The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
What Children Read.

by M. R. Peters.
Volume 5, 1894, pg. 738-743

"I would emphasize what I feel to be the fundamental principle, that nothing but good literature should be given to a child from the beginning."

There is a time in the lives of most children of ordinary intelligence when the world suddenly becomes larger. The business of learning to read has been accomplished, the mechanical difficulty has been overcome, and to the little being, exulting in the possession of what seems almost like a new sense, there opens a vast world of wonder and delight in which he is himself to be the explorer and no longer dependent upon others. The most ordinary children enjoy exercising this mysterious new power, but in children of keen intelligence, an insatiable appetite is awakened, and to many an anxious mother the problem presents itself, what shall the child be given to read?

It seems to me that a consideration of this problem might be helpful to many mothers, and therefore I have ventured to put together a few thoughts which, though the outcome of very limited experience, might, joined to those of others, lead to some conclusion as to what is or should be the taste of the average child in literature.

I know little of what other children read, but having some rather decided theories as to what children ought to read, I have given my own children what I consider wholesome food in the way of books, and fortunately their taste conforms to my principles. Whether this is a coincidence, a natural inclination, or the actual result of the training they get, I do not know; I hope it is the latter, as I prefer to believe--though I am not supported by actual experience--that it is possible to form a child's taste in the matter of books, and that the average child will easily acquire a taste for the particular kind of mental food that is set before it. If one could not believe this, it would necessarily appear a matter of very small importance what books were given to a child, and the selection might just as well be left to the children themselves. However, I strongly believe in a very careful selection by a mother or father of the books given to a young child and so far from only giving what are called "children's books," they are in many cases the very class I would avoid, as unless of the very highest quality, such books are the least fitted for children.

It does not seem to me the least necessary or even advisable to give children only books about children. There is nothing so strong in a child as the thought of being grown up, and the feeling of interest in grown up ways and doings. I think it has a better moral effect upon a child to begin quite early to enter into the wider life of real or imaginary heroes and heroines, than to be perpetually following the same round of trivial goodnesses and naughtinesses that make up the main interest of so-called children's books.

In the old-fashioned tales the tedious moral was always cropping up and spoiling the most thrilling scene, when for a moment you had forgotten it, and hoped for once it was not going to be enforced. This was bad enough--ruin from an artistic point of view, in fact--but still it could do no actual harm, and children have a most convenient capacity for skipping the moral parts of the books they read, and getting on to the story! But in modern children's books there is a far more fatal flaw. In some I have seen, almost every page is permeated with a morbid self-consciousness utterly unnatural to a child's mind and the worst of influences that could be brought to bear upon it. The writer, instead of being content to deseribe the surroundings and actions of his or her little heroes and heroines, insists upon the frequent introduction of comments on and analyses of their appearance and character, which merely puzzle a very small reader, but which inculcate in an older one the most odious and incurable of child vices, affectation and pedantry.

It is not natural to a child to take an entirely grown-up interest in another child's hair or attitude, or process of reasoning or development of affection. Attention to such things naturally comes into the study of children by grown-up people, but in a child would be unhealthy and precocious. The subjective view is a wholly grown up one, and to force it into a book for a child about a child is inartistic and unhealthy. The books given to children to read should, I believe, depend mainly upon incident for their interest; and it is essential that they should be written in the very best of English (a requirement not always fulfilled by the average author), for I think children's reading should be regarded as educational, and neither merely instructive nor merely amusing.

The first reading given to children should be about the kinds of things and people they see in their daily life. I can think of no finer example of an ideal child's book (for a child of three or four) than "Struwel Peter." Even the bad drawing of the illustrations does not matter at that age. They are suffiently realistic, and they are full of humour. The next step would, I think, be fairy tales, in order that the imagination of the child may be developed, and the fancy stimulated. But on no account would I allow a child to believe in fairy tales. I think it is simply immoral to confuse its mind between truth and falsehood by encouraging a belief in anything supernatural, and I could not teach a child to believe what I did not believe myself. I am certain any child can enjoy its fanciful fairy world quite as much, and feel it as real, if it is taught to consider it from the beginning as a thing apart from, and not in any way to be mixed up with, every day life.

Next comes the realm of adventure, tales of travel, hair-breadth escapes, marvellous sights, strange experiences. There are, of course, some unwholesome members of this class of books, which engender a morbid excitement by the piling up of extravagant horrors; but these can be avoided, and the range of choice can be increased by adding the travels of real explorers to the tales of fictitious ones, so that the child's curiosity about other countries may be stimulated, and satisfied in an interesting form,

After this comes the time for Walter Scott. It may be thought I am putting him too early, for I am speaking now of a child of ten years old--but I do not think so. There is a soundness, a truth, a solidity of principle about Scott, that not only make him suitable for the reading of a mere child, but put and keep him in the very first rank of writers at all times and at every age. His style is unquestioned, his plots always interesting, his characters, if not striking, always real and in keeping with the general flow of the tale. The love-making is always decorous and subdued, and of the high chivalrous order that appeats to a child and cannot unduly excite a "young person" of susceptible nature. His stories have a sound moral purpose, which runs through them without being too obtrusively put forward and he gives such real living pictures of the periods with which he deals, that insensibly the child learns history in the best way, namely, by entering into and realising the life, dress, speech and manners of past times in their association with real human beings rather than in a collection of dry dates and facts. A permanent ineffaceable impression is thus made at a time when the mind is most impressionable, and historical figures stand out as real living personages clothed with the the actual surroundings of their time.

