University of Delaware Library


Early Works

In western Europe, there was no separate category of books for children before the eighteenth century. The Bible, stories of saints and martyrs, and bestiaries or books about exotic animals, were probably the first printed books available to children. The woodcut illustrations of these early works would be intriguing even for those unable to read the text. Early books for children were strongly influenced by the conservative English beliefs of the seventeenth century. Seeing children as amoral savages needing to be taught right from wrong, society used stories filled with death and damnation to frighten children into good behavior. Humor and imagination were banned, replaced by stories of boys and girls who suffered grisly fates for misbehaving.

Johann Amos Comenius, 1592-1670.
Joh. Amos Comenii Orbis Sensualium Pictus. London: Printed for S. Leacroft, 1777.

Orbis Sensualium Pictus translated as "The Visible World" or "The World Around Us in Pictures" was the first European schoolbook based on the idea of visual education. Each page consists of a picture of some subject or object and, underneath, a bilingual Latin-English text which in simple terms explains the image. Originally published in German and Latin in Nuremberg in 1654, the book was available to both adults and children. Used as a picture book by young children and a Latin textbook by older students, Orbis Sensualium Pictus was reprinted until well into the nineteenth century.

John Bunyan, 1628-1688.
The Pilgrim's Progress: From this World to that which is to Come: delivered under the similitude of a dream wherein is discovered: the manner of his setting out, his dangerous journey, and safe arrival at the desired countrey. London: N. Douglas, 1928.

This powerful religious allegory of man's quest for salvation is one of the most influential books in English literature. While not written for children, its vivid language and exciting adventures seized their imaginations. This copy is a facsimile of the 1678 edition.

John Foxe, 1516-1587.
Acts and Monuments of Matters Most Special and Memorable, Happening in the Church: with an universal history of the same: wherein is set forth at large, the whole race and course of the Church, from the primitive age to these later times of ours, with the bloody times, horrible troubles, and great persecutions against the true martyrs of Christ ... London: Printed for the Company of Stationers, 1684.

"Foxe's Book of Martyrs" was one of the most widely-read books in England from its original 1563 publication until at least the eighteenth century. Originally an anti-Catholic tract, it was available in even the smallest Protestant churches during the Reformation. Children were immediately attracted to its thrilling and gory illustrations of martyrs and their tormentors, with much less interest in the book's moral and political text.

Daniel Defoe, 1661?-1731.
The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner... London: W. Taylor, 1719. First edition.

Considered one of the first English novels, this tale of a sailor's survival alone on a desert island immediately attracted young readers. The story was rewritten and simplified for children within a few years of publication and continues to attract a wide audience. The image of the lone hero fighting to survive in a strange land can be seen as a forerunner of today's science fiction adventurers.

A Little Pretty Pocket-book: Intended for the Instruction and Amusement of Little Master Tommy, and Pretty Miss Polly ...Printed at Worcester, Massachusetts Isaiah Thomas, and sold, wholesale and retail, at his bookstore. 1787.

First published in England in 1744 by John Newbury, this is often considered the first children's book. It aims not just for instruction but also for amusement. It is filled with simple rhymes and pictures of children playing games such as marbles, hide and seek, and cricket. It includes a "letter" from Jack the Giant-Killer on the proper use of a ball and pincushion, which were sold along with the book. This was the first juvenile book published and possibly written by Newbury, who went on to be the first commercial publisher of childrens' books.

History of Goody Two Shoes. Baltimore: Bayly and Burns, 1837.

Thought to be the first piece of original English fiction written to amuse children, the book was originally published by John Newbury in 1765. Authorship has been attributed to the English poet Oliver Goldsmith. The heroine rises from poverty to a good marriage through hard work, thrift, and the use of her talents. Newbury's books were aimed at the children of the developing middle class, believers in this Protestant ethic. This inexpensive later edition shows the wear and tear of years of children's handling.

Maria Edgeworth, 1767-1849.
Frank and the Farmer. Troy, N.Y. : Merriam & Moore, circa 1850.

The Irish author Maria Edgeworth was one of the earliest and most important woman writers for children. Working with her father, she wrote books for children and essays on their upbringing which covered both a child's environment and education. This copy is an inexpensive American edition of a story from one of her earlier collections. All of her stories have strong moral content in accordance with her educational principles. Edgeworth opposed adventure stories such as Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver's Travels, warning that "the taste for adventure is absolutely incompatible with the sober perserverance necessary to success," and saying that these books would only be useful to boys intending to take up seafaring or an army career.

Isaac Watts, 1674-1748.
Hymns for Children. New Haven: S. Babcock, 1831.

Isaac Watts' Divine Songs Attempted in Easy Language for the Use of Children, first published in 1715, was one of the first books expressly written for children. These hymns, written as poetry without a musical score, were memorized by children throughout the English-speaking world. In their day, these verses were seen as gentler and less frightening than most religious materials of the time. The copy of Hymns for Children shown here includes a portion of Watt's Divine Songs in a cheap edition which could have been given to a child as a "reward of merit" or gift for good behavior.


Chapbooks were small, inexpensive stitched tracts sold by itinerant merchants or chapmen, in western Europe and North America from the seventeenth to the early nineteenth century. Most chapbooks were about 5 by 4 inches in size and were made up of four pages (or multiples of four), illustrated with woodcuts. They contained tales of popular heroes, legends and folklore, jokes, reports of notorious crimes, ballads, almanacs, nursery rhymes, school lessons, Biblical tales, and other popular stories. The crudely made chapbooks were the main source of reading material, other than the Bible, for the common people. For children, their wide availability, simplicity, and straightforward storytelling, made the chapbook ideal reading matter. As with these examples, groups of chapbooks were later collected and bound together.

The Pleasant and Delightful History of Jack and the Giants. Nottingham: Printed for the Running Stationers, 1790.

Famous Exploits of Robin Hood: Including an Account of his Birth, Education, and Death. Penrith [England]: Joseph Allison, circa 1800.

The Renowned History of Richard Whittington and his Cat. New-Haven: Sidney's Press, 1826.

History of the Sleeping Beauty in the Wood. Glasgow: Printed for the booksellers, 1852.

The Polish General, and Faithful Servant: to which is added The Wonderful Deliverance of a Soldier. Norwich: Printed by J. Payne, circa 1800.

Introduction Fables and Fairy Tales Books of Instruction Primers Poetry Popup and Movable Books Stories before 1850 Stories after 1850


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