The Basis of Selection of Children's Stories
In preceding chapters, as we have disclosed the functions of the story as a developer of young lives, we have seen why stories should be told to children. Now we must examine the kinds of stories that may wisely be brought before them, and approximately when.
Society is much concerned over questions of fresh air, food, and all phases of bodily well-being. These problems are fundamental and deserve the consideration they receive, but it seems time that more attention be given to the mental food of children. The physician who would permit a child under his care to be underfed or given sweetmeats to the exclusion of wholesome diet would be justly condemned, but the father who holds his newspaper with one hand and with the other gives his child a nickel for the moving-picture show, reads on with untroubled conscience. He feels no concern that the child goes out from home to have his mind filled with cheap melodrama, with love stories which force his attention to aspects of life beyond his years, with low "horse-play," and often with attempts at humor based upon life's supreme tragedies. "The people muth be amuthed," declared the inimitable Sleary, and no one would dispute it, but it is a grave mistake to permit a child to become dependent upon being amused. Nervous, restless adults who cannot endure a moment alone are the product of these early years of over-excitement and of mental starvation. They have no richness of life within themselves, no reserve of thought-power, no dream-stuff out of which to build a world. They have not received their heritage of the spiritual thought of the race which is embodied in great literature, simple though its form may be.
The throb of life is so intense today that there is more need than ever for the balance of poise and calm which comes from the friendship with books. The parent who is wise enough to give his children regularly a few hours of association with himself, betimes reënforcing his own personality with the lasting thoughts expressed in story, poem or drama, is not only giving them wholesome amusement, but is giving meaning to home, forming life-standards, building power, both for them and for himself.
There are too few parents, as well as too few teachers, who are alive to their responsibilities in these questions of invigorating food for growing minds. Magazines which exploit the mental debauchery of over-stimulated neurotics are permitted to make their inroads upon the emotions of the adolescent boy and girl. Other magazines, with their milk-and-water sentimentalism, form the only reading in many homes. The result is flabby, emasculated brains which are unable to think clearly, and which go down before real situations. It is a truism that "Mediocrity breeds mediocrity—evil produces evil." For this reason, there is an obligation upon the home and the school to bring to the children the best in literature.
The basis of selection of children's literature is twofold:
1. The Child Himself as a Basis
This, of course, means his general and his personal characteristics, his needs, his stage of development, and his personal background of experience. Second, the essentials of good literature will come in for consideration.
While each child differs as an individual from every other child, there are also certain qualities which he has in common with all children. The most evident of these universal characteristics is activity. All higher animal life, as well as all mental life, expresses and develops itself through action. The normal, healthy child is doing something every waking moment. He is investigative and curious. He is imaginative, living much in a world of make-believe. He has a sense of the dramatic. He is interested in all that has life and feels a sense of kinship with, and an understanding of, every living thing. He is sympathetic. His emotions are easily stirred and frankly expressed. He has a feeling for rhythm and an instinctive love of beauty. All these phases of his nature should find expression in his literature, therefore a consideration of all the foregoing universal characteristics, supplemented with individual experience, should guide in the selection of his stories—that is, the story should be such as will feed, yet not over-feed, these traits. It should be remembered, too, that these characteristics of child-nature persist through the adolescent period with varying emphasis according to the stage of development. In many of its aspects childhood remains long after it superficially seems to have departed. Bear in mind that not age but stage of progress must govern in choosing the story for the child.
The very young child lives in the immediate present. He is dominated by a single imperative motive. He sees things in the concrete. He cannot reason farther than from cause to immediate effect nor follow subtle and involved relationships; therefore the language of his stories should be simple, the plot uninvolved. He is fascinated with the sound of words, and for this reason it is particularly important that his literature be presented orally. This love of sound, together with his sense of rhythm, makes the Mother Goose Rhymes, and stories in which there is repetition, the logical beginning of his literature. "I'll huff and I'll puff and I'll blow your house in!" "Run, run, as fast as you can, you can't catch me, I'm the Ginger Bread Man!" "Good day, Cocky Locky," and like phrases, fill him with glee.
As the child's experience broadens and his mental power increases—say, not too definitely, at the normal age of four or four-and-a-half—the content of his stories should advance in proportion to his development. The rhymes lead into poetry, the cumulative and repetition stories give place to the animal stories. In these his feeling of kinship with all life finds happy expression. His own experience is repeated in fanciful form through the animals endowed with human faculties. For instance, The Three Bears live in a house, use tables, chairs and beds just as he does. They are father, mother and baby—his own familiar relationships. They talk together in language he understands, and another child shares the adventure. Thus The Billy Goats Gruff, Puss in Boots, The White Cat, The Three Little Pigs, The Cock and The Hen, and Bre'r Rabbit become his favorite companions.
Again, as his concepts increase and widen still more, his orderly imaginative power grows greater. His sense of the dramatic becomes more keen. At the age of about six—and of course in some instances earlier, for it must be reiterated that it is quite impossible to parcel out the stages of child-development by years—fairy tales come to have first place in his affections. In them his love of beauty, his sense of the mysterious and the supernatural, find satisfaction. His interest in the power of unseen forces is deepened. The impressions of vital truths are stamped upon him, for the great fairy tales always embody truths which primitive man discovered about himself, about nature, about God. The poetic fancy, the wonder, the elemental passions of the race, are woven into the old fairy and wonder tales. They nourished the strong adventurous spirit of the world. They are the record of the emotions, the social conscience, the purpose of the race. It is a true instinct which leads the child to choose them as his "natural soul food."
