What Is Children's Literature?

Tara Barnett

Children's literature is usually understood as the subsection of literature that is written for an audience primarily composed of children. There are some caveats to this definition, including debates about what kinds of literature actually are appropriate for children. This category is not itself a genre, no more than adult literature can be considered a genre, but actually encompasses many different genres. Literature intended for children has existed since at least the 17th century, when a combination of reduced cost in printing and increased attention to the instruction and entertainment of children made interest in this category of literature more common.

Authors often feel that literature for children must present suitable ethics.
Authors often feel that literature for children must present suitable ethics.

Many different types of books make up the category of children's literature. Picture books, beginning reader books, and fully realized novels are all included in this category. Non-fiction, poetry, and historical books can also be found. Most of these texts share an attention to the development of children as readers and are written to be comprehensible to certain age groups. The thematic elements of children's literature are also often restricted to topics considered appropriate for particular ages.

Children's literature may include picture books and beginning reader books.
Children's literature may include picture books and beginning reader books.

It is not uncommon for children's literature to have value as entertainment, but most people consider the practice of reading to be important to education. As such, even reading books that are purely intended as entertainment is still considered an educationally valuable activity. Many books go a step further and include explicitly educational content. This can take the form of introducing new vocabulary, highlighting historical details, or rewriting classic stories at levels children can understand.

Some of the first stories in children's literature were retellings of classic tales once told orally to children. These stories often had direct morals that were thought to educate children in proper social values. This feature of children's literature has been represented throughout history, as many children's authors feel that texts that will be available to children must present appropriate ethics. In more recent times, the idea of right and wrong actions in children's books has become more complicated and is often debated when considering children's access to literature in school. Given that adult literature is rarely judged by the ethics of its characters, this can be considered one of the major differences that sets literature for children apart.

While these books must usually be written with children as the intended audience, it is not uncommon for adults to enjoy reading children's literature as well. Likewise, just because a book is appropriate for children does not mean that it will always avoid complex topics. For example, there are many examples of children's books written about topics like the Holocaust and slavery. Children's literature has no limits in terms of its subject matter, but authors who write about sensitive topics must risk offending parents if their work is seen as too advanced for children.

Retellings of classic tales once told orally to children are some of the first stories in children's literature.
Retellings of classic tales once told orally to children are some of the first stories in children's literature.

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Discussion Comments


@bythewell - There are plenty of picture books that deal with difficult literature themes as well. Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch springs to mind.

The Rabbits, by John Marsden deals with colonization and how it can have devastating effects on the land and aboriginal people, but it does so in a way that children could understand.

I could list hundreds of excellent picture books that touch on what might be called themes of morality, but which deal with issues intelligently and don't talk down to children.


@pleonasm - That's true of some children's books, but there is definitely contemporary literature that is much darker and deals with themes that some people might call too much for children.

There is a series by Morris Gleitzman, for example, which is written for middle school students and follows two children through the atrocities of concentration camps in World War Two. There are other novels which deal with cancer and loss as well.

When a Monster Calls by Patrick Ness is particularly wonderful and I wouldn't hesitate to give it to young people dealing with that kind of issue.

Once you get into young adult literature, of course, the sky is the limit. Although books do tend to show morality in black and white rather than shades of grey, there are definitely some fantastic and complex stories out there.


I think it's a shame that there is so much emphasis on morality in children's literature, but at the same time they sanitize the stories to the point where there can't really be any scope for real life problems.

Many of the children who are reading books live in traumatic situations or have friends who do. If you live in an abusive home and your books are all filled with happy kittens who only have to decide whether to share their milk, you won't be able to relate to anything the book has to say.

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