An interesting email came in yesterday that started me thinking. The writer was either a teacher or parent. She wrote to say how much she enjoyed my books. Then she asked me to tell her which ones corresponded to a list of values that she provided.
The values were certainly the sort you would want all children to have. They included Courage, Honesty, Loyalty, Kindness, Compassion, Perseverance, among others. It was a rather long list. No problem there. The difficulty was attempting to match them with specific books.
I don’t work like that. I don’t set out to write a story about Honesty. I start with a story. First tell the tale. Then we’ll figure out what its values are. Or rather, I’ll leave that you and the children you’re sharing the book with. Because it’s not all cut and dried.
For example, Hershel in Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins is courageous, loyal, helpful, compassionate, devout. Nobody asks him to rid the village of the goblin plague. Nobody expects him to do it. He could have just as easily continued on his way. But he doesn’t. He knows that someone has to stand up to these bullying goblins sooner or later. It may as well be now. Hershel volunteers to do what he knows is right—and frankly ends up with more than he bargained for. That’s what makes the end so satisfying. Hershel has reached the end of his cleverness. It’s in God’s hands now.
“Master of the World, Thou who created the heavens and the earth, stand by me now.”
But Hershel is also tricky, devious, dishonest (playing dreidel with the Red Goblin). This raises a real moral issue for discussion. When facing a ruthless, powerful enemy, must you always be open, honest, forthright? When and under what circumstances is it permissible to bend the rules, assuming it is permissible at all? How far can you bend before you become what you’re fighting against? The Russian revolutionaries were sincerely dedicated to overthrowing tyranny and creating a better world for everyone. Noble goals. Except that in pursuit of those goals, they ended up creating a tyranny that was infinitely more cruel and repressive than the one it replaced.
A single word attached to a single book won’t suffice. Neither will a smiley face Sunday school 20 minute lesson. Teaching values requires more than going down a checklist and having children memorizing the right answers. Doing it right is far more complicated than most people realize.
So what did I do? I begged off from the question. I said that the writer would have to determine the values in the books herself. That shouldn’t be hard. Read the story and talk about it with the children. Which characters did the right thing? Which characters didn’t? Is it okay to bend the rules for a good purpose? What helps you decide how far to go?
That’s how you find the real values in books. And in life, too.