Tracing genres in children's books
Speaking to a small and lively group in science communication at Imperial College a few weeks ago allowed me to reflect on some of the themes of my research, and crystalize the central point of my presentation into a few simple thoughts; so here they are.
I talked about the development of themes and styles in children's books; the overhaul of the Victorian tendencies for moralistic stories and fairy tales in the early 20th century. The Russian Revolution spurred reforms in education and in the status and quality of children's publishing; a new modernist approach was born that combined high-quality illustration, highly affordable production, and more natural themes, such as in this 1928 book by Mayakovsky and Zdanevich, about the circus:
This new approach to children's non-fiction books spread through Europe with the educational reforms of the 30s (Montessori, Piaget, Bakulé). It would reach France and inspire the Père Castors, and later touch Britain, where Penguin would publish the Picture Puffin Books from the 1940s. Though the look and content of Picture Puffin Books was largely a product of British postwar social modernism, their spritiual origin does at least partly stem from the work of avant-guarde Russian artists.
My talk went on to cover some aspects of children's non-fiction publishing up to the present day, but this seems far too much for a single post. The central point was to consider the development of this genre of children's publishing in terms of its historical and cultural development. Too often we assume that the layout, content and illustration of contemporary children's books are complete departures from what came before; we are used to thinking of design as though it is art; the product of a lone genius. In fact children's science books today draw inspiration from earlier ones, both in terms of their form (ypes of pictures, information in bite-size chunks, arrangements in two-page spreads, etc.) and content (science, nature and other 'useful' topics repackaged for entertainment -- or is that 'edutainment').