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Lessons are lovely but fun comes first

Children can be fickle creatures. One minute they like something, the next minute they push it away in disgust. I’ve seen my kids do it with food, toys and occasionally, one of their relatives. And one foolproof way of ensuring their interest in something is quashed is for them to believe that it is “good” for them.

So it is with books; as soon as they sense that a certain book contains a lesson on how to behave, they never want to read it again.

All of this puts us in a tricky position because I love kids’ books to have a lesson. At least that means one less lecture for me to deliver, and for them to ignore. Bring on the books on sharing, caring, courage and inclusivity, I say.

According to the proliferation of children’s books with moral underpinnings, many parents and authors agree that stories can play an invaluable role in imparting life lessons on children. But, crucially, the lesson should be couched in a story that is fun, entertaining, and ideally, a little bit silly. The lesson should never compromise the story, the child’s enjoyment or their inclination to continue to read.

Children are deceptively clever and alert to the tricks adults play to encourage them to behave in a certain way. I have a feeling that books titled An Awesome Book of Thanks and Manners Can Be Fun might get the cold shoulder in my house.

Bestselling children’s author Mem Fox says that while a moral element or lesson in a book can be beneficial, prospective authors need to remember that the most important reason for writing is to entertain, and to create happy, engaged readers. This in turn leads to other lifelong educational benefits.

Fox said, “We are writing … to conjure young children into loving reading; to inform them; to entertain them; to enchant them; to comfort them; and to affect them. In our writing we are aiming to provide escapist delight but we will probably be able to rattle children’s values and assumptions a little at the same time.”

Many of my children’s favourite books contain moral or behavioural lessons; they adore The Very Cranky Bear by Nick Bland, and I love the message of kindness and consideration for the unexpected needs of others that it delivers, in such a funny and entertaining way.

And I often find myself quoting Green Eggs and Ham by Dr Seuss, when I’m trying to get my children to try new foods or experiences, and they haven’t mutinied as yet, continuing to enjoy the rhyme and small sense of defiance in the story.

One of my very favourites is King Pig, also by Nick Bland, in which the porky monarch does not understand why none of his subjects like him, while he has them scurrying around catering to his every whim. The illustrations show little pigs holding up platforms on which the king can strut across, being used as scrubbing brushes to clean the castle and holding up mirrors to the unwitting king. Of course, amid the humour are messages of humility, consideration and empathy.

And when my kids are complaining that no one wants to do what they want to do, whether it is playing with dolls, creating a band out of saucepans or building a fort, I often remind them of Olga the Brolga. In the story, Olga was upset because nobody wanted to dance with her. However, once she started dancing on her own, others joined in. This is a lovely and entertaining book that teaches children to go their own way, or at least, occasionally play on their own!

Moral messages have long been part of storytelling, with some of the world’s most famous stories featuring a moral element. Stories like The Boy Who Cried Wolf and Pinocchio are front of mind. Aesop’s Fables are short stories dating back to the 5th Century BC which imparted moral lesson. But it is not just children who can benefit from some kind of teaching within stories and much adult literature contains a moral element.

Writer Earl de Blonville believes that stories are the best vehicle in which we can learn, and understand those teachings. He draws on the Bible and The Alchemist as examples of books that have spread moral teachings through the use of storytelling. Similarly, stories can help us see life and experiences differently, and perhaps more clearly.

“For 240,000 years, humans have absorbed knowledge through stories. Most stories told of journeys with events serving as individual lessons … Stories carry the wisdom and each reader can understand them at their own level.”

While an adult might balk at being taught morality from a text book, they would happily gain moral education through literature. Ultimately, young readers should not be treated differently to adult readers. No one likes to be lectured and if there is a moral message in books, it is most effectively delivered in a subtle, more palatable way. Sure, teach us about the world and the best way of approaching it, but leave out the side of condescension.

Of course, many, many children’s books are wonderful in their silliness, absurdity and wit, without having a particular lesson to impart. At our house, we love There’s a Hippopotamus on My Roof Eating Cake, Wacky Wednesday and Dear Zoo, and many of Roald Dahl’s books. In his children’s stories, Dahl was famous for his rejection of authority; just think Matilda, where the headmistress was driven out of her job by a well-read child. Yet, even in Dahl’s stories, there was an underlying morality in which the “good” disposed of the “evil” characters. But, essentially, Dahl’s books were far more likely to delight and entertain than to impart moral lessons.

So, the moral of this story is that the best way of encouraging children to read is by giving them books that are fun. They like silly, and they love naughty. And all the better if they learn something at the same time, whether that is to stop fighting with their siblings or to remember the feelings of their subjects when they start acting like a prince or princess.

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