As I read books to my kids (and listen to them in the car to keep them from beating on each other), I look for the message of the stories. Are they learning the Tao of Pooh? The heavy handed Christianity of Narnia? The LSD lessons of Lewis Carroll?
Of late, we’ve made our way through five or six books by Beverly Cleary, author of books about Henry Huggins, Ramona Quimby, The Mouse and the Motorcycle, and other stuff that I remember not scarring me particularly when I was a kid. These are, on the whole, much less painful and sentimental than the recent movie version of Ramona & Beezus, which bears no resemblance to the book of that name (I think it’s based on some later-written book about the same characters, but I expect that Hollywood shmultz was applied liberally in the transition.)
One of the audio books started off with an interview with the now fairly elderly ex-librarian, and she expressed probably the central insight behind her writing, which makes her, in my eyes, into a veritable Seinfeld (“no hugs, no learning”) of kid literature: Children do not learn lessons that then improve their behavior.
As a child herself, she was annoyed at all the didacticism of the books she read, wherein the child or anthropomorphized animal or garden tool or whatever would transgress some social norm (e.g. intentionally fail to function effectively as a garden tool), fall into misfortune (e.g. be thrown in the trash), be delivered from misfortune (e.g. by a hungry seagull mistaking said non-functioning garden tool in the trash for a fish but then, upon the discovery of non-identicality with the hypothesized fish, dropped it coincidentally back into the shed), and then learn not to repeat the offense (e.g. to function with greater effectiveness as a garden tool).
So in her books, kids might learn something (e.g. “It’s okay to feel weird about this.”), but they do not morally improve. They just have to eventually grow up to get over their naughtiness, and that might not even do it. Ramona the four-year-old might learn, specifically, not to lock the dog in the bathroom again, but does not repudiate her reasons for doing so (“He ate my cookie, which was bad, and should have to be shut in a room just like I have to go to my room when I’m bad.”), nor in any way renounce her right in general to base bold actions on her own judgments of this sort.
By contrast, the Thomas the Tank Engine books, originally written starting in the 1940s by an Anglican clergyman, are all about keeping quiet, meek, and in your place: Don’t be so cheeky, Thomas! Despite a fascinating but freakish zeal for accuracy regarding railway practices and equipment, these stories totally misrepresent psychology (though maybe having to sleep in a shed and slave for a fat aristocrat all day makes one psychologically deviant.)
I will leave you cheeky people to ponder the implications of Cleary’s claim for the alleged moral instruction of children.