Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Messages in books

Quick note: I'll be chatting with other writers, and with readers who want to join in, about romance in YA at Eve's Fan Garden on Wednesday, June 22, at 8:30 PM Eastern (5:30 Pacific).

There's been a lot of discussion around the blogosphere about whether children's and YA books have, or should have, a message.

For me, this isn't a yes-or-no question. I would say that books don't have to have a message--for example, they could be pure entertainment--but I don't think it's out of the question either. And I'm not talking about being heavy-handed or didactic. I suppose that my idea of a "message" is what some people would just call a "point." I don't write any story just hoping that the reader will say, "Huh," and shrug and move on. I hope a reader says, "Yes!" or even, "No!" That he or she responds to some idea in the book, recognizes something that is true about the world. And maybe asks, "Should the world be this way?" But I think of the message as a natural outgrowth of the story.

I will also say that a writer is only responsible for this message up to a point, because something magical happens between reader and writer. Arguably, stories are jointly constructed between reader and writer. Writers often talk about letting go of their work, of losing ownership once it's out in the world (not in the legal sense, but in the spiritual or emotional sense). Readers don't always agree with one another about what the point of a book is; and they may find more or less of a message than the writer intended. They may find a message altogether different--or they may find nothing. Readers may say, "Huh," and shrug no matter what the author intended.

I believe this is one of the purposes of art: to highlight ideas. To show the world to one another in new and interesting ways--or in ways that simply allow us to recognize and share our common experiences. There isn't just one reason for writing a book, nor is there just one reason for reading it. And the complicated discussion about what art means to us is one of the joys of creating in the first place.


  1. What a wonderful post! I agree with you that a message should be a natural reaction or something the reader takes from a story. Definitely not something shoved down a reader's throat. And I think that when we, as authors, write with passion and purpose, there often is a message, although readers may take away different meanings and understandings depending how they process the writing and the story.

  2. Cynthia, you said it beautifully and more succinctly than I did. :-)