Children's Reading

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Learning to read is a primary task of childhood; reading for pleasure is often regarded as a form of play. Over the past 200 years, children's recreational reading in America has thrived in two different ways: The provision of adult-approved literature has flourished and expanded through a variety of institutions, and the success of direct marketing of less literary texts straight to children has raised adult questions of whether any and all reading is good for a child.

Early Days

This duality between approved and popular reading became apparent early. John Newbery, a London bookseller, was the world's first children's publisher, and he packaged books and toys together. His first book specifically for children, A Little Pretty Pocket Book (1744), sold for sixpence, or eightpence if packaged with a ball for boys or a pincushion for girls. The marketing of books and commodities together and the strong gender bias of the sales pitch are familiar elements to today's book-buying public and clearly have strong historical roots.

Newbery operated out of London but exported books to the American colonies, where his books were also widely pirated. He also produced an early children's magazine, inaugurating a format that would increase in importance over subsequent centuries.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, adults emphasized the provision of useful knowledge, and all children's reading was designed to be "good" for children, to make them better people because of what they read (Avery, pp. 78–81). The Sunday school library was often the only reliable source of books for children. Public schools, where they existed, were not open year-round. By 1850, there were nearly 2,000 Sunday school libraries in the United States (Lerner, p. 155). The American Sunday School Union set up preselected libraries of 100 volumes in many isolated communities. Sunday school books purveyed images of diligence and spiritual grace; temperance and antigambling tracts were also popular.

The second half of the nineteenth century marked the start of a recognizably more modern scene. Public libraries became significant players in the book universe Serious services to children began in the last decade of the century, and public and school librarians began their long reign as gatekeepers of quality, vetting titles for literary virtues and introducing countless children to the joys of reading.

Marketing Directly to Children

During this same half-century, however, dime novels also attracted the attention of many children. These cheap paperback novels told sensational Western and detective stories written by hack writers, using numerous pseudonyms. Indeed, one persuasive argument for the establishment of children's public libraries was the need to provide an uplifting alternative to the lurid offerings of the dime novel series.

In 1900, the publication of one single novel presaged many developments that distinguish current reading developments. The Wizard of Oz was a huge success and led its creator, L. Frank Baum, and several successors to produce endless sequels. Baum organized publicity tours, created a marketing film for the book as early as 1908, and, in 1913, produced a full-length feature movie based on the characters (The Patchwork Girl of Oz). The huge success of the 1939 MGM musical film version was an important but relatively late stage in the transmogrification of the Oz fiction from print to other media. Baum also indefatigably marketed spin-off souvenirs and toys from Oz.

Librarians disliked the Oz books. They also decried another publishing phenomenon of the early twentieth century: the success of the Stratemeyer Syndicate and its endless proliferation of series books. Edward Stratemeyer, originally a dime novelist, established a workshop of writers who pseudonymously produced series novels from plot outlines. Many much-loved series were produced in this way: Nancy Drew, the Bobbsey Twins, the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, the Rover Boys. Some of these series continue to be published but often are written in simpler language and tell more violent stories. By the early 2000s, series books were still often highly gender-specific in their appeal.

During the early twentieth century, such books were regarded with something of the same horror that today greets violent video games. The chief librarian of the Boy Scouts of America complained vigorously about the Stratemeyer series in 1914:

The fact is . . . that the harm done [by sensational cheap novels] is incalculable. I wish I could label each one of these books: "Explosives! Guaranteed to Blow Your Boy's Brains Out." . . .[A]s some boys read such books, their imaginations are literally "blown out," and they go into life as terribly crippled as though by some material explosion they had lost a hand or foot (Mathiews, p. 653).

As late as 1991, series books remained the subject of harsh, though slightly less apocalyptic criticism in Harper's Magazine. Tom Engelhardt slammed current series books as a form of bland and heavily marketed product with no literary qualities. He charged that publishers encourage children's dependency on series labels, in hopes that it will lead to adult commitment to equally simplistic brands of series titles.

Promoting Literature

Meanwhile, through the early twentieth century, public librarians in particular were championing higher-quality reading, and doing all they could to promote the publication and purchase of good literature for children. Many of the most prestigious annual awards for children's books date from this era; the Newbery Medal for best children's book was first awarded by the American Library Association in 1922, the Caldecott Medal for best picture book in 1938.

