Penn Arts & Sciences Logo

Children's Literature: The Invention of American Childhood

ENGL 053.001
instructor(s):
MW 2-3:30 pm
fulfills requirements:
Sector 5: 19th Century Literature of the Standard Major
Sector 6: 20th Century Literature of the Standard Major

 Just what is it that children should be reading? Fairy tales, Shakespeare, or the last words of a condemned convict? The fact that all three have been the right answer suggests the strange complications of a literature that we often take for granted, for though it may use simple words, children’s literature is steeped in claims about what it means to grow up “right.” Starting with Enlightenment theories of childhood by authors such as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, we’ll pursue the development of children’s literature into its commercial boom in the early U.S. and into the current world of children’s fiction. By reading authors and texts including Maurice Sendak, Nathaniel Hawthorne, L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, Mark Twain, and Gertrude Stein, we’ll ask what relationship children have to their society, the literary traditions associated with the genre, and how the concept of childhood itself has evolved. In the early weeks of class, we will also select a work of recent YA fiction to include in the syllabus; likely candidates include The Hunger Games, Divergent, or a Harry Potter novel, but the final selection will be based on your interests. Alongside these literary works, we will examine the historical archive of what meant to be a child throughout the history of the United States, including popular magazines, advertisements, and cartoons.