I took my first formal children's literature class in my final semester of undergrad. I went on to earn an MLIS in Youth Services, to work as a children's librarian, and finally to get an MA in English at one of the few schools in the country that treats the study of children's literature like a valid academic discipline. I know that while librarians and academics would like the general public to believe that they are unshockable and never clutch their pearls, in fact they do, all the time.
And nothing causes said pearl clutching more reliably than the mention of a (horrors) didactic book.
Didactic is a word that is regularly spat with scorn in the halls of academia and in the secret spaces of libraries, though it must be said, less so by those who regularly work with children.
Much of the history of children's literature to about the late 19th century can be summed up in that word: didactic. Meant to teach a lesson. Lewis Carroll references it in Alice:
It was all very well to say "drink me", "but I'll look first," said the wise little Alice, "and see whether the bottle's marked "poison" or not," for Alice had read several nice little stories about children that got burnt, and eaten up by wild beasts, and other unpleasant things, because they would not remember the simple rules their friends had given them, such as, that, if you get into the fire, it will burn you, and that, if you cut your finger very deeply with a knife, it generally bleeds, and she had never forgotten that, if you drink a bottle marked "poison", it is almost certain to disagree with you, sooner or later.
The example of books regularly held up as didactic in every one of these programs was that classic series The Berenstain Bears. Now, I loved The Berenstain Bears as a child. I reread them in high school when I was helping my mom put together thematic units for her kindergarten class, and I still loved them then.
But a well known risk of grad school is that it can turn you into an insufferable know-it-all. I began to sneer at didactic books, too.
Until I became a mother and my daughter had her own opinions, very early, about the books she liked. And until I learned that I could attempt without success to teach her various concepts all day every day, wasting my time and hers, or I could just read her a book about our current issue/phase, and she would get it immediately.
I began to feel a great deal more empathy for those mothers of the pre-child friendly past who needed to teach their children that fire will burn and knives will cut and poison will kill without actually having any of those things happen right in front of them.
When my daughter was nearly three, we moved across the country. I was looking for books about moving and discovered The Berenstain Bears' Moving Day, which was new to me. She and I stayed with my parents for two weeks while we were between houses. I rediscovered my old copies of The Berenstain Bears. She loved them. She still does. I loved them. They were fun. We both loved visiting the tree house down a sunny dirt road deep in Bear Country. In fact she loved them so much that now I have to keep steering her away from the newer ones, which, whatever you think about the evangelical takeover of the series, are clunkers to read. The quality of the illustration has also gone way downhill. The originals had, dare I say it, lessons AND literary quality.
In library services to children, we sometimes talk about putting "the right book in the hands of the right child at the right time."
Sometimes, that book is didactic.
*clutches pearls and faints*