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The Lion and the Unicorn 26.1 (2002) 31-49

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The Virtue of "Stubborn Curiosity":
Moral Literacy in Black and White

Louise Collins

This article offers an ethical criticism of Black and White, a fiction picture-book for children by David Macaulay, which won a Caldecott Award Medal in 1991. Macaulay's published comments about ethics are noted, but my central concern is with what the text itself achieves, through its form and content. I examine what the book implies about what is worth wanting, about human capacities for excellence and the circumstances of their development, about right and wrong, about responsibility and relationships. 1 Ethical criticism of children's picture-books is important: these texts are often read by an adult caretaker (whether parent or teacher) to and with a child who is acquiring verbal, visual and, some would hope, moral literacy. Such books may shape the child, the relation between the child and adult, and the child's understanding of what reading can be. In contrast to what I shall call "works of moral edification," the text of Black and White offers the child a morally significant experience in critical readership, and thereby exemplifies a model of moral education that does not position the adult as sole authority.

Edification Exemplified: Bennett

In 1993, with the publication of The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Moral Stories, William J. Bennett began his series of anthologies that are explicitly works of moral edification, meant "to aid in the time-honored task of the moral education of the young" (11). Bennett's books are intended to help adults teach children right from wrong, by collating texts that clearly show the differences between good and bad character traits in action: "The stories, poems, essays and other writings presented here are intended to help children achieve...moral literacy. The purpose [End Page 31] of this book is to show parents, teachers, students, and children what the virtues look like, what they are in practice, how to recognize them and how they work. This book then is a 'how to' book for moral literacy" (11).

The literary texts presented are valued instrumentally--what matters most is that they effectively transmit an approved moral message to the reader. Like other works of moral edification, Bennett's books treat the reader as passive material to be shaped by the active and authoritative educator, who uses repetition and redundancy to impress the right message upon the child. Thus, in his picture-book, The Children's Book of Virtues (1995), Bennett's editorial remarks tell the reader in advance what she is to learn from the reading that follows, and the illustrations serve to reiterate the message of the words: "Words and pictures speak together of hearts and souls where virtues dwell" (5). The implied author is confident, avuncular, even paternalistic in tone and countenances no dissent. 2

Bennett's Book of Virtues became a bestseller in the USA, which is, perhaps, evidence that many adults agree with Bennett that America is in a state of moral decay, from which children can only be saved by the inculcation of conservative values. 3 Many claims Bennett makes about values in his books need critical examination--especially his misrepresentation of the Western tradition in ethics as monolithic; the inconsistency in his appealing to the authority of tradition even as he reworks that tradition for his own purposes; and his uncritical assumption that traditional virtues can and should be practiced under contemporary social, economic and political conditions. 4 However, I ask instead: If children's books are to have a role in the moral education of children today, must they be works of moral edification?

One might argue that, in the postindustrial West, children are immersed in the values of pop culture transmitted through mass, nonprint media (e.g., TV, movies, computer games, the Internet) and nonbook print media (e.g., billboards, advertising flyers) and thus, that books are largely irrelevant to shaping children's moral experience. Or, one might join Bennett, who would deploy the authority...


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