When it comes to morals in kid lit, the agents, editors, and industry professionals I’ve heard address this issue seem to be in agreement—don’t do it! Or, more specifically, don’t do it in a way that’s obvious or preachy. If you’re going to have morals in your story, it should be done so subtly, young readers shouldn’t realize they’re being taught a lesson.
I understand the logic behind this. Kids are constantly being lectured—by parents, relatives, teachers, and other adult authority figures. The last thing they want when reading a book is the author lecturing at the them, too, especially if it’s a book they picked up for fun.
While I personally like stories that have a moral to them, I agree it shouldn’t be thrown in the reader’s face. One of the best examples of a subtle moral I’ve read comes from The Trolls by Polly Horvath. (If you haven’t read this award-winning book, by the way, you really should. It’s a great middle-grade read—clever, quirky, hilarious, with some extraordinarily memorable characters.) Aunt Sally has come to watch Melissa, Amanda, and Pee Wee while their parents are out of town, and although she has been left with strict instructions to make them eat their vegetables, Aunt Sally surprises them by giving in to their disdain for the green beans served at dinner. She decides to eat them all herself. Since there’s only a limited number of green beans in the house, she points out, shouldn’t they go to the green-bean lover instead of the green-bean haters?
But over dinner, as Aunt Sally tells a hilarious story about a health nut relative obsessed with eating his vegetables (fiddlehead ferns, to be exact), she seems to be having a great deal of fun eating her green beans. She makes walrus tusks out of the them, eating one out of each side of her mouth at the same time. She scratches her nose with a bean and pretends to use a pair of them as knitting needles. She tilts her head back and drops beans into her open mouth like clothespins into a bottle.
The kids take notice that she’s having so much fun. By the end of dinner, they want green beans, too. But—oh dear!—Aunt Sally’s eaten them all. The kids are now so desperate for green beans, they try to think up ways to get more.
Aunt Sally points out there are no more beans and suggest they have some ice cream instead, but the children frantically search the kitchen shelves and the fridge and the freezer for green beans. The chapter ends with them pleading with Aunt Sally to shop for more beans tomorrow.
Now Polly Horvath could have had Aunt Sally gone the expected route and lectured the kids about the importance of eating their vegetables, trying new foods, getting a balanced diet, etc., but Horvath is far more clever than that. And although there’s never an explicit lecture, there is the definite sense that Melissa, Amanda, and Pee Wee have left this chapter having learned a lesson. They won’t turn down green beans the next time they end up on their plates. It’s hilariously and beautifully done!
How do you feel about morals in children’s lit? Are there any books out there you feel handle this issue particularly well?