by MARGARET PALFREY WOODROW
READ to me!" The voice may be three years old or four or five, or even six. Its tone is imperative and it speaks to parents, grand-parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and unwary friends all over the country. We have all, at some time or other, been forced to respond to it. We have all shared experiences which range from unique excitement to unique boredom.
The excitement explains itself. The right book for the right child is a new world; the adult in charge must be dull indeed if he cannot take part in the adventure. But the boredom is another matter, and its discouraging prevalence today deserves investigation.
In this age of concern for the preschool child it is nevertheless a lucky relative who is handed even a mediocre book to read aloud to a three-year-old. If your nephew is seven or ten or twelve — in other words a reader who is temporarily inclined to listen — the selections at your disposal will be varied and interesting, lint beware of little sister’s bookshelves. High up and out of reach you will probably find Alice a Adventures in Wonderland, The Wind in the Willows, the Grimms’ Fairy Tales and the Just So Stories. Near-by and dusted off are the pretty new books, all the birthday presents and Christmas presents which have accumulated for three or four or five years, more books than one child should own and all of which the child loves heartily and indiscriminately. Few of them are worth the dusting, or the space they occupy.
The last consideration, apparently, in most modern books for children is the ear. In fairness we must admit that other senses are pleased and excited. Most often it is the eye: illustrations these days are often charming and usually lively, although parents are occasionally forced to confiscate ridiculously frightening animal pictures. Sometimes the fuels are fun in themselves: life in China or in Holland, or the humdrum delightful details of daily living at home, brushing teeth, tying shoelaces, feeding the kitten, welcoming the now baby. There are circus books whore the animals slide or can be made to stand out from the page. Most of the mechanical devices, till they break, continue to bewitch parent and child. In general, each book is apt to have one point in its favor, some special virtue which would engage an adult’s interest for one reading at least, if he could shut his ears. But the words! If only the child were willing, as the very littlest are, to “look at the book.” We all know to our sorrow how soon the cry changes to “Read!” And if we seem to skip, “What does it say? ”
It says very little, and that little strangely. It is primer language without the old-fashioned primer’s iron purposefulness. These modern authors have no intention of teaching the child to read. But they seem to have decided, “Let us write the kind of book which he might read if he could.” The result is language that has no apparent purpose except to accompany the pictures and to be very, very plain. It is prose that is no prose; it is almost indescribable except by direct quotation.
Here are typical selections from the library of any American child between the ages of three and six. Marjorie Flack in The New Pet writes: —
Once there was a boy and his name was Dick. Dick had a little sister and her name was Judy. Dick and Judy lived in a nice little red house with their father and their mother. Dick and Judy and their father and their mother were all very happy living together in their little red house.
Then there is The Little DOG Who Forgot How to Bark and Other Stories, one of the Wonder Books, which goes like this: —
Kiki was a little black and white dog. He had one white ear. He had one black ear. He had a white spot in the middle of his back.
Kiki was very unhappy. He had forgotten how to bark.
He tried to think how to bark. He tried and tried.
At last he ran to Gray Owl. Gray Owl was very wise, He looked at Kiki. He ruffled up his feathers.
It is possible, of course, to be lucky; there are discoveries well worth making. Elizabeth Hamilton offers us one in The C-circus: —
There was once a jolly lady named Mrs. Prunella Smith. She had a round smiling face and was built rather like a baked apple. She had three children whose names were Charles, Catharine, and Clara Belle.
Mrs. Smith was fond of animals, liked bright colors, and loved traveling. She owned a traveling circus that went all over the world.
Water Birds, one of the Encyclopædia Britannica Picture Stories, is another exception: —
There are many different families of Water Birds. They can be found on rivers, lakes, or beaches. There they make their homes. They swim, and fish, and fly.
The Mallard Family lives in almost all parts of the country. They are about the largest American ducks. Mallards are the wild ancestors of farm ducks. They are very easy to tame.
