Poetic justice — or the punishment of characters who do wrong might be one solid difference between stories ‘for children’ versus ‘for adults’. Here is the creator of BoJack Horseman, a cartoon for adults, on the concept of punishment in storytelling:
Like, narrative in general — I think it’s conditioned us to believe that if we are good we will be rewarded, and if we have good intentions, that will lead to good actions. And if we are true and brave and loyal and kind, then things will work out.
I’m interested in the ramifications of believing in that. And I think that’s another reason why Hollywood is interesting, certainly for me because the show is about how the people who create these stories are the people who are affected by these stories.
In recent years educators and parenting experts have started telling us that punishment doesn’t work when it comes to modifying children’s behaviour. Techniques around behaviour modification change from one generation to the next and is of course mirrored in children’s literature.
[Characters] are our avatars and thus our entry point: they are the ones we most want to win or to find redemption — or indeed be punished if they’ve transgressed, for subconsciously we can be deeply masochistic in our desires. Effectively they’re us.
— John Yorke, Into The Woods
I think you like to see somebody behaving badly because you know you can’t really do that. And you also like to see somebody punished for behaving badly,” he says. “My books are not morality tales but they allow kids to see their own lives through this character; what could happen if they made certain choices.”
— Jeff Kinney, Diary Of A Wimpy Kid
If you enjoy spending your one precious life reading one-star reviews of picturebooks on Goodreads, say, you may have noticed a few similarities in the types of books that get parents all riled up. One of those things:
The baddie does not get punished. He gets away scot free! This is a very bad example to children, who will learn from this story that doing bad things is okay.
Parents only have a problem with unpunished heroes, however. If the young reader is asked to identify with a character and that character is basically an asshole, and nothing
So, given that the readers of picturebooks are very young, and that picturebooks are very often read right before bed, children’s authors do not have the extensive fallbacks of:
- Community service
- Bodily harm
- Serious injury
- Torture followed by death
at their disposal.
But what if picturebook authors would like to somehow punish their baddies, in this culture where retribution feels increasingly outdated? (Scandinavian prisons are not about retribution; they’re about care and reform, and we all know we should by running the world like the Scandinavians.)
Here are a few case studies from picturebooks which have sold really well.
Spoiler alert, obv.
SOLUTION ONE: FORCE AN EVIL CHARACTER TO EAT SOMETHING DISGUSTING
Julia Donaldson knows just how to punish her baddies, avoiding the criticism of immorality, but without going too far. Donaldson is indeed a master of knowing what will be sell well.
The Highway Rat ends up being lured into a cave where, in a plot similar to that in the classic Chicken Licken. Emerging on the other side of the cave, somehow unable to return to his hunting ground, this baddie is forced to spend the rest of his life sweeping up the floor of a bakery, eating nothing but crumbs off the floor.
If this were a human character, this would perhaps seem over the top, because it’s basically indentured labour, after all. But for a rat, that’s a kind of heaven, isn’t it? The ick factor comes from the fact that the rat is forced to eat leftovers, and the real punishment is that he has dropped in the social hierarchy.
Carolyn Daniels describes a different rat in a different story — Templeton, a character in Charlotte’s Web, in which E.B. White describes the food at the fair in such a way as to sound both appetizing to the rat character but nevertheless disgusting to the child reader:
In human culture…leftover partially eaten food scraps are generally classed as non-food. Charlotte’s Web contains a range of eaters, two of whom eat leftovers. However, because of the way these particular leftovers are classified, the eaters are characterized very differently.
Templeton, the rat, is a self-confessed “glutton” who loves leftovers. He is lured to the fair (where his services in fetching and carrying “words” for Charlotte to weave into her web are required) by the promise of rich pickings. The old sheep temptingly describes the fair as “a rat’s paradise”.
Everybody spills food at a fair…you will find old discarded lunch boxes containing the foul remains of peanut butter sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, cracker crumbs, bits of doughnuts, and particles of cheese…a veritable treasure of popcorn fragments, frozen custard dribblings, candied apples abandoned by tired children, sugar fluff crystals, salted almonds, popsicles, partially gnawed ice cream cones, and the wooden sticks of lollypops. Everywhere is loot for a rat…why, a fair has enough disgusting left-over food to satisfy a whole army of rats.
