Realism in the sense of verisimilitude, or a faithful mirroring of actual experience, has been present in works of many periods and genres. In the Illiad's scene of Hector's leavetaking from his wife and infant son (Book VI), for instance, the image of the child clinging to his nurse, fearful of his father's plumed helmet, stands out from the poem's supernatural events and heroic texture in its close fidelity to observed experience. Realism in a narrower sense refers, however, to a literary movement that began to take shape with Defoe's fictions in the early eighteenth century and came into full flower in the English and French novels of the 1850's. This movement consisted of (1) a set of attitudes concerning the proper subject-matter and aims of the novel and (2) particular methods for achieving these aims.Pondering this. I don't as it happens think that 'the fiction written for children before 1860 was realistic' is a correct statement -- I'd say that the fiction written for children before 1860 was Romantic in the fullest sense, and indeed (via the success of the folk-art-y, and thoroughly Fantastical, Grimms' Tales) actually informed the shaping of Romanticism as a movement. There certainly was 'realist' children's fiction written in the nineteenth-century, much of it explicitly didactic in purpose; but it just didn't enjoy the success or cultural longevity of fantasy like The Water Babies, Wind in the Willows Peter Pan or Five Children and It. Compare the relative success of Lewis Carroll's Fantasy Alice books and the more serious social-didactic actual-world strands in his feeble Sylvie and Bruno (1889) and Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1893). The later are bad books, in part because they are dull books (a fairyland strand runs alongside the social realist strand, but gets stifled by it).
The practitioners of realism rejected the conventional plots and stereotyped characters of romance in favor of a form that would reflect more accurately the random and inconclusive nature of actual events and the complex individuality of actual people. In place of the romantic-idealist philosophy that art should limit itself to depicting the beautiful, realism adopted the premise that the novel should be "a full and authentic report of human experience," in Ian Watt's phrase.
This conception of the novel determined its characteristic subject-matter: everyday events, particularized settings, and characters from all ranks of life. The distinctive techniques of realism included a predominantly plain narrative style and the use of detail to particularize time, place and character.
In assessing the impact of the realistic movement on children's literature one is first struck by the absolute incompatibility between the aims of most writers for children and the aims of the realistic school. Juvenile authors saw their mission as shaping the young reader's character and believed in the efficacy of presenting ideal types of vice and virtue to that end; the result was a far cry from "a full and authentic report of human experience." Yet, adult purposes notwithstanding, realism has been a shaping force in children's literature ever since young readers appropriated for themselves that ground-breaking realistic fiction, Robinson Crusoe. This is no doubt because certain of the distinctive qualities of formal realism are very much in tune with the child's perception of the world and therefore with his/her aesthetic preferences.
The dismissal of fantasy as frivolous and immoral by educators of all persuasions prior to the mid-nineteenth century meant that in those years most books written specifically for children took as their subject everyday events in contemporary settings. Yet they are certainly not examples of realism. Speaking of U. S. children's books, Anne Scott MacLeod writes: "According to its creators, the fiction written for children before 1860 was realistic ... In fact, of course, the realism in juvenile books was always subordinated to didacticism. Both consciously and unconsciously, the authors edited reality in order to teach morality ... " MacLeod uses the term "nonfantasy fiction" to describe this literature rather than the misleading "realistic fiction."
This view that children's books were instruments for shaping child character dictated that instead of the realists' psychological complexity in characterization, one had schematized simplicity: lazy vs. industrious apprentices, Sanford vs. Merton. Since obedience to authority was the chief virtue juvenile authors sought to drum into little heads, adult characters in authority tended to be drawn as paragons of wisdom and virtue.
Consequently, few if any children's books before the twentieth century stand as thorough-going instances of formal realism. Yet many outstanding children's books of the past 150 years benefited from the example of the realists, and the character of children's books today owes a great deal to the realistic movement.
On the other hand, I've been going through Jacqueline Wilson novels all week, prior to lecturing on them tomorrow; and her success is clearly grounded in the textual strategies of the Realist tradition (although simplified and cartoonified, in a good sense). I'm struck that Wilson, though undeniably hugely popular and important, stands outside the main current of 21st-C YA writing. What's going on here, I wonder? (In particular: 'certain of the distinctive qualities of formal realism are very much in tune with the child's perception of the world and therefore with his/her aesthetic preferences' feels wrong to me. Am I fooling myself?)