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Ch. 5: Children's Stories


By Nora A. Smith


"To be a good story-teller is to be a king among children."


The business of story-telling is carried on from the soundest of economic motives, in order to supply a constant and growing demand. We are forced to satisfy the clamorous nursery-folk that beset us on every hand.

Beside us stands an eager little creature quivering with expectation, gazing with wide-open eyes, and saying appealingly, "Tell me a story!" or perhaps a circle of toddlers is gathered round, each one offering the same fervent prayer, with so much trust and confidence expressed in look and gesture that none but a barbarian could bear to disappoint it.

The story-teller is the children's special property. When once his gifts have been found out, he may bid good-by to his quiet snooze by the fire, or his peaceful rest with a favorite book. Though he hide in the uttermost parts of the house, yet will he be discovered and made to deliver up his treasure. On this one subject, at least, the little ones of the earth are a solid, unanimous body; for never yet was seen the child who did not love the story and prize the story-teller.

Perhaps we never dreamed of practicing the art of story-telling till we were drawn into it by the imperious commands of the little ones about us. It is an untrodden path to us, and we scarcely understand as yet its difficulties and hindrances, its breadth and its possibilities. Yet this eager, unceasing demand of the child-nature we must learn to supply, and supply wisely; for we must not think that all the food we give the little one will be sure to agree with him. because he is so hungry. This would be no more true of a mental than of a physical diet.

What objects, then, shall our stories serve beyond the important one of pleasing the little listeners? How can we make them distinctly serviceable, filling the difficult and well-nigh impossible rôle of "useful as well as ornamental"?

There are, of course, certain general benefits which the child gains in the hearing of all well-told stories. These are, familiarity with good English, cultivation of the imagination, development of sympathy, and clear impression of moral truth. We shall find, however, that all stories appropriate for young children naturally divide themselves into the following classes:--

I. The purely imaginative or fanciful, and here belongs the so-called fairy story.

II. The realistic, devoted to things which have happened, and might, could, would, or should happen without violence to probability. These are generally the vehicle for moral lessons which are all the more impressive because not insisted on.

III. The scientific, conveying bits of information about animals, flowers, rocks, and stars.

IV. The historical, or simple, interesting accounts of the lives of heroes and events in our country's struggle for life and liberty.

There is a great difference in opinion regarding the advisability of telling fairy stories to very young children, and there can be no question that some of them are entirely undesirable and inappropriate. Those containing a fierce or horrible element must, of course, be promptly ruled out of court, including the "bluggy" tales of cruel stepmothers, ferocious giants and ogres, which fill the so-called fairy literature. Yet those which are pure in tone and gay with fanciful coloring may surely be told occasionally, if only for the quickening of the imagination. Perhaps, however, it is best to keep them as a sort of sweetmeat, to be taken on, high days and holidays only.

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 be inspired to try the dreadful experiment and see if it really does kill. Tell not the story of the bears who were set on a hot stove to learn to dance, for children quickly learn to gloat over the horrible.

Deal with the positive rather than the negative in story-telling; learn to affirm, not to deny.

Some one perhaps will say here, the knowledge of cruelty and sin must come some time to the child; then why shield him from it now? True, it must come; but take heed that you be not the one to introduce it arbitrarily. "Stand far off from childhood," says Jean Paul, "and brush not away the flower-dust with your rough fist."

The truths of botany, of mineralogy, of zoology, may be woven into attractive stories which will prove as interesting to the child as the most extravagant fairy tale. But endeavor to shape your narrative so dexterously around the bit of knowledge you wish to convey, that it may be the pivotal point of interest, that the child may not suspect for a moment your intention of instructing him under the guise of amusement. Should this dark suspicion cross his mind, your power is Weakened from that moment, and he will look upon you henceforth as a deeply dyed hypocrite.

The historic story is easily told, and universally interesting, if you make it sufficiently clear and simple. The account of the first Thanksgiving Day, of the discovery of America, of the origin of Independence Day, of the boyhood of our nation's heroes,--all these can be made intelligible and charming to children. I suggest topics dealing with our own country only, because the child must learn to know the near-at-hand before he can appreciate the remote. It is best that he should gain some idea of the growth of his own traditions before he wanders into the history of other lands.

In any story which has to do with soldiers and battles, do not be too martial. Do not permeate your tale with the roar of guns, the smell of powder, and the cries of the wounded. Inculcate as much as possible the idea of a struggle for a principle, and omit the horrors of war.

We must remember that upon the kind of stories we tell the child depends much of his later taste in literature. We can easily create a hunger for highly spiced and sensational writing by telling grotesque and horrible tales in childhood. When the little one has learned to read, when he holds the key to the mystery of books, then he will seek in them the same food which so gratified his palate in earlier years.

We are just beginning to realize the importance of beginnings in education.

True, a king of Israel whose wisdom is greatly extolled, and whose writings are widely read, urged the importance of the early training of children about three thousand years ago; but the progress of truth in the world is proverbially slow. When parents and teachers, legislators and lawgivers, are at last heartily convinced of the inestimable importance of the first six years of childhood, then the plays and occupations of that formative period of life will no longer be neglected or left to chance, and the exercise of story-telling will assume its proper place as an educative influence.

Long ago, when I was just beginning the study of childhood, and when all its possibilities were rising before me, "up, up, from glory to glory,"--long ago, I was asked to give what I considered the qualifications of an ideal kindergartner.

My answer was as follows,--brief perhaps, but certainly comprehensive:--


  The music of St. Cecilia.
  The art of Raphael.
  The dramatic genius of Rachel.
  The administrative ability of Cromwell.
  The wisdom of Solomon.
  The meekness of Moses, and--
  The patience of Job.


