[Role Models and Peers]

7:30 AM

With children’s books, there are generally two categories in which the characters fall: Role Model or Peer. Role Models loom rather larger than life; they usually have no personal flaws—or just benign or imaginary; and they are helpless and patient in their affliction or active and brave in the hour of need. The thing you remember most about them is their good attributes. They are inspirational.

Peers are about the stark opposite. Their stories center on their faults, their contrived problems, their conflicts with other people. These are modern, more psychologically-driven stories and center on outcasts, perverts and “average schoolkids.” They are designed to resonate with their young audiences—perhaps to challenge but more often than not to commiserate.

One might try to argue that Role Models are unrealistic and Peers are realistic and thus more beneficial to children—don’t buy that. Both are unrealistic. Both have pros and cons.

With Role Models, many parents feel safe leaving their children—no worries about bad attitudes, foul language or anything outside their comfort zone. Parents should not feel guilty or narrow-minded about offering these books—especially to younger children.

The downside of Role Models is that the stories tend towards moralism and the Role Models themselves are flat, with no character development. True literature must operate with round characters, for literature is heavily involved in analyzing good and evil. Characters—real characters—deal with sin. If the extent of a child’s experience is with trite, moralistic characters only, he misses out on grappling with subtle messages, sticky situations and applying Biblical truth—all in a controlled environment. This is an overly simplistic view of life and literature.

On the other end of the spectrum, Peers tote that they understand life, that they shy not away from the risqué, that they develop broad-minded readers. They have the floor on “literary” children’s fiction—take a peek at the recent Newbery Award winners. And they do have a point that they deal with heavier, “more realistic” issues. They aren’t afraid of addressing sin; but they do have problems calling it by name.
My main beef with Peers is that they load down innocent minds with the weight of the world and forget that children are flexible: they are molded, and not yet firm enough to mold. Along with this real problem, Peers do not necessarily provide a “real-life,” relevant buddy for their readers. Children are usually not as introspective, philosophical, narcissic and pessimistic as the heroes of Peers’ books usually are. Children will always retain a sense of innocence and ignorance. A constant stream of depressed pre-teens fits the culture’s idear of childhood, not reality. This kind of fiction does not alleviate the world of its burdens nor inspire children to combat evil. It makes them complacent and overly familiar with things they ought to grapple with.

That said, a careful balance of books is needed. Healthy dealance of Peers will stretch a child—but the idea is stretching, not breaking. Similarly Role Models must be a means of building, not bricking in. But when the rubber meets the road, I’d rather err on the side of caution and be called a prude.

Role Models:

Elsie Dinsmore series
• books by G. A. Henty
• almost anything published before the mid-1900s


• Newbery Medal winners
Bridge to Terabitha
Jacob Have I Loved
• almost anything “notable” published from 1960s onward

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11 impressions

  1. Bailey:
    First of all, I want to say that I very much enjoy reading your blog. I have been following it for about a year, and have been only pleased and impressed. Thank you for your bold writing.
    I wish to ask a favour of you: would you consider writing a review of one of my e-books? There are three short stories (under ten pages each) available for free download at http://sixdahls.com/devin/e-books.html
    If you would write a review of any one of them, I would greatly appreciate it.
    In return, I will link to your blog from mine; and I will probably re-post the review on my own blog with links back to yours.
    Thank you!
    --Rachel Devin

  2. When I read a book, I always try to get into the book. It sounds easier with Peers but in my experience it's harder. For example, the book "Speak". The main character is so self-absorbed that I don't want to get within a hundred miles of her.

    Next, what are the other categories. I don't see how Don Quixote or The Lord of the Rings fit into these categories. Maybe you can see it, but I think there are more categories.

    Finally, I love this blog, young lady you are so informative.

  3. I'm enjoying this series on literature! Discerning themes and characters in books is so important. Could you (or challenge to your readers) keep adding to the list of Role Models/Peers, New Child, etc. as you come across them?

  4. I am enjoying your series of posts on children's literature very much. My daughter, like my husband and myself, is a voracious reader. Each of these posts has prompted me to think about what my daughter reads and look at the books through a different lens.

    Have you read the Penderwicks series by Jeanne Birdsall? These are modern books about four sisters and I think they might provide a nice balance between "peers" and "role models". The girls all have distinct personalities and they are well-rounded, dynamic characters with strengths and flaws. However they are not depressed or overly narcissistic. They generally respect their father and when they misbehave or rebel they usually learn that this was not a good choice in the end. I like that these books offer multiple interesting female characters for my daughter to relate to. The books are not violent, dark, or risque, but most importantly, my daughter loves them.


  5. Rachel -- I just read one of your e-books and it reminded me so much of the stories my sister tells us when it's midnight and we're supposed to be sleeping. I'd be honored to review one of your e-books, though I'm not sure when I'll be able to do that. I'll try for the end of June. Sounds good?

    Jacob -- If I wasn't so doubtful, I'd swear you're the Jacob who's going to beat me at reading Don Quixote this week.

