It was only a century ago, as everybody remembers, that literary sucklings were nurtured on the Bible, Pilgrim's Progress, Paradise Lost, and Fox's Book of Martyrs. This was not in all respects an admirable diet for readers of any age, but it had its good points. There is a chance that an imaginative child may be helped toward a taste for good literature by having to amuse himself with that or nothing; he may delight in the rhythm of great poetry or the stately march of great prose before he can get an inkling as to what it is all about. But the situation is hardly imaginable nowadays, since children have plenty of reading to amuse themselves with besides the best. They are no longer required to be seen and not heard, or to put up with the scraps of literature which may fall from the wholesome (that is, tiresome) table of their elders. A much pleasanter bill of fare is being provided for them, and it is confidently expected that the early courses of sugarwater and lollipop will gently and kindergartenly induce an appetite for the ensuing roast. The fact is, our guilt has come home to us. We have not been treating the child properly for the past ten thousand years or so, and we are in a creditable hurry to make it up to him, at the expense of our own rights if necessary; and we do books, among other things, in his honor, by way of propitiating him.
Our earlier attempts were pretty clumsy, we must admit. When it occurred to us that the child was a person, we perceived first that he must be worth preaching to. We hastened to provide him with Guides for the Young Christian, and Maiden Monitors, and such; and later, relenting a little, we declined to the secular frivolity of the Rollo books and Sandford and Merton. There is no doubt that the child, or a considerable part of him, enjoyed this concession, paltry as it now seems; and presently his dutifulness was rewarded by such books as Water Babies, Tom Brown at Rugby, and Alice in Wonderland, which perfectly established his right to be amused as well as instructed. Since then affairs have gone very smoothly for him; the rill of literature for children has grown to a torrent, and there is no saying that it may not soon develop into a deluge. The number and character of current books advertised to be for the young is a little appalling; but there is no use in grumbling about such a condition; probably the wisest course for the observer is to cultivate an attitude of resigned and friendly speculation.
What are collectively known as books for the young appear to be pretty easily classifiable. There are books for urchins and books for striplings, to begin with; there are, further, books about adults for the young, books about the young for the young, books about the young for adults, and books which, whatever they are about, are equally good for readers of all ages. Most of the best books nominally awarded to childish readers evidently belong to this final class. Grimm's Fairy Tales, Robinson Crusoe, the wonder tales of Hans Andersen and Hawthorne, the Child's Garden of Verses, Alice in Wonderland,--books like these obviously belong not simply to the nursery but to literature, and are not made worthless by the addition even of a cubit to the stature of the reader. It must be an object of interest in judging current books for the young to hazard a guess as to their eligibility for this class.
Mr. Kipling's Just So Stories is the only recent original book for children whose standing in this connection appears to be fairly sure. It does for very little children much what the Jungle Books did for older ones. It is artfully artless, in its themes, in its repetitions, in its habitual limitation, and occasional abeyance, of adult humor. It strikes a child as the kind of yarn his father or uncle might have spun if he had just happened to think of it; and it has, like all good fairy-business, a sound core of philosophy. Children might like the book just as well, at first, if it lacked this mellowness of tone, but grown people would not like it at all; and when a book for children bores grown people, its days are numbered. One of the dangerous things about giving children unguided indulgence in child-books is that they are prepared to relish, for the moment, such inferior stuff. A normal child has no difficulty in making what seem to him to be bricks out of the scantiest and mouldiest of straw-heaps. He will listen to some maudlin rambling mammy's tale with the same rapture which a proud father may have fancied could be produced only by his own ingenious and imaginative fictions. All stories are grist to the mill of infancy; but it is true, nevertheless, that very few of them are worth grinding.
There is, in short, no separate standard of taste by which to determine the value of books written for children. To be of permanent use, they must possess literary quality; that is, they must be whole-souled, broad, mature in temper, however simple they may need to be in theme or manner. This truth is not always observed by the fond adult buyer. The given book seems, he admits, rather silly, but he supposes that to be a part of its character as a "juvenile." A theory seems to be building up that the attribute of ripe humor which is wisdom is rather wasted upon a book for children; that a boy knows a parson and recognizes a clown, but is only puzzled by the betwixts and betweens of the class to which most of humanity belongs. It is often asserted that a child's sense of humor is mainly confined to a sense of the ridiculous. That is true of his sense of a joke; but children have never been proved insusceptible to the warmth of true humor, though they may have been quite unconscious of susceptibility. In the meantime, they are ready enough to put up with its absence; and they find at hand a type of fiction built upon an artificial code of sentiment and morals. Children's magazines and libraries are full of stories written according to this code, the beginning and the end of which is the prescription of certain things to do and not to do: never to cheat in examination, always to be grateful to your parents, never to pretend to have money when you haven't, and always to knock under to authority.