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