Books for Young People

MR. SIDNEY LANIER has followed his Boy’s Froissart of last year with an equally acceptable Boy’s King Arthur.1 The second book lacks the special historical basis which makes Froissart so real, and boys as well as older people will be likely to feel the vagueness and lack of form which remove King Arthur from history and place him in literature. It is in English literature, not in English history or tradition, that these stories have taken root, but for that very reason they have a value for us not so apparent in Froissart’s Chronicles. It will be for philosophers hereafter to explain the sympathy which the busy nineteenth century has with that mythical England, fighting not for empire but for ladies and honor : enough for us that the stories, freed from the alloy of a too frank generation, deposit deeds of chivalry and adventure crowned by that wonderful legend of the Sancgreal, surely the most poetical that sprang from mediæval simplicity. Mr. Lanier asks the somewhat pointless question in his preface, Will the time ever come when Hamlet will be a boy’s tale? — as if there were not certain eternal relations between youth and literature which make the young, whether in age or in society, to appropriate the adventure, not the reflection, the ideal, not the speculative. It is a rare good fortune that such stories as these should be brought within reach of children, whose hunger might otherwise be appeased by the lower forms of adventure, which are allied with insolence and mere lawlessness.

In editing the book Mr. Lanier has shown excellent judgment: for in the first place he has ordered the confused succession of Sir Thomas Malory’s book, and grouped the chapters according as they relate to this or that knight; then he has carefully dropped out of sight all grossness, and he has quickened the narrative by the omission of episodical or dull chapters, the condensation into a paragraph of his own of what was drawn out unnecessarily, and the erasure here and there of superfluous sentences and words. Any one who has rambled through the apparently incoherent chapters of Malory will appreciate this service which a wise and sympathetic littérateur has rendered. He has not taken liberties with the text, but has corrected the looseness of the previous editor. The illustrations are defective in point of subject. The violent is emphasized, and the gentler phases which belong to an interpretative art are disregarded. But their shadowy character is fitting to these morning twilight stories.

The art in King Arthur is like tapestry to our modern eyes, and there is plenty of photographic flatness in the ordinary art of the boy’s book. Here, for example, is Mr. Noah Brooks’s The Fairport Nine,2 which is a matter-offact story of boy life, forgotten almost before it is finished. A succession of adventures and pranks, sometimes amusingly told, with plenty of harmless nonsense, — one gets this, and asks fairly for a little more from so frank and honest a writer. Is it quite worth while to tell so easily these rambling incidents, which seem half drawn from memory, without going just a little behind them for that recollection of life which a grown man has a right to share with his boy readers ? What is the use of his growing up if he merely repeats in such a book his boyish experience, without casting back a little light from his manhood ? It is not preachment that we want, but the help that comes from the older friend who does not efface his age when he makes companions of the boys.

Mr. Habberton, we must complain, in his sympathy with the baddish boy,3 lays the blame for his misconduct on anybody but the boy himself. To account for Jack being the worst boy in town he makes his father, a country doctor, to act as if he had neither recollection of his own boyhood nor common intelligence of character. There is one touch of humor and nature in the book in the secret determination of the boy to surprise his parents at some future day by an act of magnanimity, but the story is a caricature, and an offensive one, and its chief effect must be to suggest new tricks and devices to ingenuous youth.

Miss Alcott’s Jack and Jill4 has the merits of her writing more conspicuously than the faults. There is the generous confidence in children which she always shows, the rosy light in which she looks upon the hobbledehoy period, and the persistent lesson of kindness, charity, and amiable sacrifice. The scenes are lively, the incidents varied, and a cheerfulness predominates which is justified by the unfailing success of every character in the book. Yet there is nothing like real character drawing, and the air of life in the book is secured not by an endowment of the persons represented, but by the animation and cheeriness of the author. Nor can we altogether find satisfaction in the suppressed love-making of these young people. The author protests that she is only drawing the picture of a natural society of boys and girls who are soon to be young men and young women, but there is a self-consciousness about the book on this side which impairs its simplicity. We are, no doubt, unreasonable readers ; we object to the blood-and-thunder literature, and when in place of it we have the milk-and-sugar we object again. What do we want ?

