The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Children's Books.

by George Radford.
Volume 2, 1891/92, pgs. 496-504

There are two aspects in which this subject may be viewed; the two ideas suggested by the title should run side by side in our minds. We have to look at children and we have to look at books. The kind of children to be dealt with fixes to a large extent the kind of books to be given to them; and, in certain cases, a study of the child may make the choice of books unnecessary, the little brain being sent to find them in and about the running brooks. Between the extreme case where books are absolutely excluded for a time, and the ordinary and happy case of a strong and bright youngster, there are innumerable degrees; and it is a most important matter to discover where the delicate turning point between the use and abuse of books is situated in each individual case.

"What is the use of a book," says Lewis Carroll the Don, "without pictures and conversations?" It is said that savages are unable to understand a picture; but I have not met with a similar want of appreciation in a child. There seems to arise, very soon after the taste for food, the pleasurable sensation--of a simple order--which we are subject to in looking at a work of art. Naturally, therefore, pictures lead the way in children's books, and the oral explanation of the mother--the mother's voice must precede the written characters of the book proper. Children can assimilate both pictures and music before they can understand the meaning of words.

A few mornings ago I was awakened by a little voice singing, quite correctly as regards the tune,

       Art thou weary, art thou language?

The language of the small girl was immature. She knew nothing of a languid idea, but the music she took to at once.

In consequence of the very early age at which children "take in" the meaning of pictures, and very soon afterwards the simplest words joined with them, it is important that these nursery books should be free from all injurious influences. Each child has different characteristics no doubt, and what may do harm to one may not injure another, but to all childhood there is incidental a liability to fear, and a sensitiveness to quiet happiness or merry joy. It does seem natural, then, that the literary milk upon which to nourish babes should be almost entirely bright and cheerful, full of thoughtless merriment and romp. We have all heard of, even if we are so fortunate as to have escaped experiencing, the arts of those nurses who have terrorized their charges so as to leave them with systems scared and maimed mentally for life; and of the same type with those mercenaries of Satan and alcohol are books of a terrifying kind which are allowed to come before the tender eyes of childhood. The story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, though not often read by very young children, is often read to them, and has an injurious effect on some brains. I have known instances of boys being terrified and made miserable for days, whose nights more especially were filled with horror by the picture of the quartering and sewing up again of the unhappy wight who substituted barley and other grain for sesame in the formula. A parent ought to know within himself how careful to be; he or she who has suffered will be most careful of all. The very genius of childhood demands that it should be screened by parenthood from evil influences, and laid open to benign ones, and we need not therefore stint the babies in bright and pretty pictures full of sunshine, in fun, frolic, and beauty, as much as a Caldecot can find to give.

When we have to begin with moral saws we need not teach the small minds what evil they may do by explaining to them what to avoid. We are apt to call upon ourselves to shudder at the wickedness of the world by our overpowering curiosity to learn how wicked the world has been and is. I am convinced that it is sufficient to teach children what to do, and ignore lessons on what to leave undone. Miss Sinclair--"Holiday House"--says incidentally:--"Such mean vices as lying and stealing are so frequently and elaborately described that the way to commit those crimes is made obvious." "Struelpeter" escapes censure by its naïve exaggerations of universal failings and their results. The children laugh and that saves them; and we look at it as no more than a funny picture of the exaggerated misfortunes which come upon us all from our obstinate ways. It may be argued--I hope it will not--that children cannot appreciate humour at an early age. To anyone who does take up this position I would like to suggest that the scenes of Uncle Podger and the packing up from "Three Men in a Boat" should be tried on infant minds. It is quite true, of course, that these scenes are pictures of really painful experiences, but I verily believe that the author meant the reader to laugh over them, and he will be pleased to learn, if he did not know before, that it is scarcely possible to fix an age so young at which the fun cannot be understood. "Oh, mother," said a little girl of four in baby tones, "do get father to buy you 'Three Men in a Boat' for your birthday; it would be so delitcious!" The copy out of which Uncle Podger had been read was a library one.

If pictures and fun are to be the delight of the very young, it is also very necessary that the latter should be put into intelligible words. To use intelligible words it needs to speak of things which can be understood, and the things which can be understood are those with which the babies come in contact daily. It is not necessary for authors and authoresses, prim and perfect, to choose sweet words and dole out moralities which miss their mark; the plain words which are regularly used for the facts stated are the best. Has it never happened to the reader to reproduce the polished sentences of a children's author, and at the end to be saluted with the exclamation, uttered by the auditors amid a rustling of relief, "Now, mother, tell it us?" This request gives us a key to the writing which suits the young--I do not say either that it is unsuitable to the older folk. What they want are curious and interesting facts; such situations as they may place themselves in, in imagination, the adventures of a grandmother, as a child, in India, "Little Susie's Six Birthdays," the doings at "Holiday House." Hence if we will only treat childhood with the respect due to it, and speak in simple and forcible language, not in the pigeon dialect and style so common, we shall attain our end more completely. And in the same manner as pigeon literature is an offence to the baby, who demands genuine humour and fun, so he understands distinctly the value of pure nonsense, and claims, as against the namby-pamby rubbish which is mostly tendered to him, the right "to become foolish at times." Really downright nonsense verses he will gladly receive, making them for himself if necessary from time to time.

