Study Guide

Children's Literature Characteristics

  • Repetition

    You ever repeat something over and over in your head to help remember it? That's exactly what's going on in children's literature: authors repeat things so they stick with the kids. Earworms turn into knowledge eventually. So children's stories are full of repeated events, incidents, numbers, days—you name it. And of course, it's all wrapped up in a bunch of pretty pictures and a fun story.

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    How is repetition used by authors of children's books? Check out these quotations from Dr. Seuss's The Cat in the Hat, which repeat sounds in rhyming lines. Over and over and over again.

    You'll find more repeated sounds and rhymes in Dr. Seuss' Oh, The Places You'll Go!

  • Didacticism

    Children's literature isn't just written to entertain kids—it's written to teach them. And we don't mean just teaching them their ABCs or 123s; children's literature also help children learn right from wrong. And wrong from evil. Notice how the bad guy in children's literature almost always gets punished at the end? Yeah, there's a reason for that.

    But of course, literature also teaches kids to…read. Check out our video on how Dr. Seuss changed the way we read for more on that matter.

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    People who do bad things are often punished in children's literature. Kids will definitely avoid doing wrong after they see how the witch and her daughter are punished in "Brother and Sister," a fairytale from the Grimms' Fairytales. Delve into this excerpt (Quote #1).

    Edmund, one of the child protagonists in C.S. Lewis' The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, isn't quite sure what's right from wrong. But by the end of the story, he'll figure it out. Check out this quotation (Quote #2) from the book.

  • Illustration

    Pictures: we all love 'em, but kids just go gaga for 'em. Why? Because they're preeeeety. Seriously. Illustrations help keep kids' attention and stimulate their imagination. Oh, and they help them understand the stories. Before kids can read, illustrations dramatize and reinforce the story that's being told so they can follow along even if they don't understand the words their parents are babbling out loud. In fact, some children's books are only pictures—after all, they're worth a thousand words.

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    This 1897 edition of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is full of illustrations that bring the story to life.

    Dr. Seuss wasn't just a writer of children's stories; he was also an illustrator. Check out his distinctive illustration style in The Cat in the Hat Comes Back.

  • Optimism

    Notice how things always end with "happily ever after" in children's books? That optimistic perspective is a big part of what we consider to be children's literature. When we grow up, we may realize that life doesn't always end happily. But why rain on the little ones' parade?

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    Cinderella goes through a rough time with her evil step-sisters in the Grimms' "Cinderella." But everything works out for her in the end: she marries the prince, and her step-sisters are punished. Have a look at this quotation (Quote #9) from the fairytale.

    Ah, love. In J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry finds love with Ginny. And of course we know that they'll end up married by the end of the book, long after Harry has defeated the evil Voldemort. Check out this quotation (Quote #1) from the book.

  • Fantastic

    In children's literature, people fly. They grow into giants. They talk to animals. They cast spells and transform into magical beings.

    This emphasis on the fantastic, of course, reflects the imagination of children. After all, when we're little, we live in a world of fantasy. We don't know what's real from what's not, and we believe that there may actually be a monster hiding under our bed. (Spoiler alert: there's not…we looked.)

    For children, the line between the real and the fantastic is a pretty thin one, and in children's literature, we'll find that this line is also very thin. Be careful, or you might trip over it without even realizing.

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    C.S. Lewis' The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the third book in the Narnia chronicles, is full of magic and fantastic creatures.

    In Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass, Alice decides to walk through a mirror. No biggie. Check out this quotation (Quote #6) for a taste.

  • Children

    We know it's obvious, but we love stating the obvious: children are everywhere in children's literature—in fact, they're usually the protagonists. Given that this literature is written for kids, it's not surprising that it reflects the identity of its readers. Part of the reason it's so appealing to children is because it mirrors their concerns and their perspective on the world through the characters that it depicts.

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    The protagonist of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is a curious seven-and-a-half year old girl.

    Does Harry Potter need any introduction? This eleven-year-old wizard is at the center of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

  • Innocence

    If nothing else, kids are innocent—and as they grow up, they lose that innocence. This exploration of innocence is one of the defining characteristics of children's literature. How innocent are we, exactly? What's good about that innocence? What's dangerous about it? Children's literature seeks to answer these questions by showing kids out in a strange world, encountering new things and new people and figuring out how to handle it all.

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    Little Red Cap is one innocent little girl. She's the protagonist of the story "Little Red Cap" (also known as "Little Red Riding Hood") in the Grimms' Fairytales.

    Violet, one of the lucky kids who gets to visit Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, is as innocent as they come. She thinks that just because she wants something, she can have it. Check out this quotation (Quote #5) from Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

  • Action

    Kids are cute and all, but they're not quite keyed into all the abstract ideas and emotions that we adults are privy to. And that's why children's books are full of action: kids are much more able to understand actions (someone fell! someone yelled! someone ate a piece of cake!) than emotions and thoughts (someone…feels something very specific and hard to define?).

    Whatever emotions we find in children's literature tend to be quite basic (and the younger the audience for a book, the more basic these emotions will be): we're talking sadness, fear, anger, happiness…not existential angst.

    That said, children's literature has a knack for meeting kids where they're at. So Max's frustration in Where the Wild Things Are is to a five-year-old what Camus is to suffering college kids everywhere. As children grow more cognitively able to understand bigger ideas, the books will grow with them.

    But for the most part, children's stories focus on things happening. Characters don't just sit around and chat all day—they do things.

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    Dr. Seuss' Oh, The Places You'll Go! is all about getting off our butts and exploring the world.

    Those kids in C.S. Lewis' The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe may be stuck in a big old house, but it doesn't stop them from having adventures. Check out this quotation (Quote #2) from the book.

  • Children's Rights Movement

    The Children's Rights Movement really got going during the Industrial Revolution in Britain (1760-1840), when loads of kids worked in factories. Yep: tiny little kids, as young as six, were forced to labor for long hours each day.

    Finally social reformers began speaking up and saying that it just wasn't right. Kids, they argued, aren't adults; they're just not cut out to work all day in terrible conditions, lifting heavy loads and performing tasks that are suited for adults.

    The Children's Rights Movement played a big part in establishing a distinction between "children" and "adults." (Check out "Concept of Childhood" for more on that.)

  • Concept of Childhood

    Believe it or not, we didn't always make a distinction between children and adults. The idea that children were a separate category of people from adults only began to emerge during the 18th century Enlightenment, when philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke made the argument that those itty-bitty people walking around were very different from us fully grown folk.

    It was then that "childhood" came to be defined as a unique period in the development of a person, and "children" were, for the first time, talked about as a separate category of people. Then, of course, the Children's Rights Movement came along and reinforced this new idea that children aren't mini-adults walking around…even if they do act like it sometimes.

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    The transition from childhood to adulthood is a big theme in the Grimms' Fairytales. Delve into an analysis of this theme here.

    Roald Dahl uses the point of view of a child to transport his readers into childhood in The Witches. Check out an analysis of the book's first-person point of view.