Fiction for children in the first 40 years of the 20th century

From Edith Nesbit to Enid Blyton, Alison Bailey traces the development of children's fiction in the first four decades of the 20th century.

The 20th century opens at the tail end of the so-called first golden age of children’s books in the UK (generally held to date from the 1860s until 1914). This rich period was followed by the dislocation of the First World War (1914–18) and its immediate aftermath when relatively few children’s books were published. However, publishing of children’s fiction picked up in the 1920s and burgeoned in the 1930s until interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939.[1]

The status of children’s literature

At the beginning of the 20th century, the status of children’s literature was changing. Felicity Hughes[2] suggests that whereas for much of the 19th century novels were published for family reading, by the turn of the century there was a split between fiction aimed at children and fiction aimed at adults, and the status of the former was lower. In the late 1920s and 1930s, however, there were initiatives, presaged in the United States, which reflected increased interest in children’s literature.

Library authorities began to appoint children’s librarians, perhaps most notably Hendon Library’s appointment of Eileen Colwell in 1926. Publishers began to engage editors specifically for children’s books, for example Grace Hogarth at Oxford University Press in 1936 and Eleanor Graham (who had previously run the children’s section in the London bookshop Bumpus Books) at Puffin in 1940. The reviewing magazine Junior Bookshelf was first published in 1936, and the Carnegie Medal was first awarded in 1937. However, many of those involved in these initiatives came from similar backgrounds and made similar selections of material, which largely reflected middle-class tastes and experience. This perhaps influenced the initial acclaim for Eve Garnett’s The Family from One End Street (1937), a book motivated by Garnett’s concern about working-class slum conditions. The book was greeted with enthusiasm and was awarded the Carnegie Medal in 1938, hailed as a work which reflected the reality of working-class experience; however, more often nowadays it is criticised for its patronising tone. Also, most of those appointed to such editorial roles were women. As is clear from their recollections in Signal: Approaches to Children’s Books, women editors of children’s books suffered from a double lack of status, making it even harder for them to increase the standing of children’s literature.

Edith Nesbit

Great claims have been made for the importance of the author Edith Nesbit, and though she clearly built on the work of her predecessors, she can still be viewed as a pivotal figure at the turn of the 19th/20th century. Her three works about the Bastable Family, The Story of the Treasure Seekers (1899), The Wouldbegoods (1901) and New Treasure Seekers (1904) exemplify a less literary, more colloquial language. They also feature the use of direct address by a child narrator, and an approach with more humour and perhaps less overt moralising than could previously be found in children’s literature.

Her works of fantasy, including Five Children and It (1902), The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904) and The Story of the Amulet (1906) – like much of her work originally published in serial form – achieve their humour from the application of the features of fantasy or magic to the mundane reality of daily life. Though often criticised as sentimental, the lasting fame of The Railway Children (1906) can largely be attributed to the nostalgia-fuelled success of the 1970 film, but the book also demonstrates Nesbit’s attempt to reflect her socialist political beliefs – she was one of the founding members of the Fabian Society in 1884 – in her depictions of working-class life.

Fantasy literature

Fantasy literature flourished throughout this period. Several causes for its apparent popularity in children’s literature in the early decades of the 20th century have been proposed, including unease at rapid urban development, nostalgia for an Arcadian past and the dislocation which followed the First World War. Some critics, equating fantasy with escapism, have disparaged the genre as a whole.

An early notable example, J M Barrie’s creation Peter Pan, first appears in The Little White Bird (1902), a work intended for adults, then in a play (1904), then a book (1906) and subsequently a novel based on the play, published as Peter and Wendy (1911). This unsettling and unstable story, Barrie’s only work for children, seems to reflect an ambivalent attitude to childhood, adulthood and women. Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908) has also been seen as a reflection of the author’s anxiety about increased mechanisation, the changing social order and the role of women. Hugh Lofting’s series of books about Dr Dolittle, of which the first was published in New York in 1920, grew from the stories he had originally told in letters to his children from the front line during the First World War. Other celebrated works of children’s fantasy include John Masefield’s Midnight Folk (1927) and The Box of Delights (1935), P L Travers's Mary Poppins (1934) and J R R Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937). The Hobbit – the culmination of between-the-wars fantasy for children and originally written for Tolkien’s own sons and daughter – was revised after the Second World War to tally better with The Lord of the Rings sequence.

Stories about animals

The most successful works of the 1920s were those of A A Milne, whose four works for children – all published in the space of five years – brought him renown. His two books of verse When We Were Very Young (1924) and Now We Are Six (1927), and two collections about Pooh, Piglet and friends, Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) and The House at Pooh Corner (1928), eclipsed his reputation as a playwright and Punch contributor. While Milne’s protagonists remain recognisably toy animals, Beatrix Potter’s small and satisfyingly shaped books, which begin with Peter Rabbit (privately printed in 1901, then published by Warne in 1902), are clearly about real animals – the illustrations reflecting her interest in anatomy and close observation of wildlife. Though her subjects are anthropomorphised, the gently satirical works largely avoid sentimentality. The period also saw the first pony story, published in 1929 – Moorland Mousie by Golden Gorse, the pseudonym of Muriel Wace.

