Children's Literature in the 1950's

Picture Books

After World War II, picture books thrived. The popularity of vividly illustrated comic books in the 1940's prompted an increase in children's picture books during the era. There were more books that young children could enjoy than ever before.

Caldecott Medal

The Caldecott Medal is an award for the "most distinguished American picture book for children published in the United States during the preceding year" (ALA). It has been awarded every years since 1938. Here is a list of the Caldecott Medal books from 1950-1959.

  • 1950 - Song of the Swallows by Leo Politi
  • 1951 - The Egg Tree by Katherine Milhous
  • 1952 - Finders Keepers, illustrated by Nicolas; text by Will
  • 1953 - The Biggest Bear by Lynd Ward
  • 1954 - Madeline's Rescue by Ludwig Bemelmans
  • 1955 - Cinderella, or, the Little Glass Slipper, illustrated by Marcia Brown; text translated from Charles Perrault by Marcia Brown
  • 1956 - Frog Went A-Courtin', illustrated by Feodor Rojankovsky; text retold by John Langstaff
  • 1957 - A Tree Is Nice, illustrated by Marc Simont; text by Janice Udry
  • 1958 - Time of Wonder by Robert McCloskey
  • 1959 - Chanticleer and the Fox, illustrated by Barbara Cooney; text adapted from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales by Barbara Cooney

Other Noteworthy Picture Books and Authors from the Fifties

Little Golden Books

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Little Golden Books with the signature gold spine was in its heyday during the fifties. Various authors wrote and illustrated some of the best-loved books that have now become classics. The books were usually cute stories about playful animals, such as The Tawny Scrawny Lion by Kathryn Jackson and The Kitten Who Thought He Was a Mouse by Miriam Norton,or sweet stories about children playing and pretending, such as Nurse Nancy and A Day at the Seashore by Kathryn Jackson. Little Golden Books also contained stories based on children's movies, especially from Disney.

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Margaret Wise Brown

Although she was prolific in the forties, Margaret Wise Brown was active until her tragic death in 1952. Besides Goodnight Moon and Runaway Bunny both published in the 1940's, she also wrote Mister Dog, The Red Barn, Wonderful House, and The Friendly Book.She had a talent to see the world as a child sees it and write stories that capture the innocence and curiosity of childhood. Her books remain popular today.

Dr. Seuss

Dr. Seuss revolutionized children's literature by writing simple words in a poetic style. He wrote the books so that children can read in an entertaining way. He usually mixed nonsense words with proper words in his stories so that children can associate sounds with letters while they are engaged in the stories. In fact, his literary style using few frequently used words in the stories helped increase literacy rate (Daniel). The Cat in the Hat is one of the most iconic books in the history of children's literature. His legendary Green Eggs and Ham used only fifty unique words in the whole story (Daniel). Critics, however, dismissed some of his works as too political, including The Butter Battle Book which pokes fun at the Cold War (Daniel).

Harold and the Purple Crayon

Crockett Johnson wrote the ever-popular Harold and the Purple Crayon books in the decade. Harold is a little boy who draws with a purple crayon after he goes to bed. He draws scenes from his imagination, beginning with the moon and walking in the moonlight. Johnson also wrote several other books about Harold's adventures, including Harold's ABC where Harold draws from A to Z and Harold's Circus illustrating his circus adventures. Children have been engrossed in his creative adventures. The follow is a presentation of the book.

Little Bear

Little Bear by by Else Holmelund Minarik is another highly acclaimed children's book of the fifties. It is the first "I Can Read" book with simple words especially for beginning readers.The book has sweet stories about Little Bear and his mother. A favorite story is "Birthday Soup" when Little Bear thinks Mother Bear forgot his birthday. He goes out for the ingredients in his "birthday soup" and makes it. Mother Bear surprises him with a cake and tells him that she will never forget his birthday. The sequels, Father Bear Comes Home and A Kiss for Little Bear continue Little Bear's sweet and heartwarming adventures.

Image by Gretchen Lee

Chapter Books

Chapter books for intermediate readers thrived as well. The content continued to be wholesome and age-appropriate for older children. The books were typically about the good family life, fantasy and fairy tales, adventures in the past and present, stories from faraway places, friendship, or the occasional troublemaker. Authors would never dream of including issues that were considered taboo during the decade, such as divorce in the family and the onset of puberty, in children's books.

Newbery Medal

The Newbery Medal is an award "for the most distinguished American children's book published the previous year" (ALA). Here is a list of Newbery Medal-winning books from 1950-1959.

  • 1950- The Door in the Wall by Marguerite de Angeli
  • 1951 - Amos Fortune, Free Man by Elizabeth Yates
  • 1952 - Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes
  • 1953 - Secret of the Andes by Ann Nolan Clark
  • 1954 - ...And Now Miguel by Joseph Krumgold
  • 1955 - The Wheel on the School by Meindert DeJong
  • 1956- Carry On, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham
  • 1957 - Miracles on Maple Hill by Virginia Sorenson
  • 1958 - Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith
  • 1959 - The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare

Other Noteworthy Chapter Books of the Fifties

Charlotte's Web

If there is one children's book to represent the 1950's, this is it. Charlotte's Web written by E. B. White has been the best-selling children's book of all time (Hartman). This story not only represents the innocent life of the early 1950's with a sweet girl raised by a hard-working family and with the joys of the fair. It is about a young girl named Fern who becomes fond of a pig named Wilbur. The pig is threatened to be slaughtered after entering the fair. The spider, Charlotte, with her cleverly spun words on the web, saves the pig from slaughter. White described the book as "'a story of friendship and salvation on a farm'" (Hartman). Please watch my book review. Notice I am wearing a poodle skirt to celebrate the 1950's.

