Our neighbour is a author, most celebrated for her books for children and young adults. She recently had discussions with her publishers about new book ideas and had been informed that they advised against discussion of death or themes of mortality in books aimed at a young audience. This rather surprised me as most of the books I read, or had read to me, when I was young were primarily concerned with the grisly fates of bad children. All the fairy tales I can remember were light on fairies and rather heavy on wolves, ogres and axemen. I recall when I was reading the “Big Book of Children’s’ Tales” to my three children that these were not fantasy stories; these were largely morality tales, heavy on judgement and often quite gruesome. I remember the kids preferred the most gruesome ones the best.
I think her publisher might have been surprised had he seen my recent purchase. Stuwwelpeter by Dr. Heinrich Hoffman. I was able to find a hardback copy of this in good condition on ebay and have thoroughly enjoyed re-reading it. Published in 1845 this was one of the earliest children’s’ picture and story books. It was written by Dr. Hoffman a psychiatrist who was disappointed by the lack of good books for children. Unable to find one suitable for his own son’s birthday present he wrote his own which was subsequently published to great, international success. This is a collection of ‘improving’ tales with clear moral messages for the young reader.
It is still the case that children’s books often have an educational aspect and often have an ethical and moral message woven through the story. When I looked at the shortlists for children’s fiction this year in Britain it was clear that the majority still had such a message. However, there was a significant difference. The books were less concerned with a range of moral dilemmas but rather focussed on a very few themes. Indeed, if nearly all of them concerned the theme of tolerance of diversity and even those concerned with mental illness, or gender identity, also took this tack.
Tolerance of diversity is very obviously a good thing and we’d wish our children to be open minded and not to be prejudiced. However, I am not sure we need to inculcate this. The scientific evidence would tend to suggest that children are intrinsically open to others and do not fear or dislike people who look different to them. It seems very likely that racists and bigots have to be made, we have to teach these sins, children are not born that way. That this theme predominates in these books probably reflects the preoccupations and concerns of the writers, publishers and buyers of these books – this is a fear of adults rather than children. Having said this even in this collection there is one cautionary tale warning children against judging people by the colour of their skin.
The ten tales in this book tackle a wide range of concerns and give a range of instructions : Don’t be cruel (to people or animals); Don’t be greedy; Be prudent and careful; Be honest and don’t lie; Listen to good advice and Always remember your actions have consequences. This is an effective moral toolbox for young children and as useful today as it was then. More importantly the stories are told in rhymes that just cry out to be read aloud and are accompanied by illustrations which wonderfully detail the stories. As I have discovered, even the oldest decrepit grandfather can become an accomplished thespian when reading these stories with the powerful rhymes and the correct hand gestures. I think you will be able to guess the hand movements that accompany this part of “The Story of Little Suck-A-Thumb”:-
The great, long, red-legg'd scissor-man. Oh! children, see! The tailor's come And caught out little suck-a-thumb. Snip! Snap! Snip! the scissors go; And Conrad cried out --- Oh! Oh! Oh! Snip! Snap! Snip! They go so fast, That both his thumbs are off at last.
When my daughter saw that I had this book as bedtime reading for my grandchildren, I saw a worried frown pass over her forehead. I could see a question of “Is that suitable ?” cross her mind. I reminded her that she had grown up unscathed by its effect and had developed as a mature moral individual. Then as she looked again, and saw the pictures, the memories rushed back. She could remember the stores especially the tale of ‘Henrietta and the matches ‘and particularly recalled the kittens crying for poor deceased Henrietta. She remembered also that it made her very wary of playing with fire or matches, which was largely the point.
The acid test for this book, however, was not my opinion although I did enjoy it greatly. More importantly my two young grandchildren now look forward to reading from this book and have it as their bedtime favourite. They have no awareness that it is nearly two centuries old despite the dated pictures and the clothing of the characters. To them they are simply fun stories with engaging pictures which is largely what Heinrich Hoffman called it originally.
Lustige Geschichten und drollige Bilder
mit 15 schön kolorierten Tafeln
für Kinder von 3–6 Jahren
Funny stories and whimsical pictures
with 15 beautifully coloured panels
for children aged 3–6
Perhaps current manufacturers of children’s book could have a peek at Hoffman’s book (or those by Grimm, Andersen or Aesop) and realise that children can cope with the important themes of life and are receptive to thinking about moral issues.