These last, two books are as delightful as they sound. We all own others, such as James Thurber’s Many Moons and Munro Leaf’s The Story of Ferdinand, which give pleasure to all ages. But the good books, as footsore parents wearily discover, are all too rare. In our experience anything as satisfying us the calmly informative style of the Encyclopedia Britannica series is unique, and Mrs. Prunella Smith who was built rather like a baked apple is an imaginative rarity.
As FOR the rest, what is to be said about it as language? There can be no question of recognition. To any literate parent it must be familiar as night and day: the cozy and slightly patronizing tone; the utter simplicity of construction (sentence after sentence of subject, verb, object); the staccato rhythm; the rigidly limited vocabulary — and the rigid exclusion of anything that might be called an idea. Invention falters: there are few positive remarks to make about this prose except to call it denatured. It is far easier to discuss in terms of what it is not, for its character is wholly negative.
It is not vulgar, it is not ungrammatical. Heaven knows it is not difficult or confusing — immediately, at any rate. Is it, on the other hand, altogether clear? There is nothing particularly logical or illuminating in such a sequence as: “At last he ran to Gray Owl. Gray Owl was very wise. He looked at Kiki. He ruffled up his feathers.” This kind of disconnectedness, the disjointed in thought as well as in language, is a symptom of formlessness that extends throughout book after book. How seldom they are tightly knit. What real connection exists between events? In the world of the Tables, in the Bible Stories, in the Grimms’ Fairy Tales, an early sense of form and logic, of the rhythms of destiny, is
wonderfully cultivated. Too many modern children are exposed instead to chaos. How much else this language is not. It has no individuality, no voice. An author’s name means little; it’s in the drawings only that we can find a style. It is almost never amusing (amusement, too, is for artists only). There is no music in it of any kind, least of all the music of the great simplicities: “In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you.” Nowhere can there be found a word or a phrase that would ring in a child’s ears, or light up his mind.
Yet “In the beginning was the Word” — and no wonder. Involved as children are in what Whitehead has called the remarkable intellectual feat of putting names to things, words are magic. You can make a child drunk with words, as I discovered through reciting all the poetry I happened to know by heart to my daughter, long before she knew many words herself. But she knew the word “More” and she would murmur it spellbound whenever I paused, as if I were giving her milk to drink. We continued, month after month, until the words she could not understand began to irritate instead of intoxicating her. So we shifted comfortably to Mother Goose and Stevenson and A. A. Milne, and then it was time for stories. But I have never allowed poetry of some kind to dwindle away.
There is a superstition that children are perpetually threatened by a kind of storybook which is really not for children at all, a book written instead for the eternal adult-child and foisted on the young only because reading and rereading it so charms the parent. This myth is strengthened by the kind of talk we often hear: “I hated Alice in Wonderland” (or The Wind in the Willows or some other) “when I was a child. I didn’t learn to like it until I was older.” Yet how seldom this needs to be true if parents take the trouble to experiment.
Timing is everything, surely. Alice in Wonderland has been a great success with mv daughter from the age of about three and one-half. (It may bore her at eight; she may re-enlist at eighteen.) For three and one-half, however, The Wind in the Willows entailed too much skipping and translating to be worth the effort. I have known I must postpone the Grimms’ Fairy Tales, because of nightmares. We began the Just So Stories by three certainly, and all was clear as a bell, scarcely anything for me to explain beyond an occasional Parsec.
If every restless and rebellious parent would only question and explore, the myth that these child classics are for adults only would undoubtedly soon die a natural death. There is nothing, after all, necessarily mysterious or difficult about good prose. It is worth rediscovering to what, exactly, we are subjecting little children when we put them in the hands of an artist and abandon them to the workings of a first-class imagination. It is worth rereading, one after the other, a few famous opening paragraphs. Rudyard Kipling starts The Elephant’s Child with: —
In the High and Far-Off Times the Elephant,
O Best Beloved, had no trunk. He had only a blackish, bulgy nose, as big as a boot, that he could wriggle about from side to side; but he couldn’t pick up things with it. But there was one Elephant — a new Elephant — an Elephant’s child — who was full of ‘satiable curtiosity, and that means he asked ever so many questions. And he lived in Africa, and he filled all Africa with his ‘satiable curtiosities.
