This book is an elaboration of a story I told to the pupils of my school, children from eight to twelve. The usual story for children is written at a desk in a private room; this one was told to a group, and it followed the interests of the group. Their comments showed me what they wanted, and I soon discovered that what they wanted was blood-and-thunder and deeds of derring-do. But I found that they also wanted humour, a quality prominent in books for children. My view is that a book for children should always be one that an adult can read with some pleasure or at least without boredom, and here humour is essential, for there is nothing duller than to sit and read a children's story aloud if it only appeals to the very young.
In other words, a story for children must adapt itself to the psychology not only of the child but of the parent or nurse or teacher. The child wants thrills; the adult wants to be diverted. You can't easily shock children. You can make them mow down cannibals with a machine gun, make them wade in blood, but there is nothing shocking in it to them. They want power, and, when you are ten years old, power in the form of a gun is the power you like best. Nice people may protest that that ought not to be, but the storyteller should not deal with oughts; he should give the child what interests him most.
My story has at least one merit. It tells of the adventures of real children, and I recommend any parent who reads my story aloud to substitute the names of his own children for the names in the book. Bill will listen with some interest to a tale of a hero called Jim, but if you tell him a stirring story about himself, he will listen with sparkling eyes and eager ears.
When I tell a story I have about twenty children as audience, and it is impossible to make every one a participant. The unfortunate ones who are left out are exceedingly jealous. In the present story I had to cast lots to see who should be in it. The storyteller's first realisation should be that each child is a bundle of egocentricity. It is useless to attempt to be over-logical. If you make Bert, aged nine, fly the latest bomber, looping the loop and at the same time hitting six eggs in the air with a revolver, Bert will accept the statement without reserve, but he may suspect that you have underrated his prowess in the matter of the number of eggs. The story should satisfy the child's wish to work miracles. That means that the most popular story is the one that is a fairy-tale up to date.
Some children will, of course, have a critical attitude to any one story. Bert will accept the statement that he shot six eggs in the air, but Bill will be inclined to doubt it. That is the way of life. I remember Bert's being very critical because I made Bill swim under water for half an hour; but when, in the next instalment, I made Bert knock out the world's heavyweight champion with a straight left, he indignantly defended his prowess when Jim said he couldn't have done it. The imagination of a child has no bounds. Everything is within his range. His world is largely one of make-believe.
I quarrel with those people who are afraid to pander to a child's imagination. They want to lead the boy from gangsters and cannibals to Shakespeare and Beethoven or, worse, to tales with a moral. They will not accept the boy as he is -- a primitive savage who should be living on Crusoe's island. But by savage I do not mean cruel. Children who would not hurt a fly will delight in a story in which they bump off a million cannibals or pirates.
There are parents who refuse to give children war toys on the grounds that war games encourage militarism. This is definitely wrong. Better to have children live out their killing phantasies at the age of nine than to have them living them out later in reality in the field of battle. A nation that is spending hundreds of millions on war preparations to defend, in the first and last resort, our capitalist, profit-making society should not object to the children's sharing in the general interest in guns and bombs. Most of the children of Summerhill who were delighted when I told them stories about themselves, stories dealing mostly with killing savages, are now, at the age of twenty-one, pacifists. The sadists who torture Jews are merely adults who are living out their infantile desire to have power in the form of cruelty.
No story for children should have an ulterior motive. There must be no attempt to uplift or to educate. The only criterion should be pleasure. If children listen with delight the story is a good one. Nor should a story have long words or involved sentences.
To readers who do not know of Summerhill School I explain that it is a school where children are free. The staff has no dignity, and in real life, as in the story, I am "Neill" to the children without the Mister. Fathers reading the book aloud could well substitute "Daddy" for "Neill" all the way, but only fathers who have no dignity and who are on equal terms with their children.
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Preface to 'The Last Man Alive' by A. S. Neill. This page is copyrighted.