The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

XVI. Children’s Books

§ 1. Schoolbooks

CHILDREN’S books, throughout the history of English literature, have been in that literature, but not of it. Phrases and persons from nursery lore have passed irrevocably into the national arsenal of metaphor and allusion, while the sources of them may not have had any claim to serious literary consideration. Children, too, have annexed the books of their elders—Robinson Crusoe is the standard example—and have almost established a prescriptive right to the conquered territory. But not many books written specially for children have also been enduring literature, in any real sense, though the exceptions are notable. The nursery library, in fact, has been a separate thing; developed differently, furnished from a different standpoint, with works written in a different vein of inspiration and produced, commercially, with different limitations and standards. Nor is the criterion of judgment upon it, whether the reader or the historian be the judge, the same as upon more solemn or artistic performances.

Its history really opens in the eighteenth century. Yet, in the beginnings, the “grown-up” and the child coincide, in a way. The writers who, in the first volume of this work, treated of the riddles of Cynewulf, Aelfric and Aldhelm, and of the scholastic labours of Alcuin at York, were chronicling the very earliest books for children in the language. Those who, in the same volume, discussed the metrical romances of 1200–1500 set forth at large the adult works whose disjecta membra were still the framework of the cheapest books for children in the eighteenth century; while Aesop, and bestiaries, and such a collection as Gesta Romanorum were certainly, to some extent, read by children as well as by the older flock at whom the monkish editors aimed.

But these early productions are hardly what would be meant to-day by the term “children’s books,” which, perhaps, is best and most conveniently interpreted as “books read or meant to be read by children for pleasure or for profit, or for both, in their leisure hours.” Children read medieval riddles and schoolbooks, certainly; but they read them perforce, as part of their education. So far as the social life of these early periods is clear, it is probable that children read little out of school, for the simple reason that, outside learned establishments, there was nothing to read. The fables and anecdotes of which they acquired a knowledge must usually, from the same cause, have been communicated to them either orally or by the chances of tuition. Apart from purposes of education, children had no books of their own before the seventeenth century, and very few then.

Educational books deserve brief mention. They are only literature by accident, but they are, sometimes, not wholly scholastic. Aelfric’s Colloquy and the numerous successors to it have this feature of artistic composition in them, that they are not merely tabular; the dialogue form could be given a certain fictitious vivacity. It long survived the renascence. Erasmus endued it with fresh popularity and authority, and it persisted until the eighteenth century. Sententiae Pueriles, a work of this kind which, in form, goes back to Aelfric, appears in various editions over a long period, the last being 1728. Pueriles Confabulationculae—there were two works of the same name, one by Cordier, the other by Evaldus Gallus—appears in 1693—with a preface dated 1548.