Literature for Children
A historical overview of children's literature, especially fairy tales, reflects society's attitudes toward children and death. Most readers are unaware that every fairy tale has its own history, and many of them originated in the seventeenth century as oral, adult entertainment. Many featured coarse humor and sensational events. As these tales were transcribed and developed specifically for children, they were modified to contain incidents and behavior that reflected the customs of the place and period in which they were told. They contained material intended to provide moral guidance, and in the earliest versions of children's stories death was prominent because of its ubiquity and drama. Over the centuries there has been significant transformation of fairy tales, storybooks, and schoolbooks (basal readers). In the early twentieth century until the 1970s, topics considered disturbing to children, including death, were toned down and removed. Although late twentieth-century works began to reverse this trend, many children today are insulated from discussions of death in their literature.
The Evolution of Children's Literature
Schoolbooks were developed primarily to educate, teach morality, and assist in children's socialization. Books for children's education preceded the development of children's literature for pleasure. Charles Perrault and Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm wrote tales to caution children about the perils and consequences of inappropriate behavior.
Literature intended specifically for children did not develop until the mid-seventeenth century. Prior to that time children were perceived as miniature adults or as less than human, as typified by Michel de Montaigne, the sixteenth-century French humanist and essayist. In Off with Their Heads! (1992), Maria Tatar, a professor of Germanic languages and literature at Harvard University, notes that early children's literature had an unusually cruel and coercive streak. Early books were often written to frighten children into behaving as parents wished. Two approaches predominated: cautionary tales and exemplary tales. In cautionary tales the protagonist was either killed or made perpetually miserable for having disobeyed. Stories of exemplary behavior also had a strange way of ending at the deathbeds of their protagonists.
John Amos Comenius's 1658 Latin schoolbook A World of Things Obvious to the Senses Drawn in Pictures was the first picture book for children and the first to recognize that children needed their own literature. In 1744 John Newbery wrote A Little Pretty Pocket Book for children. Although other books for children had been published earlier, this book is credited as the start of English children's literature because this book was meant to entertain rather than educate. Newbery is recognized as the first serious publisher of children's literature.
Between the 1920s and the 1970s incidents of dying and death were removed or glossed over in children's reading material. Concurrently, religious material was also removed from children's schoolbooks. Only since the late 1970s and early 1980s has this tendency begun to reverse. Children's books of the twenty-first century frequently deal with feelings, divorce, sex, and death. Religion is still taboo in schoolbooks—in contrast to colonial America when ministers wrote many of the schoolbooks and the local minister often oversaw the school. The town school was considered an appropriate place for children to be taught not only their letters but also religion.
Books designed to teach children to read are known as basal readers. They use material from a variety of sources. From the early 1800s until the 1920s, American children were commonly taught to read with basal readers edited by Lyman Cobb, Samuel T. Worcester, Salem Town, William Russell, William D. Swan, and William McGuffey, among others. In McGuffey's Eclectic Readers, published continuously from 1879 to 1920, the subject of many of the selections was the death of a mother or child, typically presented as a tragic but inevitable part of life. For example, McGuffey's Third Eclectic Reader (1920) contains William Wordsworth's poem "We Are Seven," in which a little girl describes her family as having seven children, even though two are dead. The experience of the death of the older sister is also described. Some of the other short stories and poems in McGuffey's Readers that deal with death as a theme are: "Old Age and Death" by Edmund Waller, "The Death of Little Nell" by Charles Dickens, "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" by Thomas Gray, and "He Giveth His Beloved Sleep" by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Unlike early basal readers, today there are no poems or stories that deal with death nor are there prayers in books used in public schools.
An anonymous selection in McGuffey's Fourth Eclectic Reader, entitled "My Mother's Grave," provides an emotional account of a young girl's experience with her dying mother. The story aims to make children polite and obedient to their parents. Through recounting the author's thoughts on revisiting her mother's grave, she remembers being unkind to her dying mother after a trying day at school. She realizes her lapse in manners later that evening and returns to her mother's room for forgiveness and finds her asleep. She vows to waken early to "tell how sorry I was for my conduct," but when she rushes into the room in the morning she finds her mother dead, with a hand so cold "it made me start" (p. 253). Even thirteen years later the author finds her remorse and pain almost over-whelming. This is not the type of subject matter and emotional content considered appropriate for twenty-first century basal readers. Commonly used basal readers rarely contain references to dying or death. If they do include a chapter from a book that deals with death, such as E. B. White's Charlotte's Web (1952), it is not the chapter in which Charlotte dies.
