What Shall Children Read, by Kate Douglas

Children's Rights and Others

"What we make children love and desire is more important than what we make them learn."

When I was a little girl (oh, six most charming words!)—it is not necessary to name the year, but it was so long ago that children were still reminded that they should be seen and not heard, and also that they could eat what was set before them or go without (two maxims that suggest a hoary antiquity of time not easily measured by the senses),—when I was a little girl, I had the great good fortune to live in a country village.

I believe I always had a taste for books; but I will pass over that early period when I manifested it by carrying them to my mouth, and endeavored to assimilate their contents by the cramming process; and also that later stage, which heralded the dawn of the critical faculty, perhaps, when I tore them in bits and held up the tattered fragments with shouts of derisive laughter. Unlike the critic, no more were given me to mar; but, like the critic, I had marred a good many ere my vandal hand was stayed.

As soon as I could read, I had free access to an excellent medical library, the gloom of which was brightened by a few shelves of theological works, bequeathed to the family by some orthodox ancestor, and tempered by a volume or two of Blackstone; but outside of these, which were emphatically not the stuff my dreams were made of, I can only remember a certain little walnut bookcase hanging on the wall of the family sitting-room.

It had but three shelves, yet all the mysteries of love and life and death were in the score of well-worn volumes that stood there side by side; and we turned to them, year after year, with undiminished interest. The number never seemed small, the stories never grew tame: when we came to the end of the third shelf, we simply went back and began again,—a process all too little known to latter-day children.

I can see them yet, those rows of shabby and incongruous volumes, the contents of which were transferred to our hungry little brains. Some of them are close at hand now, and I love their ragged corners, their dog's-eared pages that show the pressure of childish thumbs, and their dear old backs, broken in my service.

There was a red-covered "Book of Snobs;" "Vanity Fair" with no cover at all; "Scottish Chiefs" in crimson; a brown copy of George Sand's "Teverino;" and next it a green Bailey's "Festus," which I only attacked when mentally rabid, and a little of which went a surprisingly long way; and then a maroon "David Copperfield," whose pages were limp with my kisses. (To write a book that a child would kiss! Oh, dear reward! oh, sweet, sweet fame!)

In one corner—spare me your smiles—was a fat autobiography of P.T. Barnum, given me by a grateful farmer for saving the life of a valuable Jersey calf just as she was on the point of strangling herself. This book so inflamed a naturally ardent imagination, that I was with difficulty dissuaded from entering the arena as a circus manager. Considerations of age or sex had no weight with me, and lack of capital eventually proved the deterrent force. On the shelf above were "Kenilworth," "The Lady of the Lake," and half of "Rob Roy." I have always hesitated to read the other half, for fear that it should not end precisely as I made it end when I was forced, by necessity, to supplement Sir Walter Scott. Then there was "Gulliver's Travels," and if any of the stories seemed difficult to believe, I had only to turn to the maps of Lilliput and Brobdingnag, with the degrees of latitude and longitude duly marked, which always convinced me that everything was fair and aboveboard. Of course, there was a great green and gold Shakespeare, not a properly expurgated edition for female seminaries, either, nor even prose tales from Shakespeare adapted to young readers, but the real thing. We expurgated as we read, child fashion, taking into our sleek little heads all that we could comprehend or apprehend, and unconsciously passing over what might have been hurtful, perhaps, at a later period. I suppose we failed to get a very close conception of Shakespeare's colossal genius, but we did get a tremendous and lasting impression of force and power, life and truth.

When we declaimed certain scenes in an upper chamber with sloping walls and dormer windows, a bed for a throne, a cotton umbrella for a sceptre, our creations were harmless enough. If I remember rightly, our nine-year-old Lady Macbeths and Iagos, Falstaffs and Cleopatras, after they had been dipped in the divine alembic of childish innocence, came out so respectable that they would not have brought the historic "blush to the cheek of youth."

On the shelf above the Shakespeare were a few things presumably better suited to childish tastes,—Hawthorne's "Wonder Book," Kingsley's "Water Babies," Miss Edgeworth's "Rosamond," and the "Arabian Nights."

