Writing Children’s Books with Moral Lessons

Here’s a question from reader Melissa about writing children’s books with moral lessons:

I have heard rumblings that the professional field is tired of children’s books with moral lessons. Is this accurate? Does this signify a move towards content that is more realistic or edgy? Can you also expound on the much maligned, yet common use of anthropomorphic characters?

children's books with moral lessons
Children’s books with moral lessons: Are you trying to teach a lesson with your story?

Should You Avoid Children’s Books with Moral Lessons?

As for your first question, you are definitely correct. Publishers do not want explicit picture book lessons. The best way to write a children’s book with moral lessons is to deliver the message by creating a vibrant character who goes through something in the plot and emerges on the other side a little bit (or a lot bit) changed, but their realizations should never be blatantly expressed. It must be the reader’s interpretation and understanding that does this work, not the author.

Remember when you were a kid and your parents told you to do something? Or they sat you down for a lecture? Remember how that made you feel? Yeah, today’s agents, editors, and kids don’t like that feeling either, so those children’s books with moral lessons don’t get picked up. It’s your job to tell a story, not to teach or force a story theme on your readers (more on writing theme).

Writing Animal Characters

As for writing animal characters, some editors are still looking for these types of stories, definitely. And there are people who can make an animal as realistic and engrossing as a kid character in a picture book. In fact, I love the picture book LITTLE BLUE TRUCK, which features animals and… a little blue truck as the protagonist of the story. But they have human attributes, they go through a big struggle or on a journey, and they come out all the better for it at the end. However, I think a lot of animal stories are written by people who are thinking back to their childhoods and the picture books that were available back then. This isn’t a bad thing, per se, but it does usually result in books that feel old-fashioned and out of touch with today’s market. Of course, there are reasons that animal books are classics. Look at THE VELVETEEN RABBIT, for instance, which still makes me cry, all these years later.

Are Animal Characters Integral to Your Story?

While this isn’t true for every editor, some of the editors and agents I know do groan when an animal hero comes across their desks. They have to have a very good reason for being an animal, I say, and it has to be crucial to the story. Otherwise you just might be undercutting yourself by today’s sensibilities and standards. If you want to write an animal story, try the animal as a child as well, just to experiment, and make sure you stay in either the first person or the close third so that the reader gets their inner experience as well as their outer conflict. (Check out more advice for how to write and publish a children’s book.)

Are you worried that your picture book isn’t hitting the right note? Hire me as your picture book editor and I’ll help you develop a story theme that’s compelling without the moralizing.

23 Replies to “Writing Children’s Books with Moral Lessons”

  1. Oh, the no animal trend in picture books, makes me sad for the kids who are like my son. He’s been a book lover since birth and his favorites, by far, were those with the humanized animal. But even more worrisome, is that the underlying theme of those books is appreciation for/conservation of nature and it worries me that buyers today aren’t relating to that.

  2. I find the same is true in YA: those books with heavy messages are just no fun for me as a reader. More often than not, the author could’ve just been lighthanded–the message is there, just let me discover it rather than hit me over the head with it.

  3. “They have to have a very good reason for being an animal, I say, and it has to be crucial to the story.”

    Yes, yes, yes!

    Most of the stories I’ve had published feature talking animals, and your line here has always been my mantra. Whether the characters are going to conform to the characteristics of their species or fight against them; how a talking group of cats would develop a different culture than a talking group of mice; how those two cultures would then interact: this is all essential “pre-writing” when dealing with animal characters, or they end up being humans in fuzzy suits.


  4. Thanks for answering this question. You always have the perfect way to explain things for us novices to understand. Is it any wonder you have my favorite agent blog?!

    (Okay, I’m done gushing.)

  5. Susan — However, on the other side of the coin, there are a lot more non-fiction picture books being published that address nature and the environment in an educational, hands-on way and urge kids to take action and learn about the planet. In THAT case, a blatant message — “Do something!” — is welcomed and preferred.

    Naomi — I’ll be at the front lines of that and am very curious, myself! All we can do is adapt and learn.

    Jackee — Oh, hush. 🙂

  6. One of my favorite books of all time is an animal book written for adults… Duncton Wood (William Horwood) — lots of moralizing (which I didn’t necessarily pick up on when I first read it as a 12 year old), but an amazing story.

  7. Mary, does that go both ways? I do get tired of UFYA’s browbeating me with the anti-religion bit. It almost seems to be a required element.

  8. Ken — UFYA? Urban Fantasy YA? I’m a bit confused. And you wish they would have a more pro-religious message?

  9. Mary, while a nonfiction book urging kids to care is certainly a good thing.
    I’m talking more about feeling a delight with and a kinship to nature. Not a-we should take care of our world or else where will we live?

    I don’t know that my son would have listened to a book about recycling with the same verve as Bill Peete’s talking raccoon.

  10. Susan — As I say in the post, there are books like this published today, and a long backlist of similar books from previous decades on shelves. Not sure why a child character can’t delight in nature or feel a kinship to nature, though… But that’s just my take on it and I don’t expect to convert anyone.

