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The Peril of “Improving Books”

Saturday at our home has a comfortable routine. Coffee is brewed. Someone fixes breakfast and someone else grabs the Wall Street Journal off the lawn. While we coffee up and feed before heading off to tae kwon do, we pull out the crossword puzzles and read the latest article from Meghan Cox Gurdon, the WSJ’s columnist for children’s books. This week’s column (Derring-Do With a Didactic Vibe) offers some valuable food for thought: stories might do well to preach less and entertain more.

Anyone who has read a copy of Aesop’s fables is familiar with the idea of a story with a moral lesson. After a brief and amusing story about a race between a tortoise and a hare, or a grasshopper fiddling all summer while the ants labor to put away food, the moral of the story is summarized neatly in italics: slow and steady wins the race or there’s a time for work and a time for play.

The moral is not, however, a relic of Aesop. It is a later addition by editors in the Victorian era who thought it important to state in no uncertain terms for the intended young readers exactly which lesson should be learned. The same didactic impulse created the idea of the “improving book”, the sort of story written for young people that dispensed moral lessons with a heavy hand alongside a story.

The books Ms. Cox Gurdon reviewed this week suffer for this attempt to improve their readers. The lessons being taught—anti-colonialism, concern for endangered animals, etc.—are ones currently in vogue but the impulse to write improving books can come from any ideology. Michael Crichton was guilty of such preaching, often interrupting his narrative for his designated moral-compass character to stand up on their soapbox and lecture. I’ve seen the same from Christians as well as atheists, and from both sides of the political aisle.

None of this is to say that books shouldn’t touch upon subjects from which moral lessons can be drawn. And there is a place for these sorts of stories when their purpose is stated up front. The VeggieTales videos are clear in their purpose: fun stories drawn from the Bible to teach children biblical values. The Tuttle Twins series is clear that it is conveying lessons from classic works of libertarian philosophy and economics in a manner accessible to children.

No, my gripe with “improving books”, the sort that purport to be an adventure tale and turn into a lecture, is that they don’t work. Children tend to be rather canny and can tell when they’re being lectured. And that both kills the enjoyment of the story and leaves them wondering if someone is trying to pull a fast one on them. It is a bait-and-switch.

So what books should you look for? Rather than books that give answers, look for books that ask questions. Most of these types of stories are being written for middle grade and high school students. This is an age at which children should begin to engage in critical thinking. A book that asks “what is justice?” and shows why it’s not an easy question to answer will go much farther in developing a child’s moral compass than the book that tells them directly what one author’s opinion is.

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