I Like Children’s Books with Morals–and So Do You

Sometimes when we discuss books, readers will say that they do not enjoy older texts because they “moralize.”  Certainly the tone or manner of moralizing can affect how readers perceive the messages being imparted.  For instance, The Lord of the Rings might be said to promote the message that friendship, mercy, and self-sacrifice are positive forces for good in the world.  But accusations of moralizing are not typically leveled at J. R. R. Tolkien’s most famous work.  In contrast, readers might object to Pollyanna because of its overt message that hardship should be confronted with optimism.  (“Pollyanna” has even entered the dictionary as a typically derogatory term describing overly optimistic people.)

However, moral messages are not relegated to books of the past.  Indeed, moralizing remains alive and well in children’s stories.  It’s simply that many of our moral messages have changed.  While books of the past may have emphasized virtues like honesty, cheerfulness, humility, and a good work ethic, books today often focus on themes of confidence, individuality, and inclusion.  Perhaps some readers do not see these books as moralizing because they agree so whole-heartedly with these themes that they see them as self-evident and not as lessons to be inculcated.  However, a good many readers actively expect such messages–and are disappointed or offended by stories that do not include them.

We can see how strong our desire for moral stories is if we try to imagine narratives that do not adhere to our current standards of positive messaging.  What would happen, for example, if there were a children’s story that featured a nerdy girl with no friends.  However, instead of finding friends who value her as she is, she either has to change (maybe by pretending to be more into reality TV and less into comics) to have a social life or she simply ends the book still in middle school without friends (a hopeful end message suggesting high school might be different).  Would parents, educators, and librarians want to hand this book to children?  What about a book that featured a bully who does not come to empathize with others but continues to be mean without ever having a comeuppance?  What would the reviews for that book look like?  More likely than not, these books would not be published in the first place and, if they were, the reviews from adults would probably be negative.

Yes, it is true that sometimes books without positive messages get published or even become popular–but this not the normDiary of a Wimpy Kid, for instance, features an unlikable protagonist who continually lies and hurts his friend to get what he wants–and the series it spawned is a runaway success.  Perhaps it’s notable, however, that Jeff Kinney initially wrote the book for adults.  In a 2011 Guardian article he admits: “It really shocked and unsettled me to hear kids were buying the books. If I’d known I was writing for kids I might actually have spelt things out a bit more and that would probably have killed the appeal.”  While he goes on to suggest that children appreciate the lack of preaching in the Wimpy Kid books, his attitude is generally in line with what most adults–the ones who write, publish, and purchase the bulk of children’s books–think.  Children’s stories should reinforce positive messages.  You can find plenty of parent reviews online recoiling in shock from Kinney’s books to see just how unusual this series is for the children’s market.

You can randomly choose an assortment of children’s books and probably find a moral in most of them.  For example, picture book Natsumi! by Susan Lendroth and Priscillal Burris is about a young girl who is “too loud” for her family, but finds a place she can use her loudness to her advantage.  Dino Duckling by Alison Murray is about a family of ducks who accepts a dino as one of their own without question.  In the middle grade category, you can find books like Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan, which shows the protagonist overcoming stage fright and her community coming together to show support for each other.  Or  you can find subtle messages in books like The Exact Location of Home by Kate Messner, which shows how a “troubled” character is simply misunderstood because he is struggling with the effects of homelessness.  Positive messages, often shown through character arcs where the protagonist struggles with self-acceptance but then finds their place in the world, are simply the norm in children’s stories.

I’ll be the first to admit that I like positive messages in my children’s stories.  I like to see characters evolve and learn something.  I like to see stories where things wrap up on a positive note–where the bullied child is accepted, the mean child converted, the overlooked child praised.   These stories feels satisfying and conclusive.  However, like a good many people, I also rather expect children’s stories to be teaching children something.  For better or for worse, I assume that the stories children hear will affect their perception of themselves and their place in the world.  I want them to affected in such a way that they become kinder, more empathetic, more honest.  A children’s story that suggests that immorality is acceptable is a book I will never be able to enjoy fully.

