Anyone know about the history of children's literature? I have a weird question.

(111 Posts)
NowBringUsSomeFuzzpiggyPudding Fri 13-Dec-13 23:08:42

Not sure if this is the best place but I'm hoping somebody knowledgeable can answer this for me. smile

So, I've been reading chapter books to my 6yo and we've nearly finished the unabridged Peter Pan and Wendy. It's the first chapter book we've done that was unfamiliar to me (in that I hadn't read it myself as a child) and I was really surprised at just how tricky some of the language was and how lengthy the descriptions are compared to more recent books.

Should've expected it really but it got me thinking, did children at the time of PPAW etc have much better understanding of more elaborate language and they would have understood it as easily as modern children would understand a modern book? Is it just that the English language as a whole has changed?

Or is it because back then (I'm crap at history, can you tell?!) only wealthier children had access to education and books and so a higher standard of language was used?

Or is it that at the time, authors were less aware of their audience and the 'need' to simplify things for children to be able to understand them?

Does any of that even make sense blush hoping somebody gets what I mean!

curlew Fri 13-Dec-13 23:19:33

I find this endlessly fascinating, I am in my 50s, and I know that I read all sorts of books as a child that my own clever, bookish children couldn't have begun to tackle. I have varying theories, depending on my mood/the phase of the moon.
I think that, certainly in my childhood, there was much less to do. So once it was dark, there were only the available books to plough through. I think as well, that children were expected to do difficult things- certainly nobody ever thought my self esteem would be crushed by not being able to do something. We were expected to struggle- and either succeed or fail- in a way that children nowadays aren't. I also think, more cynically, that it is amazing how many pristine, unread versions of "the classics" you find in second hand bookshops- maybe they were't actually read- just kept neatly on shelves? I always have a wry smile at posted on here who talk enthusiastically about "devouring" Wuthering Heights at 9- memory is very deceiving!

NowBringUsSomeFuzzpiggyPudding Fri 13-Dec-13 23:34:50

All those points are ones I'd not even considered! Thanks for replying smile more to ponder tonight then grin

chocolatecrispies Fri 13-Dec-13 23:38:49

Do you think PPW was aimed at 6 year olds? I would have thought it was written for an older, self reading audience - but I may be wrong. How much did parents read aloud to their children then? I wouldn't be surprised if that has massively increased in the last 50 years or so and so children would have accessed books later.

curlew Fri 13-Dec-13 23:44:17

I think literate parents have always read to their children- there are lots of references to reading aloud in books like Little Women and so on.

curlew Fri 13-Dec-13 23:45:33

And story telling is as old as humanity.

legoplayingmumsunite Fri 13-Dec-13 23:52:21

I don't think you need to go back as far as PPAW, when we read the Worst witch books to the DC the language was noticably more complex than more modern chapter books aimed at younger readers. The DC loved it though so I wonder if as adults we sometimes underestimate children.

I think there is a general trend to think we were brighter/harder working than the younger generation, isn't there some comment from a famous ancient greek along the lines of 'young people today'? At work every time we interview people we are shocked at how little some candidates know but on the other hand some of the ones we actually employ are so bright.

I wonder if another factor is the fact that society has got more casual and e.g. the Today programme covers the Mercury Award. There's less of the 'My knowledge has more value than your knowledge' that you see in some older academics (FIL). So there's less emphasis on complex language in children's books and more on a fun story.

Finally, and almost completely contradictory to the above suggestion, maybe the books we read as children seem more complex is because only the complex and interesting stories survive, whereas we are aware of the books we read now that won't have longevity, probably because they don't have such complex language. Although there is always Enid Blyton!

There lots of possible reasons why, it's just crying out for a PhD student to do some analysis of the text of children's fiction.

snowtunesgirl Sat 14-Dec-13 00:00:27

I read a book ages ago about how children learn to read and they showed in the book how children's books are indeed much more simplistic with regards vocabulary words than in previous generations.

It's felt more now that only a few new words should be added every now and again but in previous generations, they didn't "water it down" and in fact big words didn't daunt children, they just learnt them faster.

TheWanderingUterus Sat 14-Dec-13 00:09:26

Also a hundred or so years ago there would be greater emphasis on self-improvement through worthy literature etc, especially on Sundays when other pastimes were banned or restricted. Regularly listening to the bible at home and at church, books of sermons, classical texts such as the Aeneid and the poetry and classic literature of their own parents generation would have exposed children at that time to a wider vocabulary etc than currently where we have so many other things competing for our attention.

