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Why so much morality ?

June 21, 2017

 

The Original French Version HERE - The English version has been translated by Jon-Michael McLean

 

 

 

 « The moral of this story is… » How many tales, how many fables of ancient times draw to an end with such a conclusion ? Only those from long ago ? Still today, it could very well be that morality remains present, although less visible, in French children's books.

 

Literature for children, that is to say, literature specifically conceived to be addressed to children, was first developed at the heart of the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, through instruction, and was spread by institutions, private tutors, governesses… It is therefore very intertwined with school books and pedagogical materials. Now, fables play a central role, for in them lies the model, as the lesson one can draw from a situation is explicitly formulated. During the course of the 19th century, little moral stories met with great success. They are short tales aiming to transmit the principles of proper conduct and ideal values, through the representation of everyday life situations focusing on the dangers of inappropriate child behaviour and are thus designed, in their conclusion, to celebrate virtue.

 

This intermeshing of children's books and moral conclusions thrived, then attenuated in novels and narrative picture books, but has very certainly left a lasting mark on these different genres of publications for children.

 

So what about today then ? I have many times been surprised at hearing young students, not yet acquainted with contemporary literature for children, apprehend picture books with expectation of a delivered moral. As if it were a fact anchored in our culture that children's books should forevermore be destined to deliver a virtuous message. Without a doubt, fortune in the tales of Perrault and in the fables of De La Fontaine, studied in every school establishment, have widely made a mark on minds. And I have been able to observe that numerous very commercial publications, quickly and poorly created, still make use of little moral conclusions, like a rigorously inescapable code of the genre.

 

And in the publication of creations ? The narrative outline of little 19th century style stories and of fables has clearly fallen out of use, summoned only episodically for caricatures. Yet, quite a few picture books, still today, display the obvious goal of pulling the child towards virtuous behaviour. Moreover, the values which underlie such projects no longer belong to a conservative register, as was the case in the past. But other values have replaced them, belonging to a progressive register : good citizen behaviour, respect for others, for nature and animals, etc. Many modern picture books wish, under the guise of fiction, to influence children with the transcendent vision of adults which dictates what is good for them. The debate continues as to whether or not this is morality. However, it is true that French children's books have remained marked by their educative anchorage and that the emancipation from this original pattern, despite appearances, remains to be clarified.  

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