Insight into how dying and death were portrayed in the nineteenth century can be found in the still widely read storybook Little Women, written in 1869 by Louisa May Alcott. Alcott described the death of young Beth in a straightforward manner uncommon for her day. Recognizing that her depiction was at odds with the melodramatic scenes current in more romantic literature, Alcott added in the paragraph following Beth's death: "Seldom, except in books, do the dying utter memorable words, see visions, or depart with beatified countenance . . ." (Alcott 1947, p. 464).
Between 1940 and 1970 few children's books contained references to death. Two that have become classics are Margaret Wise Brown's The Dead Bird (1965) and Charlotte's Web. White's publisher initially refused to publish Charlotte's Web unless the ending was modified allowing Charlotte to live, which White refused. Critical reviewers of the era found death not "an appropriate subject for children" (Guth 1976, p. 531).
Separating children from an awareness of dying and death has diminished since the 1970s. Although Robert Fulton and Herman Feifel taught and wrote about dying and death before the 1960s, it was the early work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969 that helped make death a subject for discussion and study. During the 1970s and 1980s over 200 fiction books for children contained death as a major theme. Few measured up to the standard set by Charlotte's Web, Little Women, The Yearling (1938), or The Dead Bird. During this same period some very well-written nonfiction books about death were published for children of various ages, making it a more acceptable subject. These included About Dying by Sara Bonnett Stein (1974), When People Die (1977) by Joanne Bernstein and Stephen J. Gullo, Learning to Say Good-by: When a Parent Dies by Eda J. LeShan (1976), The Kids' Book about Death and Dying and The Unit at Fayerweather Street School (1985) both by Eric E. Rofes, and Living with Death (1976) by Osborn Segerberg Jr.
Fairy tales provide an excellent example of the way society deals with themes considered distressing to children. The insulation of children from death can be traced through progressive versions of typical stories. A generalization can be made about fairy tales that can also apply to all early stories for children: As sexual content diminished, violent content increased. An analysis of successive editions of Grimms' Fairy Tales provides insight into the manner in which stories were modified to shield children from exposure to dying and death.
To understand this evolution, it is necessary to understand the milieu in which it took place. In the 1700s children were not perceived as needing protection from portrayals of violence primarily because life was harsh and most children died during infancy or childhood. Violence and death in children's stories of the 1700s take on a different light when viewed in the context of high infant and child mortality and the increasing, universal practice of abandoning unwanted children at the local foundling hospital or on church steps. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, children were routinely required to attend public executions to witness the cost of criminal behavior. The romanticized depiction of an afterlife, superior to the life of this world, served to help children cope with the brutal facts of their lives.
Given these realities, children's literature was motivated by a belief that children needed written material to educate them and prepare them for life. The majority of books published for children through the 1800s can be compared to James Janeway's A Token for Children: Being an Account of the Conversion, Holy and Exemplary Lives, and Joyful Deaths of Several Young Children (Parts 1 and 2, 1671–1672). Writers of this era commonly agreed with Janeway's position that they held a sacred duty to salvage the souls of those who were not too young to go to hell. The exemplary stories in A Token for Children were also designed to provide
Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm's Cinderella stressed punishment more than earlier oral versions. In the first version (1697), taken by Perrault from the oral tradition, Cinderella forgave her step-sisters for mistreating her and introduced them at court. The Grimms' first version (1815) has Cinderella's sisters turning pale and being horrified when she becomes a princess, while in the second edition sisters' punishment is to be blinded by pigeons pecking out their eyes.
In the Grimms' Hansel and Grethel (1823), there is a description of how horribly the witch howled when Grethel pushed her into the oven and how ". . . Grethel ran away leaving the witch to burn, just as she had left many poor little children to burn" (Owens 1981, p. 57). The use of violence as punishment is typical in fairy tales, even for minor misdeeds. This tendency is evident in the stories found in Struwwelpeter. In these tales, Little Pauline plays with matches and goes up in flames, and Conrad the Thumbsucker has his thumbs sliced off. Maria Tatar observes that "the weight is given to the punishment (often fully half the text is devoted to its description) and the disproportionate relationship between the childish offense and the penalty for it make the episode disturbing" (Tatar 1992, p. 34).
