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'On books for young folks' by James Baldwin (1884)

George_Romney_Child_Reading_(possibly_Mrs_Cumberland_and_her_son)The greatest problem presented to the consideration of parents and teachers now-a-days is how properly to regulate and direct the reading of the children. There is no scarcity of reading-matter. The poorest child may have free access to books and papers, more than he can read. The publication of periodicals and cheap books especially designed to meet the tastes of young people has developed into an enterprise of vast proportions. Every day, millions of pages of reading matter designed for children are printed and scattered broadcast over the land. But unlimited opportunities often prove to be a damage and a detriment; and over-abundance, rather than scarcity, is to be deplored.

As a general rule, the books read by young people are not such as lead to studious habits, or induce correct ideas of right living. They are intended simply to amuse; there are no elements of strength in them, leading up to a noble manhood. I doubt if in the future it can be said of any great statesman or scholar that his tastes had been formed, and his energies directed and sustained, through the influence of his early reading; but rather that he had attained success, and whatever of true nobility there is in him, in spite of such influence.

How then shall we so order the child’s reading as to avoid the formation of desultory and aimless habits?

Naturally, the earliest reading is the story, simple, short, straightforward recitals of matters of daily occurrence, of the doings of children and their parents, their friends or their pets. Now and then we may pick up a good book, too, for this class of readers; but there are many worthless books here, as elsewhere, and careful parents will look well into that which they buy. The illuminated covers are often the only recommendation of books of this kind. Numbers of them are made only for the holiday trade; the illustrations of many are from second-hand cuts; and the text is frequently written to fit the illustrations. A pure, fresh book for a little child is a treasure to be sought for and appreciated.

Very early in child-life comes the period of a belief in fairies; and the reading of fairy-stories is, to children, a very proper, nay, a very necessary thing. I pity the boy or girl who must grow up without having made intimate acquaintance with “Mother Goose,” and the wonderful stories of “Jack the Giant-Killer,” and “Blue Beard,” and “Cinderella,” and those other strange tales as old as the race itself, and yet new to every succeeding generation. They are a part of the inheritance of the English-speaking people, and belong, as a kind of birthright, to every intelligent child.

As your little reader advances in knowledge and reading-ability, he should be treated to stronger food. Grimm’s “Household Stories” and the delightful “Wonder Stories” of Hans Christian Andersen, should form a part of the library of every child as he passes through the “fairy-story period” of his life; nor can we well omit to give him Charles Kingsley’s “Water Babies,” and “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” And now, or later, as circumstances shall dictate, we may introduce him to that prince of all wonder-books, “The Arabian Nights’ Entertainment,” in an edition carefully adapted to children’s reading. The tales related in this book “are not ours by birth, but they have nevertheless taken their place amongst the similar things of our own which constitute the national literary inheritance. Altogether, it is a glorious book, and one to which we cannot well show enough of respect.”

And while your reader lingers in the great world of poetic fancy and child-wonder, let him revel for a while in those enchanting idyls and myths which delighted mankind when the race was young and this earth was indeed a wonder-world. These he may find, apparelled in a dress adapted to our modern notions of propriety, in Hawthorne’s “Wonder Book” and “Tanglewood Tales,” in Kingsley’s “Greek Heroes,” and, in a more prosaic form, in Cox’s “Tales of Ancient Greece;” and in “The Story of Siegfried,” and, later, in Morris’s “Sigurd the Volsung,” he may read the no less charming myths of our own northern ancestors, and the world-famous legend of the Nibelungen heroes. Then, by a natural transition, you advance into the border-land which lies between the world of pure fancy and the domains of sober-hued reality. You introduce your reader to some wholesome adaptations of those Mediæval Romances, which, with their one grain of fact to a thousand of fable, gave such noble delight to lords and ladies in the days of chivalry. These you will find in Sidney Lanier’s “Boy’s King Arthur” and “Boy’s Mabinogion;” in “The Story of Roland,” by the author of the present volume; and in Bulfinch’s “Legends of Charlemagne” and “The Age of Chivalry.”

