The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Living Books for the Nursery

by Mrs. Crump
Volume 14, no. 12, December 1903, pgs. 944-953

At 12:15 p.m, Mrs Crump read her paper on Living Books for the Nursery.

It is our business this morning to discuss Living Books for the Nursery; that is, books which will do most to bring our children into the great current of life, books which will link them with the past, enrich their present and help them nobly to bear their share in the creation of the future. Books such as these are living books for the nursery.

I do not think children and books can be too early brought together, nor do I think we can over-estimate the influence which reading—and its kindred, story telling—can have upon character and intelligence. I myself believe in teaching children to read very early, so early that it comes to them almost as naturally as speaking; but there are children for whom this cannot be done, and there are parents who do not think it desirable. For such children and parents, reading aloud must take the place, and though it cannot achieve quite the same results, yet by its means, much of the influence of books on childish life can be secured. So whether children can read or cannot read, the discussion of the right books for them is equally pertinent. What is it that we want books to do for our children? We want them to find friends in books, that wonderful company of friends to be found in history and fiction. We want to widen their small world with some knowledge of the great and marvellous worlds around them—worlds past, worlds distant, worlds of nature, worlds of imagination. We want them to gain some power of fitly and nobly using the language which is their birthright. We want to bring them into a habit of so using books that they may all their lives turn to that silent company of helpers, who never refuse, never grudgingly give. But such reading as this comes of a knowledge of books and a power of using them which is, I think, only got by early habit coupled with early training in taste and intelligence. I do not think it is any easier to learn to read—not mere mechanical knowledge of letters and spelling, I mean, but to read so that the very hearts of books lie open to us, so that we know not only what books can give, but also which book can supply our need at this or that moment of our lives—I do not think it is any easier to learn such reading in later years than it would be to learn the high jump without early training in agility. Good reading, like good jumping, must be the result of early habit and early training. There is only one way to attain the habit and the training. We must, from the very first, give our children the right books, and plenty of books. To secure the right books, we do not want lists—indeed, I think any list, however good, is in itself a blunder. We cannot, I believe, insist too strongly on the necessity of leaving our children freedom in reading. We must, of course, protect them from evil reading, but the most fruitful reading will always be the freest reading. The child will feel his own needs—we shall only stunt his mental growth if we try to force him. Perhaps he may puzzle us, perhaps he will make a very part of his life a book which we wonder to see him so much as glance at, but, if we are wise, we shall leave him alone, conscious that freedom of choice is the foundation of true cultivation and mental strength. What we parents have to do is to put as large and as varied a choice before him as we can. But although we concede freedom of choice to nursery children—that is, I take it, to children up to the age of ten years—still we must exercise some preliminary power of selection among the multitude of existing books. To do so wisely we need to think out certain broad principles by which we may secure the best book-friends and playmates, the best influences, not only in right doing but in right speaking—the best subjects "to stretch and stimulate their little minds," as Dr. Johnson put it.

I would like to begin this consideration of broad principles with the earliest sort of nursery book—the picture book. Is it pedantic to ask certain definite qualities from the children's picture books? I do not think so. There is certainly one quality on which I should always like to insist—clearness. A power of seeing clearly is equally valuable, whether it is seeing with eyes or seeing with minds, and I confess I think many modern picture books, quite clever and quite pretty though they be, definitely discourage such clearness in children. There is a tendency to treat pictures as decorative spaces—a complexity of line, a bewildering blotting of black ink here and white there, without sufficient reference to the form intended to be represented. I have seen a puzzled child in vain turning the little pictures in A Child's Garden of Verses round and round in the hope of discovering what they meant, or have tried without success to explain one of Mr. Batten's clever illustrations which are so deservedly popular with parents [probably John D. Batten]. There are plenty of books which possess this quality of clearness. We can find it admirably in one of Stead's penny books—The Mulberry Bush. Caldicott is always good. Lear's "Nonsense Books" are beautifully clear, and so is Little Black Sambo, and there was one artist who gave us clearness combined with exquisite beauty when I was a child—Mr. Arthur Hughes—the illustrator to George Macdonald's fairy tales and Christina Rossetti's Sing Song. I wish we could get his drawings re-issued in new editions nowadays to train our children's eyes. I insist on clearness, and, beyond that, insist on good taste. I don't mean a priggish taste—a taste which limits us to nothing but what is beautiful and well drawn, else I fear Lear and Little Black Sambo would both have to go; but insist on a taste which is in harmony with the subject, and on a subject which, if grotesque, is grotesque with true childish humor.

