Nineteenth-century children's literature was dominated by two major trends, one highly didactic and the other emphasizing entertainment based in fantasy or adventure. Although the two would merge in the late Victorian era, moral tales and instructional literature defined the genre's early steps at the beginning of the century. As historians of the genre have documented, European and American cultures saw little need for children's books in the eighteenth century; when that need arose in the late 1700s, it was focused almost exclusively on education. Although some playful poems and tales did exist early in the nineteenth century, educators, writers, and publishers treated texts for pleasure with suspicion; the style would not become generally accepted as appropriate for children until the second half of the century.
Critics who study children's literature have found that what is viewed as appropriate reading for children adheres closely to a culture's notion of what a child is—a notion that may change considerably from epoch to epoch. As critic Anne Scott MacLeod has shown, the nineteenth century opened with a prevailing belief in a rational but imperfect child and moved to the Romantic idea of childish purity and innocence. When late eighteenth-century popular cultures were dominated by religion, either Catholic or Protestant, notions about the nature of children were grounded in the doctrine of Original Sin: the belief that all individuals are born with and prone to sin and must therefore battle against temptation to reach a state of grace. As a result, literature written for children—which became considerable in the first half of the nineteenth century—consisted of "moral tales" designed to instruct children in proper behavior, the most important of which was obedience to one's parents and God. The use of the moral tale had its most active adherents in various Protestant Sunday school movements, popular both in Britain and the United States, through which religious societies disseminated instruction in faith. Consequently, most of the authors were devout Protestants—especially women concerned with the instruction of children, including most notably Anna Letitia Barbauld and Maria Edgeworth. This literature made no effort to coax or please the child into learning, but instead assumed that indulgence harms children while discipline matures them.
There was also a second, secular branch of instructional literature developing at this time. The image of the rational child—the child as a miniature adult—also encouraged parents to discourage whimsy in their children, turning every activity into a lesson. The model came from French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose novel-cum-educational-theory Émile (1762) showed the boy made into an ideal rational man through this method of instruction.
A competing construction of the child, however, survived the first part of the century and gradually took precedence in the latter half. Most critics will label this the Romantic figure of the child, finding its expression and inception in the work of the Romantic poets, especially William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. As imagined in Wordsworth's The Prelude and "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood," the child is not only unfallen and beautiful, but has special perceptive powers denied corrupted adults. As this image became dominant in the more secular Victorian era, poems, fairy tales, and fantasies designed to entertain children—or to instruct them playfully—shouldered out the didactic literature of the religious societies.
When publisher John Harris printed William Roscoe's The Butterfly's Ball in 1807, the virtually nonsensical poem set off a wave of imitators, which Harris published at a fast pace. English audiences had fairy tales made available to them in print in 1823, when publishers issued editions of both The Court of Oberon; or, Temple of Fairies, which introduced Mother Goose in a print format, and an English version of the tales collected in Germany by the brothers Grimm. The books fulfilled a need that was not addressed in the didactic literature, although the heyday of fantasy was still far off. Their participation in the fantastic and often amoral met with the rejection of the leading authors of children's literature, although fairy tales did manage to make some headway even in the early part of the century when their promoters, like the Grimm brothers, refashioned the tales they transcribed into stories palatable to early nineteenth-century middle-class morality.
The gradual blending of these various currents allowed for the prevalence of a hybrid creature in the 1860s, the beginnning of the "golden age" in children's literature, when it became common for children's verse and novels to offer a "sugared pill"—a lesson imbibed through entertainment. Lewis Carroll marked the extreme in playful entertainment with the publication of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in 1865. By the end of the century, fantasy and adventure novels dominated the market, defined by Carroll, Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, and Louisa May Alcott, among others. Although inexpensive adventure novels known as "shilling shockers" or "penny dreadfuls" drew some fire for their sensationalism, they still served an instructional function, as contemporary critics have shown. Recently, several critics have examined in particular how this prolific genre taught children socially accepted gender roles. They encouraged boys to be ambitious, courageous, and patriotic; they encouraged girls, ultimately, to find pleasure in their families and homes. Although the package had changed considerably, children's literature maintained its educational imperative.