Gateway to the Classics: Children's Stories and How to Tell Them by J. Berg Esenwein & Marietta Stockard
Children's Stories and How to Tell Them by  J. Berg Esenwein & Marietta Stockard

The Place of the Story in the Life of the Child

Stories are the natural soul-food of children, their native air and vital breath; but our children are too often either story-starved or charged with ill-chosen or ill-adapted twaddle tales.

G. Stanley Hall, Sunday-school and Bible Teaching.    

Story-telling will make the child father to a more kind-hearted, a more enthusiastic, a more idealistic man than the one taught to scorn story-telling. The story-telling nations of the world are the cheerful, social, enthusiastic, idealistic nations, and this is because story-telling to the child brings out all the better qualities—sympathy, warm-heartedness, sociability.

Seumas McManus, Lecture.    

Economic conditions, changing standards of living, and other complexities of modern life have increased the difficulty of mere existence and put well-marked success, in any line, out of reach of the man who is not highly specialized in his training. The preparation which brought success a quarter of a century ago would guarantee only mediocrity today.

Capability and Culture

This higher standard of efficiency has inevitably had its effect on education. Parents have demanded that the schools shall attack and solve the problem of equipping the student for efficient living. In response, vocational schools have spread like plants in a force-bed. Domestic science departments, agricultural classes—in fact, many phases of physical work, have come to be represented in the college and university curriculums.

These short cuts to making a living have been emphasized because efficiency has been interpreted as the ability to satisfy the demand for physical luxuries. Silk stockings, tailor-made clothes and diamond rings were once badges of social distinction, but in a democracy every man must see to it that he and his have an open road to the "good things of life." Success or failure has been measured by the money standard, which in turn has come to mean the luxury standard, and as a consequence there is a tendency to limit the essentials of education to the purely utilitarian subjects.

But this misplacement of emphasis is only a temporary phase in the transition to the great middle ground which in the development of every question seems to be the truly progressive roadway. If schools deserve criticism for turning out half-baked philosophers who are unable to meet every-day issues because they have been trained away from actual life, they deserve equal censure when they send out materialists who recognize only physical needs. True, physical needs must be satisfied, for the man who is hungry is not likely to do much high thinking, but the development of ability to satisfy those needs is only one phase of the demand properly made upon education—the development of a capacity for high thinking and right feeling is equally essential.

In a striking article on "The Columniated Collegian," published in The Atlantic Monthly, June, 1915, Mary Leal Harkness says: "So we come to one of the gravest charges that can be brought against the 'new education': that, while it may bring jobs to men and women when they are young, it provides nothing for the man or woman retired from that job by age. If there is anything beneath the stars more pitiable than an elderly man or woman with no active purpose left in life and no intellectual resources from which to draw occupation and interest, I have not yet seen it."

Only the full mind and the warm heart can find high contentment; so, even from a selfish standpoint, the necessity for the development of all sides of the self must be admitted. Capability and culture are not to be divorced. Modern life demands men and women who can do things, who can think clearly while in the thick of action, and who to their judgment and initiative have added ideals of courage, of sympathy, and of justice.

Parents and teachers who can see below the surface recognize the true goal of life to be a self-development which is expressed in service. As a result, they demand that the curriculum shall not be narrowed to the purely utilitarian. There must be an education newer than "the new"—an education which is a blend of the new economic studies and the old cultural subjects. True efficiency can be realized only through the enrichment of personality. Indeed, the problem of education is fundamentally the problem of the development of personality. When the question "To what purpose?" is applied as a test to the subject-matter of the course of studies it must be answered in the light of this larger problem. Hence, the educational leaders who are meeting the foregoing question are agreed that

Literature Must Be Made the Keystone of the Educational Arch

This conclusion has been reached because it is the ex-pansion of individual life into world-life that is desired, and literature is built of the stuff of world-life; it is the art-form of the best that has been thought, felt, and done since the beginning of man's conscious life in the world. Literature reveals man to himself. It interprets his thoughts, emotions and experiences. It deepens his understanding of other men: their temptations and failures, their aspirations and successes. Through knowing himself and his fellows he becomes better fitted for cooperation. Every time a piece of real literature has become a part of himself, the man has advanced further into the meaning and purpose of life. And by "literature" is not meant those forms which move only the minds of the highly educated few, but those true, beautiful, strong and good creations which appeal also to the many.

