What a Great Message!

Or, not.

Do you like books with messages?

Personally, I’m not a fan of message books. I read books for the story, preferably strong, believable characters or an interesting plot. I also adore detailed world-building, amusing dialogue, strong settings, and descriptive writing.

I don’t read to be taught a lesson, but I do like to learn things when I read. While those two things may sound like the same thing, they aren’t.

The first is about a book deliberately crafted with a message or lesson in mind. The second is what I take away from what I have read.

One reason I don’t like books written to deliver a message is that it appears to be something that people attach particularly to books written for teens and children; that a book can be and should be a tool for conveying a particular moral or lesson.

The second reason is that a “message” book is written to first and last deliver a message. Everything in the book is constructed to deliver the message and that priority can result in warping the remaining elements in the book: characters, plot, setting, style.

I was NCTE a few years ago and a panel of authors was speaking. A few members of the audience were talking, in a positive way, about the great messages in books and the impact of those books on their students. At that point, one of the authors (I forget which one so cannot give proper credit) speak eloquently about the difference between writing a book to “deliver a message” and writing a book with “meaning.” She spoke about how an author should strive for meaning, not for messages. Meaning can infuse a book and the plot and characters remain their integrity; and the meaning can result in the reader walking away having learned something. Or not.

Is this only so much playing with words? Is there a difference between books written to tell a story and books written to teach?

Thanks to GalleySmith and my conversations with her in formalizing these thoughts.


9 thoughts on “What a Great Message!

  1. Hmmm. If you were to just ask me in a vacuum “do you like books with ‘messages’?” my gut instinct would be the same as yours. But now that I’ve started thinking about it, what about a book like “1984”?–I don’t think there’s any doubt that Orwell wrote it with a pretty clear message in mind, but it’s a book I adore. Or what about “Lord of the Flies”? Once again, my understanding is that Golding had a pretty specific message in mind, and many many people adore that book. I don’t. Why? Because I don’t like the message. Oh. So does that mean my response to a “message” book depends on how you feel about the message? Maybe.

    But I have a feeling it is a lot more complicated than that. First, there’s probably a lot of variability in how important a “message” is to the author writing a book. Second, there’s a lot of variability in how well they convey that message, as well as how integral it is to the plot. And third, there’s clearly a ton of variability in how much of the message a reader perceives (especially depending on age level – hello “Secret Garden”).

    To Kill a Mockingbird? The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe? Atlas Shrugged? Johnny Got His Gun? The Jungle? A Clockwork Orange? Fahrenheit 451?

    The more I think about this, the more it makes my brain hurt.


  2. I get what you’re saying, but I think that all books send messages whether intended by the author or not. I do think a story should feel organic and natural, but I also think there’s a place for an author to think through WHAT they’re saying with their story. For adults and young adults.

    But yeah, I don’t want to read a sermon thinly disguised as a story.


  3. I think all books are written with some agenda in mind. I have liked, even loved, books I haven’t necessarily agreed with the worldview of. What I don’t like is when it is obvious the author sacrificed the story for the message.


  4. I was at a Le Leche League meeting yesterday, and the leader had brought in some breastfeeding-themed picture books which we were supposed to use as discussion-prompts, talking about the different issues and points raised. I ended up with this truly awful self-published book, where the author had clearly subscribed to the “children’s books must rhyme” philosophy even though the rhyme and meter was awful, and the information was kind of just packed in there, pretty much lacking child-appeal whatsoever… and they got around the circle to me and I kind of froze, appalled, and finally stuttered, “I’m sorry, I’m having a hard time turning off my librarian collection-development brain long enough to get to what we’re talking about!” I finally conceded that I could see it being used in a clinical/counseling/thatsortof setting, with families, strictly to educate. Now, some of the others had gotten books that equally were written specifically to deliver the same pro-breastfeeding message, but actually were written/illustrated well.

    I was jealous.

    Well anyway, I guess what it comes down to is that messages are all well and good, but they can’t carry a book. It can be as blatant as you want, but you also have to have CRAFT behind it. It’s like the difference between most religious children’s videos and Veggietales. I’ve known stout atheists who’ve admitted to enjoying Veggietales.


  5. And you totally verbalized my thoughts so well here. LOL 😉

    I don’t know that there is much I can add to this conversation but to say here here. I don’t need to be preached at or hit over the head with a message I want to feel the meaning. I believe that is longer lasting anyway.


  6. I think messages should be reserved for sermons.

    Maybe what the author at the NCTE panel was talking about was the difference between theme and message. Many people think they’re the same thing, but theme is more of a world view that writers deal with in a particular piece of fiction rather than a lesson they are trying to teach.

    Do I have to conform, to change to get along in life? is my idea of a theme. And an author would then create a world and storyline about characters dealing with that open-ended issue. When an author creates a world and storyline to instruct readers to be themselves and not to conform, that would be a message.

    The message story is dumped on us. The thematic story we become part of because we’re trying to make out a resolution for ourselves, which may or may not happen. But just making the effort may make a change in us.


  7. Thanks, all — I didn’t respond sooner because of a computer issue at home.

    Mark, my brain is hurting right along with you. CS Lewis is a great example, For me? His books work; are complete; are whole. While, others see them as being too messagey. Is it just when it’s a message we don’t like? Sometimes; but even when it’s a message I like, I don’t like the characters speaking/acting unrealistically to serve the message.

    Amy, I agree that I like books that have, well, depth — a recent book that worked very well for me was SHIP BREAKER. The author used some very topical concerns. It strengthened the book and was never a sermon.

    Brandy, agreed!

    rocknlibrarian, “not being able to carry the book” is an excellent way of putting it. And I think picture books are another area that brings out the “message” in people. And funny about the VeggieTales. I know someone who thought they were directed towards vegetarians and was shocked when I said, um, no.

    Michelle, yes! The “anvil of meaning” – UHG.

    Gail, yes. And yes for “theme” instead of message and that many do confuse it. (Including, me, sometimes.) “the thematic story we become part of….” i got chills! Exactly!


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