In one of my college English classes,we once had a discussion about the purpose of art. Our discussion boiled down to two camps: the aesthetic and the didactic. The aesthetic camp believed in “art for art’s sake”; in other words, art needs no justification. It just is. Or something like that. I didn’t really buy it.
On the other side, there was the didactic camp. The didactic camp believed that the point of art was to teach something. Art needed a purpose, a worthy message. Now, even those in the didactic camp admitted that art shouldn’t beat you over the head with that message, and that preachy art is generally not good art. But at the same time, they argued that art that wasn’t trying to say something was pointless. I am a practical person at heart; thus, I fell into the didactic camp.
I’m still there.
And yet, I’m often torn between these camps when I read books to my kids. Even as a believer in didacticism, some books seem over the top to me. For example, take this Berenstain Bears book we checked out a few weeks ago: it was called The Trouble with Secrets. Now, if you don’t have young kids, you might not know this about the Berenstain Bears, but they have seen the light. I don’t remember the childhood BB stories I read being overtly Christian, but they sure are now. Well, some of them are. And others are just regular stories extolling good behavior. Usually, the overtly Christian ones announce it to you in the title. For example, we currently own a collection called, The Berenstain Bears Show God’s Love. I love it. It has stories about loving your neighbor and about prayer, and the kids love them.
But this book about secrets didn’t seem religious; indeed, neither the title nor the plot really lent themselves to religious application. Instead, it was just a simple story about the trickiness of friendship. It was told from the perspective of Brother and Sister Bear’s friends, who were miffed that Brother and Sister were keeping a secret from them. Thus, they followed the siblings to find out their secret. Fair enough. Throughout this narrative, however, the authors kept dropping non sequiturs about God, from out of nowhere. It has been a few weeks since I read it, but if I recall, the comments were about God not wanting us to have secrets, or something (which, by the way, is not in the Bible). Regardless, it seemed like the parts about God were superfluous, that they were shoe-horned into the plot without really fitting. In a way, it seemed like the authors were playing the God card. And I didn’t like it.
I think I was also put off by the “sneak-attack” element of the book’s Christian content. Nothing about the book suggested that it was going to be religious; it just seemed like an ordinary Early Reader in a public library that services a religiously diverse area. And then midway through the book, the reader is subjected to strained religious applications. To be honest, I think the seeming subterfuge put me off as much as the heavy-handedness of the theme.
In short, I found The Trouble with Secrets to be too preachy, too didactic.
On the other end of that spectrum, we have the Junie B. Jones books. I have heard wonderful things about this series, and especially how much kids love them. Thus, I decided to give them a try. In retrospect, perhaps the title of the first book should have been a red flag, as we don’t usually allow our kids to say the word, stupid. But I didn’t want to judge a book by its title, and I do think there is wiggle room with language when it comes to books (and even movies). Part of teaching our kids about language, after all, is to impress on them that we don’t repeat everything we hear. Anyhow, I read the first book to the kids. They loved it. Then, I read the second book. They loved that one, too.
And then I stopped.
Because I couldn’t do it anymore.
It wasn’t so much that Junie B. liberally used the word, “stupid.” Or that she often remarked how she couldn’t stand people. It was that the overall theme of the book had no element of the didactic. Instead, I decided that Junie B. Jones is the Seinfeld of children’s literature: the series seem to share the theme of “no hugging, no learning.”
It’s not just that Junie B. is selfish and hateful. After all, lots of kid-friendly characters are selfish; the world of Thomas the Tank Engine, for example, is filled with unpleasant, petty engines. What makes the Junie B. Jones series unique, though, is that everyone is selfish. At least Thomas and his friends have Sir Topham Hatt as the voice of reason; Junie B. is not so fortunate. Her parents and teacher hardly seem to care about her: they certainly don’t listen to her, and they never take the time to teach her anything. She basically acts like an untrained five year old, which is probably because no one takes the time to train her. In the first book, Junie B. is terrified of riding the bus, but all the adults dismiss her fears without addressing them, and then force her to ride it anyway. She is so scared to get back on the bus after school that she hides in the classroom. Never at any point does she ponder the deception of her scheme or worry about what her mom or teacher will think. Indeed, she never thinks about anything but her immediate desires. Again, that’s normal for a five year old, I guess. However, even at the end, everyone is exasperated with her, but no one takes the time to teach her why her actions were wrong. Which means that I then have to explain to my own children why Junie B’s behavior is not acceptable. In fact, throughout both the books, I had to stop repeatedly and ask my kids what they thought about Junie B’s current behavior. Then we would talk about why she was being selfish.
To be honest, I really see the series as more of a satire of society…but my kids aren’t old enough to get satire. Instead, they just get a bad example of a five year old (and bad examples of parents and teachers). The books definitely didn’t scar my children or anything, but for me, they weren’t worth it. I figure my kids have enough bad examples around them without me spending hours providing them with yet another one through the books we read. If we read something, I want it to at least have a decent moral. And it’s okay if the moral is subtle. To me, even classics like Where the Wild Things Are or Ferdinand have decent morals, even though they are very understated. But I could find no moral in Junie B. Jones.
So that’s where I stand on The Berenstain Bears and Junie B. Jones. If you are a parent (and even if you’re not), I’m interested in how you decide what books to read to your kids. Do you fall more into the didactic camp or the aesthetic camp? Do you think I am overreacting at either (or both) of these books? (After all, Greg said that this post mainly demonstrates how picky I am!) And have you found any books that are both well-written and at least somewhat instructive? Do a picky mom a favor, and pass those suggestions along!
[Updated to add: This is in no way a moral judgment on anyone who has read, shared, or enjoyed this books. It is strictly a matter of personal opinion and taste. I am just walking through my thought process when deciding what books are worth reading to my kids, given my beliefs and goals for my children.]