Should there be messages/morals in children’s books?

Growing bookworks 2

The idea that children’s picture books should contain a strong moral or message seems to be very popular among authors of books for young people. This notion probably emanates from parents and caregivers who are of the view that books are a tool for instructing their young, especially in our modern world of so many more risks to the welfare our children than ever before.

This idea does, however, always bring to my mind the lyrics of the song, A British Nanny sung by David Tomlinson, from the original movie of Mary Poppins:

“A British nanny must be a general!
The future empire lies within her hands
And so the person that we need to mold the breed
Is a nanny who can give commands!
Mr Banks: Are you getting this Winifred?
Mrs Banks: Oh yes dear, every word
A British bank is run with precision
A British home requires nothing less!
Tradition, discipline, and rules must be the tools
Without them – disorder!
Catastrophe!
Anarchy – In short you have a ghastly mess!”

This is an amusing song and you can listen to it here:

The idea of a story or picture book containing a message is not a bad one. It is very much about how the message is presented in the story that will decide whether the book appeals to children or not. After all, children’s writers want to write books that children want to read again and again, not books that their parents think they should read.

My own children have taught me that children run a mile when they think that a book contains an overt moral or message. With this in mind, how then can a parent or caregiver select a book that both teaches and entertains?

Firstly, what the reader will takeaway from the story should be considered. It is not necessary to write out a moral at the end of a tale in the manner of Aesop’s Fables, the message can be subtle, for example, a polluted river that poisons a river or lake and results in all the fish and water creatures dying and the resolution of that predicament by cleaning up the river and preventing future contamination of the water. Children will understand the message without it being spelled out for them.

Some other tips for choosing books that will entertain as well as teach children are as follows:

  1. Make sure that the book is character driven with memorable characters that make the reader care about them. For example in Heidi by Johanna Spyri, the author makes the reader really care about Heidi, Clara and even Grandfather as he changes from a grumpy old man into a tender caregiver. I can remember crying when Heidi goes away from Grandfather to live with Clara in the city;
  2. The language and voice of the story should be suitable for a child and should be interesting and fun. The idea of family members all helping each other and their parents is strongly conveyed in Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree series of books through the expectations of the parents and the behavior of, and awareness of their family dynamics by, the children;
  3. Showing and not telling is another essential ingredient to a good children’s story. I think Roald Dahl is a master and demonstrating exactly where unkind and selfish behavior gets you in life, think of the fate of the two aunts in James and the Giant Peach or the Twits from the book of the same name.

What do you think about children’s books that contain messages? Should they be subtle or overt? Let me know in the comments.

About Robbie Cheadle

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Hello, my name is Robbie, short for Roberta. I am an author with six published children’s picture books in the Sir Chocolate books series for children aged 2 to 9 years old (co-authored with my son, Michael Cheadle), one published middle grade book in the Silly Willy series and one published preteen/young adult fictionalised biography about my mother’s life as a young girl growing up in an English town in Suffolk during World War II called While the Bombs Fell (co-authored with my mother, Elsie Hancy Eaton). All of my children’s book are written under Robbie Cheadle and are published by TSL Publications.

I have recently branched into adult and young adult horror and supernatural writing and, in order to clearly differential my children’s books from my adult writing, I plan to publish these books under Roberta Eaton Cheadle. My first supernatural book published in that name, Through the Nethergate, is now available.

I have two short stories in the horror/supernatural genre included in Dark Visions, a collection of 34 short stories by 27 different authors and edited by award winning author, Dan Alatorre. I also have three short stories in Death Among Us, a collection of short murder mystery stories by 10 different authors and edited by Stephen Bentley. These short stories are all published under Robbie Cheadle.

I have recently published a book of poetry called Open a new door, with fellow South African poet, Kim Blades.

Find Robbie Cheadle

Blog: https://bakeandwrite.co.za/

Blog: robbiesinspiration.wordpress.com

Goodreads: Robbie Cheadle – Goodreads

Twitter: BakeandWrite

Instagram: Robbie Cheadle – Instagram

Facebook: Sir Chocolate Books


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40 Comments on “Should there be messages/morals in children’s books?”

  1. Hi Kaye, thank you for sharing this post. I just arrived back from Budapest, Hungary today so I am exhausted. Sharing this now.

    • Robbie this is a great post, and I think there is lessons for writers of children’s literature, as well. Although moralistic fairy tales will never fade away, today’s children don’t want morals shoved down their throats like a dose of nasty tasty medicine. However, if we can tap into our inner Mary Poppins and add a dose of sugary entertainment to the story, making it fun and exciting, the morals it carries are a little easier to swallow. Thank you for the insight.

