In Nature's Classroom: The Romantic Child

Jean Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Emile by Jean-Jacques Rousseau title page,  on the left side is a sketch of a robed figure, on the right side is the title page information

Title page of Émile ou de L'Éducation

By Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Paris, 1762

A pivotal figure linking the Enlightenment and Romanticism, Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed that children under 12 lacked the power of reason. Until then, books could only confuse them. "Reading is the scourge of childhood," proclaimed the firebrand philosopher with his customary flair.

In Émile, Rousseau delineated an ideal, book-free education with nature as the child's only classroom. Ironically, the image of the "natural child" he thus popularized quickly morphed into one of children's literature's dominant themes.

William Blake, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hans Christian Andersen, and, a century later, E. B. White all wrote for and about young people who were better attuned than their elders to the wonders of the natural world.

The Grimms—Romantic scholars of the pre-Enlightenment past—first collected old-fashioned "wonder tales" as cultural relics worthy of study. Soon, book-buying parents were embracing the brothers' Household Tales as juvenile gift-book gold, its stories capable of transporting their children into the wild wood of their imagination.

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George Cruikshanks' Fairy Library Hop O' My Thumb and the Seven League Boots by George Cruikshank cover, sketches of plants and small fairies on mushrooms

Interior page of George Cruikshank's Fairy Library

By George Cruikshank, The Bodley Head, 1981

George Cruikshank's Fairy Library

Written and Illustrated by George Cruikshank


Speaking Likenesses by Christina Rossetti cover, gold etching of a woman tucking in a child, several animals are gathered around

Cover of Speaking Likenesses

By Christina Rossetti, London, 1874

Speaking Likenesses

Written by Christina Rossetti

Illustrated by Arthur Hughes


Slovenly Peter by Heinrich Hoffmann cover, the page is divided into 15 squares, in each square a small figure is preforming a different action

Cover of Slovenly Peter

By Heinrich Hoffman, Marchbanks, 1935

Slovenly Peter, or Happy Tales and Funny Pictures

Written by Heinrich Hoffmann

Translated by Mark Twain

Illustrated by Fritz Kredel


Sleeping Beauty by Charles Perrault, text by CS Evans, dust jacket, illustration by Arthur Rackham, a silhouette of a lady telling stories to children

Cover of Sleeping Beauty

By Charles Perrault, William Heinemann, 1920

Sleeping Beauty

Illustrated by Arthur Rackham


Charlotte's Web by E.B. White cover, Fern the girl is holding Wilbur the pig surrounded by other barn animals, Charlotte the spider is dangling above their heads

Cover of Charlotte's Web

By E.B. White, Harper & Brothers, 1952

Charlotte's Web

Written by E.B. White

Illustrated by Garth Williams


Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak cover, a large monster is sitting by a sea, watching a sailboat arrive

Cover of Where the Wild Things Are

By Maurice Sendak, Hamish Hamilton, 1963

Where the Wild Things Are

Written and Illustrated by Maurice Sendak


Rapunzel illustrated by David Hockney cover, blue book board with silver lettering

Cover of Six Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm

Illustrated by David Hockney, Petersburg Press in association with the Kasmin Gallery, 1970

"Rapunzel" from Six Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm

Illustrated by David Hockney


Visions of Childhood
In Nature's Classroom: The Romantic Child