Teaching was different as well, rote learning of poems and epilogues etc. My father can still recite some of the poems he learnt at school in the 1950s for example.

amistillsexy Sat 14-Dec-13 00:23:02

I remember reading 'classics' when I was a child and not understanding lots of what I was reading. So long as I could follow the story, though, I was happy. Looking back, I sort of expected to have large portions of the book that I found indigestible and probably skimmed over.

Now, there is much more emphasis on the child's comprehension (rightly so, IMO), and so it wouldn't be acceptable for a child to skim-read the difficult bits.

Another thing I've just thought of, is that I re-read my favourite books all the time. Last year, DH searched for and finally found and bought for me two that had been my DM's when she was a child (so written 70-80 years ago). When I read them, it was like meeting an old and very dear, familiar friend. I realised that I know whole sections of each book by heart (these are longer 'chapter' books), but then I realised I read them about 8 times a year for about 10 years, so little wonder, really!

Oh, and that's another thing, Books for children didn't used to come with recommended reading ages, and childhood lasted much longer. I was enjoying those books from about 6 to 16 (and beyond!), so my understanding would have changed and grown as I did. It would have started as a basic following the story, and then as time went on, I would have come to understand motives of characters, and understood my own reactions and how they related to the author's intentions for the reader.

TaraKnowles Sat 14-Dec-13 00:49:24

I think that language has changed, of course it has, and there is nothing wrong with that, but it doesn't hurt to be able to read older texts and gain a meaning from them. Maybe having them read to you or being able to ask somebody about specific words is a classical education in itself.

V Interesting thread OP.

Takver Sat 14-Dec-13 09:46:57

I suspect there isn't one simple reason. I'd agree with various points made above: books were often read out loud, many books we see as children's classics would have been read by older children / teenagers rather than young children on the whole, there was less entertainment available so children made the most of what there was etc.

Also, on the whole only the 'better' books have survived. I've got a sprinkling of children's books dating from around the late 19th to mid 20th century, and while the language is dated, I don't think it is actually that much more complex than many modern books.

For example, I've got a big pile of Books for the Bairns and they definitely use simple language with lots of pictures to help children follow the story.

Campaspe Sat 14-Dec-13 18:59:48

What an interesting debate with a lot of good points made. I agree with just about everyone! I've noticed though, that even Enid Blyton uses a more formal and structured language, than, say, the Rainbow Fairy books. When you listen to old BBC broadcasts, it does seem that more formal language was the norm. I think we have moved from being a primarily literate culture to a more visual one (and I think that's a bit of a shame).

LizzieVereker Sat 14-Dec-13 19:24:20

The reasons for this are fascinating and complex. The English Language has changed greatly in the last 250 years, mostly because of the way we use it. There is far more emphasis on clarity and brevity today, because of the amount of communications we send and receive. Most documents are are aimed at the "middle ground" reader who is reasonably literate, things like the "crystal plain English" campaign have had an effect, and we have all become accustomed to this as a bench mark.

If you read any text from the late 18th or early 19th Centuries the syntax and sentence lengths were so much more complex, mainly because texts were written and digested much more slowly. One of the biggest impacts on children's reading was the availability of light in the home - the availability of safe candles and lanterns had a huge impact on Literacy rates. Pre electricity children tended to be read to from much more complex texts, both at home and in dingy Victorian classrooms. Once reading became easier due to more light in the home, they read more independently and books with simpler syntax were printed for them, from the 1920s onwards. Printing and papermaking also became cheaper which led to a demand for a wider range of books.

My favourite story about reading concerns the first English novel, Pamela, by Samuel Richardson. In one village the rural community would be out working in all daylight hours, and the only literate person who also had light in their home after dark was the village Blacksmith. He read the novel to the village in installments, and when Pamela got her happy ending, the whole village cheered and had an impromptu party to celebrate! The local Squire recorded that he was unimpressed that many farm labourers were late the next day!

LizzieVereker Sat 14-Dec-13 19:24:52

Sorry, that was very long!

Campaspe Sun 15-Dec-13 18:39:11

Lizzie - don't apologise; that was a fascinating post. I've never thought before about the impact of lighting in the home, but, of course! It makes me think that I would have hated to have lived 150 years ago.

