Sunday, May 10, 2009

Mentor Monday: A Lesson on Lessons

A few years ago, I wrote a biography of Sarah Josepha Hale. Hale was America’s first lady editor but she was also a talented writer in her own right, an activist, a widowed mother of five who supported her children with her writing.

One of her claims to fame is that she is the author of the still-popular children’s rhyme, “Mary’s Lamb.” You know the one:

Mary had a little lamb,
Its fleece was white as snow
And everywhere that Mary went
The lamb was sure to go…

He followed her to school one day
That was against the rule
It made the children laugh and play
To see a lamb in school,

What most people today don’t know is that the poem continues:

And so the teacher turned him out,
But still he lingered near
And waited patiently about,
Till Mary did appear…

Why does the lamb love Mary so?
The eager children cry,
‘O Mary loved the lamb, you know,’
The teacher did reply;--

‘And you each gentle animal
In confidence may bind,
And make them follow at your call,
If you are only kind.’ (Italics Hale's)

This poem appeared in a collection written for children. Only the first two stanzas are familiar today. Wonder why? Because of the sledgehammer in the last stanza: the LESSON.

The rest of Hale’s Poems for our Children is just as heavy handed. And herein lies the point for all children’s writers: kids don’t want to know they’re learning a lesson in books they choose to read for pleasure.

Imagine going to Barnes & Noble and asking the clerk to recommend something and she pulls out a juicy novel and says, “You’ll love this. It has a great moral lesson at the end.” Just makes you want to whip out the old credit card, doesn’t it?

Yet, many people who want to write for kids think that children’s literature should be filled with morality tales. Not so. That type of writing went out with Aesop. And Sarah Hale. Kids want to read for the same reason as adults do: for pleasure. They want to be taken away to imagined places. They want to visit with beloved characters. If they happen to learn something along the way, well, okay.

In a 2005 article in the Children’s Writer, Susan Taylor Brown quoted editor Marileta Robinson. She said, Many writers try “…too hard to teach a lesson rather than tell a story…”

So, how’s your story? Is it fun? Imaginative? Can your reader connect to your characters? Then what do you need a moral for?

And that’s today’s lesson.

1 comment:

Diane said...

"Nuf said!

There are some people, though, who believe everything must have a lesson. I ran an adult book discussion group at the library and we had a woman who was quite upset with one of our choices because the main character was never punished for her loose morals! --Diane