Recently the British Library uploaded over one million images to Flickr from scans of books published in the 17th-19th centuries – including children’s books. The Huffington Post recently shared this information, positively gushing about the children’s book images in particular; and who can blame them? These illustrated tomes may have come late to the library table, but their images, stories, and morals continue to be revised and reinvented to this day.
Stories for children were handed down from generation to generation through vocal storytelling, but it was in 1658 when John Comenius made the earliest illustrated book just for children, Orbis Sensualis Pictus. The illustrations were created using woodcuts and were hand applied to the pages.
The first book to be considered a “modern” children’s book was created in the mid-1700s when John Newbery published A Little Pretty Pocket-Book. The book was the first of its kind to be focused on entertaining children, containing rhymes and picture stories.
Below is a tiny selection of classic children’s books that lit the fire of a child’s imagination:
Written by brother and sister Charles and Mary Lamb, this book was designed to make the stories of the Shakespearean plays familiar to children. Mary did not get her name on the title page until the seventh edition in 1838.
The Children of the New Forest, 1847
This children’s novel written by Frederick Marryat is one of the first historical novels for children, telling the story of the four Beverley children, orphaned in the English Civil War, who escape peril by living off the land in the forest. The BBC adapted the novel four times for television.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865
It is said Louis Carroll changed the face of literature for children thanks to this imaginative masterpiece that used logic, math, perception, and language in a new way. The first film adaptation of the book occured in 1903 as a British silent film.
The Tale of Peter Rabbit, 1902
This book did not get off to a great start, as it was turned down by publisher after publisher who just did not know what they wanted. A good thing Beatrix Potter knew exactly what she wanted, and she privately published an edition in 1901. Frederick Warne & Co., a former rejector of the book, came back and worked with Potter, asking her to make many colorful illustrations, leading to the first commercial edition of 5,000 copies, printed in 1902.
Goodnight Moon, 1947
This timeless American children’s book by Margaret Wise Brown continues to be highly sought after by parents today. Illustrations by Clement Hurd, known for The Runaway Bunny, included an updated version of his “The Cow Jumping Over the Moon” from Bunny, where the udder of the cow was reduced to an “anatomical blur” to avoid the controversy just taking place with regard to Stewart Little by E.B. White.