THE MORAL OF THE STORY

Some thoughts for those who wish to teach kindness (and other values) to children through books.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHow do we help our children understand what we mean when we say, “Be kind,” or “Be a good friend”? Parents and teachers often turn to books to teach concepts and values such as kindness, sharing, forgiveness and so on, or to help children through all kinds of experiences, ranging from the trivial common milestones of childhood—starting school, losing a tooth—to life-changing traumas like the death of a parent.

Reading together adds a third voice to the adult-child dialogue, freeing their conversation and discussion from dependency on the parent or teacher to introduce all the thoughts and ideas: instead, adult and child together can consider, question, debate and wonder. Reading together allows pictures as well as words to come into play, helping small children confront feelings and ideas that are hard to capture in words. Most important of all, reading allows the issue at hand to be couched not as exhortation but as a story. The neutral space between adult and child is filled not only by another adult voice—the author or narrator—but also by one or more additional “child” voice, the character(s) in the story.

There are many sources for books to read with children. As one online newsletter, Brightly (readbrightly.com), points out, “there are roughly 225,000 children’s books on the market right now. Finding the right book for the right kid at the right time can be challenging to say the least.”[1] Parenting magazines, blogs and web sites abound with lists of suggested titles, by topic and age level. Brightly recently posted a short list of twelve recommended books for helping children (ages “Baby and Toddler” through “Growing Reader”) learn to be kind.[2] This list closely resembles any number of other lists available online—many of the same books appear on all or most of them. For obvious reasons they tend to feature recently published titles rather than classics.

The Brightly list includes one board book, How Kind! by Mary Murphy (Candlewick, 2004), in which one gift or good turn begets another, all through the barnyard. In a way that is developmentally perfect for toddlers, the simple narrative provides a series of concrete examples demonstrating what the word “kind” means in practice. This book serves in much the same way as so many other toddler books, which help very little children to see the world around them, to order and classify it and begin to engage it, with both their minds and their emotions.

The remainder of the list is for age 3 and up, and consists mostly of picture books, with a few titles at the “I Can Read!” level and format. It contains three distinct types or genres, though, as is typical for resources of this kind, this distinction is nowhere pointed out.

Three types of books to help children with issues

The first type are the explicitly instructional, motivational, or therapeutic books, such as Have You Filled a Bucket Today? A Guide to Daily Happiness for Kids, by Carol McCloud (Bucketfilling Books, revised edition, 2015); Do Unto Otters: A Book about Manners, by Laurie Keller (Square Fish, 2009), Kindness Is Cooler, Mrs. Ruler by Margery Cuyler (Simon & Schuster, 2007), and What Does It Mean to Be Kind? by Rana DiOrio (Little Pickle Stories, 2015). In styles ranging from saccharine to madcap, with or without a narrative to propel the lesson along, these books are utilitarian and highly forgettable (and may sometimes contain more abstractions and therapeutic jargon than most children will readily grasp). Despite their limitations, books of this sort may be just what is needed for certain children in certain situations.

The second type of book is the kind that appears to be a story, but in fact is contrived entirely as a moral fable or lesson. This type blends into and overlaps with the first type, and the only real difference between the two is that these books dispense with the didactic adult voice framing the narrative, and allow the story to stand on its own. But however well intended, and—on a superficial level—absorbing these stories may be, they evaporate into thin air once the moral lesson has been conveyed. The characters and settings have no life, no personality, no depth or interest for their own sake. They are merely a nice little girl (Ordinary Mary’s Extraordinary Deed by Emily Pearson; Gibbs Smith, 2002) who does a random act of kindness that spreads through the whole world, or the misfit monster in The Monster Who Lost His Mean by Tiffany Strelitz Haber, (Henry Holt, 2012),

So now he’s just “The Onster,”
and the teasing never ends,
Not only has he lost his Mean—
he’s lost his monster friends.

Also in this category, sadly, is a new series of Mercer Mayer “Little Critter” books (“Little Critter Inspired Kids”) published by Thomas Nelson. Mayer’s original series, mass-produced though it was, featured witty drawings, believable dialogue and a light touch that allowed the parent and child, reading together, to draw their own inferences from the stories. This “Inspired Kids” line preserves the drawing style and the simple issues of childhood and family relationships, but imposes a cloyingly pious and moralistic slant to the stories (You Go First, Being Thankful, We All Need Forgiveness, and others) that in effect transforms them into Sunday school lessons.

The third group of books on this list are the ones that, in my view, can actually be called “real books,” that is, the book exists for its own sake and not as a vehicle for a moral or platitude or lesson. In real books, the author and illustrator show us what they want us to notice instead of telling us; the characters and setting are faithfully observed and described, rather than being mere vehicles for stereotyped roles; and the plot, instead of playing out neatly and mechanically in service to the lesson, reflects the quirkiness of real life, the uniqueness of the individual characters, and at least some of the shadow side of the human condition.

