History of Children’s and Young Adult Literature

Authored by: Deborah Stevenson

Handbook of Research on Children’s and Young Adult Literature

Print publication date:  October  2010
Online publication date:  April  2011

Print ISBN: 9780415965057
eBook ISBN: 9780203843543
Adobe ISBN: 9781136913570


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Literary histories, like literary theories, begin with a particular perspective. Ideological conceptions of what constitutes literature, material conditions, and prior histories are among the forces that shape how one writes the history of a particular genre. Deborah Stevenson walks readers through the considerations necessary for forming and critiquing a history of children’s and young adult literature before embarking on her own meta-reflective rendering of how literature for youth evolved from classical times to the advent of modern children’s literature. Personal perspective returns as Lois Lowry reminds us that we each have our own history of the literature that drew us in as readers, regardless of what the literary historians say we should have paid attention to.

No genre history is simple and objective. Literary historians always face decisions about what’s worth noting and why, and what gets left out and why, and previous histories either mark their paths or provide a view they wish to counter. So it has been with children’s literature, a genre blessed—or cursed—with complicated audience issues and a handful of magnetic and influential literary historians. This chapter will therefore first explore the issues that have influenced the literary history/ies of the genre, and then proceed to an historical overview, from classical times through the 19th century and to the dawn of modern children’s literature, that acknowledges the forces behind the perceived significance of the titles and authors chronicled. I rely largely upon the histories that have been taught, quoted, argued with, and assigned with the greatest frequency over the years, narrative works that allow authors’ opinions and contexts full rein for expression. To these I add material from works that are more specialist, or more recent, but nonetheless possess sufficient significance either in their scholarship or their impact to provide a solid source of illumination. While this exploration touches on various kinds of children’s literature, from folktales to poetry to picture books, nonfiction to novels, it’s the fictional prose narratives that receive the main focus; they have largely been the popular ambassadors of children’s literature and the primary subject of the genre’s historians, and as such they provide the most fruitful site for historiography.

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