Why on Earth Is Apperceptive Appeal So Important?

by Lisa Ripperton
​March 28, 2019

The criteria we use in selecting books for children varies depending on the age of the child. However, since we've recently been focusing on criteria for choosing books for children in the early years, we wanted to share a passage on this very topic that we found to be thought-provoking, as well as instructive. The passage is from the first chapter of Carolyn Sherwin Bailey's "For the Story Teller" (1913) in which she lays out just one essential criterion for selecting stories to tell to children of kindergarten age. 

Although Carolyn Sherwin Bailey refers specifically to "stories" here, keep in mind that everything she says about telling stories also applies to picture books.

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"Apperception is a formidable and sometimes confusing term for a very simple and easy-to-understand mental process. I once told Seumus MacManus' deliciously humorous story of Billy Beg and his Bull to a group of foreign boys and girls in one of New York's East Side Settlement Houses. The children listened with apparent appreciation, but, halfway along in the story, it occurred to me to ask them if they had ever seen a bull. No one answered me at first. Then Pietro, a little dusky-eyed son of Italy, raised a grimy hand.

"I seen one last summer when we was on a fresh-air," he said. "It's a bigger cow, a bull is, with the bicycle handle-bars on her head."

Pietro's description of a bull was an example of apperception, the method by means of which a new idea is interpreted, classified, "let into" the human mind. He knew the class, cows.  He also knew the class, bicycles.  He did not know the class, bulls—at least vividly enough to be able to put the idea into terms of a verbal explanation and description. So he did the most natural thing in the world, the only possible mental process in fact by means of which children or adults classify the new.  He interpreted it in terms of the old, explaining the unfamiliar idea, bull, by means of the familiar ideas, cow and a bicycle.

This, then, is apperception. It is the involuntary mental process by means of which the human mind makes its own the strange, the new, the unfamiliar idea by a method of fitting it into the class of familiar ideas already known.  Apperception is a means of quick mental interpretation. It is the welcoming of strangers to the mind-habitation, strangers who come every day in the guise of unfamiliar names, terms, scenes, and phrases, and determining in which corner of the brain house they will fit most comfortably. The most natural process is finally to give these new ideas an old mind corner to rest in, or an old brain path in which to travel.

A child's mind at the age when he is able to concentrate upon listening to a story, three or four years of age—kindergarten age—is not a very crowded house. It is a mind-house tenanted by a few and very simple concepts which he has made his own through his previous home, mother, and play experiences. He is familiar with his nursery, his pets, his family, his toys, his food, his bed. If he is a country child he knows certain flowers, birds and farm animals, not as classes—flower, bird and animal—but buttercup, robin,  and sheep.  If he is a city child his mind has a very different tenantry, and he thinks in terms of street, subway, park, fire engine, ambulance.  These to the city child are also individual ideas, not classes. He knows them as compelling, noisy, moving ideas which he has seen and experienced, but they do not at all appeal to him as classes."

​"The Three Bears"

"The story of "The Three Bears" is an obviously interesting one to children upon entering school. It has its basis of interest in its apperceptive quality, and it illustrates better than almost any other story for children those qualities which bring about quick mental interpretation on the part of the listener. The unusual, strange, hazardous characters in the story, the three bears, are introduced to the child in old, comfortably familiar terms which catch his interest from the first sentence of the story. It is extremely doubtful if the story of three bears set in a polar or forest environment would ever have been popular so long or made so many children happy as has the story of the historical three bears who lived in a house, ate porridge from bowls, sat in chairs and slept in beds. Nor are these the only apperceptive links between the life of the bears and that of the child. There is a tiny bear in the story, the size, one may presuppose, of the child who is listening to the story. The to-be-classified idea, bear,  is presented to children in this old folk tale in terms of already known ideas, house, porridge, chair, bed, and tiny.  Very few story tellers have appreciated the underlying psychologic appeal of the story of "The Three Bears," but it illustrates a quality in stories that we must look for if we wish to make the story we select a permanency in the child's mental life."

​Questions to consider

"The apperceptive basis of story telling consists in study on the part of the story teller to discover what is the store of ideas in the minds of the children who will listen to the story.

Has the story too many new ideas for the child to be able to classify them in terms of his old ideas? On the other hand, has it one or two new thoughts so carefully presented through association with already familiar concepts that the child will be able to make them his own and give them a permanent place in his mind with the old ones?