There were also two little tales given us by a wandering revivalist, who was on a starring tour through the New England villages, "How Gussie Grew in Grace," and "Little Harriet's Work for the Heathen,"—melodramatic histories of spiritually perfect and physically feeble children who blessed the world for a season, but died young, enlivened by a few pages devoted to completely vicious and adorable ones who lived to curse the world to a good old age.

Last of all, brought out only on state occasions, was a most seductive edition of that nursery Gaboriau, "Who Killed Cock Robin?" with colored illustrations in which the heads of the birds were made to move oracularly, by means of cunningly arranged strips pulled from the bottom of the page. This was a relic of infancy, our first introduction to the literature of plot, counterplot, intrigue, and crime, and the mystery of the murder was very real to us. This book, still in existence, with all the birds headless from over-exertion, is always inextricably associated in my mind with childish woes, as a desire on my part to make the birds wag their heads was always contemporaneous, to a second, with a like desire on my sister's part; and on those rare days when the precious volume was taken down, one of us always donned the penitential nightgown early in the afternoon and supped frugally in bed, while the other feasted gloriously at the family board, never quite happy in her virtue, however, since it separated her from beloved vice in disgrace. That paltry tattered volume, when it confronts me from its safe nook in a bureau drawer, makes my heart beat faster and sets me dreaming! Pray tell me if any book read in your later and wiser years ever brings to your mind such vivid memories, to your lips so lingering a smile, to your eye so ready a tear? True enough, "we could never have loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it…. What novelty is worth that sweet monotony where everything is known and loved because it is known?"

This autobiographical babble is excusable for one reason only.

It is in remembering what books greatly moved us in earlier days; what books wakened strong and healthy desires, enlarged the horizon of our understanding, and inspired us to generous action, that we get some clue to the books with which to surround our children; and a reminiscence of this kind becomes a sort of psychological observation. The moment we realize clearly that the books we read in childhood and youth make a profound impression that can never be repeated later (save in some rare crisis of heart and soul, where a printed page marks an epoch in one's mental or spiritual life), then we become reinforced in our opinion that it makes a deal of difference what children read and how they read it.

Agnes Repplier says: "It is part of the irony of life that our discriminating taste for books should be built up on the ashes of an extinct enjoyment."

A book is such a fact to children, its people are so alive and so heartily loved and hated, its scenes so absolutely real! Prone on the hearth-rug before the fire, or curled in the window seat, they forget everything but the story. The shadows deepen, until they can read no longer; but they do not much care, for the window looks into an enchanted region peopled with brilliant fancies. The old garden is sometimes the Forest of Arden, sometimes the Land of Lilliput, sometimes the Border. The gray rock on the river bank is now the cave of Monte Cristo, and now a castle defended by scores of armed knights who peep one by one from the alder-bushes, while Fair Ellen and the lovely Undine float together on the quiet stream.

For forming a truly admirable literary taste, I cannot indeed say much in favor of my own motley collection of books just mentioned, for I was simply tumbled in among them and left to browse, in accordance with Charles Lamb's whimsical plan for Bridget Elia. More might have been added, and some taken away; but they had in them a world of instruction and illumination which children miss who read too exclusively those books written with rigid determination down to their level, neglecting certain old classics for which we fondly believe there are no substitutes. You cannot always persuade the children of this generation to attack "Robinson Crusoe," and if they do they are too sophisticated to thrill properly when they come to Friday's footsteps in the sand. Think of it, my contemporaries: think of substituting for that intense moment some of the modern "tuppenny" climaxes!

I do not wish to drift into a cheap cynicism, and apotheosize the old days at the expense of the new. We are often inclined to paint the Past with a halo round its head which it never wore when it was the Present. We can reproduce neither the children nor the conditions of fifty or even twenty-five years ago. To-day's children must be fitted for to-day's tasks, educated to answer to-day's questions, equipped to solve to-day's problems; but are we helping them to do this in absolutely the best way? At all events, it is difficult to join in the paean of gratitude for the tons of children's books that are turned out yearly by parental publishers. If the children of the past did not have quite enough deference paid to their individuality, their likes and dislikes, and if their needs were too often left until the needs of everybody else had been considered,—on the other hand, they were not surfeited with well-meant but ill-directed attentions. If the hay was thrown so high in the rack that they could not pluck a single straw without stretching up for it, why, the hay was generally worth stretching for, and was, perhaps, quite as healthful as the sweet and easily digested nursery porridge which some people adopt as exclusive diet for their darlings nowadays.

