The Child-Centered Universe of Nineteenth-Century Children’s Nonfiction

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Surveying natural history to geography and biography, I show how the formula of outward exploration and inward reflection provides a practical way to draw connections across the diverse genre we now call nonfiction or information texts. By organizing knowledge cognitively and spatially in relation to readers, children's nonfiction was literally child-centered. There were two essential strategies that nineteenth-century books commonly used to present information to children. First, nonfiction books sent children out into the world; they involved children in the process of discovery by signaling beyond the book, using what I call “interlocutor gestures.” Second, nonfiction books anticipated and represented for children their own biological development. Responding to contemporary beliefs about child development, they narrated their subject matter with graduating sophistication to match readers' growth. Extemporized lessons and practical experiments equipped children to teach themselves throughout their lives. This mode of teaching gained ground over memorization during a century of rapid socioeconomic changes stemming from industrialization, imperial conquest, emancipation, and expanding male suffrage, not to mention new scientific discoveries and youth institutions. These changes, in turn, impacted the form and accessibility of nonfiction books. By the twentieth century, increased access to primary education and library collections allowed more children to read nonfiction, while new industrial processes (e.g. manufactured wood pulp paper, linotype printing, and color lithography) made attractive nonfiction books affordable to more families.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationA Companion to Children's Literature
Number of pages13
ISBN (Electronic)9781119038276
ISBN (Print)9781119038221
StatePublished - Jan 1 2017

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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