  2. tidalscribe says:

    My mother remembered reading a story book her mother had as a child – siblings being horrid to their sister who then ran out into the road and got run over by a horse and carriage – so then they were sorry and realised how wicked they had been!
    Really I think children should just enjoy books so they willl learn to love reading and most children’s books surely have a positive view of life. My daughter doesn’t like Thomas The Tank Engine because she says every story consists of Thomas being naughty ( and her little boys don’t need any encouragement to be naughty! )

    • My boys both loved Thomas the Tank Engine and I liked reading them too, but I do understand your daughter’s point about naughtiness. Greg melted his wax crayons on the heater at school after reading Horrid Henry. He also blew pepper in Michael’s face after seeing Scooby Doo do it. I like subtle messages but believe kids runs mile from anything preachy. Thanks for visiting, Janet.

  3. I enjoyed reading your post, Robbie. There is, as you say, nothing wrong with a story containing a moral. However children’s literature is, in the final analysis, about young people deriving pleasure from reading, and they will not enjoy books if they feel that a message is being rammed down their throats. Kipling’s “Just So” stories contain a moral, however they are also a pleasure to read, which explains why they are still enjoyed to this day. Kevin

  4. Wonderful post and message for us all! ❤ Sharing…

  5. Good question. It is interesting how children come to their own conclusion about what is right and what is wrong. Agree with everything you say Robbie.

    • Thank you, Sally. I believe children are born innately good and will veer in that direction until influenced negatively by other people. That is why I don’t like books with negative messages. Children’s books should contain good messages but should primarily entertain and promote an enjoyment of reading and learning.

  6. I don’t see why any writing shouldn’t contain a moral. But it needs to be well disguised in a fascinating story or it risks having the opposite effect to the one intended!

  7. petespringerauthor says:

    I think it is entirely possible to deliver a book that subtly teaches a moral while still being enjoyable to kids. In fact, I don’t ever remember any experience when I read a book to children over thirty-one years when they had this reaction. What produces a much more negative response from my experience is when a plot is oversimplistic or not believable. Some kids take offense (can’t say I blame them) when adults are dumbing something down for them.

    • Hi Pete, thanks for joining in. I agree that it is all in the presentation of the message or moral. When couched in an entertaining story, it can only be a good thing. I also agree about the dumbing down point. I was a very advanced reader from an early age and I became very frustrated when people attempted to prevent me from progressing. When I was young, they didn’t allow children to read outside of the age group considered appropriate. Not in South Africa in any event.

  8. Susan Scott says:

    It’s a challenging question Robbie – overtly moral, I’d run a mile. But a story that shows how John or Jane worked out an issue on their own (maybe with help from a leaf, or a talking fish etc) i.e. in her.his individual way, would make a stronger impression on the young reader.

  9. This is a great topic, Robbie. Personally, like others above me here, I prefer children’s stories that aren’t heavy with moral messages. If they’re subtle, okay, but, as others have said, children should just grow up to enjoy reading.

  10. Norah says:

    I agree, Robbie. The messages should be subtle and integral to the story, as in life. Books shouldn’t be written to ‘teach’ a story. Showing is a different matter.

  11. Jennie says:

    Excellent post! I often refer to the writing that gives children a moral message in good books as the ‘indirect’ approach. Unfortunately, many children’s books today are written without letting the child come to their own conclusion. There’s little feeling behind the words – the ‘direct’ approach. Thank you, Robbie!

  12. Mae Clair says:

    I think if a book captures the imagination through vivid storytelling with wonderful characters, children will remember the moral. The story comes first, the moral second.

    Thoughtful post, Robbie!

  13. Well said, Robbie. A good discussion. Even with adults–well, me–I would prefer a book I learn from but delivered in an interesting fashion. The kid-me was the same.

    • Yes, you are exactly right, Jacqui. Children are the same as adults in this respect and want to be entertaining and learn through the actions and behaviour of the characters in a stimulating story. Thanks for joining in.

  14. olganm says:

    Great points, Robbie. Hammering people on the head with a message is never a good idea, no matter what age they are (unless they chose to read the book for the specific message, of course!).

    • Yes, I agree with you, Olga. I am nearly finished reading 1984 by George Orwell and that certainly does hammer you over the head with a strong societal message. I did go into reading the book knowing that, of course. Thanks for visiting.

  15. I think you’re right about character-driven fiction being important for children. If they care about the characters and what happens to them, that’s where the lesson will come in. Children don’t like to be preached at any more than adults do. I would add that sometimes a children’s book can (and should!) be just plain fun.

  16. Teri Polen says:

    When kids are younger, I think it’s easier to slide in a message. But when they’re teens – absolutely not. If they get a whiff of a message or moral, like you said, they’ll run in the opposite direrction, lol.

  17. phoebedem says:

    Thank you for sharing your perspective. I do agree that the message does not need to be overt. Children get to draw their own conclusions of what is right and wrong. It was great that you raised the question because it is something I have not thought about!


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