Let us look a little at some of the famous children's books of a past generation, and see what was their general style and purpose. Take, for instance, those of Mrs. Barbauld, who may be included in that group of men and women who completely altered the style of teaching and writing for children—Rousseau, de Genlis, the Edgeworths, Jacotot, Froebel, and Diesterweg, all great teachers,—didactic, deadly-dull Mrs. Barbauld, who composed, as one of her biographers tells us, "a considerable number of miscellaneous pieces for the instruction and amusement of young persons, especially females." (Girls were always "young females" in those days; children were "infants," and stories were "tales.") Who can ever forget those "Early Lessons," written for her adopted son Charles, who appeared in the page sometimes in a state of hopeless ignorance and imbecility, and sometimes clad in the wisdom of the ancients? The use of the offensive phrase "excessively pretty," as applied to a lace tidy by a very tiny female named Lucy, brings down upon her sinful head eleven pages of such moralizing as would only be delivered by a modern mamma on hearing a confession of robbery or murder.

All this does strike us as insufferably didactic, yet we cannot approve the virulence with which Southey and Charles Lamb attacked good Mrs. Barbauld in her old age; for her purpose was eminently earnest, her views of education healthy and sensible for the time in which she lived, her style polished and admirably quiet, her love for young people indubitably sincere and profound, and her character worthy of all respect and admiration in its dignity, womanliness, and strength. Nevertheless, Charles Lamb exclaims in a whimsical burst of spleen: "'Goody Two Shoes' is out of print, while Mrs. Barbauld's and Mrs. Trimmer's nonsense lies in piles around. Hang them—the cursed reasoning crew, those blights and blasts of all that is human in man and child."

Miss Edgeworth has what seems to us, in these days, the same overplus of sublime purpose, and, though a much greater writer, is quite as desirous of being instructive, first, last, and all the time, and quite as unable or unwilling to veil her purpose. No books, however, have ever had a more remarkable influence upon young people, and there are many of them—old-fashioned as they are—which the sophisticated children of to-day could read with pleasure and profit.

Poor, naughty Rosamond! choosing the immortal "purple jar" out of that apothecary's window, instead of the shoes she needed; and in a following chapter, after pages of excellent maternal advice, taking the hideous but useful "red morocco housewife" instead of the coveted "plum."

People may say what they like of Miss Edgeworth's lack of proportion as a moralist and economist, but we have few writers for children at present who possess the practical knowledge, mental vigor, and moral force which made her an imposing figure in juvenile literature for nearly a century.

There has never been a time when the difficulty of making a good use of books was as great as it is to-day, or a time when it required so much decision to make a wise choice, simply because there is so much printed matter precipitated upon us that we cannot "see the wood for the trees."

It is not my province to discriminate between the various writers for children at the present time. To give a complete catalogue of useful books for children would be quite impossible; to give a partial list, or endeavor to point out what is worthy and what unworthy, would be little better. No course of reading laid down by one person ever suits another, and the published "lists of best books," with their solemn platitudes in the way of advice, are generally interesting only in their reflection of the writer's personality.

I would not choose too absolutely for a child save in his earliest years, but would rather surround him with the best and worthiest books, and let him choose for himself; for there are elective affinities and antipathies here that need not be disregarded,—that are, indeed, certain indications of latent powers, and trustworthy guides to the child's unfolding possibilities.

"Books can only be profoundly influential as they unite themselves with decisive tendencies." Provide the right conditions for mental growth, and then let the child do the growing. If we dictate too absolutely, we _en_velop instead of _de_veloping his mind, and weaken his power of choice. On the other hand, we do not wish his reading to be partial or one-sided, as it may be without intelligent oversight.

I was telling bedtime stories, the other night, to a proper, wise, dull little girl of ten years. When I had successfully introduced a mother-cat and kittens to her attention, I plunged into what I thought a graphic and perfectly natural conversation between them, when she cut me short with the observation that she disliked stories in which animals talked, because they were not true! I was rebuked, and tried again with better success, until there came an unlucky figure of speech concerning a blossoming locust-tree, that bent its green boughs and laughed in the summer sunshine, because its flowers were fragrant and lovely, and the world so green and beautiful. This she thought, on sober second thought, a trifle silly, as trees never did laugh! Now, that exasperating scrap of humanity (she is abnormal, to be sure) ought to be locked up and fed upon fairy tales until she is able to catch a faint glimpse of "the light that never was on sea or land." Poor, blind, deaf little person, predestined, perhaps, to be the mother of a lot of other blind, deaf little persons some day,—how I should like to develop her imagination!

