This 1864 essay looks at the proliferation of children's books, finding that quality does not keep pace with quantity.
. . . it is not the fiction which is objectionable, but the awkward, bungling manner of using it. Perhaps the most
fictitious of children's books are biographies of children. Next would come narratives which contrast honest, sober, truthful, peaceful, meek, generous boys, and
pious, neat, quiet, obedient, matronly girls, with their opposites. . . .
A rigid scrutiny by competent and disinterested parties would doubtless condemn
two-thirds of the current literature of childhood and youth . . .
This has become a very considerable department of publishing. Besides some eight or ten distinct associations organized for the purpose of producing this class of books, several private houses give their chief attention to it, and some of our most prominent general publishers assign it a conspicuous place on their shelves and in their catalogues. When we look back a half century or less, we can scarcely persuade ourselves that all the books specially designed for the young, which were within reach of the greediest bookworm among them, would not half fill a single shelf in our slenderest Sunday school book-cases. Five dollars would have purchased the whole. For the most part they were moral rather than religious in their tendency, and those that were religious were not particularly attractive. The earliest systematic attempt in our country to publish religious books, specially for children, was coeval with the establishment of Sunday schools. They were designed particularly as premiums for various good deeds, and the supply was then derived chiefly, we believe, from the American Sunday School Union. Some of Mrs. Sherwood's and Miss More's books, and a few original works--still in good repute--constituted the better part of their stock.
It is among the peculiar features of that Society that it is managed exclusively by laymen, and that the religious sentiments inculcated in its publications, are such as are held in common by what are known as the "Evangelical" denominations, and which are substantially set forth in the Apostles' Creed. When it was seen how efficient such an agency is for disseminating the elementary principles of Christianity, the different communions naturally availed themselves of it to propagate their distinctive views ; and commenced the publication of books adapted to that end. But finding the demand for children's books treating of controversial points in theology very limited, they soon resorted to the more general class, and indeed fell into the same line of issues with the Sunday School Union ; and hence it has come to pass that from three to five sets of plates of the same book are in use at the same time by as many different publishing societies or houses ! The American Tract Society also entered the same field, and has done its share towards throwing into the market some six, eight, and perhaps ten thousand volumes, which claim a special adaptation to the wants of children.
The demand has grown with the supply. Where a library of one or two hundred volumes was once amply sufficient for. Sunday School purposes, five hundred or a thousand are now called for; and as taste has become fastidious (not to say perverted), the "run" is upon a certain class of story books and there must be none among them that are too old to be called new. The result of all this is obvious. The teachers or friends of a school collect (by means of a fair or a congregational collection) say seventy-five or one hundred dollars to replenish the library. The parties intrusted with the purchase visit a bookstore, and make known their errand. The stock is examined or perchance the selection is left to the salesman. The points in view on his part are : 1. To absorb the whole sum to be expended, and 2. To make the best profit. On the other side, the aim is to secure the largest number of " new and interesting" books for the least money. The range of choice extends in size from eighteens of thirty-six pages to octavos of six hundred--and in character from "Alleine's Alarm" to Scott's novels. Of late years the smaller class of books, designed for "young children," are eschewed, no such persons being found any longer "in our midst," and it is not rare for an order to the amount of fifty or even one hundred dollars, to exclude all books, the price of which is less than twenty-five cents ! A considerable proportion of the books put up on such an order are probably as ill-adapted to the purpose as Newton's Principia would be to an infant school. The eagerness with which new publications are seized for this purpose stimulates ingenuity and labor in their production, and it is no matter of wonder that so broad a current should be shallow. The thinner the porridge the less are its nutrient qualities likely to be.
And this is the point .to which we intended to come--children's books--of all kinds and grades-- are they what they ought to be and might be? We think not. It is said that stories for children will have comparatively little influence over their minds so long as the power of story telling is on the side of the ordinary novel-writer. The force of this remark will be felt by any one who will read Trollope's "Three Clerks," or "Adam Bede," and pass from these pages into the best of the class of books which we have now in view. But it by no means follows that either of these novelists, could throw the like interest into a story for boys and girls. The slightest reflection will show that the scenes and incidents which give to those productions such marvellous power are utterly foreign from the experience and associations of childhood. What would "Orley Farm" be like, if the characters and plot were razeed to the ordinary sympathies and associations of children twelve or fourteen years old? The conflict of passions, the devices and stratagems of ambition, lust, jealousy, and avarice are happily terra incognita to their minds, and are not these the strings on which the authors we have named make their most enchanting music? The novels that captivate most are those in which we recognize most distinctly the author's fidelity to truth and nature. It is a perverted and corrupted taste that relishes the extravagancies of what are called sensation novels. They are to the mind what bad whiskey is to the body--the poison intoxicates rather than the alcohol. In a child's storybook the same fidelity to truth and nature is required, but it is the truth and nature with which they are familiar, and hence the task which is so difficult to the novel-writer from the complication and subtility of the motives and passions of grown men and women, does not fall upon the child's book maker ; nor, on the other hand, is there room or call, in the latter case, for the exercise of that masterly ingenuity which gives fame and influence to the Trollopes and Thackerays, the Yonges and Evanses of the adult book world.
