Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Want to teach values in a kids' book? Put them in the background!


Got a message you’re dying to share?

I’ve been there.

But those of us who do have a real problem.

I’m sure you’ve heard before – and I’ve certainly said it before – that kids’ books shouldn’t be used to preach at kids.  If you put that message first and fill your book chock-full with good healthy values, you’ll end up with a terrible book that kids simply won’t enjoy.

Think of zucchini.  Nobody in my family likes zucchini very much.  If you adore zucchini, think about another vegetable.  Eggplant, maybe.

Now, you know you should eat zucchini.  It’s super-good for you, right?

But if I were to cook up a big batch of zucchini for my family, they’d all sit and stare at it – myself included – and not know what to do with it.  That zucchini would sit uneaten on the plate.

Now here’s the cool part:  we actually eat a LOT of zucchini.  We eat it sliced into chicken soup every Friday night; we eat it grated into latkes and any number of savoury dishes; we eat it pureed into potato soup.  I’ve even baked zucchini bread, though yes, I understand, it’s not entirely super-good for you if it’s surrounded by flour and sugar!

The trick to zucchini, or whatever veg you don’t like very much, is to put it in the background, and the same is true for morals, values, or any other type of lesson you’d like to embed in your book.

In my new book, Yossi and the Monkeys (2017, Kar Ben Publishing), there are a ton of what the publisher probably calls Jewish values, but which I consider pretty universal.  Here’s the first page:


What values are here – in the background?  There are things Yossi really wants, but they are not selfish wishes; they are things he wants for his family. 

(So I don’t have to come out and say something annoying like, “Don’t be selfish!”  Kids know that already anyway, so they’ll just tune you out if you try.)

The holiday itself is another value right here on this front page:  I love writing stories with Jewish holidays in them but which aren’t about the holiday.  There are too many “what is Chanukah?” books out there for me to want to contribute to the genre, plus those kinds of books have always bored my children, who have known since infancy what all the holidays are about.

(Notice I haven’t said: “Shavuot is a wonderful festival in which Jews…”  This book isn’t about Jews in general, so forget about them.  This is Yossi’s story.  Just in case the reader isn’t familiar with the festival, the publisher has included a short paragraph about it on the copyright page.)

Here are two more pages from later in the story:



Yossi finally has a bit of money thanks to some cool tricks the monkey has done.  But what does he do?  Well, he tries to ignore the monkey, because, hey, his family needs that money.  We’ve seen how poor they are.  But eventually, Yossi’s conscience gets the better of him, and he buys the monkey an apple.

Notice what this story isn’t.  It’s not a story that hits you over the head with a message like, “Think of other people,” or “Repay the kindnesses that others do for you.”  Those would be boring stories, if they were stories at all.

This is first and foremost a story that puts a lively, funny situation with a poor vendor and his monkey friend front and centre… and lurking there in the background, like zucchini in the soup, is the message of the book.

I promise I won’t quote my book at you non-stop.  I am excited about it – this is my first professionally-published book, and it just came out at the beginning of this month.  But really, I Just wanted to give you some (zucchini-based) food for thought.

Story, plus message.  Hand in hand.  But just like the monkey in this picture, the message part should be smaller, and cuter, than the story.  Story comes first – values stay in the background.


p.s. Notice they’re both wearing kippahs (yarmulkes), the traditional Jewish headcovering?   Another value, as well as an important part of the plot!

Happy e̷a̷t̷i̷n̷g̷ reading!


Post a Comment

As always, I love to hear from you.