A child's mind is an eerie place for an adult to try and enter. Teachers, kindergartners [what we now call kindergarten teachers], and story tellers are a little prone to think that a knowledge of one child's mental content gives them the power to know the mind of the child-at-large. Our psychologists have given us studies of child mind, not child minds. This mind hypothesis is, perhaps, sufficient for the general working out of systems of teaching, but success in the delicate art of story telling means a most critical study and observation of the minds of the special group of children who will hear the story. The story teller must ask herself these questions:

"What do these children know?"

"Have they any experience other than that of the home on which to bank?"

"Do they come from homes of leisure or homes of industry?"

"Have they had a country or a city experience?"

"Have they passed from the stage of development when toys formed their play interest to the game stage in which chance and hazard interest them more deeply?"

"Are they American children, familiar with American institutions, or are they newcomers to our land, unfamiliar with and confused by our ways?"

When she has satisfactorily answered these questions, the story teller will select her story having for its theme, atmosphere, and motif  an idea or group of ideas that will touch the child's mental life as she has discovered it and by means of which it will find a permanent place in his mind through its comfortable friendliness and familiarity."

​Introducing a sample story

"The child who has come directly from his home and the sheltering arms of his mother or nurse should not, at first, be taken far afield through the lands of fairies and giants. If he is told a fairy story, it should have for its content the sweet, homely qualities that characterize the home.

I am using as a good example of the apperceptive story, "The Cap that Mother Made." The child listeners are carried, it is true, to the palace of a King and are formally introduced to a Princess, but this is brought about through the familiar symbols of the home: mother, brothers, the farmer, and the queer little cap  with its red and green stripes and blue tassel. Although Anders, the story hero, spends a happy hour at the Princess' ball, he finally finds his way home again, and the story has an apperceptive appeal which is unusual. It is full of precious, familiar concepts that establish an association in the child's mind between fairyland and home. After hearing the story, he will be very apt always to remember a palace as a very charming place to visit, but not to stay in, when one may go home to mother."

The Cap That Mother Made

"Once upon a time there was a little boy named Anders, who had a new cap. And a prettier cap you never have seen, for mother herself had knit it; and nobody could make anything quite so nice as mother did. It was altogether red, except a small part in the middle which was green, for the red yarn had given out; and the tassel was blue. His brothers and sisters walked about squinting at him, and their faces grew long with envy. But Anders cared nothing about that. He put his hands in his pockets and went out for a walk, for he wished everybody to see how fine he looked in his new cap. The first person he met was a farmer walking along by the side of a wagon load of wood. He made a bow so deep that his back came near breaking. He was dumbfounded, I can tell you, when he saw it was nobody but Anders. "Dear me," said he, "if I did not think it was the gracious little count himself!" And then he invited Anders to ride in his wagon.

But when one has a pretty, red cap with a blue tassel, one is too fine to ride in a wagon, and Anders walked proudly by.

At the turn of the road he met the tanner's son, Lars. He was such a big boy that he wore high boots, and carried a jack-knife. He gaped and gazed at the cap, and could not keep from fingering the blue tassel.

"Let's trade caps," he said, "I will give you my jack-knife to boot."

Now this knife was a very good one, though half the blade was gone and the handle was a little cracked; and Anders knew that one is almost a man as soon as one has a jack-knife. But still it did not come up to the new cap which mother had made.

"Oh, no, I'm not so stupid as all that; no, I'm not!" Anders said.

And then he said good-by to Lars with a nod; but Lars only made faces at him, for he had not been to school much, poor boy; and, besides, he was very much put out because he could not cheat Anders out of his cap which mother had made.

Anders went along, and he met a very old, old woman who courtesied till her skirts looked like a balloon. She called him a little gentleman, and said that he was fine enough to go to the royal court ball.

"Yes, why not?" thought Anders. "Seeing that I am so fine, I may as well go and visit the King."

And so he did. In the palace yard stood two soldiers with shining helmets, and with muskets over their shoulders; and when Anders came to the gate, both the muskets were leveled at him.

"Where may you be going?" asked one of the soldiers.

"I am going to the court ball," answered Anders.

"No, you are not," said the other soldier, stepping forward. "Nobody is allowed there without a uniform."

But just at this instant the princess came tripping across the yard. She was dressed in white silk with bows of gold ribbon. When she saw Anders and the soldiers, she walked over to them.

