April 2 is International Children’s Book Day and the anniversary of the birth of one of the most famous contributors to this genre, Hans Christian Andersen. But when Andersen wrote his works, the genre of children’s literature was not an established field as we recognise today.
Adults have been writing for children (a broad definition of what we might call children’s literature) in many forms for centuries. Little of it looks much fun to us now. Works aimed at children were primarily concerned with their moral and spiritual progress. Medieval children were taught to read on parchment-covered wooden tablets containing the alphabet and a basic prayer, usually the Pater Noster. Later versions are known as “hornbooks”, because they were covered by a protective sheet of transparent horn.
Spiritually-improving books aimed specifically at children were published in the 17th century. The Puritan minister John Cotton wrote a catechism for children, titled Milk for Babes in 1646 (republished in New England as Spiritual Milk for Boston Babes in 1656). It contained 64 questions and answers relating to religious doctrine, beliefs, morals and manners. James Janeway (also a Puritan minister) collected stories of the virtuous lives and deaths of pious children in A Token for Children (1671), and told parents, nurses and teachers to let their charges read the work “over a hundred times.”
These stories of children on their deathbeds may not hold much appeal for modern readers, but they were important tales about how to achieve salvation and put children in the leading role. Medieval legends about young Christian martyrs, like St Catherine and St Pelagius, did the same.
Other works were about manners and laid out how children should behave. Desiderius Erasmus famously produced a book of etiquette in Latin, On Civility in Children (1530), which gave much useful advice, including “don’t wipe your nose on your sleeve” and “To fidget around in your seat, and to settle first on one buttock and then the next, gives the impression that you are repeatedly farting, or trying to fart. So make sure your body remains upright and evenly balanced.” This advice shows how physical comportment was seen to reflect moral virtue.
Erasmus’s work was translated into English (by Robert Whittington in 1532) as A lytyll booke of good manners for children, where it joined a body of conduct literature aimed at wealthy adolescents.
In a society where reading aloud was common practice, children were also likely to have been among the audiences who listened to romances and secular poetry. Some medieval manuscripts, such as Bodleian Library Ashmole 61, included courtesy poems explicitly directed at “children yong”, alongside popular Middle English romances, saints’ lives and legends, and short moral and comic tales.
Do children have a history?
A lot of scholarly ink has been spilled in the debate over whether children in the past were understood to have distinct needs. Medievalist Philippe Ariès suggested in Centuries of Childhood that children were regarded as miniature adults because they were dressed to look like little adults and because their routines and learning were geared towards training them for their future roles.
But there is plenty of evidence that children’s social and emotional (as well as spiritual) development were the subject of adult attention in times past. The regulations of late medieval and early modern schools, for example, certainly indicate that children were understood to need time for play and imagination.
Archaeologists working on the sites of schools in The Netherlands have uncovered evidence of children’s games that they played without input from adults and without trying to emulate adult behaviour. Some writers on education suggested that learning needed to appeal to children. This “progressive” view of children’s development is often attributed to John Locke but it has a longer history if we look at theories about education from the 16th century and earlier.
Some of the most imaginative genres that we now associate with children did not start off that way. In Paris in the 1690s, the salon of Marie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville, Baroness d’Aulnoy, brought together intellectuals and members of the nobility.
There, d’Aulnoy told “fairy tales”, which were satires about the royal court of France with a fair bit of commentary on the way society worked (or didn’t) for women at the time. These short stories blended folklore, current events, popular plays, contemporary novels and time-honoured tales of romance.
These were a way to present subversive ideas, but the claim that they were fiction protected their authors. A series of 19th-century novels that we now associate with children were also pointed commentaries about contemporary political and intellectual issues. One of the better known examples is Reverend Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby (1863), a satire against child labour and a critique of contemporary science.
The moral of the story
By the 18th century, children’s literature had become a commercially-viable aspect of London printing. The market was fuelled especially by London publisher John Newbery, the “father” of children’s literature. As literacy rates improved, there was continued demand for instructional works. It also became easier to print pictures that would attract young readers.
More and more texts for children were printed in the 19th century, and moralistic elements remained a strong focus. Katy’s development in patience and neatness in the “School of Pain” is key, for example, in Susan Coolidge’s enormously popular What Katy Did (1872), and feisty, outspoken Judy (spoiler alert!) is killed off in Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians (1894). Some authors managed to bridge the comic with important life lessons. Heinrich Hoffman’s memorable 1845 classic Struwwelpeter reads now like a kids’ version of dumb ways to die.