Star Divider

Children’s Books I Didn’t Enjoy Because I Didn’t Support the Message

Triangle by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen

This is a picture book about two “friends.”  Triangle begins the book by playing a mean trick on Square.  Square retaliates by playing a mean prank in revenge (or so he says).  The end.  There is no message here except that it is funny to be mean to others and to use their fears against them.  A strange choice for a children’s book indeed!

Tidy by Emily Gravett

This picture book follows Pete the badger who would like everyone to clean up their messes in the forest, please!  But then he gets too tidy and razes all the trees and covers the land with concrete to ensure no leaves or anything will litter his space.  I’m confused.  When you read this to children are they supposed to get the message that being clean leads to deforestation?  When you ask them to clean their room, will they reply, “No, mom!  We mustn’t be too tidy!”  Maybe the message is about obsession, but that seems a little abstract for the younger crowd.

Diary of Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney

Protagonist Greg says no one at school likes him because of the way he looks.  Probably no one likes him because he is selfish, greedy, and dishonest.  He has one “friend” whom he uses and abuses to get what he wants–until he can ditch said friend for someone “better.”  Why is this series so popular with children?  I have no idea.  I think I would have hated it as a child simply because I would not have liked or respected the main character.

Slider by Pete Hautman

The protagonist cheats in this story.  And the other characters justify it.  No, that’s not the message I want to teach children!

47 thoughts on “I Like Children’s Books with Morals–and So Do You

  1. Claire Wong says:

    Really well put! I’d go so far as to apply your argument to all fiction, children’s or otherwise. While I don’t want to be beaten over the head with moralistic messages, I admit I’m a total sucker for stories where hope pays off and good beats evil!

    Like

  2. ireadthatinabook says:

    For me it largely depends if I feel that I’m reading a story with a moral or a moral with a story. Whenever the moral lesson appears more important than the characters or story (whether that is true for the whole book or just a paragraph) I fall out of the story. If the moral is also something I object to the effect is of course stronger but I don’t really appreciate it for morals I agree with either. On the other hand I have no problem with a story that happens to have a moral (unless I find that moral truly offensive) as long as the author prioritize what’s good for the story rather than what’s good for the moral lesson.

    I would argue that neither Alice in Wonderland nor Pippi Longstocking are written with an intended moral lesson. (Not immoral, just written with the purpose of being fun rather than educational). Both are great children’s literature.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Yes, I agree! No one wants the story to suffer for the sake of telling a moral! Yet it doesn’t follow that all morals (or “messages” as we would call them today) make a story awful! The author really determines whether the message will work!

      Those are great examples! There are children’s books without morals, of course. However, I always find it interesting to see how parents and educators react to them! Often I think the children appreciate these stories more!

      Liked by 1 person

      • ireadthatinabook says:

        I guess another group of novels would be the ones without specific “messages” but with enough fundamentally decent characters. Those stories are unhindered by any intended morals or messages but you are basically hanging out with a good crowd when you read them and may pick-up a few good examples anyway. I wouldn’t call those “moral stories” but they are not amoral in the same way as my previous examples.

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  3. H.P. says:

    I think this is one thing I really like about the older “juveniles,” books that would probably be categorized as middle-school today. They’re a little more open about the moral. Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit–Will Travel hits the work ethic moral pretty hard (and extraordinarily well).

    Interestingly, I’m reading John Rateliff’s The History of the Hobbit and he talks about how Tolkien isn’t as moralizing as some of his Victorian influences like George MacDonald. Tolkien will let his characters tell white lies, for example.

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    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I do find that a lot of children’s books tread the same ground. Most of them today seem to be about self-acceptance (and we call it a “message” and not a “moral” because morals are outdated). That’s great, but I also think variety would be great! I don’t really want to read ten middle-grade books in a row and see ten protagonists struggle with confidence and then find it.

