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Reviewed by:
  • Children's Literature: A Reader's History from Aesop to Harry Potter
  • David Russell (bio)
Lerer, Seth . Children's Literature: A Reader's History from Aesop to Harry Potter. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2008.

I was initially drawn to this book by the title, history being a particular interest of mine. I was expecting a successor to F. J. Harvey Darton's Children's Books in England, or perhaps John Rowe Townsend's handy little book, Written for Children. As Lerer points out in his introduction, Harvey Darton (unfortunately misspelled as Darnton) and other earlier histories tended to be "single-country accounts, often calibrated to celebration that analysis" (12). True as this may be, readers need to be forewarned that Lerer's book will not fill the gap he takes pains to identify. Despite some brief commentary on Collodi's Pinocchio, some of the works of Jules Verne, and Heinrich Hoffmann's Struwwelpeter, and a great deal about the fable of Aesop, this study cannot make a serious claim to internationalism. Don't expect to find any mention of Astrid Lindgren, Tove Jansson, Selma Lagerlof, the de Brunhoffs, to mention just a few of the great European children's writers of the last century. But even coverage of English language writers is very selective. No Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians, Irish. Even the subject matter is restrictive. No African-American writers are included, and there is scant mention of cultural or social diversity. And don't expect to find much commentary on children's illustration. But this catalog of what we don't find is as misleading as the title. For once we accept that this is no history of children's books—in English or any other language—then we can sit back and enjoy the insights of a scholar who reads widely and deeply and who can make marvellous connections between that reading and the world around us.

This is a very personal, at times almost intimate, work. And that makes it also a rather quirky work. Lerer is a medievalist and his fascination with Aesop and his influence on both classical and medieval and Renaissance children's education may seem overblown to some (Aesop gets more attention than any other single author—only Daniel Defoe comes close.) Lerer's interests seem more to do with the influences on children's books rather than the books themselves. How else do we explain lengthy discussions on the writings of John Locke, Benjamin Franklin, and Charles Darwin? That said, Lerer effectively illustrates the abiding influence of Aesop throughout antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance. Noting that aim of classical education was to prepare the young for a life in [End Page 235] public service, moral development, such as that emphasized by Aesop, was from the outset the chief concern of writing for children. Of course much of the literature to which the children of ancient Greece and Rome were exposed consisted of the great mythological classics—Homer, Virgil, Ovid—works perfect for instruction in moral edification.

This trend continued into medieval Europe, where he sees the medieval drama, the religious and morality plays, as key elements in children's instruction. Lerer, the medievalist, points out the pleasure medieval children found in song and rhymes, much like modern children. Songs, lullabies, riddles, and nonsense verse can be found scribbled in medieval notebooks. He also shows that, for the educated class at least, there seems to have existed canon of children's literature, including Gower, Chaucer, Hoccleve, and Lydgate. The chief interests of the canon were "moral values, patterns of social behavior, and ideals of verbal performance" (77).

Lerer notes that the great contribution of the Puritans was that they made readers of their children. He claims that theirs "was a movement for the future," which they recognized belonged to the children. This may be an overstatement, considering the fact that the Puritan emphasis on education was intended to direct young children on the straight and narrow path to a religious orthodoxy that could be just as inhibiting and restrictive as medieval Catholicism. Lerer's chief interest when it comes to Puritan writing, however, is John Bunyan, who, Lerer...


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pp. 235-240
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