Rethinking morals


As many of you already know, I work as a primary school librarian in Oxford. Ours is  a Church of England Aided Primary School, and much of our daily life revolves around supporting and celebrating Christian values, and we focus on a particular one each month – this month’s, for example, is honesty.

Last week, I started preparing a display board (above) with the idea of linking the our values to ones found in the teachings of Christ. My aim was to show the children that good messages are often found in many of the non-religious books we read – and children’s books are a particularly good example of this. How many times have you read a picture book, for example, that features friendship or love or thoughtfulness as its main themes?

I didn’t want to restrict this to picture books, though; it was important for the older children to realise that they can find these messages in chapter books, too. So I tried to bring together a diverse range of books to exemplify the values we are celebrating this year as a school, which are:

  • love (The Happy Prince, by Oscar Wilde)
  • forgiveness (Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell)
  • hope (The Mozart Question, by Michael Morpurgo)
  • respect (Mr Stink, by David Walliams)
  • team-work (The Gigantic Turnip, by Aleksei Tolstoy)
  • kindness & generosity (A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens)
  • honesty (Pinocchio, by Carlo Collodi)
  • courage (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum)

Finding examples of love, hope, respect, team-work, kindness and generosity and courage were pretty easy. There are so many books about children and animal families where love and kindess rule, and where characters share their things even if they’re reluctant at first (they learn a lesson in the course of the story). Team-work is a biggie too – selfishness and self-sufficiency aren’t particularly lauded in children’s books which, in the case of the latter, isn’t necessarily a good thing. A certain amount of resourcefulness is helpful at any age, as long as you’re not hurting others in the process. Take Roald Dahl’s Matilda, for example. Where would she have been if she hadn’t taken matters into her own hands?

The value that presented the most difficulty for me was honesty – apart from a few old folktales or fairy tales (The Boy Who Cried Wolf, for example) and Pinocchio, I was struggling to think of books that promoted this virtue. However, I could think of many that featured, shall we say, bending the truth as a way to solve a problem. I suppose you could classify these books as examples of resourcefulness but there is blatant lying going on in them for the main character to either achieve their goal or get out of a sticky situation. Not that I am condemning these books – some of them are my favourites, but it’s a curious observation.

A couple of examples that came to mind, easily, were:

  • The Gruffalo – in which the mouse has to tell tall tales to save himself from being the monster’s next meal
  • Lion vs Rabbit – a hilarious story in which a nasty bully of a lion is defeated by the smallest animal around through deception
  • Goldilocks and the Three Bears – this is an older tale, of course, but it features a little girl who breaks into a house, eats strangers’ food, breaks their furniture and sleeps in their beds. Depending on which version you read (and their ultimate aim) Goldilocks either escapes, is eaten by the Bears or has some other form of punishment imposed on her
  • Matilda – this poor, neglected girl has to lie to her parents about where she spends her time and where she gets her books… but it’s still a lie!

The reason why books like these are so popular with children, I believe, is because the character that is bigger and stronger (and possibly older in their minds) is put in its place or defeated by the smaller, weaker (and possibly younger) character. It’s a role reversal of parental authority over children. They love laughing at how a quick-thinking little’un gets the better of a scarier but stupider authority figure. I can’t blame them.

Perhaps we could look at it from another angle, and suggest that these protagonists are showing signs of courage, which was another of our virtues. But does using one virtue over another make it  OK?

I am of course reading too far into this, and only just as a semi-religious/ philosophical exercise. Some of my favourite children’s books are downright silly, cheeky and sometimes rude. But it’s interesting to think that perhaps children’s literature is doing a bit of a full circle at the moment. When children listened to fairy tales, they heard stories we wouldn’t dream of telling our children. Little Red Riding Hood wasn’t just at risk of being eaten in some of the earliest fireside tellings, while Snow White enjoyed violent revenge over her wicked stepmother. During Victorian times, children’s stories took on more of a moral approach and the salacious details of the past were dropped. Nowadays, I don’t think we’ll become as bloodthirsty as pre-Victorians but we’re allowing mischievous children and animals to get the better of their betters and empowering them in ways perhaps never seen before.

Can you suggest some good examples of books related to the values listed above? I’d love to hear your suggestions.



One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s