthorne's name if not his fortune, was not published until 1850. In 1852 and 1853, respectively, he brought out two children's books still well known, A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys and Tanglewood Tales for Girls and Boys. Here he rewrote selected Greek myths in nineteenth-century style—that is to say, moralistically and sentimentally, befitting contemporary taste. It was Hawthorne's version of the King Midas story, for example, in which the wretched king turns his daughter into gold and so repents his greed. (In the classic version, the gods' gift makes it impossible for him to eat and he begs to be released.) Even with their coating of moralism, though, Hawthorne's retold myths lifted children's fiction out of the narrow prison of the usual instructive story. These tales survived well beyond the nineteenth century for the same reason the myths themselves have survived—they were interesting.

Yet it would be a mistake to think that children did not read the more standard fare written for them. Most young readers had little to choose from. Public libraries were still in the future, and while itinerant peddlers always carried children's books, few families—let alone children—had money to buy them. Only the Sunday school library regularly provided books, especially in the early decades. The American Sunday-School Union (ASSU), representing all the major Protestant sects, poured out small, well-illustrated books of didactic fiction, supplying Sunday schools all over the nation. The books were deter-minedly nonsectarian. A Committee of Publication reviewed every manuscript to avoid sectarian—and all other—controversy, producing books that were thoroughly moralistic, doctrinally bland, and widely acceptable. Since the Sunday school library was the only source of books for many children, child readers in the early nineteenth century certainly read them; the ASSU was a major publisher for children right up to the Civil War.

Samuel G. Goodrich made a career of children's literature at a time when American juvenile literature was in its infancy. He was a publisher, editor, and author of schoolbooks, children's periodicals, and books of fiction. In the absence of more systematic data, his estimates of the expansion of the children's book field in America are generally accepted. In his Recollections of a Lifetime (1856), he says that in 1820 only 30 percent of all books published in America were authored by Americans; 70 percent were by British authors. By 1850 that balance had been reversed, largely because of the huge production of schoolbooks by American authors. He gives no figures for children's fiction, but the pattern seems to have been much the same. Goodrich's memoirs of his thirty years in the juvenile book field tell the story.

In casting my mind backward over the last thirty years—and comparing the past with the present, duly noting the amazing advances made in every thing which belongs to the comfort, the intelligence, the luxury of society—there is no point in which these are more striking than in the books for children and youth. Let any one who wishes to comprehend this matter, go to . . . a juvenile bookstore . . . and behold the teeming shelves—comprising almost every topic within the range of human knowledge, treated in an attraction of style and every art of embellishment—and let him remember that nineteen twentieths of these works have come into existence within the last thirty years.

Samuel G. Goodrich, Recollections of a Lifetime, p. 21.


Transportation and printing improvements from the 1820s on created a boom in publishing of all kinds. Periodicals, deliverable by railroad to more and more communities, became enormously popular. Every town had a newspaper—often more than one—locally produced and sold, but weeklies, monthlies, bimonthlies, and annuals arrived by post, which meant by railway. Periodicals varied in content, from those dealing with farm and domestic economy to such journals as the Knickerbocker Magazine and the Atlantic Monthly. Most family periodicals included some juvenile fare, and from time to time periodicals especially for children appeared—and disappeared. One of the early successes was the Juvenile Miscellany, published from 1826 to 1834 and edited by Lydia Maria Child (1802–1880). Some of the best-known women writers of the time were contributors—Child herself, Lydia Sigourney, Sarah Josepha Hale, Eliza Follen—forgotten now, but literary lights of their time. The magazine died soon after the 1833 publication of Child's brilliant abolitionist essay An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans. Samuel Goodrich edited Parley's Magazine (1833), which merged with Merry's Museum in 1844 and lasted until 1872 under that title. Since most mainstream children's fare carefully avoided the slavery issue, abolitionists established two outspokenly antislavery journals for children, the Slave's Friend and the Youth's Emancipator, in the 1830s. The first lasted two years, the second less than one.

