Thursday, December 20, 2012

Criminal Offenses in Children's Books: The Important Life Lesson

There’s a secret to writing middle-grade—well actually, it’s not all that much of a secret. To write for the eight-to-twelve year-old kid, you have to be able to think like a kid. Remember what it was like to have your lunch stolen (or maybe just your pudding cup, but that’s bad enough, wouldn’t you say?). Feel that brick in your stomach when you’re bringing a bad report card home. Stick out your tongue and get stuck to a lamppost, or at least imagine it (since that one's sort of a bad idea and all).

When I wrote Double Vision, that connection to a twelve year-old was the most important and enjoyable part of writing Linc Baker’s (that’s my main character) story. I want my books to be fun reads, and hope to keep that kid connection going as I write the series sequels. It's fun to be twelve, even if it's just pretend.

So to me, the biggest crime a writer of middle-grade or YA can commit is to lecture to kids. I hate it. And it happens far more often than you’d think. I can’t count the times that an aspiring MG writer has told me: “I want to write my book so I can teach kids that (bullying, cheating—fill in the life lesson) is bad.

Don’t get me wrong—I get the intention of these writers. The truth is, there are many published books that have these life lessons clearly stated on the page. Usually, there’s some sort of wise grown-up delivering that message. And I think those message-driven books are a crime—just my opinion, but I’ll bet if you ask a random MGer that they’ll pass on the lesson too.

Here’s why I think this kind of writing is a crime:

1. Kids don’t need another lesson.
Think like a twelve year-old for a second: how many times a day are you told to do something, act a certain way, stay in your seat, finish your dinner—I could go on for a while, but you get my point. Kids get told what to do all day long.

2. Reading should be fun.
Do you like life lessons woven into your nighttime blockbuster read? I sincerely hope not. Let’s leave the afterschool specials in the eighties, where they belong. Reading mysteries should be fun.

3. It’s cheating.
Now, we all want to say something with our fiction, right? But being didactic with your important life lessons is just plain cheating as a writer—it’s the ultimate violation of the show-don’t-tell rule. Instead of telling your kid reader that he shouldn’t cheat on his test, show him the consequences. And add a good bicycle chase scene while you’re at it—those are so much more fun anyway.

4. We want kids to keep reading.
This one’s sort of obvious, but do you think kids will pick up books after the required reading is over if we cram them full of Valuable Life Lessons? Of course not. Make your story fun. Leave the lessons for Mom, Dad, teachers, and other parental types. They've got it covered, trust me.

I’m all for having something to say—I’m pretty opinionated myself, as you can probably tell. But write your books from the kid perspective, my fellow writerly people, not from the adults’. Or I may just come over and roll my eyes at you. Don’t say you weren’t warned...

**Originally posted June 16, 2012***


  1. I agree 100% with this. #4 is my personal soapbox on the issue, and the reason that I think didactic books are actually harmful, despite people's best intentions. Thanks for summing this up so well.

  2. Great post! I grew up reading and never once saw much of a lesson. Now as an adult I go back and read some of them and see something deeper that didn't occur to me as a child.

  3. I have a children's book "Fern Valley" which is a collection of twelve short stories. There are lessons or morals gently and subtly woven in to the stories but it doesn't seem to have discouraged anyone from reading my book. I had one mother tell me that her daughter cried when she got to the last story because she didn't want them to end. I had one girl from the "National Geographic Kids - Dog Eared Book Blog" review my book and mention that she read it twice. I had a grandmother tell me that her formerly reluctant reader granddaughter now has a sense of self esteem and a belief that she could do anything after reading my book. And, I had one girl e-mail me and tell me she gave my book five stars because it was the best book ever written. So perhaps it's not if a book has lessons, but how well the main characters (which are children in my stories)handle each situation.

  4. Thanks for the comments, all!

    Aileen: I think if it's done well, which it sounds like your books do, there can be messages/lessons in a book without feeling like a lecture. I'll have to check yours out!

  5. Thank you Miss Bradley. Sending you wishes for a wonderful New Year!


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