Exploring books for children: words and pictures
Exploring books for children: words and pictures

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Exploring books for children: words and pictures

1 Words and pictures in children’s fiction through the ages

There is evidence that children were reading books in English with pictures from as early as the sixteenth century: for example, an illustrated 1503 edition of a crusader adventure story, Bevis of Hampton, by Richard Pynson, shows pencil doodlings in the margins that suggest a child’s hand. The earliest known illustrated book specifically produced for children was a Latin text book, dating from the seventeenth century and translated into English in 1659. In the first activity for this course you will watch a video which explores the history of children’s book illustrations.

Activity 1

Iona and Peter Opie’s famous collection of children’s books was acquired by the Bodleian Library in 1988 and contains approximately 20 000 books printed for children between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries. Watch the following video that features a visit to this collection at the Bodleian’s Weston Library in Oxford and think about how have pictures in books for children changed over the years, and why?

Download this video clip.Video player: The history of picture books for children
Skip transcript: The history of picture books for children

Transcript: The history of picture books for children

Many of us have vivid memories of the stories we encountered in childhood. Mostly, we remember the picture books and illustrated tales which fired our young imaginations and transported us to worlds of magic and adventure. Judging by the popularity of picture books today, images continue to play an important role in storytelling for children, even if the medium is changing all the time.
In fact, the tradition of picture books for children goes back a very long way indeed. Nowhere can we find better evidence of this than in remarkable Opie Collection of children’s books housed at the Bodleian Library in Oxford.
Librarianship Clive Hurst showed me some of the hidden treasures in this exceptional collection of rare illustrated books for children.
But they could find the stories.
The collection ranges widely.
--Published for adults.
Some of the earliest are the cheaply produced chapbooks of the eighteenth century, mostly moral tales illustrated with simple black and white woodcuts. By the nineteenth century, the customer could buy the coloured version for an extra fee.
But this one--
These books were often designed to appeal to children’s sense of fun, rather than teaching them moral lessons. And the more expensive technique of engraving was also being used, printed using rolling presses, especially for the frontispieces of books displayed in shop windows to attract passersby. By the mid nineteenth century, illustrations of children’s books are often numerous and richly coloured. Production techniques developed further, and the market grew. Adventure stories aimed at boys and school stories for girls sported attractive covers.
While much has changed over the centuries, much has remained the same. A range of child-friendly features remarkably similar to books for young children today have been used since the eighteenth century. The late nineteenth century has been called a golden age of children’s literature, featuring authors and illustrators, such as Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll and Beatrix Potter.
The Bodleian’s Opie Collection contains many of these beautiful classics and provides a fascinating glimpse into the world of words and pictures in children’s books. If you take this free online course, you’ll have the chance to delve deeper into this colourful world and find out more about how words and images combine to create the particular allure that is the children’s picture book.
End transcript: The history of picture books for children
The history of picture books for children
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The video gives a brief glimpse of the history of pictures in children’s books, and how they changed over the centuries as a result of changing techniques, attitudes and markets. Illustrations in early books designed for children were often crude, cheaply produced wood cuts, since it was not considered necessary to invest effort or money in more sophisticated illustrations for children. The frontispieces were sometimes more expensively produced as these were on display in shop windows. As attitudes towards childhood and child readers changed, pictures in children’s books reflected a gradual decline in moral instruction and a growing emphasis on fun and entertainment. New technologies such as engraving and then lithography emerged and became cheaper, and the quality of illustrations in books for children gradually improved. Colour became affordable: some of the cruder examples of colouring shown would have been carried out by young children in cottage industry settings. Intensely coloured editions, such as the 1863 edition of Red Riding Hood shown in the video, became increasingly common and affordable for the middle classes.

By the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, much work of high quality was in circulation: this period has been called a golden age for children’s literature. The rise of mass education in Britain – specifically as a result of the 1870 Education Act – also created a growing new market of young readers at that time. Later in the course you will learn more about some of the famous golden age illustrators such as Walter Crane, Randolph Caldecott, John Tenniel, Arthur Rackham and Kate Greenaway. However, in the next section we focus on the way in which words and pictures work together to create engaging children’s stories, both classic and contemporary.


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