Picture books have been an important part of children's literature from the very beginning. The combination of improved production technologies and increased access to relatively expensive books through public libraries meant that the early twentieth century saw a remarkable growth in the number of wonderful picture books for children of all ages. When the development of the paperback democratized access to books of all kinds in midcentury, the picture book became much more widely available. Over the latter half of the twentieth century, access to a reasonable range of picture books and novels began to be considered part of every American child's intellectual birthright. Good books could also be cheap books.

By mid-twentieth century, another development altered the shape of young people's reading: the creation of a market for literature directed at young adults, or teenagers. Not everyone agrees on what title qualifies as the first young adult novel, but the demarcation of the young people's reading into children's and young adult became more pronounced as the century moved to its end.

Issues of Representation

As access to books became more broadly democratic, other questions became more urgent. White, middle-class publishers and librarians had not really registered how much the world of children's literature was exclusively white, nor how examples of overt racism slid into many stories, but in the 1960s and 1970s, the question of racism in children's books began to draw significant attention. For example, the first edition of The Bobbsey Twins, which would have been considered wholesome fare by many, tells us how Flossie ensured that the "colored" doll given her by the family servants would not contaminate her other dolls: "Flossie always took pains to separate Jujube from the rest by placing the cover of a pasteboard box between them" (Hope, p. 57). Changes in general social attitudes played a role in the diminution of such appalling observations, but a broader book-buying public also had a role to play. By the early 2000s, children's literature often valorized multicultural tolerance, but antiracist campaigners and librarians still sometimes clashed over such values as what is legitimate freedom of speech, and what is hateful and harmful to minority children. Some children's books play it safe by presenting one or two token "multicultural" characters, or by addressing only the "exotic" aspects of different cultures (sometimes known as the "fun, food, and festivals" approach). There are also serious questions about how children's books tackle the issue of racism, and how historical fiction in particular deals with the kind of derogatory language that was common in the past. The temptation to sanitize what children are told about the world is still strong.

New Media

Radio and film arrived more or less together in American cultural life in the early twentieth century, and both challenged the role of novels as the prime source of fiction for young people (outside the ongoing role of oral storytelling, of course). Adaptation and cross-marketing moved in both directions: The new media adapted novels into movies and radio plays, and books told stories about media plots and characters.

The second half of the twentieth century saw the domestic triumph of television and then videos, the latter of which, like books, could be replayed at will. Toward the end of the century, computers entered the mix of entertainment options available to many children in their homes. Research in the early 2000s suggests that reading is one option among many for today's young people. A 1999 report from the Kaiser Family Foundation, based on a national survey, found that more than eight out of ten children read or are read to on a typical day, and that children on average spend about three-quarters of an hour on pleasure reading every day (Rideout et al., 1999, p. 30). However, there is little doubt that screen media of various kinds are very important even to the youngest children. A more recent report indicates that children aged from six months to six years are exposed to a wide variety of media in their homes (Rideout et al., 2003, p. 2). However, the reading percentages remain constant. Eight out of ten of these small children spend an average of nearly fifty minutes with books on a typical day and nearly all parents consider books "very important" to their children's development (Rideout et al., 2003, p. 9).

Conventional wisdom is that television and computer games are driving out reading, but much contemporary evidence suggests that the proportion of committed readers has not changed greatly over the century. What children read and whether the adults in their lives perceive it as a valuable use of their time are different questions. Today's marketing priorities often inculcate an obsessive approach to texts, so children feel they must read (and often own) everything available on a particular topic—the books, the videos, the trading cards, the computer games. Reading is often only one part of an intensely cross-media fictional experience.

Although funding for school libraries diminished over the last quarter of the twentieth century in the face of heavy spending on computers, at the start of the twenty-first century, First Lady Laura Bush, a librarian herself, sponsored new initiatives to support school libraries. The dynamic of the gatekeeper and the free market will continue to influence children's reading for the foreseeable future.

See also: Childhood and Play, Comic Book Reading, Comic Magazines, Commercialization of Children's Play, Television's Impact on Youth and Children's Leisure


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Margaret Mackey

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Children's Reading

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