Of course in giving Scott to a child, I should select to be read first those novels best suited to young tastes and understandings, beginning with "Ivanhoe," "The Talisman," "Anne of Geierstein," "Peveril [of the Peak]," "Woodstock," "Quentin Durward," and "[Fortunes of] Nigel," leaving the more difficult and less purely imaginative to the last. Although my own child of eleven reads and enjoys Scott, I am aware that there are many children who could not be brought to appreciate him quite so early, and I think she must be rather advanced in her tastes, because I was much surprised, about two years ago, to find that she could follow and enjoy Mrs. Gaskell's "Cranford." I need not say 1 had not given it to her to read, but happening one evening to be in the room when it was being read aloud, she entered into the first part, where the eccentricities of the Cranford ladies are so amusingly described, with the greatest enjoyment and begged to be allowed to hear the whole book. We agreed to let her, for she could get nothing but good from its charming style, its delicate humour, its refined English, and its wonderfully controlled pathos.

Before we began Scott she had a number of favourite books of a less advanced kind--Lamb's "Tales from Shakespeare," Hawthorne's "Wonder-book," Kingsley's "Heroes," and the "Waterbabies," equally delightful and wholesome for either grownups or children. Then there were Grimm's Folk-tales, [Hans Christian] Andersen, [Lang's] the Blue, Red, and Green Fairy-books, the Celtic Fairy Tales [Jacobs], and the ever fascinating "Uncle Remus;" [Harris] but this last is a favourite with the younger children, who frequently quote his quaint sayings and racy expressions. To my mind, Andersen ranks highest among folk-tale tellers; there is a wonderful flavour about his more amusing stories, and real poetry in the more serious ones, which I find the children quite able to appreciate.

At an earlier age, when passing through a more matter-of-fact phase, the elder child's chief friends were "Masterman Ready," [Marryat] and the "Swiss Family Robinson," [Wyss] and somehow she preferred these to "Robinson Crusoe," [Defoe] who never held a high place in her regard. Miss Edgeworth's tales in the dear old "Parents' Assistant" were never very popular; I remember being very fond of them myself, but 1 suppose they are not modern enough for the present generation, She never cared either for "Frank" and "Harry and Lucy," perhaps for the same reason. At one time she was devoted to George Macdonald's stories, the "Princess and the Goblin," and the "Back of the North Wind." I remember being equally attached to them myself as a child.

The books read at school naturally make a strong impression on children. My girls were given "Great Englishmen," [Dorothea Beale] and both of them for a time adopted Horatio Nelson as their hero, and invented endless games in which he figured, impersonated by one or other of them. It seems to me a capital plan to give children short and picturesque biographies of great men to read at school, but I think they ought to be thoroughly well written, thoroughly adapted to a child's comprehension, in simple language, and should keep to facts rather than indulge in sentiments,

In my list of much loved books I must not forget to mention Mr. Warde Fowler's "Tales of the Birds," which was and is a prime favourite in our household. These stories are excellent reading for grown up people as well as children for they combine true observation of nature with imagination, and are written in a delightful style, easy, simple, and graceful.

To conclude a paper, which is, I fear, but a stringing together of desultory remarks founded upon a necessarily limited experience, I would emphasize what I feel to be the fundamental principle, that nothing but good literature should be given to a child from the beginning.

No book should be given to a young child to read that is morbid or self conscious in tendency, and the literary taste of a child should be led rather than followed for, at any rate, the first ten years of its reading life. I have heard a mother say in a tone which, while disapproving, was also one of resignation, "my boy won't read anything but Rider Haggard," and it seemed to me one of the most valuable instruments of education which is in a parent's hands, was being wasted through sheer weakness and neglect. I do not mean to be too severe on Rider Haggard of whom I have read little, but from him alone surely a very poor literary training could be obtained. The foundation of a good taste in literature must be laid, and a child accustomed from the beginning to appreciate good books and know which are good. If this is not done, it is not to be wondered at if, in later years, a girl shows a liking for poor sensational novels, and has no discrimination as to style at all. How should she? The way to create a demand for good reading is to supply nothing else when the child is young and impressionable; for one does not gather figs where one has planted thorns, and where thistles have been sown, no crop of grapes will be forthcoming.

Tesseract OCR; proofread by LNL, Oct. 2023