Along with writing about children's literature, Hewins personally did much to make these books widely available to young readers of all backgrounds. In 1882, she published Books for
the Young: A Guide for Parents and Children,
the first bibliography of its kind, and in 1900 she helped found the Children's
Section of the American Library Association. She also opened one of the
nation's first public libraries that had rooms specifically for child readers in 1904. The modern branch library system
is due largely to her reforms.
One of the most popular books of Hewins's time was Tom Brown's Schooldays, a creation of British lawyer and author Thomas Hughes. In inventing Tom Brown, Hughes pioneered the subgenre of British boarding-school literature and gave children an appealingly fallible character to whom they could relate. The Atlantic reviewed Hughes's work in January 1860 and again in September 1861, making special note of the character's realistic blend of goodness and mischief:
He has a plentiful lack of those impossible virtues which disgust boys and
young men with models set up as examples for them to emulate in books and
deliberately moral and religious.
Hughes's influence on literature
is still felt today, echoed in the basic premise of many boarding school novels in which a child arrives at a new school, makes good friends, and must draw upon bravery and wit to contend with bullies.
By the time Mary Poppins came sliding up the banister in 1934, children's literature had earned a well-established place on library shelves, and the stories were growing more inventive. With a
spoonful of sugar, P. L. Travers transported children to a world of magic
carpetbags and sidewalk-chalk paintings. Charmed by the
nanny, a 1944 Atlantic review of the fourth book in the series,
Poppins Opens the Door, declared,
One of the most delightful things in
the world is to begin a Mary Poppins. It's
as satisfactory as the smell of fresh-made toast in the early morning or an
ice-cream soda on a hot summer's day. It is sheer and joyous escape of a very
special kind and potency.
Though Mary Poppins eventually
departed Cherry Tree Lane forever, the character later found new life on the big screen in a 1964 Walt Disney film and, more recently, in a hit Broadway musical, bringing Travers's stories to many more millions of children.
Fifteen years after Mary Poppins' debut, C.S. Lewis expanded children's literature with the first children's
series to command the attention of the adult literary world. The Chronicles
of Narnia owed much to both Mary Poppins and the Tom Brown
novels. But their grand premise—a battle of good versus evil
fought by children in a magical world—set children's fantasy on a new
course. Lewis's mature themes
distinguished the Chronicles from simpler children's stories, but they also made some critics wary of Lewis's message. In a 2001 article, "In Defense of C.S.
Lewis," Atlantic contributing
editor Gregg Easterbrook took stock of recent accusations that "the Chronicles ... are racist, sexist, and overbearing about religion."
He concluded that C. S. Lewis was
not in fact a bigot and that
his books were no more harmful to children than the
works of Twain or Darwin, whose language and themes had also been deemed offensive by some modern readers.
Aslan [teaches] that the specifics of religion do not
matter: virtue is what's important, and paradise awaits anyone of good will.
This seems an up-to-date message—and a reason the Narnia books should
stand exactly as they are.
The public, for the most part, clearly seemed to agree; The Chronicles of Narnia remains one of the best-selling children's fantasy series of all time. With 65 million copies in print, the books's commercial success has been eclipsed only lately, with the unprecedented popularity of Harry Potter.