Children's Literature

Children’s Literature (often abbreviated as CL) is literature written specifically for children, about children, consumed by children and even written by children. It is often also referred as Children and Young Adult Literature because its general audience is less than eighteen years old but also often addresses people in their mid twenties. For instance, picturebooks and YA novels are important book publishing formats in this literature. However, it is mainly adults who are responsible for the production, distribution and reception of children's books. 

Although books intended for a wide readership of both adults and children were already appearing before the eighteenth century, it was not until the second half of this century that literature specifically aimed at children developed. A number of factors played an important role in this: more and more people could read and write, the economic situation of mainly middle-class families improved so that they could afford to spend money on luxuries such as books, and a new image of adulthood and childhood developed. Influenced by the philosophers Locke and Rousseau, adults began to see children as so different from themselves that they began to see the need for their own literature for that target group (Ghesquière et al, 2014).

Adults literature or children literature?

Generally speaking, books read by children fall into the category of Children’s Literature (CL), whereas 18+ readings are considered Adult’s Literature (AL). These two types of literature (AL and CL) target different audiences and have different characteristics. Therefore, they are two different systems according to Even-Zohar’s approach to literature as a literary polysystem (1990). These systems can overlap and contain sub-literary systems (mass production, translated books, young adult literature). It is a rather complex classification since there are overlapping boundaries and the number of authors publishing dual-readership books is increasing (van Lierop-Debrauwer, 1999). Unfortunately, the CL system is still peripheric within the literary polysystem (even the canonized titles). For a long time, children's books were not considered ‘a subject of importance in culture’ (Shavit 1986, p.35). Luckily, she also points towards a potential change of the CL status since the 1990s.

Two of the CL defining characteristics that place it outside the AL system are that it belongs simultaneously to the literary and the pedagogical systems and  that the communication in it is  asymmetrical (O’Sullivan, 2002). Nikolajeva (2009) explains that in CL the adults typically hold the power and act on behalf of children at every turn since they are the ones writing and publishing stories for and about children.

Child image and children's literature

The overwhelmingly large share of adults in the creation and production of books written specifically for children immediately shows that the communication process in children's literature is different from other forms of literature. The first part of the compound 'children's literature' suggests that young readers are central, that it is 'their' literature. This is true to a certain extent, yet it is mainly adults who are responsible for the production, distribution and reception of children's books. It is not the young readers themselves who are responsible for this. The writers of children's books are adults and so are the publishers, booksellers, librarians and critics. They mediate between child and book, and do so from a certain view of children, of what they are or should be in their eyes (Ghesquière, 2009).

These views, referred to by the collective term 'child images', are historically and culturally determined. At the time of the creation of a proper children's literature, what later came to be called the “enlightened child” image prevailed. This perspective, while acknowledging children's own nature and needs, simultaneously advocated that maturity and seriousness were the ideals to be pursued. Because children were seen as unfinished human beings, adults placed great emphasis on an education aimed at outgrowing the imperfect stage of infancy. In this view, children are malleable and educators needed to prepare them for their role as useful citizens as soon as possible (Joosen & Vloeberghs, 2008). Children's books were therefore written from this perspective.

The best-known Dutch children's book from this era - Kleine gedigten voor kinderen (Small poems for children, 1778) by Hieronymus van Alphen - has primarily a pedagogical-didactic function. Entertainment comes second, although in some of the poems Van Alphen shows he did have an eye for the world of children. Diligence, obedience and gratitude were important virtues and learning took precedence over play. During the first half of the nineteenth century, moralistic children's books like Van Alphen's collection of poems and De brave Hendrik (The good Henry, 1810) by Nicolaas Anslijn set the tone in children's literature. Similar books also appeared in other European countries.

The first criticism of such children's books came around the mid-nineteenth century from writers and pedagogues influenced by Romanticism. Their romantic image of children is in many ways the counterpart of the enlightened image of children. It is not adulthood that is idealised, but rather childhood. The ideal adult is the one who has best preserved their own childishness. 'The child' represents innocence, creativity and connection with nature. Children's books of this era show an idyllic world far removed from social reality (Joosen & Vloeberghs, 2008). 

