Literary Hub

A Brief History of Children’s Books: Nasty, Brutish, and Short

Because I like to read, friends were surprised, when I had our daughter, that I read so little to her. The problem wasn’t the reading but the material, which bored both of us. Baby books never involve celebrity biography, and they’re almost always set in a barn; the vocabulary is mostly limited to meow and moo. I could be teaching my child Portuguese—why was I teaching her cat? Wouldn’t it be far more sensible to teach her things like TV catchphrases and trivia, things that would prove useful for game shows and cocktail parties? Also, wouldn’t it be far more entertaining for me? For this reason, I began reading to her from Us and Entertainment Weekly. Her second word, and I’m not making this up, was Oprah. Her third was cake, and this should give you a pretty good idea of how we spent our time.

Had I stuck to the books children were historically given, however, it could have been far worse. Her first word might have been moo or arf, or it might have been castration, beheading, or the N-word. For the history of children’s literature is a shocking affair, offering death, murder, abuse, death, racism, death, and damnation. There’s The Tragical History of the Children in the Wood and My Mother’s Grave; Agnes and the Key to Her Little Coffin and ABC in Dixie: A Plantation Alphabet (“C is fer Chawlie who waits on de table. He’s handsome and stylish en his cullah am sable”). Even the books that turn out to be harmless sound like a whole lot of trouble. For instance: Ragged Dick, Lo cunto de li cunti, The Faggot-House, and The Loneliest Ho in the World (as it turns out, a Christmas story).

Much of it, however, was not harmless. For most of history, authors have used their words to render children speechless. Some of the books scarred generations; some merely gave their readers insomnia that would last until puberty. It’s been bad from the beginning, when children’s literature was neither for children nor literature, but stories, transmitted orally, to audiences of adults and kids alike. Because these were, by definition, not written, we’re not sure what they were about, but given universal interests, it seems safe to assume they consisted mostly of animal fables, gruesome cautionary tales, and bathroom jokes.

 Aesop’s fables weren’t really written for kids—children’s literature and adult literature would not become distinct entities for another two thousand years.

Certainly, that’s what we got once people started writing things down. One of the earliest examples is Aesop¹, whose fables from the sixth century BCE formed the backbone of children’s literature (and literature in general) for a thousand-plus years. Aesop left an enormous body of work, much of which he probably didn’t write. In fact, it’s possible he didn’t actually exist, his work instead coming from a lot of different sources; and if he did, it’s not at all clear who he was². But most sources claim that he was a slave with severe physical disabilities. A surviving bust shows a cross-eyed, bearded face perched atop a sunken chest that’s more or less falling into his penis.

This is not exactly what you’d want to see on the jacket of a children’s book. Then again, Aesop’s fables weren’t really written for kids—children’s literature and adult literature would not become distinct entities for another two thousand years³. They were, however, widely read to and by kids, and formed the cornerstone of a Greek education, which included a number of topics the modern curriculum doesn’t cover. The Aesop’s fables we know are the highly sanitized versions that passed through the rinse cycles of the medieval and Victorian eras. But older editions were quite a bit darker and dirtier, featuring a beaver that bites off its own genitals, a pair of hyenas threatening to rape each other, and the edifying tale of “The Camel Who Shat in the River.”

Several of Aesop’s stories also appear in the Panchatantra, a collection of fables and morality tales compiled in India around the third century BCE. The Panchatantra doesn’t contain anywhere near as much sex as I expected from a book with tantra in the title, but that is because I am an idiot: tantra is simply the Sanskrit word for “treatise” or “chapter.” That’s not to say there’s no sex, however, and there’s plenty of violence, too. Like Aesop, this is a version of children’s literature that reads as fairly grown-up. The stories are perfectly charming, but there are several you probably shouldn’t read to children unless you’re prepared to answer some hard questions about adultery, spousal murder, infanticide, and testicles.

There’s not much that isn’t in the Panchatantra. Long and intricately structured, it’s essentially a turducken of stories, with a morality tale stuffed inside a fable stuffed inside an epic. And like a turducken, there are a whole lot of animals in it. As in Aesop, most stories involve creatures, setting down what was certainly an already well-established tradition of educating and entertaining children with the antics of animals. Lists of animal sounds, known as voces variae animantium, have been used to teach grammar since Roman times. Latin was literally pig Latin, as beginners learned that porcorum grunnire (pigs grunt). Often these lists were part of bestiaries, illustrated guides of all known animals. By the Middle Ages, bestiaries had become a fundamental part of a child’s education, despite the fact that they often evidenced a profound misperception of the natural world. Besides including many animals that don’t exist (dragons, unicorns, sea pigs), they completely mangled the real ones. You can hardly blame the authors, who’d heard of the animals but never encountered them, for having to make stuff up. Still, they got a little carried away.

