I spent some time in Barnes & Noble this afternoon, picking up a book for Ben and looking for another for Maya. Both my kids love to read and so we spend an inordinate amount of time in bookstores and the library. It’s hard for me to say no to books, because, well, they’re books. And although reading any book is better than reading none at all, in my opinion, looking through the Young Readers section at the bookstore was almost depressing.
Why was it depressing? Well, with a few exceptions, it seems many, many of the books are very heavy-handed on the teaching of morals. “Jenny would learn that despite their differences, there really was no one she could count on like her family. Would solving the mystery bring them closer together than ever before?” Hmmm, my guess is, Yes! Or you have the stories where best friends have a terrible argument but then learn that friendship is more valuable than any argument, and they make up in the end. A child learns how to deal with his parents’ divorce by starting a ‘save the puppies’ fund. Another kid learns how to stand up to the bully in the class, and even helps them see the error of their ways. Might they even become friends?
I’m not saying that a story with a moral is bad. The Harry Potter series, for example, has a lot of good triumphing over evil, and highlights the importance of friends, etc, but J.K. Rowling manages to tell a great story in which moral decisions and dilemmas play a role, rather than beating us over the head with them. So good was she at this that up until the last book was published, no one was completely sure who was going to die in the end, Harry or Voldemort. The books I saw today, on the other hand, left little doubt as to how their stories would end, because without a moral epiphany and a subsequent happily ever after resolution, their characters were devoid of any… character.
Great books keep us guessing. We want the happy ending for the characters, but we’re not 100% sure they’ll get it. The Hunger Games series is another great example of this – and of a sometimes morally murky story that is all the better for it. Maya and I are in the midst of Suzanne Collins’ Gregor the Overlander series (she’s the Hunger Games author) and although geared toward a slightly younger audience, these books, too, are anything but cut and dried in the morality tale department.
I wish authors and editors would focus on good compelling stories instead of thinking they have to ‘teach’ the kids something about friendship or love or family. First of all, kids usually see through that ruse. Maya will look at a book and roll her eyes and say, “Yeah, I already know how that one will end.” And of course she is always right. I’ll bet J.K. Rowling never thought, “Hmm, what story could I write that will teach kids that good should always triumph over evil?” I think she just wanted to entertain with a good story (and make a little money, since she famously wrote the first book and the outline for the rest while working as a waitress to support herself and her daughter).
My thought is that just as blaming violence done by kids on videos and music is misplaced, so is the thought that if a character in a book acts in a moral way, so will the child reading the book. Kids are smarter than all that. They learn primarily from their lives and the people around them. Which when it comes to books, means we can all relax and tell good stories. Hey, maybe the bad guy could even get away now and then! Everyone loves a good villain, after all. (In a somewhat related digression: Who’s the best TV villain of all time? Of course it’s Wo Fat from Hawaii Five-O. And why? Because he never got caught.) Writing a great bad guy who stays bad won’t corrupt the wee ones. It’ll just make the reading journey a little more fun.