Selection of Stories to Tell
There is one picture which I can always review, in my own collection of past scenes, though many a more highly coloured one has been irrevocably curtained by the folds of forgetfulness. It is the picture of a little girl, standing by an old-fashioned marble-topped dressing-table in a pink, sunny room. I can never see the little girl's face, because, somehow, I am always looking down at her short skirts or twisting my head round against the hand which patiently combs her stubborn curls. But I can see the brushes and combs on the marble table quite plainly, and the pinker streaks of sun on the pink walls. And I can hear. I can hear a low, wonder-working voice which goes smoothly on and on, as the fingers run up the little girl's locks or stroke the hair into place on her forehead. The voice says, "And little Goldilocks came to a little bit of a house. And she opened the door and went in. It was the house where three Bears lived; there was a great Bear, a little Bear, and a middle-sized Bear; and they had gone out for a walk. Goldilocks went in, and she saw"—the little girl is very still; she would not disturb that story by so much as a loud breath; but presently the comb comes to a tangle, pulls,—and the little girl begins to squirm. Instantly the voice becomes impressive, mysterious: "she went up to the table, and there were three plates of porridge. She tasted the first one"—the little girl swallows the breath she was going to whimper with, and waits—"and it was too hot! She tasted the next one, and that was too hot. Then she tasted the little bit of a plate, and that—was—just—right!"
How I remember the delightful sense of achievement which stole into the little girl's veins when the voice behind her said "just right." I think she always chuckled a little, and hugged her stomach. So the story progressed, and the little girl got through her toilet without crying, owing to the wonder-working voice and its marvellous adaptation of climaxes to emergencies. Nine times out of ten, it was the story of The Three Bears she demanded when, with the appearance of brush and comb, the voice asked, "Which story shall mother tell?"
It was a memory of the little girl in the pink room which made it easy for me to understand some other children's preferences when I recently had occasion to inquire about them. By asking many individual children which story of all they had heard they liked best, by taking votes on the best story of a series, after telling it, and by getting some obliging teachers to put similar questions to their pupils, I found three prime favourites common to a great many children of about the kindergarten age. They were The Three Bears, Three Little Pigs, and The Little Pig that wouldn't go over the Stile.
Some of the teachers were genuinely disturbed because the few stories they had introduced merely for amusement had taken so pre-eminent a place in the children's affection over those which had been given seriously. It was of no use, however, to suggest substitutes. The children knew definitely what they liked, and though they accepted the recapitulation of scientific and moral stories with polite approbation, they returned to the original answer at a repetition of the question.
Inasmuch as the slightest of the things we hope to do for children by means of stories is quite impossible unless the children enjoy the stories, it may be worth our while to consider seriously these three which they surely do enjoy, to see what common qualities are in them, explanatory of their popularity, by which we may test the probable success of other stories we wish to tell.
Here they are,—three prime favourites of proved standing.
The Story of The Three Little Pigs
Once upon a time there were three little pigs, who went from home to seek their fortune. The first that went off met a man with a bundle of straw, and said to him:—
"Good man, give me that straw to build me a house."
The man gave the straw, and the little pig built his house with it. Presently came along a wolf, and knocked at the door, and said:—
"Little pig, little pig, let me come in."
But the pig answered:—
"No, no, by the hair of my chiny-chin-chin."
So the wolf said:—
"Then I'll huff, and I'll puff, and I'll blow your house in."
So he huffed, and he puffed, and he blew his house in, and ate up the little pig.
The second little pig met a man with a bundle of furze, and said:—
"Good man, give me that furze to build me a house."
The man gave the furze, and the pig built his house. Then once more came the wolf, and said:
"Little pig, little pig, let me come in."
"No, no, by the hair of my chiny-chin-chin."
"Then I'll puff, and I'll huff, and I'll blow your house in."
So he huffed, and he puffed, and he puffed and he huffed, and at last he blew the house in, and ate up the little pig.
The third little pig met a man with a load of bricks, and said:—
"Good man, give me those bricks to build me a house with."
The man gave the bricks, and he built his house with them. Again the wolf came, and said:—
"Little pig, little pig, let me come in."
"No, no, by the hair of my chiny-chin-chin."
"Then I'll huff, and I'll puff, and I'll blow your house in."
So he huffed, and he puffed, and he huffed, and he puffed, and he puffed and huffed; but he could not get the house down. Finding that he could not, with all his huffing and puffing, blow the house down, he said:—
"Little pig, I know where there is a nice field of turnips."
