To Amuse and Interest: Moral and Cautionary Tales for Children

"When children can read fluently, the difficulty is not to supply them with entertaining books, but to prevent them from reading too much and indiscriminately.  To give them only such as cultivate the moral feelings, and create a taste for knowledge, while they, at the same time, amuse and interest.”

~Richard Lovell Edgeworth, “Address to Mothers,” 1815

Before the middle of the 18th century nearly all children’s books were either purely instructional (spelling books, conduct books) or extremely religious. Children seeking light and enjoyable reading matter had few choices beyond adult books they adopted as their own. London bookseller John Newbery was one of the first to notice the need for specially produced, entertaining children’s books, though he was not alone. Other pioneering authors were producing similar works throughout the 1740s and 1750s and, by 1800, these short, didactic stories, which were intended to teach right and wrong with simple and amusing prose, verses, and illustrations, had become the predominant genre in children’s literature. The subject matter of these early versions was usually domestic or rural, as fairy stories or anything fanciful were considered at best old fashioned and at worst destructive to a child’s education and faith, and the attitude was generally secular, with the hero or heroine being rewarded for good behavior with worldly goods.

Though it reached its zenith in the mid-19th century, the moral tale did not disappear; it carried on throughout the century in different guises, such as the stricter evangelical and temperance stories published by the Religious Tract Society and the more subtle “novels of character” like Tom Brown’s School Days and Little Women.  The renaissance of fairy stories and the advent of fantasy novels in the mid-to-late-19th century may have increased the options of entertaining reading material for children, but the moral story remained, and remains today, as an integral part of children’s literature.