The Rise of Literacy in Europe

Children's Books

From unsophisticated plain alphabet books to glossily illustrated books for boys and girls, children’s books have undergone an extensive development from their first appearance to today. While at the beginning, religious reading matter dominated children’s books, pedagogical ideas on developing the mind steadily acquired prominence. Children’s reading activities gradually lost their compulsory character and became an entertaining pursuit. Authors attempted to merge moral and didactic instructions with entertaining content, and often adults enjoyed the tales just as much as the children. Over time, some works belonging to adult literature became reading matter for children, and many chapbooks were used as children’s books as well.

Previously, orally communicated fairy tales had the strongest impact on children’s books. Fairy tales and nursery rhymes were no longer passed on only orally, but they were also recorded in printed books. Pentamerone is considered one of the first books of fairy tales. They were collected by the Neapolitan poet Giambatista Basile and published in 1634. The ancient tradition of fables was hence revived in these collections of fairy tales. For the first time, such classic fairy tales as Puss in Boots were published in this book, inspiring authors of future generations.

One of them was the French writer Charles Perrault whose fairy tales, first published in 1697, were based on oral stories told to children, and they enjoyed popularity not only among young readers, but also among adults. As seen in Les contes de Perrault, the 1862 French edition of Perrault’s fairy tales, its popularity only increased over the centuries. This edition has exuberant illustrations by the famous artist Gustave Doré.

While not all early children’s books were illustrated, pictures steadily became a significant feature of children’s books. The first one with images was Orbis sensualium pictus, a textbook by the Czech scholar Jan Amos Comenius, published in 1658 in Latin and German and later translated into many European languages. Pictures in this book accompanied an introduction to the natural sciences, religion, and social topics. In the long run, pictures became inseparable from text in children’s books.

Only in the 18th and early 19th centuries did children’s literature as a separate and independent genre emerge, and this was connected to the revival of interest in folk tales. While such authors as the Grimm brothers in Germany collected folk tales, others, such as the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen, composed their own fairy tales, leaning on impressions of folk tales heard in childhood. His books caught on across Europe, as this 1850 Slovenian edition Kitica Andersonovih pravljic demonstrates.

While many adult books have quickly dated and lost appeal', early modern children’s stories continue to be read and enjoyed by young readers to this day.