"The Moral of the Story" (January theme) by Claudia Mills

One of the most common faults in children's literature has been that it's didactic and moralistic, bent on preaching, bent on teaching. For this reason I've heard many brilliantly successful writers caution against any kind of message-driven fiction. Authors should write to tell a whopping good story. Period. Forget about offering a message or a moral. As Samuel Goldwyn quips, "If you want to send a message, call Western Union."

With all due respect, I beg to differ.

As a reader, I've always loved best the protagonist's epiphany moment, that place toward the end of the story when she finally "gets it," figures out some truth about  her own experience, about the human condition more generally, which allows her to take one small, halting step toward growing up. That's the moment when I get tears in my eyes. I don't read to find out what happens as much as to find out what it all means. That's the moment that matters most to me as a writer, as well.

So how do we offer epiphanies to our readers in a way that doesn't resort to mere preaching and teaching? Let me offer a stab at some tentative guidelines.While we can find examples of wonderful books by amazing authors that violate all of them, here are three I try to adhere to myself as I craft a story that climaxes with my character discovering some universal truth that changes her, and perhaps the reader, forever.

1. Your character should discover this truth herself rather have it delivered to her through the pronouncements of some adult authority. Let it be hard won, and let her have the honor and glory of the winning.

2. This truth should emerge from the story in an organic way rather than feeling imposed upon it. Don't write the book to tell the message, write the book to find the message.

3. Finally, and most important, it should be (even, and especially, in a book for children) an interesting truth, a complex and surprising truth, not something morally obvious and simplistic like "Don't lie" or "It's nice to share" or "Recyling helps the earth."

I value fiction most when it teaches me something I'm in need - perhaps in desperate need - of knowing. And so I try to let my characters uncover truths that I myself am most in need of discovering.


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