The removal of sexuality from children's fairy tales paralleled the evolution of housing in Europe. By the seventeenth century, living arrangements had evolved to provide segregation between quarters for working, food preparation, and sleeping. Usually there was a main room used for dining, entertaining, and receiving visitors, but servants and children began to have their own smaller, adjacent rooms. During this same century fairy tales began to transform into works intended primarily for children. The transformation of living spaces parallels the changes that greatly impacted children, including attitudes regarding teaching proper behavior and attitudes toward dying and death.
The obvious changes over time in one fairy tale— Little Red Riding Hood —parallel the changes in attitudes toward death, children, and their education. The earliest known oral version from Brittany would not be considered suitable children's entertainment in the twenty-first century. In this early version, Little Red Riding Hood is unwittingly led by the wolf to eat her grandmother's flesh, to drink her blood, and to perform a provocative striptease for the disguised wolf before climbing into bed with him. She escapes from the wolf when she goes outside to relieve herself. Because its primary purpose was to entertain adults, the story was not encumbered with the admonitions and advice that later came to distinguish versions intended for children.
The earliest written version of Little Red Riding Hood was in French, in 1697, by Charles Perrault. In this version, the grandmother and Little Red Riding Hood are eaten by the wolf and perish. Although Perrault did not have Little Red's mother warning her before leaving for her grandmother's house, he did conclude the story with a moral suitable for the intended children's audience: Do not speak to strangers or you, too, may provide a wolf with his dinner. The death in this story is later moderated in the Grimms' retelling. They introduce an additional character, a hunter or woodcutter, who slices the wolf open and releases the victims alive.
In a popular nineteenth-century retelling of Little Red's tale, the grandmother is eaten by the wolf, but Little Red survives, learning to pay closer attention to her mother's words: "For she saw the dreadful end to which / A disobedient act may lead" (Tatar 1992, p. 39). Another version emphasizes avoiding needless suffering. Here is the depiction of the wolf killing the grandmother: "[The Wolf] jumped up on the bed, and ate her all up. But he did not hurt her so much as you would think, and as she was a very good old woman it was better for her to die than to live in pain; but still it was very dreadful of the wolf to eat her" (1933, p. 20).
In later versions of Little Red Riding Hood the hunter arrives in time to shoot the wolf before he eats either Little Red or her grandmother, or the wolf escapes through an open window or becomes Little Red's pet. The moral, or message, of the story also evolves with the transformation of events. In the traditional, oral version Little Red was not warned by her mother of the dangers of talking to strangers, and cannot be seen as naughty or disobedient. In Perrault's original written version, the mother does not give Little Red any cautions, while in later versions she often gives Little Red many instructions and admonitions. Upon rescuing Little Red from the dire misfortune she brings upon herself, the hunter/woodcutter inevitably lectures her on obedience and on what can happen if she disregards her mother's warnings. The role of death in the changing tale diminishes as the tale evolves. Rather than being the graphic and unmourned event Perrault depicted, it becomes muted and is eventually relegated to the periphery of the readers' attention or disappears entirely.
Fairy tales do not always hold the promise of a happy ending. For example, Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid (1846) has been distorted over time. In the original version the Little Mermaid chooses death for herself rather than murdering the Prince, and thus leave her form as a mermaid. The Little Mermaid would only regain her form as a mermaid if she murdered the prince. She does not do this and so she dies and becomes a daughter of the air. After 300 years of good deeds she then can gain a human soul and enter heaven and join the prince there. The very morning that the Little Mermaid sacrifices herself and spares the Prince, he marries a princess from another land whom he mistakenly believes rescued him. Only in Disney's bowdlerized version does the Little Mermaid manage to displace the "other woman" and marry the Prince, an alteration partly justified by casting the other princess as the evil sea-witch in disguise.
