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J. Berg Esenwein

The Basis of Selection of Children's Stories

The imagination of the pupil can be led by means of the classical works of creative imagination to the formation of a good taste both as regards ethical merit and beauty of form. The proper classica1 works for youth are those which nations have produced in the childhood of their culture. These works bring the children face to face with the picture of the world which the human mind has sketched for itself in one of the necessary stages of development.

J. K. F. Rosencrantz, Philosophy of Education.    

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

  1. Since apperception is the process of building new concepts upon a foundation of what the mind already knows, how would you go about discovering the child's stage of development so as to avoid, on the one hand, a tiresome repetition of what is familiar and, on the other, stories which are beyond him?
  2. What are some of the things which may have given currency to the misconception that good literature can be understood and loved by only the mature and the cultivated?
  3. Are abstruse thoughts at all necessarily characteristic of good literature?
  4. Have you at any time had the notion—if not the conviction—that "literature" and simplicity of language were not harmonious?
  5. What do you think now?
  6. Can you name an admittedly great work of literature which is written in clear and simple English?
  7. What qualities should a literary story for children possess? In answering this question consider both form and content, or substance.
  8. Make a list of those characteristics of childhood which are named in this chapter, and add any others which, upon careful thought and observation, seem to you to be present in children generally.
  9. What do you understand by a concrete as distinguished from an abstract story? Give an example of each.
  10. To what child-periods would the former appeal? The latter?
  11. Make several lists of well-known stories for children, saying to what child-periods they are especially adapted.
    Note : Open discussions of these lists will prove helpful. Do not be guided entirely by the lists furnished by authorities, but 39 bring each story to the test of your own knowledge—based on experience, preferably, but if not, on what you have learned of child-nature from books.
  12. Has your experience taught you to disagree with any of the generalizations made in this chapter regarding the stages of receptivity to various types of story, as shown by children? If so, be specific in stating your experience, and do not base a generalization upon your experience with only one or two children, for the exceptional child, when handled singly, needs exceptional study. Do not be too ready to consider children as a mass—they are individuals, though in some respects they lead a mass life.
  13. How openly in a story would you show a young child that it pays to do right, and that wrong-doing brings its penalties?
  14. Cite at least one story to illustrate your attitude on the foregoing question.
  15. In what kinds of stories do rewards and penalties most promptly follow the deed?
  16. For young children, is exaggeration in the proportion of reward to good deed, and of penalty to offence, a justifiable device in fairy, animal and wonder stories? Why?
  17. Try to recall the stories which you liked at certain periods of your childhood and youth. Name at least a dozen, assigning some, if you honestly can, to different periods of your development, with due regard for the over-lapping of interests in adjoining periods.
  18. At about what period, have you observed, do boys begin to show different story-preferences from girls? Compare this with their choice of games and occupations.
  19. At what periods do the following types of stories make their strongest appeal: (a) adventure? (b) realistic? (c) romantic?
  20. At what period does the child begin to question probabilities in a story?
  21. Try to visit a kindergarten, or some other gathering of children, at the story hour; report the kinds of stories that produced the strongest observable effects. Note especially what sorts of children, if any, missed or lost interest in the subtler points of the stories.
  22. Make a detailed report, after talking cautiously to as many children as you can, on what stories they like, trying to find out why they like them. You will have to infer most of their reasons. A coöperative study of this sort will prove valuable to a class or group of students.
  23. Remember that the results from laboratory, or personal-experience work, will, if based upon enough cases, lead you to more valuable conclusions than if you depend on the teaching of others. Test the appeal made to children and youths of different periods of development of at least some of the following kinds of stories and make notes of the results: (a) stories of altruism; (b) physical bravery of a fictitious hero; (c) moral heroism of a historic or a Biblical character; (d) humorous results of vanity, or some other weakness; (e) some other purpose-story chosen by you.
  24. Give a real or a supposititious example of how a special story may be selected so as to meet a special moral or disciplinary need in a group of children, saying to what period of development the children have come. For example, continued disobedience in a group of bright boys of from nine to eleven.
  25. Discuss this statement: In good literature, form fits content, and words fit ideas.
  26. What effect on the education of the child has the good—not merely the grammatically correct—language-form of a story when told?
  27. Make a list of kinds of stories to avoid at different stages of child-development. Be prepared to defend your disapproval in each instance.

Grist From Other Mills

"The storks have a great many stories which they tell their little ones, all about the bogs and marshes. They suit them to their age and capacity. The young ones are quite satisfied with kribble, krabble, or some such nonsense, and find it charming; but the elder ones want something with more meaning.

Hans Christian Andersen, The Marsh King's Daughter.    

"Experience has taught me that for the group of normal children, irrespective of age, the first kind of story suitable for them will contain an appeal to conditions to which the child is accustomed. . . . . . . The next incident that appeals is. . . . . . . unusual activities carried on in . . . . . . . the usual atmosphere of the child."

Marie L. Shedlock, The Art of the Story-Teller.    

"If literature is to regain its sway over the heart and its ministry in life, there must be a greater return to the oral and auditory basis of appeal. The book, to be sure, has its own indispensable place and function, but in relation to popular culture, it is the second and not the first place. Because our culture is increasingly eye-minded, it is necessarily less emotionalized and less vital, less joyous and spontaneous."

Percival Chubb, The Blight of Literary Bookishness,
in The English Journal, Jan., 1914.