"Where?" said the little pig.
"Oh, in Mr Smith's field, and if you will be ready to-morrow morning we will go together, and get some for dinner."
"Very well," said the little pig. "What time do you mean to go?"
"Oh, at six o'clock."
So the little pig got up at five, and got the turnips before the wolf came crying:—
"Little pig, are you ready?"
The little pig said: "Ready! I have been and come back again, and got a nice potful for dinner."
The wolf felt very angry at this, but thought that he would be a match for the little pig somehow or other, so he said:—
"Little pig, I know where there is a nice apple-tree."
"Where?" said the pig.
"Down at Merry-garden," replied the wolf, "and if you will not deceive me I will come for you, at five o'clock to-morrow, and get some apples."
The little pig got up next morning at four o'clock, and went off for the apples, hoping to get back before the wolf came; but it took long to climb the tree, and just as he was coming down from it, he saw the wolf coming. When the wolf came up he said:—
"Little pig, what! are you here before me? Are they nice apples?"
"Yes, very," said the little pig. "I will throw you down one."
And he threw it so far that, while the wolf was gone to pick it up, the little pig jumped down and ran home. The next day the wolf came again, and said to the little pig:—
"Little pig, there is a fair in town this afternoon; will you go?"
"Oh yes," said the pig, "I will go; what time?"
"At three," said the wolf. As usual the little pig went off before the time, and got to the fair, and bought a butter-churn, which he was rolling home when he saw the wolf coming. So he got into the churn to hide, and in so doing turned it round, and it rolled down the hill with the pig in it, which frightened the wolf so much that he ran home without going to the fair. He went to the little pig's house, and told him how frightened he had been by a great round thing which came past him down the hill. Then the little pig said:—
"Ha! ha! I frightened you, then!"
Then the wolf was very angry indeed, and tried to get down the chimney in order to eat up the little pig. When the little pig saw what he was about, he put a pot full of water on the blazing fire, and, just as the wolf was coming down, he took off the cover, and in fell the wolf. Quickly the little pig clapped on the cover, and when the wolf was boiled ate him for supper.
The Story of The Three Bears
Once upon a time there were Three Bears, who lived together in a house of their own, in a wood. One of them was a Little Small Wee Bear, and one was a Middle-sized Bear, and the other was a Great Huge Bear. They had each a pot for their porridge,—a little pot for the Little Small Wee Bear, and a middle-sized pot for the Middle-sized Bear, and a great pot for the Great Huge Bear. And they had each a chair to sit in,—a little chair for the Little Small Wee Bear, and a middle-sized chair for the Middle-sized Bear, and a great chair for the Great Huge Bear. And they had each a bed to sleep in,—a little bed for the Little Small Wee Bear, and a middle-sized bed for the Middle-sized Bear, and a great bed for the Great Huge Bear.
One day, after they had made the porridge for their breakfast, and poured it into their porridge-pots, they walked out into the wood while the porridge was cooling, that they might not burn their mouths, by beginning too soon to eat it. And while they were walking, a little girl named Goldilocks came to the house. She had never seen the little house before, and it was such a strange little house that she forgot all the things her mother had told her about being polite: first she looked in at the window, and then she peeped in at the keyhole; and seeing nobody in the house, she lifted the latch. The door was not fastened, because the Bears were good Bears, who did nobody any harm, and never suspected that anybody would harm them. So Goldilocks opened the door, and went in; and well pleased she was when she saw the porridge on the table. If Goldilocks had remembered what her mother had told her, she would have waited till the Bears came home, and then, perhaps, they would have asked her to breakfast; for they were good Bears—a little rough, as the manner of Bears is, but for all that very good-natured and hospitable. But Goldilocks forgot, and set about helping herself.
So first she tasted the porridge of the Great Huge Bear, and that was too hot. And then she tasted the porridge of the Middle-sized Bear, and that was too cold. And then she went to the porridge of the Little Small Wee Bear, and tasted that: and that was neither too hot nor too cold, but just right; and she liked it so well, that she ate it all up.
Then Goldilocks sat down in the chair of the Great Huge Bear, and that was too hard for her. And then she sat down in the chair of the Middle-sized Bear, and that was too soft for her. And then she sat down in the chair of the Little Small Wee Bear, and that was neither too hard nor too soft, but just right. So she seated herself in it, and there she sat till the bottom of the chair came out, and down she came, plump upon the ground.