Mr. Edward Lear's "Book of Nonsense" is about as nonsensical as one can well expect from human intellect. But it contains philosophy almost as deep as that of "Struelpeter" itself, and it encourages pithiness and concise expression.

       There was an old man in a tree
       Who was horribly bored by a bee;
       When they said, "Does it buzz?" he replied, "Yes it does!
       It's a regular brute of a bee!"

Note also decision of character in another (or perhaps the same) old man:--

       There was an old man with a poker,
       Who painted his face with red ochre;
       When they said, "You're a Guy!" he made no reply,
       But knocked them all down with his poker.

What has been said of the drawings is true, they are too bad to do any harm. Of the literature may we not boldly declare that they are Greek dramas in English, sometimes comedies sometimes tragedies, the chorus ("they said") always chattering of what is uppermost in their observing minds? The nonsense verses have one drawback, they tempt the lips to pour out further fascinating idiocies to the exclusion of all else.

If we consider the matter for a moment we shall see that the popular literature of the very juvenile nursery is not of books at all, it is the thoughtless bubbling up of a mother's sympathy as she nurses and rocks and kisses her children, a nursing mother's sympathy and love nationalised and handed down from time long past, from cradle to cradle, chair to chair, and hearth to hearth. The books which reproduce these words fix them and give accuracy; the illustrations may either make more interesting or may spoil. There has been somewhat of a competition among the artists and publishers to gain in marriage the hands of these literary heiresses, and I am not sure that their rank as matrons is as dignified as was their earlier one. They have become in many cases quite secondary to the quaint or humorous pictures which have been suggested by them. At the same time it seems as if their future was made more certain, for we can scarcely imagine the productions of Randolph Caldecot and Kate Greenaway being allowed to disappear. If we take a more critical view of the intrinsic value of illustrations generally, we are in a great difficulty. And out of this difficulty it seems possible to get only by concluding that children demand in their pictures the same simplicity and directness as they do in their words. The pictures must mean something to them at once, and the suggestions must not be of ideas quite beyond their reach. We are all aware how clear are the perceptions of the young upon the principal features of the body. Two arms, two legs, one head, containing especially two round eyes, mean man. If these simple facts concerning the person can be combined with others which invest him with actions, humorous, tragic, or merely majestic, much satisfaction is given, and in this preference children encourage what is one of the most necessary of the foundations of drawing. Vigorous and simple form is however too expensive to provide so early--publishers can generally only afford a much more elaborate style of art.

One thing which makes it very important to use some care in the choice of children's books is that no after-learning remains so indelibly printed in the memory as these early poems, fables, or stories; hence a supply of really good literature, however simple, provides a store of valuable principles, the intrinsic merit of which the reader will perhaps only discover as the years roll by. Perhaps I may be allowed to mention as an instance the beautiful edition of "Aesop's Fables" which was produced by Mr. James in 1844, and illustrated by John Penniel. This is a book which is adapted to very young children, and must do them good in every way. Caldecot's clever modernised version is equally good, but the points are intended not for children, but for grown up people. A few good books such as this of Mr. James' at the fingers' ends of English, as old Aesop was of Athenian, youth would be invaluable, and it is worth while for parents to take some trouble to make a selection.

It is needful to remember that the question is not altogether one of what children like. It is quite true that in one aspect the matter is one of supply and demand. The children will have interesting books, or else they fidget instead of being fascinated. But as in food the parent would be an unworthy one who gave his clamouring circle whatever they asked for because they liked unsuitable things, so it may be unwise in books to look entirely to what they wish to have. On the other hand, as it is also possible and our duty to make even the plainest food palatable rather than to be indifferent to the juvenile tastes, so, after we have decided what little instruction or good taste we wish to inspire them with, we may do very much to make such instruction a pleasure. When we have learnt what are the tastes, indications, and strong points in the minds we have to train, surely much may be done early in life to guide. Hence the infinite variety in the choice of books, and the importance of not teaching, by means of badly selected works, things which must soon be again unlearned. A father with a taste for natural history will easily lead his children towards it, and tempt them, as well as by the hedges and the fields, by such books as the Rev. J.G. Wood has given to the world. Sometimes such information may be interwoven with fiction, as in the case of Kingsley's "Water Babies," but children differ so wonderfully that one will enjoy pure facts, and facts alone; others are better pleased with an element of the fictitious. Many a child is distracted by books written with a grain of truth in them; they beg to know at every step whether the statements are true or false. The "Swiss Family Robinson" has many good points about it, but things are discovered rather too readily, and I know a small boy who objects to the "preach, preach, preach." The benefit of a fairy tale is that it carries the genuineness of its untruth on its face, and the little minds are set at rest. Hans Andersen should hold the place of honour here; free from the horror to which I have alluded, and also from the improprieties of Grimm.

