The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Should Children have a Special Literature?

By Edward Salmon, Author of "Juvenile Literature."
Volume 1, 1890/91, pg. 337

Nothing surprises me more at times than the ignorance of parents on the subject of the literature provided for their children. The names of the writers mean no more to them generally than do the names of the villages scattered over the Sahara desert. If they are aware of the fact that Mr. W. H. G. Kingston, Mr. G. A. Henty, Mr. R. M. Ballantyne, and others have produced a host of books for boys, and that Miss L. T. Meade, Miss Sarah Doudney, and Mrs. Emma Marshall have written piles of fiction for girls, they are aware of little else. What all these stories are about, and what their character is likely to be, judging from inquiries made as to the general tone of the writer's work, they would be quite unable to say. When the season for presents arrives, they go to a bookseller's, and ask for a book suitable for a boy or girl. They trust the selection to the shopman, who probably knows as much of the inside of the work as they know themselves and no more. He says what diplomacy suggests, and ignorance on the part of the buyer renders contradiction or doubt impossible. Quite recently a child placed a book in my hands which a fond parent had just obtained from a well-stocked counter. The story was feeble and unreal, and if it was harmless, it was so only because it was too insipid to have any effect whatever. I asked the mother what had made her purchase this particular book. She frankly admitted that she knew nothing about it; she had taken it on the shopman's recommendation. All she knew was that she wanted a girl's story, and the bookseller had advised her to purchase the first which boasted a cover to her taste. Advice is, proverbially, valueless in proportion as it is interested, and of all advice that of the middle-man in the book world is, as a rule, the most contemptible.

Parents do not seem to me to recognise the importance of really good books. I mean by good books those which are not merely not bad but which are stamped with character and thought, which contain bright ideas, which venerate things pure and worthy, and teach right living without indulgence in morbid sentimentalism. It is not enough for us to know that a book is published by some religious or semi-religious society; we should get an idea of its author's views and its own purpose. But it will be urged that it is impossible for parents to acquaint themselves with every book written for the young, and to whom can they turn as a guide, philosopher, and friend in the matter? In recent years more attention has unquestionably been paid to the books for boys and girls than used to be paid to them, and I should strongly urge parents never to buy a book which they have not been able to learn something about, if not by personal inspection, at least from a friend's lips, or from the review columns of a newspaper. That parents should not know much about latter-day authors for the young is less strange perhaps when we recollect that they were educated in an entirely different school. The books written for boys and girls in earlier years were unlike those which are written now, and when the days of childhood are left behind it is seldom customary to read a child's book. A healthier and more natural tone characterises juvenile literature to-day, and our writers are in the habit of going to life [Miss L. T. Meade told a Pall Mall interviewer some time ago that she never writes without having studied her local colour and dramatis personae on the spot and in the flesh.] itself for their models instead of evolving from their inner consciousness diminuitive prigs to be dignified with the names of boys and girls.

I have spent months, and even years, in attempting to acquire something like an accurate knowledge of the books written specially for the nursery and the schoolroom, and when the result was published a year ago in the form of a small book ["Juvenile Literature as It is" (H. J. Drane), I vol. 6s.] some people marvelled at the mass of matter dealt with in it. To any one glancing through its pages the books and authors mentioned no doubt constitute a formidable list, but I felt and still feel that my survey was a very incomplete one. The plethoric nature of the subject is simply astounding. Writers of ordinary novels have the reputation for facility and quantity of production, but writers of stories for juvevniles would hardly take a second place in these respects. And what is the worth of all this mass of material? How many people are there who know whether it is really worth anything or nothing? Ordinary writers are often charged with superficiality, but writers for the young are regarded as producers whose work is more superficial still. It is no uncommon thing to hear children's literature condemned as wholly bad, and some people are good enough to commiserate with me on having waded through so much ephemeral matter. It may be my fault or my misfortune not to be able to see my loss. I have spent many pleasant and I may say not unprofitable hours in company with the printed thoughts of Mr. Kingston, Mr. Ballantyne, Mr. Henty, Jules Verne, Miss Alcott, Miss Meade, Mrs. Molesworth, Miss Doudney, Miss Yonge, and a dozen others, and hope to spend as many more in the time to come as a busy life will permit.

There seem to exist in the minds of a considerable number of worthy people grave doubts as to whether a special literature is not a bane rather than a boon to young minds. Is it either necessary or desirable? I should be prepared to answer "No!" if our writers to-day were of the Maria Edgeworth order, or if the books written were modelled on "Sandford and Merton." Juvenile literature is condemned in the vast majority of cases not because it does not rise to the level of the ordinary everyday book from Mudie's, but because it is not fit to take a place on the shelf beside the classics. The test applied is one under which most books published in these days would be found wanting. Writers for the young have come to thoroughly appreciate the importance of the work they are called on to perform. There is now none of the writing down to the child's intelligence or supposed intelligence, which used to degrade equally the writer and the reader. Parents and guardians owe to the present day writers for their young charges a deep debt of gratitude on account of the excellence of the work they turn out. Modern literature is not too strong, but now and again an effort is made which deserves to live. Into the great river of human thought sewers of Zolaism and mental refuse will from time to time be emptied, and dangers will lurk for those who drink at it heedlessly. But it is possible to filter its waters -- time will do that -- and from them many a sparkling glass may be got. If children's literature were absolutely pure and good and desirable, if no dangerous eddies or currents were to be found in it, it would be a literature unique in the annals of the world. Those who, like myself, have gone through volume after volume of children's books, must have come upon quite as large a proportion of really admirable work as is to be found in any mass of literature which has not been sifted by time or specialist hands.