Then Goldilocks went upstairs into the bed-chamber in which the Three Bears slept. And first she lay down upon the bed of the Great Huge Bear; but that was too high at the head for her. And next she lay down upon the bed of the Middle-sized Bear, and that was too high at the foot for her. And then she lay down upon the bed of the Little Small Wee Bear; and that was neither too high at the head nor at the foot, but just right. So she covered herself up comfortably, and lay there till she fell fast asleep.
By this time the Three Bears thought their porridge would be cool enough; so they came home to breakfast. Now Goldilocks had left the spoon of the Great Huge Bear standing in his porridge.
"SOMEBODY HAS BEEN AT MY PORRIDGE!" said the Great Huge Bear, in his great, rough, gruff voice. And when the Middle-sized Bear looked at his, he saw that the spoon was standing in it too.
"SOMEBODY HAS BEEN AT MY PORRIDGE!" said the Middle-sized Bear, in his middle-sized voice.
Then the Little Small Wee Bear looked at his, and there was the spoon in the porridge-pot, but the porridge was all gone.
"SOMEBODY HAS BEEN AT MY PORRIDGE, AND HAS EATEN IT ALL UP!" said the Little Small Wee Bear, in his little, small, wee voice.
Upon this, the Three Bears, seeing that someone had entered their house, and eaten up the Little Small Wee Bear's breakfast, began to look about them. Now Goldilocks had not put the hard cushion straight when she rose from the chair of the Great Huge Bear.
"SOMEBODY HAS BEEN SITTING IN MY CHAIR!" said the Great Huge Bear, in his great, rough, gruff voice.
And Goldilocks had crushed down the soft cushion of the Middle-sized Bear.
"SOMEBODY HAS BEEN SITTING IN MY CHAIR!" said the Middle-sized Bear, in his middle-sized voice.
And you know what Goldilocks had done to the third chair.
"SOMEBODY HAS BEEN SITTING IN MY CHAIR AND HAS SAT THE BOTTOM OUT OF IT!" said the Little Small Wee Bear, in his little, small, wee voice.
Then the Three Bears thought it necessary that they should make further search; so they went upstairs into their bed-chamber. Now Goldilocks had pulled the pillow of the Great Huge Bear out of its place.
"SOMEBODY HAS BEEN LYING IN MY BED!" said the Great Huge Bear, in his great, rough, gruff voice.
And Goldilocks had pulled the bolster of the Middle-sized Bear out of its place.
"SOMEBODY HAS BEEN LYING IN MY BED!" said the Middle-sized Bear, in his middle-sized voice.
And when the Little Small Wee Bear came to look at his bed, there was the bolster in its place; and the pillow in its place upon the bolster; and upon the pillow was the shining, yellow hair of little Goldilocks!
"SOMEBODY HAS BEEN LYING IN MY BED,—AND HERE SHE IS!" said the Little Small Wee Bear, in his little, small, wee voice.
Goldilocks had heard in her sleep the great, rough, gruff voice of the Great Huge Bear; but she was so fast asleep that it was no more to her than the roaring of wind or the rumbling of thunder. And she had heard the middle-sized voice of the Middle-sized Bear, but it was only as if she had heard someone speaking in a dream. But when she heard the little, small, wee voice of the Little Small Wee Bear, it was so sharp, and so shrill, that it awakened her at once. Up she started, and when she saw the Three Bears on one side of the bed, she tumbled herself out at the other, and ran to the window. Now the window was open, because the Bears, like good, tidy Bears as they were, always opened their bed-chamber window when they got up in the morning.
Out little Goldilocks jumped, and ran away home to her mother, as fast as ever she could.
The Old Woman and Her Pig
It happened one day that as an old woman was sweeping her house she found a little crooked sixpence. "What," said she, "shall I do with this little sixpence? I will go to market, and buy a little pig."
On the way home she came to a stile; but the piggy wouldn't go over the stile.
So she left the piggy and went on a little further, till she met a dog. She said to him, "Dog, dog, bite pig; piggy won't go over the stile; and I sha'n't get home to-night." But the dog wouldn't bite piggy.
A little further on she met a stick. So she said: "Stick! stick! beat dog! dog won't bite pig; piggy won't go over the stile; and I sha'n't get home to-night." But the stick wouldn't beat the dog.
A little further on she met a fire. So she said: "Fire! fire! burn stick! stick won't beat dog; dog won't bite pig; piggy won't get over the stile; and I sha'n't get home to-night." But the fire wouldn't burn the stick.