      That’s interesting about Tolkien! And I think that’s why most readers would be resistant to saying his books have a “moral.” Because they don’t seem to be moralizing, his depictions of virtue are much more palatable to modern audiences! Bilbo teaches us about a lack of greed and a love of peace, but he also tells lies so readers see him as more of a person and the moral slips in undetected.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. ofmariaantonia says:

    Thank-you for putting your finger on what has bothered me about Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

    I only JUST read the first 3-4 books (I can’t remember exactly where I stopped). And while I enjoyed them to a certain extent (they’re clever and funny), there was something about them that made me want to stop reading them.

    I guess I kept waiting for Greg to grow up and show some sympathy and actual FRIENDSHIP towards Rowley. I guess that never happens?

    Yeah, I would never really go out of my way to recommend this series to kids.

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    • Krysta says:

      I only read the first Wimpy Kid book so I can’t comment on the rest of the series. I know some people think it’s “moral” in the sense that some of Greg’s plans backfire, but he didn’t seem to exhibit any character growth as a result, so it was difficult for me to like him. I got the sense his main thought was, “Well, I’d better be sneakier next time.” But I guess kids find it funny. I don’t know.

      Liked by 1 person

      • ofmariaantonia says:

        I can tell you that the second and third books (and I think the fourth as well) are pretty much the same. I was hoping for some character growth. I was hoping for a slimmer of humanity and real friendship. Yeah, I stopped reading the series when I figured out that didn’t seem like it was going to happen.

        I think part of the appeal is the illustrations. Especially for non-readers. There are A LOT of illustrations in the books!

        Like

        • Krysta says:

          I think you’re right. It probably is the format. There must be a reason Dork Diaries and the rest are nearly as popular–the illustrations!

          Like

  5. Milliebot says:

    I agree, I love morals. I do find Wimpy Kid funny now, though I’m not sure what I would have thought as a youngster. I don’t like the protagonist though and I’m amused when he gets his comeuppance. But I can see how it would instill bad behavior in kids if they emulated it. I assume kids find it funny?

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    • Krysta says:

      I assume kids find it funny, but whenever I’ve asked, no one has really described what’s so appealing about the series. I usually just get, “It’s good” or something generic. I guess they have trouble describing what it is they like.

      Frankly, I’m so grossed out by the cheese in the first book that I can’t even think about the book without wanting to gag. So I definitely never read book two. :/

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      • Milliebot says:

        Perhaps it’s the comic/diary format? I know I like the style and kid Millie might have too.

        Haha omg the cheese. I forgot about that. I think I read the first 4 or 5

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        • Krysta says:

          Yeah, I can see that. I imagine that’s why Dork Diaries and the other similar titles are also doing well!

          You are the second person who has told me they don’t remember the cheese. I don’t understand. I’m scarred for life.

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  6. Jackie B @ Death by Tsundoku says:

    I always want morals and lessons in my stories, no matter whether they are children’s stories or not! You said it perfectly: “For better or for worse, I assume that the stories children hear will affect their perception of themselves and their place in the world. I want them to affected in such a way that they become kinder, more empathetic, more honest.”

    I haven’t read any of the books you call out for having inappropriate morals (or ones which misalign with your own expectations, I guess?). In fact, the only one I’ve heard of is The Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and just from the synopsis alone I know it isn’t for me. I want books which are empowering! Books which teach bravery, courage, honesty, acceptance, lovingkindness… None of these sound like they have those morals.

    This is the biggest reason I ONLY purchase books as gifts which I have read before. I refuse to let the hip new book persuade me with its shiny cover when I am getting gifts for my nieces and nephews. Because these books, in a way, also reflect my morals and the lessons I want to teach them.

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    • Krysta says:

      Yes, I love how you put that! I think my use of the word “moral” confused people as I see some of the comments saying they find morals preachy and then suggesting ways they prefer books to be written–but these preferred ways still have morals! “Books which teach bravery, courage, honesty, acceptance” don’t need to have a note at the end saying, “The moral of the story is to be brave.” Rather, the character’s action and their character arc usually illustrate the moral. You could argue very easily that the “moral” of Harry Potter is to be brave and selfless. But I think very few people would complain that the story “moralizes.”

