• Grace McKinney

A Great Conspiracy: Nurturing Character Through Literature


I'm sitting with around a hundred other fifth graders in the frontmost rows of the school auditorium, waiting for the last weekly assembly to begin. My stiff-collared baby blue uniform shirt probably itched, and I likely fussed with the knife pleats on my grey plaid skirt so it would lay respectably. We were, of course, about to move up to sixth grade—middle school—and I needed to look the part. In the annual kind-of-graduation ceremony, we each were called to the front to receive a gift from the school headmaster: our own copies of William J. Bennett's The Book of Virtues, filled with, as it touted on the front cover, "Great Moral Stories." I shook the headmaster's hand, received my copy, and walked back to my seat as tall as I could with the weight of the eight-hundred page tome in my arms, as ready to take on middle school as I ever could have been.


The book, given as a resource for us to learn and practice good character as we stepped into another phase of our education, was pretty much relegated to a few summer reading assignments over the next several years. I pushed it aside on my bookshelf to make room for new books with less obvious didactic intent (and a few more tragic heroines, if I'm being honest). It's now shelved among other gift books in the recesses of my childhood closet, probably pretty close to an old uniform skirt or two.


Didacticism in books for children, especially in regard to morality and character, aligned with the creation of children's literature itself. Though vastly less scarring than the nineteenth-century Struwwelpeter, morality lessons in books for children have mostly evolved rather than disappeared. With a simple Google search, you can find any number of "listicles" touting books that will teach your child important values: ten books about kindness here, twelve about generosity there, and so on. Whether you call it morality, character, virtue, or something else, the impulse to show children the goodness of humanity through literature has not abated, nor likely will it stop. It's no surprise that very often books are published with a point in mind, like courage or hopefulness, but I'm always wary when a book is pitched for its being "about" something. That usually means the veil of story is thin, and the Big Message is waiting to jump out at the reader on the last page turn.


Gaby and I hold very dear the principle of story, and we talk of it often. Story first, always first, and lesson to follow. (This even came up in our recent interview with author Deborah Sosin.) We're by no means alone in this, and we're certainly not posing as trailblazers to say so. I once heard someone say that the work of literature is putting flesh on bones—giving philosophy and morality a more palpable humanity in story. But when a lesson is so blatant that the flesh becomes transparent, even the youngest readers will notice the puppet strings behind it. This singular lesson can feel limiting for the child touched by a different element of the story, and it can be jarring that a reader's treasured space has been infringed upon by a finger-wagging adult. Madeleine L'Engle writes emphatically about this very thing, quoting author after author in a basic review of good storytelling:


The great writer does not tell us what ought to be done, or what we think. The true writer shows what is done, and avoids author's comment. The storyteller doesn't talk about the story, but shows it, immediately locating the characters in time and space [...]He never puts the cart before the horse... He puts the explanation after, the action first.

I think this premise feels obvious for writers with an adult audience, but there's something in us that feels obligated to nestle lessons into every story for children, like hiding a pill in a milkshake. Though it's not bad to encourage good character through books for young people, it can be done badly.


I recently watched a documentary on Netflix called Invisible Essence: The Little Prince, an exploration of the legacy of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s famous tale over the past 75 years. The film features one of the most famous moments from The Little Prince, in which the eponymous character and his new friend, the fox, must say goodbye as he leaves Earth:


“'Goodbye,' said the fox. 'And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.'"

Commenting on this moment, Christine Nelson notes that "the fox doesn't say, 'I've got a message for you,' or, 'I've got a lesson for you.' The fox says, 'I've got a secret.' A secret isn't something that comes down from on high. A secret is something that's shared between friends, maybe even whispered between friends. We sort of conspire with everyone in the book to realize that we have a shared secret."


Her words struck me. Here was a moment in a book for young people in which the author speaks through a character (an animal, which I'll get to in just a moment), but does so in an act of commiseration rather than commandment. The reader feels befriended and is let in on a pretty important something. The notion that the child reader is able to conspire with characters as equals is powerful, and for such a cause! Conspiring to see with the heart—now that's my kind of scheming.


Often, though, books that aim to "conspire" with children instead present what they think children want, and very often that turns into more hoodwinks, more volume, or more flashy humor. On the other end of the spectrum, as I've already mentioned, are those books that instead cater to what we seem to think children need, making storytime all work and no play and Jack a very dull boy, indeed. But young people both want and need moral or character education. There's got to be a sweet spot to get it right, right?


Much evidence points to literature as a powerful agent in inciting moral discussions with children, but it's not as easy as that. Children's willingness and capability to engage with these big ideas drastically changes as they develop. For children under six, or below the "age of reason," direct lessons on issues of character or morality simply won't work. As she observed young children, Maria Montessori witnessed that “we cannot teach this kind of morality to a child of three, but experience can.” It's critical for children, therefore, to be surrounded by adults who will be examples of the qualities we hope to impart—exemplary human figures are their guides.


A recent study even supports this in regards to literature for young children. Researchers at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education found that children who were read a book with human figures practicing generosity were far more likely to replicate that action than children who were read a book with anthropomorphized animals. Human characters seemed to invite a more tangible grip for the children's own understanding of reality and provided them a window as to how they could impact others: a glimpse into empathy.


But as a child surpasses age six, questions and considerations begin to churn. They become attuned to justice and social norms and seek answers to what puzzles them about right and wrong in the world around them. They're willing and able to teeter on more ambiguous ground, and they look to peers and their own research for stability. Around age twelve, young people begin to take on responsibility and ownership for their place in the world as a citizen. They become firmer in their beliefs and can discuss and challenge others' perspectives. But in each phase of development, the child's physical and intellectual development need that third rung of spiritual or moral development to keep it all in balance. Maria Montessori argues:


“Moral Education is the source of that spiritual equilibrium on which everything else depends and which may be compared to the physical equilibrium or sense of balance without which it is impossible to stand upright or to move into any other position."

Books therefore need to offer children what they need across these different phases, speaking to their developmental needs and interests, offering them tools to help them stand upright.


We can best teach children these values by showing them in our own actions and being willing to talk about them, too. In a climate that often seems splintered when it comes to what and how to teach children in regards to morality and ethics, there's hope in that there are lists of books about kindness and compassion all over the internet, proving that we're all grasping for ways to bolster the good in the world for the young people growing up in it.


Over the next few months, I'll be sharing lists revolving around particular qualities we hope to share with children—call them elements of character, virtues, morals, whatever you prefer. I polled a group of educators to find out what qualities they consider most important for children to develop, and I'll be using their thoughts to guide me (though a little more help from the people in the back is always welcome!). These books won't necessarily be about peace, and they may not be about community. But they will be books with a close touch on humanity and reality; books that are fleshy, story-filled, and beautiful; books that invite young children to conspire in bettering the world around them.

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