When we begin to discuss books for reading, it becomes a more complicated matter to arrive at our broad principles, and we must go through the various kinds of books with some sort of method if we would arrive at clear ideas. There is a prevalent belief that children want always to be reading about children. It is easy to push this belief too far, but, at the same time, it is right and natural enough for children to be interested in the doings of other children. What we have to do is to see that the interest is a healthy interest. The book-children ought to be living in right relation to their surroundings. We don't want our real children to be familiar with prigs, nor theatrical heroes in pinafores, nor with abnormally mischievous children, nor with poseurs and neurotic children. And yet how often the theatrical child, the mischievous child, the neurotic child is dumped down into the nursery in pretty Christmas volumes of stories. As for the prig, he was long ago so doomed among us that I need not waste time in condemning him. Indeed, a great number of charming book-children, who would make most valuable friends for our real children, have been banished along with the prig—just because they are ordinary plain boys and girls, living in a world which has duties as well as pleasure, and whose parents do not exist solely for the purpose of seeing that they have a good time. Such a reasonable sort of child is Rollo, in Abbot's American stories. Rollo at work and Rollo at play, Rollo at school and Rollo's vacation. Such are Miss Martineau's Crofton Boys and Settlers at Home, such are Miss Edgeworth's children—Rosamond and Harry and Lucy I could never love—but the Little Merchants, Susan and her village friends, and a score more, are all excellent playmates; so is Mrs. Barbauld's Little Charles. You may say these are very old-fashioned books, but are they any the worse for that? They treat in simple language of the duties and pleasures of children, of things which never are and never can be out of fashion. Compared with modern books, written mostly in a mixture of slang, baby-talk and fine writing, these old books may seem tame—to parents. I have never found children find them so. Three generations of children in my family have learnt to read out of Little Charles, and I know how fond the third generation is of the little book.

All these authors I have named are practised writers. They know the art of story-telling. If duties are insisted on, if industry and obedience and honesty are inculcated, still they are not so much taught as brought under the small reader's notice by incidents skilfully related. From my own observation, too, I am convinced that children like a good sensible moral in a story. Do not their own lives bring conflicts between right and wrong which create a sympathy with the book-child's similar experiences? Cannot they gain more moral help by pondering in their own minds over imaginary examples of conduct and consequences than from too constant direct teaching? Take, too, the amusements and occupations of these old-fashioned children: are they not often far more imaginative, far more creative than the mischievous pranks described in more modern literature? Rollo's wigwam and causey-building, Little Charles' journey to France, the resourcefulness of the Settlers at Home, even the virtuous extravagances of the Swiss Family Robinson, all these give endless suggestions for nursery and garden games, for ingenious contrivance, for creations of fair imaginary worlds of romance and discovery.

I was thinking over these things one day whilst a party of children were engaged in uproarious laughter over a quite new book. I had looked at the book. I thought its language very poor, and thought that it described both preposterously mischievous children and equally stupid parents. That ought to be a bad book for a nursery, I thought, and yet how the children were enjoying it. So I considered the matter again, and came to the conclusion that they were quite right to enjoy it, and that I should be very silly to interfere. Do I like frivolous literature myself? Most of us do. And it is very good for most of us too, provided it does not suffice for all our reading. This book was the children's frivolous literature. They had the choice of other sorts, and being reasonably brought-up children they used their choice wisely and gained by the very variety of what they read. So I think we need not be too severe on the mere cheerful foolish book. We need not too rigorously exclude the slangy child and the imp.