      Ah, yes. I have bought books as gifts that I haven’t read, but I always get scared because I don’t really know what’s in the book or if it something I would think is terrible if I read it. Such a dilemma! Especially as I often gift newer releases because I think the person is less likely to own something if it came out recently.

      Liked by 1 person

      • ireadthatinabook says:

        I would argue that the difference isn’t between “message” or “moral” but in writing style. If after reading a piece of fiction I can point at a certain thing and say that This is the moral/message the author wanted me to remember above all else I would call the text moralizing. Usually that harms the story for me (although not always fatally). If I’m to be told what to think I prefer it to be openly as non-fiction.

        Other novels, such as Harry Potter, don’t have that one specific take-home-message but do include moral choices and moral characters. They let me choice what, if anything, I should take from the story. Whether to be “brave and selfless”, to be a good friend, that a horrible foster family is not your fault, or that magic is real and boarding schools are cool. They could be said to have moral but I would argue that it doesn’t moralize as it doesn’t force a specific message on you but lets you choose freely.

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        • Krysta says:

          I think we’re largely in agreement. 🙂 Some of my examples given were the the typical middle-grade story where the character struggles with self-acceptance (I’m “too weird,” “too poor,” “too different”) and then ultimately finds friends or reveals their hidden talent or whatever. But I think most children’s books (barring picture books) have more than one lesson. For instance, Amina’s Choice is about a girl who wants to enter the talent show but is shy, feels tension between her beliefs and the way her uncle interprets their religion, and encounters anti-Muslim bigotry. A child could see any number of “morals” in this book from being confident, realizing that there are potentially many ways to rightly live out a religion, and recognizing that prejudice is bad. I would say that the story “has a moral” even though there are many potential morals and none of them is spelled out, but simply illustrated by the plot and the character arc. The story isn’t Aesop’s Fables, but there is something in there that educators, parents, and librarians like to grab onto as something good for children to read.

          The same with Harry Potter. There are tons of “morals” in the story and I would argue that’s why parents, educators, and librarians like to recommend them. It’s different with something like Wimpy Kid. You can read reviews of it where parents are practically fainting with horror because the protagonist is disagreeable but, unlike Harry (who is very disagreeable in OotP, if you ask me), never changes to illustrate that being kind and selfless is better.

          I’m not arguing that a moralistic story has one take-home message or that there has to be a narrative voice saying “Cheating is wrong.” Rather, I want to see the characters living upright lives and changing to be better, naturally illustrating how to be. So, I think we are on much the same page. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

          • ireadthatinabook says:

            We probably are, I just wouldn’t say that a story had a moral or was moralistic unless there were a specific take home message. I suspect that it is mainly those more moralistic stories others are referring to when they argue that they don’t like stories with morals although as you point out a story doesn’t have to be moralistic to have morals. For me personally I guess I just want to feel that I get to choose what to take, if anything, from a story.

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            • Krysta says:

              Well, I certainly never would have guessed that English is not your first language! 🙂 Perhaps I didn’t define my terms properly in the post, but I didn’t wish to use “moral” as a term meaning something heavy-handed! At any rate, I’m so glad that you took the time to write such thoughtful responses!

              Liked by 1 person

            • ireadthatinabook says:

              I suspect there may be some cultural difference in what type of children’s literature we have read. To me both the “study hard” message and the “anti-bullying” message you used as examples earlier would have seemed heavy handed, but I suspect Swedish children’s literature may be unusually undidactic.

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            • Krysta says:

              Anti-bullying picture books are very popular right now in the U.S. and parents and educators will often ask specifically for such titles at the library. But that’s how educators and librarians often think of literature–in terms of “How can I use this?” It’s not often that I find an educator (particularly in the lower grades) who would read a book just because they think it’s a good story. It has to be related to something. If it doesn’t have a good moral lesson, it should be connected to a school lesson. And we wonder why so many students don’t see reading as enjoyable. Well, no one’s taught them that you might pick up a book just because you like it!

              On the other hand, I did have one teacher who would read to us “just because” and I discovered books I still love that way. We didn’t discuss the books. They weren’t connected to a lesson. She just read them because presumably she thought we would, too. And it worked. I’m sure they still had characters who were generally edifying, but she never talked about it, so I think most students wouldn’t have thought she was trying to instill any lessons.

