“Books for Children” (from the American Annals of Education, 1828; pp. 99-103)
The question is continually asked by parents of this reading generation,—What books are proper for children? And in all the multitudes that daily issue from the press, it is hard to make a selection of even a few which are entirely without objections.
Some of these objections it is our purpose to state, not without the hope that they will me the eye and excite the attention of those who devote themselves to this species of writing, but chiefly to aid parents in the responsible office of selecting books for their children. It is not merely the gift of imagination which qualifies a writer to compose for children: it is exceedingly desirable that he take into consideration all the faculties of children, and address them as possessed of all. It is a great evil to make the imagination paramount, or the sensibility to the pathetic paramount; and equally undesirable to leave these entirely out of consideration. Providence addresses the whole mind: there is beauty in nature to cultivate the taste; there are touching circumstances in life to awaken the heart in tenderness; and, above all, there are innumerable objects to cultivate the desire of knowledge, with their laws of formation and their secret relations half developed, pleasing the mind and stimulating to an exertion of the reasoning powers.
In what we do for the cultivation of the young, we should beware of departing from those principles which accurate observation discovers to us in Providence. Were the child able to take into his observations a wide extend of Providential dealing there would be nothing for us to do. That he is not capable
of this, imposes on us an obligation to create a miniature discipline about him; but ‘The child is the father of the man,’ and we are bound to study the subject deeply; and there is probably no stimulus so great as this to the investigation of the laws of Providence. Observation shows us that man is not sufficiently stimulated by the desire of his own happiness. While he enjoys, he feels no necessity of such investigation; when he suffers, the energy of his investigating and reasoning powers is enfeebled, and he is reckless and indifferent. But the social,—especially the parental,—sentiment impels us to study the designs of Providence, and give to our children all the benefits arising from its discipline. For if they enjoy, we do not feel, as in our own case, that enjoyment will last for ever, and we would obtain for them the principle of progressive happiness; and if they suffer, we cannot rest indifferent and reckless, as in our own case, but must needs seek the principle of consolation. These principles are to be found only in an attentive consideration of all which is comprehended in the word Providence; and it is by the test of this observation that we are to judge of children’s books. They are exceedingly important in their influence; children’s minds are tender and impressible; and a book has often been known to make an impression on the mind of a child so powerful that the milder lessons of nature in all succeeding time have been unable to restore the equilibrium.
We do not hesitate to press this matter for there is no danger of stating the subject too strongly. It is a subject of increasing importance. Modern improvements in education have made books come nearer to children’s minds than ever before. They are taught the meaning of words more accurately; their faculties are stimulated by the interrogatory mode of imparting knowledge in oral instruction; and books are not given them as mere amusement, but, made companions of serious hours, and referred to as sources of instruction, are often made more intelligible and impressive by the practised voice of the mother, and, in fact, almost form the moral atmosphere in which the child moves.
One of the greatest dangers of books written for children by persons of talent, is that of exciting the sensibility too powerfully. Books intended to inculcate the duties of obedience to parents, kindness to companions, respect for the rights of equals, industry, modesty, teachableness, &c., are apt to abound in strong cases, and to deal in severe punishments. Now the neglect and violation of these duties by children proceeds from a thoughtlessness,
which is indeed to be checked because it leads to heartless, selfish frivolity, but is not to be represented as involving such exciting events as are often made to follow. Mere reasoning, without any appeal to the feelings, will often be found quite adequate to produce a check on this thoughtlessness. There is a method of bringing reasoning upon these daily duties and private virtues before the mind in a way attractive to the attention, and even of making appeals to the sensibility without endangering the mind by powerful associations: it is the method pursued by Mrs. Trimmer, in her story of ‘the Robins,’ where a fabulous veil is thrown over the actors and sufferers, while the incidents and moral obligations and feelings are strictly human. No one who has witnessed the effect of this little book upon young children, will doubt that, in spite of all the striking improbabilities of a story of laughing, crying, and talking robins, children’s sensibility is sufficiently excited. No parent would desire that a deeper sense of the reality of the circumstances, should lay hold of his child’s mind.