But there is another sort of book-child I would never invite to play with mine. I call him the poseurand I think Little Lord Fauntleroy about gives an idea of what I mean. I think he is everything a child ought not to be. He is heir to a title, he converts his grandfather, he patronises the tenantry, he is always getting into attitudes, especially his legs—his influence, I am convinced, is largely due to his clothes. I would banish him and his like most mercilessly. I have no doubt about the poseur, but the harm done by the last sort of book-child I shall discuss is much more subtle—the child who is true to nature and yet not good reading for other children. Books like The Golden Age belong to this class. For parents such a book is most illuminating, but I would keep it for the reading of grown-ups. Still more should I so limit all books about abnormal children—the children who, for some reason, are not just the mentally and physically healthy child with whom we wish our children to mix. I want to illustrate this sort of child by a little discursion on a very admirable writer for children—Mrs. Ewing. Mrs. Ewing wrote stories for years full of delightful book-friends for the nursery, and I should have included these children in my examples of other good book-friends had I not also wanted to discuss her work as giving examples of this further sort of child—the abnormal child. For years Mrs. Ewing wrote stories, and wrote with popularity, it is true. She gave us Amelia and the Dwarfs, and Timothy's Shoes, and Benjy in Beastland, and a score more. Then at the end of her life she wrote two stories which gained her more fame than all the rest put together—Jackanapes and A Story of a Short Life. For a time there were no more popular presents for the nursery than these two dainty little volumes, and yet they are—especially The Short Life—just the two stories that are good for parents and not good for children. The other day I related Hans Andersen's "Little Fir Tree" to a tiny girl. She cried at the end and said, "I think it's horrid. I don't bear sad things for trees and birdies and little children." Then a pause for thought, and she added, cheerfully, "I don't mind them for old people, of course." It seemed a little hard-hearted, but I believe the child had the right clue to the matter. We do not—we cannot keep all sense of sorrow out of our children's lives, but I do say we should be very tender lest we mar that brave sense of security in life, that joy in being, joy in effort and in success crowning effort, which are the child's birthright. Happy if his first knowledge of death comes naturally as autumn comes—as death after long life and labour well done. We may have to help our children to face sorrow and shock bravely; but we can, and I think we ought, to protect them from such books as will weaken their quiet trust in the continuity of things in their young lives. But I must not linger too long over one type of living books only—children's books about children. We have others to think about. Books of imagination and poetry, and books from which they can teach themselves such things as their natural bent leads them to wish to know.

As for this latter sort, let us see that the nursery shelves have good and simple examples of history and science, and geography handy. It is the habit of early seeking information for ourselves which gives us the power of self-education after school-days are done. And school education, after all, cannot do much more than put all sorts of tools into our hands—rudimentary knowledge of languages, and mathematics and science; some dexterity of finger, power of application, and so forth. Knowledge comes with self-education in after-life when the mind has grown to its power and is freed from the control of school routine. But such self-education is impossible for those who have never learnt how to consult books—how to use a library.

Of science, I am unhappily myself too ignorant to speak, but that will not be the case with my audience, and I do know that there are plenty of books, both excellent and simple, to be obtained. Geography I have tested, and have found it a most living nursery study, and a most valuable one. A large and detailed atlas of England, a good map of one's own parish and a Bradshaw railway map, on which a child can mark the journeys he has himself taken, can all be turned to excellent use. I know a little lad of seven who has created an imaginary railway system, all most carefully and elaborately worked out in his own head, which covers the whole of Hampstead Heath. In practical life, the same little lad can be trusted to find his way for several miles round his home, by reason of his careful study of the map in the local directory. He will journey all over the world, whilst seated atlas in hand on the nursery floor, will tell you of every volcano and their eruptions, bring out strange scraps of knowledge—generally correct, too—on railways and steamer routes, adding to his store of serviceable knowledge and stretching his imagination at the same time.

For first history books, never mind whether they are the latest or the most accurate. Accuracy in history is not a thing we can teach to little children; but a firm belief in the past we can teach, and this belief is the only sure foundation of subsequent learning. Little Arthur's or the Little Folks' History of England, Miss Young's [sic] Book of Golden Deeds [Charlotte Yonge], old Goldsmith's Rome, and a selection from Froissart and Plutarch—these are the sort of histories children want to browse on; we ourselves may best tell them the grand old stories of Joseph and Moses and David. We may add to definite history books historical stories, such as the Lances of Lynwood and the Little Duke, such as Erckman-Chatrian's immortal tales, The Blockade and Mme. Therese; let Robin Hood and Chevy Chase, and the old historical ballads, lie within the children's reach, and so soon as they naturally turn to him, let Scott be accessible to all. Many a child before ten years old is ready for Ivanhoe and The Talisman, and The Lady of the Lake; read aloud to him if not read to himself, and happy the mind which early falls under the magic spell of the greatest of story-tellers. Do not fear lest the freshness should wear off the tales, for I do truly believe that only those who read Scott as children can for ever read and re-read him with unabated zest in older years. Neither fear lest the stories should be full of matters beyond their understanding. Does not Scott himself say, "Children derive impulses of a powerful kind in hearing things which they cannot entirely comprehend, and therefore to write down to children's understanding is a mistake."