              I do wonder what would happen if we had more of a reading culture, one where a lot of people were seen about reading just because. Would more kids want to read?

              Liked by 1 person

            • ireadthatinabook says:

              I’m not in primary education myself but I do have the impression that here the teacher would go for the good story first and then see how they could use it in the rest of their teaching. Reading is seen as a good thing in itself, especially when learning to read, so the texts don’t necessarily have to be useful in other ways. Children’s literature has also a quite high status (much of it thanks to Astrid Lindgren) so we have more really good children’s authors than we might otherwise have had.

              Thank you for all your long answers, I have really appreciated the discussion!

              Like

      • Jackie B @ Death by Tsundoku says:

        Exactly! Do you listen to Podcasts often? I have found a lot of value in Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. It’s two theology students reading HP chapter by chapter and exploring a single theme. They are treating a re-read like Bible study. It’s brilliant. Whenever people complain to me that Harry Potter is immoral (witchcraft and all that) or only teaches people to be mindlessly brave, I ask them to explore this podcast. It doesn’t matter which chapter or which episode you select, you’ll find something incredible in the text.

        I believe this technique can actually be applied more easily to MG and YA novels than Adult novels. Why? Because adult novels don’t always have a moral. Sometimes when I’m reading I wonder if adults ever question, “Am I reading for more than just entertainment?” because most adult books I know don’t really carry much more than a story.

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        • Krysta says:

          Ooh! That’s interesting! I don’t often listen to podcasts, but I’ll have to keep that in mind! And I agree. Harry Potter actually reads like a very Christian story to me. I get confused when people don’t see that influence. (I mean…look at the ending? Just for an obvious starting place?)

          Yeah, adult novels often end on these vaguely hopeful notes with no clear resolution. Like a woman in search of meaning and love will end maybe in a new job she’s not sure she likes yet and with a new boyfriend who seems cool, but they don’t know where it’s going. And the end will be all, “But she went to bed knowing tomorrow was a fresh start at life.” Or something. You have no clue if she ends up hating her new job worse and discovering her new boyfriend is actually crazy. This is supposed to be “realistic” because life doens’t always have neat ends tied up.

          But a children’s book that did that? Imagine a middle grade book where a girl is bullied at school by a clique of mean girls and the ending is her seeing a new student and just HOPING a new start awaits. Haha, that would never happen. You have to see her actually make friends with the new student and being happy at school.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Jackie B @ Death by Tsundoku says:

            Hahaha. Yes, I see a lot of parallels between what happens in Narnia and what happens in the Wizarding World. I’m not well-versed when it comes to Christian fiction. But I think there are definitely some obvious parallels. That said, I think the sorts of Christians who might champion their ideals in literature is probably super offended this is about witchcraft. XD

            Exactly! This is why I love children’s books. I don’t read a novel so I can experience life as it stands again. I use reading as a form of escapism. I want to know there is at least an ENDING, even if it isn’t happen. I am constantly seeking hope within these pages, and it looks like books geared for those under 18 will ever provide me with what I seek.

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            • Krysta says:

              I think I am mostly confused because the U.S. is really influenced by Judeo-Christian ideals, but I guess they’re so prevalent that they don’t stand out to people? For instance, Divergent is a very Christian book to me. As Briana pointed out, it is a very Christian thing to celebrate “abnegation.” I would say American culture isn’t really into self-sacrifice and serving others, generally, so this sticks out to me. But every time I say the book is Christian, people say no!

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  7. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    That actually saddens me that “Pollyanna” has become a negative term for optimism tbh. And yes I do agree that there will always be a desire for books that moralise. I think this is a very fair perspective!

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      That always bothered me, too. I don’t think Pollyanna’s necessarily wrong. And I used to like the book when I was younger! (I haven’t read it in awhile so don’t know what I think now.)

