LITERATURE FOR CHILDRENTo write for children is an art form that is unusually rare and difficult. Apart from a special calling it demands of the apostle suitable preparation and wise action.
Moral preparation, that is, a person who has a good, honest and cheerful character. Specifically, one who loves children a great deal. It is a given that if people do not have a sincere and effectual love for children they won't know how to understand and deal with them.
So many talented writers influence and charm crowds of people but yet leave children indifferent!
Intellectual preparation. Besides the background of religious and secular knowledge that the apostle needs for the editorial apostolate, he must correctly assess the importance of children's literature and have an understanding of its history and of theoretical and practical child psychology.
The correct assessment of this importance includes:
- the educational and moral point of view: literature for children is aimed at youngsters in formation, at persons whose powers of critique are still in the making, but such literature is their mind's principal nourishment;
- the responsibility for adults (parents, teachers, and those who give a book to a child). This is because the choice and the introduction to children's literature fall on their shoulders;
- the school system: in some school systems literature makes up the basis of teaching and formation.
The history of [children's] literature may be said to be both old and new.
Old, since descriptions of the nature, the psychological demeanor, the games and actions which express the way children see, judge and act, are to be found in almost all the works of literature from antiquity up to the present day: from Homer to Giovanni Pascoli, from the fables of Aesop to the present-day descriptions of the airplane. In this respect, children's literature
may be said to be as old as the art of literature.
New, since in almost all civilized countries there is a vast range of writings in the form of books and journals for children as a result of the study and observation of this hitherto unexplored world of the child. Such literature, when considered overall, is a phenomenon because it has had such a rapid growth, as if so much haste was to make up for lost time. Everywhere its aim has been to become more artistic and to serve the cause of education, not via direct exhortation but through persuasion, trying all the while to be ever more amusing.
Lastly, the apostle needs to have a grasp of the theory and practice of child psychology in its three main stages - infancy, childhood and adolescence - in accord with the general principles set out here.
Infancy spans a child's first six years and takes in three phases. The first is from birth to fifteen months of age. Its characteristic is the child learning to talk. Feelings, which initially are barely distinguishable, and the recognition of people and things that make up the child's environment, become more and more defined. The second
phase terminates at three years of age. It is the time when the child shows that he is a great mimic. The third phase extends from three to six years of age and shows the child in a host of relationships with the people in his world.
In the three phases of infancy, the most important characteristic in view of learning, and thus also of literature, is an insatiable and inexhaustible curiosity in the form of "whys". To this we can add the tantrum, which is manifested in a reaction to what others want, because for the child it is contrary to what he is thinking or was told.
Infancy flowers into childhood that lasts from six to about twelve years of age.
Childhood is the period of upbringing and education because the child, who already experiences being part of society, is a mass of mental and moral activities which are evolving in him. Such energies need to be understood, provoked and directed towards their development and perfection.
Adolescence follows on childhood and lasts from the age of twelve to fifteen. Psychologists define it as a second birth since it marks a quite decisive phase of human development.
At this stage the adolescent's mindset is, in the main, subjective. He is, as it were, less a realist;
he is still linked to the specifics of childhood. For him the device or invention of imagination which, in turn, is colored by feeling alters reality. Thus the adolescent loves symbol, illusions almost, ritual, external signs, symbols. His emotional life is quite fertile. Quite noticeable is that attraction turns into erotic and at times morbid feelings.
His will is often fickle and lacks balance.
Aesthetic feeling, which evolves both from the contemplation of nature - for the adolescent it turns out to be almost a symbolic revelation - as well as from the arts and in particular from music and poetry, is quite well developed.
His conception of God comes from the idea of a judge, that is, the idea of sanction; it is not yet the conception of an absolute arrived at by philosophical induction or deduction.
Male adolescence differs somewhat from female adolescence. Daydreaming appears more frequently in the female, a somewhat mental drowsiness, linked at times with melancholy. This is rarer in the male adolescent, who finds an outlet in activities and games.
During adolescence, the youngster who is no longer a child but not yet a youth, is molding his own personality. It is thus necessary to study him in these manifold manifestations so as to respond
to his needs, while not suppressing those tendencies that ought to be left free to him but yet initiating him into a correct understanding of life.
The apostle writer will act wisely in the field of children's writing if he aims at the child's moral and religious formation, which is, in other words, to prepare good citizens for this earthly life and blessed ones for our heavenly homeland.
His intent is twofold: it is preservation and production.
Preservation from harmful reading. He is to advise people of the morality or immorality of all those existing works that make up the valuable series of ancient and modern literature. It is true that while such works, particularly the more modern ones have striven to become ever more artistic and amusing, they have sometimes gone beyond bounds and have bordered on frivolity, and even worse things. Among the few good educational and moral books, there are an increasing number of others that are devoid of any substance and are called books and newspapers only because there is no other name for them.
On a practical level the apostle must:
- prevail on civil and religious authority, families - and mothers in particular -
to keep an eye on children's reading matter, and to differentiate between it and academic texts, elementary school books and the like;
- persuade teachers to bear in mind the criteria whence to draw inspiration for good and pleasant reading for children;
- suggest those works which instruct and form ideas through a noble form of art, either a narrative work or one from the representative arts;
- step up general interest for this type of reading, one of the most powerful tools of education. Make it known and loved and have it supervised; make people understand the importance of the gift of a book, one, however, that is carefully chosen and suits the needs of the child's mind.
To this work of guidance the apostle is to add the positive feature of his own production.