We get something, certainly, of the real thing in Mr. Stockton’s new book for children.5 Here the principal characters are two boys and a girl, of the same age as Miss Alcott’s heroes and heroines. Is it a difference of locality which makes the difference in their ways ? These are from the Middle States, and we cannot see but they are quite as well bred as the children of Harmony Village, yet they have in their favor a charming unconsciousness of the future. The relation is wholesome, frank, and matter of fact; there appears not to be a suspicion of ulterior lovemaking, while there is the heartiest and most natural friendship. The incidents turn upon travel in the Southern waters, and once given the notion of a boy of sixteen being sent off with one just a little younger as an amateur traveling tutor, and all else follows simply and in good taste. The adventure is not highly spiced, except in one instance, and then the author shows his literary conscience by a restrained use of an exciting event; but the novelty of the situations is always enough to retain the reader’s interest. Mr. Stockton’s dry humor and innocent badinage make a capital accompaniment to the story, and we commend it heartily as a bright and honest book for both boys and girls.

New Bed-Time Stories 6 is a further collection by Mrs. Moulton of short stories. The title suggests their use at the hour when children have ceased their activity and are composed for the night. They are short enough to be read by the mother or aunt before the child drops asleep, and they carry no horrors for the freighting of dreams. We doubt a little whether they would be quite as acceptable at lunch-time, say, for they are rather sentimental, and lack the freshness and sturdiness of a thoroughly good story. We find the same fault, too, with some of them which affects Miss Alcott’s stories : the girls and boys gravitate toward one another with unerring facility and velocity.

Mr. Griffis, who has been acceptably before the public as an authority upon Japanese subjects, offers for the amusement of children some Japanese fairy tale’s7 which are always curious and occasionally pretty in their fancy. There is a singularly charming conceit in the story of The Fire-Fly’s Lovers, where the innumerable lovers in the insect world were promised in turn the hand of the Fire-Fly, if they would bring to her a spark of fire. Each, accordingly, rushes at candle, lamp, coal, phosphorus, or any giver of spark, but each perishes in the flames, for they are only baseborn lovers, and the Prince of Fire-Flies alone succeeds, for he brings the fire on his own person. There is in most of the stories a total absence of the moral element, and one discovers a play of fancy, commonly, rather than a work of imagination. There are frequent reminders in these Japanese stories of familiar fairy tales, but it is a little difficult and unsafe to institute close comparison with Western fairy tales, for much has first to be assured of the competency and the trustworthiness of the narrator. Schoolcraft’s Algic Researches illustrate well the perils of one who seeks for legends in another race. The stories are slight and unartistic in form, and rather meagre in suggestion.

It is not a wide remove from Japanese fairy tales to travels in Siam and Java.8 Mr. Thomas W. Knox follows his volume on Japan and China with a similar one for these countries, in which the same personal apparatus is used. It has become so much a matter of course for books of travel for the young to contain description and narrative set in a frame-work of colloquy and personal adventure, that writers who are profusely informed and properly equipped for the substantial part of the work adopt all the machinery which has become familiar, apparently without stopping to consider how qualified they are to use it. In this book, for instance, of four hundred and fifty large pages, profusely illustrated, all the apparatus of Doctor Bronson and his two wards, Frank and Fred, is entirely superfluous ; it only impedes the narrative, and makes besides a naturally rather stiff style more stiff by showing the author without lightness or dramatic skill, where those qualities are essential to success. The boys cannot be told apart, and there is scarcely any difference between their speech and that of the older people’s. Something more is needed than the form of such a book to make it lively, and it is a mistake to suppose that young people do not care for travel except under the fiction that they are traveling in company with other young people. However, there are enough pictures and facts to fill the most cormorant of boy readers, and his memory will have to do the work of selection which the author has failed to perform.

The method of Mr. Davenport Adams illustrates the point we have made. Mr. Adams is an industrious book-maker, and in Some Heroes of Travel9 he has gained space for a wide range of incident by refusing to encumber himself with any fictitious apparatus. He confines himself, with one exception, to the exploits of modern travelers, and after a digest of Marco Polo he gives a résumé of the narratives of Mr. Ruxton in Mexico and the Rocky Mountains, Dr Barth in Central Africa, Mr. Atkinson in Siberia, Sir Samuel Baker at the sources of the Nile, Major Burnaby in his ride to Khiva, and other equally famous and well-known travelers. The choice might have included the Arctic regions, but the editor seems to have confined himself to books which have been less served up to boys than others no more famous. The chief value of such books is where they create a demand for the fuller narratives.