      I think the difference today is that we have “messages” and not “morals.” I can see in the comments that some people are sort of suggesting that they don’t like morals while simultaneously suggesting that they do–the difference is that they don’t see the “message” as a “moral.” Too old-fashioned and boring sounding. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      • theorangutanlibrarian says:

        Yeah that’s very true about messages vs morals- I think that a lot of the time it’s more about disagreeing with the particular message/moral- rather than having a problem with that kind of book in general (I think I’ve definitely made that mistake in the past- although I think there’s also the element of how heavy handed the message/moral is). hehe yes 😉

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        • Krysta says:

          Yes, there is that, too. Practically every children’s book I read today is about accepting yourself and accepting others (confidence and inclusion.) And all the librarians and educators I know say, “Oh, what a good message!” If you had a book that was about, say, a kid learning to listen to her teacher at school, I imagine the response would, “Ugh, how didactic!” or even “This book is stifling children’s creativity! What a terrible moral!” Because we’re just not into obeying authority these days. Even if the average teacher actually wishes their students would pay attention in class so they could complete the lesson.

          And sometimes I don’t think the difference is in how the story is told. The average picture book works very much by cause and effect. Kid A bullies Kid B. Kid C notices and plays with Kid B at recess. Kid C starts a chain reaction where everyone is kind to each other and everyone is happy. The end. That’s not much different from Kid A doesn’t pay attention in class and earns poor grades. Kid A realizes one day that her teacher is saying something interesting so she listens. Kid A discovers a love for school and earns an “A” on her next paper. The end. Neither is particularly light-handed, but I guarantee the first example would go over better.

          Liked by 1 person

          • theorangutanlibrarian says:

            hahaha that’s so true!!
            And yes that’s very true- I just tend to object when there’s a character (could be Kid C or even a totally different one like Kid D) who effectively gets the opportunity to deliver the message in speech and says something to the effect of “bullying is bad”. That’s more what I mean about heavy-handedness. I mean, it’s one of those cases where “show don’t tell” applies more- because man, I hate those “educational” conversations in books (maybe that’s just me being modern and getting irritated by authority 😉 JK- I think it can just be a technique thing)

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  8. Never Not Reading says:

    Great discussion! For the record, I want morals in ALL of my books, lol! But I do agree that it’s most important in books for kids. I think the value of morals in books for teens is strongly underrated. The teen years are when kids are discovering who they are and what they believe, and when authors claim their books lack morals because they’re just “telling it like it is”, kids are still learning SOMETHING from that book, and it might not be what we want them to learn. Vampire Academy, for example, I hated, because it seemed like the strongest moral lesson in that book is that being popular, having a hot guy, and making reckless uninformed decisions made you awesome. Obviously something I don’t agree with…

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    • Krysta says:

      I haven’t read Vampire Academy, but I can easily imagine that content! But you’re right that YA novels are often less neat in that they don’t necessarily end up with the protagonist finding good friends of character or good friends who don’t backstab them. They can be basically soap operas in book form, set in high school. Which I always found strange because my high school was not that cutthroat. There were “popular” girls, but they weren’t in any of my classes and we ignored each other’s existence because we were in different friend groups. Books and movies would have you believe high school is definitely going to end up as some sort of survival situation for bookish or quiet girls. Which MIGHT happen. But at some point I think switching schools might be a wise choice in such a case.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Never Not Reading says:

        My high school experience was also nothing like Mean Girls. I wouldn’t even say we HAD popular girls. There were so many freaking people that it was impossible to really know people outside of your friend group. There were definitely the cool kids who dressed awesome, but I wouldn’t say they were even popular.

        Like

        • Krysta says:

          My whole problem with popular girls is…who thinks they are popular? Their immediate friend group? I say these girls were popular, but I mean they seemed cliquey, blonde, and rich. But I don’t think anyone they didn’t hang out with cared about them…. Same with film mean girls. Why do we say they are “popular” when they are mean and no one else in the school likes them as a result? XD

          Liked by 1 person

  9. Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction says:

    I definitely appreciate moral messages in my books, and when I write I end up putting them into my books in some way. At a recent writing conference I went to, there was a session about how to put moral messages into your books without being preachy, and I thought it was excellent!

    Like

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