The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Children's Books

by Miss Christabel R. Coleridge
Volume 11, 1900, pgs. 284-288

"It is not wholesome to feel oneself sweetly pathetic. Still less desirable is it to feel how intensely interesting it is to be a child! I don't like stories that make children feel themselves a sort of party opposed to the grown-ups."

" small proportions, at fit times, without any demand for answering enthusiasm, suitable masterpieces should be inflicted on the idle little brains as part of education and with no question whether or no they are enjoyed."

A lecture delivered to the Bournemouth Branch of the P.N.E.U.

Although I am about to give my ideas on children's books, I feel the great difficulty of any sort of laying down the law on the subject. I don't think there can be rules for it; certainly instances are most difficult to give, and even principles are hard to evolve. The ways of families, their standards of cultivation, and their opinions vary so much that what is good for one may be impossible for another; and what is, perhaps, less generally recognized, the susceptibility of people to the influence of literature, varies so very much that the effect of books on one person is no criterion for their effect on another. One girl may read endless stories, and they may pass over her as water runs from a duck's back, and another will live with imaginary companions and try to mould her behaviour by their pattern.

I am inclined to think that the faculty for fiction, whatever the gift may be that makes novelists, exists in a fainter degree in those readers to whom the characters seems as living friends. The gift that in large measure produced the Daisy Chain [by Charlotte Yonge], in smaller and infinitely varying degrees, produced the reader to whom Ethel May was a guide and pattern. Everyone has not this power of treating fiction; consequently I think that the remark heard so frequently:--"Ah, in our time we really loved our books, nowadays children read so many that they don't care for them!" often merely indicates a difference of natural temperament, and, perhaps, the fact that the modern child does not assimilate the same book as her aunt did. However many stories children read, only those will pass into the life to which the child's nature responds, and, to my thinking, however many she may read, she will care only for the right ones, I mean the ones that appeal to her own nature.

It does not seem to me that there is much use in starting with a theory. You think, perhaps, that imaginative stories are far more wholesome for little girls than stories about themselves, and you supply your little Ethel with Alice in Wonderland, or Sintram, or the Red Fairy Book. Ethel does not care much about these, but presently she gets hold of Ministering Children [by by Maria Louisa Charlesworth], or Minnie's Self Conquest, or Margaret's Trials, or the like, and is buried in it for a whole half holiday. Or, on the other hand, you would like her to take to her heart some favourite high-souled heroine, and, behold, she throws all the domestic stories aside and borrows The Pirates Revenge from her brothers.

There are, however, several lines on which people who study the matter at all, start with their children. One is, not to forestall or, as people think, to spoil the pleasure of reading grown-up books, however good, too young; but to keep young folks to children's stories, believing also that older books "put ideas into their heads."

As to this, when the grown-up book, enjoyed as a child, is read again by the growing girl, she finds it new enough, because she understands it better. Children's books alone are a little cramping, and as for the "ideas," if they are in the air, they must come--and no one knows how soon they will come--and, perhaps, they are as well imbibed from good novels as in any other way. Good books will hardly ever tell "premature truth," because children understand only what they have grown up to.

Closely allied to this system is the plan of keeping children strictly to books which agree in opinion with the views entertained by the parents. I do not think there is any doubt that where the soil is at all favourable, the desired tone of thought and feeling is maintained by this plan, and often lasts far into life. On the other hand, there is always danger of a reaction, and, if a child so trained comes accidentally across a book differing from the parental view, it is apt to be shocked and frightened, whereas if it has read more freely, and has heard, "Well, my dear, there are good things in that book, but I don't quite agree with it," very little impression will be made by the alien opinion. Of course, this is largely a question of degree, and I hope no one supposes I recommend controversial stories for children.

Again, some people think that children should never read "rubbish," but that the time spent in reading should be given to really good books, such as The Waverley Novels, for instance, or, perhaps, any great favourites of the mother's youth. Now, I think "good" books, in this sense, should be supplied to children and read aloud to them, constantly. They will never get cultivation in any other way.

But the "rubbish," the dear rubbish? I want to tell a personal anecdote; it is not to my credit, but I can't help that.

