A couple of years ago, the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival surveyed its young audience members to ask: "What new and interesting things did you learn from seeing these films?" Here are some of their responses:
Don’t be afraid to help sharks. —A.F., ten
That people in other worlds have more problems then we do. —L.H., ten
I learned that you should never take a former evil king on a long desert hike. —A.S., eleven
Never play that game. —K.S., ten
How to fight about toilets. —L.M., ten
Life. —R.H., eight
I learned that it was sad and that you had to go to someplace and get stuff. —J.T., ten
Do not marry someone that you don’t know. —K.B., nine
We found out what our dog does when we’re away. —M.B., five
And my personal favourites:
If you lose your baby you will get mad. —F.G., ten
Penguins have troubles too. —S.H., ten
These are really very sensible responses (beside the shark thing), although most ten year-olds I know would probably be a bit more articulate, so we'll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that:
A. They thought it was a dumb question, or
B. The comments are ripped out of context.
But it really begs the question: why do we feel the need to have a Moral in a children's story?
Is it still the influence of the Victorian authors, of the so-called Golden Age of children's literature, offering the guiding light of faith and goodness through the darkness of the world?
Do we think children need an author to take a moral position, more than adult readers do?
Or do we assume that part of the role of children's literature is the moulding of young ethics - the writer as Jesuit?
I had hoped that the debate over the Chronicles of Narnia would have sparked a bit more questioning on this, but it seems to have been largely an argument over which set of morals is the correct one. The heavyweight Lewis versus Pullman is fun (although it would be more wittily argued if Lewis was here to defend himself against the Pullman right hook), but in their writing they both bang on about right and wrong without questioning whether they have the authority or obligation to do so.
I'm as guilty of it as anyone. There are ethical questions raised in my books about slavery, empire, gender, nationalism and violence, and I'm still thinking about how to deal with the question of Moral in the future.
But it wasn't until writing the third book that I realised I didn't have to provide answers as well as questions.