A little further on she met some water. So she said: "Water! water! quench fire; fire won't burn stick; stick won't beat dog; dog won't bite pig; piggy won't get over the stile; and I sha'n't get home to-night." But the water wouldn't quench the fire.
A little further on she met an ox. So she said: "Ox! ox! drink water; water won't quench fire; fire won't burn stick; stick won't beat dog; dog won't bite pig; piggy won't get over the stile; and I sha'n't get home to-night." But the ox wouldn't drink the water.
A little further on she met a butcher. So she said: "Butcher! butcher! kill ox; ox won't drink water; water won't quench fire; fire won't burn stick; stick won't beat dog; dog won't bite pig; piggy won't get over the stile; and I sha'n't get home to-night." But the butcher wouldn't kill the ox.
A little further on she met a rope. So she said: "Rope! rope! hang butcher; butcher won't kill ox; ox won't drink water; water won't quench fire; fire won't burn stick; stick won't beat dog; dog won't bite pig; piggy won't get over the stile; and I sha'n't get home to-night." But the rope wouldn't hang the butcher.
A little further on she met a rat. So she said: "Rat! rat! gnaw rope; rope won't hang butcher; butcher won't kill ox; ox won't drink water; water won't quench fire; fire won't burn stick; stick won't beat dog; dog won't bite pig; piggy won't get over the stile; and I sha'n't get home to-night." But the rat wouldn't gnaw the rope.
A little further on she met a cat. So she said: "Cat! cat! kill rat; rat won't gnaw rope; rope won't hang butcher; butcher won't kill ox; ox won't drink water; water won't quench fire; fire won't burn stick; stick won't beat dog; dog won't bite pig; piggy won't get over the stile; and I sha'n't get home to-night." But the cat said to her, "If you will go to yonder cow, and fetch me a saucer of milk, I will kill the rat." So away went the old woman to the cow.
But the cow refused to give the milk unless the old woman first gave her a handful of hay. So away went the old woman to the haystack; and she brought the hay to the cow.
When the cow had eaten the hay, she gave the old woman the milk; and away she went with it in a saucer to the cat.
As soon as it had lapped up the milk, the cat began to kill the rat; the rat began to gnaw the rope; the rope began to hang the butcher; the butcher began to kill the ox; the ox began to drink the water; the water began to quench the fire; the fire began to burn the stick; the stick began to beat the dog; the dog began to bite the pig; the little pig in a fright jumped over the stile; and so the old woman did get home that night.
The briefest examination of these three stories reveals the fact that one attribute is beyond dispute in each. Something happens, all the time. Every step in each story is an event. There is no time spent in explanation, description, or telling how people felt; the stories tell what people did, and what they said. And the events are the links of a sequence of the closest kind; in point of time and of cause they follow as immediately as it is possible for events to follow. There are no gaps, and no complications of plot requiring a return on the road.
A second common characteristic appears on briefest examination. As you run over the little stories you will see that each event presents a distinct picture to the imagination, and that these pictures are made out of very simple elements. The elements are either familiar to the child or analogous to familiar ones. Each object and happening is very like everyday, yet touched with a subtle difference, rich in mystery. For example, the details of the pictures in the Goldilocks story are parts of everyday life,—house, chairs, beds, and so on; but they are the house, chairs, and beds of three bears; that is the touch of marvel which transforms the scene. The old woman who owned the obstinate pig is the centre of a circle in which stand only familiar images,—stick, fire, water, cow, and the rest; but the wonder enters with the fact that these usually inanimate or dumb objects of nature enter so humanly into the contest of wills. So it is, also, with the doings of the three little pigs. Every image is explicable to the youngest hearer, while none suggests actual familiarity, because the actors are not children, but pigs. Simplicity, with mystery, is the keynote of all the pictures, and these are clear and distinct.
Still a third characteristic common to the stories quoted is a certain amount of repetition. It is more definite, and of what has been called the "cumulative" kind, in the story of the old woman; but in all it is a distinctive feature.
Here we have, then, three marked characteristics common to three stories almost invariably loved by children,—action, in close sequence; familiar images, tinged with mystery; some degree of repetition.
