Children’s Literature

The Enlightenment spearheaded a revolution in the understanding of children’s moral and mental capacities. In the seventeenth century Puritan divines had preached that children were apt to sin early and often. Over the course of the eighteenth century, educated opinion gradually shifted to the idea that children were innocent plants needing tender care to blossom into beautiful flowers. A flourishing industry of books made just for children catered to that hope—what we today call children’s literature. The three books here are examples of children’s literature in the new United States, where raising children to become virtuous, republican adults took on a relentless urgency.

A founding member of the fire-and-brimstone school of childrearing, the English Puritan minister James Janeway published his hugely popular Token for Children in 1671. It compiled children’s personal conversion accounts, showing how they came to a state of grace before their “joyful deaths” (as the title puts it). The book remained a mainstay of American education into the nineteenth century, one of many examples of extraordinary pedagogical continuity in an age of wrenching ideological change. Editions printed in New England began to appear by the early 1700s. Little Samuel Ely received this copy in 1795. He died at the age of six years, nine months.

To a child, many things are too big. But not this Bible, which fit neatly into the hands of small readers. Its simple images and stories made the Bible understandable to young people. The Enlightenment witnessed a revolution in ideas about children, now seen as innocent creatures of nature. This revolution culminated in the advent of the kindergarten in America after the Civil War: this was literally a child’s garden, in which tender plants sprouted under the nurturing care of adults.

Children’s literature mutated in the republican climate of the new United States as authors sought to promote virtue through the examples of venerated leaders such as George Washington. The cherry tree myth about Washington’s youth, for example, was invented wholesale by the minister Mason Locke (“Parson”) Weems in his Life of George Washington. The first edition was published in 1800. The edition shown here, one of the first to include the fable, was published in 1809. Weems’s Life of George Washington was one of the many biographies of George Washington that began to pour from the American presses after Washington’s death in 1799, as the new nation struggled to invent a uniting national mythology.