The Moral of the Story Is,

So among other jobs, I work in a bookstore. I don’t think I’ve mentioned that yet.

A couple of days ago, a woman came up to the counter and asked me something I’ve literally never heard anyone ask for at any bookstore I’ve ever worked at or visited: “Do you have a picture book with a moral to it?”

I think I kind of stared at her for a second, because, like I said, I’ve never once had someone ask for a book with a moral. Lots of people ask for books without any kind of moral or whatever, the way you might ask for pizza without little fishy bits if you, unlike me, can eat cheese; but except for very specifically looking for Aesop’s Fables, no one ever wants one with.

A conversation something like this ensued:

CAP: Um, is there any particular moral you’re looking for?

CUSTOMER: No, just a moral.

CAP: Like do your chores, or be nice to your little brother, or…

CUSTOMER: Those would be good ones.

CAP: Or don’t eat too many grapes on a hot day, or don’t talk to strangers…

CUSTOMER: Sure. Any of those.

CAP: [stares unblinking for a second, discovering herself completely inadequate to the task at hand]

CUSTOMER: [also stares]

CAP: [still staring]

So that was, you know, fantastic customer service on my part.

After a second I recovered and we talked through six or eight picture books that might fit the bill, and eventually she decided on one she liked and everything was fine, but man, I did not realize until then just how big the gulf is between children’s books we use to teach or explore things, and children’s books we use to moralize. I mostly try to keep only the former kind on the shelves…but it turns out that’s not nearly as hard as it sounds. Even the stories I think of as maybe having some kind of lesson to them don’t fit into boxes.

There’s something like Stone Soup by Marcia Brown, which I talked about in my second post, where the moral of the story may or may not be “if you’re going to hoodwink an entire village into providing you with a feast, share so they won’t run you out of town on a rail.” Not quite the thing.

There’s something like Please Baby Please by Spike Lee, Tonya Lewis Lee, and Kadir Nelson, where the moral of the story is approximately “I love you dearly, little one, even when you exasperate me”—which is lovely and true and worth saying, but not so much the hit-you-over-the-head-with-the-message kind of moralizing.

There’s something like Wolfie the Bunny by Ame Dyckman, where the moral is either “your skepticism about large animals is warranted” or “frightening people is quite all right if you’re protecting your siblings.” I like both of these ideas a great deal, but I’m not sure I can sell them to customers as morals.

And there’s something like Nobody Likes a Goblin by Ben Hatke, where you could argue that the moral of the story is “if you’re going on an adventure to rescue your best friend, your best allies are”…but you know what, I’m not actually going to tell you, because that’s the kind of delightful story that you really have to see to believe. The point is, the moral is definitely not that nobody likes a goblin, but it’s not that everybody likes a goblin if only he’s kind and helpful, either.

I’ll readily admit that there are plenty of books out there with much more explicit morals—eat your vegetables and you’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar (entirely untrue, by the way) and girls are just as good as boys—but when given the opportunity to banish one from the shelf in a profitable manner, I was not only unable to think of one I really wanted to get rid of; I was unable to think of one at all.

Which leads me to think that when we talk about the moral of the story, we mean two fairly contradictory things, depending on the book. If it’s a book that we like, we might talk about the moral ironically, as with Stone Soup, or we might talk about it in terms of the implicit message found at the book’s heart, as with Please, Baby, Please. If it’s a book we don’t like, the moral of the story can instead be a way of dismissing the whole thing: look, you can reduce the story to a single aphorism, so what was the point of illustrating 32 pages?

The way we talk about the moral of a book, then, isn’t about whether we agree with what it says or not; it’s about whether the story resonates with us enough that we find the message justified. If we’re bored, it’s moralizing. If we’re fascinated, it’s profound. The concept extends to adult books—Lena and I continue to disagree on what side of the moralizing/profound divide Life of Pi falls onto—but I find it especially interesting in children’s books because so many of the classic stories with morals are ones we tell to kids. Little Red Riding Hood, which tells us what happens when you stray from the path or don’t listen to your mother. Hansel and Gretel, which warns us against gluttony. Cinderella, which tells us that if we’re good and kind and sweet even when other people are horrible to us, we’ll deserve saving.

Or maybe I should say, when we tell these classic stories to kids, we make sure to build in morals. I found out recently that one of the original versions of Little Red Riding Hood sees Red save herself.

(And also, apparently, accidentally cannibalize her grandmother? I’m very unclear on whether the internet is playing an elaborate practical joke on me with that one.)

All of which makes me wonder what the customer who asked me for a book with a moral was looking for, exactly. She had a determined sort of set to her face as she asked that made it quite clear that she wanted moralizing specifically, and all of her answers to my various questions suggested the same thing. I don’t know why. I wanted to ask—I nearly always want to ask something—but that seemed like a question too far.

Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back.

…Nope, yeah, still seems like it would have been the wrong question.

If you have a chance, read Nobody Likes a Goblin. Preferably aloud. I can’t promise you you’ll be as delighted with it as I am, but I feel quite confident stating that you almost certainly won’t think it has a moral.

What a very weird and disturbingly succinct way of recommending a book.

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