It is not hard to see why these qualities appeal to a child. The first is the prime characteristic of all good stories,—"stories as is stories"; the child's demand for it but bears witness to the fact that his instinctive taste is often better than the taste he later develops under artificial culture. The second is a matter of common-sense. How could the imagination create new worlds, save out of the material of the old? To offer strange images is to confuse the mind and dull the interest; to offer familiar ones "with a difference" is to pique the interest and engage the mind.
The charm of repetition, to children, is a more complex matter; there are undoubtedly a good many elements entering into it, hard to trace in analysis. But one or two of the more obvious may be seized and brought to view. The first is the subtle flattery of an unexpected sense of mastery. When the child-mind, following with toilful alertness a new train of thought, comes suddenly on a familiar epithet or expression, I fancy it is with much the same sense of satisfaction that we older people feel when in the midst of a long programme of new music the orchestra strikes into something we have heard before,—Handel, maybe, or one of the more familiar Beethoven sonatas. "I know that! I have heard that before!" we think, triumphant, and settle down to enjoyment without effort. So it is, probably, with the "middle-sized" articles of the bears' house and the "and I sha'n't get home to-night" of the old woman. Each recurrence deepens the note of familiarity, tickles the primitive sense of humour, and eases the strain of attention.
When the repetition is cumulative, like the extreme instance of The House that Jack Built, I have a notion that the joy of the child is the pleasure of intellectual gymnastics, not too hard for fun, but not too easy for excitement. There is a deal of fun to be got out of purely intellectual processes, and childhood is not too soon for the rudiments of such fun to show. The delight the healthy adult mind takes in working out a neat problem in geometry, the pleasure a musician finds in following the involutions of a fugue, are of the same type of satisfaction as the liking of children for cumulative stories. Complexity and mass, arrived at by stages perfectly intelligible in themselves, mounting steadily from a starting-point of simplicity; then the same complexity and mass resolving itself as it were miraculously back into simplicity, this is an intellectual joy. It does not differ materially, whether found in the study of counterpoint, at thirty, or in the story of the old woman and her pig, at five. It is perfectly natural and wholesome, and it may perhaps be a more powerful developing force for the budding intellect than we are aware.
For these reasons let me urge you, when you are looking for stories to tell little children, to apply this threefold test as a kind of touchstone to their quality of fitness: Are they full of action, in close natural sequence? Are their images simple without being humdrum? Are they repetitive? The last quality is not an absolute requisite; but it is at least very often an attribute of a good child-story.
Having this touchstone in mind for general selection, we can now pass to the matter of specific choices for different ages of children. No one can speak with absolute conviction in this matter, so greatly do the taste and capacity of children of the same age vary. Any approach to an exact classification of juvenile books according to their suitability for different ages will be found impossible. The same book in the hands of a skilful narrator may be made to afford delight to children both of five and ten. The following are merely the inferences drawn from my own experience. They must be modified by each teacher according to the conditions of her small audience. In general, I believe it to be wise to plan the choice of stories much as indicated in the table given on page 64.
At a later stage, varying with the standard of capacity of different classes, we find the temper of mind which asks continually, "Is that true?" To meet this demand, one draws on historical and scientific anecdote, and on reminiscence. But the demand is never so exclusive that fictitious narrative need be cast aside. All that is necessary is to state frankly that the story you are telling is "just a story," or—if it be the case—that it is "part true and part story."
At all stages I would urge the telling of Bible stories, as far as is allowed by the special circumstances of the school. These are stories from a source unsurpassed in our literature for purity of style and loftiness of subject. More especially I urge the telling of the Christ-story, in such parts as seem likely to be within the grasp of the several classes. In all Bible stories it is well to keep as near as possible to the original unimprovable text. Some amplification can be made, but no excessive modernising or simplifying is excusable in face of the austere grace and majestic simplicity of the original. Such adaptation as helps to cut the long narrative into separate units, making each an intelligible story, I have ventured to illustrate according to my own personal taste, in two stories given in Chapter VI. The object of the usual modernising or enlarging of the text may be far better attained for the child listener by infusing into the text as it stands a strong realising sense of its meaning and vitality, letting it give its own message through a fit medium of expression.
The stories given in pages 133 to 246 are grouped as illustrations of the types suitable for different stages. They are, however, very often interchangeable; and many stories can be told successfully to all classes. A vitally good story is little limited in its appeal. It is, nevertheless, a help to have certain plain results of experience as a basis for choice; that which is given is intended only for such a basis, not in the least as a final list.
Certain Types of Story Classified
For Kindergarten and Class I.
For Classes II. and III.
For Classes IV. and V.