A few weeks ago, as I was discussing a book with a group of kids at book club, one older child pointed out something with concern. The kids in the book were liars – and they lied not once, but repeatedly throughout the book. Although the story was fun and exciting, why did I choose a book where the main character was such a poor role model?
This isn’t the first time I’ve been asked this question, and I doubt it will be the last. And, yes – I am very picky about what my kids read. We shoot for a variety of literature styles, and we prefer to read books of quality, but I recommended this book to my children, and I would do it again.
- We are not perfect. Nobody is. Reading books about characters who are perfect and have no character flaws can create harmful comparisons in our children’s minds. I don’t want them to assume that they need to be perfect like Suzy from the last book that they read. On the other hand, neither do I want them to read about people who carelessly and selfishly live only for themselves. We search for books in which the reader will learn something: culture from the setting, spiritual or emotional lessons from the character’s growth. If the character’s major flaw is the problem in the story, we discuss why it is a problem. We discuss how that person grew from the experiences in the book and which choices s/he could have made differently and why. If the main character is a liar, as in this book, then we talk about why that person lied and what the better decision would have been, as well as what the Bible has to say about honesty and truth.
- The lie fit the book. The book in question was a modern fantasy. The plot is a bit outlandish because it’s meant to teach, not to be a realistic, contemporary emotional work. Because it was fantasy, the children found themselves in a completely un-realistic situation. They distance-traveled magically to another place. They lied to avoid detection and to blend in to their surroundings, which allows the plot to advance and the reader to continue to learn about the culture of that city. If the children had not lied, the police would have been called, the children discredited, and the story would’ve been over. The author had to allow the children to lie about their situation for the magical fantasy to continue. Will our children begin to lie because this character did? Since their pizza dinner won’t magically circumvent the space-time continuum and transport them to Italy, I don’t think so. In our club meeting, we discussed this, and so this lie not only moved the story along, but helped to teach our children about plot structure and writing strategies. Win-win.
- The lie was not central to the story. In many chapter books for very young readers, they assume things. Like that people can fly or that putting on a cape makes you invisible. They assume that it’s normal for a moose to come to school or for dogs to grow bigger than houses. Small children don’t question these things, but see them only as fun. In the book in question, the same scenario was happening: the lie was only a small detail in a story that assumed that certain foods allowed you to travel the world magically. The lie confirmed the assumption that the scenario was magical and allowed the plot to continue.
- Flawed characters teach us to evaluate people. From reading about these problematic people, we learn about how to look below the surface in the actions of the people around us. We learn look for their motives, for ways that we can be compassionate, for ways that we can help or ways to stay out of danger. We learn to discern between the good and the bad.
- It stretches our imagination. If we only read books about people who were exactly like us, we wouldn’t know much about the world around us – or other people. Jesus didn’t socialize only with believers, but with all kinds of people. Children are still children, and we do need to protect them from negative influences, but I don’t think a lie in a story should automatically move it to the ‘don’t read’ list.
- The world isn’t only black and white. Truth is black and white. God is black and white. How we follow those aren’t. My children can read about a lie and then discuss and evaluate it with me. It works for us. Maybe it doesn’t for you. We don’t all have to make the same choices when it comes to books and characters. The world would be pretty boring if we all read only the same few stories.
This book is fantastic. It made our children excited to cook and explore the world. They grew interested in trying new foods and experiment with flavor combinations. They wanted to learn about travel and European landmarks. They haven’t taken up lying.
The following books are all ones with lying characters – and great lessons to teach about survival, family relationships, and world culture. Do you allow your children to read any of these?