Pippi Longstocking and other works by Astrid Lindgren

Pippi Longstocking written by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren, is about an adventurous and independent girl named Pippi. She is famous for her mismatched knee-high stockings, oversized shoes, and her red braids. At the time when little girls were expected to be neat and obedient, Pippi was messy and rebellious, unlike her neighbor friend Annika who along with her brother Tommy were neat and well-behaved ( She even lives alone with a monkey and a horse. She shares many zany adventures including going to the circus and a coffee party. The Pippi Longstocking books were technically written in the 1940's, but the first US edition came in 1950. Here is my daughter's take on Pippi Longstocking.

Astrid Lindgren, one of the most prolific children's book authors of the twentieth century, also wrote several other children's books in the 1950's. Karlsson-on-the-Roof series were also popular. The books are about about a short, chubby boy who lives on a roof. The popular Mio, My Mio about a nine-year-old boy went missing was written in 1954. Lindgren also wrote the later two Bill Bergson books in the decade. Bill Bergson is a child detective.Children on Troublemaker Street written in 1958 is about children who play and play all day. One of the characters, Lotta, later had her own series of books in the following decade. For preteen and early teenage girls, she wrote the zany Kati books where Kati, a beautiful young woman travel to several places around the world. Somehow, the books did not gain as much attention as Pippi Longstocking did.

Beezus and Ramona and other works by Beverly Cleary

Who can forget the ultimate mischief maker, Ramona, in Beverly Cleary's books? Ramona is the best-known character in all of Cleary's works because of all the trouble she makes. In Beezus and Ramona, Beezus, Ramona's nine-year-old sister, constantly complains about her four-year-old Ramona. Some of the hilarious escapades of Ramona include crashing a coffee table while riding her tricycle and playing one note on the harmonica at the same time, locking Ribsy in the bathroom, and baking her rubber doll in Beezus' birthday cake.

Cleary wrote several other children's books in the fifties. They include Ribsy, Henry and Beezus, Ellen Tebbits, Otis Spofford, and Henry and Ribsy. She continued to write numerous other children's and young adult books during the following decades, many of which are about Ramona. Cleary is still active in writing.

The Chronicles of Narnia

C.S. Lewis wrote The Chronicles of Narnia series. The seven books in the series are Lewis' best-known works. In each book, the children visit a magical land called Narnia. Aslan, the lion, is a central character in the series. There has been a debate about the proper order of the books as some believe The Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe should be first because the book was written first, while others believe that to follow the series' proper chronological order, people should read The Magician's Nephew first.

Books by Rumer Godden

Although she was prolific in the 1960's, Rummer Godden wrote some of her most highly acclaimed works in the 1950's. The Story of Holly and Ivy is one of her most popular works. Ivy is an orphan girl who wishes for a family and a grandmother more than anything else. A doll who wishes for an owner and a childless older woman who wishes for a child also are in the story. It is beautiful story of wishing and how the wishes come true.

The Fairy Doll is about the fairy doll that has been on top of the family's Christmas tree every year and a young girl named Elizabeth who is the youngest in the family and who is the troublemaker in the family. She is not too bright and is clumsy; her brother and sister pick on her constantly. Her great-grandmother gives Elizabeth the fairy doll. The magical "ting" of the fairy doll seems to tell Elizabeth what to do. Because of the "ting," Elizabeth begins to do what is right.

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The Borrowers and other works by Mary Norton

Mary Norton was best known for The Borrowers series. The little people are called "The Borrowers" because they "borrow" from "human beams," such as postage stamps for paintings and matchboxes for storage. They live in the floorboards of an English countryhouse. There are four books in the series. Think of The Borrowers as little people before The Littles.

Norton also wrote Bed-Knobs and Broomsticks which became another childhood favorite. It is about the three Wilson children and an apprentice witch. The flying bed is the highlight of the book. Disney made the movie version in 1971.

Image by Gretchen Lee

Discussion Questions

1. What is your favorite book from the 1950's? Is it a classic still popular today or is it a forgotten favorite?

2. What distinguishes children's literature from the 1950's to children's literature of today?

3. How innocent do you think children's literature of the 1950's is? Are there any elements or events in children's books in the 1950's that are considered shocking today? If yes, explain.

References Saltkrakan AB, n.d. Web. 30 Oct. 2010.

"About the Caldecott Medal." ALSC: Association for Library Service to Children." American Library Association, 2010. Web. 30 Oct. 2010.

"About the Newbery Medal." ALSC: Association for Library Service to Children." American Library Association, 2010. Web. 30 Oct. 2010

Bradley, Becky. "American Cultural History: 1950-1959." Lone Star College - Kingwood Library. Lone Star College - Kingwood Library, 1998. Web. 30 Oct. 2010.

"Caldecott Medal Winners, 1938 - Present." ALSC: Association for Library Service to Children." American Library Association, 2010. Web. 30 Oct. 2010.

Hartman, Holly. "Charlotte's Web: Spotlight on the Popular Children's Book." Fact Monster. 2000-2005 Pearson Education, publishing as Fact Monster. Web. 30 Oct. 2010.

"Newbery Medal Winners, 1922 - Present." ALSC: Association for Library Service to Children." American Library Association, 2010. Web. 30 Oct. 2010.

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