What Does It Want Me to Want? The Message of Children’s Books (and Any Books)

Do children’s books help create little consumers to want more and more stuff from the earliest age? Recent research by Rachel Franz investigates children’s books, their storyline and pictures, to see whether they influence kids toward a consumer lifestyle, to believing that having more toys means happiness or approval or more friends.

Franz admits she expected to find a heavily pro-consumer message, but instead encountered something more mixed. But what I think is especially worthwhile is her starting point, the recognition that stories shape us.

Every book we read, every movie we watch, every song we hear, has an implicit purpose. The stories they tell do more than just entertain. They paint a picture of how the world works, what it’s like, the way things are, and the way they’re supposed to be.

Most of the time, all of this is indirect; in fact, it’s likely not even on the mind of the author, or director, or band. But it’s there nonetheless, and in some ways, it’s all the more powerful for it. We get a picture of the good life but as a side-long glance.

Alan Jacobs recommends that for each book we read (and we might add each movie we watch, each song we hear, etc.), we ask this question, “What does it want me to want?” What a great question. What is the vision of the good life here? What am I being enticed to desire? Don’t be passive and simply let the story shape you. Question it and examine it, and fight back if necessary.

Sticking with children’s books, one obvious theme is how siblings relate. Does a book give a picture that makes a kid want to love and serve their siblings or avoid them and think that fighting is fine and normal? Harry and the Dinosaurs is a series in the UK which we initially read, but eventually discarded, because every book had some conflict between Harry and his sister, where both of them acted selfishly, and the implicit message was that was fine and normal and even funny.

In contrast, I’ve always appreciated Charlie and Lola, precisely because the brother and sister genuinely love each other, and the older brother Charlie looks out for his sister. It’s not usually the main focus of the book, but it’s consistent in the background, which makes it all the more potent.

This isn’t to put any of us under the pile. You may be thinking, “Hey, we actually turned off the TV and read a book. That’s an achievement. And now you want me to be picky and have to screen what books I’m reading my kids?” I don’t want to create a huge burden on us. I’m saying that we should think about the books we read our kids or to ourselves, and the TV shows, and everything else, to see what they teach us to want.

How do we get better at this? We need to practice. Shameless plug alert (actually two). Talking Pictures (not too late to sign up) is a great way to learn to watch a movie and then reflect on what it means. Come tonight, and as you watch “Lincoln,” ask yourself, “What does this movie want me to want?” And then discuss it afterwards. And if you want still more examples, I know of this helpful book . . .

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