From The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. III, #15, Nov. 6, 1926
When we were little we had a distinct aversion to any book that bore the word “Illustrated” upon it. We somehow acquired the impression that this meant the contents had been abridged for children, and of such we would have nothing, for anything that savoured of being “written down” to children, raised a sort of mental rash in us more violent than measles or chickenpox. Indeed, although we have lived to outgrow our early mistake and to make handsome apologies to the word “Illustrated” when we meet it nowadays, we still bear the scars of that disease, which, for want of some better name, might be called the “Writing-For-Children-Fever.”
And it is not such a new germ as people imagine, though like appendicitis and nerves and psycho-analysis, it is being discussed solemnly and learnedly and as if it were an ailment peculiar to the twentieth century. But just listen to the plaint of Charles Lamb, writing to Coleridge in 1802:—
"Goody Two Shoes” is almost out of print. Mrs. Barbauld's stuff has banished all the old classics of the nursery, and the shopman at Newbery's hardly deigned to reach them off an old exploded corner of a shelf when Mary asked for them. Mrs. Barbauld's and Mrs. Trimmer's nonsense lay in piles about. Knowledge, insignificant and vapid as Mrs. Barbauld's books convey, it seems must come to a child in the shape of knowledge, and his empty noodle must be turned with conceit of his own powers when he has learnt that a horse is an animal, and Billy is better than a horse, and such like, instead of that beautiful interest in wild tales, which made the child a man, while all the time he suspected himself to be no bigger than a child. Science has succeeded in poetry no less in the little walks of children than with men. Is there no possibility of averting this sore evil? Think what you would have been now, if instead of being fed with tales and old wives' fables in childhood, you had been crammed with geography and natural history.”
It is indeed dreadful to think what Coleridge might have been under such conditions! True, he might have taken less laudanum, but would there have been an “Ancient Mariner”?
Mrs. Barbauld hasn't been writing books for children for a good many years, but the “Shadow of Information” still continues to fall heavily across the pages of so many of the children's books on publisher's lists. We have lately finished ploughing through a great batch of this year's juveniles and can testify that the crop of “Our Farmyard Friends;” “A Boy's Book of Wild Beasts;”“Freddie in the Country;” “Charlie in the City;” “What shall We Do On Rainy Days?” “Children of Yesterday for Boys and Girls of Today,” and such titles, is as flourishing as it ever was.
Of course I am not trying to say that there should not be plenty of text books full of sound facts and up to date information. Nothing is farther from my mind. I only mean that these shouldn't be all mixed and muddled with children's literature and the things of the imagination, as is so often the case. In adult literature it isn't this way. A cook book may be the very best of its kind, but it doesn't as a rule have a central character explaining how to mix the cake; giving explanations in question and answer and putting in funny remarks to disguise it into being something it isn't, and never could be. And it isn't put into the same class with beautiful stirring fiction. It isn't handed out to you with De la Mare's “Memoirs of a Midget,” or Galsworthy's “White Monkey,” or Willa Cather's “Lost Lady.” We always did resent this sort of thing even when we were too young to do anything about it. It isn't playing quite fair. Children have plenty of time for reading and they will swallow books of almost any sort on any subject, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they approve of them. Their minds are as constantly hungry as their bodies and they will try anything in sight. Here of course lies the great danger as well as the advantage. It is so easy to make yourself think you can force them to lap up information by the pageful simply by sugar-coating it with a thin layer of story. But suppose Kipling had written the “Jungle Books” to that formula?
If children thought it worth while to express themselves on this subject, I think they would say something rather like this:—“We don't want to be taught things; we want to be told them.” The best teachers are never the ones who seem to have a vast fund of information to impart. We learned more from a young teacher just fresh from college, who often made as many mistakes as her scholars, than we ever did from anyone else. She wasn't trying to teach us. We were all floundering together in the perilous seas of fractions and grammar and so-called science, and we all grasped at the same straws and became so excited in saving ourselves that we forgot we happened to be studying lessons. It was the same with the author of “The Swiss Family Robinson.” He made you so interested in saving the stranded family that you didn't realize till you came to the last page how much you had learned concerning desert islands. Really when one thinks about it, there is an extraordinary amount about the fauna and flora of the tropics and geography and trade winds and methods of building houses in warm climates in that book, as in “Robinson Crusoe,” but one just absorbs it along with the story,--joyfully and excitedly.
There is a mine of shrewd criticism in the admission of the little girl that she didn't like books that began;—“The natives of South Guinea are a wild and curious people.” She preferred those that started out;—“Mary was sitting on the doorstep.” We are all like that; we don't mind finding out later that our heroes and heroines are wild and curious, but we do want to know they were sitting or standing somewhere and doing something. And so the Pinocchios, the Alices, the Heidis, the Peter Pans, Rebeccas, and Light Princesses continue to go into new editions and to hold their own against the hordes of more recent juveniles that would crowd them off their shelves in Children's Rooms.
It was Charles Dudley Warner who said once in an address;—“I wish nobody had ever written a word for children. The silly people who try to write down to children had better try to write down to themselves.” That is put a bit strongly perhaps, but we think it is the whole truth in a nutshell. At the risk of being considered platitudinous and sentimental, I would also add that I believe all the lasting books for children were written by their authors to please themselves. They wrote, not because their publishers urged them to do a juvenile for “boys and girls from six to eight years;” not even for the living children playing about their knees and demanding entertainment, but rather for that infinetly more fascinating audience,—the child that every grown up person keeps all to himself.