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Elements To Avoid In The Selection Of Material

I am confronted in this portion of my work with a great difficulty, because I cannot afford to be as catholic as I could wish (this rejection or selection of material being primarily intended for those story-tellers dealing with normal children);

I am confronted in this portion of my work with a great difficulty, because I cannot afford to be as catholic as I could wish (this rejection or selection of material being primarily intended for those story-tellers dealing with normal children); but I do wish from the outset to distinguish between a story told to an individual child in the home circle or by a personal friend, and a story told to a group of children as part of the school curriculum. And if I seem to reiterate this difference, it is because I wish to show very clearly that the recital of parents and friends may be quite separate in content and manner from that offered by the teaching world. In the former case, almost any subject can be treated, because, knowing the individual temperament of the child, a wise parent or friend knows also what can be presented or not presented to the child; but in dealing with a group of normal children in school much has to be eliminated that could be given fearlessly to the abnormal child; I mean the child who, by circumstances or temperament, is developed beyond his years.

I shall now mention some of the elements which experience has shown me to be unsuitable for class stories.

I. Stories dealing with analysis of motive and feeling. This warning is specially necessary today, because this is, above all, an age of introspection and analysis.

We have only to glance at the principal novels and plays during the last quarter of a century, more especially during the last ten years, to see how this spirit has crept into our literature and life.

Now, this tendency to analyze is obviously more dangerous for children than for adults, because, from lack of experience and knowledge of psychology, the child's analysis is incomplete. It cannot see all the causes of the action, nor can it make that philosophical allowance for mood which brings the adult to truer conclusions.

Therefore, we should discourage the child who shows a tendency to analyze too closely the motives of its action, and refrain from presenting to them in our stories any example which might encourage them to persist in this course.

I remember, on one occasion, when I went to say good night to a little girl of my acquaintance, I found her sitting up in bed, very wide- awake. Her eyes were shining, her cheeks were flushed, and when I asked her what had excited her so much, she said: "I know I have done something wrong today, but I cannot quite remember what it was." I said: "But, Phyllis, if you put your hand, which is really quite small, in front of your eyes, you could not see the shape of anything else, however large it might be. Now, what you have done today appears very large because it is so close, but when it is a little further off, you will be able to see better and know more about it. So let us wait till tomorrow morning." I am happy to say that she took my advice. She was soon fast asleep, and the next morning she had forgotten the wrong over which she had been unhealthily brooding the night before.

2. Stories dealing too much with sarcasm and satire. These are weapons which are too sharply polished, and therefore too dangerous, to place in the hands of children. For here again, as in the case of analysis, they can only have a very incomplete conception of the case. They do not know the real cause which produces the apparently ridiculous appearance, and it is only the abnormally gifted child or grown-up person who discovers this by instinct. It takes a lifetime to arrive at the position described in Sterne's words: "I would not have let fallen an unseasonable pleasantry in the venerable presence of misery to be entitled to all the with which Rabelais has ever scattered." I will hasten to add that I should not wish children to have their sympathy too much drawn out, of their emotions kindled too much to pity, because this would be neither healthy nor helpful to themselves or others. I only want to protect children from the dangerous critical attitude induced by the use of satire which sacrifices too much of the atmosphere of trust and belief in human beings which ought to be an essential of childlife. By indulging in satire, the sense of kindness in children would become perverted, their sympathy cramped, and they themselves would be old before their time. We have an excellent example of this in Hans Christian Andersen's "Snow Queen." When Kay gets the piece of broken mirror into his eye, he no longer sees the world from the normal child's point of view; he can no longer see anything but the foibles of those about him, a condition usually reached by a course of pessimistic experience.

Andersen sums up the unnatural point of view in these words: "When Kay tried to repeat the Lord's Prayer, he could only remember the multiplication table." Now, without taking these words in any literal sense, we can admit that they represent the development of the head at the expense of the heart.

An example of this kind of story to avoid is Andersen's "Story of the Butterfly." The bitterness of the Anemones, the sentimentality of the Violets, the schoolgirlishness of the Snowdrops, the domesticity of the Sweetpeas—all this tickles the palate of the adult, but does not belong to the place of the normal child. Again, I repeat, that the unusual child may take all this in and even preserve his kindly attitude towards the world, but it is dangerous atmosphere for the ordinary child.

