Children’s Books that Weren’t

…Charlotte Mason wrote, “a special literature for children is probably far less necessary than the booksellers would have us suppose.” (Vol. 3, p. 122) She goes on to say that children of eight or nine would delight in books written for adults, such as Rasselas, Eothen, and the Fairie Queen. I think she changed her mind on that a bit later. I know I found Eothen a complete failure with children of eight or nine or even ten, but the same children loved Eothen when they were in grade ten.

Consider: “A Critical History of Children’s Literature” by Cornelia Meigs, Anne Thaxter Eaton, Elizabeth Nesbitt and Ruth Hill Viguers. “
Some of the first books published in English for children were like “Booke of Curtesys” published by Caxton in 1477. Cornelia Meigs says of Caxton, who published one of the first known books for children, the Booke of Curtesys, in 1477: “Caxton seems to have subscribed at once to that instinctive adult belief, showing itself as soon as books for children began, that the young should read only what would instruct and improve them. Even from that period of the middle and later fifteenth century we have a list of similarly edifying and duly neglected works- John Russell’s “Boke of Nurture” (between 1460 and 1470), Peter Idley’s “Instructions to His Son” (mid-fifteenth century), and “The Babees Book”, This last a translation from the Latin and ment for young gentlemen and not for those of such tender age as the title suggests. … Thus began the long succession of books of edification and admonition which in different forms were to be thrust upon childhood year after year, generation after generation. Nothing could be more immovable or more dismaying than this settled conviction, this stubborn blindness to the fact that children take what they like while admonition blows its windy breath in vain. Never, so it seems, did it occur to Caxton that in Malory he had a finer guide to courtesy and manners than any number of rhymed instructions to youth could ever bring forth.”

Caxton published Malory’s “Le Morte Darthur”. About it, Meigs writes, “Composed in an age even franker than our own in its manner of speaking of sex, these stories of Malory’s, as they cam from his hand, cannot be called wholly suitable writing for children. But as they have been edited by Sidney Lanier or retold by Howard Pyle, as they may very well be edited again for younger readers in the light of the discovery of an older version, they are the basis of narratives many times repeated. They are, moreover, the prime source of our own idea of medieval chivalry, of that essence of romance and courage and high action which appeals to young readers of all ages. Even those who have never read any of the tales direct know who Arthur was and what was the quality of his greatness, who Launcelot was and how high-minded were his bravery and his ambition. Even with retelling at second or third hand, there is always a response to that thrilling sense of what great deeds were done in England once upon a time.”

This Critical History of Children’s Literature notes that children chose their own literature from adult books. Adults, noting what the children were enjoying, would edit the books. Sometimes the adults were publishers. Sometimes they were parents, who edited extemporaneously as they read aloud.
Some examples: “The Principall Navigations, Voiages and Discoueries of the English nation made by Sea or over Land, in the most remote and farthest distant Quarters of the earth at any time within the compass of these 1500 yeeres”, by Richard Hakluyt; North’s English translation from the French translation by Jacques Amyot, Bishop of Auxerre, “The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romaines, Compared together by that Grave Learned Philosopher and Historiographer, Plutarke of Chaeronea”; John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress”; Defoe’s “The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner”; Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travel’s”, to name just a few from the first few chapters of the book.

From the introduction: “Here is something new and enchanting, a history of children’s literature. But what, after all, do we mean by that term? Is it that literature written especially for the young– the fairy and wonder tales, the nursery rhymes and songs, the dull books of etiquette and admonition and moral persuasion, the stories of school or playing field or of far-flung adventure? It is all of this, to be sure, but it is far more. It is the whole vast body of literature that children have adopted, commonly to share with their elders, but sometimes to monopolize. It is, quite literally, their literature. For it is, in the end, not the parents, the teachers, the preachers, not even the authors, but the children themselves who determine what their literature is to be. Over the years they have followed their own rules or, better yet, their instincts; they have rejected most of what was deliberately concocted for them, and embraced what was not; and over the years their judgment has been vindicated. It is because the writers of this book have accepted, and even concurred in, this judgment, that they have given us our first critical and comprehensive history of children’s literature.”

“They begin their chronicle with Celtic legends and tales, with the Arthurian legend so wonderfully re-created by Sir Thomas Malory, with Plutarch’s Lives, with the stirring history of distant voyages retold by Hakluyt, and with Pilgrim’s Progress. Now all of these stories and books have this in common. That they were not designed for the young at all. But very early the children took them over and made them their own, forced their elders, indeed, to revise and recast them in suitable form. This set the pattern for later generations, the pattern for almost the whole of English and American literature down to our own day [1953]. For, with important exceptions, that literature has not consciously recognized a dividing line between the young and the old, but has tended to see the world as a whole. It has not so much consciously, as instinctively, yielded to the clams of the young, recognized that they were entitled to enter into the world of the imagination, and made the pathway easy.”

“Had this not been the case, children would have been badly off (as they were in most Continental countries) for not until well into the nineteenth century was there a deliberate and successful effort to provide literature for children. Most of those books which we regard as classics of children’s literature were written without children in mind and were taken over by them with cheerful disregard of what they could not understand. None of these were aiming at children: Hakluyt, whose stories have stirred the imagination of the young for three hundred years, nor poor John Bunion, languishing in his gaol [jail] in Bedford, nor Daniel Defoe, old and cantankerous, nor harsh and embittered Swift. Thackeray thought of his Henry Esmond as “a book of cut-throat melancholy”; but children did not find it so, and generations of boys and girls have admired Esmond and his gallant exploits.”

