The earliest illustrated children's book, Orbis Pictus, (The World in Pictures) by John Amos Comenius, was published in 1658. Early children's books were used for teaching religious and moral lessons with their sparse illustrations reflecting the somber texts. John Newberry's A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, published in 1744, was the first English children's book that abandoned the didactic writing style and focused instead on pleasure reading. Toys were included to promote the books—pincushions for girls and balls for boys.
It wasn't until later in the century (1880–1900) that the "golden age of children's literature,"1 began. English artists such as Walter Crane, Randolph Caldecott , Kate Greenaway and Arthur Rackham illustrated what have become classic children's books.
Walter Crane (1845–1915) is most famous for his association with William Morris. He was a member of the Arts and Crafts Society and the Art Workers' Guild where he designed decorative objects. Crane began illustrating children's books in the 1870s. Among the children's book he illustrated were Flora's Feast, A Flower Wedding and Sleeping Beauty.2
Caldecott (1846–1886) was a pivotal character in children's book history. His career as a children's book illustrator began accidentally in 1877 when he was asked by the British printer, Edmund Evans, to illustrate two Christmas books, The House that Jack Built and The Diverting History of John Gilpin. Ironically, Evans had previously worked with Walter Crane, but that year, Crane was unable to illustrate Evans' holiday publications.
Kate Greenaway's (1846–1901) endearing and enduring illustrations for children's books continue to delight contemporary readers. Her first book, Under the Window, published in 1879, immediately sold-out and was reprinted in a second edition of 70,000. Perhaps the most well-known Greenaway book is The Language of Flowers, 1884, which is included in the Ingalls Library Rare Book Collection.3
Arthur Rackham's (1867–1939), first book illustrations were published in 1893. He illustrated for children's magazines, including Little Folks and St. Nicholas and in 1905 Washington Irving's, Rip van Winkle. His output was prodigious including classic titles such as The Wind and the Willows, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, The Sleeping Beauty and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
The importance of children's book illustration is reflected by two prestigious awards presented annually: the Kate Greenaway Medal (British) and the Caldecott Medal (American). The awards are presented to artists for the most distinguished children's book illustrations that year.
1. Lundin, Anne H. "The Reception of Children's Books in England and America, 1880–1900." The Library Quarterly 64, 1 (Jan. 1994), p. 30.
2. The Dictionary of Art. "Walter Crane." v. 8, pp. 121–122.
3. The Dictionary of Art. "Kate Greenaway." v. 13, p. 615.