There are, then, books for boys and girls which ought to live, and which will live if they are accorded a fair trial. "Tom Brown's Schooldays" is about the only work for boys in recent times which has gone through edition after edition, and which bids fair to be as well known in the next century as "Robinson Crusoe" is in this. It has always been a source of wonder to me that publishers have not considered it worth while to bring out new and cheaper editions of boys' books which have been successful. A novel, if it at all hits the public taste, is pretty certain to be produced in one or two cheaper forms. Boys' books are sold first at four or five shillings. The well-to-do buy them, but if they are ever so good, the poorer lads have no chance of sharing in the benefits to be derived from their perusal. Works for adults which have become classics are constantly being republished at prices which place them within the reach of the working classes. Yet the sons of the working classes have always been practically condemned to feast their brains on the penny dreadful -- unless they could be induced to buy the Boy's Own Paper, the only boy's journal which has maintained equally its ground and its respectability -- and when they get older their intellects are entirely unable to appreciate the new beauties which a sixpenny Scott, or Dickens, or Kingsley may lay before them. Had they been afforded an opportunity of studying a Kingston or a Henty as children, they would have lived in a purer mental atmosphere. The gulf hitherto existing between journals hardly fit for the fire, and the high-class works which the poor are so often tempted to buy in a popular form, would have been unknown to them. Under these circumstances I feel that praise too high cannot be accorded Messrs. Griffith, Farran & Co. for their enterprise in bringing out a sixpenny edition of some of Mr. W. H. G. Kingston's best books. "The Three Midshipmen" and "Peter the Whaler" are now before the public, and I can but hope that the result will justify the publishers not only in having made this effort, but in extending it indefinitely.

Their example might surely be profitably imitated. Many of Mr. Kingston's books ought to prove highly successful in a cheap form. One which appeared originally in the Boy's Own Paper -- "From Powder Monkey to Admiral" -- contains all the elements of exciting adventure calculated to make it as interesting to boys as its Christian character should make it useful. The same may be said of Jules Verne's story of sea and savage life --"Dick Sands, the Boy Captain." Dick Sands is a hero worthy of emulation. As a rule, however, Jules Verne's works are too scientific for popularity in the widest sense of the term. Of Mr. R. M. Ballantyne's books several would, I should say, find favour in a form cheaper than they have so far assumed, such as "Fighting the Flames," "The Iron Horse," and "The Battery and the Boiler." Mr. G. A. Henty's stories lend themselves especially to the satisfaction of the literary requirements of the multitude. His "Facing Death" -- a story of the coal mines -- is as fascinating a work as I know, and would have a clarion effect on the sympathies and the better nature of boys and girls whose pence for fiction are as numbered as their taste for it is unlimited. Another of Mr. Henty's of a different character is "In Times of Peril," which conveys a truthful and graphic idea of the incidents, the horrors, and the chivalry of the Indian Mutiny. Mayne Reid's "Boy Hunters," Mr. G. Manville Fenn's "Middy and Ensign," Mr. T. B. Reed's "Adventures of a Three-Guinea Watch," the Rev. T. S. Millington's "Boy and Man," and Mr. R. L. Stevenson's "Treasure Island" are a few of the many works which, if re-published in a popular shape, might be trusted to find troops of new readers. They are all, more or less, in Mayne Reid's happy phrase, "redolent of romance, rich in reality," and would appeal strongly to the tastes of boys and girls -- for girls are great readers of boys' books -- of all classes and ages. It should be possible and profitable to extend the empire of Messrs. Kingston, Henty, Ballantyne and Co., and to carry the benefits of their work into the hamlet and the cottage, as well as the drawing-room. Not only do I think a special literature for boys is good, but I would, as far as practicable, widen its area of influence. As with boys, so with girls. It would be well for thousands of our poorer lassies if they could have laid before them the works of Mrs. Molesworth, Miss Alcott, Mrs. Emma Marshall, Miss Yonge, Miss Meade, and a host more. Messrs. Longman found it worth their while a couple of years ago to produce Miss Sewell's novels at a shilling a volume, and Messrs. Routledge have published Miss Allcott's at the same price. I do not think there can be much doubt that others might be accorded an equal or even a greater chance. Several of Miss Allcott's would be greedily snapped up at sixpence.

