Nice Does Not Equal Good

The Nasty Nice character Nom Nom from We Bare Bears

A lesson we must all learn at some point: ‘nice’ person does not equal ‘good’ person. I use these words as shorthand for ‘outwardly amenable’ and ‘morally generous’. Defining morality is a mammoth task in its own right and a nihilist might argue there’s no such thing as morality. I take the view that there is a shared cultural view of morality. Stories for children conform to that shared view. Banned books are usually at the vanguard of social change, which is why they are banned in the first place. Most banned books are tomorrow’s classics, their authors upheld as yesterday’s soothsayers.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE NICE?

naughty is not the opposite of nice

Classic fairytales explore the difference between niceness and goodness, though with problems: In fairytales, if a character was good-looking they were also unquestionably good. However, they did get into duplicitous behaviour, and the way people conceal their true motivations by acting in a friendly way. In classic fairytales the characters are archetypes, so there is no possibility of starting out nasty and later becoming nice.

In Snow White, the wicked stepmother dresses as a door-to-door pedlar woman. She is ‘nice’ to Snow White, offering to sell her a shiny, red apple. Snow White falls for the niceness. The audience learns she should have looked harder. Significantly, in most versions the step mother is illustrated as an ugly old woman with missing teeth and a face of wrinkles. This is her ‘true nature’, using the visual fairytale shortcut that ugliness equals bad character. The stepmother is most ugly at the moment her ugliness comes out.

The field of psychology doesn’t find ‘nice’ useful as a concept, and breaks different behaviours into two main types:

‘Nice’ can define various personality traits that are linked to specific areas of the brain, like agreeableness, politeness, and compassion.
One who is a good citizen is called nice, and another is nice when he or she is empathetic or has good manners.

Business Insider

One type of nice refers to a person’s agreeableness.

Another refers to politeness.

Then there’s compassion, which is different again.

Fun fact: Nice once meant foolish.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE GOOD?

Even after centuries of fairytales, we must all learn at some point that

  1. Looking good doesn’t mean being good
  2. Behaving nicely also does not mean being good.

The first is the easier lesson. The #metoo movement is highlighting the extent to which contemporary adults are still wrestling with the distinction between nice and good.

monsters nice not good

It’s hard to deal with the fact that nice people can be sexual predators or, rather, that sexual predators are most often very nice.  A boss who is nice to you may be very not nice to someone else, in private. An unwillingness to believe victims when they speak out is partly an unwillingness to believe women (because abuse is gendered), but is also an unwillingness to acknowledge that we are not as good at discerning character as we previously believed. Once you learn, really learn, that nice does not equal good, that skilled people with good jobs and families of their own can be terrible, you must embark upon the lifelong work of not turning into a complete misanthropist.

In adult literature, Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies does a great job of portraying an abuser who is also ‘nice’. But during promotion of the American TV adaptation, various commentators showed a fundamental misunderstanding of how abuse works by saying it was really interesting to see a successful family man also be an abuser, as if those things don’t usually go together.

But when is it developmentally appropriate for children learn this lesson? That’s another question altogether. If we teach children too early that the nice people in their lives might just as easily be terrible behind closed doors, are they able to deal with that in their vulnerable positions?

Only parents can decide. If you would prefer your children to learn this sooner rather than later, there are children’s books which touch on big issues in a gentle way.

NICE DOES NOT EQUAL GOOD: HOW TO WRITE IT

CREATE NICE BUT NASTY CHARACTERS AND CONTRAST USING ‘SHADOW IN THE HERO’

Terry Pratchett writes for an adult/YA crossover audience. His Tiffany Aching series (starting with Wee Free Men) features elves who are beautiful and magical and give children candy, but they are incapable of compassion or caring. The witches who watch over the people are petty, argumentative, difficult and always have a sharp word on the tip of their tongue. However, they do what’s right even when it’s the harder choice. Pratchett uses various ways of approaching this message,  but overall, Tiffany isn’t learning to be nice. She’s learning to do what’s right. Via the viewpoint of Tiffany, the reader is also asked to consider appearance vs morality.

Different in voice but similar in theme we have The Girl Who Drank The Moon. The characters are complex and our understanding of them evolves as the story progresses, with the character initially perceived to be evil/not nice (Witch) ultimately being revealed as good, while the character initially perceived as good/nice (Grand Elder) is ultimately revealed to be evil. Perception and deception are emphasised.  Superficial judgements may not accurately reflect true character. This makes it a more modern fairytale — in traditional tales, nice and nasty are inherent, immutable traits.

