Introduction and Abstract


This website seeks to investigate the connection between children’s literature and the contemporary epidemics and illnesses that plagued the people of the time period.  To begin investigating this relationship, six popular classic children’s novels that in some form contain epidemics were taken and analyzed in the context of the disease’s historical relevancy.

The six books researched and assessed include Little Women, By the Shores of Silver Lake, and The Velveteen Rabbit, which explore scarlet fever; The Secret Garden, which explores cholera; and A Little Princess and Little House on the Prairie, which explore malaria.

In researching the illnesses that each novel contained, this website’s goal was to begin to explore and establish the lengths to which children’s literature is reflective of the serious problems of its own contemporary society.  As the research demonstrates, it appears that these six novels, at least, are reflective of the prevalence and severity of illnesses in the society of the period.  However, each author makes the text’s coverage of disease applicable to their contemporary world in different ways.  Such a diverse range of application is vitally important to the genre of children’s novels, specifically, for different children must encounter disease in their lives in different ways.  For some children, a sibling will be stricken by disease; for others it will be a parent; and for others, still, they are the one whom the disease hits.  Through reading books, children are able to better understand the events going on around them; when the events surrounding them are as severe as the scenarios surrounding the characters in these novels, it is vitally important for the children to have characters to relate to and a book through which they can understand and interpret their own lives in a better, potentially more positive light.

A Brief Abstract

And Points to be Further Considered

The very fact that three of the six novels detail scarlet fever in varying severity demonstrates how well children’s novels tackle the pressing or relevant issues of their society.  For indeed, considering that during this time period, scarlet fever was the leading cause of death in children (in both England and America), the texts’ uneven coverage of the most lethal childhood disease is fitting.

Out of all the texts explored here, Little Women (written by Louisa May Alcott) is, in keeping with its place as the oldest novel, the most romantic of its characterization of illness and death.  Though, throughout Beth’s illness, Alcott nevertheless effectively demonstrated the pain and grief of scarlet fever.

Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit seems to be conscious of the relevant social role her story would play, for the way in which she structured her novel, there was no need for her to explicitly attribute the Boy’s illness to a bout of scarlet fever.  The fact that she did specify his illness thus appears to indicate that Williams was aware of scarlet fever’s demographic dominance and thus included it in her novel as a means of potential comfort to the children of the time who were, in one way or another, affected by the disease.

In Laura Ingalls Wilders’ By the Shores of Silver Lakethe way in which Laura depicts the scarlet fever sweeping over her family is relevant and in keeping with the brutal nature of the illness.  The editing of the real source of Mary’s blindness (attributing it, instead, to scarlet fever when it was not) is, of course, an interesting choice.  For indeed, while ‘re-diagnosing’ Mary with scarlet fever gives the scores of children similarly affected by scarlet fever someone to connect with; on the other hand, by obscuring the realities of the realities of Mary’s illness, this text thus begs questions about the ethics of editing such truths and the prevalence of editing children’s literature specifically in order to make it less confusing or frightening.

In both The Secret Garden and A Little Princess, Burnett breaches topics left largely unexplored by the other authors: namely, illness in the family (for both of Burnett’s heroines deal with the loss of parents) and epidemics in settings outside England or America.  Such investigation is important, and additionally, in both cases, Burnett tackles topics and includes diseases that are, according to research, culturally relevant.  Furthermore, Burnett’s extensive exploration into the effects and realities of orphaned children who lost their parents to illness is invaluable for the many children who read Burnett’s books.

Lastly, in Little House on the Prairienot only does Laura deal with another real and relevant epidemic — malaria — she also tackles an important societal tendency and phenomenon that is good for children to understand.  Indeed, through Laura’s discussion that details and debunks the different ‘conspiracy’ theories different characters have regarding the reasons for the “fever ‘n’ ague,” at the end of the chapter, Laura clarifies the realities of the disease at the end of the chapter.  Such an introduced reality is an important and rarely covered topic in children’s books that only serves to enforce the relevancy and importance of children’s literature.

This website’s exploration of “epidemics in children’s literature” is far from complete and there are still many questions I still plan to investigate further.  For example, branching off of my current analysis, I might research more children’s literature of the period to investigate if my assessment and sampling of the novel is reflective of a wider pool of historical children’s literature.  I might investigate and compare children’s literature across the years to see if children’s literature as a genre consistently reflects such societal problems.  And, taking at these six novels specifically, I might investigate women’s role in the writing of children’s literature and how it compares to men; for indeed, all six of my books were written by female authors, a retrospective observation which clearly has complex and fascinating implications.

-Katherine Stein


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