Little Books presented the Last Day of the School
THERE was one circumstance connected with the history of summer schools of so great importance to little folks, that it must not be omitted. It was this. The mistress felt obliged to give little books to all her pupils on the closing day of her school. Otherwise she would be thought stingy, and half the good she had done during the summer would be canceled by the omission of the expected donations. If she had the least generosity, or hoped to be remembered with any respect and affection, she must devote a week's wages, and perhaps more, to the purchase of these little toy-books. My first present, of course, was from Mary Smith. It was not a little book the first summer, but it was something that pleased me more.
The last day of the school had arrived. All were sad that it was now to finish. My only solace was that I should now have a little book, for I was not unmoved in the general expectation that prevailed. After the reading and spelling, and all the usual exercises of the school, were over, Mary took from her desk a pile of the glittering little things we were looking for. What beautiful covers, — red, yellow, blue, green! All eyes were now centered on the outspread treasures. Admiration and expectation were depicted on every face. Pleasure glowed in every heart; for the worst, as well as the best, calculated with certainty on a present. The scholars were called out one by one to receive the dazzling gifts, beginning at the oldest. I, being an abecedarian, must wait till the last; but as I knew that my turn would surely come in due order, I was tolerably patient. But what was my disappointment, my exceeding bitterness of grief, when the last book on Mary's lap was given away, and my name not yet called! Every one present had received, except myself and two others of the A B C rank. I felt the tears starting to my eyes; my lips were drawn to their closest pucker to hold in my emotions from audible outcry. I heard my fellow-sufferer at my side draw long and heavy breaths, the usual preliminaries to the bursting out of grief. This feeling, however, was but momentary; for Mary immediately said, "Charles and Henry and Susan, you may now all come to me together" at the same time her hand was put into her work-bag. We were at her side in an instant, and in that time she held in her hand — what? Not three little picture-books, but what was to us a surprising novelty, viz., three little birds wrought from sugar by the confectioner's art. I had never seen or heard or dreamed of such a thing. What a revulsion of delighted feeling now swelled my little bosom! "If I should give you books," said Mary, "you could not read them at present; so I have got for you what you will like better perhaps, and there will be time enough for you to have books, when you shall be able to read them. So, take these little birds, and see how long you can keep them." We were perfectly satisfied, and even felt ourselves distinguished above the rest. My bird was more to me than all the songsters in the air, although it could not fly, or sing, or open its mouth. I kept it for years, until by accident it was crushed to pieces, and was no longer a bird.
But Susan Clark — I was provoked at her. Her bird was nothing to her but a piece of pepperminted sugar, and not a keepsake from Mary Smith. She had not left the school-house before she had nibbled off its bill.
The next summer, my present was the "Death and Burial of Cock Robin." I could then do something more than look at the pictures. I could read the tragic history which was told in verse below the pictured representations of the mournful drama. How I used to gaze and wonder at what I saw in that little book! Could it be that all this really took place; that the sparrow really did do the murderous deed with his bow and his arrow? I never knew before that birds had such things. Then there was the fish with his dish, the rook with his book, the owl with his shovel, &c. Yet, if it were not all true, why should it be so pictured and related in the book? I had the impression that everything that was printed in a book was surely true; and as no one thought to explain to me the nature of a fable, I went on puzzled and wondering, till progressive reason at length divined its meaning. But Cock Robin, with its red cover and gilded edges — I have it now. It is the first little book I ever received, and it was from Mary Smith; and, as it is the only tangible memento of her goodness that I possess, I shall keep it as long as I can.
I had a similar present each successive season, so long as I regularly attended the summer school. What marvels did they contain! How curiosity and wonder feasted on their contents! They were mostly about giants, fairies, witches, and ghosts. By this kind of reading, superstition was trained up to a monstrous growth; and, as courage could not thrive in its cold and gloomy shadow, it was a sickly shoot for years. Giants, fairies, witches, and ghosts were ready to pounce upon me from every dark corner in the daytime, and from all around in the night, if I happened to be alone. I trembled to go to bed alone for years; and I was often almost paralyzed with horror when I chanced to wake in the stillness of midnight, and my ever-busy fancy presented the grim and grinning images with which I supposed darkness to be peopled.
I wish I had all those little books now. I would bequeath them to a national Lyceum, as a specimen, or a mark to show what improvement has been made. Indeed, if improvement has been made in anything, it has been in respect to children's books. When I compare the world of fact in which the "Little Philosophers" of the present day live, observe, and enjoy, with the visionary regions where I wandered, wondered, believed, and trembled, I almost wish to be a child again, to know the pleasure of having earliest curiosity fed with fact, instead of fiction and folly, and to know so much about the great world, with so young a mind.