There never was a time when the demand for books for young people was so great as it is to-day or when so much was being done to meet the demand. |Children's Counter,| |Boys' Books,| are signs which, especially at the Christmas season, attract the eye in every large book shop. Tales of adventure, manuals about various branches of nature study, historical romances, lives of heroes -- in fact, almost every kind of book -- is to be found in abundance, beautifully illustrated, attractively bound, well printed, all designed and written especially for the youth of our land. It is indeed an encouraging sign. It means that the child of to-day is being introduced to the world's best in literature and science and history and art in simple and gradual ways.
In the Middle Ages stories of the martyrs and legends of the Church, along with some simple form of catechetical instruction, formed the basis of a child's mental and religious training. Later, during and after the Crusades, the stories of war and the mysteries of the East increased the stock in trade for the homes of Europe; but still the horizon remained a narrow one. Even the invention of printing did not bring to the young as many direct advantages as would naturally be expected. To-day, when Christian missionaries set up a printing press in some distant island of the sea, the first books which they print in the vernacular are almost invariably those parts of the Bible, such as the Gospels and the stories of Genesis, which most appeal to the young, and, what is of special importance, they have the young directly and mainly in mind in their publishing work. This was not true a few centuries ago. The presses were, perhaps naturally and inevitably, almost exclusively occupied with books for the learned world. To be sure, the Legenda Aurea, of which I shall speak later, although not intended primarily for children, proved a great boon to them. So did the Chap Books of England. But it was not until the middle of the eighteenth century, when John Newbery set up his book shop at St. Paul's Churchyard, London, that any special attention was given by printers to the publication, in attractive form, of juvenile books. Newbery's children's books made him famous in his day, but the world seems to have forgotten him. Yet he deserves a monument along with AEsop, and La Fontaine, and Kate Greenaway, and Andersen, and Scott and Henty, and all the other greater and lesser lights who have done so much to gladden the heart and enlarge the mind of childhood and youth.
But from Newbery's day to this year of our Lord nineteen hundred and three is a very long jump in what we may call the evolution of juvenile literature, for the preparation of reading matter for young people seems now almost to have reached its climax. There is one field, however, and that the one which this volume tries to cover, which strangely enough seems to have been almost neglected. Of |goody-goody| Sunday School library books of an old-fashioned type, which are insipid and lacking both in virility of thought and literary form, there are, alas, already too many. What we need is something to take their place, something which will furnish real literature, and yet which from subject matter and manner of handling is specially adapted to what I still like to call Sunday reading, a phrase which unfortunately seems to mean little to most people to-day. Bearing this in mind, it is the purpose of this book to gather together, in attractive form, such religious classics as are specially fitted to interest and uplift young people.
There is a wide variety in so far as subject matter, source and form are concerned, but a certain unity is given to the contents of the volume by the religious note, which, whether brought prominently forward or not, is found alike in all the selections.
The Bible has furnished directly or indirectly most of the subject matter here used. The biographies of various Scripture characters appear in large numbers. Adam and Noah head the list, and Peter and Paul bring up the end of a procession of worthies whose heroic deeds as the servants of Jehovah will always appeal to the imagination of youthful minds. But it is not with Bible characters only that this book deals. The lives of Christian saints who entered upon their inheritance, such as Christopher and Sylvester and Francis of Assisi, also have their place, while yet more prominent are stories and poems based on some Bible incidents. Even selections such as Hawthorne's Great Stone Face or Wordsworth's Ode to Duty have their roots deep in the Bible, for they can be understood and explained only by those who know the Revelation it contains. In so far, then, as the subject matter of the volume is concerned, either it or its inspiration can always be traced back to the Bible.
When we turn from the Bible material which, as we have seen, supplies both subject and inspiration, to the source from which the selections in their literary form as here given are derived, we find that the old foundations have sufficed for many kinds of structure. Probably the source from which the editor has drawn most largely is the Golden Legend. This work, which was translated into English and printed by Caxton in 1483, although little heard of now, was for several centuries a household word in Christendom. It was the creation of a Genoese Archbishop, Jacobus de Voragine, and dates from about the middle of the thirteenth century. The good Archbishop, using the Bible and the Lives of the Saints as a basis, and as a sharer of the superstitions of the time having unbounded faith in every legend of the Church, put together in simple form for the edification of his flock the various stories about Jewish and Christian worthies which compose the original Legenda Aurea. This was translated into French by one Jean de Vignay in the fourteenth century, and the English version was in turn mainly made from this translation. In the simple, sturdy language of Caxton the book became a most popular one, being often read aloud in the Parish Churches of England, where it helped to familiarize the people, especially the young, with sacred story as represented by the heroes of the Old Testament and the saints of the Church. In Caxton's introduction there is a quaint sentence regarding the name of the book. After mentioning the Latin title, he adds |that is to say in Englyshe the golden legende for lyke as passeth golde in vallwe al other metallys, soo thys legende exedeth all other bokes.| Whether the good printer's judgment be justified or no, it is not for us to say. It is true, however, that after the passing of over six centuries since its original production, the editor of this volume in looking for religious classics for young people has made more use of it than of any other collection. All honor, then, to the old Archbishop of Genoa and to William Caxton, who made his work accessible to the youth of England.
The only other work which deserves any special mention as a source for the contents of this volume, is the Stories and Tales of Hans Christian Andersen. If ever there was any one who deserved the title of the Children's Friend, surely this son of a poor Danish shoemaker is the man. His Tales have been translated into many languages, and because of their true imagination and their simplicity of expression they have appealed to all children. Ten or more of them appear in this volume. They are charming and wholesome reading, and their continued popularity makes us realize the truth of these closing lines in Andersen's The Old Grave Stones: |The good and the beautiful perish never; they live eternally in tale and song.|
The other sources from which this collection has been made up are so varied as to require no mention aside from that given with each title. The Master Poets of English Literature have been freely drawn upon: Byron to tell of the Destruction of Sennacherib, Milton to sing of Christ's Nativity, Wordsworth to meditate aloud on Duty, and other great writers to emphasize various deep truths of life.
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As we turn from subject matter and source to form, we again find great variety. Almost every kind of literature is represented. The early lengends of the Jewish people, told by the author of the Legenda Aurea almost in the words of Scripture, bring to young and old alike the same lessons about God and Duty. The fact that they are legends, rather than exact history, does not in any way lessen their religious value. Then, too, the book contains allegories, such as that of the Pilgrim's Progress, Christendom's greatest religious classic next to the Bible itself, and those of some of Andersen's Tales. Poetry also is well represented, the selections being in large part suggested by Scripture. There are in addition many stories in the ordinary sense of the word -- tales which are entirely the fabric of the imagination, but which, like the selections from Hawthorne, have some great lesson to teach. In fact, the literary forms represented in this volume are almost as numerous as those of the Bible itself. The latter used to be looked upon merely as a storehouse of historic facts and devotional songs; now we see in it Legend, Oratory, Poetry, Allegory, History, Proverb and Prophecy; and we find that all of these forms are used by God's servants to teach His truth to men.
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Sufficient has been said, I think, to show the purpose and scope of this volume and to introduce the reader to its contents. It is my hope and belief that the effort of my friend, Mr. Philip P. Wells, to make this a collection of religious classics in the full meaning of these words may prove successful. My highest wish, however, is that those who read these selections, with their great variety of source and form, may mark the inspiration of thought or incident common to them all, and may find an interest in refreshing what may be an old acquaintance with that Book of Books which gives with classic truth the fundamental subject matter for all deep thought and high aspiration.
ANSON PHELPS STOKES, JR.