Throughout November, an international literacy initiative called “Picture Book Month” is spending the month celebrating the print picture book. Picture books are the domain of children, incredibly common today for a mix of entertainment and education, but books specifically for children rarely existed before the mid-eighteenth century. Prior to this time, children were expected to read educational or moral books such as religious works or books on grammar, but there were rarely illustrations meant to capture the interests of children. Early exceptions included a book of children's games Les Jeux et Plaisirs de L'Enfance (The Games and Pleasures of Childhood, 1657) and John Amos Comenius's Orbis Sensualium Pictus (The Visible World in Pictures, 1658), an assemblage of captioned illustrations of the natural world. The latter is often regarded as the first picture book for children. Following this period, picture books were developed for instructional purposes, such as with alphabet books and books with illustrations for math, grammar, and science, but it was some time before picture books became more than just a means of instruction through illustration.
Les Jeux et Plaisirs de L'Enfance (left) and Orbis Sensualium Pictus (right)
Publishing for children was expanded as new modes of printing were developed in the eighteenth century that allowed for better reproduction of art. John Newbury (1713-1767) was the most important of the early publishers printing vast quantities of children’s literature of all types. Fairy tales and moral tales were the most significant genres in children’s literature during this period, though fairy tales were under a fair amount of criticism until the nineteenth century when they flourished and dominated the children’s book world. It was in the later nineteenth century that the idea of childhood as a thing separate from adulthood, that deserved to be enjoyed, was developed. Along with this idea came new books in which the illustrations were meant to be at least as important as the text. Children’s book illustration became a major artistic genre in the second half of the nineteenth century, elevating the stories that authors were able to tell through words. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw the true arrival of picture books as new developments in printing, the changing ideas of childhood, and the arrival of dedicated artists and storytellers came together to create a lasting genre.
The children’s library here at the Redwood is filled with picture books. There are some that seek to educate and others that merely want to tell a story, but in all of them, the illustrations heighten the experience of reading. Maurice Sendak (1928-2012) was one of the most famous illustrators and writers of children’s books in the twentieth century and one of his earliest illustrated stories can be found in our children’s special collection.
Written by Beatruce Schenk de Regniers, The Giant Story (1953) tells the tale of a boy named Tommy who wakes up one morning and decides that he is a giant. While the story may not be his own, Sendak illustrates the adventures of the giant named Tommy until the boy begins to get tired, when he finds himself getting smaller and smaller until it is time for bed. The world around Tommy shrinks and grows as he does, with even the words changing size as Tommy beings to shrink back down. There may not be a deep moral lesson in such a story, but the early artwork of Maurice Sendak serves to entertain along with the words, creating an experience for children. The development of this idea in picture books led to an explosion of literature for children driven by illustrations and stories that were aimed as much at imagination and entertainment as education and improvement.