The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame, begins:—
The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing. It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said, “Bother!” and “O blow!” and also “Hang spring-cleaning!” and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat.
What distinguishes this writing? Rhythm, first of all. In each passage, rhythm sets the stage, establishes a tone, captivates the ear, sweeps interest along, and — so important from the child’s point of view — compels understanding. Kipling explains what he means by “ ‘satiable curtiosity,” but he has done far more. The repetition, the play on words involving a little joke (quite within reach of a fouryear-old child), “and he filled all Africa with his ‘satiable curtiosities,” works a charm: the new words are clinched.
There is humor, though it may be delicate and glancing, in each paragraph. There is vividness; there is drama. Clearly a storyteller is in control. And if we reopened Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or Peter Rabbit wc should find there the same qualities.
We cannot afford to put these books away, high up and out of reach; we must not lose faith in artistry. Literary terms may seem irrelevant, outside the range of four-year-old experience; but they refer, if art means anything, to realities the child is perfectly capable of absorbing. Remove them and the loss is plain. It is easy enough to teach ourselves this lesson by translating one or two of these paragraphs into the primer language of today.
Here, for instance, is Kipling: —
Once there was a little elephant named Tiny. Tiny lived in Africa with his Mummy and his Daddy and all the rest of his family. Tiny was big and black and he had bright eyes and floppy ears. But Tiny was not like the circus elephants you have seen. He had almost no trunk, — just a wriggly little nose instead. None of Tiny’s family had trunks either. What funny elephants they were!
Tiny liked to ask questions. He asked lots and lots of questions. One day he asked his Daddy . . .
The desecration is obvious enough. It is equally obvious that none of this immediately concerns the listening child. Any threeor four-year-old, in fact, if asked to choose between the travesty and the original, would almost certainly vote for Tiny the Elephant. Discrimination is not the child’s business: it is our business.
Paradoxically, these days, our major task in literary discrimination is to make sure the doors are open, not shut, and that thresholds may be crossed. We are no more in favor of The Forcing of Innocents than watchful educators are; we appeal merely for free exposure. If we complain that the picture-book stage is needlessly prolonged, we do not do so because we dislike picture books as such. We simply insist that the child who looks can also listen, that the world he lives in not only feels and tastes and smells and looks but also speaks.
Its speech is not all baby talk or primer language, nor is its substance limited to the flat, statement, the noted fact., the bare activity. Question and qualification surround the three-year-old; he is full of them himself. Give a child reasonable access to the ranges of expression and he will quickly learn the joy of putting into words what is not easy to express. His experience will take on now values: nightmares, even, may be exorcised. His vocabulary will match his growth and he will grow through his vocabulary. For nothing, surely, is more barren than the modern practice of urging young people to enlarge their vocabularies by memorizing three new words a day. The system is understandable when we are learning a foreign language. But in one’s own tongue this acquiring of the word out of context, this straining for expression when the need is absent, implies a separation between language and life that is completely unreal.
Discrimination begins at home. Me parents, and sisters and cousins and aunts, and uncles, and grandparents are in control. We do the buying and the reading. In the end it ‘s we who impose sentence and pay the penalty. If we can bolster up our own courage, have faith in our own literacy, make up our minds that Literature alone is good enough for little children, rewards will multiply. It is surely safe to prophesy that if we dust off and resurrect the classics, new ones will be born. If we are stern enough in our demands we may hope to encourage many more writers to enrich this field where child and adult meet on common ground. We may convince the author who is an author that only the best will serve our purposes and that the laws of supply and demand now operate in his favor.