Children’s books that become classics are not usually written solely with the idea of conveying a message. Yet, over and over, people who want to write children’s books think that the message is where it’s at. It isn’t.
If a book is described as a story that teaches you how to have faith in yourself or that teaches you how to be a friend, I don’t want to read it. If a book is described as a story in which a girl is kidnapped by pirates because she has invented a gill machine that lets you breathe underwater, that’s the one I want. (Race to the Bottom of the Sea)
I’m not saying moral and supportive content is bad, of course, or that I want nothing but nonsense. But most stories are written by a moral person. In that case, his or her story will be intrinsically moral. I could draw a moral, or several morals, out of any story. You can’t avoid it. But if I try to write because I want to “teach” children something, I’d better be a really superlative writer. Face it, it’s kind of condescending to create a story that tries to in some way “better” a child.
There is currently a spate of books telling the child, “you’re great, you’re special,” etc. For the older child this might be of interest but the youngest—they think they are gods! They know they’re okay. We might remember it differently because we’re old. We’ve been through a lot and we could use a sense that others have suffered and excelled. Once we’ve been beaten down a little by life, we might want to see that sort of thing. I guess we could choose a self-help book or a novel. Personally, I pick the novel: in Louisiana’s Way Home, there’s a grandmother with infected teeth who makes her granddaughter drive the car, and percolating through all that we can draw conclusions on friendship and self care. In The Wild Robot, we watch a robot stranded on an island learning about how to be a good human.
It seems some would-be writers think that children’s literature is a giant self-help genre. As a would-be writer myself, I have to remind myself that story is paramount. Think about Charlotte’s Web. Did E.B. White decide “I think I’ll write a book for children that will teach them about love and friendship”? Hmm. I doubt it. In a letter to his editor he wrote: “I haven’t told why I wrote the book, but I haven’t told you why I sneeze, either. A book is a sneeze.” He also says “What I am really saying, is that I love life and I think that comes through in everything I write.” And I think if you look at most classics and current popular books, you will see that story is king and that the “lessons” shine through on their own.