Here there are repeated inferences of impurity, suggestions of dirt and pollution, of excess, and even of abject body fluids. In particular the image of “candied apples abandoned by tired children” suggests something is half-eaten, excessively handled, with the grubby residue of a satiated child adhering to its sticky surface.
— Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature
Daniels explains that when characters eat dropped/disgusting/leftover/contaminated food, this means that they themselves embody those things. A character who eats something disgusting becomes disgusting.
In The Highway Rat, you’ve therefore got a character who becomes bad because he does bad things. Bad is as bad does, kinda thing.
You may have noticed that Wilbur the pig also eats disgusting human leftovers, but he’s a good guy. The difference is, Wilbur is eating things that have been coded as ‘slops’. He is supposed to eat those things. Wilbur’s goodness is underscored when he refuses food because he’s too upset to eat. Baddie rats, on the other hand, take food even when they’ve been gorging. Indeed, this is the set-up in The Highway Rat, where we have a baddie who steals even the food he himself cannot digest (e.g. clover).
SOLUTION TWO: GIVE THE BADDY A BIG FRIGHT
Using a clever, setting-specific variation on the totem-pole trench trope, the empathetic characters in this story all
gang up work together to defeat the baddie, who is sent running.
SOLUTION THREE: A NON-INJURIOUS CALAMITY
It’s not enough to just give the baddie a minor injury and call it a day. The masterful thing about the plot in Pig the Pug is that the mountain of toys Pig piles up to avoid sharing with Trevor is a metaphor for his greed. When the pile of toys collapses, so does his status as top dog of the household. On the final page we see Pig so fully covered in bandages that it’s comical rather than tragic (much like a certain scene in Office Space).
In other words, you can injure your picture book baddie, as long as it’s comical, and as long as the injury is not caused by the empathetic character.
SOLUTION FOUR: KILL THE BADDY
Think you can’t murder your picturebook baddie and still win a big award? Think again!
Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner is a prime example of a baddie who ends up dead. Not only dead, but eaten by his friends. In modern literauter, it is common to create an ironic twist of fate in which the villain gets caught up in their own trap. This picture book is a prime example of modern poetic justice.
How does one get away with this, as a picture book creator? The following tricks help:
- Make the baddie an easily recognised trope of evil. In this case we have a posh wolf whose only mission in life is to eat our empathetic characters.
- The calamity is of the baddie’s own doing. His own evil leads to his own downfall.
- The horrible death happens off the page.
- In this book, we are very cleverly left to surmise what happened. Don’t spell it out for the reader. In this way, readers who aren’t up to the task of surmising won’t have to deal with a conclusion they may not be ready for.
- Works best in a generally hilarious story, full of hyperbole, good-natured fun and illustrations which invite play, such as ‘Where’s Wally’ type details.
A much different story in which the baddy ‘dies’ is The Cheeky Crow by Ulf Nilsson and Eva Eriksson. The children enjoy setting this crow up as the villain, but when they think it’s dead they are forced to confront their unexpected bad feelings. But as it turns out, the crow is simply stunned, and eventually flies off. The baddy is no longer a baddy, but a real, live creature and the young characters (and the young readers) have developed empathy for it, which I suppose is the aim of the story.
SOLUTION FIVE: TURN THE TABLES WITH WITS
Readers really warm to a character who can outsmart the baddie. For an example of this, see Joy Cowley’s Nickety-Nackety-Noo-Noo-Noo. In this case we have a rather feminist tale in which a patriarchal husband-type troll wants to steal a wee woman to keep as prisoner (wife). The wee woman escapes by making stew made of glue. When the baddie gets caught up in the gluey stew she is able to make her escape.
In this modern fairytale, she has outwitted the baddie. This is a repeat of what’s already been done in many classic tales such as Hansel and Gretel, in which brother and sister work together to 1. convince the witch that Hansel is not yet fat enough to be eaten and 2. to coax her close enough to the oven so as to push her inside.
Are modern picture book writers able to get away with pushing baddies into fires to scream and burn in agony? I don’t think so, but look at how many illustrators have decided to re-do Hansel and Gretel. It seems if we want to keep this kind of Grimm violence alive (and published), remaking a classic fairytale is the way to go.
