Confucius: “You cannot open a book without learning something.”
Children’s book writers often feel that their mission is to teach their readers, whether through facts, religion, morals, social codes, ways of thinking, or some other set of beliefs or ideas. But they are not alone. Parents, babysitters, older brothers and sisters, grandparents, teachers, friends, and priests want the same. Every single day, someone tells children what to do and how to behave. In kindergarten, at school, and at home, they learn about good manners and desirable behavior.
And after all, that, do they still need books with obvious moral lessons? Okay, they might not mind books with moral lessons, but the only condition kids have is that those books must be imaginative and fun. If there’s something little readers don’t like is that they are underestimated.
Stories begin in the reader’s head
Every writer should think twice before moralizing in books, especially if they write for children. Every parent should think twice before reading to their children books that clearly tell them what to do and how to behave. Writers may have the best of intentions: teach children to share, forgive, brush their teeth, wash their hands, not to lie or steal, care for animals and nature, and other important life messages, but they don’t have to say it in an obvious way. Reading children’s books with obvious moral lessons is like combing a child’s hair or tying their sneakers for them even though they can do it themselves.
When an author writes a book, they should know that it is not finished, but that it is actually just beginning in the reader’s head. Writing is an interactive process that involves the author, the story, and the reader who plays an important role in continuing this creative process. The reader is not a passive consumer of literary content but a builder of meanings. The main question is not what the writer wanted to say but what meaning the reader gave to the book. It is not good to serve everything on a reader’s platter without leaving them the opportunity to construct and discover meanings on their own. The author should enable the reader to become a co-author of the story because the story does not remain on the cover of the book but moves into the reader’s imagination.
Young readers like exploration, not explanation
Explanatory and preachy stories prevent the reader from enjoying the process of discovering meaning because the reader loses their role as a detective if there is nothing left to look for. The writer should avoid explaining what they wanted to say because it is the task of the reader to construct meanings. Talking about the meaning of a work is impossible without the reader and the function they have regardless of whether they are a child or the most experienced reader. Reading is not an automatic text absorption process but a personalized re-creation process. The meaning of the work is revealed through the experience of the reader, because the reader is the one who writes the story over and over again, bringing their own emotions and knowledge into it. Children may not have life experience but they do have imagination and intuition that helps them discover and recognize the messages hidden in a literary text.
A good combination: Moralisation and imagination
Moralisation in children’s books can be successful if it is expressed through metaphor, allegory, or personification, instead of conveying messages directly to children. I will mention an example from the picture book “The Not-So Crazy Cow” in which a cow goes to a restaurant where she sees how she is not treated as a guest but as food.
“The Not-So Crazy Cow” is a humorous, rhyming story about a cow who believes that the grass is greener somewhere else. Despite receiving royal treatment in her homeland of India, she longs to discover the big, wide world. One day, she packs her bags, puts on her best hat, and sails from India to Europe. One wise stork tries to warn her of the upcoming challenges, but the cow follows her adventurous spirit to discover this for herself. Her journey is full of unexpected situations and very soon, the cow starts missing her homeland. This book presents an important question: who is crazy here? The cow or the world who treats her as though her life doesn’t matter?
Instead of telling younger children directly about the cruel relationship between burgers on a plate and the slaughterhouses they came from, the message about cruelty to animals can be expressed in a metaphorical way, even including elements of humor. In modern society, there is a big gap between animals and their flesh that ends up on dinner plates. It’s a real shock for kids when they learn that animals are killed for food. It is much easier for children to accept the truth that there is no Santa Claus than the fact that salami and burgers are made from the wonderful creatures they love.
The best way to teach children is if they don’t notice that we are teaching them, allowing them to discover the meaning for themselves. This is only possible if educating and moralizing are imaginative.