Monday, October 22, 2012

The "D" Word

Picture books are often rejected for being "overly didactic." This is a word that gets thrown around a lot by agent-and-editor types, and I know if you aren't familiar, it might sound sort of harsh and insulting (particularly since, as I said, it is normally coupled with a rejection) -- so just what does it mean when an editor or an agent says Didactic?

It isn't meant as an insult. Didactic just means "intending to teach a lesson." (The word is also kin with "moralistic" - which is of course "intending to teach a MORAL lesson.") These words can have a negative connotation (like if I were to say "my neighbor came over and hollered at me for playing rock music instead of hymns - what a moralistic jerk")... but neither of them is inherently a negative word.

They are just negative words to an agent or editor because they are so very rarely are used in the same breath as "HOT!" "HILARIOUS!" "WOW!" or "AWESOME!"

Many stories are meant to be didactic or moralistic. Fables are meant to teach a lesson (and in fact that lesson or moral is very clearly spelled out at the end!) Some nursery stories, rhymes and famous old tales are meant to teach a specific lesson. Some sorts of modern "issue books" (like HANDS ARE NOT FOR HITTING or HEATHER HAS TWO MOMMIES or DOG HEAVEN or MIND YOUR MANNERS, BB WOLF or even EVERYBODY POOPS) are meant to leave the audience with a specific message at the end. Some of these books are so successful at their job that they are at this point classics and will be found in nearly every bookstore or library, and stay in print for ages.

These stories definitely have their place.

That "place" is usually one shelf in the bookstore or library. Probably labeled "special issues." 

While the demand for them might be consistent, it is also comparatively rather small, which means they can be tough to sell unless they are REALLY well done, and the advances may be on the low side. The exception might be for a book by a well-established author or illustrator, or something featuring an already popular character, or on a "hot topic" possibly that can break it out of niche-ville... but I digress. The point is, because the market for them is limited, I believe very few (if any) agents would ever say that they are ACTIVELY SEEKING didactic picture book texts.

So if agents aren't looking for "teachy" -- what ARE they looking for?

Stories that are intended to entertain and delight first and foremost. Punchy, funny, warm-hearted texts, preferably featuring a great, kid-friendly main character. If funny isn't your thing, hopefully you've mastered beautifully spare and elegant writing. (Even straight-up nonfiction should be a joy and a pleasure to read!)

Hey, if the character has some entertaining experience and happens to learn a lesson or two organically along the way, fine, but the book should be about the EXPERIENCE -- if the resulting lessons overpower the story, that's a problem.

And if your query SAYS the book "is meant to teach a lesson about ______", that's a huge red flag that signals amateur.


  1. Yeah, you gotta be clever and funny in your didacticism. The thing is, punchy, warm-hearted or funny texts carry messages, too. They're teachy. They're didactic. They're not necessarily SEEN that way because the message is "the norm". Case in point: dressing up like Indians at Halloween? That, in my view, is an organic way for the dominant power structure to retain its power, and its ability to dehumanize American Indians.

  2. Didactic = Dejection... :(
    {D words are fun to play with. Sorry to be Distracting.}

  3. Anonymous10:04 AM

    I love today's post, Jennifer. I was talking with a new writer this weekend about didactic. He asked, "What happened to the books I love as a kid? Why isn't anyone publishing books like that anymore?" Which led to the question, "Would a series like Berenstain Bears be published today?" Now THOSE are didactic books (the lessons are even in the titles! "Pressure", "The In-Crowd", etc.), but kids still love them today. What's changed? Wouldn't you also put someone else (especially an adult) solving a character's problem in the same no-no category?

    1. I was thinking of Berenstain Bears too. Oh, how my husband and I hated reading them for their banal prose and hit-you-over-the head obvious lessons. Oh, how both our kids loved to hear them again and again. Made me think that kids find those "lessons" reassuring.

      In MG, there are brilliant writers who teach so subtly you don't even know what you're learning. E.L. Konigsburg comes to mind. She somehow brings Savanorola into a contemporary story about -- among many other things -- a vending cart battle. (and that's just one example!)

    2. Oh I definitely know B-Bears is big for kids - still sells like crazy (and I personally remember LOOOOVING them as a kid). There is always going to be a place for this kind of preachy stuff. But the thing is... it exists already, you know? That is the kind of stuff that publishers churn out in their "merch" catalog -- mass market paperbacks, e-z readers, lessony books, books they sell in a bin in the supermarket... often written by editorial assistants under false names. There's nothing WRONG with these books per se, but they are not exactly art, and they aren't the sort of books that agents often rep.

  4. Entertain and delight, definitely! FUN! Enjoyable. Lessons are so bleh.

  5. I took a children's book writing class with a person near me known for her expertise with PB. The don't be preachy part seemed so obvious when she reminded us that kids are constantly told what to do, when to do it, and what not to do. They have little power in and over their lives. I liked that she reminded us that the PB should give the protagonist power. Using what you've described, I'd say the lessons may be there, but do it through the experience that give the protagonist power.

  6. Debra, I soooo agree with your blogpost! I wonder if we are talking of the same person, or if not, then even more reason to believe what is being said...Newbery Honor Winner, Marion Dane Bauer, gave an incredible teleseminar with Writing for Children Live on picture book writing and said the same thing!!!! Such great advice Jennifer!!!!!


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