“Don’t teach or preach–just tell a good story. Readers want to be entertained–not taught.” I’ve heard that statement many times over the years, at writing conferences and in articles for writers. I have mixed feelings about this.
I don’t like (or read) preachy fiction, but good fiction with a message doesn’t have to preach, does it? I’ll go even further. I don’t believe you can write fiction without teaching something. Children will learn from your fiction. What are kids learning from your stories?
Caught or Taught?
Fiction is like parenting, where more is caught than taught. If you had parents who said, “Never lie” and even punished you for lying–yet cheated on income tax and instructed people to tell callers they weren’t at home–you learned to lie. You learned by watching. How many of us catch ourselves saying things or reacting in harmful ways (harmful to ourselves or others) because we had a parent who demonstrated this quality? (It’s often something we swore we would never do!)
In the same way, I contend that children learn from fiction. I think writers for children need to think about this. I’m not advocating preachy stories where an old wiser soul tells little Johnny or Susie how to behave or what to think or say. I can’t stand stories like that. But I disagree with those who say you should just write to entertain. Why? Because you may not intend to teach anything, but kids will learn from your books and stories.
Books change lives. As a child, books become part of you like no other reading ever will. And I think all fiction teaches something.
The theme of your book may hint at what you’re teaching, what young readers may “catch” from your story. It may be to “look before you leap” or that “love can overcome hardship” or “laugh and the world laughs with you” or “trials can make you bitter or better.”
Unfortunately (again, in my opinion) some heroes/heroines in children’s books teach things like “it’s cute to mouth off to parents” or “win arguments with sarcastic put-downs.” Authors don’t come out and teach this, but (as with parenting), more is caught than taught. If you’ve done your job as a writer, your characters seem like flesh-and-blood people to kids. Your readers will “catch” things from them whether you set out to teach them anything or not.
Think back to books that impacted you as a child. What did you learn from fiction? Some favorites still on my shelves include:
- Little Women by Louisa May Alcott: I learned how families pulled together in hard times, how to grieve, how Jo’s temper cost her dearly, but also how her imagination and writing gave her such joy.
- The Secret Language by Ursula Nordstrom: I learned how to make friends and a fun way to deal with loneliness.
- Sensible Kate and Blue Willow by Doris Gates: I learned that being sensible or kind can be much more important than being pretty.
What books from your childhood made an impression on you? Why? What did you learn from them?