Children's lit in the 20th Century

The ground work laid in the 19th century paved the way for new and innovative genres of kids lit in the 20th century, which didn't rely on traditional folklore. With the dawning of the new century, fantasy stories with novel settings and characters appeared on both sides of the Atlantic, as was perfectly timed by L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900. A.A. Milne wrote his first Winnie-the-Pooh (delightfully illustrated by Ernest Shepard) in 1927, and the first Mary Poppins (P. L. Travers) came out in 1934. J. R. R. Tolkien's works established what's become known as epic fantasy with The Lord of the Rings beginning in 1937.

All these books were so successful that many subsequent editions were printed, with different illustrators and issued in different formats (collections, paperback editions, colour editions, audio books, etc.). These stories, all still in print in 2016, also all spawned TV and film versions later in the century.

The demand for these story books prompted authors to follow up on their original tales with additional titles, creating sets of books that shared characters, settings, and similar story arcs. P. L. Travers released another seven books with Mary Poppins as the lead character, while L. Frank Baum added thirteen more titles to his Oz oeuvre. Mid-way through the 20th  century, children’s books series became increasingly popular, as was seen with Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, and Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five and The Secret Seven. And, of course, late in the century, the wildly successful Harry Potter (J. K. Rowling) series of books made their debut, straddling both 20th and 21st centuries.
Reading Owl (Canadian Animals series), V. Lawton
Adult themes also found their way into modern children's literature. The Little Prince is a fantasy allegory (published in French as Le Petit Prince), and is one of the best selling books of all time. Written in 1943 by Antoine de Saint-Expery, The Little Prince was published essentially as a children's book, with watercolour illustrations by the author, yet dealt with profound philosophical questions regarding the nature of humanity.

In the second half of the 20th century, children's libraries increasingly included fantasy books with philosophical thinking points for their young readers, like the sci-fantasy A Wrinkle in Time (Madeleine L’Engle), the allegorical Narnia series (C. S. Lewis), and Charlotte's Web (E. B. White). 

Awarding Excellence in Children's Literature
A new and significant measure of value was placed on children’s literature in the 20th century with the establishment of various awards, like the John Newbery Medal in 1922. The Newbery was named for the 18th century English publisher of children's literature, and is still awarded annually for the most distinguished work of literature for children. Winners include Daughtery’s Daniel Boone (1940), Lois Lowry’s The Giver (1994), and Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan (2013).

First awarded in 1938, the Randolph Caldecott Medal, named for the English illustrator,  was created to celebrate the Best Picture Book of the Year. Winners of this award have included Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings in 1942, Bemelmans’ Madeline's Rescue (1954), Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (1964), and Jon Klassen’s This is Not My Hat (2013).

Next blog post – what does the 21st century hold for kids' lit?


Popular Posts