Earliest Children’s books in England

Children’s books existed even before the printing press had been invented, they are “the Golden Key that opens the Enchanted Door.”

There were many books written for children well before Caxton set up his first printing-press. Generally they were written and copied by the monks in their monastery cells and they combined the teaching of reading with religious instruction. The first children’s book ever printed in UK was probably “The Primer in English Most Necessary for the Education of Children,” published about 1537. After reading came writing, and the first copy-book in England was printed about the year 1571. Later there were “Writing Sheets” or “School Pieces” and it is really from these School pieces of the late eighteenth century that our modern Christmas cards developed.

Story books and nursery rhymes appeared later. Probably “Old Mother Hubbard” was the first of the nursery rhymes, though the earliest printed edition still in existence was only published about the same time. History books had also been published and some publishers were quite anxious to avoid boring their young readers: “Choice Scraps, Historical and Biographical, Consisting of Pleasing Stories and Diverting anecdotes, Most of them short to Prevent Their Being Tiresome, Comprehending Much Useful Information and Innocent Amusement for Young Minds” was published about 1790.

More exciting books and adventure stories for young readers could also be bought. One of the earliest was the “The Renowned History of Guy, Earl of Warwick, and containing his Noble Exploits and Victories,” first published about 1700 and still being printed a century later. “The History of robin Hood,” which, with its many imitations, must be counted among the best-sellers of all time, appeared in different volumes before a collection of the stories was published.

The earliest fairy tales came from the French, written by an author’s son, Pierre Perrault, and at least six of these stories are still popular: “The Sleeping Beauty,” “Red riding Hood,” “Puss in Boots,” “Cinderella” and “Blue Beard.” These first appeared in France in 1697 and in due course English editions were published. “The Arabian Nights” also first saw the light of day in France and the stories of “Aladdin,” “Sinbad the Sailor” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” were quite well-known to English children by the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Then there are books such as “The Wind in the Willows” by Kenneth Grahame which tells the story of Toad of Toad Hall, the humble-minded Mole and the practical Water Rat. This has often been described as a delightful book for a family of all ages.

There are many books which were not originally written with the idea appealing specially to younger readers, but have since come to be regarded in that class. “Robinson Crusoe “is an example. On the other hand there are books such as Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” and Kidnapped” which first appeared as boys’ serials but became famous when published in book form and grown-up readers hailed them as masterpieces.

Then there is Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” told to three young girls on river picnics and only written in manuscript with amusing but amateurish drawings later on to give as a present to one of the girls because she had asked for it. That manuscript was sold seventy years later for £15,000 and grown-ups have enjoyed “Alice” just as much as children. Yet of no book could it be more truly said that it was “specially written for children.” When the book was eventually published, the famous artist, Sir John Tenniel, illustrated it. Since 1865 when it first appeared many other artists have illustrated the large number of different editions which have been published. Both “Alice in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass, “and another story of Alice, have been translated into many languages around the world.

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