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Aspects of the Victorian Book
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Children's Books  

Children's books flourished during the nineteenth century; writers, artists and publishers were all eager to encourage, and profit from, an ever-growing market for lively, attractively illustrated reading material.

As the nineteenth century progressed, levels of literacy in the British population steadily increased. The gradual movement towards universal education, helped by the spread of Sunday schools and charity schools, culminated in the Elementary Education Act of 1870, which provided schools and educational legislation, and in the 1876 Act, which made attendance compulsory.

Religious groups were amongst the earliest and most important suppliers of children's books. The evangelical Religious Tract Society, founded in 1799, published first religious tales, then wholesome adventure stories, and in 1879 launched its famous weekly magazine, the Boy's own paper. By the middle of the century many mainstream publishers had recognised the commercial potential of a strong children's list, and were encouraging talented writers and artists to create an astonishing variety of entertaining reading material. The growth of the middle classes, with the means to indulge their children, fuelled the luxury end of the market, while technical advances, particularly in the printing of colour illustrations, made it possible to produce large numbers of books at lower prices. Several publishers issued sixpenny coloured picture books, known as toy books, designed by distinguished artists such as Walter Crane and Randolph Caldecott and skilfully printed by Edmund Evans.

At the beginning of the 19th century most children's literature had a strong moral message, but during the 1820s and 1830s books began to be written for children to enjoy, and laugh over. Fairy stories grew in popularity: the works of Perrault and his female contemporaries were endlessly retold; the Grimm brothers' tales appeared in English in 1823, and Hans Andersen in 1846. Lewis Carroll's Alice's adventures in Wonderland dominated the list of fantasy books, but Thackeray and Charles Kingsley preceded him, and Jean Ingelow and George Macdonald followed his lead. By the 1880s there was a wide range of juvenile magazines, and fiction, in the form of action-packed tales of adventure and irreverent school stories, was becoming part of every child's experience.

Morna Daniels

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