The title of this post is literally true. Children’s books are what taught me to love writing and reading, and I began my career as a writer somewhere around age 6 by imitating them as closely as I could. Children’s book writers are some of the wisest, most thoughtful people around, and all the best books for children contain marvelous bits of wisdom, some of which has been collected in Anita Silvey's new book, Everything I Know, I Learned From A Children’s Book. And because children’s book writers are themselves masters of the craft, they often can’t help slipping in tiny lessons on the craft of writing, particularly on writing for children.
For today’s lesson, I turn to Lewis Carroll, whose books are the source in many ways of everything I’ve ever written (astute readers might be able to find the “Pig and Pepper” homage in my novel for adults, The Wishing Box.) Yesterday, one of my students asked me whether picture books have to contain a lesson. Her question reminded me of the Duchess in Alice in Wonderland, who told Alice:
“Everything’s got a moral, if you can only find it.”
Whether everything does or not, I can’t tell you, but I can tell you that every picture book does, if you look closely enough (and sometimes you have to look very closely). But that doesn’t mean that you need to insert a moral into every story – on the contrary! Children dislike being preached to as much as anyone else – perhaps more than anyone else since so many adults feel compelled to preach to them. As one of my students observed when we were discussing this issue, “I remember being a kid and just searching for the messages [in books], and once I had 'caught' the message I would tune out.”
The best children’s books say what they have to say through story. The trick is to let the lesson, or the moral, or what editors like to call the “takeaway,” seep into the pockets of the story, never calling attention to itself but simply allowing the reader to absorb it almost by osmosis. Perhaps you can amuse yourself by trying to determine what the moral of The Night Kitchen is, or what lesson is imparted by Make Way for Ducklings, or The Cat in the Hat. In the meantime, I leave you with Alice and the Duchess:
"I quite agree with you"' said the Duchess; "and the moral of that is--'Be what you would seem to be'--or if you'd like it put more simply--'Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise."'"
"I think I should understand that better," Alice said very politely, "if I had it written down: but I can't quite follow it as you say it."