3. Stories of a sentimental character. Strange to say, this element of sentimentality appeals more to the young teachers than to the children themselves. It is difficult to define the difference between real sentiment and sentimentality, but the healthy normal boy or girl of, let us say, ten or eleven years old, seems to feel it unconsciously, though the distinction is not so clear a few years later.

Mrs. Elisabeth McCracken contributed an excellent article some years ago to the Outlook on the subject of literature for the young, in which we find a good illustration of this power of discrimination on the part of a child.

A young teacher was telling her pupils the story of the emotional lady who, to put her lover to the test, bade him pick up the glove which she had thrown down into the arena between the tiger and the lion. The lover does her bidding in order to vindicate his character as a brave knight. One boy after hearing the story at once states his contempt for the knight's acquiescence, which he declares to be unworthy.

"But," says the teacher, "you see he really did it to show the lady how foolish she was." The answer of the boy sums up what I have been trying to show: "There was no sense in his being sillier than she was, to show her she was silly." If the boy had stopped there, we might have concluded that he was lacking in imagination or romance, but his next remark proves what a balanced and discriminating person he was, for he added: "Now, if she had fallen in, and he had leapt after her to rescue her, that would have been splendid and of some use." Given the character of the lady, we might, as adults, question the last part of the boy's statement, but this is pure cynicism and fortunately does not enter into the child's calculations.

In my own personal experience, and I have told this story often in the German ballad form to girls of ten and twelve in the high schools in England, I have never found one girl who sympathized with the lady or who failed to appreciate the poetic justice meted out to her in the end by the dignified renunciation of the knight.

Chesterton defines sentimentality as "a tame, cold, or small and inadequate manner of speaking about certain matters which demand very large and beautiful expression." I would strongly urge upon young teachers to revise, by this definition, some of the stories they have included in their repertories, and see whether they would stand the test or not.

4. Stories containing strong sensational episodes. The danger of this kind of story is all the greater because many children delight in it and some crave for it in the abstract, but fear it in the concrete.[15] An affectionate aunt, on one occasion, anxious to curry favor with a four-yearold nephew, was taxing her imagination to find a story suitable for his tender years. She was greatly startled when he suddenly said, in a most imperative tone: "Tell me the story of a bear eating a small boy." This was so remote from her own choice of subject that she hesitated at first, but coming to the conclusion that as the child had chosen the situation he would feel no terror in the working up of its details, she a most thrilling and blood-curdling story, leading up to the final catastrophe. But just as she reached the great dramatic moment, the child raised his hands in terror and said: "Oh! Auntie, don't let the bear really eat the boy!" "Don't you know," said an impatient boy who had been listening to a mild adventure story considered suitable to his years, "that I don't take any interest in the story until the decks are dripping with gore?" Here we have no opportunity of deciding whether or not the actual description demanded would be more alarming than the listener had realized.

Here is a poem of James Stephens, showing a child's taste for sensational things: A man was sitting underneath a tree Outside the village, and he asked me What name was upon this place, and said he Was never here before. He told a Lot of stories to me too. His nose was flat.

I asked him how it happened, and he said, The first mate of the Mary Ann done that With a marling-spike one day, but he was dead, And a jolly job too, but he'd have gone a long way to have killed him.

A gold ring in one ear, and the other was bit off by a crocodile, bedad, That's what he said: He taught me how to chew.

He was a real nice man. He liked me too.

The taste that is fed by the sensational contents of the newspapers and the dramatic excitement of street life, and some of the lurid representations of the cinematograph, is so much stimulated that the interest in normal stories is difficult to rouse. I will not here dwell on the deleterious effects of over-dramatic stimulation, which has been known to lead to crime, since I am keener to prevent the telling of too many sensational stories than to suggest a cure when the mischief is done.

Kate Douglas Wiggin has said: "Let us be realistic, by all means, but beware, O story-teller, of being too realistic. Avoid the shuddering tale of 'the wicked boy who stoned the birds,' lest some hearer should be inspired to try the dreadful experiment and see if it really does kill." I must emphasize the fact, however, that it is only the excess of this dramatic element which I deplore. A certain amount of excitement is necessary, but this question belongs to the positive side of the subject, and I shall deal with it later on.