The Importance of Cultivating the Imagination

Not only does literature enlarge the sympathies and deepen the understanding, but it quickens the imagination. Imagination is too often interpreted as idle fantasy—vague, pointless dreaming. On the contrary, it is the clarifying chemical in the crucible of the mind, and useful in the last degree. Imagination pictures vividly all the possibilities of a given situation. It reveals causes and forecasts results. It analyzes and reconstructs. In field, shop, store, office, forum, study, and home, it rules the world because it is the creative force of the mind and the heart.

The complex problems of modern life can be solved only by men and women of highly developed imagination. It is the woman with imagination who transforms the daily round of her home and social duties into an interesting adventure, or if her work lies in some other field of activity makes herself felt as a real force in life. It is the business man with imagination who becomes a millionaire. It is the professional man with imagination who reaches the head of his profession. It is the scientist with imagination who makes the world rich by his discoveries. "Assign to almost any task requiring thought an imaginative man with scant logic, and an unimaginative logician; nine times out of ten the former will handle it more successfully."

The longings and imaginings of the race have foreshadowed all the modern scientific inventions. The Kalevala, the great epic of the Finns, sung in runes as early as 2000 B.C., tells of a battle in which takes part a monster eagle of steel and iron, filled with a thousand magic heroes. The dread Zeppelin has not quite attained the power of its "hero-feathered" forerunner, but—the future! The Norse centuries ago told tales of "hill--borers" which could tunnel through the rockiest mountains, and of "stream-suckers" which changed the current of great rivers. The Panama Canal and a thousand other engineering feats of today are monuments to these dreams of the ages. Fairy lore is filled with stories of calls heard round the world. The telegraph, the telephone, and last of all, Marconi's message of sound, have made the old tales come true. Madam Curie's discovery of radium has brought the inexhaustible store and the magic healing substance from fairyland into real life.

Again, literature develops the imagination through its power of inducing keen emotions which perpetuate its images. These images are concrete, vivid, vital and beautiful. They become a part of the mind's store house, and are its inexhaustible food. The man whose mind is so developed is fortified against boredom, loneliness, poverty and misfortune.

"Education of the soul by literature," says Professor George Edward Woodberry, "is a very real thing. It issues in insight into life and fate, in sympathy with whatever is human, in apprehension of what seems divine—issues, that is, in greater power to live."

Culture Should Begin in Childhood

Those who recognize the power of literature recognize equally well that it must be brought into the life of the youth at the earliest possible time. The introductory to literature should be through the first stories that are presented to the child in the nursery and in the kindergarten. The power of the story in the life of the child is equally as great as that of the literature read by the youth and by the man. It is because the social worker, the teacher, the mother, are coming to realize its force that a revival of story-telling is sweeping through the entire world. Indeed, so wide-spread is this revival that in some cases the story is being misused. Because of the child's natural love for it, the uninteresting and the indolent seize upon the story as the too-facile tool for accomplishing their ends. Nature stories, music stories, bed-time stories, all sorts and conditions of stories, are thrust upon the child.

Fortunately, this fulness of story-telling cannot destroy the fundamental appeal of the story for him. Yet there is a real danger here which both teacher and mother should recognize and guard against. No story which is not real literature should be given him. There is little excuse for cluttering the mind of a child with "ill-chosen or ill-adapted twaddle tales," in Dr. Stanley Hall's pungent phrase. It is not enough that a story be a story. It should be literature as well, for the best stories are litera-ture. Fortunately, there is a great wealth of old stories full of truth and fancy, and couched in language which in choice and arrangement of words erects solid standards for the child. Primitive man wove these tales out of his heart to interpret himself, physical nature, and God. Because the child's attitude toward life is so nearly the same as that of primitive man, these stories are the child's "natural soul-food." In them he finds himself. In them his own half-formed thoughts and longings are expressed. His free spirit finds its realization in bird-plumage, wishing-caps, magic carpets, and seven-league boots. His wonder and questionings meet and mingle with the wonder and the questionings of the race. His imagination finds satisfaction and expansion in the primitive answers to these questions. His love of beauty is satisfied and increased by his glimpses of fairyland. His hunger for adventure is appeased vicariously as he journeys with Jack-the-Giant-Killer, Robin Hood, St. George, or any other of the splendid company of unconquerable heroes. His sense of justice is satisfied and intensified through the inevitable law of the tale that good is rewarded and evil punished. His faith is fixed that somehow, somewhere, things always come out right for the one who has done his best. Courage, kindness, and helpfulness are made beautiful to him through the deeds of the heroes he most admires. It is through these great old stories that his attitudes toward life are fixed.