By far the longest-lived of any early-nineteenth-century periodical aimed at a young audience was the Youth's Companion (YC), which began publication in 1827 and survived until 1929. Nathaniel Willis (1780–1870), founding editor, described his intended magazine in a prospectus sure to appeal to potential subscribers. It would be, he said, "a small weekly journal, which should entertain . . . children and insensibly instruct them" ("Prospectus," p. 1). It certainly instructed; how "insensibly" is debatable. Despite its name, the YC format was that of a family weekly, with some material clearly meant for children but much that also spoke to adults. The tone was evangelical in the early years of publication; later, in accord with changing tastes, the editors shifted the journal's emphasis to a more generalized moralism. The YC was socially conservative; the magazine vigorously supported the temperance movement, but it never discussed slavery.

No sharp distinction existed between literature for children and for adolescents for most of the nineteenth century. Society loosely classed anyone up to about fifteen as a child. Jo March, who is fifteen at the beginning of Little Women (1868–1869) refers to herself as a child, though she is (reluctantly) on the verge of adulthood. That some children's books addressed adolescents seems clear when stories discuss work choices, domestic skills, business practice, and occasionally even the management of servants (the latter was rare, as were servants in America). But of course it must also be remembered that some of these matters might be relevant to youngsters as young as twelve. Any number of books, for example, warned boys against a sailor's life, which could begin at a very early age. Moreover, the authors believed that, like moral values, habits of industry were best formed early. Stories showed quiet little girls learning domestic tasks, and Jacob Abbott frequently instructed young boys in good labor and business practices.


Before the latter decades of the nineteenth century, textbooks were not tightly age graded and for good reason. Common schools in the antebellum years were not graded; they were one-room, one-teacher classrooms, serving students from three and four years old up to sixteen and seventeen. Though textbooks existed and were used in urban and private schools, in the rural common schools (which means most of them) books of any kind were entirely hit or miss. Neither the rural families nor the schools could afford to buy textbooks as a matter of course. Children used whatever books their families owned—very few usually—whether they were well adapted to their age or not. Aside from the Bible, which was often used as a reading text, the book likeliest to be found in common schools was Noah Webster's Blue-Back Speller, a few copies per school being shared around by all the scholars.

Next to the Speller in ubiquity were the McGuffey Eclectic Readers, which came on the market in 1836. These were graded in order of difficulty from the primer through six reading books. They were composed of short pieces, some written for the books but most excerpted from prose and poetry by well-known authors, the prose sometimes reworked by the editors. Like all schoolbooks of the time, they were strongly Protestant and moralistic and thoroughly allergic to controversy. Heavily marketed by their publisher, Truman and Smith, they were used in schools well into the twentieth century.

The ever-energetic Samuel Goodrich also published textbooks, most of them written by hired hands, all of them reflecting their publisher's cultural biases. Latin America and Asia were wholly written off for their misguided religious beliefs; Hawthorne's project, Parley's Universal History on the Basis of Geography (1837), blandly stated that "no country has ever been happy or well governed where Mohammedanism prevailed."


At mid-century, children's literature began a shift that would accelerate in the post–Civil War period. Fiction, whether published in books or periodicals, took on some of the drama and sentimentality already popular in adult literature. New authors also expanded the narrow range of children's stories to encompass some of the social concerns of an urbanizing, industrializing society. Cities, chronic poverty, immigration, crime—none of these appeared in children's fiction of earlier times. By the 1850s and 1860s they were commonplace.

But the greatest impact on children's literature came from the popular fiction that flooded the country after 1850. In a marketplace teeming with story papers and other cheap periodicals offering "sensational" fiction, to say nothing of the immensely popular dime and "half-dime" novels of the 1860s, young readers eagerly abandoned the sober fare of the past. Boys of all classes devoured pulp literature—which was not of course meant for them—because it was absorbing and exciting, however ill written. Girls were drawn to sentimental romances—when they could get them—and they read their brothers' books too.

Middle-class parents were not content. Surely children should not read lurid accounts of improbable adventures of daredevils and desperadoes with guns and horsewhips and romantic (though chaste) yearnings toward the fair sex. Surely sentimental romances were a danger to young girls. Surely there could be fiction written for children that was interesting and even exciting enough to hold a child's attention yet moral, moderate, and nonviolent.