5. Stories presenting matters quite outside the plane of a child's interests, unless they are wrapped in mystery. Experience with children ought to teach us to avoid stories which contain too much allusion to matters of which the hearers are entirely ignorant. But judging from the written stories of today, supposed to be for children, it is still a matter of difficulty to realize that this form of allusion to "foreign" matters, or making a joke, the appreciation of which depends solely on a special and "inside" knowledge, is always bewildering and fatal to sustained dramatic interest.

It is a matter of intense regret that so very few people have sufficiently clear remembrance of their own childhood to help them to understand the taste and point of view of the normal child. There is a passage in the "Brownies," by Mrs.

Ewing, which illustrates the confusion created in the child mind by a facetious allusion in a dramatic moment which needed a more direct treatment. When the nursery toys have all gone astray, one little child exclaims joyfully: "Why, the old Rocking-Horse's nose has turned up in the oven!" "It couldn't," remarks a tiresome, facetious doctor, far more anxious to be funny than to sympathized with the child, "it was the purest Grecian, modeled from the Elgin marbles." Now, for grownup people this is an excellent joke, but for a child has not yet become acquainted with these Grecian masterpieces, the whole remark is pointless and hampering.[16] 6. Stories which appeal to fear or priggishness. This is a class of story which scarcely counts today and against which the teacher does not need a warning, but I wish to make a passing allusion to these stories, partly to round off my subject and partly to show that we have made some improvement in choice of subject.

When I study the evolution of the story from the crude recitals offered to our children within the last hundred years, I feel that, though our progress may be slow, it is real and sure. One has only to take some examples from the Chaps Books of the beginning of last century to realize the difference of appeal.

Everything offered then was either an appeal to fear or to priggishness, and one wonders how it is that our grandparents and their parents every recovered from the effects of such stories as were offered to them. But there is the consoling thought that no lasting impression was made upon them, such as I believe may be possible by the right kind of story.

I offer a few examples of the old type of story: Here is an encouraging address offered to children by a certain Mr. Janeway about the year 1828: "Dare you do anything which your parents forbid you, and neglect to do what they command? Dare you to run up and down on the Lord's Day, or do you keep in to read your book, and learn what your good parents command?" Such an address would have almost tempted children to envy the lot of orphans, except that the guardians and less close relations might have been equally, if not more, severe.

From "The Curious Girl," published about 1809: "Oh! papa, I hope you will have no reason to be dissatisfied with me, for I love my studies very much, and I am never so happy at my play as when I have been assiduous at my lessons all day." "Adolphus: How strange it is, papa, you should believe it possible for me to act so like a child, now that I am twelve years old!" Here is a specimen taken from a Chap Book about 1835: Edward refuses hot bread at breakfast. His hostess asks whether he likes it.

"Yes, I am extremely fond of it." "Why did you refuse it?" "Because I know that my papa does not approve of my eating it. Am I to disobey a Father and Mother I love so well, and forget my duty, because they are a long way off? I would not touch the cake, were I sure nobody would see me. I myself should know it, and that would be sufficient.

"Nobly replied!" exclaimed Mrs. C. "Act always thus, and you must be happy, for although the whole world should refuse the praise that is due, you must enjoy the approbation of your conscience, which is beyond anything else." Here is a quotation of the same kind from Mrs. Sherwood: Tender-souled little creatures, desolated by a sense of sin, if they did but eat a spoonful of cupboard jam without Mamma's express permission. . . .

Would a modern Lucy, jealous of her sister Emily's doll, break out thus easily into tearful apology for her guilt: 'I know it is wicked in me to be sorry that Emily is happy, but I feel that I cannot help it'? And would a modern mother retort with heartfelt joy: 'My dear child, I am glad you have confessed Now I shall tell you why you feel this wicked sorrow'?— proceeding to an account of the depravity of human nature so unredeemed by comfort for a childish mind of common intelligence that one can scarcely imagine the interview ending in anything less tragic than a fit of juvenile hysteria.

Description of a good boy: A good boy is dutiful to his Father and Mother, obedient to his master and loving to his playfellows. He is diligent in learning his book and takes a pleasure in improving himself in everything that is worthy of praise. He rises early in the morning, makes himself clean and decent, and says his prayers. He loves to hear good advice, is thankful to those who give it and always follows it. He never swears[17] or calls names or uses ill words to companions. He is never peevish and fretful, always cheerful and goodtempered.