By the turn of the 20th century, we see the emergence of a “kids’ first” literature, where children take on serious matters with (or often without) the help of adults and often within a fantasy context. The works of Lewis Carroll, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, Francis Hodgson Burnett, Edith Nesbit, JM Barrie, Frank L Baum, Astrid Lindgren, Enid Blyton, CS Lewis, Roald Dahl and JK Rowling operate in this vein.
Children’s books still contain moral lessons – they continue to acculturate the next generation to society’s beliefs and values. That’s not to say that we want our children to be wizards, but we do want them to be brave, to stand up for each other and to develop a particular set of values.
We tend to see children’s literature as providing imaginative spaces for children, but are often short-sighted about the long and didactic history of the genre. And as historians, we continue to seek out more about the autonomy and agency of pre-modern children in order to understand how they might also have found spaces in which to exercise their imagination beyond books that taught them how to pray.
Susan Broomhall, Director, Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, University of Western Australia; Joanne McEwan, Researcher, University of Western Australia, and Stephanie Tarbin, Lecturer in medieval and early modern history, University of Western Australia
Proposed changes to Australia’s copyright law should make it easier for people to create and distribute versions of copyrighted works that are accessible to people with disabilities.
The Copyright Amendment (Disability Access and other Measures) Bill was introduced to Parliament on Wednesday.
If passed, it would enable people with disabilities to access and enjoy books and other material in formats they can use, such as braille, large print or DAISY audio.
The Australian Human Rights Commission has long been calling for action to end the “world book famine” – only 5% of books produced in Australia are available in accessible formats. This means that people with vision impairment and other reading disabilities are excluded from a massive proportion of the world’s knowledge and culture.
Under the current law, educational institutions and other organisations can produce accessible copies of books, but the system is slow and expensive. Only a small number of popular books are available, and technical books that people need for work are often out of reach.
Technology should make accessibility much easier, but publishers have been slow to enable assistive technologies.
People with disabilities have long complained that they are not able to take advantage of new technologies such as inbuilt screen reading software on computers and smartphones.
Amazon’s Kindle, for example, used to allow text-to-speech to help blind people read books, but Amazon gave in to publishers’ fears and allowed them to disable the feature. Apple’s electronic books are much better, but there are still major gaps.
Our research looked at books available through electronic academic databases, and found that most ebook libraries have some features that frustrate full accessibility.
The Copyright Act in its current form does grant statutory licences for copying by institutions that assist people with disabilities, but there are no comprehensive exceptions for individuals. Research shows that even students in resourced universities have trouble accessing the materials they need to study.
A fair right for people with disabilities
The new Bill aims to create a clear right for individuals to copy materials into accessible formats. Critically, this new “fair dealing” exception also allows other people to help out by creating and sharing accessible versions of books and other materials.
This is a major milestone in making copyright law more fair. It implements Australia’s obligations under the Marrakesh Treaty, a landmark international agreement designed to stop copyright getting in the way of accessibility.
The Marrakesh Treaty, once implemented around the world, will enable organisations to share accessible books to the people who need them in other countries. This is an extremely important change as the costs of scanning and making a book accessible are so high that most blind people are denied access to most works.
Once the laws are clarified, the accessibility of books will increase dramatically. Google has been busy digitising the world’s books, and it has given those books to a charity called Hathi Trust. Soon, Hathi Trust will be able to share those books with blind people around the world.
Google’s partnership with Hathi Trust means that blind people will soon be able to access more than 14 million volumes almost overnight. This figure may grow quickly as Google has already digitised more than 30 million books. Very soon, the proportion of accessible books might jump from 5-10% to closer to 30%.
A missed opportunity
The Bill also proposes a number of other long awaited updates to Australian copyright law. But one thing the Bill does not do is fix a drafting error that has plagued Australian copyright law for the past decade.
When Australia signed the Australia – US Free Trade Agreement, we introduced a system of “notice-and-takedown” that would protect copyright owners. The system provides a way for people to ask online service providers to remove content that infringes copyright.
But the law was poorly drafted. It applied only to a small number of Internet Service Providers (such as Telstra, Optus and iiNet) but not the larger category of search engines and content hosts.
This means it does not apply to giants such as Google and Facebook. It also means that other organisations that host content uploaded by users, such as The Conversation, are also excluded.
These safe harbours provide a shield in case people – outside of the service provider’s control – use their networks to upload content that infringes any copyright laws.
The reason they are so critical is that it is often prohibitively expensive for the companies that host internet content to check all content before a user uploads it.
But the safe harbours aren’t free. The quid pro quo is that the ISP must introduce a notice and takedown scheme. This is one of the few effective mechanisms to get content removed from the internet, and has been a crucial part of protecting the rights of publishers and authors online.