"Oh," she said, "he has such a very fine cap on his head, and that will do just as well as a uniform."

And she took Anders' hand and walked with him up the broad marble stairs where soldiers were posted at every third step, and through the beautiful halls where courtiers in silk and velvet stood bowing wherever he went. For no doubt they thought him a prince when they saw his fine cap.

At the farther end of the largest hall a table was set with golden cups and golden plates in long rows. On huge silver dishes were piles of tarts and cakes, and red wine sparkled in shining glasses.

The princess sat down at the head of this long table; and she let Anders sit in a golden chair by her side.

"But you must not eat with your cap on your head," she said, putting out her hand to take it off.

"Oh, yes, I can eat just as well," said Anders, holding on to his cap; for if they should take it away from him nobody would any longer believe that he was a prince; and, besides, he did not feel sure that he would get it back again.

"Well, well, give it to me," said the princess, "and I will give you a kiss."

The princess was certainly beautiful, and Anders would have dearly liked to be kissed by her, but the cap which mother had made he would not give up on any condition. He only shook his head.

"Well, but see," said the princess; and she filled his pockets with cakes, and put her own gold chain around his neck, and bent down and kissed him.

But he only moved farther back in his chair and did not take his hands away from his head.

Then the doors were thrown open, and the King entered with a large number of gentlemen in glittering uniforms and plumed hats. The King himself wore a purple mantle which trailed behind him, and he had a large gold crown on his white curly hair.

He smiled when he saw Anders in the gilt chair.

"That is a very fine cap you have," he said.

"So it is," replied Anders. "Mother knit it of her very best yarn, and everybody wishes to get it away from me."

"But surely you would like to change caps with me," said the King, raising his large, heavy crown from his head.

Anders did not answer. He sat as before, and held on to his red cap which everybody was so eager to get. But when the King came nearer to him, with his gold crown between his hands, then Anders grew frightened as never before. If he did not take good care, the King might cheat him out of his cap; for a King can do whatever he likes.

With one jump Anders was out of his chair. He darted like an arrow through all the beautiful halls, down all the marble stairs, and across the yard.

He twisted himself like an eel between the outstretched arms of the courtiers, and over the soldiers' muskets he jumped like a little rabbit.

He ran so fast that the princess's necklace fell off his neck, and all the cakes jumped out of his pockets. But his cap he still had. He was holding on to it with both hands as he rushed into his mother's cottage.

His mother took him up in her lap, and he told her all his adventures, and how everybody wanted his cap. And all his brothers and sisters stood around and listened with their mouths open.

But when his big brother heard that he had refused to give his cap for the King's golden crown, he said that Anders was stupid. Just think how much money one might get for the King's crown; and Anders could have had a still finer cap.

That Anders had not thought of, and his face grew red. He put his arms around his mother's neck and asked:

"Mother, was I stupid?"

His mother hugged him close and kissed him.

"No, my little son," said she. "If you were dressed in silver and gold from top to toe, you could not look any nicer than in your little red cap."

Then Anders felt brave again. He knew well enough that mother's cap was the best cap in all the world."


"Successful story telling means, then, a careful consideration of the apperceptive basis of the story, first of all. This, reduced to very simple terms, means studying the mental life of a child and selecting for his first stories those that have a well-defined association through their word pictures, dialogue and plot with the child's own previous experience. When the story teller makes the question of apperception the first consideration in selecting her stories, she will find that her appeal to the children will be an active and successful one."

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This concludes this excerpt from the first chapter of Carolyn Sherwin Bailey's "For the Story Teller."

The takeaway

When selecting books for children you have spent a lot of time with, it's easy to identify objects and ideas that will be familiar to them. After all, you share so many of their experiences. However, once your child moves out into the world, or you adopt a child, or you begin reading to children in the broader community, it will take more effort on your part to choose books they resonate with, based on what they already know. Thinking about the questions Carolyn Sherwin Bailey posed above may offer some guidance.

To give you more practice in thinking about the apperceptive elements in a story, here are fourteen stories (all, incidentally, great to read to five year-olds) that Carolyn Sherwin Bailey lists at the end of the chapter as having exceptional apperceptive appeal:

Share your experience

Do you have a memory of reading aloud where your child or student made a striking comment based on their apperception of the story? (E.g. Pietro's observations about the bull). We'd love to hear all about it in a comment below!