Monday, March 17, 2014

Some thoughts on didacticism...

When literature first began to be written with children in mind, the stories produced were generally of an improving nature: 'didactic' texts with a moral lesson, stories that set out the rules of how adults expected or wanted children to behave. Be seen and not heard, mind your manners and your elders, be kind, don't steal, poke, provoke, be proud, or rude, gobble your food and so on. Sometimes these were bible stories - parables from the testaments, old and new, that extolled virtuous behaviour. Aesop's Fables provided a more secular set of aphorisms to live by.

However the didacticism inherent in early children's literature was probably somewhat hypocritical, coming across potentially as more of a 'do as I say and not as I do' kind of literature. At the time adults were just realising that children needed books aimed specifically at them, adult literature had itself already developed well past the Bible, Torah, Quran, and other religious tomes guiding and directing adult values. Well before then, the likes of Chaucer and Shakespeare had already injected the sensational and the bawdy into their work. They were riffing on the behaviours of actual humanity rather than some ideal. By the time children were acknowledged as something other than miniature adults, adults were reading romances, westerns, and the drudgery and cruelty of Dickens. Good fiction was about the best and worst of people, warts and all. Reading had already developed into an activity offering entertainment to adults. Children however were seen as something to be molded and controlled and their reading was written accordingly.  And yet not only were adults reading literature which was definitely not 'improving,' they were often expecting more of their offspring than they were capable of themselves. 

As literature grew and evolved, so too did an understanding of the child reader, and writing for children became a more complex and richly structured endeavour. Writing morphed from being stories about what adults wanted children to know and be, and became more about subjects and issues that concerned children directly. What was going on in their lives and what was of interest to them. Reading meets a multiplicity of needs in a child - learning to read, providing information, entertainment and pleasure, tasting the world and all its variety, and learning about how language is used. It must offer more than just moral guidance.  

Didactic texts aim to teach the reader. To a certain extent all literature teaches, not just in terms of literacy but in terms of the larger underlying themes and messages. Non-fiction works clearly contain material which 'informs' but fiction also informs providing a window onto experiences that readers can find their own lessons in. Any well-written book with substance will inform and teach in some way.  

In its simplest form a good story offers an opportunity for the reader to observe the behaviour of others and decide how it applies to them. The best children's books put a child at the centre of the story. They teach critical thinking and give children the tools to solve their own problems. They deal with themes that are practical and real, even when cloaked in the guise of fantasy or science fiction, history or horror. Encouraging good behaviour is not a bad thing, but children are not just blank slates on which good rules alone must be written. Children are complex creatures, just as adults are. We want them to become independent thinkers who judge for themselves how and why to be good people. 

Children's literature has to be relevant to who they are and what they are experiencing. Life is rarely simple, or fair, and no one is perfect. Books will have a bigger impact on a child if they reflect the full richness of experience rather than some distilled advice or a blatant lecture. In less well thought out moments I have attempted to give my children lectures and it is the fastest way to make them glaze over. And if we have all managed to get through to the end they eventually remind me that they already knew what I was hectoring them about. Because the good life lessons are best engendered in context, through real life example. So where is the line between too didactic and just right? If the lesson is visible on the surface you have crossed the line. If everyone in the story learns to be a better person you have probably crossed the line. If there is nothing 'else' to the story you have crossed the line. If it feels like a parable or a fable you have probably crossed the line. If it feels like a fairy tale, a nursery rhyme or a cautionary tale you are actually probably in safer territory. And I don't mean Disney fairy tales or nursery rhymes, I mean the originals where sometimes dreadful things happened and there was no clear message or moral. And just remember - you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make them drink.
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