The Value Of Juvenile Fiction
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
THE normal child is at heart an out and out realist. He listens to tales of fairy kings and queens, but all the time he hugs a secret wonder as to where they put their crowns when they go to bed. He pays due reverence to the animal story, reads it, loves it, then compares it to the deeds and the mental acumen shown by his own domestic Towzer. Oftentimes, he seeks to put Towzer through the paces of the animal hero, only to find that good, loyal old Towzer stumbles and falls in the trail where the animal hero marches proudly onward. He turns his small sister into a fairy princess, with the discouraging result that off slides her crown, each time she tries to cross the room. In his final analysis of the situation, he is wholly logical. Towzer and the small sister are facts. Also they are endeared to him by constant knowledge of their ways. Fairy princesses and animal heroes are pure fiction, tallying in no way with the experiences of his daily life. They are full of charm, but aliens. If the small sister and Towzer are unable to fit into the angles of their personalities, the trouble must be with the unknown, rather than that which is known and, moreover, known to be good. He continues to revel in the ideal, but only as in the nuts and wine of his intellectual dinner. His real food comes earlier, and from the wholly real.
Human beings, not philosophers, but really human folk, are prone to work from the known out into the unknown. The child seeks to become better acquainted with his animal hero by means of Towzer. Yet, at heart a realist, he swiftly learns to idealize his real. He clings to the real, loves the real ; not, however, as the real exists, but as his imagination pictures it. The imaginative child, then, gives flight to his fancy, but his fancy takes flight above the trail of the real.
Just there, in the idealization of the real, in the failure to make Towzer tally with his animal hero of the printed book, just there lies the open door for juvenile fiction. Life is what we are fitting our children for, after all; life sane, sound and true, the normal life of the every-day world. The fundamental truths of honor and manliness, of a justice which is higher than human, these can be taught by the old, old stories which must be part and parcel of each child's mental harvest store. Homer himself has taught them once for all. Nevertheless, even Homer has left a gap. In the abstract, he teaches us to seek the best possible harmony with our environments. However, the average child has a literal vein in his mental make-up. He finds it hard to bridge the chasm between Homer's environment and that of himself. The Homeric struggles and the Homeric con-quest of temptation fire his admiration only the more, from his being able to compare them with the way some boy of his own age and social standing has faced just such struggles which have met him in a life of preliminary examinations and hockey, a life of which he himself knows the least detail. It is like Mr. Kipling's eastern stars which draw the eye in orderly perspective up to the gate of heaven itself. Tom Brown and Tom Bailey are steps in the pathway which leads to the godlike Achilles, and on to the One who is greater than all. But, in the mean-time, the intermediate steps count. Ten boys would seek to be a Tom Bailey where one, lacking Tom Bailey, would deliberately set out to pattern himself upon the more remote Achilles.
For girls, the question grows a shade deeper. Girls are more complex than boys, their interests are minuter, they study them-selves, too, far more than any healthy boy would deign to do. More than that, they are intensely imitative. Boys are still boys, when girls are seeking to pose as little women. But real women are discouraging models ; their very adulthood imposes too many limitations. Childish feet trip over the long skirts. However, there is a singular dearth of classic heroines worthy of imitation. Dido is not one of them, nor yet Cassandra, nor yet Red Riding Hood's grandmother, whose chief achievement was that of being eaten alive. Of noble, high-minded women the name is legion; but as a rule they do not walk in the searchlight of history.. The record of those who do so walk is scarcely one to fire the girlish mind to admiring imitation.
Lacking the great names, then, what harm in providing a list of the small? No harm ; but, rather, much good, especially when care is taken that the smaller names meet the smaller, more humdrum demands upon them in a truly Homeric spirit. The mere fact that they are chosen to be heroines presupposes that they are, in some one way or other, worthy of imitation. To take a concrete example, how many girls have braced them-selves to helpfulness in a season of domestic panic by the memory that Jo March, of blessed and undying fame, took a wash-tub so as a matter of course that she even made a little song, as she soused her bare arms up and down in the steaming suds ; that Rose, before she bloomed, was expected to take all the care of her own room and make tidy buttonholes in her uncle's clothing? Girls naturally reach out for the refined and finical. Jo's slang slides over them and leaves them unharmed. At most, they smile over it, as over something archaic. The real strength and beauty of Jo's energetic, unselfish young life have furnished a working model for many a girl in her 'teens. Jo's crises were the ones which try us most, the crises which come in the wear and tear of daily living. Jo's plucky meeting them has furnished pluck for countless other girls, pluck that could have been gained from no amount of contemplating fairy princesses, or Sandhill Stags, or even young Queen Victoria, sallying forth in the royal equivalent of dressing gown and slippers, to be told of her accession to the British throne.
Of course, there is fiction and fiction. Not all of it is sane and helpful; not all of it is refined. However, it all should be. It all might be, even, if writers for the young would only realize the weight of responsibility resting upon them. It is no light thing to be told by a young college woman that she had never meant to go to college, until she read a favorite story whose heroine was fitting herself for Smith. It is no light thing to create our imaginary situations and bring our imaginary heroines up to face them, knowing full well, as we infallibly must know, that a dozen real girls will be influenced in the solving of their own real problems by the way in which our paper heroine stands or falls. However, that is a matter which rests with the writer and his conscience. There are few responsibilities greater or more practical than those involved in the creation of fiction to be read by so plastic a public as that made up from the girlhood of today. Such fiction should be helpful, sane; it should be unfalteringly true to the best possibilities of human nature, and it should be free from obvious moral.
This last essential is above all others. Children are born moralists ; often and often they find a lesson where, to us older and less wise heads, none seems to exist. They are swift to re-sent the pointing finger of blame; they are quite as quick to see for themselves where their own blame lies. As they follow their favorite heroes and heroines from chapter to chapter, not all their heroes, but only those whom they really love, they are all the time half-consciously measuring them by their own natures. If the hero fall below their own ideals, they despise him; if he rise above their levels, they toilfully clamber after and take their stand beside him, whence, from that new height, they judge the next in line. Once you suggest the comparison, once and once only say, "Jo March or Tom Bailey would not do so or so," and the book is spoiled for evermore. Their comparisons are not as our comparisons, their lessons not as ours. However, the ultimate ideal is the same, gained, though, not by a single bound, but by many a painful step.
And for the steps which, like the stars, follow an orderly perspective, often the simplest guideposts are the words and ways of the boy and girl heroes of the best of juvenile fiction.