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Today the idea of Children’s literature often invokes elements of delight and entertainment, along with a sense of its containing some underlying lesson to be learned by its unsuspecting readers. How we think about Children’s literature today, however, represents a long evolution in ideas and opinions. Well into the nineteenth century Children’s literature was highly focused on instruction and quite devoid of delight. Its sole intention was to educate its young readers in order to obtain their spiritual salvation.

This dour approach to Children’s book is seen in  James Janeway  introduction to A Token for Children, (1672) “They are not too little to die. They are not too little to go to hell.” His comments epitomized the seventeenth century Puritan sentiment that the main reason for reading was to gain moral and spiritual instruction. Indeed, the few works published specifically for children before the middle of the eighteenth century were of an exclusively educational nature, such as catechisms, primers, and ABC books.

However, with the advent of English publisher and bookseller John Newbery’s A Little Pretty Pocket Book in 1744, the phrase "Instruction with delight" – originally from the Roman poet Horace's The Art of Poetry – became a catch-phrase for Children’s literature and a new way to think about Children’s books. Looking at the development of books for children over time provides us with insights into not only what people read to children, but also how adults thought about children as well as childhood. Moreover, Children’s literature provides valuable insights into a variety of cultural beliefs, and thus serves as a powerful indicator of social change.

This essay, and the exhibit which it accompanies, looks at Children’s literature in several different ways. Major themes include:

  • Moral and cultural education
  • Literacy
  • Images of the Child
  • Illustrative Styles

Each of these themes is illustrated with books drawn from the Lucile Clarke Memorial Children’s Library, housed in the Clarke Library and the Betty A. McDonald Children’s Literature Collection, a component part of CMU’s University Library.

In addition, a selection of original art work, created for children’s books, has been drawn from the Clarke Library’s Francis and Mary Lois Molson collection, an outstanding collection of original work displaying the abilities of many of America’s leading illustrators.