I am not a fan of didactic novels, books with an agenda to teach vs. books that require readers to, oh, I don't know. Become one with the story, or something. Experience the story. I've probably mentioned this bias of mine here before.
But I've had to rethink the whole "didactic is bad" thing because of an essay I read at The Horn Book site. In The Campaign for Shiny Futures, Farah Mendlesohn has all kinds of fascinating things to say about YA science fiction. She describes Ender's Game as "the model of what child and teen SF readers want, yet it is not what
they were getting (or still get) within the pages of YA science fiction." She also says that Ender's Game is a didactic book that prizes information over emotion. Kids, she believes, want didactic books. But there is a lot of opposition to didactic books from people like me. By the time I finished reading Mendlesohn's points about didactism, I had to ask myself, "What is so bad about didactic books?"
A case in point: The Abominables by Eva Ibbotson. It's one of those odd, English children's books filled with stock English characters, lots of them not very nice in an over-the-top way. A hundred years ago, a spunky, upper class girl is kidnapped by a widowed yeti who needs help raising his children in their isolated home. The yeti are intelligent, speak, and have very long lifespans, and even young Lady Agatha lives long enough to see their mountain home become developed. Development, of course, is bad for mystical creatures. To save them from hunters, she enlists the aid of a young boy who she charges with transporting her yeti family to her ancestral home in England, where she believes they will be safe.
The yeti are innocent and good, large numbers of the humans they run into are not. The book is filled with humans who treat animals badly or hunt them down and kill them for sport. Children have to take things into their own hands. Though Prince Charles helps. I suspect this is one of the few works of fiction he's appeared in in anything approaching a positive way. There's some sly humor in this book, which explains Charles' very brief appearance.
As Mendlesohn writes, The Abominables probably wasn't called didactic in reviews because it's didactic in a way most of us like. Trophy hunters aren't popular in our culture, and they weren't long before poor Cecil the Lion caught one's eye. But even if people like me do insist on calling The Abominables didactic, why is didactic a bad thing? If child readers like didactic books (I was fond of Louis May Alcott when I was a girl. I've got my doubts about her now.), what's wrong with letting them have them?
On the other hand, do we let children have everything they want? I'm at a loss on this one, folks. When I was a teenager, I read that "Propaganda doesn't serve literature." What is didactic literature but propaganda, even if it's propaganda we believe to be valuable, such as "Don't kill animals you can't eat."
Hmm. But I got to read and enjoy didactic books before that point.