A bee, an ant, or a beaver, endowed with free will, (as a child’s imagination will easily be led to believe), may serve as mediums of moral instruction to children,—being members of a community; and a child’s comprehension being able to take in the relations of the individuals to the whole, and its natural conscience instinctively attaching to these relations all the moral obligations.
Another difficulty is avoided by this species of heroes and heroines; and that is a reference to religious obligation in stories. There is a great deal of danger of injuring a child by forcing upon the mind a consideration of its highest relations in the small incidents of daily life, and on the other hand an equal danger of accustoming a child to speculate on the motives of human action without noticing these higher relations. The very first stages of religious instruction are too important and of too delicate a nature to be entrusted to a book, especially a book of amusement. Written words are cold expressions of those delicate and tender sentiments which we wish should mingle with the first development of the mind, and give a devotional cast to the whole being. There are indeed a thousand objections to putting religious instruction into those little books which are given to very young children. Words by rote about God, are the most effectual hindrances to real conceptions of Him; and images, which written words and figurative expressions are too apt to convey, remove Him to a distance, almost
necessaily—besides alarming the imagination. When the rationale of the finite virtues is explained, then let the imagination be conversing with finite beings,—and the immortals not be brought into serious situations, until the mind of the little reader can go without danger on the long track of its immortal relations.
In proceeding to this second stage of children’s books, an objection frequently made, occurs to us. It is this: that the stories anticipate the experience of children, in the nature of their incidents. They present situations in which children do not find themselves; they often intimate moral obligations which cannot be felt till mature age; and if all this is connected with any thing touching to the sensibility, the mind is excited and yet baffled by indistinct ideas, therefore craves it knows not what; and in its search after excitement, is too apt to fall upon dangerous matter. We would exonerate from this blame such books as ‘Always Happy’—‘A Visit to the Sea Side,’ and many of the stories of the almost inimitable Berquin. But we apprehend that great improvement would result from there being no story at all in these little books; or but one incident, not a connected tissue of incidents. A conversation upon a natural object familiar to children in general, pointing out its form and obvious powers; touching upon its beauty, the connexion of this beauty with our happiness, and the goodness of the Creator in producing this connexion; and leading the mind to an investigation of hidden powers and relations, is a very interesting kind of reading to children: and a little book of this kind would store the memory and imagination with what is useful and beautiful, touch the heart to its finest issues, and exercise the reasoning powers quite as much as would be consistent with the object of a book not intended for absolute study.
When we speak of conversation we do not mean conversations in the style of the works of Mrs. Wakefield, (excellent in their own way,) but conversations as informal if not as sportive as those in the ‘Visit to the Sea Side.’
Books of this kind would also be much more useful if accompanied by pictures. Could the natural object which is the subject of conversation be delineated accurately, it would be a great aid to the child. But it is very desirable that pictures should be accurate and beautiful. The art of lithography might be brought to conduce to the improvement of children, in this way. The beauty of this kind of delineation and the ease of multiplying copies, render it quite in the power of publishers to enrich little books without greatly adding to their expense.
Another objection made to children’s books strikes us as being well founded. This is the authors’ not leaving children to make their own moral judgments, in regard to actors and actions. Children are dwarfed in their moral nature, as in their intellectual powers, by not having any thing to do—but by being told of what they might themselves attain. This head of the subject deserves a longer notice than we can now give.
There is another difficulty in regard to children’s books, which we must advert to, though indeed the authors are not responsible for it. It is this. Sufficient discrimination is not used by the guardians of children in selecting the books as adapted to their particular ages. This is a matter of great importance, and there is such a diversity in the times of the development of children’s minds, that it is impossible for the author to point out the age. The parent must do it himself. There is a little book lately published, ‘My Early Days,’ exquisitely touching, and conveying important truth in a most powerful delineation of moral retribution in this world. But part of this book is improper for young children. It is quite impossible for a child to understand it; while it is unavoidable that it would produce a strong effect upon the imagination and sensibility, by its principal incident. We have heard of many instances in which this book has been given to children; and a very general impression is abroad that it was intended for them. We would recommend it to the young collegian for instruction, and even to maturer age as a most interesting work—but would repeat that it is not, throughout, the book for children.