Charles Kingsley’s book, The Water Babies, is one of many books that, although popular at one point in time, has since declined in popularity and readership. In her article, “Sentiment and Significance: The Impossibility of Recovery in the Children’s Literature Canon or, The Drowning of the Water Babies,” Deborah Stevenson asserts that although “academics note the text’s historical significance…Kingsley’s book no longer has a place in the sentimental canon; the chain of affection has been broken” (Stevenson 11). Her distinction here between the sentimental and the academic canon is significant in the discussion of whether or not this book is appropriate for children today.
As we have discussed in class, scholars of children’s literature are uncomfortably aware that they are studying a genre of literature for which they are not the intended audience, and that the true intended audience (children) has no real input in the denoting of texts as part of the academic canon. Those decisions are made by people such as librarians and teachers, who have pedagogical and didactic ends in mind. Stevenson’s exclusion of The Water Babies from the academic canon would have implied that the powers that be (the librarians, teachers, and scholars) did not consider the text to be worthy of today’s children. However, Stevenson specifically qualifies that The Water Babies has been excluded from the sentimental canon, and this exclusion carries with it another meaning entirely.
The sentimental canon is less isolated from the reactions of actual children to specific works of literature. For example, perhaps children in the early 20th century read Kingsley’s The Water Babies and took delight in Tom’s adventures in the sea and wished that they too could be cuddled by Mrs. Bedoneasyouwouldbedoneby and corrected by Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid. And then, assume that as adults, they attempted to pass on this hodge-podge of morals and nonsense to their own children. This method no doubt worked for some, but there comes a point when a book of days gone by is no longer relevant to the current generation’s children, and, with each subsequent generation, the possibility of a book once again achieving status as beloved becomes less and less likely.
One of the primary reasons that The Water Babies would not be considered appropriate or worthwhile reading for children today is the inclusion of so many cultural references. Back when the book was published, children would have known who Kingsley was referencing in his long tangents. Today’s children would be utterly confused by the references to public figures of Kingsley’s day. The inclusion of these references has in some ways done Kingsley a disservice, as it clearly dates his work.
Another reason that children today would be likely to turn up their noses at The Water Babies is its obvious moral overtones. At the time of its publication, it would not have seemed overly moralistic or didactic at all since, prior to its publication, all that existed in the children’s literature market was entirely didactic. But just because it was a breath of fresh air for children at the time, does not mean that the air hasn’t gone stale since. Today’s children would be turned off by Kingsley’s clear interjections into the story and the obvious teaching moments found throughout the book. Instead, today’s children want narratives that are fun and entertaining, and if the adults can manage to get a lesson in there without them noticing it, then all the better.
Because children who once loved this book grew into adults who were incapable of passing on the love of this book to subsequent generations (due to factors such as changing tastes and dated references), Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies is no longer a staple on any child’s bookshelf.