A variation on this sort of comeuppance can be found in Rosie’s Walk (and all the copycat plotlines that came afterwards) in which the naive empathetic character has no wits whatsoever — rather, gets out of trouble due to dumb luck.
That Is Not A Good Idea by Mo Willems is another example of this kind of plot. The wonderful thing about this book is that it’s a spoof of a B-grade horror flick — you know the kind — the beautiful female is sent into all sorts of ridiculous situations and you want to yell, ‘Don’t go in there!’ It’s pretty insulting actually, that women are used in that way, so to have the female duck turn the tables on the fox is a satisfying experience.
SOLUTION SIX: EXPOSE THE BADDY’S GREAT WEAKNESS
Scarface Claw is the wonderful villain of Lynley Dodd’s Hairy Maclary series but the reader soon learns that, despite his formiddable appearance, Scarface is actually a scaredy-cat. That may explain why my own daughter called him ‘Scarfy Claw’ when she was a toddler — she saw right through his tough exterior.
With this type of ‘baddie’, simply exposing the baddie for what he is is often sufficient as a conclusion. Scarface Claw finds himself stuck up a tree in need of rescue in Caterwaul Caper. In Scarface Claw (the book named after him), he ends up frightened by his own reflection in a mirror. This is a wonderful comment on how Scarface’s appearance is the source of (indeed, the beginning and end of), his scariness.
Of course, in order to expose a baddy’s weakness you must first establish one. Don’t forget to do that at the beginning of the story! (Or as a characteristic running right through the series.)
In picturebooks, this seems to work really well when you start with a baddy who looks formidable. In fact, it seems to be a requirement. In the It’s The Bear! series by Jez Albrough, we have a usually cute character as possible baddie (the teddy bear) and because of its enormity we are surprised when we find that it’s basically a teddy-bear version of the empathetic main character, and just as scared.
SOLUTION SEVEN: BANISH TO FOREIGN LANDS FOREVER
You may argue that the main punishment suffered by the Highway Rat is removal from his home. But the visual we’re left with is that of the bakery, so we’re inclined to forget the main part of the punishment. Another classic book in which the baddie is ostricized, ‘taken somewhere/from the far end of town where the Grickle-grass grows’ is The Lorax, of course. Like the Highway Rat, the Lorax was basically causing a community great strife, upsetting the order in the same way an uncaptured serial murderer might.
Of course, the difference in The Lorax, is that the guy causing all the upset to the community is a goodie by the modern reader’s estimation. The story is therefore a tragedy rather than a comedy. Dr Seuss conveys his environmental message by inverting the usual way of things — he ostracizes the baddy rather than the goodie, making use of the old Western trope, in which the hero rides into town then leaves, unhappily, to presumably try and save the day somewhere else.
SOLUTION EIGHT: THE BADDY DOES NOT EXIST
In Which Pooh and Piglet Go Hunting And Nearly Catch A Woozle
This is a chapter rather than a stand-alone picturebook, but this is the one in which our naive main characters are foiled by their own footsteps.
There is now a thing called The Woozle Effect.
Julia Donaldson uses this trope for the first part of The Gruffalo, in which the mouse manages to persuade all sorts of scary animals that he is off to have lunch with a so-called Gruffalo. But the story turns again when it turns out the Gruffalo is a real thing. I feel this story owes a lot to A.A. Milne.
With an imaginary villain, sometimes the main character realises their mistake but at other times only the young reader does, creating dramatic irony and humour and the feeling that one is very smart.
SOLUTION NINE: BADDY TURNS OUT TO BE BENIGN
There are many many go-to-bed picture books in which the feared monster turns out to be nothing scary at all. There are so many examples I can’t even think of a single one.
You’ve also got stories in which the feared-thing is not a monster but an everyday thing. For example, I Will Not Ever Never Eat A Tomato by lauren child, in which Charlie tricks his little sister into overcoming her fear of certain healthy foods. The baddy tomato turns out to be good, and doesn’t quite fit into this category because there is no punishment needed in the end.
Getting away with murder: literature’s most annoyingly unpunished characters from Charlotte Seager at The Guardian