7. Stories of exaggerated and coarse fun. In the chapter on the positive side of this subject I shall speak more in detail of the educational value of robust and virile representation of fun and of sheer nonsense, but as a preparation to these statements, I should like to strike a note of warning against the element of exaggerated and coarse fun being encouraged in our school stories, partly, because of the lack of humor in such presentations (a natural product of stifling imagination) and partly, because the strain of the abnormal has the same effect as the too frequent use of the melodramatic.

In an article in Macmillans's Magazine, December, 1869, Miss Yonge writes: "A taste for buffoonery is much to be discouraged, an exclusive taste for extravagance most unwholesome and even perverting. It becomes destructive of reverence and soon degenerates into coarseness. It permits nothing poetical or imaginative, nothing sweet or pathetic to exist, and there is a certain selfsatisfaction and superiority in making game of what others regard with enthusiasm and sentiment which absolutely bars the way against a higher or softer tone." Although these words were written nearly half a century ago, they are so specially applicable today that they seem quite "up-to-date." Indeed, I think they will hold equally good fifty years hence.

In spite of a strong taste on the part of children for what is ugly and brutal, I am sure that we ought to eliminate this element as far as possible from the school stories, especially among poor children. Not because I think children should be protected from all knowledge of evil, but because so much of this knowledge comes into their life outside school that we can well afford to ignore it during school hours. At the same time, however, as I shall show by example when I come to the positive side, it would be well to show children by story illustration the difference between brutal ugliness without anything to redeem it and surface ugliness, which may be only a veil over the beauty that lies underneath. It might be possible, for instance, to show children the difference between the real ugliness in the priest's face of the "Laocoon" group, because of the motive of courage and endurance behind the suffering. Many stories in everyday life could be found to illustrate this.

8. Stories of infant piety and death-bed scenes. The stories for children forty years ago contained much of this element, and the following examples will illustrate this point: Notes from poems written by a child between six and eight years of age, by name Philip Freeman, afterwards Archdeacon of Exeter: Poor Robin, thou canst fly no more, Thy joys and sorrows all are o'er.

Through Life's tempestuous storms thou'st trod, But now art sunk beneath the sod.

Here lost and gone poor Robin lies, He trembles, lingers, falls and dies.

He's gone, he's gone, forever lost, No more of him they now can boast.

Poor Robin's dangers all are past, He struggled to the very last.

Perhaps he spent a happy Life, Without much struggle and much strife.[18] The prolonged gloom of the main theme is somewhat lightened by the speculative optimism of the last verse.

Life, transient Life, is but a dream, Like Sleep which short doth lengthened seem Till dawn of day, when the bird's lay Doth charm the soul's first peeping gleam.

Then farewell to the parting year, Another's come to Nature dear.

In every place, thy brightening face Does welcome winter's snowy drear.

Alas! our time is much mis-spent.

Then we must haste and now repent.

We have a book in which to look, For we on Wisdom should be bent.

Should God, the Almighty, King of all, Before His judgment-seat now call Us to that place of Joy and Grace Prepared for us since Adam's fall.

I think there is no doubt that we have made considerable progress in this matter.

Not only do we refrain from telling these highly moral (sic) stories but we have reached the point of parodying them, in sign of ridicule, as, for instance, in such writing as Belloc's "Cautionary Tales." These would be a trifle too grim for a timid child, but excellent fun for adults.

It should be our study today to prove to children that the immediate importance to them is not to think of dying and going to Heaven, but of living and—shall we say?—of going to college, which is a far better preparation for the life to come than the morbid dwelling upon the possibility of an early death.

In an article signed "Muriel Harris," I think, from a copy of the Tribune, appeared a delightful article on Sunday books, from which I quote the following: "All very good little children died young in the storybooks, so that unusual goodness must have been the source of considerable anxiety to affectionate parents. I came across a little old book the other day called 'Examples for Youth.' On the yellow fly-leaf was written, in childish, carefully-sloping hand: 'Presented to Mary Palmer Junior, by her sister, to be read on Sundays,' and was dated 1828. The accounts are taken from a work on "Piety Promoted,' and all of them begin with unusual piety in early youth and end with the death-bed of the little paragon, and his or her dying words." 9. Stories containing a mixture of fairy tale and science. By this combination one loses what is essential to each, namely, the fantastic on the one side, and accuracy on the other. The true fairy tale should be unhampered by any compromise of probability even; the scientific representation should be sufficiently marvelous along its own lines to need no supernatural aid. Both appeal to the imagination in different ways.

