March is Women’s History Month. Writing for young people was one of the primary outlets for women writers as the industrialized print industry boomed in the mid-nineteenth century. Here are some highlights from the pantheon of English and American women writers from the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, some famous canonical figures, some perhaps lesser known:
- British novelist Sarah Fielding adapted myths and fairy tales for young readers in her popular book The Governess (1749).
- JaneTaylor, an English author who co-wrote many children’s books with her sister, Ann, wrote “The Star,” one of the best-known nursery rhymes ever, in 1806. It begins: “Twinkle, twinkle, little star…”
- Elizabeth Newberry was an English printer, who published Sarah Catherine Martin‘s rhyme The Comic Adventures of Old Mother Hubbard and Her Dog.
- Anna Laetitia Barbauld wrote books for early readers that remained popular for nearly 100 years. She encouraged little readers to follow along with a pin, and the tiny pin-holes left behind by those readers are still visible in archival copies of those much-used books.
- Abolitionist and educationalist Eliza Lee Cabot Follen wrote wonderful poems and stories for young people, teaching them abolitionist sentiment in dramatic verse that recalls in metre and tone the radical poetry of William Blake.
- Lydia Maria Child, another abolitionist educator, penned the Thanksgiving classic Over the River and Through the Wood.
- Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote many books for children, including Queer Little Folks, a collection of talking animal stories, and adapted Uncle Tom’s Cabin for children as well.
- Anna Sewell‘s Black Beauty remains a staple of young people’s libraries.
- Louisa May Alcott wrote adventure stories for magazines along with her masterpiece Little Women.
- Christina Rosetti wrote nursery rhymes as well as more sophisticated verse that still appealed to young people like “The Goblin Market” (1862).
- Kate Greenaway composed and illustrated A Apple Pie, one of the best-known alphabet books in Victorian England.
- Kate Douglas Wiggin‘s Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm was based in her recollections of her girlhood in New England after the Civil War.
- Beatrix Potter‘s Peter Rabbit and his animal friends, who first appeared in 1902, are still among the best loved characters in all of children’s literature.
- Frances Hodgson Burnett‘s Little Lord Fauntleroy dictated fashions for a generation of American and English boys, and A Secret Garden showed how an angry little girl found peace in growing things.
This is a seriously abbreviated list of the many, many women writers who helped shape three centuries of children’s literature. Many of these books are still available in print, or can be found online or in your public or school libraries.
For scholars, Jack Zipes’ excellent Norton Anthology of Children’s Literature: The Traditions in English is an invaluable resource (this one’s strictly for grown-ups though; the bible-thin pages are probably no good for little hands), and there are many other anthologies available.
I hope you’ll celebrate Women’s History Month by hunting up one of these marvelous old books and sharing it with a young reader in your life.