NowBringUsSomeFuzzpiggyPudding Sun 15-Dec-13 19:44:41

I hadn't thought of the lighting either! A useful insight.

chocolatecrispies TBH I hadn't actually considered what age Peter Pan was aimed at (then or now) blush I just saw a beautifully illustrated edition here in the library and thought oh why not. Basically because she likes the Disney film grin

I thought she'd not get into it or say it was too tricky, but then I decided to give it a try as some people I know have told me of being read things like the hobbit when they were quite young. Obviously I know there is a difference between what a child can read themselves, and what they can follow when read to. But I didn't realise just how big that difference could be IYSWIM? She has really enjoyed it despite not understanding it all perfectly. Like Tara says the fact DD has been able to ask what things mean really helped. Though she certainly doesn't ask about everything - I guess you just filter out the words that aren't necessary to the understanding of the plot.

Perhaps my view is skewed as I always stuck to things that were far too easy for me - I had a very high reading age BUT what nobody really realised was that my comprehension was lagging behind (I have since learned I have some issues with processing). I learned how to bluff my way through tests and could get full marks without actually understanding the text - I could analyse sentences but would be clueless about the piece as a whole. I was expected to read classics because I was very precocious, but I couldn't process them so would give up after a chapter or so and go back to my famous fives!

Sorry I have waffled! blush

Greydog Sun 15-Dec-13 19:49:25

Facinating topic! But I have some childrens' annuals from years ago and their quiz questions in them are so hard. I'll try to find them. I don't think that todays youngsters would be able to answer the eqivalent questions.

VikingLady Sun 15-Dec-13 19:59:28

I should think a large part if simplification is due to shorter attention spans and the growing expectation of instant gratification. I don't know many children who are accustomed to persisting with something hard for prolonged periods. Even lessons in school are chopped up into short sections to keep children's attention fresh, and leisure is much the same.

What an interesting thread! Love the Pamela story too Lizzie

I've recently been reading aloud A Christmas Carol on my Kindle to DS (7yrs) as he is voracious reader. There are wordy bit where he gets a bit fidgetty, but some sections have held him absolutely spellbound, and he was keen to have a go at reading it himself. It made me think of Victorian families sitting around with the latest instalment of Household Words.

DS has also been reading Nesbit, which is obviously dated in terms of slang (you rotter etc) but somehow manages to capture children, particularly sibling relationships, so well... One thing I notice about Nesbit (who was writing to earn her living, not worrying about producing classic literature) is the richness of the vocab.

JanePurdy Sun 15-Dec-13 20:01:40

Really interesting topic. I don't have much to contribute but am reading with great fascination. I do think it's true that te classics tend to be the good ones. My gran collects children's literature & I have read some simplistic dross from the 19th century! But broadly I agree that there has been a shift.

Hassled Sun 15-Dec-13 20:08:14

This is fascinating, and quite reassuring as I had a similar experience to the OP trying "My Family and Other Animals" with DS3. I thought it would be right up his street - same age as protagonist, on a Greek island (as were we in the summer) etc. But it was just so hard.

DS3 has a good vocabulary, I thought, but was stumped by much of the language - and much longer and more detailed descriptive passages than I think he's used to.

This is such an interesting thread.

I think part of it is that the expectations change so much - so children today would know about loads of things children 150 years ago might not, and that has to mean they've less time to spend on everything else. There's a brilliant set of books that starts (IIRC) with 'A London Child in the 1870s'. They're memoirs, and the writer eventually became a teacher herself. What's interesting is that she seems to be incredibly well-read and knows the classics and so on - but when she describes the maths she did, it was very basic, and she barely mentions anything that sounds like science. So her education just had such different priorities.

manechanger Sun 15-Dec-13 20:17:08

this is interesting. A slightly different point but related; when I was a child I LOVED enid blyton and was really looking forward to reading them to my children. I think they are really awful now I have read them again but I read swallows and amazons to the kids and it was inspirational. The language was complex and ransome uses proper technical language to describe sailing and often then explains the techniques, he really doesn't water it down and I think it's clear he has sailed.

We went on to read an enid blyton story which had been written ten years after S&A and was a really insipid echo of swallows and amazons and there were too many similarities for it to be coincidence but no proper technical sailing terms. I think she must have been considered a 'childrens writer' and ransome perhaps wasn't.

cowgirl, My kids went through a real nesbit stage, I had read her books when i was younger but for some reason just hadn't been as struck by them as Enid Blytons yet now I find them much better to read. I don't really know why that is, perhaps I liked the formulaic nature of the secret seven etc stories.

I never really read Blyton, I got a bit grumpy about her female characters, even as a child.

I put my extensive childhood reading mainly down to the fact that we didn't get a telly until I was 9, and I tended to fill the time with reading.

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