Mr. Coffin,10 who has won a large audience of boys, brings them a book which is conceived with the idea of disclosing some of the forces as well as the facts of our history. He casts his eyes over the colonies, and seeks for those pregnant incidents which are both dramatic m their action and expository of historic ideas, but it is a little unfortunate that he should present history always in a striking attitude. The book is a succession of shouts, and both scenes and pictures are liable to be hysterical. Perhaps all this is hypercritical, and we should take shame at condemning a historical book for sensationalism, when we are always proposing to fight fire with fire, and to win boys away from very spicy fiction by offering them equally animated history. Nevertheless, we still believe that history depends for its interest upon other charm than declamation and a half-ranting style. We are a little afraid that the young people who ride Mr. Coffin’s galloping horse will get to the end of their journey with expedition, but with rather a confused recollection of the objects they passed on the road.

It would be but a vain and futile almanac which should prophesy a new year, unless about the same time there appeared a fresh Bodley book to confirm the promise, according to the usage now five years established ; or if the new year did happen to come without the Bodley book, we do not see how the children could be expected to welcome it. We never can imagine what the Bodley avatar is to be, from autumn to autumn; but that is an affair which we confidently leave to Mr. Scudder (if we may mention his name in this connection), and we are never disappointed. If Mr. Bodley had not gone abroad, this time,11 leaving his family to a summer of excursioning and local history in the Old Colony and the White Mountains, but had gone to_ the moon instead, and had written home letters from that little-frequented field of travel, we should have been equally, but no better pleased. He and they, wherever they are, are always entertaining; their adventures are charmingly told and their surroundings sketched with a light and graphic hand; the stories and poems which they happen to bring in show always a catholic taste and an absolute gift for divining what will please children and teach them something. How or by what right the illustrations get where they are, and whether they suggest the text, or the text suggests them, is a secret of the author’s clever workmanship into which we will not too nicely inquire ; it is enough that they successfully complement each other, and seem always to be just what the children would naturally be interested in at the given moment.

In work which is so largely and frankly one of compilation, the wonder is that the author is so well able to characterize and maintain the characters of his people, whose chief business is often merely to narrate, or to sing, or to read aloud, or to listen ; but the integrity of each of the original group is perfectly respected, and from time to time there is a new personage added who entertainingly differs from all the others. Mr. Scudder makes a desperate feint of dismissing our old favorites, at the end, by speaking of the children as in the course of nature ceasing to be children ; but we trust he will not so easily get rid of them. If they must grow up, we shall hope to have the Bodleys in their second childhood.

  1. The Boy’s King Arthur. Being Sir Thomas Malory’s History of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Edited for boys, with an Introduction, by SIDNEY LANIER. Illustrated by ALFRED KAPPES. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1880.
  2. The Fairport Nine. By NOAH BROOKS. Now York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1880.
  3. Worst Boy in Town. By the Author of Helen’s Babies. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 1880.
  4. Jack and Jill. A Village Story. By LOUISA M. ALCOTT. With Illustrations. Boston: Roberts Brothers. 1880.
  5. A Jolly Fellowship. By FRANK R. STOCKTON. Illustrated. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1880.
  6. New Bed-Time Stories. By LOOSE CHAMDLER MOULTON. With Illustrations. Boston: Roberts Brothers. 1880.
  7. Japanese Fairy World. Stories from the Wonder-Lore of Japan. By WILLIAM ELLIOT GRIFFIS. Illustrated by OZAWA, of Tokio. Schenectady, N. Y. : James H. Barthyte. 1880.
  8. The Boy Travelers in the Far Fast. Part Second. Adventures of Two Youths in a Journey to Siam and Java, with Descriptions of Cochin China, Cambodia, Sumatra, and the Malay Archipelago. By THOMAS W. KNOX. Illustrated. New York: Harper and Brothers. 1881.
  9. Some Heroes of Travel; or, Chapters from the History of Geographical Discovery and Enterprise. With Maps. Compiled and rewritten by W. H. DAVENPORT ADAMS. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge; New York: Pott, Young & Co. 1880.
  10. Old Times in the Colonies. By CHARLES CARLETON COFFIN. Illustrated. New York: Harper and Brothers. 1881.
  11. Mr. Bodley Abroad. With Illustrations. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1881.