Children's Books

Course convener: Jill Shefrin


This course is designed to provide a holistic introduction to the study of early and modern children’s books, examining the book as physical object—both bibliographically and materially—as well as concepts of rarity and collectability, together with the history and practice of children’s book collecting, bookselling and scholarship. Case studies will focus on different historical contexts, printing technologies, book design and cross-cultural influences over 500 years.

This holistic introduction to the study of children’s books, examines the book as a physical object incorporating bibliography, rarity and materiality—the book as a physical object. In all of these categories, children’s books offer particular problems. For example, children are hard on their books, which may survive only a single generation. Historically, until the last century they were considered of little value both by copyright deposit or other libraries and by private collectors. Additionally, books from earlier periods, produced for a cheap popular market or published under wartime conditions, may be especially scarce.

Examining a range of early and modern rare children’s books through the lenses of publishing, authorship, illustration, design, printing and reception, this course addresses the following questions: What constitutes a children’s book? For how many centuries have children’s books been published and marketed? How has their evolution been affected by factors such as religious and educational ideas and practices or cultural norms in a given period? Who has written, purchased or read them? Is there—or should there be—a children’s book canon?

Students will have the opportunity to see and handle material in some of London’s rare book collections. Discussion will include the roles of collectors, curators, booksellers and academics in the evolution of the field with a session on the antiquarian trade in children’s books.

Students should acquire a sufficient sense of the current state of bibliographical and historical research to enable them to pursue their own professional or personal interests.

Recommended introductory reading and listening

Brian Alderson, Sing a Song for Sixpence: The English Picture-book Tradition and Randolph Caldecott (British Library, 1986).

Brian Alderson and Andrea Immel, “Mass Markets: Children’s Books” in The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, Vol. 6, 1830-1914  (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

F. J. H. Darton, Children’s Books in England (British Library, 1999). This is the third edition, revised by Brian Alderson. First published in 1932, it is still the classic text on the subject.

M. O. Grenby, Children’s Literature (Edinburgh University Press, 2008).

Andrea Immel, “Children’s Books and School Books” in The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, Vol. 5, 1695–1830 (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Jill Shefrin, “Sometimes he thought... ‘Why?’ and sometimes he thought, ‘Wherefore?’ and sometimes he thought, ‘Inasmuch as which?’”: Context and the Study of Children's Books. Keynote address, National Collection of Children's Books Symposium, Trinity College, Dublin, 17 April 2015. At   

These works will provide students with more detail than can be included in the seminar sessions. Some of the readings for individual sessions provide further background; others raise issues related to seminar discussion. The longer lists of suggested additional readings and works of reference at the end of the handbook are by no means comprehensive, and students with a knowledge of particular aspects of the history of children’s books may identify omissions. They are intended rather to suggest the wealth and diversity of material now available on some aspects of the subject and, in some cases, to give students a feel for the varied nature of writing on children’s books over the last century.