CREATE A MAIN CHARACTER WHO IS ASKED TO DO THE RIGHT THING EVEN IF IT MEANS SACRIFICING SOCIAL CAPITAL

Joyce Carol Oates creates such a character in her YA novel Big Mouth and Ugly Girl. ‘Ugly’ refers to the way the heroine is seen, and how people in general (particularly girls?) are perceived by others whenever they stand up for what’s right. There’s no way of standing against the status quo without facing criticism from peers who are too afraid to stand up themselves.

I suspect female characters are more commonly used in these types of stories. We’re moving through a social period in which girls — for the first time ever — are properly taught to respect their own feelings and to reject social conditioning which teaches female people to prioritise others’ feelings over their own.

Similarly, witches have been used in many ways throughout the history of storytelling but the witch has turned — modern fictional witches may look nasty but their warts and hooked noses belie upright morals. Who’s in a better position to recognise injustice than witches, after all?

See also Gregory Maguire’s reimagining of the Wicked Witch Of The West in his novel Wicked.

CREATE A FAKE-OPPONENT WHO TURNS OUT TO BE AN ALLY

J.K. Rowling used this trick in her characterisation of Snape. The message?  Teachers who are the most scary are sometimes also the most ‘good’. Appearances can be deceptive. Not just how someone looks, but their lack of social graces or unwillingness to ingratiate.

It’s impossible to give further examples of this technique without also spoiling stories, because the true intent of the ‘villain ally’ is utilised as a major reveal.

In any case, this ‘villain who’s actually an ally’ plot encourages readers to reconsider who are the real opponents and who are the real allies in their own life. At their best, these stories ask readers not to judge others too soon.

The inverse ideology would be: Trust your gut about people. This is also an ideology worth exploring.

The Ideology Of Persistence In Children’s Literature

persistence

If you work hard you will find success. Persistence leads to success is a comforting truism, because we feel the future is under our own control. Work hard, you win.

An episode of a Freakonomics podcast provides a strong, economically sound argument for sometimes giving up.  But you’ll be hard pressed to find a book for which encourages quitting. When a child character quits a sports team or skips out on piano, it will probably be because they’ve replaced their parents’ dream with another hobby of their own. Quitting to hang out on the corner? Hard to find that in a non-tragic story.

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Read Boss Baby by Marla Frazee. Don’t watch the film.

Boss Baby, written and illustrated by Marla Frazee, is an award-winning 2010 American picture book released by Dreamworks in 2017 as a film. Boss Baby was adapted for screen by Michael McCullers, who also gave us Austin Powers and Mr Peabody and Sherman, which will give you some idea of the tone.

Notice the label ‘inspiration’ for the major motion picture. While book and film begin in similar fashion, a film is much longer and needs much more plot.

Boss Baby is a perfect example of a picture book that appeals to a dual audience. Later adoptions and foster care situations excepted, almost every adult reading this book to their child has been through the newborn phase with the little person they’re currently reading the book to. The humour in this story is — to use this taxonomy — predominantly Reference Humour, layered with Character Humour (adults will also recognise the Tyrannical Boss character trope, and enjoy seeing it made fun of. Adults, and slightly older children, will recognise the extent to which Frazee has turned ordinary baby gear into office equipment — the high-chair table becomes a desk; the baby monitor is now a phone. A baby bath is now a luxurious spa; the swing at the park is a private jet. I am confident in saying there is some Character Humour that only adult co-readers will get — when the baby decides to think ‘outside the box’, the child see the ‘box’ is his playpen, but adults will recognise this as cliched corporate jargon.

What will children find funny? Plenty… and this is where the illustrations really shine. As shown a few years later when BJ Novak’s The Book With No Pictures became an instant bestseller, children LOVE the idea that they run the show. For them, the humour comes from a simple Juxtaposition (called ‘Analogy’ by the guy who runs The Onion). Boss Baby is basically a Status Flip story.

The illustrations are full of ‘Hyperbole’ humour. Boss Baby doesn’t just hand over a folder of instructions — he hands over so many papers it literally fills the living room. The parents aren’t just tired; they’re so exhausted they literally keel over.

Another standout feature of the illustrations is the perspective, which makes a really interesting case study because the general rule of thumb is: Powerful characters look down on weak characters. From the reader’s perspective, when we look down on a character they seem weak; when we look up to a character they seem formidable.

