Poetic justice — or the punishment of characters who do wrong might be one solid difference between stories ‘for children’ versus ‘for adults’. This is not because children’s authors don’t want to create stories in which bad behaviour wins out, but because adult gatekeepers are squeamish about giving those stories to children, lest they side with the naughty characters and consider them role models.
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 picture book authors would like to somehow punish their baddies, in this culture where retribution feels increasingly outdated?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.)
If you’re a writer creating narrative for an adult audience you have the option of exploring the true nature of (in) justice — how it is not always poetic; bad behaviour is more often rewarded than punished, and how does that change the world? How are we supposed to live with that fact?
Here is the creator of BoJack Horseman, a cartoon for adults, on the concept of punishment in storytelling:
[We are conditioned by narrative 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.
JUSTICE AND CHILD DEVELOPMENT
The idea of retributive justice is a concept learned very early by children, though we probably shouldn’t call it that. I remember my own daughter at about two or three years old, banging her own knee on a table, then crying with some fury. She believed the table had done that to her out of spite.
Psychologist Paul Bloom has shown that retributive thinking appears very early in the lives of infants, even before they begin to use language. Infants are delighted when they see the “bad person”—a puppet who has snatched something from another puppet—beaten with a stick. Bloom calls this an early sense of justice. I prefer to call it the internal Furies that inhabit us all, and that are not securely linked to real justice. The infants’ idea looks like a version of the lex talionis: an eye for an eye, pain for pain. It’s not hard to imagine that the crude idea of proportional payback has an early, perhaps an evolutionary, origin. It is a leap to call this an idea of justice, and I think we should not make this leap.
CHANGING ATTITUDES TOWARDS PUNISHMENT FOR CHILDREN
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.
Take parents and children. Parents often feel that children have acted wrongfully, and they are outraged. They want to protest the wrong, and somehow to hold the child accountable. But they usually avoid retributive payback. They rarely think (today at least), “now you have to suffer for what you have done,” as if that by itself was a fitting response. Instead, they ask themselves what sort of reaction will produce future improvement in the child. Usually this will not be a painful payback, and it certainly won’t obey the lex talionis, “an eye for an eye.” If their child hits a playmate, parents do not hit their child as if that were “what you deserve.” Instead, they choose strategies that are firm enough to get the child’s attention, and that express clearly that and how what the child did was wrong. And they give positive suggestions for the future, how to do things differently. So, loving parents typically have the outrage part of anger without the payback part—where their children are concerned. This will be a clue to my positive proposal for democratic society.
John Yorke reminds us that there really is no distinction between a real person and a fictional person when it comes to reader opinions on how ‘avatars’ should be treated:
[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
Jeff Kinney created a very popular character who is basically an asshole a lot of the time, and although Greg Heffley is not actively punished by retributive parents and Trunchbull-archetype teachers, natural consequences tend to kick in for him. Here’s Kinney’s philosophy on punishment in children’s fiction. Like all popular contemporary authors, he’s wary of writing ‘morality tales’:
I think [readers] like to see somebody behaving badly because [they] 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
Kinney uses natural consequences and an unreliable narrator to great effect. But what about all those other stories with clear, unambiguous baddies? How are we meant to tie those off nicely, if punishment doesn’t work, and is more and more often seen as unfair?
Here are a few case studies in poetic justice, from picture books which have sold really well. It would be worth looking at the most recent picture books too, because these are a few years old now, and this part of culture is changing rapidly.
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. Continue reading “Punishment In Children’s Literature”