Over the course of history, the enlightened and the romantic child images have alternated or entered into an alliance, either with each other or with other child images, such as that of the autonomous or competent child, a notion of children that coloured children's literature especially after the 1970s and which assumes that children have a fresh outlook on society and a relatively high ethical consciousness, that they are able to make decisions independently and know how to solve problems (Ghesquière et al, 2014).  

Child image, content and form of children's literature

Evolving child images are largely responsible for developments in the content and form of children's literature. Especially after World War II, there have been profound shifts. Initially, these were mainly changes in content. Influenced by the many protest movements in the 1950s and 1960s, numerous taboos were broken. Since then, there has been no subject that cannot be the subject of a children's book. The 1970s in particular were characterised by emancipation on every conceivable level. Youth books introduced young readers to social problems such as gender inequality, (de)colonisation, environmental issues and religious tensions.

Initially, this renewal of content was not accompanied by literary innovations. The emphasis was still very much on pedagogical-didactic potential, on the transmission of norms and values that had to be conveyed to readers in the most unambiguous way. That generally left no room for experimentation with chronology, narrative perspective and style, although of course there have always been writers who disregarded what was customary and went their own way.

Since the 1980s, however, there has been emphatic artistic innovation in children's literature, in The Netherlands and abroad, both in terms of text and illustrations. Literary techniques hitherto reserved for adult literature are now being used in children's books. These developments in content and form mean that the simplistic image that many people still have of children's literature today does not do justice to the contemporary offerings. Many children's books are no longer chronological, action-oriented and not limited to just one or two storylines. They do not necessarily have a primarily didactic function.

Nor are they optimistic with a necessarily happy ending. Many children's books appreciated by adult critics have a complex structure and several interlocking storylines. They are often multi-voiced, metafictional and they inscribe themselves in the wider literary tradition through intertextual references (Nikolajeva, 1998). Many of these books are seen as 'crossover' books, because they tower over the boundary between children's literature and adult literature and have given rise to debates about the tenability of this boundary. For the time being, these debates are mostly held within children's literature and only occasionally intrude into adult literature, which is a misfortune, as both sides are needed to actually open the boundary between the two literary systems and thus ensure that children's literature receives as much attention and social status as adult literature (Bastiaansen-Harks & van Lierop-Debrauwer, 2005).



Bastiaansen-Harks, N. & Lierop-Debrauwer, H. van (2005). Grensverkeer. De adolescentenroman in het literatuuronderwijs. Eburon.

Even-Zohar, I. (1990). Polysystem studies, Poetics Today. International Journal for Theory and Analysis of Literature and Communication, 11(1), pp. 1-6.

Ghesquière, R. (2009). Jeugdliteratuur in perspectief. Acco, 23.

Ghesquière, R., Joosen, V. & Lierop-Debrauwer, H. van (2014).  Een land van waan en wijs. Geschiedenis van de Nederlandse jeugdliteratuur. Atlas/Contact.

Harde, R., & Kokkola, L. (Eds.) (2017). The embodied child. Readings in children's literature and culture . Taylor and Francis.

Joosen, V. & Vloeberghs, K. (2008). Uitgelezen jeugdliteratuur. Ontmoetingen tussen traditie en vernieuwing. Lannoo Campus. 

Lierop-Debrauwer, H. van (1999). Crossing the Border. Authors Do It, but Do Critics? The Reception of Dual Audience Authors in the Netherlands. In S. Beckett (ed.), Transcending Boundaries. Writing for a Dual Audience of Children and Adults, pp. 3-12. Garland.

Nikolajeva, M. (1998). Exit Children’s Literature?.The Lion and the Unicorn, 22 (2), pp.221-236.

Nikolajeva, M. (2009). Power, Voice and Subjectivity in Literature for Young Readers. Routledge.

O'Sullivan, E. (2002). Comparing children's literature. GFL journal, (2), pp.33-56.

Shavit, Z. (1986). Poetics of Children’s Literature. The University of Georgia Press.

Wolf, S., Coats, K., Enciso, P., & Jenkins, C. (Eds.). (2010). Handbook of Research on Children's and Young Adult Literature. Routledge. 


* This is an edited translation of the wiki entry Jeugdliteratuur*