Course convenor: Jill Shefrin
Children's Books, 1450-2000

Examining early and modern rare children’s books through the lenses of publishing, authorship, illustration, design, printing and reception, this course provides a holistic introduction to the field, addressing the book as a physical object—both bibliographically and materially—with a focus on rarity.

Children are hard on their possessions, many of which survive only a single generation. Until the last century, copyright deposit libraries did not especially value the acquisition of books published for children; books from earlier periods, produced for a cheap popular market or published under wartime conditions may be especially scarce. As a result, scarcity and ephemerality are important considerations in the study of early children’s books. Institutional collecting of rare and early children’s books has been a largely twentieth- and twenty-first century phenomenon, although collectors and scholars have been contributing to the study of early children’s books since the later nineteenth century.

Perspectives to be addressed during the week include the different parties in the creation, production, distribution and consumption of children’s books; public bodies and private individuals who have mediated children’s reading; the role of private collectors in amassing and donating major collectors to institutions. The following questions will also be addressed: What constitutes a children’s book? For how many centuries have children’s books been published and marketed? How has their evolution been affected by factors such as religious and educational ideas and practices or cultural norms? Sessions will focus on such topics as historical context, evolving technologies, readership, and bibliography. Students will see how changes in publishing practice and the technologies available to the creators of children’s books have affected the final product.

Beyond children themselves, children’s books have long been of interest to children’s librarians and primary schoolteachers on the one hand, and, on the other, to antiquarian collectors, booksellers and librarians of special collections primarily concerned with bibliography and in the history of publishing and illustration. In recent decades, bibliographical, critical and historical research have exploded, supported in part by academic interest in the history of the book and the study of children’s literature. Academics in a range of disciplines—particularly English literature—have entered the field. The result has been a complex mix of historical and bibliographic studies geared to very different audiences. Students should acquire a sufficient sense of the current state of bibliographical and historical research in the field to enable them to pursue their own professional or personal interests.

Students will have the opportunity to see and handle early material in some of London’s rare book collections and to understand how bibliography serves as a tool of description and communication between the worlds of collectors, booksellers, curators and scholars.


Session 1. Introduction

Jill Shefrin with Brian Alderson

This session introduces the rich variety of books and book-related materials published for children over 500 years. Discussion will include different ways of understanding the progress of publishing for children over the half millennium. Consideration will also be given to the book as a material and physical object as well as to the value of descriptive bibliography and the subject of rarity.


Session 2. Contexts

Jill Shefrin

This session will address the various contexts in which children’s books were created, produced, marketed, distributed and read, asking questions such as: how did children in the past get hold of the books they read? Who were the various adults who mediated children’s access to books and their reading? In any given period, how many and which children were literate, and what did ‘literacy’ mean? What kinds of tools are available to us to discover past children as readers?

Discussion will touch on the movement of books and texts across national and linguistic borders; the concept of juvenile provenance; and the larger question of children’s book history as an aspect of cultural history.


Session 3. Continuous Presence:  Illustration

Brian Alderson

From their very beginnings as a commercial genre children's books have owed part of their appeal, or even didactic purpose, to the regular use of illustrations whose separate function requires some recognition and will thus precede our survey of chronological developments. (Examples of illustrative processes will be shown as slides, their titles being listed in the synopsis below.)


Session 4. Beginnings

Jill Shefrin with Brian Alderson

This session will examine children’s books and children’s reading from before Gutenberg into the seventeenth century in the light of recent scholarly reassessments of books and children in this period. Included here will be a discussion of the importance of the told story and rhyme, with folk literature as another continuous presence, and their character and evolution as distinct from authorially-devised texts. 


Session 5. Case Study 1. Orbis Sensualium Pictus (1658)

Jill Shefrin

Taking one of the most influential children’s books of the seventeenth century, Johan Amos Comenius’s Orbis Sensualium Pictus (1658), as a starting point, this session will examine how progressive educational thinking helped shape publishing for children between the Restoration in 1660 and the 1740s, challenging commonly-held assumptions regarding the latter date a starting point for the history of English children’s literature.

This is the first of three case study sessions. Each reflects the particular expertise of one of the three course tutors. The focus in this session will be on early children’s books as research tools.


Session 6. Publishing and Writing for Children before 1830

Jill Shefrin

This session will examine the period in which children’s book publishing became an established specialization within the London book trade as part of a radical overall expansion of publishing. In the same period distribution of children’s books outside London became more widespread and more common, new genres for children evolved, more authors, including increasing numbers of women, saw writing for children as a possible source of income, and children’s books began to be reviewed.


Session 7. After 1830: the Centrifuge of the Genres

Brian Alderson

Technological and commercial developments after 1830 joined with a changed market awareness to produce a far more diverse literature than in the past. This session is devoted to outlining the emergence and spread of genres and texts which altogether mark a potential for children's literature that was to last until the eruption of digital media.


Session 8. After 1860: Classics Rampant

Brian Alderson

The later Victorian period, and indeed the years up to 1914, saw a continuous succession of artistic and innovatory texts that is probably unparalleled in any other culture of the time.  This session seeks to light upon many of the creative diversities in evidence.


Session 9. Case Study 2. The Water-Babies (18 63)

Brian Alderson

As a single text, dating from its first arrival as a magazine serial in 1862, The Water-Babies was first and foremost a problematic text.  Despite this it underwent a bibliographical history in its early decades far more complex than its famous neighbour, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. The session seeks (within the compass of available physical and scanned copies) to outline the book-trade's response to the text down to 1914       


Session 10. The Development of Children’s Books in the Twentieth Century

Jean Hedger

A journey through the century from the death of Queen Victoria reveals how well produced and beautiful books for children ceased to be the prerogative of wealthy and middle class families in England and became a wonderland of colourful and infinite variety and imagination to be enjoyed by all. This happened in a century punctuated by two world wars, but those times of serious privation created an atmosphere of ingenuity which resulted in refreshingly new forms of children’s books. A selection of relevant books will accompany this session.


Session 11. Collecting Twentieth Century Children’s Books and Their Illustrators

Jean Hedger

An exploration into the field of rare book collection which has become one of the most popular in modern times. Special emphasis will be given to the rising interest shown in the work of the children’s book illustrator. A selection of books and some original artwork will accompany this session.


Session 12. The Antiquarian Trade in Children’s Books

Jean Hedger with Jill Shefrin

Following a short history of early antiquarian booksellers and auctions specializing in early children’s books, discussion will encompass methods of researching, pricing, sales promotion and presentation of books to the market, with examples drawn primarily from the antiquarian trade in twentieth-century children’s books. Special emphasis will be given to developments in the past 35 years, which have affected the trade quite dramatically, not least amongst these being the arrival of the Internet. Examples will illustrate the complexity of the concept of rarity applied to books and their sale or acquisition.


Session 13. Case Study 3. The Wind in the Willows (1908) and Watership Down (1972 and 1976)

The first hour of this session (Jean Hedger) will be devoted to the final case study.

A book considered in isolation can seldom tell the whole story. Looking at these two titles, which both draw on the pastoral traditions of English literature, one can discover links, both between them and with other writing for children.

The second hour (Jill Shefrin) will be devoted to a discussion of the sale, collecting and study of children’s books, past, present and future. Discussion will include the impact of new technologies on the antiquarian trade, contemporary children’s book publishing, and academic research, but will range more broadly to encompass the particular interests of the students.


N.B.: Sessions 6, 7, and 8 will be held at the V&A. They have substantial holdings of children’s books, including The Anne and Fernand Renier Collection of Children’s Books. Children’s books will also be available to view during other sessions.