Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Dilemma of Didacticism

The Lois Lenski children's literature lecture that I presented at Illinois State University on Monday night was entitled "The Dilemma of Didacticism." It was my attempt to wrestle with arguments for and against trying to use children's literature to teach moral values to children.

Most children's writers I have ever heard speak on the subject adamantly repudiate any attempt to craft a story that has a message or a moral.  Arguments against didacticism include: children will refuse to read preachy tomes; the moral mission of the book may actually backfire (my beloved Jean-Jacques Rousseau says in Emile that attempts to warn children away from bad behavior may serve to introduce the idea of that bad behavior to children in the first place); most of all, moral earnestness simply leads to the making of bad books.

But in favor of didacticism (at least of a certain kind of didacticism), I argued that I do think a book - whether for children or for adults - should say something. As I reader I care less what happens in a story than what it all means, why this particular stretch of human experience was worth writing about.  It's always the epiphany moment that makes me cry, the moment when the character finally "gets it," realizes some small crucial truth about the world and about herself.

So the crucial issue is not whether to try to share moral values with children, but how. 

In the second half of my talk, I reviewed a number of pieces of standard advice (and in some cases, quite excellent pieces of advice) about the do's and don'ts of didacticism: Pose a question but don't answer it, let the moral emerge from the story rather than structuring the story deliberately and consciously to reveal it, present a moral or message that is rich and interesting enough to resonate with adults as well as with children, let the main character discover it herself, and don't herald the presentation of the "moral" with a fanfare of "telling" language.  Oh, and make sure the moral is actually true, and don't deliver it in atrocious rhyme!

But then to problematize everything I said, in closing I talked about one of the greatest children's books of all that that violates just about all of these requirements, except that the moral is true, there is no bad rhyme, and the main character discovers it for herself.  But the book presents a ringing answer to the moral question posed, the story is clearly structured to focus on its central issue and wring one definitive lesson from it, the lesson is extremely simple and familiar to almost any adult reader, and it is labeled with as clear a moment of narrative fanfare as I have ever seen.  The book is The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes.

So my conclusions were that it's awfully hard to distill any hard-and-fast guidelines for how to moralize to children. Nonetheless, we shouldn't refrain from trying to share our values with children through stories as insightfully, passionately, and beautifully as we can.


  1. What do you mean by atrocious rhyme?

  2. Well, it's somewhat subjective, but for me, it's rhyme that feels obviously forced rather than natural, and with lines that don't scan - don't have the right number of syllables for a natural speaking rhythm.