Thus from the age of six, throughout the early adolescent period, or up to ten and even twelve, the child "with insistent persuasion leads us back to the morning-time of literature." Along with the fairy tales, the love of the hero develops. The fairy prince, the dauntless youngest son, lead naturally to the semi-mythic hero. The great race-heroes of the epics, Robin Hood, King Arthur and his Knights, thrill the ten-year-old and set him dreaming of heroic deeds.
But at this age, romance should be supplemented with fact-stories. The biographical hero, history stories, nature stories, begin to form a wonder world as fascinating as the fairy world has been. This blending of chivalry, romance and fact should be continued through the middle years of the adolescent period. If the foundation of right choice is carefully developed through the years from babyhood to sixteen, the result will be felt not only in the matter of taste for good reading, but the boy or girl will have a more wholesome, more vigorous attitude toward life. The sentimentality, the weakness, the absolute falsity which pervade the books read by the average student leaving high school, if he reads at all, may account in great measure for some of the most serious problems of American life today; and, in a prior way, is accounted for largely by misdirected, or absence of, early story-training. The bearing of early training on taste for stories in adolescence is most vital. "Many a moral victory, like many a battle field, is won or lost before the actual struggle has begun. The battle is decided in the preliminary skirmish by contending mental images. If the child is stocked up with virtuous and inspiring mental images, through stories, his imagination is already captured by goodness."
2. Literary Quality as a Basis
The presentation of vigorous, wholesome images is a characteristic of the best literature. "Literature," says Dr. McVannell, "is the expression, in words of truth and beauty, of man's consciousness of the significant and enduring values of experience—personal, national, universal." Courage, power to endure, ability to overcome limitations, a spirit of fair play, faithfulness, unselfishness, tenderness, love and service are some of the achievements of man's spirit in his process of development. The best literature sounds the changes on these dominant notes in the symphony of character, and thus sets up ideals of both character and conduct.
The expression of phases of these ideals constitutes the varieties of true literature—that is, literature expresses in artistic form the highest which the human spirit knows. Therefore children's stories must be selected with such standards well in mind. Stories which are full of sentimentality, which "talk-down" to him, pretend, moralize, or present trifling rubbish in the effort to descend to his plane of understanding, should be vigorously rejected.
The parent, the teacher, or the story-teller who is to guide the choice of the child's mental food should be sure that his own standards are high. He should first enrich his own personality through an understanding of the essential values of literature and of life. The person whose life is colorless, whose emotions are pallid, whose experience is narrow, whose appreciation of beauty is undeveloped, whose knowledge of literature is limited, should face squarely the fact that he is not the one to guide the development of a child. He should kindle the flame in his own life before he attempts to pass on the torch. The child responds instantly to the life-quality, both in the individual and in the story. It is this life-quality which "feeds his soul."
Because this vital force is expressed in natural, elemental simplicity in the old tales which are really literature—being great in both content and form—they hold their power over each succeeding generation. However, some adaptation of these stories would seem wise in order to lessen the effect of the primitive cruelty which is found in many of them. Yet it should be largely a question of emphasis, rather than mere elimination, for the child should not be robbed of the sweep and strength of these great stories. It must be remembered that the child himself does not feel or judge from the point of view of the adult. His angle of vision is far closer to that of primitive man than to that of the cultured man or woman of today. Some educators hold that it is a true impulse which gives nursery lore the slaying of ogres and giants, the punishment of wicked stepmothers. However that may be, it is safe to say that no story should be presented which places a premium upon cruelty, or in which trickery and cunning are rewarded. It is essential that the higher forces of good predominate and be presented in such a way as to awaken the child's admiration, love, and desire to imitate.
But how shall this be done? Those words and deeds, those persons and things, which stir his emotions are more important than the facts which his intellect acquires. One purpose of the story is to enrich the child's emotional life and to furnish an outlet for his feelings. Great care and understanding are needed in this connection. His emotions are simple, strong and quickly expended. His anger rarely persists long enough to desire revenge, his grief is never nursed to morbidity, at least in the normal child; even his love does not survive long absences. No other emotional characteristics will have meaning to him in his literature until well on in his adolescent period. "Action, emotion and thought are the three great divisions of life," and they develop in the order mentioned. The very young child thinks little, he acts. He does not analyze, he feels. Hence his stories must contain action and emotion rather than reasoning. They must have vivid picture-quality without wordy passages of description. They must be concise and dramatic. In language and structure they need to adhere to the best literary form. They should appeal to the imagination, inspire love of beauty, and present right ideals. They must mirror his own experience and embody universal truth.
One final word must here be said—and it will be reiterated later. It has to do with
The Mood of the Story-Teller
Certainly there can be few times when the narrator is unable to choose the story she is to tell, hence no one can object to the demand that the story-teller should be in sympathy with the story. Good work can no more be done by one on whom the story has not laid its hand in genuine appeal than by an actor who has never been aroused by his part. In either case the audience will be quick to notice the coldness of the speaker, the children first of all. It is better to discard the most highly recommended tale if it does not move you to interest, and tell a story that arouses your sympathy. Sympathy, as we all know, means "feeling with," and feeling is the absolute basis of all good fiction. There never was an effective story that did not play upon one or more of the emotions—without this quality the narrative would be dead.
Yet there is the other side also to consider. An untrained story-teller who is called upon to choose a story for a child will naturally turn to one that suits her own taste. "Put yourself in his place"—was ever wiser, or more difficult, injunction laid upon man! Yet it must be done, and the effect upon the child well weighed before a story is chosen for telling. Remember how easy it is to hurt young ideals by giving babes strong meat. Not for children's stories must "true to life" be the sole standard, but true to truth. None is too young to begin the first lessons in that fine old philosophy—optimism.
Suggestions for Study and Discussion
Grist From Other Mills