Der Struwwelpeter and the Evolution of Children’s Books

By Jill Braithwaite, Publishing Director, Trade

I was recently gifted a copy of the 1845 book Der Struwwelpeter (Shock-Headed Peter). It’s known as one of the first books to put together pictures and words in a book meant specifically for children. It’s also a strong reminder of how grateful I am to be working in children’s books at this current historical moment.

Der Struwwelpeter cover

Der Struwwelpeter’s 10 stories are intended to frighten children into behaving properly. In one, when a boy refuses to stop sucking his thumb, a tailor comes to his house and cuts off his thumbs. In another, a boy who refuses to eat his soup simply wastes away and dies. In yet another, a boy who misbehaves at the supper table falls backwards in his chair, taking all the food with him, and his parents are very unhappy. The end.

Der Struwwelpeter Thumbsucker

Children’s books today

Children’s books have come a long way. Nowadays, we concern ourselves less with instructing young readers in proper ways of behaving than with equipping them with information and inspiration they can use for themselves in their lives.


Can I Touch Your Hair? 

A couple recent Lerner books are great examples of sharing information and ideas with kids in inspiring (not threatening) ways. Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship is a picture book in two voices.

Charles is black, and Irene is white, and they are partners in a school poetry project. In pairs of poems, they each express themselves on topics from feeling left out, to buying shoes, to police brutality. The way they interact offers a realistic portrait of how children engage with the complex realities of identity and race. The book is a perfect conversation starter for kids—and adults, for that matter.

Dazzle Ships

Dazzle Ships nonfiction picture book by Chris Barton and Victo Ngai

Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion inspires in a different way—through an amazing true story of ingenuity under pressure. During World War I, the British were increasingly desperate to protect themselves from German torpedo attacks. British lieutenant-commander Norman Wilkinson came up with the idea for dazzle camouflage—patterns and colors painted on a ship in hopes that it would confuse the enemy about a ship’s speed and direction. More than 4,000 ships were painted with these incredible designs. Readers of this book are in for a treat, both in the stunning illustrations and in the inspiring story of creative problem-solving through a marriage of art and engineering.

Spread from nonfiction picture book Dazzle Ships by Chris Barton and Victo Ngai
Booklist called Dazzle Ships an “inspiring story of creativity.”

Read more

Discover how Chris Barton got the inspiration to write Dazzle Ships here, and read a Q&A with illustrator Victo Ngai here.

You can read the Can I Touch Your Hair? authors’ and illustrators’ notes here. Plus, read fellow Lerner author Nina Crews’s conversation with Can I Touch Your Hair? illustrators Sean Qualls and Selina Alko, and listen to Irene Latham and Charles Waters’s episode of The Yarn podcast.

What’s the most inspiring picture book you’ve seen lately? And what’s the most frightening picture book you’ve ever seen? Tell us in the comments!

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