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Art & Culture

From Locke to the Digital Age: The Evolution and Global Impact of Children’s Books

  • Craig Miller
  • |
  • April 3, 2023
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  • 5 minute read
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From Locke to the Digital Age: The Evolution and Global Impact of Children’s Books

Key Takeaways
  • John Locke's book "Some Thoughts Concerning Education" laid the groundwork for modern-day children's literature and established norms of effective bookmaking for children.
  • Newbery established the first commercial market for children's books in the West, selling small, trim paperbacks to upwardly striving middle-class English parents.
  • The recognition of a critical link between literacy and economic and social advancement and of the illustrated children's book as a gateway to literacy and a better life became a pattern that repeated itself around the globe.
  • Picture books have come a long way since their early days as high-culture picture books for privileged children and have become a global phenomenon accessible to children from all backgrounds.
  • The digital revolution of the early 2000s spawned a new art form, the app, but picture books remained a cherished material object and an intimate encounter between an engaged caregiver and a child.

John Locke’s revolutionary book, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, published in London in 1693, laid the groundwork for modern-day children’s literature.

A child psychologist before his time, Locke speculated on the types of books best suited to young people’s capabilities and interests.

He noted that a child who feels scolded or lectured to is less apt to pay attention than one for whom learning is cast as a game.

Locke argued that a good children’s book is one in which “the Entertainment that [the child] finds might draw him on, and reward his Pains in Reading.”

Locke listed brevity and the addition of illustrations as two other key elements of effective bookmaking for the young.

Pictures, he said, were an essential ingredient because, from the child’s perspective, showing always works better than telling.

Locke’s prestigious endorsement crystallized educated opinion and established the modern children’s book’s norms.

 

New Commercial Market for Children’s Books

Locke’s treatise inspired entrepreneurial bookmen like London’s John Newbery to specialize in publishing juveniles in the mold of his forward-looking ideas.

In doing so, Newbery established the first commercial market for children’s books in the West. 

Newbery’s small, trim paperbacks sold briskly to the burgeoning ranks of upwardly striving middle-class English parents and were soon being imitated or pirated in North America.

 

From London to Edo: The Global Recognition of Children’s Literature

A clear pattern emerged that would repeat itself elsewhere around the globe many times over: the recognition of a critical link between literacy and economic and social advancement and of the illustrated children’s book as a gateway to literacy and a better life.

In Japan, a retail trade in akahon, or “red-bound” picture books for young readers, had sprung up independently of developments in Britain but for much the same reasons.

The 1970s saw nations such as Australia, Ghana, and Venezuela producing their own picture books, representing a momentous milestone in their national coming-of-age.

Twentieth-Century Children’s Book Publishing

Publishers hired specialists of their own to meet the needs of the potentially vast new institutional market.

Immediately after the First World War, American publishing houses in New York and Boston became the first firms in the world to establish editorial departments dedicated solely to juvenile literature.

European and, later, Asian publishers adopted aspects of the American model, but the zealous sense of purpose that propelled twentieth-century children’s book publishing forward took other forms as well.

In the Soviet Union after the 1917 Revolution, the central government embraced children’s literature as an essential tool of nation-building and sponsored the publication of illustrated books for the young designed to engage their interest in the collective dream of the new Soviet society.

 

Expansive Possibilities of Picture Books

The clash of values represented by Lucy Sprague Mitchell’s and the librarians’ opposing visions resulted in years of bitter feuding and acrimonious debate and, when cooler heads finally prevailed, in a significant expansion of the picture book’s expressive possibilities.

Late Victorian illustrators Walter Crane, Kate Greenaway, and Randolph Caldecott were deeply influenced by the arrival of Japanese ukiyo-e prints in the West.

Created by artists such as Hokusai, Hiroshige, and others, these prints introduced novel techniques. They demonstrated how to simplify an image, balance a composition, and effectively utilize white space.

Additionally, they showcased the seamless integration of decorative elements within a scene. Picture books have come a long way since their early days as high-culture picture books for privileged children.

As more affordable books emerged, such as the launch of Little Golden Books in 1942, picture books became available to families of all means.

The establishment of the International Youth Library in Munich in 1949 and the International Board on Books for Young People in 1953 brought the world’s children’s literature to a central repository, promoting cross-cultural awareness through books.

In 1964, the Bologna Children’s Book Fair facilitated the commercial flow of children’s books across national and cultural borders, with publishers from England, France, Italy, the United States, and Japan forming the core participants.

The influence of American picture books also made its way to Japan and inspired postwar Japanese writers and illustrators, setting in motion a chain of influence that eventually reached Taiwan, South Korea, and China by the turn of the new century.

The 1970s saw nations such as Australia, Ghana, and Venezuela producing their own picture books, representing a momentous milestone in their national coming-of-age.

By 2015, Chinese publishers had acquired rights to over two thousand Western children’s books, including all major American award winners.

As China’s middle class expanded, access to Western-style picture books became a priority. 

Private Chinese publishing companies began to strengthen their ties to the Western children’s book market, despite the Chinese government’s attempts to limit the scope of Western cultural influence on its children.

The digital revolution of the early 2000s spawned a new art form: the app. However, it did not render the traditionally printed picture book obsolete.

The audience for picture books was becoming more fluid, with experimental zine and web-based comics artists bringing formal comics elements and a hipster maverick sensibility to the genre.

In conclusion, the evolution of picture books has been a fascinating journey, from their origins as high-culture picture books for privileged children to a global phenomenon accessible to children from all backgrounds.

Picture books have endured through changing times and technologies, remaining a cherished material object and an intimate encounter between an engaged caregiver and a child.

Craig Miller

Craig Miller

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