When is Moralizing in Children’s Books OK?

One of the biggest turn-offs of (some) Arabic children’s books is the heavy, uncomfortable, finger-wagging moralizing. Two finger-wagging titles that spring to mind are The Three Martyrs (which my son picked up in a stationery store) and Give the Dough to Baker (which my husband picked up goodness knows where.

Problems besiege The Three Martyrs: too many words, hastily done drawings, actions a child could never relate to, and then—finally—a long, dull wrap-up lecture. Give the Dough to Baker seems a little more promising: the characters are all friendly animals, and the drawings are adequate. But from the moment it begins, it leans very heavily on the moral: You must seek out a specialist when you are in trouble. You must not go to any old person to get a thorn out of your foot; you must seek out a doctor. You must give the dough to baker.

These books make literature seem like a long lecture conducted by an unfriendly teacher in a closed, stuffy room. Why would children want to read them?

But then again, there are a number of “moralizing” children’s books that are very successful. The Lorax, for instance, is all about moral: Save the trees! Don’t pollute the environment! Several books newly on the Egyptian market are also on this theme:  هروب صحابة الدخان (Rania Hussein Amin)، إحنا و كوكب، و a book we purchased yesterday, الأسماك تترك النهر, by Wael Hamdy, illustrated by Hassan Ismael.

All three of these books have a strong environmental message and urge youngsters to take concrete steps to save their world. The first is for somewhat older readers (I would characterize إحنا و كوكب as middle-grade, but the second two are for picture-book readers. As the third—لأسماك تترك النهر —is an “3alam Simsim” or Sesame World title, it can hold the interest of the youngest readers.

Why is the moralizing in الأسماك تترك النهر okay? Am I hypocritical for enjoying children’s fiction when it moralizes about the environment, but not about when it moralizes about seeing a specialist to get the thorn taken out of your foot?

Perhaps. But الأسماك تترك النهر avoids a moralizing tone because, as in The Lorax, we are not hearing from an “adult”-like figure. Instead, we listen to a fish describe his problems in the river. The drawings are charming. We experience the underwater world of the fishes, and then we learn about why the river is being polluted and Nimnim discovers a few ways he can help.

It’s not as powerful as The Oncelers vs. The Lorax and Dr. Seuss’s barbaloots in their brown barbaloot suits, but few things are. Still, these books do address a problem that many children in Cairo are thinking about: the pollution of their world. And that alone probably makes them higher-interest than other “moralizing” books.

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