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The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children's Literature


Children’s literature has come of age, and in fact, it is so mature, diverse, and complex that it is almost impossible to define, let alone describe and explain. This is all the more reason why we need an international encyclopedia of children’s literature that seeks to be as inclusive and exhaustive as possible and yet acknowledges that this literature is practically indefinable, limitless in its scope, and daunting in its achievements.

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature is the first comprehensive reference work in English to provide detailed information about all aspects of children’s literature from the medieval period to the 21st century on an international scale. It is addressed to users—whether general readers, college and high school students, or scholars— seeking information, definitions, ideas for research papers, an overview of recent scholarship, or an introduction to the multitudinous aspects of children’s literature. Though it is impossible to do justice to all the significant writers, illustrators, publishers, librarians, educators, and developments in the field of children’s literature throughout the world, this Encyclopedia is as inclusive as possible and also deals with such relevant topics in the field as Internet books, films, digital libraries, crossover books, multiculturalism, censorship, and theory. If the Encyclopedia cannot answer all the questions that pertain to international children’s literature, it will at the very least open up new questions and new vistas that can provide an informed and critical appreciation of children’s literature.

Historical Background

During the past thirty-five years scholars and educators have debated and redefined the meaning of children’s literature. In doing so they have recognized its complex historical transformation and have challenged simplistic assumptions about its role and meaning in different cultures throughout the world. One of the first questions they asked and continue to ask concerns the definition of “children” as readers of a literature that might not actually be written for them alone or for their vested interests. Do children constitute the one and only target audience of children’s literature? Do adults not read children’s books as much if not more than children do? Do (adult) writers not really write for the approval of other adults? Was children’s literature conceived to “civilize” children and tame their curiosity? Are there and should there be age-specific books to mold reading habits and customs? Nowadays, publishers use categories to designate books for preschoolers, readers aged five to seven, middle-grade readers (seven to twelve), young adults, and crossover literature for teenagers and adults. The boundaries between these categories are fluid and often collapse, depending on the reader. For example, many teenagers read so-called adult books, and many adults thrive on so-called children’s books. Here, too, one must ask whether the term “children’s literature” embraces teenagers who would be offended to be called children. Should we not instead use the category “literature for children and young adults” the way the Germans designate it—Kinder- und Jugendliteratur—as do other countries?

Clearly, “children’s literature” is an ambiguous term, and historically it was never one definite thing. Scholars cannot even agree on when or where children’s literature originated. If we consider just the Anglo-European tradition, there is a great debate whether there was a children’s literature in the medieval period, and some historians, such as Philippe Ariès in Centuries of Childhood (1962), have even argued that the very notion of childhood as a separate and well-defined period in a person’s life did not arise until the 17th century. Ariès’s thesis has been hotly contested because there are signs of “childhood” as a particular phase of development in Greek and Roman antiquity and in the medieval period. There were also various kinds of literature produced for the young. Certainly it is clear that once the printing press was invented in the 15th century, some texts and books were produced specifically for children even if the books were mainly geared to educate the children and transform them into literate citizens of a particular society or state. The majority of books published took the form of primers (often in Latin), religious and didactic texts, courtesy books about manners, and alphabet books. The first major work of instruction, with pictures, for children was Orbis Sensualium Pictus (1658) by the Czech theologian John Amos Comenius. Gradually publishers began printing cheap booklets filled with legends, didactic stories, folk tales, fables, ballads, rhymes, and myths to attract more readers from the lower classes—chapbooks and pamphlets aimed at adults but also read by children. It was not until 1744, however, that publishers and writers began making a conscious effort to amuse children in books specifically designed for them, and not only to instruct them. This was the year that John Newbery, a London bookseller and publisher, produced A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, which paved the way for various forms of children’s literature—a literature that was to flourish in ways that Newbery could not have imagined.

The reception of this print literature that was to include many genres such as the novel and short story in the period from 1500 to 1900 was, it must be admitted, limited at first because more than 90 percent of young people and many adults could not read, and when they did read, they tended to read out loud in groups. That is, they had different reading habits and customs than we do today. From the beginning—and even today—books were expensive and precious, and standards were set by the upper classes. But as books were disseminated in cheaper forms and literacy increased, the literature of adult high and low culture, particularly the religious and educational texts, was shared by the young. Even in the Baroque and Renaissance periods, children read more than what was intended for them. By the 18th century, for example, a work such as Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1720), intended for adults, became championed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Émile (1762), an influential treatise on education, as the only book a young child should read, and by the beginning of the 19th century numerous adaptations in many different languages appeared, forming a subgenre that we now call Robinsonnades.

It was in the 19th century that children’s literature in all forms and guises flowered throughout the world. The technology of printing improved so that more illustrations were included in the books, and cover designs were made more intricate and attractive. Distribution also made rapid strides. Journals and magazines for young readers were established. Writers, who often wrote for both children and adults, became more experimental and innovative, breaking away from convention and didacticism by the end of the 19th century. The more literate children became, the more they demanded higher quality and more imaginative works, and the more they influenced the market for book publishers. Clearly by the 20th century there was a radical change in the attitude both toward children’s education and toward children as potential consumers of children’s books.

