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.
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