Didactic Picture Books:
The Importance of Not Being Earnest
Our role as adults working with children is a weave of caretaker, roll model, teacher, and docent. As writers, we are wise to also be entertainers. If we want to be effective teachers and docents, we must keep our young audience engaged. We must keep their minds entertained by new information.
The word didactic is often used as a derogatory term as if it is synonymous with boring, bad, turgid or trite. However, didactic writing is simply a form of writing like mimetic is another form. The goal of mimetic stories, plays and books is to reflect the human condition. The goal of didactic stories, plays and books is persuasion, to change thinking and behavior.
We all know from both ends of the experience that a wagging finger is the quickest path to losing an audience of any age. In order to persuade we must be engaging and interesting.
A book for any age about manners is clearly didactic. But in no way does this condemn such books to being boring, bad, turgid or trite. Exploring a range of picture books on manners reveals various ways we can keep the reader engaged while we hope to change behavior.
As every court jester who kept his head knew, humor and the fable’s sense of distance were vital. As a child of the 1950s, I loved and laughed at Gelett Burgess’ ill-mannered Goops. At school we had fun drawing replicas of Munro Leaf’s playful cartoons from MANNERS CAN BE FUN.
Like the talking animals in fables, anthropomorphism allows the child a chance to view and laugh at his own behavior, yet still not feel like he is laughing at himself. Long before Jane Yolen combined dinosaurs, humor, and Emily Post in HOW DO DINOSAURS EAT THEIR FOOD? (and others in that series), Marc Brown and Stephen Krensky engaged a cast of pigs in cartoon panels to teach good manners. In addition to talking animals and humor, Brown and Krensky’s PERFECT PIGS: AN INTRODUCTION TO MANNERS includes a comical commentator whose naïve voice plays against the serious content of the text.
Aliki employs similar light-hearted commentators in her MANNERS. This, along with her chosen style of panels and simple line drawings, keeps the book afloat even though she depicts children instead of talking animals. Imagine Aliki’s text illustrated with photographs of real children and the book would immediately gain 50 pounds of earnest weight.
IT’S A SPOON, NOT A SHOVEL by Caralyn Buehner adds an interactive element to her text on manners. Children select which of three possible answers is the correct one. Though it might sound like a quiz her use of hyperbolic humor and Mark Buehner’s equally humorous talking animals make the book a playful game show.
Humor isn’t the only way to make a book engaging as it attempts to persuade and change a child’s thinking or behavior. But it is certainly one of the best and most enjoyable.
Picture Books Discus
GOOPS AND HOW TO BE THEM: A MANUAL OF MANNERS FOR POLITE INFANTS, WITH 90 DRAWINGS by Gelett Burgess. Dover, 1968 (1900).
HOW DO DINOSAURS EAT THEIR FOOD? byJane Yolen. Illus. by Mark Teague. Blue Sky Press, 2005.
IT’S A SPOON, NOT A SHOVEL by Caralyn Buehner. Illus. by Mark Buehner. Dial, 1995.
MANNERS by Aliki. Greenwillow, 1990.
MANNERS CAN BE FUN by Munro Leaf. Universe, 2004 (1936).
PERFECT PIGS: AN INTRODUCTION TO MANNERS by Marc Brown and Stephen Krensky. Little, Brown & Co., 1983.