by Laura Backes
When writing for children, it's very tempting to use fiction as a vehicle for teaching important life lessons. And while there's nothing wrong with this, the author's desire to impart wisdom earned from years of experience can easily become heavy-handed. Storytelling that degenerates into didacticism can appear in fiction for any age, but it's most glaring in picture books where the spare text makes the lesson stand out. The trick, then, for any writer, is to recognize the line between teaching and preaching.
Teaching raises the lesson or concept to the reader, and allows the reader to discover the answers for herself. This is generally done through the story's main character, who learns something because of the situations he encounters in the plot. Preaching offers no reader involvement--the author tells the reader what to think, and expects the reader to believe it simply because the author said so. Preaching is like getting unsolicited advice, which no one appreciates.
Kathleen Allan-Meyer employs very gentle teaching methods in her Little Bear picture books. Little Bear, who represents a typical 5-year-old, encounters all sorts of kid-like situations that require him to think about his actions. The author has Little Bear's mother plant the seeds for change with a parental observation ("In order to find a friend, you must be a friend." - from "Little Bear's Secret", and "Not everything in the world is fun and easy. Important things take hard work." from "Little Bear at Big School").
Mother Bear doesn't tell Little Bear how to think or act--that's up to Little Bear himself. He chooses whether to follow this advice, makes some mistakes, and finally learns in a way that's meaningful to both him and the reader. Because Little Bear ultimately decides to make the change, he keeps his self-respect and learns a lesson he can use over and over.
Many skillfully-written picture books have a lesson that's so subtle it's not literally included in the text, but rather felt by the reader. In "The Biggest, Best Snowman" by Margery Cuyler (Scholastic), Little Nell is told by her family (BIG Mama, BIG Sarah and BIG Lizzie) that she's too small to help around the house. When her friends (Reindeer, Hare and Bear Cub) ask her to show them how to build a snowman, her first response is that she can't. But with a bit of encouragement (and help), Little Nell builds the biggest, best snowman ever. Any child who's ever felt overlooked by the big kids will come away from the book feeling inspired to reach for her dreams, and will learn that friends working together can accomplish much more than any one can working alone.
Eliminating preaching from your writing remains important in books for older readers, who will close a book the instant they suspect the author is lecturing to them. So step back and allow the reader to make life's discoveries along with your main character. Only then will your readers willingly listen to what you have to say.
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