It is fiction that gives the novel its charm, and is it forbidden in the child's book? Some promptly reply yes, but often with a very vague idea of what fiction is. Our observation, which is not very limited, has satisfied us that it is not the fiction which is objectionable, but the awkward, bungling manner of using it. Perhaps the most fictitious of children's books are biographies of children. Next would come narratives which contrast honest, sober, truthful, peaceful, meek, generous boys, and pious, neat, quiet, obedient, matronly girls, with their opposites. A photograph lens would be shivered in pieces by an attempt to make it represent such unnatural pictures. Equally revolting to truth and good taste are books which exaggerate the hideousness of vice, so that one must be blind as a stone who would not shrink from it. Such books are like some pictures of the group of the twelve disciples, which give Judas a face which would justify any policeman in taking him up at a venture.
For ourselves, we question much whether a better kind of fiction for young folks is not that old-fashioned story telling, in which fairies bore so conspicuous a part, and which effectually guarded, by the very grossness and humor of its extravagance, against any imposition upon the understanding; so that we do not regret to notice a gradual return of that class of books to the hands of children. A new edition of Gammer Grethel's "Fairy Tales," with illustrations by Cruikshank and Ludwig Grimm, published by Bohn, seems to us much better fitted to amuse, interest, and even instruct children under their teens than half the books which are written by religious men and women, published by religious presses, and indorsed and commended by religious editors. So of a tasty little volume just from an Eastern house, called " Dream Children." Yet nothing is farther from our purpose than to disparage by wholesale the current religious literature of childhood. Out of the thousands of volumes which claim a place in it, we could readily select scores, if not hundreds, which for their religious tendency alone (to say nothing of their high literary merit) are beyond all price. Our strictures apply to that large class of books which try to redeem the faults of a silly novel by the interspersion of texts of Scripture and religions maxims, and, under some imposing title, and by dint of liberal advertising and puffing, find their way into Sunday schools and families as aids and guides to a religious life in childhood! It may be doubted, perhaps, whether this vast array of reading matter, in this form, is not rather a hindrance than a help to improvement. The undisciplined mind of childhood roves listlessly from one book to another, skimming over the story not unfrequently, to the neglect of the other and holier duties in the sanctuary of God, and glancing at the pictures, while scarcely a thought is given to the principle illustrated, or to the lessons taught.
It is a striking feature in the economy of the divine government, that the task of moulding the character and. temper of the child is assigned to those who gave it being--thus pledging the strongest of natural affections to fidelity on one side, and submission and docility on the other. The living teacher in the daily or Sunday school stands next and oftentimes exerts an influence more effective and lasting than even that of the parents. But how immeasurably remote from both is the author and how cold and formal are the counsels and exhortations of a book compared with the gentle, loving words falling from the lips of a parent or teacher, and addressed to the then present conscious condition of the mind and heart? And yet, is it not to be feared that in this avalanche of books and libraries, the parent and teacher are pushed aside, and a stranger, sent by the printer and bookbinder, is admitted to the very sanctum of childhood without even an introduction !
We often hear it mentioned (and not without reason) as a subject of congratulation, that children now-a-days have so much greater facilities for improvement than were enjoyed by past generations. In what direction may we reasonably look for improvement if not in vigor of body and mind, in disposition, in habits, and in meetness for the duties and responsibilities of life ? Such improvement would surely show itself in deference to lawful authority, in personal and social integrity, in deeds of active benevolence, in gentleness and purity of manners, and a chivalric sense of honor, to say nothing of the sacred duties and obligations of religion. It is not pertinent to our present design to press the point, nor need we reply to the anticipated and habitual inquiry--what would have been our position if we had been left with only Miss Edgeworth's Tales, Miss More's Cheap Repository Tracts, and Goody Two Shoes; or where we should have been if the eight persons saved in the ark had been drowned?
Our purpose is answered if we excite others to think as we do of the extreme folly of multiplying children's books, simply because there is money to purchase them and children to read them. The remedy lies in the hands of parents and teachers. A rigid scrutiny by competent and disinterested parties would doubtless condemn two-thirds of the current literature of childhood and youth, as unfitted to strengthen the virtue or improve the understanding of its readers. In saying this we do not lose sight of the low capacity and forlorn education of many into whose hands these books fall, and who may gather many useful hints from them. A full supply of their wants would be included in the uncondemned third. .
We would not object to a liberal share of books that should simply detail the ordinary events of the daily life of children, with no formal " reflections," for these may be safely trusted to suggest themselves, if the narrative has much force. The religious books, such as we suppose would be generally sought for on the shelves of the Sunday school library, should be prepared with the best judgment and most scrupulous care, teaching the simplest doctrines of the Christian faith, which (thanks to Thee, 0 Father, Lord of heaven and earth); " are hidden from the wise and prudent and revealed to babes," and enforcing them by reference to relations and conditions which are familiar to ordinary child-life. That the highest dramatic power combined with unaffected simplicity may be employed successfully in conveying the sublimest of religious truths to the mind, is put beyond doubt by the story of Joseph and his brethren, Ruth and Naomi, and the prodigal son. No change could improve either of them, for the philosopher or for the peasant. If our best book-writers would give to one book the reflection and labor which they spend over ten, and if our publishers would be content to cater for the natural and wholesome appetite for new books, instead of stimulating a morbid craving for them, we should hail it as a token for good. This, however, is hardly to be expected, for since the world began it was never known that pens and presses were idle, so long as there was money to keep them busy.
American Literary Gazette and Publishers Circular, July 1, 1864: 140-42
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