    Self-absorbed girls are miserable. (Try being one.) That's the mistake I think many authors make nowadays -- this deep, introspective, pessimistic youth is somehow "relating" to the woes of growing up, when most kids don't go through what the girl in Speak does or Jacob Have I Loved or any other number of depressing peeks into "reality." Not to say that it's not interesting to try to relate to other people's lives...it's just not necessarily reality. And what drives me nuts is that authors forget that happiness, joy and love are all parts of reality too, something that's totally absent in many Peer-driven books.

    The other category is anything that isn't a Peer or Role Model. :P Just kidding. You're right -- there are many other categories; I was just picking two, and many times they overlap. And the best literary characters avoids falling into categories at all (Emma, Jane Eyre...).

    (IMHO, Don Quixote and satirical characters like him are just ridiculous characters meant to show how dexterous their author is with wit and words. That's why I adore them.)

    Finally, thank you, sir. I try to be informative.

    Mama -- I'll definitely do that, and my dear followers are already doing a great job at that. :o)

    Adele -- I am going to pick up that series at the library. It sounds wonderful, especially the addition of unique girl characters. Thank you for the suggestion!

  6. Elsie Dinsmore is definitely a role model---one of the best I have come across. But you're right, she really has no character flaws, at least not in the later books when she is an adult. I started losing interest in her because of that. But I loved the first two in the series. I think those are the best ones.

  7. Hi Adele!
    I love the Penderwick books (even though I'm 17, I suppose I'm an exception to the rule ;-), especially the first one. They are such SWEET, endearing stories, especially the first one; exactly the sort of books I'd like to write if I could. =)
    The thing I dislike the most about the series are the crushes the girls get. (In the first book 12-year-old Rosalind has a crush on an 18-year-old.) I'm not saying this isn't something girls sometimes struggle with (I sure have!), just that the books didn't really need that. The girls also could have worked through their crushes in a better way.
    However, other than that, I am a big fan of the first Penderwick book for sure. It's so fun! =) I agree with your assessment of the books - the girls do seem well-rounded, respectful, an interesting.
    Just my thoughts. =)

  8. Bailey,

    I think you completely malign Don Quixote de la Mancha. Not intentionally, but through ignorance. Don Quixote de la Mancha is the Idealist. He lives his dreams.

    Every man, I have ever met, had dreams. The things they would do, if reality would just permit them. Most never do them, they are only, ever, just dreams. The Idealist does not allow reality to prevent him from achieving his dreams.

    Almost every good knight and gentleman in fiction qualifies as an Idealist. They have escaped reality to the point that they can live by their personal ideals.

    Reality is nobody has personal ideals. Ideals are established by the community.


    Most people refer to the Idealist as the Escapist. The Lord of the Rings and such are actually called "escapist literature" for this reason.

    The Lord of the Rings is about a group of Idealists seeking to change the world in the face of hopeless reality.

    And they win. Every Idealist that remains an Idealist wins. Only those, whom reality overwhelms, lose.


    Sorry about the bad grammar.

  9. Tragedy101, you have excellent grammar, actually.

    I'm reading Don Quixote right now (almost literally right now) -- on chapter thirty-something, right when Cardenio, the madman in the mountains, finishes telling his tale. I think you're right about Idealists (you just created another category) -- I'd just add that Don Quixote wouldn't really fit into that category, at least in my opinion. Cervantes wrote the entire book to make fun of the chivalric ideals Don Quixote ran after. I suppose he could be an Idealist, if we divorced him from his author's intent, but if that is Idealism, than his Idealism borders on delusion, what with realeasing condemned criminals (who later steal from him) and banging his head on rocks for want of a lady who might possibly scorn him and the classic case of charging windmills.

    In LOTR, though, you hit the mark. LOTR, I think, isn't escapist literature, and anyone who says so doesn't understand good literature from bad. It has so much of humanity, both good and bad, that to escape to it is to look reality full in the face. Reality, not in what actually is but what it could be if men were brave enough to believe in it.

    What I love most about your comment is that it got me thinking: I'm such the cynic and pessimist, normally, and feel uncomfortable commiting myself to being an Idealist, to being someone who lives her dreams and who holds to something beyond the humdrum here-and-now. I'm glad that you, at least, recognize the importance of dreams and ideals and of the men who pursue them.

    By the way, I didn't mean to quarrel with you on DQ: it's just that I love discussing what I'm currently reading and I didn't want someone to malign your definition of Idealism because of Cervantes's satire. But you of course are certainly allowed to disagree with me if you think DQ still falls in the Idealist category. :o)

    Thanks for commenting. You add a lot to these blog discussions, and I'm grateful for that.

  10. Miss Bailey,

    You are correct about Cervantes and Don Quixote.

    Thank you, for setting my thoughts straight on this matter.


  11. Hi Julie,

    I was really happy to read your comment! I was a little worried that Bailey might not enjoy the series if she did seek it out because she is so much older than my daughter (who is 10 - almost 11), so it is good to hear that at least one 17-year-old likes them too. I too was a tiny bit concerned that the object of Rosalind's crush in the first book was so much older, but as you say, this is realistic and I think it was always pretty clear that there was no possibility of it ever becoming anything more than a crush. Not so clear to Rosalind I guess, but clear to me and my daughter just told me it was pretty clear to her as well, so I am not bothered as much by that now.



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