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What is twaddle?
Twaddle is a buzz word among those in Charlotte Mason circles. We smile in recognition when we hear it and probably use the word ourselves sometimes. Yet it seems difficult to define it exactly. We might be able to give examples of twaddle, but we can’t quite wrap our minds around a succinct definition that is adequate. At least, I can’t.
How would you define twaddle? Here are some key thoughts taken from Charlotte’s comments.
1. Twaddle is talking down to a child.
I often think of twaddle as baby talk. You don’t talk baby talk to your child, so don’t give him books that talk baby talk. Those of us who live with our children beside us and talk with them all day are often astounded at the deep thoughts that they try to express. They may not get exact details or terminology correct, but that is not because they can’t think deeply; it’s because they haven’t yet had as many experiences as older children or adults have had. Too many authors assume children can’t think deeply, so they feed them silly, sometimes even rude, mental food. There might be a teeny bit of nourishing mind food included, but the child has to wade through a lot of pablum to find it.
Here’s how Charlotte described this aspect of twaddle:
Twaddle talks down to a child.
2. Twaddle is diluted.
Another word Charlotte used about twaddle is “diluted.” Many of us love our cold beverages. There is something refreshing about an ice cold beverage, especially on a hot day. But let that iced beverage sit out for a while and what happens? The ice begins to melt and dilute that drink. You know what I’m talking about. There is a huge difference between a full-strength cold beverage and a diluted one.
The same is true about our children’s books: There is a huge difference between a strong, well-written book and one that has been watered down. Charlotte used that adjective when describing
Twaddle is diluted, or watered-down. And that leads into the next description of it . . .
3. Twaddle undervalues the intelligence of a child.
The reason many publishers dilute books for children is because they undervalue a child’s intelligence. They falsely equate lack of experience with lack of intelligence. Our children are capable of understanding a vast deal more than some people think they are.
Charlotte mentioned this aspect of twaddle in a couple of places. The first gives us an idea of what she means and offers an example of a well-intentioned Kindergarten teacher and a visitor:
The second time Charlotte mentioned this aspect of twaddle was in reference to our children’s school books:
Our children can understand a lot more than most people realize. Twaddle undervalues their intelligence.
4. Twaddle is presented as reading-made-easy.
This is one of the reasons that Charlotte wanted the teachers to read the school books aloud to students in grades 1–3. The children can understand a higher level of writing than they can read for themselves at that age. Charlotte did not want to relegate them to reading-made-easy books with their one- or two-syllable words and their short, choppy sentences. She believed that even young children are capable of hearing and comprehending “worthy thoughts, well put” and “inspiring tales, well told” even if they can’t read them for themselves yet.
And she insisted that
Twaddle is reading-made-easy.
5. Twaddle is second-rate, stale, predictable writing.
We’ve compared twaddle to a diluted beverage. Now Charlotte compared it to stale food. Have you ever bit into a stale piece of bread or a stale potato chip or cracker? (Some of you are wrinkling your nose right now at that idea.) Some books are like that experience. They use typical phrases describing all-too-common situations and throw in predictable emotional reactions wrapped in a formulaic plot. There isn’t a shred of an original, delicious living idea in the whole thing.
Twaddle is stale, predictable writing. And there is another kind of writing that Charlotte highlighted as twaddle . . .
6. Twaddle is goody-goody story books or highly-spiced adventures of poor quality.
Yes, we want to use books that support the good habits and good character that we are trying to cultivate in our children. But we must be careful of giving them goody-goody books in which the plot is simplified to present the main character as perfect or always making the right choice.
On the other hand, we must be careful of books that present constant danger and adventure. Such stories offer an emotional high to the reader, but if you look under that adrenaline rush, you find little to no substance.
I don’t think Charlotte was saying that we shouldn’t use books that present good examples or that contain adventures. I think she was cautioning us not to swing to either extreme, even if our children want those kinds of books.
Here’s how she put it:
“Titillating” means “exciting or stimulating.” Some well-written books are exciting and stimulating, but we need to be careful of a steady diet of poorly-written books that simply offer an emotional experience.
Twaddle is goody-goody stories or highly-spiced adventures of poor quality.
7. Twaddle is also weak, light reading.
Charlotte bemoaned the number of people who would spend their time reading twaddle but never open a well-written book. She said,
I did a little poking around to find out more about this “Scraps” literature that was prevalent at the railway bookstalls in Charlotte’s day. Here is an interesting description from an article called “English Railway Fiction” by Agnes Repplier, written for The Atlantic magazine in July of 1891:
Sandwiches, oranges, and penny novelettes are the three great requisites for English traveling,—for third-class traveling, at least; and, of the three, the novelette is by far the most imperative, a pleasant proof of how our intellectual needs outstrip our bodily requirements. The clerks and artisans, shopgirls, dressmakers, and milliners, who pour into London every morning by the early trains, have, each and every one, a choice specimen of penny fiction with which to beguile the short journey, and perhaps the few spare minutes of a busy day. The workingman who slouches up and down the platform, waiting for the moment of departure, is absorbed in some crumpled bit of pink-covered romance. The girl who lounges opposite to us in the carriage, and who would be a very pretty girl in any other conceivable hat, sucks mysterious sticky lozenges, and reads a story called Mariage à la Mode, or Getting into Society, which she subsequently lends to me,—seeing, I think, the covetous looks I cast in its direction,—and which I find gives as vivid and startling a picture of high life as one could reasonably expect for a penny. Should I fail to provide myself with one of these popular journals at the bookstall, another chance is generally afforded me before the train moves off; and I am startled out of a sleepy reverie by a small boy’s thrusting A Black Business alarmingly into my face, while a second diminutive lad on the platform holds out to me enticingly Fettered for Life, Neranya’s Revenge, and Ruby. The last has on the cover an alluring picture of a circus girl jumping through a hoop, which tempts me to the rashness of a purchase, circus riders being my literary weakness.
Do you get the sense of what those “Scraps” books were like? Do they remind you of any books you’ve seen lately in bookstores or online or at libraries? In Charlotte’s day, a man named Charles Mudie started a lending library that grew to be very popular. He was careful not to include novels with objectionable content, but he demanded that the fiction be suited to the middle-class family. And because of the popularity of his library, publishers and authors started catering to that type of light reading.
What does this have to do with your children’s reading habits? Well, Charlotte traced an interesting sequence that we need to be aware of. Take a look at this:
Twaddle is weak, light-reading.
Putting It All Together
So, if we combine what we’ve found in Charlotte’s words about twaddle, it is . . . diluted writing that undervalues a child’s intelligence and, so, talks down to him or relegates him to reading-made-easy content. It is second-rate, weak, light reading with stale, predictable plots, that can take the form of enticing goody-goody stories or highly-spiced adventures that cater to emotional highs.
Now if we throw in a few adjectives from modern dictionaries, we can round out our understanding even more. Twaddle is
So here’s a challenge: How would you summarize all of those concepts into a workable succinct definition? Can you define twaddle in one sentence?
I would love to hear your definition. You see, one of the reasons I wanted to discuss twaddle was to help us all learn how to evaluate the books, videos, and other resources that we come across. It’s easy to just ask someone else, “Do you consider this twaddle?” But it is more helpful to you and your family if you can develop the skill of analyzing a resource for yourself.
So let’s have some fun with it. Post your definition of twaddle as a comment. Remember, we’re not looking for specific titles, we’re looking for definitions that will help us evaluate any title that we come across.
Post your comment: How would you define twaddle?
I look forward to reading your definition.