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Who's Who in the History of Children's Literature (Part 2)

Children's Book Week is the perfect time to explore the lives of the authors, illustrators, and publishers who've played a key role in the history of children's literature. In Part 1, we looked at contributors like Noah Webster, Samuel Goodwin, and even John Locke. Today, discover more prominent figures in children's literature...


AesopProbably a former slave, Aesop lived around 600 BCE. At first, his tales were passed down through oral tradition. It's hypothesized that Socrates set the fables to verse while he was in jail. Phaedrus translated them from Latin to Greek. William Caxton, the first English printer, produced an edition of Aesop's Fables in the fifteenth century. The stories have remained popular ever since; Aesop's use of personified animals to teach simple moral lessons has also been emulated by countless authors throughout history. 

Geoffrey Chaucer

Geoffrey ChaucerThough Geoffrey Chaucer was renowned as an author, diplomat, and philosopher in his own time, his most lasting contribution was Canterbury Tales. The work earned Chaucer a reputation as the greatest poet of the Middle Ages. These stories appealed to an incredibly wide audience, especially children. They've been adapted countless times and remain popular subjects to this day. But Chaucer also wrote one item expressly for a child--on a rather unusual subject. He wrote a scientific treatise on how to use an astrolabe for his son Lewis. 

Thomas Boreman

Thomas BoremanThough not much is known about Thomas Boreman, he preceded John Newbery as a publisher of children's books in England. As early as 1730, Boreman was publishing mostly educational children's books. He also published the "Gigantick Histories" series, which started in 1740. The miniature volumes were perfect for children's small hands, and they contained lovely pictures. Boreman also chose to include a list of subscribers in each volume, so children got the thrill of seeing their own names in print. Boreman's next work was Curiosities in the Tower of London, which was illustrated with pictures of animals found in the Tower zoo. 

Friedrich Johann Justin Bertuch

Friedrich BertuchAuthor Friedrich Bertuch published Children's Picture Book in twelve volumes, from 1790 to 1830. It was issued in 237 fasciles, which subscribers then had bound on their own. Bertuch wrote in the introduction, "A picture book is no less an essential and indispensable part of the equipment of a nursery than the cradle, the doll, or the hobby-horse." He believed that pictures should be "beautiful and correct"--and actually go along with the story, which wasn't the practice at the time. Bertuch went against this convention. His book illustrated objects and he placed them in a seemingly random order, designed to maintain a child's interest.

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

Grimm BrothersCultural researchers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm initially began collecting German folktales because they were interested in documenting a national culture and literature. Their first collection, Children's and Household Tales (1812), included 86 stories. The next edition had over 200. The brothers also recorded German and Scandanavian mythologies and in 1808 began a dictionary of the German language which remained incomplete during their lifetimes. The Grimms' tales include favorites like "Cinderella," "Rapunzel," "Snow White," and "The Frog Prince." Last year Philip Pullman collected many of these tales in a new critically acclaimed volume. 

Edward Lear

Edward LearThe first nonsense poet, Edward Lear was brought up by his sisters. They taught him to draw, and he often focused on natural subjects. The result: Lear was first known as an ornithological draughtsman. Lear popularized the form of the limerick, which he wrote using both real and made up words. His first collection, A Book of Nonsense, was published in 1846. He followed with The History of the Seven Families of the Lake Pipple-Pipple (1865) and his most famous The Owl and the Pussycat (1867). During Lear's lifetime, people speculated that Edward Lear was a pseudonym for the Earl of Derby, to whom Lear dedicated his books. Both men were named Edward, and "Lear" is an anagram for "Earl." But there's no real evidence to corroborate the theory. 

Walter Crane

Walter CraneWalter Crane was a contemporary of legendary illustrators Kate Greenaway and Randolph Caldecott. He was also the most influential--and prolific--children's book creator of his time. He studied Japanese watercolors and soon used this style for a series of children's picture books. These volumes set a new trend in children's literature. Crane was also closely associated with the Socialist movement; he believed in bringing art to members of all social classes and therefore spent much of his time designing wallpapers and textiles. Though he wasn't an anarchist, Crane contributed to libertarian publishers like Liberty Press and Freedom Press. 

Kate Greenaway

Kate GreenawayThoughout the 1880's and 1890's, Kate Greenaway had only two rivals in children's illustration: Walter Crane and Randolph Caldecott. Greenaway's charming illustrations depicted young children in placid garden scenes. "Kate Greenaway children," as they were often called, wore her version of clothing from the late 18th century and Regency period. Greenaway's illustrations were so popular that a real line of children's clothing was developed based on her work. In 1955, a medal was established in Greenaway's honor. It recognizes outstanding illustrators of children's books in the United Kingdom. 

Randolph Caldecott

Randolph CaldecottRandolph Caldecott is the legendary illustrator for whom the Caldecott Medal is named. He began his career as a children's author and illustrator with a pair of Christmas books in 1878: The House that Jack Built and The Diverting History of John Gilpin. The books were so successful that Caldecott published two Christmas books annually for the next seven years. Caldecott was quite prolific, also illustrating books for Washington Irving, Juliana Ewing, Captain Marryatt, Henry Blackburn, and others. His distinct style and bold use of color set a new tone and standard for children's illustration. 

Lovers of children's literature often collect Caldecott-winning books, which represent the best in American children's books. If you're building a collection of outstanding children's books, our new guide to Caldecott-winning books is an excellent reference. The guide includes a photo of each winning book's cover, along with a plot synopsis and information on identifying a first edition. 

Get your free Caldecott Guide!

Kristin Masters
Master Content Brain. You think it, she writes it, no good thought remains unposted. Sprinkles pixie dust on Google+, newsletters, blog, facebook, twitter and just about everything else.


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