Dr. Stanley Hall says: "Let me tell the stories and I care not who writes the textbooks." Stories broaden and interpret the child's own experience. They introduce him to the world of interesting fact. They enlarge his vocabulary and give him added power of self-expression. They kindle his imagination. They deepen his appreciation of the beautiful. They stimulate moral discriminations. They counteract the baser sights and sounds of the street or in the "movies." They awaken his sympathies and increase his sense of social relationships. They lift him out of the commonplace. They carry him to foreign strands. They quicken his sense of humor. They present to him ideals. They give him "dramatic joy." It is through stories that a foundation is laid for full and efficient living.

Suggestions for Study and Discussion

  1. If you believe that it is possible to over-emphasize the story in the life of the child, show how.
  2. Illustrate how some children lead story-lives. If you have personally had any such experience, give it.
  3. In leading story-lives, do children confine their fancies and little dramas to stories they have heard, or do they also invent?
  4. What did Plato mean when he said that the way to teach the child truth was to teach him fiction?
  5. Can you cite any definite instance showing the value that has come to a child by telling him stories?

Grist From Other Mills

Helpful Books

The Appreciation of Literature, George Edward Woodberry, Chapters I and VII.

What Can Literature Do for Me?  C. Alphonso Smith.

Aims of Literary Study, Hiram D. Corson.

Literature in the Elementary Schools, Porter Lander MacClintock, Chapter II.

Story-Telling, Edna Lyman, Chapter on "The Responsibility of Society for What Children Read."

Note: It is suggested that from the foregoing books, as well as from this chapter, the student make a list of the various services which the story may perform for the child. For example, Edward Porter St. John, in his Stories and Story-Telling, gives seven aims of story-telling:

  1. To add to the pleasure of those who listen, including making a lesson attractive.
  2. To seek to introduce children to the best literature.
  3. For use in connection with language study.
  4. For general intellectual training.
  5. For illustrating some unfamiliar truth.
  6. For culture of the imagination.
  7. With the aim of influencing conduct and character.

"To make the child feel intensely the strivings of others, and to make him feel the light and shades of feeling in many a live situation is to give him an opportunity for moral training and an exhortation to be good."

E. N. and G.E. Partridge, Story-Telling in School and Home.    

"And how much capable mothers might derive from Wordsworth's poetry for the spiritual nurture of their children. Capable mothers are, alas! comparatively few; but forces are now at work which are increasing the number of such mothers, and will continue to increase it more and more as the ideals of true womanhood are more and more realized and exalted.

Hiram D. Corson, The Voice and Spiritual Education.    

"The highest use of all literature is not to fill us with facts, but to set us to thinking. We teach the children history not half so much in order that they may know, and always remember, things that have happened, as that they may understand life, and how to meet it. We repeat poetry to the little ones and tell them fairy tales, not merely to amuse them, nor as an exercise for the memory, but as a stimulus to the imagination and to the aesthetic sense. The Old Testament stories serve both these purposes. The spontaneous instincts of the child, and the almost equally spontaneous revelations of human nature in these stories, correspond one to another as face answers to face in water. The perpetual splendor of sentences in the Old Testament, the lofty sublimity of its suggestions, appeal to the sensuous nature of the child as no other literature does; and there is no nobler endowment of a well-born and well-bred human being than a rich sensuous nature."

Louise Seymour Houghton, Telling Bible Stories.    

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