Friday 5: Children’s Books…In Praise of Bad Children

Today’s Friday 5 comes from author Ann Banks, who has reviewed children’s books for the New York Times and Parents magazines. Ann has published seven books for children. Her journalism has appeared in many national magazines and newspapers, some of which are still in existence. She serves on the boards of the Writer’s Room, City Lore, and the Coney Island History Project.

I remember walking with my mother along the aisle of our local children’s bookstore as she looked for a gift suitable for her granddaughter.  “Aren’t there any books about good children?” she asked.  No, Mom, not so many. And for that we must thank Lewis Carroll, born 181 years ago on January 27. Until Alice in Wonderland, children’s literature in England was meant to instruct and improve. A typical fictional heroine was Little Goody Two Shoes, a nauseatingly virtuous orphan whose exemplary behavior children were meant to emulate.

Then along came Alice. Her curiosity and impetuousness trumped Victorian  propriety, and after her tumble down the rabbit hole, children’s literature would never be the same. Praiseworthy exemplars like Goody Two Shoes were upstaged by willful and unruly boys and girls (and hedgehogs and monkeys and hippos and elephants). Browse the children’s classics in any bookstore, and you’ll encounter characters who are stubborn, noisy, hot-headed, brash, messy, jealous of their siblings, mendacious, prone to extended sulks, cheeky and deliberately bad.

From this canon I have chosen five books for young children that are beloved in my household. The first on this list of great misbehavers  is the baddest cat of all, that unredeemed havoc-wreaker in The Cat in the Hat. Author Theodore Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) famously uses a vocabulary of only 236 mostly one-syllable words to paint a scene of utter chaos. Dropping in one rainy day to visit a couple of bored latchkey kids, the cat declares “I know some new tricks … I will show them to you. Your mother / Will not mind at all if I do.”  Abetted by his sidekicks, the run-amok Thing One and Thing Two, the Cat tears apart the house, and the children barely manage to get it cleaned up again before mom comes home.

My own favorite Dr. Seuss book was And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, where the hero’s rebellion is no less entertaining for being all in his head.  Marco is a small boy who likes a good story. So when his dad asks what he’s seen on Mulberry Street during his walk home from school, a plain old horse and wagon won’t do. Trade the wagon for a chariot and the horse for a zebra – then again, a Rajah atop an elephant is even more exciting, especially if the elephant is pulling a brass band. Throw in a police escort,  a top-hatted mayor in a reviewing stand, and an airplane dumping confetti – now there’s a tale. But since dad has already warned Marco about “turning minnows into whales,” he never shares his magnificent fancy.

One of the best things about William Steig’s terrific Spinky Sulks is that Spinky does not learn his lesson. Oh, they beg, his stupid family. But they have hurt his feelings big-time and he has wrapped himself in a hammock and gone on strike. Nothing moves him, neither tempting snacks nor groveling sibling apologies nor tender motherly kisses. “He wasn’t interested in kisses that came too late.”  The world was against him, and “no one seemed to understand that he had his own private thoughts and feelings that they couldn’t begin to appreciate.”  Spinky’s sulk goes on until her decides to end it on his own. “After that, Spinky’s family was much more careful about his feelings.” Mission accomplished.

Nora of Rosemary Wells’ Noisy Nora teaches her family a lesson too, but unlike Spinky, there’s nothing passive-aggressive in her style. A middle child (or middle mouse, to be precise), Nora is expected to wait while her mother burps the baby and her father plays chess with her older sister. Instead she acts out in earsplitting and very gratifying  ways — banging windows, slamming doors, dropping marbles, knocking over furniture. Finally: “I’m leaving!” shouted Nora, “And I’m never coming back!”  This gets her family’s attention at last and, like Spinky’s family, they come around to a new appreciation.

In Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, when Max is famously sent to bed without his supper, his imagination conjures terrible monsters, who are, however, easily tamed by staring at them. He leads them all in a wild rumpus until he tires of it and sends them off to bed without their supper.  As with Nora and Spinky, the book ends on a note of reconciliation. When Max returns from his  fantastic adventures, his own supper is waiting for him in his room – and it is still hot.

 Did we neglect your beloved children’s book? Tell us which ones in the comments!


  1. christine doudna says

    Hooray for Lewis Carroll, Maurice Sendak, and Ann Banks (and all the other writers she mentions). Great blog.
    And let’s hear it for Good Night Moon, Matilda, Pippi Longstocking, the Roald Dahl witches, and so many more… keep ’em coming, Ann!