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Children's Literature: A Reader's History, from Aesop to Harry Potter Paperback – September 1, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

The erudite Lerer, whose Inventing English (2007) was enthusiastically reviewed in these pages, has now undertaken an ambitious, one-volume history of children’s literature. He begins in classical antiquity and ends with the salutary likes of Weetzie Bat (1989) and the Time Warp Trio, giving particular attention along the way—he being a philologist—to the language of literature, whether critical or narrative. Always in search of large ideas and overarching themes, he has what many may find an annoying tendency to pronounce (“The book now ends with bedtime—as all great children’s stories really do”) and to presume his reader’s tacit agreement, offering far too many propositions beginning “How can we not . . .” Nevertheless, Lerer does an extraordinary job of expanding our understanding of individual titles by richly contextualizing them in the world of their creation and stimulates readers’ imaginations by some surprising juxtapositions (Darwin and Dr. Seuss!). Though the book’s principal audience will be an academic one, general readers will find much of interest here as well. --Michael Cart --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


“Lerer’s Olympian survey of more than 2,000 years leaves the reader with a stimulating vision of history. . . . His narrative swells and ebbs like a symphony. . . . To find Pilgrim's Progress and Weetzie Bat in a single volume is itself a pleasure.”

(Michael Sims Washington Post Book World 2008-05-11)

“Lerer has accomplished something magical. Unlike the many handbooks to children’s literature that synopsize, evaluate, or otherwise guide adults in the selection of materials for children, this work presents a true critical history of the genre. . . . Scholarly, erudite, and all but exhaustive, it is also entertaining and accessible. Lerer takes his subject seriously without making it dull.”

(Library Journal (starred review) 2008-05-15)

“Lerer’s history reminds us of the wealth of literature written during the past 2,600 years. . . . With his vast and multidimensional knowledge of literature, he underscores the vital role it plays in forming a child’s imagination. We are made, he suggests, by the books we read.”

(San Francisco Chronicle 2008-07-06)

“There is hardly a children’s classic, from Robinson Crusoe to Where the Wild Things Are to pop-up books, which [Lerer] does not discuss with sympathy and wit.”
(Eric Ormsby New York Sun)

“There are dazzling chapters on John Locke and Empire, and nonsense, and Darwin, but Lerer’s most interesting chapter focuses on girls’ fiction. In a brilliant series of readings, he uncovers a preoccupation with theatricality in classic fiction for girls, from the melodramatic conduct of Anne of Green Gables to Jo March’s career as dramatist.”

(Diane Purkiss Times Literary Supplement 2009-01-02)

“A history of children's literature is . . . a history of literature itself and Seth Lerer, by training a medieval philologist like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, has written a very good one.”

(Jonathan Bate Sunday Telegraph 2008-08-24)

“A dazzling cornucopia of erudition and originality on a subject of grave concern in twenty-first century U.S. education and culture. Every page of Seth Lerer’s brilliant book reminds us of the supreme and enduring value of childhood reading. This volume deserves the attention of all who care about the shaping of lives—educators on all levels, policy makers, psychologists, and parents, as well as scholars. Lerer writes that children's literature is meant ‘docere et delectare’ (to instruct and to delight), and this is precisely what he himself has done in this fascinating book.”

(Ellen Handler Spitz, University of Maryland, author of Inside Picture Books 2007-12-11)

“A wonderful book, with remarkable temporal breadth in its vision of the children’s tradition. Highly effective as a work of synthesis, yet with many, many moments of originality and surprise, even for expert readers. Anyone engaged (whether as scholar, educator, even ‘simply’ as parent) with the psychic life of children will have much to learn from Lerer’s account.”

(Katie Trumpener, Yale University 2007-09-19)

“A breathtakingly powerful and complex history of children’s literature that energizes rather than depletes. Lerer gives us the facts, but he also weaves experiences and stories into an account that moves in registers ranging from the ecstatic to the elegiac. An ideal guide for students new to the field of children’s literature as well as for scholars familiar with the territory.”

(Maria Tatar, Harvard University 2007-12-27)

“Seth Lerer’s Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History from Aesop to Harry Potter is unique in its method, depth, and breadth. Lerer’s comprehensive knowledge of ancient and medieval literature serves him well, for he has a singular understanding of how vernacular literature originated and informed literature for children and adults and how children’s literature informed the construction of both childhood and adult readers. It is a joy to read his study because one can sense a serious and sensitive mind at work, seeking to chart a new path through the history of children’s literature. Lerer mixes his personal reading experience with an astute scholarly appreciation of literary reception, and the result is an original study that will contribute to a greater awareness of the profundity of children’s literature.”

(Jack Zipes, University of Minnesota 2007-12-27)

"Splendidly well written, and both wide-ranging and comprehensive."

"It's a thick scholarly tome, but also a charming read that revels in children's imaginations and the timeless works that stimulate them. . . . The book's main attraction is its obvious delight in the subject matter: Lerer perfectly captures the love of literature that follows a voracious child reader into adulthood."
(Rachael Scarborough King New Haven Review)

“Lerer makes some smart, timely arguments. Opening up a too-constricted definition of children’s literature is a crucial corrective;

anyone who studies children before the twentieth century already knows that children read and were influenced by far more than so-called children’s books. It is high time that children’s literary histories acknowledged and analyzed those materials.”

(International Research in Children’s Literature)

"Lerer has so many unusual insights, and illuminating observations that anyone who loved reading as a child will find his book utterly absorbing."
(Christina Hardyment BBC History Magazine)

"Children's Literature will make many people reconsider, re-evaluate, and perhaps re-engage with the body of writing that has been generated for the young over the centuries. . . . A well-written and entertaining book."
(Kimberley Reynolds MLR)

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press (September 1, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226473015
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226473017
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #605,776 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

23 of 25 people found the following review helpful By John D. Cofield TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on May 13, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I love to read and reread classic children's literature, ancient and modern. Seth Lerer has provided a highly scholarly but extremely accessible and enjoyable work on its history. I had some misgivings in purchasing this, because in my experience too much analysis can kill even the most fervent attachment. But I realized I had nothing to fear when I found chapter after chapter of absorbing information. I learned so much that I never knew about old favorites like Aesop's fables, and found so many unexpected connections, like the link between Charles Darwin and Dr. Seuss!

In a work covering such a broad field and span of time much must be summarized or barely touched upon. I would have loved to have read more about Harriet the Spy, for example. But this book was a delight to read and will be a treasure to keep and refer to again and again.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Edith M. Dunn on June 10, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Interesting perspective on children's literature. Begins from the premise that children's literacy, and reading materials for children have gone back to the Greeks if not before. In addition to putting the literature of children in historical context, the author also delves into the various symbols and meanings which children's literature carries for all of us. Creative, scholarly, and incredibly comprehensive.
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By Shelidon on December 3, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
An extremely interesting book, with nice insights on some of the most beautiful books for children of all times. A must have.
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