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Books And The Child

( Originally Published 1916 )

WHERE there is no vision the people perish ; and that is just as true of the individual as it is of the nation. Moreover, it is the youth who shall see the visions and draw from them the inspiration for higher and better things. The richest source of visions for the child of today is the printed page that he reads himself or that is read to him in his early years. How important, therefore, is it that the child shall read only what is worth while, even though he does not read always what is best. With this thought in mind, the selection of books for children's reading becomes as serious a task as the selection of his other teachers.

But there are several distinct. purposes that the reading of books may promote, and every one of them quite legitimate in its way. Thus you may place be-fore the child a book for the purpose of imparting certain information, or for the purpose of arousing certain sentiments. You may seek to modify his moral point of view, or you may wish to cultivate his faith in certain doctrines. A book may be a convenient means for lazy pastime, or a source of indulgence. But no one book will be useful for all of these purposes ; and we must know both what we want of a book, and what may be expected of books, if we are to make the best use of these instruments in the child's education.

In selecting a book for a child, we must be careful to avoid on the one hand the temptation to get what is best or most pleasant for ourselves, and on the other hand that which is most pleasant for the child. We must take into consideration the child's mental development, his inclinations, his needs ; and we must keep a clear purpose steadfastly before us. It is not enough that a book be " harmless "; it must have something positive to recommend it. It must be not only a " good " book, but " good for something." By this is not meant that every book given to a child should inculcate all the virtues, nor that it should be " instructive " in the ordinary sense. It is perfectly legitimate to use a book for purposes of recreation or amusement. But an amusing book may be of a kind that is in bad taste, or it may be one that is in good taste. An exciting tale of adventure may be devoid of the slightest geographical information, but it need not be false in sentiment, it need not be one to give the child a perverted notion of human relations.

The child, however, must be the basis upon which our judgment of the suitability of a book must be finally based; and we should therefore begin with the child. The book must reach the child's interest ; it must supply his needs, and it must meet his intellectual level. No matter how good a book may be from a literary or from a scientific point of view, it will fail of its purpose if it shoots " over the head " of the reader; but no less so if it is too simple or elementary.

Other standards are to be found outside of the child. A book that is to give information must give reliable information. A book that deals with human relations must be imbued with sound sentiment. In all cases it is desirable that a book shall be in good taste. Even if it is meant merely to amuse the child, we should be sure that the amusement it offers is of a wholesome kind, and not the crude horseplay of the type found in certain " Sunday supplements."

These standards, if they are to be of any help to us, must be used with discretion. We know already that the interests of the child are constantly shifting. Not only has each child his own individuality, but the changing years must be taken into account. And fashions cannot be overlooked. There are the seasonal variations in sports and games and other activities ; there are also the reflections of the larger events and movements. There are the publicly celebrated anniversaries and centennials, the great expositions and pageants. A convention meets in town, and a new interest comes into the life of the child, as it comes into the life of many an adult.

The objective standards are no more fixed. Indeed, if they were, we should never need any new books. There are new discoveries from the laboratories and the exploring expeditions. There are new inventions in engineering and agriculture and medicine. There are new experiments in government, and new problems in life. There are changes also in the fine arts, and new times bring new men into the foreground. All these ripples and larger waves in the stream of human affairs make their impressions upon the written record, and in selecting books we are selecting the portions of the record that our children are to make their own.

It is a simple pedagogical device to study the life of a hero at a time when the children are making preparations to celebrate in some dramatic way the life of the hero. In like manner, we may take advantage of a current interest in some engineering enter-prise to advance acquaintance with the more difficult problems in this field. Or while the interest in nationalities is uppermost, it may be utilized for imparting information about. the peoples in the center of public attention. For this purpose good histories and biographies are of great value; and of these there is fortunately a good selection to be had. More important in some ways, especially for younger children, are the collections of the folk and fairy tales of different races and nationalities ; it is from these that one most readily gets that peculiar flavor that is distinctive of the thoughts and feelings of a people. From these, too, the child may learn a great deal about the customs and manners of different peoples, as they show them-selves in matters that are usually considered too trivial to merit special description—as the ways of eating and dressing, saluting and sleeping, etc. The excellent pictures found in so many of the recent books are particularly helpful in this connection.

Although the public that buys and reads books has not been very critical, or at least not very clear as to its standards, the older books have been obliged to pass through a process of selection—they have had to stand the test of time, as we say—and only the best of them survive. Upon many of these the later writers of children's books have not been able to improve. Yet many of the old favorites cannot be recommended for the children now, because our children must get a new vision for a new day; and these old favorites do not help. This is especially true of books that deal with nature and science topics, and of books that picture social relations. Thus, some nature books, although they approach the animal world in terms of the perennial question " Why? " give their answers in the spirit of modern science, as against that of the older mystificism of the natural history books. Again, some of the travel stories picture child life in various foreign lands with a real sympathy that is in harmony with the modern spirit of international friendship.

Another point at which the newer books are better than most of the older ones is in their deeper appreciation of the workings of the child's mind. We all remember the goody tales of a generation or more ago, that forced the " moral " to the front with such vigor that they made of the children either little hypocrites or little pharisees. The moral value of the best recent books is greater because the moral purpose in them is attained more effectively if less obtrusively.

The most valuable and the most significant of the newer books for children are those that inspire interest in and regard for those human activities that deal especially with the overcoming of nature's obstacles to our well-being, and with the making of the results of these triumphs available to all mankind. They contain the elements of the heroic that appeal to all healthy children, and they are free from the narrowly partisan that too frequently belittles the heroic in past history.

With the rapid growth of free libraries, and especially with the development of the children's departments, most children probably have access to more books—more worth-while books—than they can ever use profitably. This makes the selection still more urgent, although the danger of getting objectionable books is greatly diminished. But with the greater opportunity to get at books, there goes very often a certain separation between the book and the home. The book comes to be, as it were, a temporary visitor in the home, instead of being a permanent part of the establishment. This is unfortunate because it prevents the cultivation of that intimacy with books which is possible only if they are about to be opened frequently for short communion, as the mood may dictate, instead of being kept only for " reading through." Children should, of course, be able to read books through, and there are many books that are to be read through and then dismissed. But the child needs also to learn how to get from a book but a chapter or a paragraph at a time, how to come back to a book again and again, how to make his own just that which concerns him. This means learning to discriminate, to select; but this is possible only with books that belong in the home, and not with books that are borrowed for a limited period.

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