There isn’t much that will make you more aware of a book’s message, and leerier of it, than reading it aloud to a child. Maybe this explains why I seem to have discovered books with such inordinately terrible messages during the three-plus years I’ve been reading to my daughter. There’s the book about the witless-looking big-eyed bunny that peeks suggestively over its plump bottom. There’s the ubiquitous book (we somehow have two copies) about the beautiful fish with rainbow-colored scales, which purports to have a “message about sharing,” and traces the decision of this fish to give away his uniquely beautiful scales, one by one, so that the other fish will like him. And the terrifying, now out of print book from the 80s, Your Turn, Doctor, that we discovered in some forgotten trove. Ostensibly meant to help children overcome their fears of doctor visits, this one, I truly think, must actually have been written to mess with us. Little Gloria is dreading her checkup and fantasizes about giving the doctor a checkup instead; in the daydream that then unfolds, she chases the doctor in all his almost-naked, middle-aged, pudgy glory around the examining room, saying truly unbelievable things. “You don’t have to be shy with me.” “Wider, Doctor, wider. I want to see everything.”
My daughter wants to finish most books we start. I can shift pretty fast into invention-and-skipping mode, though she seems to suspect something’s up.
Message is tricky in longer fiction, too. As readers and as writers, I think we’re taught to be wary of it, of turning characters and story into vehicles for a position. Maybe because characters and story are supposed to be more complicated than most positions are. The sense is that slogans constrain, and expansiveness—empathy, engagement, unexpected connection and reach—is one of fiction’s best gifts. Books like Animal Farm, The Jungle, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Pilgrim’s Progress, Brave New World are considered allegory, a slightly different category of thing from deep, rich literature. Their worth is determined by the legacy of the ideas they embody, and discussions of their fictional elements quickly morph into discussions of those ideas.