When the new Bill was first drafted, it was set to fix the drafting error that excludes content hosts, search engines, universities and other organisations from the scheme. But the Bill introduced this week contains no such fix.
The extension of these safe harbours has become highly politicised, with major rightsholders warning that it looked like a win for Google and Facebook.
The past two decades of the internet in the United States have shown how critical the safe harbours are to all developers, both large and small. They reduce uncertainty and allow innovation in the ways that people access content.
So while this new Bill is important, it is also a missed opportunity. The drafting error in Australia’s copyright safe harbours means that neither tech companies or authors and publishers are well protected.
Tess Van Geelen, a Research Assistant at the Faculty of Law, Queensland University of Technology, contributed to this article.
Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen was one of the most popular European fairy tale authors in 19th century England. While today Andersen is known for his agonised mermaids, disabled tin soldiers and disenfranchised match sellers, his Victorian readers celebrated tales that raised environmental concerns during an age of rapid industrialisation.
According to a recent international research project, human activity has been the leading cause of global warming since the early stages of the Industrial Revolution – decades before scientists had previously estimated. Global warming is not a 20th-century phenomenon; rather, humans have been impacting the environment for over 180 years.
From 1760 to 1914 in England, vast numbers of people moved from the country to the city for financial security. London’s population swelled, prompting a century-long struggle with filth. An outdated sewage system released all human waste into the capital’s water supply, smoke poured from both factory and domestic chimneys and streets were caked with coal, mud, vegetable matter and animal waste.
As urban life became increasingly distanced from nature, Andersen’s fairy tales thrived. While Victorian fantasy literature often romanticised nature as an escape from the encroaching industrial landscape, Andersen showed human characters as the source of environmental degradation.
For example, Andersen’s stories The Fir Tree, The Daisy and The Flax, feature plants that are tortured and abused by human characters. In these stories, talking plants suffer the dangers of industry.
Despite the pain they experience, these plants are selfless providers willing to compromise their personal happiness for human interest. These sympathetic depictions of nature, during a century of environmental devastation, encouraged children to reflect on their impact on the landscape.
Other tales, such as The Great Sea Serpent, detail the emerging conflict between animals and technology. The story describes fish reacting to the installation of the transatlantic telegraph cable, which ran the length of the Atlantic ocean between Europe and America.
With the chaos of the installation, schools of fish become separated, sea-anemones “were so agitated that they threw up their stomachs” and the cod and flounders who once “lived peacefully” began to eat their neighbours.
When the fish rally together to destroy the cable, a shark is impaled by a sword-fish and “great fishes and small, sea-anemones and snails rushed at one another, ate each other, mashed and squeezed in” while “the cable lay quietly and attended to its affairs”. The telegraph cable is not a positive technological breakthrough, but a threat to the environment.
A microscopic (yet equally voracious) ecosystem and its parallels with increasingly hostile cities is the subject of Andersen’s Drop of Water. A sorcerer named Creep-and-Crawl examines an extract of ditch water using a microscopic lens. He notices organisms that “hopped and jumped about, pulled one another and pecked one another”. Seeing the organism’s violent, unruly conduct, his colleague assumes that the creatures must be living in a capital city.
The Victorian public was equally horrified by the organisms that were hidden in its drinking water. The fear of contaminated water was well founded: an antiquated sewage system directed London’s cesspools to the Thames, which was the capital’s water reserve. Chemicals from factories were also released into the river, spreading waterborne diseases such as typhoid, cholera, and dysentery.
Andersen’s contemporaries also exaggerated microscopic images of organisms (otherwise known as “monster soup”) in contemporary journals. In these illustrations, samples of water from the Thames were filled with a host of aggressive, potentially deadly beasts.
For example, an anonymous illustration published in Punch magazine in 1850 shows hybrid and humanoid creatures wearing tuxedos in a petri dish. Amidst the chaos, small worm-like creatures spell out the word “pestilence”.
William Heath’s coloured engraving from 1828 features winged creatures, hybrid animals and crustaceans with protruding fangs; the woman viewing the contaminated water is so disgusted that she drops her cup and saucer.
By exploring the repercussions of an industrialised landscape, Andersen’s fairy tales provided commentary on a very real, looming threat to the English landscape and its population.
Today, with the steady rise of dystopian literature, ecofiction and climate change fiction (otherwise known as “cli fi”), we see similar artistic responses to environmental change which steer readers away from complacency. As authors seek to express the gravity and severity of ecological crises, their literature holds the potential to inspire radical change.