Do you understand now to what point you have led your young reader? You have simply followed the order of nature and of human development, and you have gradually - almost imperceptibly even to yourself - brought him out of the world of child-wonder and fairy-land, through the middle ground of chivalric romance, to the very borders of the domains of history. He is ready and eager to enter into the realms of sober-hued truth; but I would not advise undue haste in this matter. The mediæval romances have inspired him with a desire to know more of those days when knights-errant rode over sea and land to do battle in the name of God and for the honor of their king, the Church, and the ladies; he wants to know something more nearly the truth than that which the minstrels and story-tellers of the Middle Ages can tell him. And yet he is not prepared for a sudden transition from romance to history. Let him read “Ivanhoe;” then give him Howard Pyle’s “Story of Robin Hood” and Lanier’s  “Boy’s Percy;” and if you care to allow him so much more fiction, let him read Madame Colomb’s “Franchise” as translated and adapted by Davenport Adams in his “Page, Squire, and Knight.” Can you withhold history longer from your reader? I think not. He will demand some authentic knowledge of Richard the Lion-hearted, and of King John, and of the Saxons and Normans, and of the Crusades, and of the Saracens, and of Charlemagne and his peers. Lose not your opportunity, but pass over with your pupil into the promised land. The transition is easy, imperceptible, in fact, and, leaving fiction and “the story” behind you, you enter the fields of truth and history. The way is easy now, the road is open, you need no further guidance - only, keep straight ahead.

There are other books, of course, which the young reader will find in his way, and which it is altogether proper and necessary that he should read. For instance, there is “Robinson Crusoe,” without a knowledge of which the boy loses one of his dearest enjoyments. And no substitute for the original Robinson will answer. “The Swiss Family Robinson” approaches nearest in excellence to Defoe’s immortal creation, and may very profitably form a part of every boy’s or girl’s library. Then, among the really unexceptionable books, of the healthful, hopeful, truthful sort, I may name “Tom Brown’s School Days at Rugby,” Lamb’s “Tales from Shakspeare,” Mitchell’s “About Old Story-Tellers;” the inimitable “Bodley Books,” Bayard Taylor’s “Boys of Other Countries,” Abbott’s “Franconia Stories,” and a few others in the line of History or Travels. These I believe to be, in every sense, proper, wholesome books, free from all kinds of mannerisms, free from improper language, free from sickly sentiment and “gush”, and these, if not the most instructive books, are the sort of books which the child or youth should read as a kind of relish or supplement to the more methodical course of reading which I have elsewhere indicated.

In this careful direction of the child’s reading, and in the cultivation of his literary taste, if you have succeeded in bringing him to the point which we have indicated, you have done much towards forming his character for life. There is little danger that bad books will ever possess any attractions for him; he will henceforth be apt to go right of his own accord, preferring the wholesome and the true to any of the flashy allurements of the “literary slums and grog-shops”, which so abound and flourish in these days.

But perhaps the fundamental error in determining what books children shall read lies in the very popular notion that to read much, and to derive pleasure and profit from our reading, many books are necessary. And the greatest obstacle in the way of forming and directing a proper taste for good reading is to be found, not in the scarcity, but in the superabundance of reading matter. The great flood of periodical literature for young people is the worst hindrance to the formation of right habits in reading. Some of these periodicals are simply unadulterated “pen poison,” designed not only to enrich their projectors, but to deprave the minds of those who read. Others are published, doubtless, from pure motives and with the best intentions; but, being managed by inexperienced or incapable editors, they are, at the best, but thin dilutions of milk-and-water literature, leading to mental imbecility and starvation. The periodicals fit to be placed in the hands of reading children may be numbered on half your fingers; and even these should not be read without due discrimination.

Too great a variety of books or papers placed at the disposal of inexperienced readers offers a premium to desultoriness, and fosters and encourages the habit of devouring every species of literary food that comes to hand. Hence we should beware not only of the bad, but of too great plenty of the good. “The benefit of a right good book,” says Mr. Hudson, “all depends upon this, that its virtue just soak into the mind, and there become a living, generative force. To be running and rambling over a great many books, tasting little here, a little there, and tying up with none, is good for nothing; nay, worse than nothing."

Extracted from The Book-Lover: A Guide to the Best Reading by James Baldwin (Chicago: Jansen, McClurg, 1884).

Image: Child Reading (possibly Mrs Cumberland and her son) by George Romney.