It is not an exaggeration to assert that the 20th century was the century in which children received more attention and more rights and privileges than in previous centuries. The more adults realized that the future of civilization depended on their investment in the education and in the socialization of their children, the more cultural artifacts of all kinds were produced to influence and cultivate those children. Certainly literature was to play a role in “civilizing” children as it always had, but given the rapid transformation of technology and culture and the recognition of children as a special “class,” publishers and educators were compelled to address “empowered” children and to meet their changing needs and demands, always trying to keep a step ahead of the children. New genres and forms of literature were created, such as science fiction, fantasy, series books, social realism, magic realism, comics, graphic novels, specific anthologies, mass-mediated radio and television programs, audiotapes, and so on, that were commensurate with the experiments in children’s education and with the sociocultural changes in child rearing and in the formation of families. In turn, the publishing world and educators introduced innovations in the constantly changing literature for children and, at the same time, were influenced by children to bring about different perspectives in the literature. Cover designs and illustrations transformed the manner in which children read. By the 1960s writers introduced taboo topics that virtually “liberated” children’s literature, so that sex, teenage pregnancy, rape, violence, debates about gender formation and racism, crime, profanity, and other delicate issues became part and parcel of children’s reading materials. Fantasy thrived. Films based on children’s literature appeared more and more frequently. Children organized their own associations and publications. Whether considered to be positive or negative, children’s literature became the most profitable branch of the publishing industry by the end of the 20th century. Though much of this literature is schlock and commercial, more and more talented writers and illustrators began producing and continue to produce such innovative and profound narratives and images that it is very difficult to account for the vast number of books—and their diversity—that have appeared in the 20th century, not to mention the 21st.

Editorial Principles and Practices

Despite the momentous and infinite changes in book publishing for the young, the editors and contributors of the Encyclopedia have endeavored to account for all the most significant and even insignificant works that have played some kind of role in the history of children’s literature in the world. Admittedly, even though the entries have been written by scholars and educators from many different countries, the focus of the Encyclopedia tends to be on the Anglo-American tradition for an English-speaking readership. This focus is not nationalistic, nor is it meant to imply a hierarchy of any kind. Similar to the excellent four-volume Lexikon der Kinder- und Jugendliteratur (1982) edited by Klaus Doderer, which highlights developments in German-speaking countries and elsewhere in Europe, the Encyclopedia concentrates on the tradition known best by its readership, while also covering the immense international development of children’s literature as best one can in the present day. Even though meetings and communication among international scholars in the field have improved and become more frequent only in the last forty years or so, information about the history of children’s literature throughout the world is often still difficult to obtain. Cultural politics during the cold war and present-day conflicts make it difficult to access data. In short, we were somewhat limited in our efforts to be as inclusive and comprehensive as we desired. For instance, there are many topics such as “publishing” where it was virtually impossible to gather facts and present a historical analysis of the rise of publishers and their policies in all the different countries in the world. Therefore general topics such as “publishing,” “multiculturalism,” “film,” or “comics” tend primarily to treat developments in either the United States or the United Kingdom. We hope to expand coverage of the entries in future editions of the Encyclopedia and to correct errors and omissions.

Our research and collaborative work have taken more than five years and reflect the cooperation of numerous scholars throughout the world. Two editorial boards consisting of eight associate editors and twenty-two advisory editors were formed in 2000, and the editors, who have great expertise in international children’s literature, helped to conceive the guidelines for the Encyclopedia, develop the lists of entries, contact contributors, and review all the entries. Almost all the editors also contributed entries, but most of the entries were submitted by more than eight hundred contributors throughout the world. They were commissioned through recommendations by the editors and by other scholars in the field, and, in some cases, the contributors volunteered when they learned about our project. Without their scrupulous and meticulous work and their generosity, it would have been impossible to cover the vast number of topics that we sought to treat in the Encyclopedia. Thanks to the Internet, we were able to enter into a dialogue with each of the contributors and were able to exchange critical views in our effort to produce the most reliable entries about an author, illustrator, or topic. All the entries are signed and represent the views of the contributor.

There are more than 3,200 entries in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature, arranged in alphabetical order letter by letter. The contributors have sought to write in clear language with a minimum of technical vocabulary. The articles give important items and titles in their original languages, with English translations when needed. For readers who want to pursue a topic in greater detail there is a selective bibliography at the end of many articles that includes primary sources and the most important scholarly works in any language plus the most useful works in English.