Whatever children read, let us see that it is good of its kind, and that it gives variety, so that no integral want of human nature shall be neglected,—so that neither imagination, memory, nor reflection shall be starved. I own it is difficult to help them in their choice, when most of us have not learned to choose wisely for ourselves. A discriminating taste in literature is not to be gained without effort, and our constant reading of the little books spoils our appetite for the great ones.

Style is a matter of some moment, even at this early stage. Mothers sometimes forget that children cannot read slipshod, awkward, redundant prose, and sing-song vapid verse, for ten or twelve years, and then take kindly to the best things afterward.

Long before a child is conscious of such a thing as purity, delicacy, directness, or strength of style, he has been acted upon unconsciously, so that when the period of conscious choice comes, he is either attracted or repelled by what is good, according to his training. Children are fond of vivacity and color, and love a bit of word painting or graceful nonsense; but there are people who strive for this, and miss, after all, the true warmth and geniality that is most desirable for little people. Apropos of nonsense, we remember Leigh Hunt, who says that there are two kinds of nonsense, one resulting from a superabundance of ideas, the other from a want of them. Style in the hands of some writers is like war-paint to the savage—of no perceptible value unless it is laid on thick. Our little ones begin too often on cheap and tawdry stories in one or two syllables, where pictures in primary colors try their best to atone for lack of matter. Then they enter on a prolonged series of children's books, some of them written by people who have neither the intelligence nor the literary skill to write for a more critical audience; on the same basis of reasoning which puts the young and inexperienced teachers into the lowest grades, where the mind ought to be formed, and assigns to the more practiced the simpler task of _in_forming the already partially formed (or _de_formed) mind.

There has never been such conscientious, intelligent, and purposeful work done for children as in the last ten years; and if an overwhelming flood of trash has been poured into our laps along with the better things, we must accept the inevitable. The legends, myths, and fables of the world, as well as its history and romance, are being brought within reach of young readers by writers of wide knowledge and trained skill.

Knowing, then, as we do, the dangers and obstacles in the way, and realizing the innumerable inspirations which the best thought gives to us, can we not so direct the reading of our children that our older boys and girls shall not be so exclusively modern in their tastes; so that they may be inclined to take a little less Mr. Saltus, a little more Shakespeare, temper their devotion to Mr. Kipling by small doses of Dante, forsake "The Duchess" for a dip into Thackeray, and use Hawthorne as a safe and agreeable antidote to Mr. Haggard? We need not despair of the child who does not care to read, for books are not the only means of culture; but they are a very great means when the mind is really stimulated, and not simply padded with them.

Mr. Frederic Harrison says: "Books are no more education than laws are virtue. Of all men, perhaps the book-lover needs most to be reminded that man's business here is to know for the sake of living, not to live for the sake of knowing."

But a child who has no taste for reading, who is utterly incapable of losing himself in a printed page, quite unable to forget his childish griefs,

    "And plunge,
  Soul forward, headlong into a book's profound,
  Impassioned for its beauty and salt of truth,"

—such a child is to be pitied as missing one of the chief joys of life. Such a child has no dear old book-friendships to look back upon. He has no sweet associations with certain musty covers and time-worn pages; no sacred memories of quiet moments when a new love of goodness, a new throb of generosity, a new sense of humanity, were born in the ardent young soul; born when we had turned the last page of some well-thumbed volume and pressed our tear-stained childish cheek against the window pane, when it was growing dusk without, and a mother's voice called us from our shelter to "Lay the book down, dear, and come to tea." For, to speak in better words than my own, "It is the books we read before middle life that do most to mould our characters and influence our lives; and this not only because our natures are then plastic and our opinions flexible, but also because, to produce lasting impression, it is necessary to give a great author time and meditation. The books that are with us in the leisure of youth, that we love for a time not only with the enthusiasm, but with something of the exclusiveness, of a first love, are those that enter as factors forever in our mental life."