4 min read

Every Story Has a Message

Every Story Has a Message

I recently attended, in livestream mode, The Hollywood Climate Summit. It was four days of presentations about integrating climate change into Hollywood storytelling. I was excited to see that, at least in Hollywood, some people understand the promise of creating climate action through great stories. Of course, there are opposing ideas about how to effectively do this. Many feel you need to smuggle climate content into the script to avoid sounding message-y.

I was quite pleased that an opposite viewpoint was discussed—one that encourages a direct approach to incorporating climate content. Isabel González Whitaker, from the Environmental Defense Fund’s Moms Clean Air Force, said in the session called NextGen Viewers: Communicating Climate in Children’s Media

Isabel González Whitaker
“It doesn't need to be packaged and disguised anymore. Children are talking about this all the time. I mean, my son who is 11 gets air quality alerts on his phone, right? There is no disguising this, and there's no need to, and in fact it does more harm when you try to essentially suppress the real narrative as you're trying to normalize this necessity for adaptation…. They want information. They want to know how to act. They want to be seen, and they want and are open to learning more. It does not need to be smuggled in.”


If I could have contributed to that panel discussion, I would have added this: When it comes to identifying which stories are message-y stories and which ones are not, it all depends on your perspective. For years, I have cringed at the good guys versus bad guys stories that others love because I see the message it delivers—killing/defeating the bad guys is the only way to solve the problem. I have been trying to point this out for a very long time because when I began writing pro-social stories for children decades ago, my stories were tagged with the message story label.

There is a cultural bias against stories that break the mold and don’t resort to familiar scenarios and plots. These stories are called didactic by reviewers who are blind to one simple fact: Every story has a message.

No matter the story, just by being a story, it will convey a message. The message could be positive, negative, shallow, or deep.

Even the most commercial of stories express a viewpoint that may go unnoticed as we absorb the story. These stories convey cultural standards, lifestyle choices, or strategies to solve conflicts. Often the messages are negative, laced with violence and revenge, but we classify those as fun entertainment. On the other hand, stories that use a different path to solving conflicts or reach for socially positive resolutions are labeled preachy as mine have sometimes been. Isn’t it time that we examine this double standard? All stories preach some message, good or bad, and we need to be aware of the messages we consume, especially in stories for impressionable young people.

As an example, my picture book Dragon Soup received a review in the June 1996 School Library Journal by Jerry D. Flack from the University of Colorado, who began with:

 “The problem with “message” stories is that they too often substitute sermons for stories.”

He ended with:

 “Conflict resolution in real places, and especially in a violent society, is admirable, but when dragons are in the tale, most kids are going to want a more robust and exciting story that is considerably less transparent in its aims.”

I am sure that Flack would have cheered if my dragons had been beheaded—dragons are the villains, right? Instead, my protagonist in Dragon Soup faced powerful, threatening dragons but found a clever way to defuse her peril and resolve the conflict without violence. Despite Flack's scathing review, the book went on to national success, winning several awards:

1996 Best Picture Book, Society of School Librarians International
 1996 Notable Book for Children, Smithsonian
 1997 Children's Choices, International Reading Association & Children's Book Council
 Honor Award, Skipping Stones Magazine

It always amused me over the years that Flack claimed to know what children wanted from their dragons. He was wrong. Parents and librarians told me during school visits how a copy of my book had become dog-eared from repeated readings by children in their school or their home. I had a kindergarten teacher tell me she was astounded by how captivated her very young students were when she read this rather long book aloud to them. Instead of being fidgety, they were spellbound.

St. George Fighting the Dragon by Leonhard Beck

Unfortunately, the Jerry Flack’s of the world are many and they demand the old style of tale because its sermon is familiar—dragons are the bad guys and the good guy always wins. Those commercial shoot-em-up, kill-the-bad-guy stories will always be around. They are born in ancient myths. They prey upon our base instinct for vengeance. I do believe this is why dystopian stories are more popular choices for writers in climate storytelling. Dystopian plots are anchored in the old trope of the heroes journey and vanquishing the bad guys.

As someone who has worked to craft an alternate type of story, I know the many obstacles that face more constructive, direct climate narratives, but they can still be great stories. We need to write them, advocate for them, and point out the blatant, often negative, climate messages hidden within existing commercial storytelling—ones that prioritize the pursuit of profit and personal wealth over nature and communities, ones that promote happiness through the accumulation of more stuff and flaunt excess consumption in the form of gas guzzling SUVs, McMansions, luxurious travel, and fast fashion. Climate stories can break through in Hollywood, and book publishing too, if we remind the producers and the audiences who consume climate narratives that every single story has a message.