A few months ago, when “Gangnam Style” fever had kids ponying around the country, two baffled Fox News pinheads personalities debated the song’s appeal.

gangnam“I think what this fella Psy is tapping into…is the fact that people don’t want any meaning right now. The most popular music apparently is that without intelligible words…not reality, not feeling, not meaning.”

“So it means nothing…”

They never once considered that the song was in Korean and the gibberish they were hearing was indeed actual words in a different language, satirizing the wealthy Gangnam district of South Korea, an area obsessed with western culture.

From that mind-numbing discussion, they somehow segued into their perceived lack of meaning in children’s books.

Wait? What was that? No meaning in children’s books?! Oh yeah, the ignoramus commentator had a picture book rejected and was obviously still reeling from the sting.

“I had a little kids’ book I wrote; I sent it out to a few publishers. They bemoaned the fact…they said, gee, it seems like it has a message. I said, ‘Well, yeah, it’s about empowerment’. Well, books about messages right now aren’t selling.”

He then ridiculed WIMPY KID and OLIVIA, two of the best-selling children’s book series. (Probably because he didn’t think of them first.)

“Try to tell them about ‘courage’, that’s not going to be purchased by the great masses who now want not to be tapped on the heartstrings, if you will, but simply to be pushed toward ‘a good beat’.”

sledgehammerDarn straight, readers want a good beat. What they don’t want is to be beat over the head with a lesson you think they need to learn, sly Mr. Fox.

Message-driven picture books begin with the intention of teaching a life lesson, like how to have good manners. With the writer’s purpose being so righteous, the story can come across as preachy and self-important. Why don’t these books sell? Because they lack the one thing that kids really want: FUN. Think about it—children are being taught all day long—at home, at school, at places of worship. When they pick up a book, do you think they want to hear “remember to say please and thank you” yet again? If I were a kid, I’d shelve that book pronto. Kids want to be entertained.

Message-driven books are not subtle. They often contain the very phrase the writer intends to teach, like: “Just be nice and you’ll always have lots of friends!” This is the classic mistake of “telling” instead of “showing” with your words. It’s talking down to kids, it’s assuming they’re not intelligent creatures with limitless imaginations.

Not all books with messages are message-driven. In fact, the best books do contain messages, but they are subtly woven through a wondrous story rich in character, setting and action. Every good story contains a universal emotional truth—friendship, family, fitting in—that is slowly revealed through the main character’s journey. The character at the beginning of the book is not the same person by the end; they have been transformed. How have they changed? Within the answer lies the lesson. Character is paramount when writing, not the message. Begin with character. With character as the driving force, a message unfolds naturally and reveals itself organically; alternatively, when the writer begins with a message, they often push the character to act in order to deliver the lesson, rendering the story false.

I’m going to leap upon my soapbox now. I believe children’s books should be fun-driven. If books are going to compete with TVs, iProducts and video games, authors need to deliver an escape, a fantastical world where anything can and does happen. I write with fun in the forefront. I think back to my childhood and the things that I loved—like secret hideouts adults didn’t know existed. I was fascinated by Dahl’s chocolate factory and the fact that he chose a kid to run it. (I hope I didn’t spoil that for anyone. It has been almost 50 years since the book was released.) A kid in charge! Marvelous! And yet, Dahl still had a message, but it was hand-dipped in chocolate.


So let’s circle back—does DIARY OF A WIMPY KID have a message? It sure does. I can name a bunch: being yourself, persevering through difficult situations, being able to laugh at yourself. These are all important life lessons.

Of course, no one would call Jeff Kinney’s series “message-driven”, yet a lot of people mistake these kind of FUN books as being worthless teachers, as being meaningless. I beg to differ. (And I beg Fox News to get a clue.)

It’s time to do the exact opposite of writing message-driven books: assume kids are already smart as whips. (Believe me, they are.) A message-driven book isn’t going to teach them anything except to avoid reading. And that’s a lesson no one needs to learn!