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

Letter by G.L.F.
Volume 14, 1903, pgs. 300-303

Dear Editor,

With regard to the formation of a first-rate library of selected children's books which Mrs. Parsons advocates in her interesting letter published in your March number, I would venture to suggest that this is a question which is more far-reaching and complex than that of the formation of the Standard Child's Library of which I spoke in my last letter. The term "suitable books" seems an elastic one when used in this connection. Hundreds of books are published which might be called "suitable," and often enough the child's imagination is able to supply what may be wanting in a book, and to build the loveliest fairy palaces on the foundations of most common-place prose. But the main point is, what is precisely the meaning of "suitable books"—suitable for what? It is, I understand, for teaching the young to see and love all that is good and noble in this world rather than what is trivial and worthless. And I am of the opinion that the number of books which may be relied upon to teach the young in this manner is strictly limited. I look upon the figures which were given in The Spectator—twelve to twenty books—as the approximate number which may be said to fulfil the required conditions.

But in thus limiting the number of books, one at once raises that difficult question as to whether a child's reading should be free or guided. This, of course, is a matter which must be left to the discretion of those who have the care of children. Excellent results have been attained by leaving a child free to choose his own books in a large and well-selected collection—to choose at random from a number of "suitable books." And the child's instinct may often be a better guide than the wisdom of an elder and the child's studies may become most fruitful. But I think that such cases are rare, for there is nothing more difficult than knowing what to choose, nothing more dangerous to a young mind than indiscriminate browsing in meadows bright with flowers of unknown taste and properties. Rather than leave a child to choose in my library, I should give him only one good book and tell him to read it over and over again, which he will do if the book is well illustrated. Any child brought up on, say, the Bible, Robinson Crusoe or Pilgrim's Progress has an education which must form his mind in such a way that when the time comes for the exercise of independent choice in the matter of study, he will naturally be ready to see and love what is good and noble in this world.

But fortunately one is seldom obliged to limit a child's reading to one book. There are other means of laying a true foundation: and a true foundation means the awakening of a desire to learn and know, the implanting of the instinct of what is lovely, not only in character but in form, not only in act and thought, but also in human work in any branch of activity, the yearning to fulfil the one great purpose all must realize so strongly in the vague consciousness of the spiritual being—so vaguely in the strong self-assertion of "this mortal coil."

I venture (even at the risk of seeming to offer a solution to a question regarding which I am quite unable to give an opinion) to mention the names of a few books, some of which may be considered to fulfil the conditions requires for a Child's Standard Library. Besides an illustrated Bible, Robinson Crusoe, Pilgrim's Progress, Don Quixote, The Arabian Nights, Fairy Tales (Grimm's of Hans Anderson's), Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare, Thackeray's "Rose and the Ring," Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Gulliver's Travels, Struwwelpeter [Shaggy Peter], The Holy War, Guy Mannering or Rob Roy, David Copperfield or The Old Curiosity Shop. Besides these I think a volume of fables (Aesop's or La Fontaine's) might be added, together with a volume of tales from the classics (Church, Kingsley, Hawthorne, and others), tales from history, and a volume dealing with the wonders of geography. It is, I think, with regard to the choice of the last three volumes that advice is badly needed: there are so many books of the kind, and yet one or two must be superior to the rest, and only need to be found.

Of course, all these books should be handsomely illustrated, if possible on every page, by a clever artist. Illustrations are the soul of a book from a child's point of view; he begins to read by looking at the pictures, soon he wants to know what the picture represents, who are the people who figure in it, what country they live in—in short, he gradually comes to require more and more print. That is why one good book may be made to serve for many years. At first we only pay attention to a very small fraction of the matter, the remainder does not exist for us because we do not see it; in the course of time we learn to notice this or that which comes to us as something quite new; then we learn to see it in various lights, and lastly—but there is no lastly in these cases; the wisest man may die still reading one of the good books and praying for more light.

And I would suggest that it is important to avoid making books look childish—look like books meant for the nursery. A child seems to like a "grown-up" book, provided there are many good pictures, and a nursery book cannot be a companion for life in the way that a "grown-up" looking book can. Not that I wish to imply that all the volumes of the Child's Standard Library should be similarly bound. On the contrary, I like to see a Bible infinitely better bound than any other book, Pilgrim's Progress in some somber garb, the Arabian Nights in a cover fantastically adorned, Alice in her customary binding, and so on. But it will be said, this requires a great deal too much time and attention in the carrying out. Of course these details will seem necessary only to those who have a high estimate of the value of literature as an educational force, superfluous to those who think that it is not books that influence a child's mind to any very great extent. I agree with these: books are not all-important. It is probably not from the Bible that the child obtains his first conceptions of God: it is from "Daddy." It is not from books that he will learn to know of angels, but from mother, and it is not in books that he ought to find the meaning of happiness, goodness and heaven, but in his home. And even when books play a prominent part in a home, is it not mother's comments that influence the mind rather than the text of the book she is reading aloud?

But are we to condemn everything whose only property is to be lovely? Are we to let the dust gather on our books because a child learns most by being with people who are noble characters, who, like God, rule and teach by being what they are? No, surely not; even granted that books are not essential, let them remain within reach; there are moments when a precious volume will be opened for lack of something else to do, and a new life-friendship may be formed. Chance is the word by which we designate God's way of dealing with us: it is by chance we happen to do everything which steers our course in life and shapes our plans. So let the books be there in readiness for the great chance; and is there not something fascinating in arranging within a child's reach a little row of "chances," which may lead him into infinite worlds of beauty, happiness and knowledge?

Yours, etc.,

G. L. F.

[Discussion is invited.—Ed.]

Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, December 2008