I have linked Scott to my ideas on history for children, but he links us even more powerfully to the last class of literature in which I shall yet seek our broad principles—the literature of imagination. There is a little book (I doubt whether it can be got except in second-hand book shops) called Writers and Readers (by Dr. Birkbeck Hill), which is the overflow of a mind stored with sixty years of reading, and which is full of fruitful suggestion on the subject we are to-day discussing. The writer says, speaking of education in the widest sense—the widening and deepening of children's minds—"It is by imagination alone that we throw a bridge across time and space. If imagination is not made the foundation and the buttress, their labour is but lost that build. It is a quality inherent in all but the lowest natures, though far too often it is never developed. Often too, though fanned into life in the nursery by stories of giants and fairies, it is deadened in the parlour by dulness [sic], and finally destroyed in the schoolroom by school books and bad teaching. It may even be destroyed by great writers if they are either forced on us or are used as instruments for teaching." "But," he adds, "I never yet came across an intelligent child who did not delight in listening to fairy stories." And so I say give our children fairy stories—men's first imaginative dealings with nature and the Great Unknown. Let them know the old beliefs of past heroes—the bibles of by-gone nations, Greek legends of Olympus and Troy, and wanderings by sea and land, Norse stories of frost and battle and the coming of spring. Let them learn valour and courtesy with King Arthur and Charlemagne, and make Grimm and Perault [sic] and Brer Rabbit a part of nursery life. Only let us remember that it is better to live in a few fairy stories than to skim a new collection every year. We weaken the imaginative faculty if we too readily supply novelty. Half-a-dozen volumes of legends and fairy tales will probably contain enough for any child's imaginative development and leave him freshness and incentive to weave more for himself. To these half-dozen we add some modern fairy stories, only be sure they have in them the true fairy ring. No double meanings to amuse parents must be allowed, no vulgarity and slang and "up-to-datedness." George Macdonald gives us what we ask in The Princess and the Goblins. Kingsley gives it in one half of The Water Babies; the other half can always happily be skipped. Alice's Wonderland has stood triumphantly the test of two generations. Kipling has opened the magic jungle-world to us. I cannot myself fancy life without dear Betsinda and Giglio and Countess Gruffanuff [all from The Rose and the Ring, by Thackeray], and Andersen has his gentle friends in every nursery.

But we must not limit our children's imaginative reading to books written avowedly for children. If I seem to advocate a not-too-large selection of old legends and fairy tales, I would on the other hand let the great poets and imaginative writers, such as Defoe and Bunyan, stand always on our shelves where the children can reach them. You may protest that nursery children are too young for great poets—well, if they are too young they will not go to them. Only give the choice, and more, encourage the taste, by stories from the great writers, by reading aloud, being very careful however never to continue such reading unless the listener's mind be willingly attentive to the sense, or at least his ear to the music of the words. I remember once watching a little group of sisters—the eldest nine years old. They sat in the shade of an old yew listening while the eldest read the fairy scenes from Midsummer's Night Dream [sic], and I shall not forget the perfect rhythm with which "I know a bank" was given, nor the little circle of listening faces. These scenes were learnt and acted again and again by these little maids, and Oberon and Puck and Titania [A Midsummer Night's Dream] were as much a part of their fairy-world as the Sleeping Beauty or Jack the Giant Killer. I have, too, at home a three-year-old daughter—also a large illustrated Paradise Lost. This book with Dore's pictures is greatly beloved by the daughter. I do not teach her theology out of it, but she does learn of the eternal conflict between right and wrong, of the peace of Eden and of the tears which disobedience brings.  Something of the grandeur of Milton's conception slips into her small life, something which deepens and widens it. With every picture she asks me to read a few lines and I choose those which may convey some dim meaning of beauty or of grandeur to her. Besides our Milton reading, she is exceedingly fond of an illustrated volume of Songs from the Princess. These I read right through. Sometimes I hear her murmuring to herself as she plays:

"And the wild cataract leaps in glory."

Now the other day I came to the lines,

"So Lilla sang; we thought her half possessed,
She struck such warbling fury through the words."

The daughter stopped me. She felt at once the change of metre from the rhymed songs.

"That's like Paradise Lost words," she said. I have related the anecdote—not, I pray you believe me, because I am an egotistical mother, but because I want to emphasise the power language has over children, and the sense of language which even the youngest possess. This is one of our strongest reasons for letting them be early acquainted with the great masters of prose and poetry.

Our children have no grander inheritance than their English tongue. It must be our care to see it is not lost in a strange jargon of slang—our care to prevent their intelligence from being stunted by the poverty of their language—and their accuracy and clearness of thought dimmed by the inaccuracy and inadequacy of their words. Nothing will so widen and so strengthen their power of right speaking as the habit of right readingthe reading of great thoughts in great words.

In our search for Living Books our broad principles then are these:

Clearness in picture books.
Plenty, variety and freedom of choice in reading books.
Access to those great writers whose influence will be all the greater and all the more dear because linked with memories of the nursery.

Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, July 2008