The classic fairy tale Bluebeard (1729) also presents a problematic ending. In this tale, one of three sisters marries a wealthy but mysterious man, distinguished primarily by his blue beard. After the wedding she is given access to all of Bluebeard's possessions, but is forbidden to use one small golden key. She inevitably uses the key, and discovers the bloody bodies of Bluebeard's previous wives. Upon discovering his wife's transgression, Bluebeard prepares to add her to his collection. At the last moment, her brothers suddenly appear and save her by hacking Bluebeard to pieces before her eyes. Although the latest wife did not meet the fate of her predecessors, is it really a happy ending to have her brothers murder her husband? Her disobedience is a necessary part of the story, yet there is no clear resolution of her dilemma. The fast and easy way to conclude a fairy tale is to recite, "and they lived happily ever after," yet a close look shows that many fairy tales do not have a "perfect" ending.
When fairy tales existed solely as oral tradition, storytellers could personalize their version to suit the time, place, and audience. As stories were printed, they began to reflect more enduringly the nature of the time and place in which they were recorded. Thus it seems odd that parents continue to read to their children—often without the slightest degree of critical reflection—unrevised versions of stories imbued with values of a different time and place. L. Frank Baum, the originator of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), recognized this predicament and recommended that it was time for a new set of "wonder tales"; he suggested that previous fairy tales be classed as "historical" (Tatar 1992, p. 19). Indeed, denoting traditional fairy tales as "historical" would help distinguish the changes that have occurred in the years since they were recorded. It would also encourage parents and teachers to critically examine the material available to children.
There is a growing perception that children are capable of understanding dying and death as natural processes, and that over time they assimilate a number of such experiences. Since the 1970s adults have begun to recognize the difficulties they experienced as a result of being sheltered from awareness of death and have begun to seek ways to allow children to become aware of the reality of dying and death. Since the mid-1970s hospice programs have enabled several million dying persons to receive care in their homes. As a result, some children have been exposed to meaningful death experiences. Increased awareness of the lethality of AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) also makes it important that even the tales told to children reflect current perceptions of dying and death.
Scholars maintain it is important to consider the implications of fairy tales in modern times. Perhaps it is time to begin transforming them to reflect the tremendous changes that have occurred in a world increasingly forced to accept the limits of medical technology, with death again being acknowledged as a necessary and inevitable counterpart to life.
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, taught children that the world is not a safe place. The New York Times best-seller list for September 30 revealed that the new Lemony Snicket book, The Hostile Hospital, outsold any of the Harry Potter titles that week. Also that week there were four Snicket books and four Harry Potter titles in the Top 10. The Lemony Snicket books are an eight-book series dubbed "A Series of Unfortunate Events." The series tells the story of the Baudelaire orphans, good children to whom bad things happen. In the first book Mr. Poe, a family friend, comes to the beach to tell the children that their parents have died in a fire, and their mansion is destroyed. The narrator cautions that everything to come is rife with misfortune, misery, and despair. Children who are protected by parents from awful truth instinctively know the world is not an absolutely safe place and one way of releasing the tension is to read about someone who is much worse off than they are. Each time the Baudelaire children find a satisfactory situation, something goes wrong. Count Olaf, a distant cousin who takes them in first, is interested only in their money. Kindly Uncle Monty, with whom they next reside, is murdered. Aunt Josephine throws herself out of a window, or at least that is the way it appears. In spite of all the terrible things that happen to the three children, they manage to survive.
Alcott, Louisa M. Little Women. New York: Grosset and Dunlop, 1947.
Dowd, Maureen. "When Bad Things Happen to Good Children." New York Times, 30 December 2001, 9.
Guth, D. L. Letters of E. B. White. New York: Harper & Row, 1976.
Hunt, Peter. Children's Literature: An Illustrated History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Johnson, Clifton. Old-Time Schools and School Books. 1904. Reprint, New York: Dover, 1963.
Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth. On Death and Dying. New York: Macmillan, 1969.
McGuffey, William. McGuffey's Eclectic Readers, 7 book series, Primer–Sixth Reader. New York: Van Nostrand, 1920.
Mulherin, Jennifer, ed. Favorite Fairy Tales. London: Granada Publishing, 1982.
Owens, Lily. The Complete Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales. New York: Avenel, 1981.
Tatar, Maria. Off with Their Heads! Fairy Tales and the Culture of Childhood. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.
ELIZABETH P. LAMERS