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 More likely than not, these books would not be published in the first place and, if they were, the reviews from adults would probably be negative.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 norm. Diary 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.
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.
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.
The protagonist cheats in this story. And the other characters justify it. No, that’s not the message I want to teach children!