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Selecting Children's Literature

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

The well known author of "The Bird's Christmas Carol," "Penelope's Progress" and numerous other works of fiction is no less famous as a kindergartner and an authority on children's reading. She organized the first free kindergartens on the Pacific Coast.

THE Newberys of London began publishing books for children in 1745. The "Melodies of Mother Goose," first collected by Oliver Goldsmith, and "Goody Two Shoes," written by him in collaboration with Mr. Newbery himself—these two books have outlived all the other volumes issued by the Newbery press, and they have been kept alive and hoisted into fame and favor year after year by the children themselves. Many and many a book that would never have found its way into "lists" made by grown folks has "stumbled into immortality" because it has been discovered, loved, read, and re-read, then passed on to others by these well nigh infallible little critics

"A court as of angels,
A public not to be bribed,
Not to be entreated,
Not to be overawed."

Charles Lamb's belief in turning the child loose in the rich pastures of literature to browse where he pleases is the one, on the whole, that commends itself most to me. But it implies, of course, the possession of a good and varied library. Given this library, from which you have removed two or three dozen books which it is not wise for young people to read—at any rate too soon—and the child will do all necessary selection, and not unwisely. He will make a few mistakes in choosing, but so would we, we must remember, if we choose for him. He may begin but he will never go on reading a book which is entirely beyond his comprehension, and the mere "dip into" something vast, remote, mysterious, may stir his imagination and set his mind to work on wider lines. "Man's reach is greater than his grasp, else what's a heaven for?" The child is sure to neglect something if left to himself, you urge, and that is true. For one thing, he is sure, nine times out of ten, to neglect the "juveniles," with their little mummies and effigies filling up good room that might have been occupied by flesh-and-blood heroes and heroines. Mighty little need, indeed, have children of the reading age for many books of this sort, which flood and devastate the earth at holiday time because fond parents, "gift-bearing aunts," and fatuous old bachelors think that children like them. The best of them have, indeed, their allotted space and place, but it is small and circumscribed. The bottle may represent a necessary stage in nursery life, but if you should see a six-year-old child imbibing nourishment by that means you would have reason to suppose there was something wrong—not, indeed, with the bottle, which is virtuous enough in itself, but which, in this instance, is certainly "misplaced matter." Similarly, if you find a twelve-year-old boy addicted to "juveniles," and to nothing else, you may as well give the poor little creature up. He may, in time, become a tolerable husband and father, but his ears will be deaf to the music of St. Paul's Epistles and the Book of Job ; he will never know the Faerie Queene, or the Red Cross Knight, Don Quixote, Hector, or Ajax; Dante and Goethe will be sealed oracles to him until the end of time; the spaciousness of Milton will forever confound him, and he will never

"Hear, like ocean on a western beach,
The surge and thunder of the Odyssey."

He drank too long and too deep of nursery pap, and his literary appetite and digestion are both weakened beyond cure. One never grows to love and comprehend the very greatest things without some preliminary training in matters of taste and style and form, some legitimate exercise of one's nobler powers, some experimental flights into spiritual and intellectual heights. We used to think that birds flew because they had wings; we now surmise that they have wings because they tried to fly.

I hope nobody is asking himself or herself "just what does she mean" by "juveniles"? Because there is neither time nor space for full explanation; but, broadly speaking, I mean determinedly childish books written down to the child's level by people who could not possibly write up to it if they tried. There are in existence plenty of fresh, evergreen, and ever-youthful books—books which all children love—simple, genial, gracious, lovable, splendid, vital, sweet, good, and heroic ; but such books although universally popular among young readers are not what is here stigmatized as "Juveniles." Indeed, you will note one thing, that older people can always read with pleasure the best children's books. For instance, it would not bore you at this moment to be shut up for a day or two with nothing but "Robinson Crusoe," "AEsop's Fables," "Arabian Nights," Kingsley's "Water Babies," "Alice in Wonderland," Hawthorne's "Wonder Book" and "Tanglewood Tales," John Burroughs' "Birds and Beasts," "The Seven Little Sisters," Hans Christian Andersen's and Grimm's "Fairy Tales," "Two Years Before the Mast," "Tom Brown at Rugby" Lambs "Shakespeare Tales," Ruskin's "King of the Golden River," "The Jungle Book," the simpler poems by Scott, Lowell, Whittier, or Longfellow, and a sheaf of song from the Elizabethan poets. If, indeed, you would be dreadfully bored it is conceivable that you are a bit pedantic, stiff, and academic in your tastes, or a bit given to literary game of very high and "gamy" flavor, so that French "made dishes" have spoiled you for Anglo-Saxon roast beef.

But you may say you have no library worthy of the name, therefore you must at least help your child to choose. This is, in point of fact, so great a delight that it resembles a temptation; it is also a great responsibility, although I cannot discover that parents are bent to the earth because of the burden of it. When things come to this pass, and we are obliged to do for children what many of them can do better for themselves, a knowledge of child-nature and a knowledge of what really is literature—these two things are extremely handy to have in the family. You cannot so much as draw a commonplace straight line without knowing two points—the one you start from and the one you wish to reach. The child is your first point; do you know him? What you wish him to learn, think, feel, and be is the second point: are you quite sure of your knowledge in that field? But this, you say, seems to presuppose a kind of psycho-pedagogical wisdom extremely rare. To which I return that common sense makes a fairly good substitute ; and when you crush me by asking how the parent not gifted with common sense can acquire it, I reply (from the extreme confines of the corner where your logic has driven me), that, supposing the germ to be existent, resolution, reflection, fasting and prayer will commonly assist its growth to a point where at least it can be seen by the naked eye of your neighbors, who, by the way, generally use opera-glasses—big end for shortcomings, t'other way round for virtues.

It makes a deal of difference, not only what a child reads, but how and when he reads it. Fortunately, books are not the only means of grace. I have seen Raising Children, as well as grown people, who seemed to absorb and distil, a wisdom from the world of nature—the mysteries of earth, air, sky, and sea—from sympathetic contact with fellow human creatures, and from some hidden source of power within their own souls, that put the wisdom of the books to shame. It is not prudent, however, to conclude that our particular child is a being of that rarefied sort simply because he declines to read. Symptoms of intellectual forwardness are sometimes mistaken for the aberrations of genius.. Let us try and penetrate the secret of the child's in-difference, remembering that, young as he is, there are elective affinities and antipathies that must be taken into account, and perhaps controlled and guided. And, whatever else we do, if we wish to widen the spiritual horizon of our Raising Children, let us not close up the windows on the emotional and imaginative side by neglecting poetry. "There is in every one of us a poet whom the man has outlived." Don't let the poet die of inanition ! Keep it alive by feeding the child's youthful ardor, strengthening his insight, guarding the sensitiveness of his early impressions, and cherishing the fancies that are indeed "the trailing clouds of glory" he brings with him from God "who is his home."

The rhythm of verse will charm his senses even in his baby days; later on he will feel the beauty of some exquisite lyric phrase as keenly as yon do, until at last he can enter upon his full birthright, the "rich deposit of the centuries."

As to "adaptations" of the great things of literature by means of which the child may get a hint of the glories which await him just at the turn of the road—that subject, too, can be argued eloquently on both sides. Is it possible to expurgate, abbreviate, adapt, some of these books which the reading world agrees to call "classics"? It can be done especially by word of mouth, in the form of the story told to groups of eager listeners, and in the written volume it can be successfully done, too, perhaps by two persons in a million. My own belief in this form of literature is a trifle theoretical and weak on its legs. In my heart I incline to agree with somebody who said, "What's the use of adapting the classics to children when the children are already adapted to the classics?"

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