Children's Literature: A Reader's History, from Aesop to Harry Potter

By Seth Lerer | Go to book overview

Epilogue
CHILDREN'S LITERATURE AND
THE HISTORY OF THE BOOK

From the beginning, children read their books with pictures. The little fragment of papyrus from Byzantine Egypt that recounts the labors of Hercules survives with an illustration of the hero and the lion just barely intact.1 Other illustrated texts survive from early periods. Manuscripts of Terence's plays (one of the mainstays of the classical and medieval schoolroom) appeared throughout the Middle Ages with pictures of characters and scenes.2 The Psalter, the collection of psalms from which Christian children learned to read for a millennium, often featured highly wrought initial letters, depicting the psalmist David or the subject matter of his poems.3 Two English manuscripts of the early sixteenth century, probably made for purposes of teaching aristocratic children, present illustrated beasts and flowers with such vividness and color that they seem to transcend the old medieval categories of the bestiary and the herbal and rise to the level of pedagogic art.4

Among the first books printed in Europe were Aesop's fables, which were often graced with elaborate frontispieces illustrating Aesop himself and the animal inhabitants of his stories. The early printed volumes of the Puritans, from James Janeway's Token for Children to The New England Primer, offered illustrations, as did John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (recall that Benjamin Franklin praised the edition “with copper cuts” that he purchased as a teenager). John Locke made clear that teaching worked best when text came with pictures, and he put this principle into practice in his fully illustrated edition of Aesop. Indeed, for many modern readers, the phrase “children's literature,” and especially “children's books,” connotes a volume in which pictures take precedence over text.

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