Does Fiction Teach?

“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.

By Osmosis

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?

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6 Responses to Does Fiction Teach?

  1. Marjorie Goertzen says:

    Good morning, Kristi,
    I am in wholehearted harmony with you about the fact that children’s fiction teaches something, whether good or bad. Adult fiction teaches, too. I’ve been concerned about what some of the adult fiction books I have read have subtly taught about God’s truth. I’ve loved writing for a long time, but am only beginning to move toward publishing, by taking ICL’s writing course. As I’ve thought about why I am pursuing my interest in writing, I’ve become convinced that my fiction stories will have to be more than entertainment; they must present truth in a winsome manner. I loved what you wrote some time ago about conveying hope to children through your stories. I would like to adopt that as part of my purpose in writing, too. Thanks for your solid common sense! You have been an encouragement to me.

    • kwpadmin says:

      Marjorie, I really appreciate your comment. There are times I feel like I’m in the minority, and it’s probably because I don’t speak up enough. Yes, adult fiction teaches too. And thank you for the comment about writing with hope. No matter what else we say, I believe we owe young readers solid hope. I feel for the writers who don’t have any hope of their own to offer others. I’m glad you’re writing. 8-)

  2. Vijaya says:

    I think it’s nearly impossible to write without having some idea/bias expressed. Even in a simple “incident” story, there is an underlying message of taking joy in the small things. I think we writers of children have to be extra mindful what hidden messages we might bring to our stories … sometimes we don’t even know they exist until a critique partner sees the story.

    • kwpadmin says:

      Vijaya, that is SUCH a good point! We can be blind to our own hidden messages…or something we didn’t mean as a message that could be perceived by someone in a different situation as such. Critique partners can be invaluable in pointing out these things.

  3. Alice Berger says:

    I’m glad to see you point out some of the rude behavior of characters in today’s books, and how it almost seems to be “okay” to act that way. I don’t like those books, and I’ve had trouble critiquing stories like those. We don’t want our characters to be perfect, but we need them to be good people that kids can look up to.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post.


    • kwpadmin says:

      Alice, thank you for saying that. It’s not a really popular viewpoint, I’ve found lately. I started realizing this issue some years ago when I was correcting grandchildren on some of their language (they are great readers) and then I was reading their school books, and the language was in there, and it was the hero smarting off to a parent or teacher. It used to be that it was other characters beside the POV character exhibiting that kind of stuff. (And I’m sorry to just be posting this now. It took WordPress three days for this comment to show up.)

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