As an exception to this kind of mixture, I should quote "The Honey Bee, and Other Stories," translated from the Danish of Evald by C. G. Moore Smith.

There is a certain robustness in these stories dealing with the inexorable laws of Nature. Some of them will appear hard to the child but they will be of interest to all teachers.

Perhaps the worst element in the choice of stories is that which insists upon the moral detaching itself and explaining the story. In "Alice in Wonderland" the Duchess says, "'And the moral of that is: Take care of the sense and the sounds will take care of themselves.' "How fond she is of finding morals in things," thought Alice to herself." (This gives the point of view of the child.) The following is a case in point, found in a rare old print in the British Museum: Jane S. came home with her clothes soiled and hands badly torn. "Where have you been?" asked her mother.

"I fell down the bank near the mill," said Jane, "and I should have been drowned, if Mr. M. had not seen me and pulled me out." "Why did you go so near the edge of the brink?" "There was a pretty flower there that I wanted, and I only meant to take one step, but I slipped and fell down.

Moral: Young people often take but one step in sinful indulgence [Poor Jane!], but they fall into soul-destroying sins. They can do it by a single act of sin. [The heinous act of picking a flower!] They do it; but the act leads to another, and they fall into the gulf of Perdition, unless God interposes.

Now, quite apart from the folly of this story we must condemn it on moral grounds. Could we imagine a lower standard of a Deity than that presented here to the child? Today the teacher would commend Jane for a laudable interest in botany, but might add a word of caution about choosing inclined planes in the close neighborhood of a body of running water as a hunting ground for specimens and a popular, lucid explanation of the inexorable law of gravity.

Here we have an instance of applying a moral when we have finished our story, but there are many stories where nothing is left to chance in this matter and where there is no means for the child to use ingenuity or imagination in making out the meaning for himself.

Henry Morley has condemned the use of this method as applied to fairy stories.

He says: "Moralizing in a fairy story is like the snoring ofBottom in Titania's lap." But I think this applies to all stories, and most especially to those by which we do wish to teach something.

John Burroughs says in his article, "Thou Shalt Not Preach":[19] "Didactic fiction can never rank high. Thou shalt not preach or teach; thou shalt portray and create, and have ends as universal as nature. . . . What Art demands is that the artist's personal convictions and notions, his likes and dislikes, do not obtrude themselves at all; that good and evil stand judged in his work by the logic of events, as they do in nature, and not by any special pleading on his part.

He does non hold a brief for either side; he exemplifies the working of the creative energy. . . . The great artist works in and through and from moral ideas; his works are indirectly a criticism of life. He is moral without having a moral.

The moment a moral obtrudes itself, that moment he begins to fall from grace as an artist. . . . The great distinction of Art is that it aims to see life steadily and to see it whole. . . . It affords the one point of view whence the world appears harmonious and complete." It would seem, then, from this passage, that it is of moral importance to put things dramatically.

In Froebel's "Mother Play" he demonstrates the educational value of stories, emphasizing that their highest use consists in their ability to enable the child, through suggestion, to form a pure and noble idea of what a man may be or do.

The sensitiveness of a child's mind is offended if the moral is forced upon him, but if he absorbs it unconsciously, he has received its influence for all time.

To me the idea of pointing out the moral of the story has always seemed as futile as tying a flower on a stalk instead of letting the flower grow out of the stalk, as Nature has intended. In the first case, the flower, showy and bright for the moment, soon fades away. In the second instance, it develops slowly, coming to perfection in fullness of time because of the life within.

Lastly, the element to avoid is that which rouses emotions which cannot be translated into action.

Mr. Earl Barnes, to whom all teachers owe a debt of gratitude for the inspiration of his educational views, insists strongly on this point. The sole effect of such stories is to produce a form of hysteria, fortunately short-lived, but a waste of force which might be directed into a better channel.[20] Such stories are so easy to recognize that it would be useless to make a formal list, but I make further allusion to them, in dealing with stories from the lives of the saints.

These, then, are the main elements to avoid in the selection of material suitable for normal children. Much might be added in the way of detail, and the special tendency of the day may make it necessary to avoid one class of story more than another, but this care belongs to another generation of teachers and parents.

Reference book: The Art Of The Story-Teller

Tags: Speech, public speaking, story telling, stories, ,

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