Twelve years' experience with children has not lowered my ideals one whit, nor led me to deem superfluous any of these qualifications; in fact, I should make the list a little longer were I to write it now, and should add, perhaps, the prudence of Franklin, the inventive power of Edison, and the talent for improvisation of the early Troubadours.

The Troubadours, indeed, could they return to the earth, would wander about lonely and unwelcomed till they found home and refuge in the hospitable atmosphere of the kindergarten,--the only spot in the busy modern world where delighted audiences still gather around the professional story-teller.

If I were asked to furnish a recipe for one of these professional story-tellers, these spinners of childish narratives, I should suggest one measure of pure literary taste, two of gesture and illustration, three of dramatic fire, and four of ready speech and clear expression. If to these you add a pinch of tact and sympathy, the compound should be a toothsome one, and certain to agree with all who taste it.

And now as to the kind of story our professional is to tell. In selecting this, the first point to consider is its suitability to the audience. A story for very little ones, three or four years old perhaps, must be simple, bright, and full of action. They do not yet know how to listen; their comprehension of language is very limited, and their sympathies quite undeveloped. Nor are they prepared to take wing with you into the lofty realms of the imagination: the adventures of the playful kitten, of the birdling learning to fly, of the lost ball, of the faithful dog,--things which lie within their experience and belong to the sweet, familiar atmosphere of the household,--these they enjoy and understand.

It will be found also that the number of children to whom one is talking is a prominent factor in the problem of selecting a story. Two or three little ones, gathered close about you, may pay strict attention to a quiet, calm, eventless history; but a circle of twenty or thirty eager, restless little people needs more sparkle and incident.

If one is addressing a large number of children, the homes from which they come must be considered. Children of refined, cultivated parents, who have listened to family conversation, who have been talked to and encouraged to express themselves,--these are able to understand much more lofty themes than the poor little mites who are only familiar with plain, practical ideas, and rough speech confined to the most ordinary wants of life.

And now, after the story is well selected, how long shall it be? It is impossible to fix an exact limit to the time it should occupy, for much depends on the age and the number of the children. I am reminded again of recipes, and of the dismay of the inexperienced cook when she reads, "Stir in flour enough to make a stiff batter." Alas! how is she who has never made a stiff batter to settle the exact amount of flour necessary?

I might give certain suggestions as to time, such as, "Close while the interest is still fresh;" or, "Do not make the tale so long as to weary the children;" but after all, these are only cook-book directions. In this, as in many other departments of work with children, one must learn in that "dear school" which "experience keeps." Five minutes, however, is quite long enough with the babies, and you will find that twice this time spent with the older children will give room for a tale of absorbing interest, with appropriate introduction and artistic dénouement.

As one of the chief values of the exercise is the familiarity with good English which it gives, I need not say that especial attention must be paid to the phraseology in which the story is clothed. Many persons who never write ungrammatically are inaccurate in speech, and the very familiarity and ease of manner which the story-teller must assume may lead her into colloquialisms and careless expressions. Of course, however, the language must be simple; the words, for the most part, Saxon. No ponderous, Johnsonian expressions should drag their slow length through the recital, entangling in their folds the comprehension of the child; nor, on the other hand, need we confine ourselves to monosyllables, adopting the bald style of Primers and First Readers. It is quite possible to talk simply and yet with grace and feeling, and we may be sure that children invariably appreciate poetry of expression.

The story should always be accompanied with gestures,--simple, free, unstudied motions, descriptive, perhaps, of the sweep of the mother bird's wings as she soars away from the nest, or the waving of the fir-tree's branches as he sings to himself in the sunshine. This universal language is understood at once by the children, and not only serves as an interpreter of words and ideas, but gives life and attraction to the exercise.

Illustrations, either impromptu or carefully prepared beforehand, are always hailed with delight by the children. Nor need you hesitate to try your "'prentice hand" at this work. Never mind if you "cannot draw." It must be a rude picture, indeed, which is not enjoyed by an audience of little people. Their vivid imaginations will triumph over all difficulties, and enable them to see the ideal shining through the real. It is well now and then, also, to have the children illustrate the story. Their drawings, if executed quite without help, are, most interesting from a psychological standpoint, and will afford great delight to you, as well as to the little artists themselves.

The stories can also be illustrated with clay modeling, an idealized mud-pie-making very dear to children. They soon become quite expert in moulding simple objects, and enjoy the work with all the capacity of their childish hearts.

Now and then encourage the little ones to repeat what they remember of the tale you have told, or to tell something new on the same theme. If the story you have given has been within their range and on a familiar subject, a torrent of infantile reminiscence will immediately gush forth, and you will have a miniature "experience meeting." If you have been telling a dog story, for instance,--"I hed a dog once't," cries Jimmy breathlessly, and is just about to tell some startling incident concerning him, when Nickey pipes up, "And so hed I, and the pound man tuk him;" and so on, all around the circle in the Free Kindergarten, each child palpitating with eagerness to give you his bit of personal experience.

Gather the little ones as near to you as possible when you are telling stories, the tiniest in your lap, the others cuddled at your knee. This is easily managed in the nursery, but is more difficult with a large circle of children. With the latter you can but seat yourself among the wee ones, confident that the interest of the story will hold the attention of the older children.

What a happy hour it is, this one of story-telling, dear and sacred to every child-lover! What an eager, delightful audience are these little ones, grieving at the sorrows of the heroes, laughing at their happy successes, breathless with anxiety lest the cat catch the disobedient mouse, clapping hands when the Ugly Duckling is changed into the Swan,--all appreciation, all interest, all joy! We might count the rest of the world well lost, could we ever be surrounded by such blooming faces, such loving hearts, and such ready sympathy.


Kate Douglas Wiggin