Picture books and Messages

I picked up an old (1969) picture book at a garage sale the other day: The Big Dog and the Very Little Cat, by Helen Hoke. The black and white illustrations, by Diana Thorne, were lovely. But when I read the full book, I found it unbelievably depressing.

The story is that the big old dog isn't very happy about 'Grandmother' adopting a small kitten, who is of course curious and playful. Finally the dog resorts to carrying her outside and leaving her in the snow till she's nearly dead, and even dropping her out the window.

You think you know what's going to happen, don't you? The dog will cheer up and learn to love the kitten with her playful ways; the last picture will show the tiny kitten snuggled up against the huge dog...

You'd be wrong. The cranky old dog wins. The kitten learns to stay out of his way, so the final page is Grandmother commenting, "...she doesn't play much at all,..."
The message is strong, and quite horrible:"Don't be curious, don't be playful, don't try to make friends, because you'll just get it beaten out of you." 

The thought of messages and morals in books  makes me cringe, and I always deny that I plan  "A Message" in my books. However  this book made me realise that all stories have some type of message – and that means that, especially in picture books for very young children, we have a responsibility to step back from our manuscript and think objectively about what this story is saying. Not to work out a neat way of telling children to be good, obey their parents, or work hard at school, but just being aware of, and  responsible for, what we're imparting.