Thus the stage was set for William Taylor Adams, "Oliver Optic" (1822–1897), and all who followed him into the rewarding world of formula fiction series books for the juvenile market. Adams was not unique in producing formula stories or series, either, but he judged shrewdly the audience he was wooing. He contrived adventure tales (thrilling perhaps but never lurid); he published the books in series; and he wrote prolifically. He also targeted his readers: the Boat Club Series, for example, was not aimed at newsboys. Adams, Horatio Alger Jr., "Sophie May," Edward S. Ellis, and many other hack writers through the 1860s and beyond dished out easily read, predictable but exciting, morally high-minded stories. The books were tamer than the trash they were meant to displace, but children liked them and parents tolerated them.

But only just: these mass-merchandised products woke no great enthusiasm among the genteel middle classes. Mediocre at best, acceptable because of what they were not—that is, not sensational, not violent, not totally implausible—juvenile series books were not as bad as the trash, but neither were they good. What parents wanted for their children, and particularly for their girls—what they were waiting for, though they did not know it—was Louisa May Alcott (1832–1888).

Alcott had published two novels, some "sketches" and many stories in magazines, and was editing a children's magazine when Thomas Niles, chief editor in a Boston publishing house, asked her to write a "girls' book." Reluctantly she agreed, and in 1868 Little Women was published. The book was an immediate—and enormous—success, as was its sequel, Good Wives (1869). Now combined in one volume (titled Little Women) the book is still read a century and a half later. The form Alcott chose was that of the domestic novel that had dominated American fiction for forty years, but Alcott's was not a watered-down replica of the standard domestic novel. The straightforward, colloquial prose and the autobiographical nature of the story, which made its characters individual, believable, and memorable, had powerful appeal for young readers. The book was funny, sad, serious, lighthearted, and of course moral-istic, like all 1860s writing. For all the period feeling of the novel, the characterizations in Little Women still speak to girls. The portrayal of Jo was far more complex and heartfelt than anything offered to young readers up to that time. Little Women had then and still has its critics, but most scholars of children's literature agree that it was the work that marked the beginning of "real" literature for children.

See alsoChildhood; Courtship; Dime Novels; Domestic Novel; Literacy


Primary Works

Abbott, Jacob. Rollo at School. Boston: T. H. Carter, 1839.

Adams, William Taylor [Oliver Optic]. All Aboard. New York: Hurst & Company, 1855.

Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women. 1868–1869. Edited by Anne Hiebert Alton. Petersborough, Ontario: Broadview, 2001.

Child, Lydia Maria. Flowers for Children. 3 vols. New York: C. S. Francis & Company, 1844, 1845, 1847.

Follen, Eliza Lee. Made-up Stories. Boston: Whittemore, Niles, & Hall, 1856.

Goodrich, Samuel Griswold [Peter Parley]. Peter Parley's Book of Fables. Hartford, Conn.: White, Dwier, 1836.

Goodrich, Samuel Griswold [Peter Parley]. Peter Parley's Juvenile Tales. Rev. ed. Cincinnati, Ohio: Applegate, 1851.

Goodrich, Samuel Griswold Recollections of a Lifetime. 2 vols. New York: Miller, Orton, and Mulligan, 1856.

Parton, Sara [Fanny Fern]. Little Ferns for Fanny's Little Friends. Auburn, N.Y.: Derby & Miller, 1854.

Sedgwick, Catherine Maria. A Love Token for Children. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1838.

Tuthill, Mrs. Louise C. Anything for Sport. Boston: William Crosby & H. P. Nichols, 1846.

Willis, Nathaniel. "Prospectus." Youth's Companion, 16 April 1827, p. 1.

Willis, Nathaniel, publisher and ed. Youth's Companion. Weekly publication, New York, 1827–1860.

Secondary Works

Baym, Nina. Novels, Readers, and Reviewers. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1984.

Baym, Nina. Woman's Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820–1870. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1978.

Davidson, Cathy N. Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Kaestle, Carl F. Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780–1860. Eric Foner, consulting editor. New York: Hill and Wang, 1983.

MacLeod, Anne Scott. A Moral Tale: Children's Fiction and American Culture, 1820–1860. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1975.

Nye, Russel. The Unembarrassed Muse: The Popular Arts in America. New York: Dial Press, 1970.

Rice, Edwin W. The Sunday-School Movement and the American Sunday-School Union: 1817–1917. Philadelphia: American Sunday-School Union, 1917.

Zboray, Ronald J. A Fictive People: Antebellum Economic Development and the American Reading Public. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Anne Scott MacLeod

About this article

Children's and Adolescent Literature

Updated About content Print Article