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  • Children's Literature Research in Germany
  • Hans-Heino Ewers (bio)

I. Historical Background

German-language literature for children belongs to the circle of renowned traditional and influential European literatures for young readers. Theoretical discussions on this topic have a long tradition in German-language countries. Laid down in extensive prefaces and separate essays, an intensive debate on the nature and character of literature appropriate for children took place already in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century and did not remain without effects abroad. Among the early German classical theories on literature for children were the preface of Joachim Heinrich Campe's Robinson the Younger (1779/80), as well as the introductory remarks of the Grimms Brothers' folktale collection, Kinder- und Hausmärchen (1812/15; 1819). During the nineteenth century, German philology, having its roots in German Romanticism, became an academic discipline. Adopting the Grimms Brothers' position of rejecting all modern and specifically literature written for children, the advocates of the new discipline considered only traditional folktales as legitimate literature for children. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the discipline perceived children's literature as moral-didactic literature written in the style of the eighteenth century which, being intentional and designed for a special target group, did not belong to the realm of "poetry"-a view to which the German Studies departments of the universities clung until the 1960s.

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Grimms' Fairy Tales by The Brothers Grimm; Grosset & Dunlap, 1945

However, from the middle of the nineteenth century onwards-and beyond the universities-a genuine interest in the history of the new literature specifically for children emerged, supported mostly by clerics, instructors, and librarians, and joined during the twentieth century by booksellers and collectors of children's books. About the turn of the twentieth century, the Hamburg teacher Heinrich Wolgast (1860-1920) attracted wide European attention with his essay Das Elend unserer Jugendliteratur ["About the Misery of our Children's Literature," 1896]. Therein, he raised the claim that literature for children should be a "piece of art." Besides Wolgast, another Hamburg educator, Hermann Leopold Köster (1872-1957), gained much attention with his Geschichte der deutschen Jugendliteratur in Monographien ["History of German Children's Literature in Monographs," 1906-07], which still today is worth reading.

During the second half of the twentieth century, lecturers at teachers' and librarians' training institutions in West and East Germany acquired the leading role in the development of children's literature criticism. The growing use of children's literature as classroom reading matter was of major importance in this context. During the late 1950s, a new generation of scholars at the pedagogical academies and colleges of education took over this direction of study.

Altogether independent from children's literature criticism within the colleges of education, a growing interest in children's literature surfaced on the part of the German Studies departments of the West German universities at the beginning of the 1970s. This academic discovery of children's literature was due to the extension of the concept of literature, resulting in an enlargement of the subject matter of literary criticism. Now the whole literary life with its manifold varieties was taken into view: mass communication, utility literature, and all kinds of literature aimed at defined target groups-such as children's literature, which, however, was still considered as a pedagogical or trivial literature of low status. Children's literature, nevertheless, became worthy of scholarly interest. As proved by the academic dissertation [End Page 158] of Walter Pape, with a title that was at that time representative Das literarische Kinderbuch [The Literary Children's Book], the discipline eventually began to assign a certain literary value to its subject.

The initial tensions between the traditional children's literature research within colleges of education and the new research carried out at universities disappeared, however, rather soon. The dissertations submitted at the colleges of education or art colleges in the 1980s proved to be entirely equal in quality to the studies executed at universities. Eventually, many young scholars from the German Studies departments at the universities were employed by children's literature research projects initiated by the relevant chairs of the former...


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