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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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Our Children's Book Friends

by Their Sister
Volume 3, 1892/93, pgs. 331-334


Boy and the Sprite, as we call them, are not altogether like other children. No doubt affectionate prejudice counts for something in our estimate of them, and the approximation to knowledge of that inscrutable problem, a child's mind, attainable within the family alone, counts for more. The sameness in children is on the outside, for those who love them not; the otherness is within, for those who do. But even to the casual observer there is something of unwonted freshness and originality about our little ones, and though they are not abnormal, they repay observation. However, I am bidden to talk about their books, not about them, so I will only say that the Sprite is the elder, and eleven years of age, and that she is the youngest of five sisters; and that Boy is seven and a half, the only boy and youngest child of the family. The actual difference between them of nearly four years is reduced to a minimum by an entire sympathy of character and interest. Boy, by the way, who is something of a philosopher, has discovered the unity of feeling, and described it to his mother as "feeling to" his sister, illustrating his meaning by drawing circles with his hand in the air. He rejected the word "sympathy" suggested to define his psychological experiences, because he thought that only referred to "feeling sorry, and you know, mother, it's just the same when she is happy; I feel to her." The two have shared all their pursuits both at work and play; and this has been the easier as the Sprite's health has made it desirable to keep her back intellectually, and Boy's intelligence has sent him half way to meet her, when she descends to his level. They both inhabit half their time the world of the imagination, where they meet on common ground, and from which they bring us "airs and floating echoes," which convey anything but melancholy into our day of prosaic cares and interests.

The Sprite is of course the greater reader on her own account. But Boy is already beginning to develop literary proclivities. His personal reading is largely in the Boy's Own Paper; but that is for utilitarian purposes, as he gleans there nautical and military information which his sisters are incapable of imparting. His literature proper has been, until quite lately,  confined to the books read aloud to him. 

Perhaps a good index of the little ones' preferences in books may be found in their choice of quotations. Our family has a bad habit of quoting - an elder sister was at the age of thirteen condemned by a schoolfellow, as "so conceited; she quotes Shakespeare." The little ones do not quote Shakespeare, but they do quote Thackeray, that is to say the "The Rose and the Ring."

They know it by heart, as one hopes they, like their sisters, will by-and-by know "Esmond" and "Pendennis," and "The Newcomes;" and all of the books that were ever written with the pure and wholesome purpose of simply amusing little children. "The Rose and the Ring" is the best. The satire, so kindly and good natured, perhaps in part escapes them, and the generous tender soul that penned it would not regret the postponement of the bitter sweet pleasure of laughing at affectation and folly. But the fun, the sprightliness, the quaintness, the honesty of the book; what a charm they have for children's minds! Boy would as soon forget to eat his breakfast as to say "turn the cock of the hot water urn on her," when the Sprite feigns an excess of emotion; and the Sprite would not think of expostulating with Boy for ill considered noise, except in the well known words of the infuriate innkeeperess, "What are you a-hollerin' and a-bellerin' about, young man?" "But he was sarcastic," always qualifies a statement where irony may be detected. If my readers don't recognise the quotations, the more shame to them. "The Rose and the Ring" is nonsense certainly, but it is wholesome happy nonsense, and the children who can thoroughly enjoy it are growing up with that inestimable treasure a sense of humour - that salt in ourselves which brings savour out of the commonplace, and preserves us from the infection of the stale, the flat, the unprofitable dullness of prosaic minds. I have heard people say that there is no such thing as a sense of humour in children. But I think that opinion would be modified by closer intercourse with the children who sit among us taking notes when we least expect it. For instance: Boy and the Sprite like to go shopping with their elders, because, they say; it is such fun to hear the shop people talk. One day Boy was being fitted with new winter garments, and was much amused by the way in which the shopman commended all his good as "the newest make," "Only just in," &c. "If I was that man," he said quietly, "I should do better than that, I should say the coat was made next Monday."

"Water Babies" is another favourite. As I wish to be veracious I must confess that our little ones like best the classics of the nursery - they have made few new discoveries in the literary heavens. Kingsley's satire is less natural and cheery than Thackeray's, and I don't think the small folk make much of it. But then they are, like all children, wonderfully patient of longueurs, and they wade through disguised sermons on over pressure, and on insanitary cottages, for the sake of the inimitable charm and grace of the story proper, with an impartiality which they will be happy if they maintain to maturer years. Our young philosopher's logical faculty is developing; and I well remember the chuckling glee with which he detailed to me the plausible but fallacious arguments by which Kingsley establishes the existence of the Water-baby. "What do you think about it yourself?" he added, with judicial gravity.

The two Alices have, of course, a vested right in their affections, and are almost as rich a storehouse of quotable phrases and tags as "The Rose and the Ring." But they like Lewis Carroll best read to them, in scenes and familiar excerpts, where they enjoy the pleasure of realised anticipation in favourite passages. Children are very tolerant of indifferent reading; the elucutionary efforts of an elder sister in dramatic passages are appreciated; but the croaking monotone of an amiable nursemaid from the Fens seems to provide an obligato accompaniment to the eating of their tea not to be despised on occasions.

"Masterman Ready," and the "Swiss Family Robinson" are beloved by the children, though they are inclined to think the father in the latter romance improved the occasion somewhat too consistently, and Boy thought the language in the former rather stilted and conventional. "It seems to me, father," he said, "that there a great many 'expersions' (expressions) in this book."

Healthy children prefer fun and adventure in their books to pathos.  They can stand a little of the latter, but not much. The sentimental child is a morbid development, in whom the springs of emotion that should well up fresh and clear out of the depths are turbid and flooded with surface waters. Both Boy and the Sprite are sensitive to a degree, and they have a delicate sympathy and tact in the presence of sorrow or suffering that is beautiful to see; but they reverence sorrow too much for sentimental enjoyment of it at secondhand.

Boy was once looking at a photograph of an Italian picture, in which some rather plump and and cheerful-looking angels are depicted as hovering the Cross of the dying Redeemer. "I wonder that they can look so bright," he said. "But then," after a pause, "I suppose they know it will be all right soon."

In Mrs. Ewing's stories pathos and humour are combined with rare feeling for life's subtle harmonies. She rarely, if ever, overstrains her pathos, penetrating though it is; some touch of quiet fun helps us to recover from the tension of our feeling. "Jackanapes," "The Short Life," "Lob-lie-by-the-Fire," and some of the short tales, in particular, "A Very Ill-tempered Family," and "A Great Emergency," are special favourites, at least to judge by their tattered condition and the old test of the quotations.

Fairy tales never come amiss, though we have not a large selection; but then it is something to have worn out three family copies of Grimm and two of Andersen between eldest and youngest. Altogether our little ones read a good many books; but I am glad to say that they are not permitted that literary extravagance which obtains in some nurseries. It is well, I think, if books become to us early what they should be through life - an outer circle of pleasant acquaintances, an inner circle of dear friends. To know many, to love a few, is the desirable consummation, and if we love them well enough, we shall be able to use of the latter, one of the staunch old Roman's synonyms for the word friend, and call them necessary. It is of our children's necessary books, the library with which they travel into the country, that I have spoken.


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