“And Sir Walter Scott, for whom was he writing, this Greatheart of the North? Who read Ivanhoe and Quentin Durward and Rob Roy year after year, who but boys and girls? Those who have not read Scott at fifteen will probably never read him. And so, too, with the incomparable Jane Austen, with the Bronte Sisters– is not Wuthering Heights among the most popular of girls’ books? Or we can turn to the greatest of all, Charles Dickens who, except in his “Child’s History of England”, did not not consciously write for children but who, next to Hans Andersen and Mark Twain and Louisa Alcott, perhaps is the most widely read and the most dearly beloved of children’s authors. It is the children who weep over little Nell, who rejoice in David’s good fortune and when he finds a home with Betsy Trotwood, and who insist every year on the reading of A Christmas Carol.” “This History makes clear how the Victorian era introduced new elements, and new departures, how it witnessed the beginning of literature written especially with children in view, and written not only to edify but to entertain. It rejoiced in the contributions of that wonderful galaxy of women, Mrs. Gatty, Mrs. Ewing, Mrs. Molesworth, and Charlotte Yonge. It saw Captain Marryat and other reviving the art of Hakluyt and Defoe, and Charles Kingsley, better remembered for Westward Ho! than for his novels of social reform. It saw too, in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the verses of Edward Lear, the triumph of nonsense, of a peculiar madness which no other people but the English have ever matched.”

“But at the same time, as if in reaction from this direct catering to the needs and desires of the young, came the beginnings of a change in the great tradition of literature. George Eliot and Anthony Trollope did not write for the young, nor were their books (perhaps The Mill on the Floss is an exception) welcomed by the young. Nor will children read those other giants of the late Victorian era, Meredith and Hardy and Henry James. Already we see in these that indifference to the needs of the young, that complexity of though and manner so disconcerting to them, that awareness of evil so alien to children– all of those literary characteristics so prominent in the literature of our own day and so largely responsible for the growing divorce between the literature for adults and for children.”

“Yet the distinct tradition of writing the sort of literature which appealed to children as well as to adults continued to flourish through the Victorian age and into the twentieth century. It inspired Robert Louis Stevenson, the Stevenson not only of Treasure Island and Kidnapped but of a Child’s Garden of Verses. It was maintained by Kipling, the Kipling of the Jungle Books and Kim and Captains Courageous. It presided over the writing of Conan Doyle, over his historical romances like The White Company and over the adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Every normal boy is a Baker Street Irregular. ”

“In a different way, too, such a tradition inspired a number of authors who dedicated themselves almost exclusively to the service of children. Barrie is not quite of this company, though it is children who read him now, not adults. But Kenneth Grahame is, Grahame who was content to recall the Golden Age of childhood and whose every book was a classic. And so, to, is Andrew Lang, who made fairy tales live again and who is surely on of the greatest of all benefactors to the children of the world.” …..

“What an astonishing record it is when viewed as a whole, this record of children’s literature stretching from the Arthurian legends to Lord Jim. It is a record that cannot be matched by any other country or by any other literature. France offers us the magic stories of Perrault and much later, the fabulous world of Jules Verne; Italy submits Pinocchio; Switzerland the lovely tales of Spyri and Malot; Germany the folk tales collected by the brothers Grimm. Norway the fairy tales of Asbjornsen and Moe; and Sweden the wonderfully imaginative stories of Selma Lagerlof; and Denmark, of course the greatest of all, the tales of Hans Christian Andersen. Yet nowhere is there anything to compare with the English achievement.”

“Nowhere, that is, but in America, which inherited and enlarged the tradition that served children. Call the roll of American writers from Franklin to Howells and from Bryant to Carl Sandburg; almost all of them wrote for children or wrote books which children have taken over. … Most of the poets of the American Golden Age wrote what served the needs of children or what children took as their own. Whittier, Longfellow, Lowell, and Holmes belong to both categories, those poets whose benign countenances stared out at us in the amiable game of authors once so popular. Much of Whitman was unsuitable to the young, but he was the poet of the young, nevertheless, the kind of poet they could understand. A bit later it was the gentle Sidney Lanier who somehow found energy for The Boy’s King Arthur” and “The Boy’s Froissart” and even “The Boy’s Percy”. Emily Dickinson wrote for children, as did Stephen Crane and, in a sense, William Vaughn Moody, while the best poems of those “minor” poets, Eugene Field and James Whitcomb Riley, are all of them about children and some of them, like “Little Boy Blue,” destined to live long.” …

Something else that I think makes these works intended for adults by adopted by the children especially valuable to read is their outlook. Because they were written for adults, they have a grown up point of view, a mature way of looking at life and people. They stretch a child in a way that today’s books written for children just don’t, although certainly today’s children’s books are far more amusing and entertaining than yesteryear’s. There’s nothing wrong with reading books for fun, for entertainment. If I am hungry and it’s the middle of the day and I have an otherwise good diet, it’s not particularly harmful if I have a couple of cookies instead of a plate of raw broccoli. But if I eat only sweets because I have never learned to appreciate any vegetables or simple but nourishing foods such as pumpkin soup, roasted vegetables, cucumbers and cherry tomatoes, or a nice bit of roasted fish, then that is a problem.

What children in the past enjoyed, they can be brought to enjoy again (and so can the adults)- stretch them a bit, give them something to grow on. And you come, too.
(Many thanks to my old friend Leslie S. who helped me stretch and introduced me to this book, which I bought for my own).

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  1. Mama Squirrel
    Posted May 17, 2017 at 7:56 am | Permalink

    I like this very much! Thanks for sharing it.

    • Headmistress
      Posted May 17, 2017 at 8:06 am | Permalink

      Isn’t it a treat?

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