In the early development of children’s literature books were created with a specific Christian moral. Books for children were not for entertainment. Even today, when we understand the value of enjoyment (read entertainment) the moral of a story may be something that educators want the children to be able to identify. We are all familiar with the morals in Aesop’s fables; wonderful life lessons. Do children’s stories have to have morals? No, of course not. Do they have to have a meaning? Well, it depends on what we mean by a meaning. Surely for a story to resonate with the reader, it has to have meaning for him/her. To use an educational term, the reader has to be able to ‘make meaning’ of the story, to come away from it with some understanding of the story and how it relates to himself/herself. So does the story have to have a message? I think so. Often the writer will write with a message in mind, even if it is ‘words are fun’, ‘sounds are fun’, as seen in books for little children/nursery rhymes. So is the message the meaning, or the meaning the message? We come back to the child making meaning from the story/book. If there is a message it can only come though making meaning. However, we all know by now that you should not stuff a message down the child’s literary throat. Children are much smarter than that.
As I prepared for a radio interview about The Happiness Dress, the story for which I won the special prize for a children’s story from the Commonwealth Foundation Short Story Competition (see post for September 18), I thought about the meaning the child could take away from the story? Then I realized that besides the obvious meaning, there were levels and layers to this story.
The story: Carolyne receives a dress of many-coloured flowers from the Caribbean, which her Mum, her Grandma and her Aunt all think is quite unsuitable in this foreign country (UK) and which she could never wear anywhere with them. So Carolyne’s initial happiness is destroyed. (When I was little the dress would have come under the category of ‘too loud’, not to be worn to church, etc.). Carolyne’s Daddy says she can go out with him; so they go for a walk. Everybody they meet says how happy the dress makes them feel as it reminds them of something else happy in their lives. This information does not change the minds of any of the ladies at home. Daddy, however, reminds them that they all have objects in their lives which make them happy; everybody (including Carolyne) is entitled to their ‘happy things’, is what he is saying. Carolyne suddenly has a thought and asks her Daddy if he has something in his life that makes him happy. He replies: “You, Carolyne! You are my happiness daughter!” And the story ends with: Carolyne just grinned. She knew that.
When I first wrote this story the meaning would have been the importance of being true to one’s belief in oneself/one's likes, ‘the flower dress’ (a part of one’s culture), and the support of a parent who validates the child’s belief in her choice. Another layer would be the idea of everyone having something that makes them happy.
While rewriting the story for the competition, cutting it to fit the word count, hence rewriting, another ending seemed to come from out of nowhere (that wonderful experience where the characters begin to write their own story). Two things happened. One, Daddy declares that Carolyne is his happiness daughter, (we would say his 'heartstring'). Second, Carolyne already knows that, even though it is a ‘present discovery’ of something she already knows.
So other layers are introduced: we could say: 1) Every girl should have a Daddy to support her and for whom she is the delight of his life; 2) Carolyne knows she is loved unconditionally. The latter is something that children will be able to identify with, because most know that they are loved. The story allows them to put this into words mentally, to recognize the joy of being loved, the security.
If you had told me a story of 600 words could have so many layers, messages from which children can make meaning (without preaching) I would have said not possible. So I myself am surprised. My characters surprised me. Hopefully they will bring meaning to the reader. The reader does not have to be aware of these layers all at once. The reader only has to enjoy the story.