There is no branch of literature that better deserves cultivation, and none that so little obtains it from worthy hands, as this of Children's Books. It requires a peculiar development of the genius and sympathies, rare among men of factitious life, who are not men enough to revive with force and beauty the thoughts and scenes of childhood.
It is all idle to talk baby-talk, and give shallow accounts of deep things, thinking thereby to interest the child. He does not like to be too much puzzled; but it is simplicity be wants, not silliness. We fancy their angels, who are always waiting in the courts of our Father, smile somewhat sadly on the ignorance of those who would feed them on milk and water too long, and think it would be quite as well to give them a stone.
There is too much amongst us of the French way of palming off false accounts of things on children, "to do them good," and showing nature to them in a magic lantern "purified for the use of childhood," and telling stories of sweet little girls and brave little boys,—O, all so good, or so bad! and above all, so little, and everything about them so little! Children accustomed to move in full-sized apartments, and converse with full-grown men and women, do not need so much of this baby-house style in their literature. They like, or would like if they could get them, better things much more. They like the Arabian Nights, and Pilgrim's Progress, and Bunyan's Emblems, and Shakspeare, and the Iliad and Odyssey,—at least, they used to like them; and if they do not now, it is because their taste has been injured by so many sugar-plums. The books that were written in the childhood of nations suit an uncorrupted childhood now. They are simple, picturesque, robust. Their moral is not forced, nor is the truth veiled with a well-meant but sure-to-fail hypocrisy. Sometimes they are not moral at all,—only free plays of the fancy and intellect. These, also, the child needs, just as the infant needs to stretch its limbs, and grasp at objects it cannot hold. We have become so fond of the moral, that we forget the nature in which it must find its root; so fond of instruction, that we forget development.
Where ballads, legends, fairy-tales, are moral, the morality is heart-felt; if instructive, it is from the healthy common sense of mankind, and not for the convenience of nursery rule, nor the "peace of schools and families."
O, that winter, freezing, snow-laden winter, which ushered in our eighth birthday! There, in the lonely farm-house, the day's work done, and the bright woodfire all in a glow, we were permitted to slide back the panel of the cupboard in the wall,—most fascinating object still in our eyes, with which no stateliest alcoved library can vie,—and there saw, neatly ranged on its two shelves, not—praised be our natal star!—Peter Parley, nor a History of the Good Little Boy who never took anything that did not belong to him; but the Spectator, Telemachus, Goldsmith's Animated Nature, and the Iliad.
Forms of gods and heroes more distinctly seen, and with eyes of nearer love then than now!—our true uncle, Sir Roger de Coverley, and ye, fair realms of Nature's history, whose pictures we tormented all grown persons to illustrate with more knowledge, still more,—how we bless the chance that gave to us your great realities, which life has daily helped us, helps us still, to interpret, instead of thin and baseless fictions that would all this time have hampered us, though with only cobwebs!
Children need some childish talk, some childish play, some childish books. But they also need, and need more, difficulties to overcome, and a sense of the vast mysteries which the progress of their intelligence shall aid them to unravel. This sense is naturally their delight, as it is their religion, and it must not be dulled by premature explanations or subterfuges of any kind. There has been too much of this lately.
Miss Edgeworth is an excellent writer for children. She is a child herself, as she writes, nursed anew by her own genius. It is not by imitating, but by reproducing childhood, that the writer becomes its companion. Then, indeed, we have something especially good, for,
"Like wine, well-kept and long, Heady, nor harsh, nor strong, With each succeeding year is quaffed, A richer, purer, mellower draught."
Miss Edgeworth's grown people live naturally with the children; they do not talk to them continually about angels or flowers, but about the things that interest themselves. They do not force them forward, nor keep them back. The relations are simple and honorable; all ages in the family seem at home under one roof and sheltered by one care.
The Juvenile Miscellany, formerly published by Mrs. Child, was much and deservedly esteemed by children. It was a healthy, cheerful, natural and entertaining companion to them.
We should censure too monotonously tender a manner in what is written for children, and too constant an attention to moral influence. We should prefer a larger proportion of the facts of natural or human history, and that they should speak for themselves.