Pressing the animals into service as Christian allegorical figures, the authors saddled them with backstories and native habits that, while interesting, were also totally, totally wrong. Elephants are not Adam and Eve stand-ins who must eat a small, screaming root-man to reproduce, and they don’t live three hundred years. Leopards are not the bastard offspring of a lion and a “pard,” and they do not live in subterranean caves; panthers are not multicolored Christ figures whose only enemy is the dragon. And if the stories are off, the illustrations are even more so. Crocodiles are depicted as dogs or flying pink creatures. The whale has four feet, scales, multiple eyes, and a ropy tail. The giraffe is a tricolored llama, while the rhino sports the visible ribs and heavy eye makeup of a runway model.

Even animals the authors were familiar with are depicted in bizarre ways. The cat looks like it does today, but is almost always shown licking its own anus. Really, you would not believe how many medieval illustrations there are of cats up in their business. As for beavers, they look more or less like beavers, but as in the Aesop fable are usually depicted biting off their genitals.

It’s not surprising that when the printing press arrived and books began to be written directly for children, the goal of almost all of these was to get children to stop acting like animals.

For several hundred years animals formed not just the subject of children’s reading materials but their substance as well. These were hornbooks, which were made from materials like calfskin and cow horn mounted on ivory, bone, leather, or wood. Ostensibly produced to teach children the alphabet and a simple prayer or two, you need only look at them to figure out how they were actually used. For they are shaped like paddles, and as anyone who’s spent any time with children knows, if you give a child something that looks like a cricket bat, they’re not going to use it to read. They are going to use it to deliver beatings, and that in fact is exactly what medieval children (and their teachers) did. They also used hornbooks as rackets, which is why they eventually became known by the far more apt name of battledores.

Given this, it’s not surprising that when the printing press arrived and books began to be written directly for children, the goal of almost all of these was to get children to stop acting like animals. These were courtesy books and etiquette guides, and there were lots of them. Among the first was Erasmus of Rotterdam’s 1530 text A Handbook on Good Manners for Children, which urged children not to eat like a pig, laugh like a horse, grin like a dog, frown like a bull, speak like an elephant, stand like a stork, flap like a magpie, or, in a simile that doesn’t really hold up, wink like a tuna fish.

The rest of the book holds up pretty well, however. Nearly five hundred years after it was written, it remains surprisingly readable, and except for a chapter on bowing, most of his recommendations are still relevant today. He comes down against manspreading (“[s]itting with knees apart … is the hallmark of a braggart”) and gossiping, reminding readers that what happens at the feudal banquet stays at the feudal banquet. With uncanny frequency he lays out the norms that would show up on Seinfeld five centuries later. Besides a lot of advice on how to properly eat soup, he urges readers not to double-dip or be a low-talker, and to keep secrets in the vault.

The book did quite well for an etiquette guide, becoming the bestselling book of the sixteenth century in a crowded field that would only continue to grow. Though the popularity of children’s courtesy books might seem strange now, it made perfect sense at the time. Society was changing rapidly, and there was a desperate need for books that would teach children how to navigate a world that suddenly frowned on blowing your nose on your tunic. The books remained popular for several hundred years, with later volumes imparting such good advice as “Belch near no man’s face¹⁰ with a corrupt fumosity,” “Foul not the tablecloth,” “Smell not of thy meat¹¹, or put it up to thy nose,” and “Spit not in the Room¹², but in the Corner, and rub it with thy Foot, or rather go out and do it abroad.”

Like all classy things, courtesy books originated in France and Italy. Eventually, the books would grow rather lurid, with one of the last and most famous being Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to His Son on the Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman, described by Samuel Johnson as imparting “the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing-master.” Writing to his illegitimate son, Lord Chesterfield¹³ argues that dancing is more important than scholarship, endorses dirty talk with “a coquette of fifteen,” shares his tips on finding a good mistress (preferably more than one at a time), and suggests his son hook up with Lord Chesterfield’s own romantic conquests.

But at the start, courtesy books were quite proper. In England, one of the first was The Babees Book (1475), a guide for noble children being sent off to serve as pages for other nobles. At the time, baby simply meant “child”; still, to the modern ear, it’s disconcerting to find that it’s essentially an employee handbook. In a similar vein, John Russell’s Boke of Nurture teaches children fun and vital lessons like how to fold a towel, polish silverware, pour wine, serve tableside, carve a roast, perform the duties of valet, prepare a medicinal bath, and manage a seating chart.