  11. Mary, this post strikes a chord about a topic very near and dear to my heart.

    The best, most classic everygreen books are, and have always been ones which are NOT didactic.

    I’m not saying good books don’t teach lessons or have a message, I’m saying that good fiction is filled with spellbinding stories, rich characterization, transportive settings and deep but subtle themes. The message is buried treasure, something for the reader to discover without prompting.

    If a story telegraphs or spells out the message to the reader, I’m out. A good story lays out the action and lets the reader grapple with the issue in order to draw an individual conclusion.

    And anthropomorphic animals? Just like anything else, there are good ones and bad ones. But I can tell you, if I see one more friendly squirrel or one more precocious dog in my library, I’m going to run screaming to the hills!!

  12. Sorry, neither. My comment was poorly worded. I’ve noticed several paranormal YAs seem to go out of their way to espouse the evils of organized religion, almost to the point where it seems like a trend. Is this the kind of moralizing you’re referring to, or am I misinterpreting this as something else? Either way, I’m going to be quiet and go back into my hole.

  13. Ken — I was talking about picture books mostly. A lot of darker and older YA novels tackle organized religion. That’s when most teens start to question the beliefs they’ve grown up with and this is a reflection of that.

    Moralizing, in this sense, is more like: “… And that’s when Jimmy learned about the power of sharing, and that the best friends help each other in times of trouble,” etc. Picture books that have a moral and are didactic in knocking readers over the head with it.

  14. Erica Olson says:

    I have taught preschool for 14 years and the most loved books involve human relationships at this level – friendship, love, caring for others. The pictures can be of people or animals (bears come to mind most often), but the words will always make the difference. I also wonder about the original questioners interpretation of “edgy” picture books. Although my 3rd grader reads Jan Brett alongside JK Rowling on any day, my preschoolers stick with Jan Brett. I worry about any book marketed as a picture book that could be inappropriate for the under-seven bunch.

  15. melodycolleen says:

    I love PBs and anthropomorphic animals are my friends! Seriously, when a child is first introduced to the pleasures of reading, it needs to be FUN reading. Zany, crazy, over-the-top characters in hilarious situations that will be remembered, not a lesson. There’s a time and place for everything, and the lessons can come in another form for now.

    That’s all the preaching I’ll do today.

  16. I recently attended a 1st pages event run by two literary agents and was surprised at the number of manuscripts that involved talking animals (and they weren’t even picture books). The agents’ responses were lukewarm at best. What I interpreted was: if you’re dead set on writing a book with this element, it had better be one amazing, hilarious, out-of-this-world animal. Cute doesn’t cut it!

  17. I have been told (in the UK) that the reason why so many picture books have animals/obects is so that it can be sold internationally, without having to change the characters’ appearance. Is this not true? Or is it that the US has such a big local market, they don’t need to worry about co-editions in China or India etc

  18. Moralizing, in this sense, is more like: “… And that’s when Jimmy learned about the power of sharing, and that the best friends help each other in times of trouble,” etc. Picture books that have a moral and are didactic in knocking readers over the head with it.

    Or worse yet, the mother/father is solving the problem, telling the child how and what to do to fix the situation and the child in the story becomes a pawn in order to offer the moral. To add it to what Mary has written, ” And that’s when Jimmy’s mom told him all about the power of sharing…” ewwwww!!!
    I do love anthropomorphic animals however. In novels, such as “Watership Down” or the much sweeter, “Charlottes Web”, in GN’s like the “Baby Mouse” series, but nothing beats the pic book humour of Mo’s Pigeon, Ian’s Olivia. Perhaps “Pigeon” could have been a mischievious cartoon boy, Perhaps “Olivia a little girl but….. the funny in these books is the FACT that they are the animals they are.
    I’m not saying Anthro animals will always work, nor should they be used often, and we can always find exceptions to rules if we try hard enough, but…. animals can get away with things in a story that no child character could. They also encompass all genders, races and cultures, often a “safe” alternative (and not too fond of them used for those reasons… too safe)
    I think it boils down to the story and the action going on it the tale as to whether make the protag. a human child or a talking animal.
    If a pic book author writes, “Alfonso pushed open the window and took a flying leap into the clouds”, the hero had better be a duck:)

  19. melodycolleen says:

    Ha! I love that last line, Christine. All very good points.

  20. My question about “edgy” content was in reference to picture books like Neil Gaimon’s, Wolves in the Walls or The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish. Both the writing and the illustration is dark and looks geared for an older crowd. Is this a trend or an anomaly?

  21. Melissa — First of all, Neil Gaiman — note the correct spelling — can pretty much do anything he wants. But yes, I’d say that darker humor in picture books and darker stories have found a foothold recently but I don’t know how much of the market is really buying those books or how many houses will continue to publish them. My friend is reading Gaiman’s CORALINE to his four year-old right now and she loves it, so there are all types of kids out there, but the market tends not to serve readers who are too far outside the norm.

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