In Nature's Classroom: The Romantic Child

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

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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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


Cover of Speaking Likenesses

By Christina Rossetti, London, 1874

Speaking Likenesses

Written by Christina Rossetti

Illustrated by Arthur Hughes


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


Cover of Sleeping Beauty

By Charles Perrault, William Heinemann, 1920

Sleeping Beauty

Illustrated by Arthur Rackham


Cover of Charlotte's Web

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

Charlotte's Web

Written by E.B. White

Illustrated by Garth Williams


Cover of Where the Wild Things Are

By Maurice Sendak, Hamish Hamilton, 1963

Where the Wild Things Are

Written and Illustrated by Maurice Sendak


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