Some parents, instead of natural history, may lay the tempting bait of art before the little eyes, but, as I said before, they are met by the initial difficulty of the cheapness and unsuitableness of the elaborate. It is scarcely possible to confine ourselves to good material, the vast diffusion of the useless prevents our keeping the attention fixed on what might lay the foundation of perfect taste. Children early shew their perception of pictures, not only by their infantile efforts to draw, but also by the clear sense they have of the discrepancy between their own studies and the objects or copies which they try to delineate. "Mother," said a small boy, "does God see everything?" "Yes, dear; He does." "Then He must laugh very much when He sees my drawing," rejoined the modest lad, aware of his shortcomings.

We have to discriminate between the books which are pleasing to grown-up people because of their treatment of childhood, and those which are delightful to childhood itself. Children do not take an interest--no one takes a profound interest--in the picturesque grouping into which they may themselves be formed; they are interested in the actual schemes or games which lead to such groups; they like to see the dog which worried the cat, distended and sleepy after its unusual meal; they love the hat floating on the water, the link between the unhappy lover and the furious bull. Now, are children to handle all the good art we can give them even at the risk of spoiling the choice specimens? For instance, towards thee, dear Randolph Caldecot, what course can we pursue to please thee, the children, and ourselves as well? Thou sidedst with the children always, and preferredst to have thy books, even the limited editions, thumbed by loving hands; on the other hand, we would preserve thy sketch-book, toy books, and graphic pictures in caskets of gold!

Harry Furniss is more particularly an artist for the mature, exquisite and inimitable though he be. Let me add two books as instances of perfect art married to immortal prose. I cannot divorce Penniel from "Alice in Wonderland," or remove the "Water Babies" from under the care of Linley Sambourne; they must now live and die together, and teach the younglings the sweetness of literature and art. I am not sure that much writing of the inconsequential sort, where the fancy delights to knock logic and experience down, can be given to children with results altogether satisfactory to them. Lewis Carroll's fun is more easily discerned by the larger than by the small fry. But if anyone wants to be quite sure of the value of good artistic work for children let him compare the Penniel illustrations with those in "Alice Underground."

A story is told of a little man who found that Longfellow's library did not contain "Jack the Giant-killer." Distressed at this, he returned next day with his own copy for temporary use, and two cents to procure the poet a permanent copy for his collection. This work is one of that kind whose popularity attests their value, and all that can be done is to reproduce it, if possible, in better form at every stage. The old books, such as "Dame Wiggins of Lee," which have stood the test of many generations, should never be allowed to disappear. Much new work will inevitably be brought out, and fail to earn a permanent place; the old favourites should be called for year after year. Mrs. Ewing is an authoress sui generis; she is the children's novelist, her stories containing all the elements which the elders value in novels written for them.

The use of the imagination may be early taught; in fact it must be repressed very early if we do not wish it used. A child is hardly ever too young to be drawn by things familiar on to fancy's heights where untold blisses lie. The very sweets which he sucks carry his imagination soon after he is weaned to those sugar and houses of cake. His imagination reels in intoxication, and, like all flights of fancy towards objects of sense, is doomed to the disappointment of reaching a time when the glories seen far off seem glorious no more.

The vigorous power of imagining causes me to utter a plea for the children. This power needs guiding and teaching, not destroying, and the error we fall into is feeding it with improper food. We do not consider that children are worthy to be treated to the true facts of Nature, from which the purest imagination springs, but we distort, and, as we suppose, improve upon the facts until no play of fancy is further possible, a will-o'-the-wisp it expires in a morass. The same evil has been tracked in works which are meant for old eyes and heads, and he who has traced it will best show us how the fault may be avoided. In "The King of the Golden River; or, the Black Brothers," Mr. Ruskin has thought the children not unworthy of the best of his art. I will not plunge into a description of the beauties of this little book--the charmingly fantastic delineation of South Westwind, Esquire, the true riches of the Golden River, and the truer wealth which was contained in the heart of little Gluck--but I will quote one passage to show that the great master does not scamp his work for children, even although--shall I say because?--he may feel that they may not be able to live out their thanks for years:--"It was, indeed, a morning that might have made anyone happy, even with no Golden River to seek for. Level lines of dewy mist lay sheltered along the valley, out of which rose the massy mountains, their lower cliffs in pale grey shadow, hardly distinguishable from the floating vapour, but gradually ascending till they caught the sunlight, which ran in sharp touches of ruddy colour along the angular crags, and pierced, in long, level rays, through their fringes of spear-like pine. Far above shot up red splintered masses of castellated rock, jagged and shivered into myriads of fantastic forms, with here and there a streak of sunlit snow, traced down their chasms like a line of forked lightning; and, far beyond and far above all these, fainter than the morning cloud, but purer and changeless, slept, in the blue sky, the utmost peaks of the eternal snow."

Typed by S. Keillor, April 2013