To guide readers from one article to related discussions elsewhere in the Encyclopedia, cross-references appear at the end of many articles, as well as within the body of a few articles. Blind entries direct the user from an alternate form of an entry term to the entry itself. For example, the blind entry “Twain, Mark” tells the reader to look under “Clemens, Samuel Langhorne.” Readers interested in finding all the articles on a particular subject (for instance, literary genres, specific subjects, or historical events) may consult the systematic outline at the end of volume four. A comprehensive index at the end of volume four lists all the topics covered in the Encyclopedia, including those that are not headwords themselves.

The Encyclopedia includes approximately four hundred illustrations. At the end of volume four there are a systematic outline (which shows how articles relate to one another and to the overall design of the Encyclopedia), a directory of contributors, and the index. In addition, there is a selected bibliography of major scholarly books in the field of children’s literature, along with two appendices consisting of a selected list of international awards and a list of the most significant international centers and libraries of children’s literature.

There are already some helpful reference books in English that deal with children’s literature, such as Humphrey Carpenter and Mari Prichard’s The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature (1984), Anita Silvey’s Children Books and Their Creators (1995), Victor Watson’s The Cambridge Guide to Children’s Books in English (2001), and Bernice E. Cullinan and Diane G. Person’s The Continuum Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature (2001). All these fine books have their virtues, and in some cases the contributors to these works have provided assistance in the development of The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature. What distinguishes the Encyclopedia from these works and others is its breadth and depth.

The very fact that the Encyclopedia consists of four volumes has enabled us to include many more entries and shed more light on developments that have not been covered in other reference works. For instance, the treatment of the literature written and published in English includes an extensive coverage of works from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, India, Pakistan, African countries, and other nations in which English has played a formative role. We have also tried to indicate which books from other countries have been translated into English, even though the United States and the United Kingdom do not translate as many books as other countries; other nations often produce more books from English-speaking countries than they do in their own language. Even when books in foreign countries are not available in English, they have been included, and titles have been translated. Every attempt has been made to note the most significant authors, illustrators, and educators throughout the world. The bibliographical references to pertinent essays and books take into account the growing international scholarship. Since the development of children’s literature cannot be grasped without placing it within the context of sociocultural developments, we have addressed the impact of toys, films, the Internet, changing practices in the publishing industry, literacy, libraries and librarians, censorship, political shifts that have effected the production and ideology of children’s literature, and institutions and organizations that further the appreciation and dissemination of children’s literature. Since illustration plays such an important role in children’s literature, we have provided not only extensive coverage of illustrators but also numerous examples of their work.

Though editing such a copious encyclopedia—one that seeks to give international children’s literature its due respect and appreciation—is a rewarding experience, it has also been a very frustrating one because it is impossible to produce a reference work that does complete justice to all the significant writers and artists in the field. There are bound to be gaps and errors in the Encyclopedia, and there has been such a prodigious and diverse production of children’s literature in the last ten years that some entries will not be up-to-date and some topics will not have been adequately addressed. In addition to this quandary, many contributors who were originally commissioned to write an entry had to resign at the last moment due to illness or a personal problem, and it was often difficult to find a replacement. Whenever an article did not meet professional standards, it was either rejected or extensively revised. In sum, the task of working with more than eight hundred people has been a trying experience, but put to the test, I would do it again because of the great dedication of the scholars and editors with whom I have worked.


I cannot praise my associate editors enough. Beverly Lyons Clark, Andrea Immel, Kimberley Reynolds, Donnarae MacCann, Roderick McGillis, Maria Nikolajeva, John Stephens, Deborah Stevenson, and Kay E. Vandergrift have been the backbone of this project, and without their advice and support it would never have been completed. In addition to their help, I owe a debt of gratitude to all the twenty-two advisory editors, who have been particularly helpful in urgent situations and played an important role in developing the international aspect of the Encyclopedia. There are those scholars and friends who have gone beyond the call of duty, and I should particularly like to thank Gillian Avery, Carmen Diana Dearden, Adrienne E. Gavin, Michelle H. Martin, Jean Perrot, and Isabel Schon for all their efforts. The project was initiated by Ralph Carlson, the acquiring editor in the Reference Division at Oxford University Press, who commissioned me to edit the Encyclopedia. When he left Oxford, I was fortunate to receive counsel and support from Karen Day, Timothy J. DeWerff, and Stephen Wagley, who went out of their way to guarantee the success of the project. Since the Encyclopedia has taken well over five years to complete, changes at Oxford occurred that necessitated collaboration with several different editors. Beth Ammerman, Sarah Feehan, Erin Carter, Tanya LaPlante, and Georgia Maas were most helpful and ably moved the project forward under difficult circumstances. Most of all, I am indebted to Eric Stannard, who took over the management of the Encyclopedia at Oxford in the final phase and who has been not only extremely thorough and meticulous in his work, but also patient and considerate. Finally, I want to thank all the contributors, many of whom I know, and many of whom I would like to meet. Their dedication to children’s literature and to the young in the world has provided the inspiration for the Encyclopedia.

1 January 2006

Jack Zipes