This year has seen an influx of morally unassailable products. Environmentally sound packaging and recycled computer paper have attracted both attention and buyers. The latest example of this trend is children's literature. Marketed as stories for the entire family, these books more often serve to appease the moral conscience of adults than to entertain the children on whose shelves and bed tables they are deposited.
In the effort to relay a message of correct living to the youth of the nation, these books often become condescending and annoying. In their least innocuous form they are boring. In the light of their minimal literary worth, one must ask who is buying these books and why.
Children, too young to choose their reading for its character-building qualities, are unlikely purchasers. Instead one suspects that adults, feeling guilty about their lifestyles, are easing their conscience by pushing the burden of educating their kids upon the authors of children's books.
Two books which reveal the vast differences within today's children's literature are Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie and Loving the Earth: A Sacred Landscape Book for Children written by Fredric Lehrman, with illustrations by Lisa Tune. The first is notable for the success Rushdie achives in a difficult area. The second book is remarkably bad; irritating and uninspired, Loving the Earth's only redeeming quality is its illustration.
Haroun is the charming story of a young boy who lives in a land devoid of happiness, overrun by corrupt politicians and dirtied by smog. All the adults are serious and somber, and no one has enough "gift of gab" to tell stories except for Haroun's father. When the father loses this ability Haroun must help his father and several other adults regain their happiness. Among the various morals presented here: dishonest, power-hungry sad people are bad; national animosities are misfounded; and children should respect their elders.
Rushdie uses original, surprising and often quirky language to tell this story. And he does not present the moral in a heavy-handed manner. Haroun's only flaw is the shallowness of its characters, who while amusing have no developed personalities.
Loving the Earth, on the other hand, is a bomber, simplistic to the point of being moronic. This book attempts to present information about the environment in a comprehensible and appealing manner. Unfortunately, it does so without telling a story. The result is a handbook for the budding environmentalist which is both uninteresting and condescending.
Lines like, "Take a big breath. See how your chest fills up? That's the sky inside of you" join with suggestions to hug trees and to walk around lamps to understand what it is like for the earth to orbit the sun. Lehrman's explainations of natural phenomena are elementary even for a young child. This book is innane and authoritarian.
The illustrations are the only commendable aspect of the book. Although the mixture of photographs and watercolors is pleasing, this is not sufficient to attract audiences of all ages. Nor is Loving the Earth a book which a serious environmentalist would buy for his children because of the simplicity of the scientific and geological explainations.
While there's nothing wrong with instilling morals in children, the message should be intelligent. Beware of preachiness; you may end up with a book like Loving the Earth when you could have acquired Haroun instead.