Allison's Book Bag

Bad Kids in Picture Books

Posted on: January 14, 2013

Earlier this month, I started writing about anti-heroes in books for young people. Bad kids aren’t necessarily anti-heroes, in that bad kids can change. All the same, this talk about anti-heroes did bring to my mind three picture books wherein the kids at least start out bad.

Cover of "Where the Wild Things Are"

Cover of Where the Wild Things Are

First, let’s start with the boys. Remember Max from Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak? One night he wears a wolf suit and makes mischief. We aren’t told in words but through the illustrations that Max hangs a clothesline in his room, which makes holes in his walls. He also chases the family dog. We are told in words, however, that Max is sent to his room without supper when he talks back to his mom. In the confines of his bedroom begins a wild adventure, where Max meets monsters who gnash their teeth, roll their eyes, and show their claws. There is no indication as they wave farewell to Max that the monsters ever change and so for all we know these wild beasts might still be scaring kids and threatening to eat them up. As for Max, he returns home where he finds his supper still waiting for him. Does he apologize to his mom? We’re never told. Sendak never moralised. Instead, Sendak graced children by writing about their dark fantasies.

How about Alexander from Alexander and the Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst? When Alexander wakes up with gum in his hair, trips on a skateboard while getting out of bed, and drops a sweater in the sink while the water is running, he could tell it was going to be a “terrible, no good, very bad day”. Don’t you just love that phrase? Just saying it makes my worst days feel just a little brighter. The rest of this picture book is about all the other misadventures that Alexander has, which make him want to move to Australia. As I reread Alexander now, I realize that in many ways he wasn’t all that bad. It’s not really Alexander’s fault if he sang too loud or left out the number sixteen when he counted. Yet if you pay attention, you’ll notice lines like “I hope you sit on a tack, Paul.” And you’ll also see that he punched Nick. He also refused to wear the plain old white shoes that he didn’t want but got stuck with because the blue ones were all sold out. Let’s also not forget the fact that due to all the bad stuff that was happening to him, he planned to run away. I love Alexander! He might not teach the grandest morals, but he says the things many of us feel inside when things don’t go our way.

Cover of "Eloise (Eloise Series)"

Cover of Eloise (Eloise Series)

Next, let’s turn to a girl. Remember Eloise, a creation of Kay Thompson and Hilary Knight? I discovered Eloise as an adult, which is probably not the best time, because it makes me difficult to appreciate her the way I might have as a child. Or maybe I wouldn’t ever have fallen in love with her, due to her unusual lifestyle. Eloise is a six, lives in the Plaza, and spends a lot of time taking care of herself. Her routine involves checking in with the desk clerk to hear the latest gossip, going to the mail desk to buy stamps, and visiting the house calls to see if anybody is in. It also involves making mischief in the lobby, which Eloise herself admits she does. For example, she edges into the middle of a full elevator and loses her skate key. She also spends a lot of time going up and down elevators. One gets the sense that parents don’t play much of a role in Eloise’s life. Perhaps, that’s why my heart is torn when I read Eloise. Part of me feels sad and outraged that the hotel staff know Eloise better than her own mom. At the same time, another part of me laughs at all her pranks and imaginative ways to have fun. In that Eloise doesn’t fit into our norms of what make perfect girls, and stays firmly true to herself, I’d label Eloise an ideal anti-hero.

My rating? Bag them: Carry them with you. Make them a top priority to read.

How would you rate these books?

What other picture books feature bad kids or anti-heroes? What do you think of them? What do you think of the ones I have featured?

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