Once upon a time, in the days before Japanese animation, there was St. Nicholas — the magazine, not the jolly man in the red suit. As we pick our way through GameCubes and PlayStations under our trees … we may find it hard to credit that there was a time (from 1873 to 1940, to be precise) when the arrival of the latest issue of St. Nicholas occasioned the same sense of excitement now reserved for the latest Harry Potter sensation.
For good reason. Though we now tend to dismiss 19th-century children’s stories as moralistic, in fact the opposite is more often true. Today the American child who opens a book or clicks on his TV is more likely to get a cartoon sermon on the virtues of recycling than the kind of rip-roaring adventures that were standard fare back when Mary Mapes Dodge was editing St. Nicholas.
Children’s literature, she insisted, “must not be a milk-and-water variety” of what adults are served. To the contrary, children’s stories need to be “stronger, truer, bolder, more uncompromising.” And she backed that up by publishing the best authors she could find: from Rudyard Kipling, Lewis Carroll and Mark Twain to Jack London, L. Frank Baum and Louisa May Alcott. She herself is better known as the author of “Hans Brinker,” and it’s no coincidence that when Millie Benson — author of the Nancy Drew series — made her own writing debut at age 12, it would be in the pages of St. Nicholas.
The good news is that even children of the 21st century now have the opportunity to relive the exploits that brought so much joy to their late-19th and early 20th-century counterparts. For William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review has just issued its second volume of St. Nicholas stories in its “Treasury of Classic Children’s Literature” (along with a companion volume of bedtime stories).
Whether it’s Louisa May Alcott’s country girl Daisy Field making her way in the big city or Allen French’s Sir Marrok avenging wrongs across medieval Britain or Frances Hodgson Burnett’s little grain of wheat that was too proud for its own good, the stories involve characters forced to make choices: between lying and telling the truth, between selfishness and generosity, between cowardice and courage.
In his introduction, Mr. Buckley affixes these stories with the much-maligned adjective “wholesome” but notes that they come “with bite and wit and cunning.” They don’t mince the dark side, either: These fictional worlds are populated by wicked witches, mean-spirited neighbors, irredeemable villains and a Mother Nature that can be heartless.
Yet however fantastic the settings, the presentation of vivid characters caught up in drama helps excite in children an appreciation for the human condition. After all, how are we ever to expect our children to recognize good and evil in real life if they have never been introduced to it in their imagination?