The First And Second Golden Ages of Children’s Literature

We are now in what’s known as The Third Golden Age of Children’s Literature. Naturally the first and second golden ages came before.

What are the main differences between books from the first and second golden ages?


(Note: Some say the first golden age ended at the turn of the century. Others are more specific. Marina Warner gives the specific years of 1950-1920.)

  • Great writers would team up with great illustrators
  • Industrial revolution led to advances in printing, affecting illustration
  • The growing middle class increased their interest in education
  • Didactic, often in a religious sense
  • Reassurance that everything will turn out all right despite huge adversities
  • Duty, self-sacrifice, no complaining
  • Children do rather than think
  • Outside all day with no supervision
  • Proud of their class
  • Patriotic
  • Boys are stronger and bolder than girls
The Water Babies first golden age
It was thought that children could be taught to do the right thing by having the wrong thing done to them. Sort of like hitting a kid for hitting. This is from a bowdlerised version of The Water Babies published originally  1862-63

If you think of some of the books which you may have loved in your own childhood — novels such as Little Women, say, or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory — and try to re-read them to your children, you quickly come up against concepts such as duty, self-sacrifice and not complaining which tend to be quite alien. Above all, the children in this First Golden Age do, rather than think. They are expected to be resourceful and resilient, proud of their class and country. When Nesbit’s Five Children time travel in The Story of the Amulet, they have no qualms whatsoever about telling Caesar how jolly marvellous Britain is — thus inciting him to invade us.

Lord of the Rings first golden age
“All these decades later, the books can be generously called “problematic,” can’t they? Coded racism, literal black and white morality, a near-total lack of female characters with agency.” — Aidan Moher

Adult nostalgia for the “Golden Age” of children’s literature … seems often to run in tandem with hand-wringing over declining standards of literacy and screen-locked, overstimulated juveniles. The feeling perhaps betrays a yearning for a halcyon era that never was. Those who consistently rate these books, in polls, as “all-time greats” or “essentials” do not necessarily also reason that outworn attitudes to disability, ethnicity, class and colonialism (not to mention old-fashioned modes of expression) create many barriers to contem­porary children’s enjoyment.

Imogen Russell Williams

Examples From The First Golden Age

  • Tom Brown’s Schooldays
  • Little Women
  • Adventure books for boys
  • Alice In Wonderland 
  • Huckleberry Finn
  • The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame — a classic example of a book from the Edwardian Era*, which lasted 1901-1910.
  • The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • The Tale Of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter
  • The Jungle Book — inspired the entire Boy Scout movement
  • The Wizard of Oz
  • E. Nesbit — Edith Nesbit’s work from the age of 20 to 40 was firmly in the tradition of the first golden age, but she suddenly started writing with a style far ahead of her time, helping to propel the West into the second golden age.
  • The work of Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty — the first modern animal story
  • Peter Pan and Wendy — the first novel in which a group of ordinary children enter a magic world and have an adventure there
  • Winnie the Pooh came right at the end of the first golden age.
*The Edwardian Era (1901-1910)

The Edwardian era was very short, and covers the brief reign of King Edward the seventh, 1901-1910. If you lived during this time you’d have been part of huge social upheaval:

  • Women’s suffrage
  • Workers’ strikes
  • Agitation over empire

Particular tropes in fiction of this era reflect the feeling — in Britain, at least — that you were enjoying a garden party while surrounded by threats:

SECOND GOLDEN AGE: 1950s-1970s

  • Pictures and type saw further improvements.
  • Improvements in colour printing technology made it possible to produce cheap multicoloured plates.
  • From 1920 books could be produced in mass amounts in colour and literacy became sufficiently widespread
  • Hans Christian Andersen became well known to English-reading children.
  • Fairy tales began revolutionising with the study of folklore
  • Hero legends are rewritten and simplified (bowdlerised) for children
  • From mid 1900s chromolithography led to a craze for ornate gift books with a mediaeval design.
  • Post 1960s literature often reflects society’s intense interest in child-rearing with a continuation of the child-only adventures which featured heavily in the first half of the 20th century alongside the return of the parent. There is now more emphasis on adult-child relationships, conventional and unconventional.
  • We see a broader range of parenting styles and discipline. Stories explore power relations between adults and children.
  • Before the 1960s, people rarely talked about children’s rights. However, children’s rights did not emerge suddenly in the 1960s. Along with other humanitarian and democratic values, they can be traced back primarily to the Romantic era, with the beginnings of legislation in Victorian times. The public school reforms by Samuel Butler and Thomas Arnold were followed by many attempts throughout the nineteenth century to improve the working conditions and education of lower-class children. These attempts to treat children humanely only started to really catch hold in this era. This is reflected in children’s literature.
  • The 1960s and 70s saw the emergence of the new social realism for children which tackled previously taboo subjects e.g. divorce, child abuse. However, this didn’t replace other kinds of books. These new ‘social issues’ books simply existed alongside. Sheila Egoff called these new books ‘the problem novel’.

The Second Golden Age, which fed the imagination of the baby boomers, ran roughly from the 1950s to the 1970s, and is quite different in that it reverberates with a new, global moral consciousness. It portrayed the big struggle between good and evil — most famously in Tolkien — as an absolute struggle, and it did so in the wake of the Second World War. To grow into adulthood aware that someone, somewhere, can destroy the world with a nuclear bomb, does tend to have a profound effect on the imagination. To also discover that atrocities like genocide were carried out because a populace did not question authority is also to understand why subversive authors such as Roald Dahl, Judith Kerr and Maurice Sendak became so popular.

Amanda Craig

Maria Nikolajeva writes that post-WW2 children’s literature (which includes both the second and third golden ages) is different from what came before in that it has ‘started subverting its own oppressive function’. What does this mean? Well, one of the main functions of children’s literature (and also gay literature, feminist literature and so on) is to explore the power differential between different groups of people in society. Children are an ‘oppressed’ group due to their age and powerlessness. Earlier children’s literature was almost always written from an authoritative point of view by an unseen narrator filling in the blanks for less experienced children. In modern stories for children, the children’s writer often takes the part of the child.

Children’s literature starts to be a bit more subversive. Some critics have argued that all children’s literature is subversive by definition (e.g. Alison Lurie in her book Don’t Tell The Grownups), but at this stage of evolution, some books are subversive while others confirm rather than interrogate the idea that adults have (and should have) all the power.

Examples From The Second Golden Age

  • Millions of Cats
  • The Little Engine That Could
  • Babar
  • Madeline picture books, e.g. Madeline And The Gypsies by Ludwig Bemelmans
  • Curious George
  • The Cat In The Hat and other Dr Seuss books
  • Where The Wild Things Are
  • Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?
  • The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
  • Corduroy
  • The Polar Express
  • If You Give A Mouse A Cookie, the first book read by Reading Rainbow
  • Tom’s Midnight Garden (1958) by Phillipa Pearce
  • Chrestomanci books by Diana Wynne-Jones, who combines fantasy with modern social issues
  • Green Knowe books by Lucy M Boston
  • The Changes Trilogy by Peter Dickinson
  • The Midnight Folk by John Masefield
  • Wolves of Willighby Chase by Joan Aiken
  • Eva Ibbotson
  • Enid Blyton
  • Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome
  • Noel Streatfeild
  • Hilary McKay
  • Anne Fine, social realism
  • Fiona Dunbar
  • Cathy Cassidy
  • Anthony McGowan
  • Francesca Simon
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