The chief reason which prompts me to support a special literature for boys and girls is that such a literature is necessary. The young mind should be nourished on food specially prepared for it just as much as the young body should be supported on special food. The cry raised against boys and girls' literature as such is a phase of the latter-day agitation for compelling young minds to grapple with problems and studies which tax the energies of their parents. Children are subjected too often to a system of brain-forcing which is disastrous and disgraceful. Parents are too anxious to see their little ones mastering to-day what other people's children will not master to-morrow or even the day after. When a boy sits down to read Mr. Kingston or Mr. Henty he is gravely reminded that he ought to be studying Scott. His father studied Scott, and so ought he. The truth probably is that his father only studied the great novelist when very much older, and never had the chance of reading such volumes as are now turned out every year by the million for our sons and daughters. Some people would, if they could, take the babe from its cradle, give it a volume of Shakespeare, and proclaim it to the world a man in all but years! A clever child is sought after and lionised in a way little creditable to the intelligence and the heart of adults. Thank Heaven, nature is all-powerful, and in the vast majority of cases children are children and will remain children, and while this is so, special forms of amusement and recreation must be provided for them. We do not consider it well to allow children to be always in the company of their elder, and when they are in such company, the conversation in which they participate is certain to be of a highly playful, not to say frivolous, nature. Why, then, should there not be grades in reading, as in everything else? Even Mr. Andrew Lang, who seems no friend of a special children's literature, says clearly we should not begin with Shakespeare or Emerson or even Sir Walter Scott; we begin with "Who killed Cock Robin?" with "Puss in Boots," and "The Yellow Dwarf." To jump from the fairy story to the three volume novel is like jumping from the nursery to take part in the full régime of the drawing-room, or from the infant school to the university. A half-way house is necessary, and this is to be found in the books for boys and girls so severely condemned by those who apparently know least about them.

What boys and girls should read is a problem which becomes less easy of solution with the multiplication of books. Mr. Andrew Lang is probably right when he says Read what you like. Mr. Ruskin is not alone in his belief that left to themselves young people will not go astray. Mrs. Saxby again thinks that boys are more to be trusted in the matter of selecting books for themselves than their mothers, and it is her opinion that "the story a boy loves best, reads over and over, and delights to think upon when he is a grandfather, is the book that a man of wholesome mind and large heart studies and enjoys." Wrong guidance is worse than no guidance at all. In the matter of reading this is especially the case. The mis-directed reader is fortunate if he ever afterwards gets well on the right road. The effect on a mind of a really bad book is almost indelible, and a mistake is not easily rectified. Certainly it is not to be rectified by a sharp right about face. The process of reform must not be too drastic. Miss Phillis Browne's experience was no doubt that of many others who have been found straying from the correct literary fold. When she was discovered devouring questionable three-volume novels, her father forbade her to read anything for twelve months which he had not placed in her hands, and gave her Dr. Dick's "Christian Philosopher." It was like bringing the North Pole to bear on the equator; or like going from a music-hall into a cathedral. She was subsequently allowed "Bracebridge Hall," and her taste fortunately had not been too vitiated to admit of her enjoying that and works of a like character. Inquisitions are seldom devoid of harm, and the inquisitor ought to be on his guard against error. An untrustworthy verdict, or a mis-taken edict, is enough to nullify any good which might otherwise accrue from his deliberations.

What parents can do, what they should do, and what they do in most cases is to start the child aright, fortifying the young brain with right principle and love of the noble and beautiful. A boy or girl who has been properly taught at the mother's knee will, when he or she abandons the picture book for the more advanced story, find in the works of the authors whose names I have mentioned, and of many others besides who make it their business to write for children, nothing calculated to disturb his or her ideas of what is right and desirable. I can recall the name of no writer of importance for boys and girls who cannot be accepted as a more or less reliable guide, and though some of them may hold views unnecessarily gloomy, their work is not to be wholly condemned on that ground. Boys and girls, as I have said, are fortunate in these days in the wealth of talent which caters for their mental appetite. They know nothing of that "book hunger" described by the author of "When Mother was Little" ["When Mother was Little," by S.P. Yorke (T. Fisher Unwin).] as having been felt by the children of a generation and more ago.

In juvenile literature of the better sort there is just enough back-bone to give the mind a fillip towards more serious reading. Boys' and girls' books may fitly be regarded as probationary, and if men and women never want to peruse deeper works, this failing will be in spite of, as much as because of, the books they read in early days. Happily much truthful observation is to be found in these books, for boys and girls read the books specially written for them at the most impressionable period of their lives. Johnson may or may not have been right when he said that babies do not care to read about babies like themselves. Boys and girls undoubtably care to read about boys and girls like themselves. It seems to me that they are not only more interested in the doings of people of their own age than they would be in the loves and intrigues which they but half understand of older people, but that a hero or heroine in the teens is likely to have more exemplary influence than a hero or heroine whose youth is past. Tom Brown and "Jo" Marsh are the familiar friends of boys and girls throughout the world. Precisely what influence they may have had it is not easy to say, but that they must have had immense influence for good cannot be doubted. And the best defence which can be made of boys' and girls' literature in general is to assert, on undeniable authority, that it is peopled chiefly with boys not far from removed in their chivalrous rectitude of character from Tom Brown, and with girls as worthy to be loved as the sweet, if somewhat tomboyish, central figure of "Little Women."

Typed by lmichelleb, Sept 2015