But in Boss Baby, the reader looks down onto the small baby — emphasising his smallness — yet it is very clear from the framing, lighting and body language that he is the boss. Standing in the front doorway, the light from outside casts a massive shadow of the parents. The juxtaposition between the baby’s actual size (tiny next to the briefcase) and the shadow he casts, adds to the humour.

 

STORY STRUCTURE OF BOSS BABY

Who is the narrator of Boss Baby? The Dreamworks screenwriters decided to create an embodiment of the narrator, in the form of a big brother. This does make perfect sense, because there is an entire category of picture books about ‘bringing the baby home’., and those are designed to be read to the ‘big’ sibling. Also, the parents are referred to as ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’, capitalised, but then when you become a parent you’re quite often referred to as the ‘Mom’ or ‘Dad’, so this doesn’t in itself mean there’s an older sibling watching on. (Alternatively, the narrator could in fact be the slightly older Boss Baby himself. There is something a little retro about this book, suggesting it’s older than 2010 — the mother is wearing a dress that seems to hail from the 1950s.)

Most bringing-baby-home picture books espouse an idealistic ideology — this new baby is gonna be great! (Just as soon as you get used to sharing him with your parents!) Some little-sibling stories are more emotionally honest. Feelings of uncertainty and jealousy are real when you’re the eldest sibling, and stories which acknowledge the disruption are my favourite kind. Boss Baby is the emotionally honest kind. (Chatterbox is another.)

The picture book is a good example of an ensemble cast. Another story with an ensemble cast is Little Miss Sunshine.

Ensemble casts aren’t quite as easy to break down, because the different ‘functions’ of story are divvied up. While it’s the baby who has the ‘plan’ in this story, it’s the parents who have the ‘problem’.

WEAKNESS/NEED/PROBLEM

The ‘main character’ is the family of three. For the purposes of story analysis I will consider the narrator omniscient rather than an older brother.

The problem this family has: When a new baby arrives in the house he absolutely runs the show. The parents have no choice but to obey his every command.

DESIRE

The baby wants his every need met, including constant company. We assume the parents want some of their freedom back, or at least some sleep.

OPPONENT

The members of this family are their own opponents.

PLAN

Babies, of course, do not make plans. They do not have the executive functioning to do so. That’s why Marla Frazee’s decision to turn the baby into a tyrannical corporate boss works so well. Now the baby’s plan is to dominate his family, deliberately running them ragged for the pleasure of it.

boss baby middle of the night
There’s a slightly noir feel to the lighting in this illustration, with the light on outside the bedroom. It’s almost like they’ve been called to a dark alley by a mob boss. Notice how well Frazee depicts exhaustion. The parents’ regular eyes are dots, but here she gives them larger, more detailed eyes.

BATTLE

The Boss Baby continues to give his parents the absolute runaround — we can see the pace pick up when there are more mini-scenes on a single spread. In a picture book, this is a sure sign of the Battle Sequence. The baby wins. We know the baby wins because the parents are literally flat out on the couch, almost like they’ve been defeated in a boxing match.

boss baby battle

SELF-REVELATION

Sure enough, the Battle Sequence is followed swiftly by not one but two separate self-revelations:

He called a meeting.

His staff did not respond.

He called and called and called. Nothing.

The boss’s usual demands were not getting their usual results.

it was time to try something completely out of the box.

In other words, the baby’s MO is no longer serving him well, so he realises he’s going to have to get his needs met some other way. This is where he says his first words.

For their part, the parents are delighted that all their hard work seems to be paying off. Not only that, but suddenly in their eyes, the little tyrant in their house seems like a baby rather than a boss.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

When the parents hug their baby this marks a turning point in the family — the really hard newborn phase is over, and now they’re all moving forward into a slightly easier time.

 

I hope I’ve managed to persuade you that this picture book is among the best of the best. I would encourage parents to avoid the Dreamworks film. Mostly for this reason, but also because sometimes the short version of a story is far more powerful than a fleshed out, colourful, noisy plot.

 

The Ideology Of Fatness In Children’s Stories

Here’s a list of all the times I have felt like a fat female character was depicted + portrayed accurately in three decades of watching:

HAIRSPRAY
MY MAD FAT DIARY
YOU’RE THE WORST
SHRILL …this show is A LOT for me, pals!!!

Kate Hagen

FATPHOBIA AND THE DEPICTION OF FAT KIDS AS BULLIES

A fat bully character in a book implies that fatness is connected to bullying—because our culture already has that stereotype entrenched. A fat bully character in an individual book invokes the culture in which it exists, and brings all that to bear. Can’t help but.

diceytillerman

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