In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Literary Representations of Childhood

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks and Anthologies
  • Reference Works
  • Journals

Childhood Studies Literary Representations of Childhood
Monica Flegel
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0021


The increased prominence of child studies has led to the recognition that categories of age, alongside those of gender, race, and class, play a significant role in social identities and power structures, a role that has often been constructed by and through literature. The child has always, of course, found a place in the literary imagination, both as a character in her or his own right and as a representation of all those things a culture associates with childhood: innocence, savagery, emptiness, vulnerability, freedom, and potentiality. It is important to remember, however, that although we all may lay claim to having been a child at one time, the child in literature is almost entirely constructed and represented by adults. This article provides an overview of the many ways the child is represented in literature, across a variety of times, nations, and cultures. It includes references to works that study the child as depicted in both children’s literature and adult literature—in part, because it is impossible to separate these representations from each other, but also because there is significant crossover between child and adult audiences.

General Overviews

Philippe Ariès observes in his classic text, Ariès 1962, “it seems . . . probable that there was no place for childhood in the medieval world” (p. 33). This thesis has been contested by many works since its publication, including Pollock 1983. But what Ariès demonstrates is not solely, as James R. Kincaid has pointed out, an absence of the child in the past, but instead, “the rarest kind of history, a history of the present, aiming at de-naturing ‘the child,’ exposing our own constructing apparatus” (p. 62) (see Kincaid 1992, cited under Identity and Subjectivity: Sexuality). Recognizing that “the child,” as a historical entity, changes over time enables us to see the privileging of some versions of childhood over others; for example, Cunningham 1991 observes that what came to be seen as a “proper childhood” in the 19th century was formed according to middle-class culture and standards. Histories therefore remind us that childhood, far from being a space of innocence free from adult concerns, is in fact a highly political category (Jenkins 1998). Finally, Horne 2011 reminds us that histories, and the genre they operate within, necessarily structure how we view the past; in the author’s analysis of the overlap between history and children’s literature, Horne identifies a shared way of constructing both characters and the past so as to influence and guide the child reader.

  • Ariès, Phillipe. Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life. Translated by Robert Baldick. New York: Vintage, 1962.

    Rightly famous history of childhood, in which Ariès puts forward his thesis that childhood (as we currently understand it in the early 21st century) did not exist in medieval Europe. Although often contested, his argument is crucial for understanding childhood as social construction.

  • Cunningham, Hugh. The Children of the Poor: Representations of Childhood since the Seventeenth Century. Family, Sexuality, and Social Relations in Past Times. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.

    Excellent and sadly out-of-print analysis of “how it came about that all children were thought to be entitled to enjoyment of . . . what constituted ‘a proper childhood’” (p. 1). Focuses on various reforms on behalf of children, making reference to historical and literary texts throughout.

  • Horne, Jackie C. History and the Construction of the Child in Early British Children’s Literature. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011.

    Links early English history and English children’s books in their dedication to “exemplarity,” or, the use of flat characterization to provide models of virtue to the reader. Arguing that exemplarity disappeared in adult fiction and in historical accounts long before it did so in children’s literature, Horne analyzes novels from 1800 to 1840 to challenge the assumption that the “ideal” and the “realistic” are opposed in children’s literature.

  • Jenkins, Henry, ed. The Children’s Culture Reader. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

    Substantial edited collection, including essays by the most significant thinkers in the field of child studies, with sections on childhood innocence, sexuality, and play. A useful final section with source texts helpfully highlights the role played by parenting manuals in social constructions of childhood.

  • Pollock, Linda A. Forgotten Childhood: Parent-Child Relations from 1500 to 1900. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

    Using primary sources, such as diaries and autobiographies, Pollock reexamines and counters the thesis that childhood, as we understand it, did not exist in early European society and challenges the assumption that children were largely abused or neglected in the past.

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