Allegorically Speaking

I spend a lot of time reading and working with children’s books. I love books of all kinds, but I find a particular magic in a lot of books for kids that is often missing in books for adults. There are exceptions in both directions, of course.

One of the things I have always had a serious problem with, however, is the idea that books for children must teach something and that what it teaches can be designed in. There are so many problems with this, but the adult world seems to persist in the idea.

The most glaring problem to me is that different readers take away different things from the same source all the time. Everyone learns something from every piece of media they encounter, from a billboard to a classic novel. What they learn, however, is specific to them. This isn’t to say that a writer can’t hope that readers find specific messages or don’t find specific lessons in their work, but it does mean that you can never guarantee it. And if you are trying to, the work is likely not actually that interesting. (Again, there are exceptions, but when was the last time you read a really interesting book about the virtues of brushing your teeth?)

One of the most subtle ways people try to teach lessons in books is through allegory. Sometimes this works, but unless your allegory is so painfully obvious and spelled out that nobody can miss it, many readers simply won’t notice. How many people actually get the religious allegories of Narnia when they read them as a kid? I’m guessing not very many. I certainly didn’t, despite having all the background and knowledge of the stories to have made it likely I would see it! Allegory is a dicey thing and can be used to beautiful effect, but can also fall pretty flat. Sometimes beautiful things come out of it (like Narnia), but other times it’s just not a great way to teach lessons.

Allegories can reveal fascinating things about the stories and messages we are working with, though. There is definitely value to a beautifully crafted allegory and even to a less beautifully crafted one that reveals something insightful about the creator and their relationship with the source message.

What I wish, is that we’d stop worrying so much about what lessons we are teaching and pay more attention to what lessons readers of all ages are learning – it can be surprising how much they don’t match!

For some eloquent discussion of the difficulties with allegorical stories, I recommend Roger Sutton’s editorial from the November/December 2019 edition of The Horn Book.

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