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The Lion and the Unicorn 26.1 (2002) 50-65
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"'We've decided to wake a mish for you'":
Gift Exchange and Didacticism in Tove Jansson's Finn Family Moomintroll
In A Sense of Wonder: On Reading and Writing Books for Children, Katherine Paterson relates a personal experience that illustrates the different and differing points of view regarding the place of didacticism in children's literature:
An earnest young reporter asked me: "What are you trying to do when you write for children?" "I'm trying to write as well as I possibly can," I answered. He thought I hadn't understood his question. "No, no," he said. "What I mean is, what is your philosophy of writing for children? Isn't there some moral you want to get across to them? Aren't there some values you wish to instill in your young readers?" "I'm trying," I said, "to write for my readers the best story, the truest story of which I am capable." He gave up on me and changed the subject, frustrated and annoyed. He seemed to share the view of many intelligent, well-educated, well-meaning people that, while adult literature may aim to be art, the object of children's books is to whip the little rascals into shape.
But you and I know better. We know that those of us who write for children are called, not to do something to a child, but to be someone for a child. (34)
Her claim about such people being "well-meaning" notwithstanding, Paterson's young reporter possesses narrowly-focused, preconceived assumptions about children's literature and didacticism, assumptions that make him the perfect foil for Paterson. Which shouldn't surprise, since Paterson's story strikes one as rather anecdotal. Her intention, after all, is to drive home a few points: Writers of children's books do not possess a "philosophy of writing for children," nor do they write to teach "morals" and "values"; their primary intention, as I take it, is not to teach, though [End Page 50] that may be an agreeable byproduct of the reading experience. Instead, writers of children's books write "to be someone for a child." I cannot claim to know what Paterson means by that, and I do not believe it essential that I do, because Paterson surely understands what she means, and acts on it.
Nevertheless, well-meaning people who teach children's literature might also find themselves rather frustrated and annoyed if they have questions such as those of the young reporter, questions Paterson dismisses as irrelevant, even obtrusive. (She seems rather frustrated and annoyed herself.) What are the logical implications of Paterson's position, after all? Should teachers of children's literature concern themselves with whether "morals" and "values" are conveyed in the text? If the answer is no, then teachers of children's literature probably should not concern themselves with the ways in which careful writers convey "lessons," nor should they concern themselves with things such as image, metaphor, character, structure and so on--since there is no philosophy of writing to speak of. In other words, if Paterson is right about why writers write children's books and what children get out of children's books, then there is no need for the type of analysis implied by the reporter's questions, analysis that is primarily literary for the teacher of children's literature. Of course, when a writer--especially a famous one--offers a raison d'être for her work, one has little choice but to accept her at her word. But then writers do not usually teach their own books in school, whether at the secondary level or college level.
If Paterson's position is typical, one might very well assume there is a fundamental difference of opinion between the writer and the teacher regarding the issue of didacticism in children's literature. However, in Children's Literature: Criticism and the Fictional Child, Karin Lesnik-Oberstein points...