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10 October 2010 ·

Picture books and Messages

I picked up an old (1969) picture book at a garage sale the other day: The Big Dog and the Very Little Cat, by Helen Hoke. The black and white illustrations, by Diana Thorne, were lovely. But when I read the full book, I found it unbelievably depressing.

The story is that the big old dog isn’t very happy about ‘Grandmother’ adopting a small kitten, who is of course curious and playful. Finally the dog resorts to carrying her outside and leaving her in the snow till she’s nearly dead, and even dropping her out the window.

You think you know what’s going to happen, don’t you? The dog will cheer up and learn to love the kitten with her playful ways; the last picture will show the tiny kitten snuggled up against the huge dog…

You’d be wrong. The cranky old dog wins. The kitten learns to stay out of his way, so the final page is Grandmother commenting, “…she doesn’t play much at all,…”
The message is strong, and quite horrible:”Don’t be curious, don’t be playful, don’t try to make friends, because you’ll just get it beaten out of you.” 

The thought of messages and morals in books  makes me cringe, and I always deny that I plan  “A Message” in my books. However  this book made me realise that all stories have some type of message – and that means that, especially in picture books for very young children, we have a responsibility to step back from our manuscript and think objectively about what this story is saying. Not to work out a neat way of telling children to be good, obey their parents, or work hard at school, but just being aware of, and  responsible for, what we’re imparting.


  1. Katrina Hi Wendy,
    The book you're describing sound horrible. I also hate picture books that scream a message, especially instructions for children about how to think, behave and feel. But you're right, all books carry some kind of message and we need to be mindful about how our books make young readers feel.
    October 10, 2010 at 8:24 pm · Reply
  2. Belinda That sounds awful Wendy! It makes me wonder what the publishers were thinking as well. Children do pick up on the littlest things, sometimes comments or illustrations that adults may glance over. Good luck with The Princess and Her Panther, it's a wonderful picture book.
    October 10, 2010 at 8:49 pm · Reply
  3. Wendy I think you're right about children picking up the little things that we may miss - or maybe that our adult minds think are funny, but that kids might take in an entirely different way.

    Maybe it's good to be reminded about our responsibility every once in a while.

    And thanks, Belinda, for the good wishes on Princess & Panther!
    October 10, 2010 at 8:57 pm · Reply
  4. Marnie Lester That book sounds terrible, it is hard to believe anyone would think that is suitable for children.

    I agree with unconcious messages in literature particular children's. I always get frustrated when I hear people slamming the Harry Potter books saying they promote witchcraft which is a load of hooey.

    It is possible to swing too far the other way. I have had an ongoing argument with my editor about a passage in my second novel where a young girl goes to visit an old man. The story is quite convoluted and the reasons are pretty substantial but she seemed to feel this would encourage children to think it is okay to visit strangers. I think we underestimate children's judgment and understanding at times. I also try to keep messages out of my writing but it happens.

    Marnie Lester
    October 11, 2010 at 1:44 pm · Reply
  5. Wendy I think that's a constant battle - we've got to set characters up for risky or unusual situations, or there wouldn't be much of a story! Then we have to convince our editors that our readers will pick up on the bravery/responsibility/whatever that our character's displaying, but not emulate the exact behaviour and jump off a ship or visit strange old men...
    October 11, 2010 at 1:49 pm · Reply
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Wendy Orr is a Canadian-born Australian writer. Her books for children and adults have been published in 27 countries and won awards around the world. Nim’s Island and Nim at Sea have also become feature films, starring Jodie Foster and Abigail Breslin (Nim’s Island) and Bindi Irwin (Return to Nim’s Island.) Her latest book is Cuckoo’s Flight, a companion to the highly acclaimed Bronze Age novels Dragonfly Song and Swallow’s Dance. Read full bio