(Note: Originally posted at Teenreads.com)
In my latest novel, SAVING MADDIE, preacher’s son Joshua Wynn struggles with himself, his parents and his religion during his quest to “save” his one-time best friend, “bad girl” Madeline Smith. Because of the various themes of the novel, I always try to prepare myself for a wide variety of questions before a book event. But out of all the strange, unusual, and uncomfortable things I’m asked, there’s only one question that really makes me squirm:
What is the moral of your story?
Sometimes parents (and it’s almost always parents who ask this) will pose the question in different ways. What will my child learn from this book? Is this book educational, because that’s all I buy for my children? Of course, it’s never lost on me that the parent usually asking this is carrying the newest romance novel, with a strapping duke and buxom duchess plastered on the cover.
But back to the question about morals --- once the parent asks, I usually hem and haw for a few seconds, trying to come up with a good answer. Then I break down and lay the truth on her:
“I don’t know.”
After the parent picks her jaw up from the floor, I go on to explain. I don’t think it’s my place as a fiction author to force a moral on my readers. And given that I write for teens, that goes double. I believe it’s my job to put the information out there -- to create fully-developed, three-dimensional, slightly-flawed characters, and let my readers decide for themselves what is or isn’t “morally sound judgment.”
Now, notice that I’m not saying that my novels don’t have a moral; I’m just saying that I don’t know what it is. Because truth be told, I want my readers to think about all of these moral questions. In SAVING MADDIE, I want readers to wrestle with the question of whom exactly needs saving in the novel. Of who’s good, and who’s bad. And I want them to make their own decisions; their own conclusions. Just like Joshua, and just like Maddie.
I welcome my readers to be active participants in the author-reader relationship. I want them to feel invested and reach their own conclusions about the work. I want them to form an opinion about the plot, the characters, the theme -- everything. Because at the end of the day, the reader’s opinion is the only opinion that really matters.