The Golden Age of Childhood

Visitors to the Central Library will have seen a small display dedicated to the ‘golden age of childhood’ over the last few weeks – examples from our collections that highlight some classic children’s books and the evocative illustrations that accompanied them. As that display – which could be found outside our Information and Research department – is set to finish within the next week, to be replaced by a larger exhibition looking more closely at the history of book illustration, we reproduce here the explanatory text for interested readers, along with a short bibliography of relevant books. A blog post later this week will provide more detail on the larger exhibition and related events. 

Many books that we now regard as children’s classics, such as Aesop’s Fables and the stories of Grimm and Anderson, were originally written for adults. They were simply tales intended to inform and instruct.

In 1860, The Water-Babies: A Fairy Tale For a Land Baby, was written by the Reverend Charles Kingsley. This much-loved story was meant for the edification of children, but was underpinned by Kingsley’s moral vision for the adult world.

The Water-Babies, illustrated by Harry G. Theaker

The shift to a modern genre of children’s literature occurred in the mid-19th-century, with the ground-breaking Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, written by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (the pen-name of Lewis Carroll). The stories of Alice’s adventures in a fantasy world heralded a new era, where suddenly stories were written to stimulate the imagination of children. They were books written for fun rather than education.

The Little Mermaid, illustrated by Mabel Lucie Attwell

Illustrators, such as Arthur Rackham, Kate Greenaway, Mabel Lucie Attwell and Ernest H. Shepard (illustrator of the Pooh/Christopher Robin books), and John Tenniel (best known as the illustrator of the Alice books), brought their talents to what became known as ‘The Golden Age of Children’s Literature’. The result was beautifully-illustrated books which were to be loved in childhood and treasured into adulthood.

Kate Greenaway

The Little Match Girl and Other Stories. Hans Christian Anderson (1875)
Henry Collection 823 AND  

The Necklace of Princess Fiorimonde. Walter Crane (1880)
Henry Collection 823 DEM 

Kate Greenaway’s Book of Games. Kate Greenaway (1889)
SR 790 GRE

The April Baby’s Book of Tunes. Kate Greenaway (1900)
SR 398.3 AR 62  

Mon Premier Alphabet. H. S. Bres (1900)
Henry Collection 443 BRE  

The Water-Babies: Fairy Tales for a Land-Baby. Charles Kingsley; illustrated by Alice Woodward (1908)
Henry Collection 823 KIN   

Aesop’s Fables. Illustrated by Arthur Rackham (1912)
SR 398.2 AES 

Aesop’s Fables, illustrated by Arthur Rackham

Hans Christian’s Fairy Tales. Illustrated by Mabel Lucie Attwell (1920)
Henry Collection 823 AND  

Playtime & Company (A Book for Children). E.H.Shepard, with verses by E.V. Lucas (1925)
Henry Collection 821 WAR           

The Water-Babies. Charles Kingsley; illustrated by Harry G Theaker (1936)
Henry Collection 823 KIN    

Please contact the Information and Research department to view any of the titles listed here.

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