The Tale of Peter Rabbit

The cover of Beatrix Potter's 1902 edition of The Tales of Peter Rabbit.

Potter deftly brought to the page closely-observed details of animals’ lives.

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Stories set in the real world

While there is an argument that all fiction is in essence fantasy, Eleanor Graham’s The Children Who Lived in a Barn (1938), reflecting ambivalence about increasing state intervention, seems embedded in greater reality, as is Noel Streatfeild’s series of books (beginning with Ballet Shoes (1936)) about children defying obstacles to their chosen (predominately artistic) careers. Arthur Ransome, in his celebrated series of family adventures featuring the Walker, Blackett and Callum children against a backdrop of the Lake District and the Norfolk Broads (with occasional sorties further afield), is often credited with originality in advancing the adventure story by grounding it in reality and reflecting and celebrating children’s freedom to explore and experience danger.

Few historical novels of lasting reputation were published for children in this period, an exception being Alison Uttley’s A Traveller in Time (1939) which referenced the Babington Plot of 1586 (to free Mary, Queen of Scots, and assassinate Elizabeth I) in a storyline with a graceful, glancing time slip. In general, children’s books of the 1930s have been criticised as having ignored the economic, social and political situation of the time – though Noel Streatfeild’s books are saturated with anxiety about financial security. However, no survey of 1930s authors seems complete without a reference to Geoffrey Trease and his attempt to introduce left-of-centre politics into children’s literature, beginning with Bows against the Barons (1934), and perhaps more successfully achieved, with a much lighter touch, in Cue for Treason (1940). In addition, amid the wealth of school stories for girls (a genre which reached its zenith at this period) by authors such as Angela Brazil, Elsie Oxenham and Dorita Fairlie Bruce, by 1940 the Chalet-School stories by Elinor Brent-Dyer reflected the threat of Nazism.

Enid Blyton

Enid Blyton, an astonishingly prolific author, published her first book in 1922, and her long writing career for children developed during these decades, many of her works originally appearing in the children’s magazine Sunny Stories. Notable titles from the period include Adventures of the Wishing Chair (1937), The Secret Island (1938), The Enchanted Wood (1939) and The Naughtiest Girl in the School (1940). These books foreshadow the more enduring success of her later series about the Famous Five, and the girls of St Clare’s and Malory Towers. Much criticism has been levelled at Blyton, especially with regard to sexism and racism, and Nicholas Tucker has suggested that she was responsible for ensuring that the adventure story was no longer considered a suitable genre for adults. Nevertheless, a popular, nostalgic affection for her works ensures that they remain in print. Clearly there is as wide a range of critical approaches to children’s literature as to any other literary form. Many of the works from the first years of the period reflect the colonial experience and an unthinking belief in British superiority within the framework of the Empire. Post-colonial criticism is therefore one fruitful way of examining works such as The Little Princess (1905) and The Secret Garden (1911) by Frances Hodgson Burnett, both of which feature child protagonists who move from India to England. Moreover, colonial references can be found even at the end of the period for example in the works of Arthur Ransome.

This survey has covered only a very small percentage of the books published in this period, and excludes series publications, poetry and the wide range of comics and magazines aimed at children. Any top-level overview of necessity focusses on big names or ‘significant’ works, to some extent predetermined by their inclusion in earlier histories of children’s books, or their reprinting throughout the 20th century. Many authors who are less well known today, such as M E Atkinson, had a wide and loyal audience when first published. A fuller impression of the number of titles published could be gleaned from the catalogues of legal deposit libraries such as the British Library, bibliographies such as those in the New Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature, advertisements in newspapers and (for the later period) book lists produced by organisations such as the National Book League. Moreover, while the focus of this article has been on works published in the United Kingdom by British authors, translations of works by non-British authors were also available – a prime example being Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner (published in Berlin in 1929 and in London in 1931). Finally, it should be borne in mind that most children’s fiction throughout the period was illustrated – and illustrators such as H R Millar (Nesbit) and E H Shepard (Milne) are inextricably linked with the lasting success of the works they illuminated.


[1] The influential work about Peter Pan by Jacqueline Rose (The Case of Peter Pan, or, The Impossibility of Children’s Fiction (London: Macmillan, 1984)) has rightly made us cautious in our use of the term 'children’s fiction'. For the sake of ease, I am following common usage and use this or similar terms to refer to fiction which the originator (author, illustrator, publisher) or the purchaser (adult, child) considered to be intended for children.

[2] Felicity A Hughes, ‘Children’s Literature: Theory and Practice’, ELH, 45 (1978), p. 54261.

[3] Children’s Book Publishing in Britain since 1945, ed. by Kimberley Reynolds and Nicholas Tucker (Aldershot: Scholar Press, 1988), p. 5.

Alison Bailey
  • Alison Bailey
  • I am responsible for the British Library’s collections of material printed in the UK and Ireland from 1901-2000. I have worked in a number of different areas within the Library, including reference services and early printed collections, and have been focused on the 20th century since 2010.

    I am particularly interested in the Library’s extensive collection of ephemeral items reflecting the British experience in the First World War and those relating to women’s suffrage, and in British children’s literature from all periods.

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