When You Really, Really Want to Teach a Lesson

Writing for Children Blog | writing for children and teens | writing for magazines
October 27, 2016


One of the things editors often find in the slush pile is the "lesson" story. The point of a lesson story is to teach children a moral or courtesy lesson. In fact, often the lesson is all the story really is.

This kind of "pure lesson" story usually comes in one of two forms: the nag story and the punishment story. The nag story is the most common "lesson" story. A nag story begins with a child either misbehaving or asking an adult about why they shouldn't misbehave in a specific way. Then the adult explains to them why they need to act right. There isn't usually a lot of punishment for the
bad behavior in this kind of story. It's mostly one where change comes through discussion. So why wouldn't a story like this get picked from the slush pile and published?

The Nag Story

1. Most children get nagged about their behavior every single day. So they aren't looking for that in the fiction they read. That means most children won't voluntarily read this kind of story.

2. As many parents have realized, nagging just doesn't do a great job of changing behavior. Eventually kids tune it out. So such pieces don't tend to be effective on the very point the writer hoped to make.

The Punishment Story

The second most common "lesson" story involves a plot where a child does something wrong and terrible things happen. This type of story usually ends with the child either wishing he'd never done the behavior or making a vow to never do the behavior again. Though this type of story is slightly more successful it is still a tough sell.

The punishment story generally has more action, and therefore more interest, than the nag story, so kids may be more open to reading it. Thus, this kind of story can sometimes find a home in religious magazines which are heavily motivated to inspire improvement in the readers. But the real problem with the punishment story is it's negative. The child makes a bad choice and bad things happen, then the child learns from the negative consequences. Many magazines that do like stories that encourage good behavior (like Highlights, for example) prefer stories where the children learn from a positive example, not from a negative one.

So We Can't Teach?

Writers who desperately want to help children to choose well and act rightly can despair as they collect rejection after rejection. Have we lost our way in publishing? Not really. The writer simply needs to make sure their goal is embedded in a story that also meets the reader's goal. What is the goal of a child who is reading a story? They want to be entertained.

Successful lesson stories therefore usually does at least one of the following:

* employ humor in the way the lesson unfolds.
* include lots of action that gives the story a strong forward momentum.
* bury the lesson in a strong traditional plot where the main character works out his/her moral compass while working to overcome a clear story problem.

Pick one of those ways to convey your lesson and you'll end up with a story that avoids the dreaded label of "preachy" and has a much better chance at successful publication.

Jan Fields is a full-time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor. Would you like to have your own instructor teaching you on a one-on-one basis? Show us a sample of your work  here.


October 29, 2016

Hello Jan and thank you always for your infinite great advices. I have noticed you always talk about this topic: "procrastination". See, it is very "comforting" for us "procrastinators" to hear you one time after another repeating why we procrastinate and how bad it is... i was relating this idea with today's punishment story: "The child makes a bad choice and bad things happen, (we writers choose to procrastinate and bad things happen: nothing ever gets published) then the child learns from the negative consequences." Both assessments or choices, are 'negative' (in a way) and we (writers) are tired of listening about it and want to "pass" and start reading something else. ~Warmest.

Marianne Knowles
October 28, 2016

A fun "punishment" story that comes to mind is the Maurice Sendak classic "Pierre: A Cautionary Tale in Five Chapters and a Prologue". It's done in such a silly, entertaining way that it bears repeated readings. Our family especially loved the animation of it.

Elizabeth McBride
October 27, 2016

Thank you, Jan! That was a helpful and succinct explanation. In my experience, the kids welcome the 'meaning' in the story as long as they are the ones to discover it. They don't want to be 'told' anymore than we do!

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