When I was a little girl, my mother read aloud every evening. In this way [Sir Walter] Scott, Shakespeare, [Richard] Sheridan, and other great writers were made familiar to us and gave the greatest delight. I had also a pretty free run among contemporary domestic heroines whom I admired, and on some of whom I endeavoured occasionally to model my conduct. Well, we spent our holidays at the Lakes, and many long summer days were passed at Rydal Mount in the old age of the poet's [Wordsworth's] widow. I had to amuse myself and the library was open to me. Think of that--Wordsworth's library! I can see it now, a long low room filled and lined with books. There was one book--a little square green one, among the brown calf--one book only which attracted me, it was The Memoirs of Nelly M---, and contained the history of an extremely holy little girl who died young. I don't think it was of any literary value, I am quite sure that it did not embody the kind of religious teaching with which I was familiar, but it was the only book there I could assimilate. I was a stupid little goose, but so are a great many other children.

I have a pet idea that people can often only really learn from the thing just above their own level, that the little commonplace book has a message for those who are just ready for it, and that it is possible to have one's ideas raised by tribes of Sybils, and Dora's, and Amy's, when, with Portia or Imogen, we have no connecting links. I am sure this is true when we cater for less educated classes, and I think it is true of children also. Perhaps this is special pleading, for, if it were not true, what excuse would the second, third and fourth-rate writers have for writing anything at all?

So I would let children hunt a little for themselves--of course, within limits. I think, as I have said, that it is quite easy to exaggerate the effect of books on readers, but there are some varieties of children's books which seem to me likely to be more or less mischievous.

I am not fond of too much insistance on golden locks and violet eyes and fairy-like grace, but, after all, most of us know very well that we don't possess these glories, and perhaps they don't do much harm in description. Exceedingly lovely frocks constantly described and insisted on are on a lower plane.

There is a kind of glorification of folly in many children's stories which I cannot think wholesome. The children do the most utterly silly things, shewing ignorance of life impossible to sane creatures of ordinary experience, and they come out delightful, successful and adorable. One feels rather inclined after some of these stories to quote Mr. F.'s aunt, and say--"I hate a fool!" [from Dickens' Little Dorrit]

Children are also made to pity themselves needlessly. The pathetic side of childish troubles is good reading for elders, but it is not wholesome for those who want to be taught in gallantry and courage to face life. Authorities are represented as improbably cruel. It is not wholesome to feel oneself sweetly pathetic. Still less desirable is it to feel how intensely interesting it is to be a child! I don't like stories that make children feel themselves a sort of party opposed to the grown-ups.

It is necessary to be very careful also in representing unconsciousness and naiveté, as intentional unconsciousness is a very undesirable trait. I think also that sentimental attachments between little girls and grown-up young men are apt to be rather mischievous. Little girls are sometimes sentimental, and I could name stories eminently calculated to make them more so. Children are also quite impossibly naughty. The clever long-sustained rebellion and opposition to authority invented by a sympathetic elder is, happily, rarely within the powers of a naughty little girl, nor is it often found in real life in conjunction with the deep tenderness, absolute unselfishness, and profound conscientiousness generally given to the troublesome child of fiction.

I have not said much about books for little boys, but I think that this last mistake is often found in stories of school-boy life, and I believe it to be often mischievous to mix sentiment and conscientious scruples with wrong-doing, unusual in most well-disposed little boys at a commonly well-managed school, and with the childish naughtiness which is often merely the instinct of the little animal feeling its powers. Little boys had better not be emotional.

On the whole, it seems that no system for children's reading suitable to all could be laid down. Parents and teachers must do their own best; such as they have, they must give their children, trying to strike the difficult mean between letting things go idly and pressing alien tastes on their scholars. To try to interest children in the best books we like ourselves, to try to understand their own tastes, and as far as possible, to bring out the best of what is most natural to them, seems the right thing.

And this general rule does not preclude the exception, that in small proportions, at fit times, without any demand for answering enthusiasm, suitable masterpieces should be inflicted on the idle little brains as part of education and with no question whether or no they are enjoyed.

In all cases, avoid the fatal mistake of making tastes a personal matter. The slightest sign of hurt feeling because the child does not take to one's own favourites, will make the disputed book hated for half a lifetime.

Proofread June 2011, LNL