Thursday, 5 July 2018

Must every single children's story have a moral lesson? A ReadItTorial

This week's ReadItTorial was inspired by a couple of musings while attempting the tricky feat of analysing this year's picture book / children's book trends.

Without a doubt there's definitely been a huge huge trend for 'Mighty Girl' books that has been continuing throughout the year, but the other type of book we've seen (possibly far too much of) this year is the "Moral Lesson" story.

I may be missing a trick, but it feels like the entire industry has become completely obsessed with the betterment of our children through picture books. Now, there's nothing wrong per se with picture books carrying positive and hopefully inspirational messages, but sometimes those messages are so blindingly obvious - or layered on so thickly it's like watching someone trying to ice a cake with a plasterer's trowel - that it robs the book of any smidgeon of enjoyment.

I don't know if your own kids (or kids you read to) have perfected the "sub-12 year old eye roll" as fabulously as my own daughter but she's becoming a past master at it, mostly because she can spot a moral lesson a mile off as soon as a picture book text begins, and usually adds in a spicy "Oh god, not this again" line or two for good measure.

Moral lessons that have been overdone to death (in our opinion) include:

1) Don't be mean, because you'll end up alone or unloved and it'll serve you right.

2) You might muddle along fine on your own, but your entire life will be so much better if you can get a few friends (you antisocial bugger).

3) Cake is the answer to everything.

4) Pirates are really a bunch of jolly little folk who are only robbing you blind at sea because it's part of their cultural identity, not because they're bloodthirsty criminals who will slit your throat for a groat (or a goat, or possibly even a new coat).

5) The louder and noisier and more outgoing you are, the more likely you are to succeed.

6) Your dad is utterly useless and would probably have been eaten by alsatians years ago if it wasn't for your mum (or his mum, or any other female figure who has played a significant role in his life - I mean look at him, he can't even dress himself or feed himself properly, the useless old sod).

7) You can do almost anything if you set your mind to it / have acres of disposable cash / have a time machine so you can somehow cram 65 hours of 'doing stuff' into a single day.

8) Nosy little middle class / posh brats make the best detectives.

9) Kids, don't tell lies. But it's OK if a parent / adult tells you lies, they do it because they WUV you really.

10) Dogs are better than cats (totally and utterly preposterous).

We're coasting a little there but for each and every moral tale we've read in a picture book text this year, we've craved something else. We've craved books that don't really have a vitally important world-changing message to impart but are just rollicking good entertainment in picture book form, or a chapter book that swaps out virtually all of the 'standards' we see again and again in middle grade / early YA books (crap experience starting at a new school, frienemies, absent parents, grandparents who are on the brink of death / actually die during the story, pets who are amazing companions and save the day rather than sitting their licking their own privates while demanding you feed them at every opportunity, oh god you've started us off again).

Andy Stanton's "Here Comes the Poo Bus" (illustrated by Noelle Davies-Brock. The sort of children's picture book that has moral standards-obsessed goodie-two-shoes book snobs up in arms, but kids in raptures of delight (eugh!) 

C is pretty damning about the trend for moral betterment through stories, and I think this is why she currently devours so many middle grade humour books, seeking that golden nugget of a story that exists to entertain, not lecture or point a finger. We'd like to think that as her parents, my wife and I provide her with a decent moral compass, moral fibre, moral schmorals - or at least a good enough example to ensure that she's not going to start her own forgery / money-laundering business at school any time soon.

Bizarrely, analysing the trend further, we seem to find that many many celebrity-penned books swap out the moral lesson for pure fictional entertainment. Now, this is not an endorsement of celebrity books per se, but it feels like we read a lot of middle grade celebrity-penned stuff that skips the moral stuff, almost as if those folk (or their extremely talented ghost writers) realise that society has changed and readers may seek wisdom, guidance and education in their books but may also just seek pure unadulterated and undiluted entertainment and fun too.

So here's a plea to authors (and illustrators too). Ditch the moral lesson for your next book. Perhaps follow Andy Stanton's recent examples of stories that are chucklesome verging on the ridiculous but are all the better for it.

Not everything in life has to teach you something or try to make you a better person. Not everything.