1. Aesop: Grammatiki A. Karla, “Life of Aesop: Fictional Biography as Popular Literature?” in Koen De Temmerman and Kristoffel Demoen, eds., Writing Biography in Greece and Rome: Narrative Technique and Fictionalization (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 47–64.

2. One very old and very intriguing theory holds that Aesop was from the area that is now Ethiopia. This, however, is almost certainly wrong, and is based on a false etymologic link between Aesop and Aethops, the ancient Greek term for Ethiopian.

3. Gillian Adams points out that there are only two ancient Greek writers who explicitly address children, and the emphasis is on explicit. For these are Sappho, sexy poet, and Theognis, who’s best known for his pederastic elegies. Their works for children are erotic poems to children, and while they’re more romantic than pornographic and must be understood in the larger cultural context . . . it’s still hard not to get the heebie-jeebies (Gillian Adams, “Ancient and Medieval Children’s Texts,” Peter Hunt, ed., in International Companion Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature, vol. I [New York: Routledge, 2004], 230).

4. Which makes tantric sex sound a lot less interesting but does explain why it takes so long.

5. As for the origins of actual pig Latin, they remain ysterious-may, though it’s unlikely it dates back much further than the eighteenth century (Thomas Jefferson used it). Over the years it’s existed in different forms and under different names, including hog Latin, dog Latin, dog Greek, and pig Greek. It seems worth noting that the name given to the language children use when they don’t want adults to understand is, at least in English, usually animal-related. But that’s not true everywhere: in Sweden, it’s fig Latin (or rather, fig language—Fikonspråket).

6. Though erroneous, the belief that an endangered beaver self-castrates is a persistent one and dates back at least as far as ancient Egypt. Beavers were generally hunted for castoreum, a secretion prized as both a scent and a flavoring (it’s said to smell like a combination of new car and vanilla, and is still used in perfumes and edibles today). A clever beaver would thus bite off his castoreum maker and throw it at his pursuer, escaping with his life if not his manhood. The castration myth persisted in part because of a linguistic coincidence: castor and castration sound alike, though there’s no etymological link. Eventually the myth became an allegory for resisting sexual temptation. But the myth is exactly that: beavers’ testicles aren’t, in fact, external, and even the cleverest beaver would be unable to bite them off; and the castor sacs aren’t located there, besides.

7. hornbooks: For more on hornbooks, see Andrew W. Tuer, History of the Horn-book (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1896), and Beulah Folmsbee, A Little History of the Horn-book (Boston: The Horn Book, Inc., 1942).

8. The hornbook was also called the “Christ-cross row,” because the alphabet it depicted began not with an A but with a cross. This, as you probably guessed, is where we get the word crisscross.

9. “[s]itting with knees apart”: Erika Rummel, ed., The Erasmus Reader (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990), 107.

10. “Belch near no man’s face”: Frederick J. Furnivall, ed., The Boke of Nurture by Hugh Rhodes, a.d. 1577 (Bungay, Suffolk: John Childs and Son, 1867), 19.

11. “Foul not the tablecloth,” “Smell not of thy meat”: Quoted in Mary Cable, The Little Darlings: A History of Child Rearing in America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1975), 8.

12. “Spit not in the Room”: A Little Pretty Pocket-book (Worcester, MA: Isaiah Thomas, 1787), 107.

13. Lord Chesterfield: For more on Lord Chesterfield, see Lorinda B. R. Goodwin, An Archaeology of Manners (New York: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002).

From Act Natural: A Cultural History of Misadventures in Parenting. Used with permission of Ecco Books. Copyright © 2019 by Jennifer Traig.

More from Literary Hub

Literary Hub2 min read
Hilary Plum on Terrorism, Autoimmune Disease, and Blurring the Self/Other Line
The New Books Network is a consortium of author-interview podcast channels dedicated to raising the level of public discourse by introducing serious authors to a wide public via new media. They publish 100 new interviews every month and serve a large
Literary Hub8 min read
What Happens When You Pose as Susan Sontag on Twitter?
“One of the main (social) functions of a journal or diary is precisely to be read furtively by other people,” Susan Sontag once wrote, appropriately, in her journal. But it’s hard to imagine that she could have predicted a future in which almost 15,0
Literary Hub5 min read
Kim Adrian on Listening to What Our Nonfiction Is Trying to Tell Us
In 2002, I was an MFA student at the Bennington Writing Seminars, eager to finish a novel already underway. But halfway through the program, I discovered the narrative possibilities of nonfiction, and that changed everything for me. I dropped the nov