Children’s Magazines,” an unsigned piece by Mary Mapes Dodge, presents a tiny picture of the state of American children’s magazines at the close of Robert Merry’s Museum’s 32-year run and serves as an introduction to St. Nicholas magazine, originated by Dodge in 1873. Ironically, the “perfect” magazine described in the article may remind the (completely unbiased, I assure you!) reader of the Museum in its glory years—appropriate, as Dodge wrote for the magazine in the 1860s. [My thanks to Angela Sorby for the identification.]
“Children’s Magazines” (from Scribner’s Monthly, July 1873; pp. 352-354)

Sometimes I feel like rushing through the world with two placards—one held aloft in my right hand, BEWARE OF CHILDREN’S MAGAZINES! and the other flourished in my left, CHILD’S MAGAZINE WANTED! A good magazine for little ones was never so much needed, and much harm is done by nearly all that are published. In England, especially, the so-called juvenile periodicals are precisely what they ought not to be. In Germany, though better, they too often distract sensitive little souls with grotesquerie. Our magazines timidly approach the proper standard in some respects, but fall far short in others. We edit for the approval of fathers and mothers, and endeavor to make the child’s monthly a milk-and-water variety of the adult’s periodical. But, in fact, the child’s magazine needs to be stronger, truer, bolder, more uncompromising than the other. Its cheer must be the cheer of the bird-song, not of condescending editorial babble. It if mean freshness and heartiness and life and joy, and its words are simply, directly, and musically put together, it will trill its own way. We must not help it overmuch. In all except skillful handling of methods, we must be as little children if we would enter this kingdom.

If now and then the situation have fun in it, if something tumble unexpectedly, if the child-mind is surprised into an electric recognition of comical incongruity, so that there is a reciprocal “ha, ha!” between the printed page and the little reader, well and good. But, for humanity’s sake, let there be no editorial grimacing, no tedious vaulting back

p. 353

and forth over the grim railing that incloses halt and lame jokes long ago turned in there to die.

Let there be no sermonizing either, no wearisome spinning out of facts, no rattling of the dry bones of history. A child’s magazine is its pleasure-ground. Grown people go to their periodicals for relaxation, it is true; but they also go for information, for suggestion, and for to-day’s fashion in literature. Besides, they begin, now-a-days, to feel that they are behind the age if they fail to know what the April Jig-jig says about so and so, or if they have not read B—’s much-talked-of poem in the last Argosy. Moreover, it is “the thing” to have the Jig-jig and Argosy on one’s drawing-room table. One must read the leading periodicals or one is nobody. But with children the case is different. They take up their monthly or weekly because they wish to, and if they don’t like it they throw it down again. Most children of the present civilization attend school. Their little heads are strained and taxed with the days lessons. They do not want to be bothered nor amused nor taught nor petted. They just want to have their own way over their own magazine. They want to enter the one place where they may come and go as they please, where they are not obliged to mind, or say “yes ma’am” and “yes sir,”—where, in short, they can live a brand-new, free life of their own for a little while, accepting acquaintances as they choose and turning their backs without ceremony upon what does not concern them. Of course they expect to pick up odd bits and treasures, and to now and then “drop in” familiarly at an air castle, or step over to fairy-land. They feel their way, too, very much as we old folk do, toward sweet recognitions of familiar day-dreams, secret goodnesses, and all the glorified classics of the soul. We who have strayed farther from these, thrill even to meet a hint of them in poems and essays. But what delights us in Milton, Keats and Tennyson, children often find for themselves in stars, daisies, and such joys and troubles as little ones know. That this comparison holds, is the best we can say of our writers. If they make us reach forth our hands to clutch the star of the good-deed candle-blaze, what more can be done?

Literary skill in its highest is but the subtle thinning of the veil that life and time have thickened. Mrs. Browning paid her utmost tribute to Chaucer when she spoke of

“—— his infantine

Familiar clasp of things divine.”

The Jig-jig and Argosy may deal with Darwinianism broadly and fairly as they. The upshot of it all will be something like

“Hickory, dickery dock!

The mouse ran up the clock.

The clock struck one

And down she ran—

Hickory, dickery dock!”

And whatever Parton or Arthur Helps may say in that stirring article, “Our Country to-day,” its substance is anticipated in

“Little boy blue!

Come, blow your horn!

The cow’s in the meadow

Eating the corn.”

So we come to the conviction that the perfect magazine for children lies folded at the heart of the ideal best magazine for grownups. Yet the coming periodical which is to make the heart of baby-American glad must not be the chip of the old Maga block, but an outgrowth from the old-young heart of Maga itself. Therefore, look to it that it be strong, warm, beautiful, and true. Let the little magazine-readers find what they look for and be able to pick up what they find. Boulders will not go into tiny baskets. If it so happen that the little folks know some one jolly, sympathetic, hand-to-hand personage who is sure to turn up here and there in every number of the magazine or paper, very good: that is, if they happen to like him. If not, beware! It will soon join the ghosts of dead periodicals; or, if it do not, it will live on only in that slow, dragging existence which is worse than death.

A child’s periodical must be pictorially illustrated, of course, and the pictures must have the greatest variety consistent with simplicity, beauty and unity. They should be heartily conceived and well executed; and they must be suggestive, attractive and epigrammatic. If it be only the picture of a cat, it must be so like a cat that it will do its own purring, and not sit, a dead, stuffed thing, requiring the editor to purr for it. One of the sins of this age is editorial dribbling over inane pictures. The time to shake up a dull picture is when it is in the hands of the artist and engraver, and not when it lies, a fact accomplished, before the keen eyes of the little folk. Well enough for the editor to stand ready to answer questions that would naturally be put to the flesh-and-blood father, mother, or friend standing by. Well enough, too, for the picture to cause a whole tangle of interrogation-marks in the child’s mind. It need not be elaborate, nor exhaust its theme,

p. 354

but what it attempts to do it must do well, and the editor must not over-help nor hinder. He must give just what the child demands, and to do this successfully is a matter of instinct, without which no man should presume to be a child’s editor and go unhung.

Doubtless a great deal of instruction and good moral teaching may be inculcated in the pages of a magazine; but it must be by hints dropped incidentally here and there; by a few brisk, hearty statements of the difference between right and wrong; a sharp, clean thrust at falsehood, a sunny recognition of truth, a gracious application of politeness, an unwilling glimpse of the odious doings of the uncharitable and base. In a word, pleasant, breezy things may linger and turn themselves this way and that. Harsh, cruel facts—if they must come, and sometimes it is important that they should—must march forward boldly, say what they have to say, and go. The ideal child’s magazine, we must remember, is a pleasure-ground where butterflies flit gayly hither and thither; where flowers quietly spread their bloom; where wind and sunshine play freaks of light and shadow; but where toads hop quickly out of sight and snakes dare not show themselves at all. Wells and fountains there may be in the grounds, but water must be drawn from the one in right trim, bright little buckets; and there must be no artificial coloring of the other, nor great show-cards about it, saying, “Behold! a fountain.” Let its own flow and sparkle proclaim it.

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