Real books

A “real book” may have an agenda, like Good People Everywhere by Lynea Gillen, illustrated by Kristina Swarner (Three Pebble Press, 2012), whose title makes quite clear what it is about—reassuring children that despite the scary stuff they hear from adults and other kids and on TV, the world is full of good people, simply doing what they do, in all places. The words and pictures show this: they highlight some part of what is recognizably real and do not go on to make the wishfully sentimental claim that goodness is always rewarded, or that it typically multiplies by orders of five, as in Ordinary Mary’s Extraordinary Deed.

Mostly, though, real books tell stories—funny stories, silly stories, heartwarming stories, marvelous stories, troubling or inspiring stories—and tell them in ways that ring true to the complexity of real life, even if the story itself is set in an unrealistic fantasy world such as A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead (Roaring Brook Press, 2010), whose title character works at the zoo, where he plays chess with the elephant, runs races with the tortoise, and so on. His animal friends, as we discover, care enough about him to travel to his house when he has a cold, to care for him as he has for them.

Real books show fully realized characters struggling to through complicated or ambiguous experiences, and dealing with competing emotions. In Those Shoes by Maribeth Boelts, (Candlewick, 2009), we meet Jeremy, a believable little boy who covets the latest style of sneakers. His grandmother tells him, not unkindly, that new winter boots take priority, and we see Jeremy wrestle with jealousy, disappointment and temptation, make a decision, and, eventually, both acknowledge reality and respond to his own better angels, as he decides to give another child the too-small sneakers he had bought with his own money at a thrift store.

Real books don’t always wrap up neatly; they may set before us just one day in the long unspooling process that is life and learning, especially for children. The Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña, (Putnam 2015), won the 2016 Newbery Medal (very unusual for a picture book!), and was also a 2016 Caldecott Honor Book, a 2016 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book, and a New York Times Book Review Notable Children’s Book of 2015, among many other honors. Here we meet another little African-American boy and his grandmother. We follow CJ and Nana as they take the bus across town on a rainy Sunday after church. CJ is bored and restive, and sometimes resentful, but Nana gently points out how much there is to look at in the world, even in the grubbier parts of town. Eventually we learn they are going to volunteer at a soup kitchen, and that they do this every Sunday. Children can extrapolate from the book that CJ will repeat this experience again and again, each time a little differently, and wonder how he might grow and learn from it.

Real books invite children to go back and back to the story, to puzzle over it and work through it in pretend play, dressups, toy tableaus, or art. This is how children really learn, and it is something that is very unlikely to happen from a book like What Does It Mean to Be Kind?  The value of books of that sort is that they can help a family or a classroom engage in problem-solving around rules, behavior, or relationships. But that is a very different kind of value from the value of real books and stories, and the difference is too seldom recognized.

This is as true in faith formation or spiritual formation as it is in moral or emotional development. As I wrote in my book, Offering the Gospel to Children, over twenty years ago,

The imparting of information or moral lessons to children is a worthy goal. And it is fine and laudable to use a reasonably well-told story about children in real-life situations as a way of providing reassurance, insight, or compassion to young readers who are experiencing some of the same problems or uncertainties. But … [r]eal, lasting learning, and the claiming of a real, lasting hope, take work. And children do their work through play: through projecting themselves into imagined worlds and working out the implications of that projection. To invite such work, the imagined world must be rich, complex, and compelling. …

Books … can stir children’s hearts, widen their imaginations, and break down some of the barriers our culture has built between sacred and secular. When a book that makes no claim to be “churchy” or “religious” reveals a world of faith, hope, and love; of humility and courage; of sacrifice, grace, and resurrection; or when it exposes sham and injustice—then we challenge our children to discern in the daily realities of their lives and the private workings of their dreams some of the patterns that are at the heart of the gospel. In so doing, we are helping to give them a foundation of faith and trust, an openness to the hidden working of God in creation, a reserve of moral strength, that is likely to outlast adolescent questioning far better than a mere collection of inspirational stories, doctrinal formulations, and flat-out moral imperatives.[3]

Real books are works of art, created for the love of telling a story and inviting the child to listen; or for the love of engaging the world imaginatively and empathetically and inviting the child to come and see. There are a lot more of them out there—including a lot more about kindness—than these lists would have you think, and they weren’t all written in just the last ten or fifteen years. And the best way to find them, even now, is at your local library, with the help of the children’s librarian.

© 2016 by Gretchen Wolff Pritchard. All rights reserved.

[1] http://www.readbrightly.com/the-7-reasons-we-started-brightly/, retrieved November 11, 2016. “Brightly” is an online newsletter started by a group of parents in 2014 and now sponsored by Penguin Random House, “to help moms and dads raise lifelong readers.”

[2] “Cool to Be Kind: Children’s Books That Champion Kindness,” by Dena McMurdie. http://www.readbrightly.com/childrens-books-about-kindness/?ref=PRH2ADD9CB04E&aid=randohouseinc27509-20&linkid=PRH2ADD9CB04E, retrieved November 11, 2016.  Links to all the books discussed here may be found at this site.

[3] Offering the Gospel to Children (Cowley, 1992, pp. 18, 194)

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