In keeping with his mission, he is not to look for his own satisfaction, to tie himself to one particular kind of output or to one section of young people as regards place, condition, or specific age.
The apostle is thinking not of self but of God and others.
He has thus to direct his efforts at times to boys and girls, to children young and old, at times to the poor, at other times to the wealthy, now to Catholics, at other times to heretics and pagans. He has always to do this with the same enthusiasm and in the way that he believes will help his purpose most.
In all his writings he is to be attentive to the choice of kind, method and sources.1
All the kinds that make up children's literature are at his service for this purpose.
Thus his output can be works of a moral nature, or their principles, writings of virtuous conduct, virtue lived out or specific; works of a historical or biographical nature; publications of a social and environmental nature; fables, legends, fantasy adventure stories; fantasy adventure stories and scientific discoveries combined; books of popular science; humorous and recreational books; poems, journalism...
Of all these, however, those which better reflect his aims as an apostle are figures, stories, parables and similitudes because, more than other kinds, these act on a child's feeling, fantasy, curiosity and sense of humor - chords that resonate the most.
Figures [or illustrations] should preface and complete the written text. They are particularly useful for the three phases of early childhood, for children, for illiterate adults and for those who do not know the language. They can be exhibited in the form of panels, handbills, newspapers and so on. Where possible they should be in color.
Pictures of model boys
or girls (better if they are saints) will be a help for younger children. Children, enraptured by exploits and signs acceptable to their age, can take delight in such biblical scenes as the Virgin Mary with the child Jesus in her arms, Jesus asleep on his mother's breast, Jesus in the midst of children. So, too, pictures that detail the lives of saints such as Agnes with a pretty little lamb, Cecilia crowned with roses, Catherine [of Alexandria] broken on the wheel... as well as personages who will stir up love of virginity, the desire not to offend Jesus, hatred of sin, abhorrence of vanity, avoidance of bad company and so on.
This can be followed up by illustrating such truths of the faith as the twelve articles of the Creed, the Commandments, the Sacraments, the Sacramentals and prayer.
Stories are easily impressed on the memory, arouse lasting impressions, and open the way to reach the mind and heart of children.
To lend color to a well spun story will have an instantaneous effect. With the proper know-how the apostle will be able to impress on the child's mind even the loftiest truths.
Adults, too, find it easier to remember such truths when they are linked to happenings or events!
Parables (stories of imagined events) help illustrate truths that are difficult to understand but with which they have an affinity and can be easily inferred.
Similitudes and comparisons, even more so than parables, are of great use in explaining Christian truths and in the formation of religious ideals.
Stories, parables, similitudes and all forms of children's literature must, above all, follow the gospel method and be simple, suitable, intuitive, step by step and conversational.
Children love true stories, interesting stories. Such stories should always be different, always new, absorbing, short and simple, even if there is a wealth of description. Thus they can be easily followed and hold the child's attention. The moral of the story will be effective if it is brief.
The parables are to be like the ones Jesus told. He took as his subject things that happened under people's eyes. He did not fall back on unlikely or strange stories, he did not have animals or plants talk, he did not attribute human feelings to inanimate things, as do storytellers of every age. He always kept to the facts and from these he deduced ways for upright living as well as sublime and effective teachings. What could, for example, be more appealing than the parable of the prodigal son?
As regards similitudes these have to deal with things that children know about, things from their environment. For example, if you talk about an "elevator" children must know what this
contraption is, something that children in the country or from mountain villages would not know about.
The hallmark of parables, too, has to be simplicity, clarity and naturalness.
The apostle writer's preferred sources for his writings aimed at children are Holy Scripture, the Church Fathers, the lives of the Saints and edifying biographies.
Prominent and remarkable events may be taken from the Old and the New Testament and recounted in simple words suited to the level of intelligence of children. Particularly pleasing and effective is the story of the child Jesus' life.
Show Jesus at home in Nazareth, side by side with Mary and Joseph, ever obedient to carry out little chores and ready to accompany them when they go to the Temple. Present him talking with the Doctors, watch him in his foster father's workshop at work, humble, patient and obedient.
Inexhaustible sources are also the writings of the Church Fathers and writers, many of which can be easily adapted and developed to suit children of every age, time and place.
A third source is the life of model children, of young saints or also the childhood and early life of older saints. Saint Louis, Saint Tarcisius, Saint Agnes and Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus, in their early
years, are marvelous types and models of childhood, which exert a powerful influence on the minds of children.
To these three main sources can be added other secondary ones such as history, daily life, customs, famous events...
History and daily life, both of which are full of events and of domestic and collective reminiscences, are a great help to the apostle writer. One has only to open one's eyes and observe what is happening all around to seize on opportune stories. Yet to know how to choose one flower from another requires great art. Some stories have nothing to say and are to be put aside. There are others of no educational value, while others instead enlighten the mind, move the heart, and make people become better. These are the only flowers to be picked.
The customs of family and civic life (such as greetings, signs of respect), daily events and nature itself offer wonderful examples for similitude and for getting things across to children.
Famous events also offer a topic for lively minds that are open to their teaching.
Let the apostle learn how to treasure such unlimited resources as are at his disposal, but not to forget
that while these can be a great help they are not everything. Such material must be reworked in the apostle's soul and become nourishment suitable for the age of tender children.
This is a difficult and tiring work but one which, apart from the reward promised by God, will result in some earthly satisfaction, since the child does follow, does remember and does conform.
1 Cf. BORLA, La formazione religiosa del fanciullo.