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Life lessons worth hearing September 13, 2008

Anyone having experience with children knows a story beats a lecture any day. Moreover, stories beat lectures and complicated explanations to a child’s questions because they avoid the personal, finger-pointing element that makes lectures so distasteful… to anyone.

You know the psychology, because adults employ it too. “I have this friend…” I have an uncle, an M.D., who wishes he had a handpuppet he could reach around a corner to “talk” him out of unwanted social engagements or other obligations. I wish I’d thought to use something like that in lieu of some of the disastrous notes and letters I’ve committed to paper in my time.

Aesop’s fables, Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, fairy tales, Greek and Roman myths, all of these have endured because of the simple, but potent lessons they deliver peoplekind. But unlike the too-personal (and hum-drum) lecture, they’re more powerful because they offer them in an easily understandable, digestible package with characters with whom we can identify. You can’t beat the fable The Boy Who Cried Wolf for a lesson about lying, and how destroying your credibility can put you at great peril.

Even Dr. Seuss delivers sweet, simple morality in Horton Hears a Who, as suggested by Allison Bruce in a recent column in the Ventura County Star, with its message of respect. (“A person’s a person know matter how small.”) The Lorax is another, more overt morality tale about wastefulness, and preserving nature.

I don’t personally like the preachy, simplistic and over-obvious moral lessons like those depicted in the Berenstain Bears series. I may be in for some indignant e-mail, but I find nothing original, or memorable, about them — they always strike me as if the authors just said, “Hey! What about…” and jotted down the story in about 15 minutes.

Sure, it’s good to warn children about overeating, not being selfish, or caution against watching too much TV. So give me Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory any day (remember Augustus Gloop, Veruca Salt, and Mike Teevee? They also met far more satisfactory ends, and I think that message is driven home much more clearly than with a tidy little lecture from Mama or Papa Bear-Berenstain).

I’m glad I caught Bruce’s column and her suggestion of Jacqueline Golding’s guide Healing Stories: Picture Books for the Big & Small Changes in a Child’s Life, now available in the Magic Bookshelf store. Golding lists high-quality books as conversation starters for problems and issues children may encounter.

I think there’s nothing like a story to bring a lesson to vivid and constructive life, and to also let us know we’re not alone in our troubles, that many, many others have gone before us and shared our problems.

posted by Janie McQueen, author of The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever

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