One piece of advice you hear frequently as a children’s book writer is to avoid writing books with a heavy moral or message.  Editors do not want “preachy” books.  If your story does have a message, it should be in service to the story instead of the other way around.  They should be written in a way that invites interpretation and inquiry rather than a smack upside the head.  At the same time, the stories should retain emotional resonance and depth.

As a reader, this makes sense to me.  We want to draw our own meaning from stories.  Likewise, we do not want to deprive children of the same opportunity to apply their own experience and emotional intelligence to what they read in order to draw their own conclusions.  Nobody likes a lecture, so why would they want to read one?

As a writer, I just spent the last week toning down the message of one of my own WIPs. This one had started out as a book about getting kids excited about eating fruits and vegetables and is now about a little girl who is not tall enough to ride a roller coaster and goes to great lengths to get tall enough (which where the fruits and veggies come in as a last resort).  It’s a much more fast-paced, humorous story now, but I wonder: will it achieve the goal I set out with, which is to give parents a fun and lighthearted way to introduce the benefits of healthy eating to their children?  Are children really more willing to consider messages when they are wrapped in a package of a cute story?

I think I was asking the wrong question initially.  I realized I needed to be more concerned about what the children wanted, not their parents.  Sure, the parent audience must be considered when writing a picture book, but ultimately if the child doesn’t like the story, it won’t get read.  Children don’t care about nutrition, the obesity epidemic, life spans or early onset diabetes.  What they do care about is using their bodies for FUN.  That’s where I decided to put the focus.

It can be very challenging to step back from a subject or an issue you are passionate about and trust that your young readers will “get it” without resorting to didactic storytelling, especially if the message comes to you before the story.

In my case, the message definitely came before the story. When I was a new mother, I was determined to feed my baby the healthiest food I could find, even if I had to make baby food myself (which I did).  As my first child got older and I was able to read more sophisticated books to her, I found that many of the books that dealt with food at all overwhelmingly referred to the old standbys: pizza, hot dogs, macaroni and cheese and so on.  That’s where the idea to write a story where fruits and vegetables play an important and exciting role came into play.  Many, many, many, MANY drafts later, I think it is getting close to keeping the message without being obvious about it.  The story of the girl and her desire to ride the roller coaster is the crux, and the healthy food is just a prop (among several) along the way.

Keeping messages in check is particularly relevant to the picture book genre where it is so easy to drop into teaching mode.  After all, the littlest readers really do have a lot to learn and often parents are looking for resources to help them with common parenting problems.  In some cases, “issue” books about potty training, giving up a pacifier, or a new baby in the family may suffice.  But with broader ongoing issues, such as character, self-esteem, health and education, it can be trickier.

I imagine, though, that all children’s writers wrestle with this problem.  In middle grade it might be bullying or blowing off school.  In YA it might be drugs, suicide or safe (or no) sex.

So, writers of the world: how do you manage your messages?  Do your stories or messages come first?  Is it possible to have just a story and no message?  If so, where does the emotional intensity come from?  Are there times when it’s okay to focus on the message first?  All I know is: it’s complicated.

Categories: Children's Books, Publishing, Works in Progress, Writing · Tags: , , ,

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5 Comments

  1. For me, the story is always first. If a message happens to sneak in there, so be it.

    Having said that, of course there are children’s and YA books that are written for the sole purpose of preaching a message or bringing to light the issues of the day. And, that’s fine for those books and authors. I’m just not that kind of writer.

  2. I LOVED your post! And you’re right, it IS complicated. For me, it’s a little of both, depending on the idea. With Paprika, the story came first. I’m still trying to figure out what the message IS. Maybe perseverance. But I’m not going to worry about it either. Other books, say my nonfiction ones for instance, the message comes first: to learn about such and such. So it’s obvious that the nonfiction books don’t really have any MORAL messages, but they’re still teaching something. I think you’re right that it should always be about the story, no matter what path we as writers take to get there. Even if it’s a backwards roundabout way that we never anticipated.

    • Christie,

      I had to learn “story before moral” the hard way (trial and error). Now I know better, but it’s still challenging when you really DO have a message you want to convey. This is where I think the Writing Picture Books book is helpful. You have to say what your “story question” is. For Paprika, I think it’s “What do you do when confronted with a problem you don’t know how to solve?” But then, that’s just me. The beauty is that the reader and writer might get different things out of the story.

  3. Eat Up was definitely message first, but the cute unexpected guests at dinner really hid the message well. Someone told me to lose them and concentrate on the message, but I chose to ignore that. If you write for children it has to be engaging, fun and interesting to them. Otherwise you might as well stand there and say ‘eat your greens’. Do you agree? My other stories are more soft messages about friendship and helping each other out. Most of them were story first, message later.
    I certainly wouldn’t pitch a story with just a message though. I heard somewhere recently to get rid of the adults. That helps in hiding a message. The mum in Eat Up is much less preachy now. Little Red Riding Hood was my childhood favourite and not talking to strangers and being savvy in general is the message behind that great story. Have you seen the updated version of that on dvd, Hoodwinked? Its great!

    • Catherine,

      It sounds like your experience was similar to mine. My “message” idea is what got me into writing for children in the first place. Now that I’ve learned so much more about the field, my subsequent stories have become much less “message-y”

      I have also heard to leave out the adults. In fact, I took out a parent in my first story. The only adult left is an uncle who is a critical character. The first draft had both parents and a farmer. I guess kids are interested in kids – not adults. Unless the story is about a child’s relationship with an adult, I guess.

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