Seth Lerer ’76, literary critic and Distinguished Professor of Literature at the University of California at San Diego, spoke to Slate.com on the complex history of children’s literature.
“The earliest kids books…were largely designed to teach moral behavior,” he said. “They were about social decorum and a particular way of being a child, especially in relation to parents and teachers. Some children’s books—many of the early medieval romances, for instance—had an adventure quality to them, but always a moral and spiritual quality too.”
He also observed the increasing focus on young women in today’s literature. “When you look at the trajectory of modern books, Harriet the Spy, Judy Blume—books from the ’60s and ’70s—and then at Hermione in Harry Potter, who’s very much a modern YA heroine, and at The Hunger Games, you see children’s literature really moving toward an audience of younger women in particular, who face particular challenges and really develop their heroic lives.”
Lerer, the author of Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History from Aesop to Harry Potter, was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism in 2009 and the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in 2010.