Monday, July 6, 2009

Thoughts on Children's Literature from 1927

I recently found this gem of a book in an antique shop. It's a Handbook of Children's Literature text book by Gardner and Ramsey, copyrighted in 1927.

I thought it would be interesting to see how opinions have changed over the years. When I read the opening sentence I knew I wouldn't be disappointed.

It begins:

"Whether or not literature can be taught has been a long-debated question, but it has finally yielded its place to the more significant topic "What literature shall be taught?"

That got me right off the bat. Really? There was a debate on whether or not literature COULD be taught. I find it interesting that the wording wasn't "should be taught" I'm baffled that there was a question about the "can" literature be taught. I can't wrap my mind around that.

It makes my head hurt.

I've already come across some interesting things and I'll share some things over time, for instance, there is no section for fantasy literature in this text book. It talks about Folk Literature, Poetry and rhymes (which they spell it "Rimes"), Subject Matter books and Illustrated books.

And then, after noticing the lack of Fantasy literature, I came across this passage on Page 13. My comments are in red.

"Literature for children should be not only basically true (I guess that throws Fantasy Lit out the window.) but of such a nature that it appeals to the emotions. . . . . .. .It is the emotional appeal which leads a child to ask again and again for certain selections. The pleasure they give him may be the gentle melancholy (Isn't "melancholy" another word for "I'm bored out of my friggen skull!") which is the instinctive reaction to a "thing of beauty," as in the case of "The Snow Queen," by Hans Christian Anderson. Again the feeling aroused may be mirthful, like that excited by the "Jabberwocky," of Lewis Carroll; or it may be a thrill of excitement or fear, such as comes from tales of daring like those of Robert Louis Stevenson. Literature that excites disgust, (I wonder what these authors and their students would think of Dave Pilkey and Captain Underpants?) contempt, and despair with reference to people, conditions, and life itself should have no place in children's lives. If realistic literature is chosen it should be the kind of realism which is fair to life, not that wich makes it a sorry, hopeless business to be borne as best it may. Adolescents frequently find a kind of morbid pleasure in poring over stories which represnt all effort as futile struggle. (Yes. by all means, lets not give children subject matters that acutally appeals to them and captures their interest. That would just be silliness.) As a substituted they may be led to read some good historical novels, books of travel and adventure, bracing biographies, and beautiful poetry."

I'm interested to know. What are your thoughts and reactions to this passage?

What do you think was positive about this way of thinking? and/or Why do you think that there has been a huge shift in this philosophy?


Julia said...

Interesting indeed! I think that I would include anything by Hans Christian Anderson and Lewis Carroll as fantasy! (Altho' I bet that's their "Folk" lit.) So, I wonder what they mean by "basically true" - it can't be "not fantasy."

It is interesting that their take on what "realistic" lit is chosen should be uplifting rather than morbid. Sounds a bit like suggesting to a current teen that they watch romantic comedies rather than slasher movies!

Certainly is a commentary on their times! "Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it."

C.R. Evers said...

Hi Julia! It's interesting that you use that quote, because the authors do mention something similar "as the twig is bent; so the tree is inclined"

If memory serves me right, I also believe that Fantasy is really a more recent genre and was almost always considered "kids" stories as opposed to adults. It's only in the latter 20th century that Fantasy has crossed the age barrier.

I just found it interesting that unrealistic literature is held in such low regard.

Christina Farley said...

First of all, what a neat book! I love reading the old books and seeing what the perspective was like in the early 1900's.

I do think it's funny about the strong belief that literature should be realistic. Gosh, we'll need to get rid of some much literature if that's the case.

But then, my thoughts tend to think of the future. What are we writing now that our decendants will be saying 'can you believe how narrow minded they were?!'

It will happen. Mark my words!

Kelly said...

What a great find!
Times definitely do change. Christina brought up a good point, what will people say about literature from today in the far future?!

Anonymous said...

I am really surprised to see that this was published by Scott Foresman. I've got a little age on most of you, and the readers I had in the early grades were published in the late 30s through the early 50s depending on how long they had been recycled. My earliest and most favorite readers were the folktales and stories about fairies. So this point of view may not have lasted too long, except that was only about the 2nd grade in an old school. Then again, the Dick Jane and Sally series lasted a long time and it was Scott Foresman. I have a copy of Three Friends, the health book I had in about the third or fourth grade by Scott Foresman. It was stories similar to Dick Jane and Sally with a health message.

Kate said...

'The Snow Queen' inducing melancholy. It scared the life out of me when our teacher read it. I had a recurring nightmare for years afterwards!
You have to remember though, that kids were different in those days - they didn't expect everything super-fast, super-exciting like a lot do now. But they still don't want their stories to be depressing. They need to know that good can still happen, no matter how bad the situation may seem. Or is that just me?

Rena said...

Interesting how things have changed so much over the years. I think in many cases, it's gone from one extreme to the other. What this book says you shouldn't write about, is exactly what is being written. It sounds like an interesting book to read!

C.R. Evers said...

Christina, I think about what people will think of us in the future too. I even have a future post in mind about it. There's nothing like hindsight.

Hi Kelly! Thnx!

Hi Jan! I was hoping someone with more experience would chime in. It's very interesting to hear. The authors do say that Fairy Tales are "OK" and some of the books that they mention could be thought of as "unrealistic" so I'm wondering if there's a lapse in what they mean and what we think they mean. You know what I mean? ;0)

Kate, that's so interesting to hear about your reaction to the Snow Queen. Maybe "melancholy" meant something different back then or had different connotations. That is a good point about kids and their thinking being different. What is scary/exciting to one generation may not be to another.

C.R. Evers said...

Hi Rena! It is very intersting. I've had a good time browsing through this book and thinking about the differences over the generations and the roots of Children's Literature. Very interesting. At least to me, anyway.

Angela said...

The definitions of words do change... I have a few old dictionaries...I'm sure one goes back to the 1920s. I'll check out "melancholy" and report back if the usage differed from today.

I also love collecting old school texts.

I also wondered about the use of "could" as it if literature "could be taught" I wonder if it was intended in the sense of appreciation. As if literature is like art, opera, wine - - - you 'feel it' more than 'learn it'? (Am I going off on a tangent here?)

This is really a conversation starter!