The Pioneers of Children’s Literature: 6 Best Children’s Books from the 18th Century and Earlier

“A childhood without books – that would be no childhood. That would be like being shut out from the enchanted place where you can go and find the rarest kind of joy.”

― Astrid Lindgren

Astrid Lindgren’s words would undoubtedly continue to ring true for centuries to come. Reading is one of those habits which when inculcated from childhood, can shape your life in unimaginable ways. Books not only teach us moralistic lessons but also take us on daily adventures to worlds very different from our own. However, children are fickle beings. A book has to be truly fascinating to hold their interest.

 In today’s world, we have a whole genre dedicated to books specifically intended for kids. Children’s literature, also known as juvenile literature, refers to books written for the sole purpose of a child’s entertainment. With so many colorful and fun kid’s books out there, it is very easy for us to forget that before the 18th century the genre was practically non-existent. The books published for children before then were meant to be instructional manuals aiming to teach kids the alphabet, morals, etiquette, and religion. The concept of childhood gained precedence during the 18th century. Children were no longer considered little adults. Gradually, publishers began to produce books meant for the enjoyment of little kids. A Little Book for Little Children, published in 1712, was one such collection of riddles and rhymes. Mary Cooper came out with the two-volume Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book in 1744. It is widely considered to be the first nursery rhyme collection. It was John Newberry who truly revolutionized children’s literature. In 1744, he published A Pretty Pocket-Book Intended for the Instruction and Amusement of Little Master Tommy and Pretty Miss Polly. The brightly colored tome came with a ball for boys and a pincushion for girls. Newberry’s books not only aimed to amuse but also impart lessons to children in a fun manner. He is rightfully hailed as the father of children’s literature.

Children’s literature continued to evolve. Illustrated books and treatises exploring childhood were on the rose. Undoubtedly, the 18th century became the breeding ground for modern children’s literature.

Let us have a look at six amazing children’s books from the 18th century and before.

An Ancient Collection of Fables

Book: Panchatantra

Author: Vishnu Sharma

Panchatantra page

Penned in Sanskrit, Vishnu Sharma’s Panchatantra is one of the oldest surviving literary works in the world. A collection of animal fables, written in verse and prose, is presented for our enjoyment in a frame story format. Though it is dated to 200 BCE, the stories are much more ancient. Even before they were written down, the unimaginably old fables had been orally passed on through generations. It is quite difficult to attribute this literary masterpiece to a specific individual. However, Vishnu Sharma is accepted to be the author in many circles. The tales teach us important moral lessons through fun animal stories. The human-like animals all possess virtues and vices which make them relatable. The book is divided into five parts. Each part includes a plethora of interconnected stories. The Panchatantra is considered to be one of the most translated pieces of work. It continues to captivate the imaginations of children and adults to this day.

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Evergreen Parables from Ancient Greece

Book: Aesop’s Fables

Author: Aesop

Aesopus - Aesopus moralisatus, circa 1485 - 2950804 Scan00010

At one point or another, we have all heard some of Aesop’s tales. Purported to be written over two millennia ago, Aesop’s Fables, also called Aesopica, remains one of the most circulated tales for children. The stories are all attributed to Aesop, a tongue-tied slave who miraculously gained the gift of speech. The tale of the hare and the tortoise and the boy who cried wolf are only two of the most recounted stories from the collection. All the tales in Aesop’s Fables have ingrained lessons that still charm the modern reader.

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A Travelogue for Children

Book: Robinson Crusoe

Author: Daniel Defoe

Robinson Crusoe 1719 1st edition

Robinson Crusoe is one of the earliest forerunners of the modern novel. First published in 1719, Daniel Defoe’s story follows an English castaway who spends twenty-eight years stranded on a tropical island. His time on the island brings him face to face with a lot of perils. From cannibals and captives to mutineers, he is compelled to deal with them all. It is believed that the novel is inspired by the adventures of Alexander Selkirk. At the age of 28, he had managed to survive for five years on a deserted island near Chile. As it is written in the format of a journal, many people thought that the book was the real-life autobiography of Crusoe when it was first released. This further propelled it to popularity. This classic tale still manages to ignite the adventurous spirits of children today.

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A Rare Insight into Man and Nature

Book: Gulliver’s Travels

Author: Jonathan Swift

Irish author, Jonathan Swift decided “to vex the world rather than divert it” when he penned Gulliver’s Travels in 1726. This satire unabashedly explores human nature and society. It follows Lemuel Gulliver as he undertakes four different adventures. All of his trysts start off with him being shipwrecked on an island populated by a civilization with a strange culture. Gulliver’s interactions with the different islanders teach us myriad lessons about the follies of humanity. Swift adopts an epistolary narrative style where everything is portrayed from Gulliver’s perspective alone. Swift, as an author, remains an unbiased presence. His witty remarks and sharp comments about humanity still ring true. Unlike Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels is filled with dry humor and wild creativity. The book continues to give flight to the imaginations of young souls around the world.

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The Tale of a Do-gooder

Book: The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes

Author: John Newberry

Goody Two-Shoes (1)

Published by John Newberry in 1765, The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes can be rightfully credited for the popularization of the term “goody two shoes.” Although the authorship of the book remains unconfirmed, many accept Oliver Goldsmith as the writer of this novel tale. The children’s book follows little Margery Meanwell who always chooses the right and fair option, even in the face of adversity. The orphan spends her life being thankful for what little she has. Margery’s success in life teaches children the value of virtue in an engaging manner. This book is considered to be a ground-breaking work in the history of Anglophone children’s literature. In a time when children’s stories were dry and moralistic, The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes provided levity and entertainment along with a great lesson about goodness.

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The First Instance of Pedagogy in Literature

Book: Lessons for Children

Author: Anna Laetitia Barbauld


Anna Laetitia Barbauld was a renowned British poet and essayist. In 1778 and 1779, she came up with a revolutionary idea. Her Lessons for Children put the needs of the children on priority. The collection of reading primers ensured that the child had ease in learning. The four primers included texts that gradually increased in difficulty level. Instead of a monotonous reading material, Barbauld’s books had Charles and his mother discussing humanity and its relationship with nature. This unique take on children’s literature served as an inspiration for many aspiring authors. Lessons for Children itself was reprinted for over a hundred years.

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More often than not, books become the window through which a child first glimpses into the real world. They become our friends and teachers from the very first stages of life. So, a genre dedicated to children is of utmost significance. As we continue celebrating today’s children’s literature, let us all take a moment and look back to enjoy the books that are the true pioneers of the genre.  

Note: All images used on this post are in the public domain.

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