The Carnivalesque in Children’s Literature

The Carnivalesque in Children’s Literature

Children’s literature academic Maria Nikolajeva categorises children’s fiction into three general forms: prelapsarian, carnivalesque and postlapsarian.

This post deals with the second category: stories in which characters temporarily take over from figures of authority and often make mischief, but control their own worlds for a time. These stories don’t conform to classic dramatic structure, which is why some picture books in particular seem completely off-the-wall and immune to what we generally understand as ‘the rules of story’. Carnivalesque characters don’t go through any kind of character arc, there’s no big struggle (as such) and nobody learns anything. Just as comedy goes by a different structure, so too, does the carnivalesque picture book. The carnivalesque story has quite a bit in common with comedy structure — it can only ever be short (i.e. picture book length). There isn’t enough in it to sustain a full-length novel, say.

Children are deeply curious about odd behaviors and seldom offended or worried by them. What a remarkable gift to bestow on another person, it occurs to me, and so difficult for adults to accomplish.

Vivian Gussin Paley, The Kindness of Children


Jessie Wilcox Smith, 1908. Carnivalesque stories start in a place of boredom.
  1. An Every Child is at home. There are sometimes two children, a boy and a girl. There is often just one child, coded as slightly lonely and bored, in want of a fantasy playmate.
  2. The Every Child wishes to have fun. That’s why carnivalesque stories often start in a place of restriction or boredom.
  3. Appearance of an Ally in Fun. (The Cat in the Hat turns up.)
  4. Hierarchy is overturned. Fun ensues. The adults are no longer in charge! The normal rules don’t apply.
  5. Fun builds! Somehow the author must think of a way for the fun to get wackier and wackier.
  6. Peak Fun! The best carnivalesque stories are displays of imagination even beyond a child’s wildest dreams. The carnivalesque story takes the reader beyond what they can imagine themselves. The hardest part of writing a carnivalesque picture book is finding an original way to end it.
  7. Return to the Home state. Normal and safe hierarchy resumes, with adults in charge.

In the most madcap of carnivalesque stories, there is often a pause to give the reader a breather.

I have just described your typical carnivalesque picture book for preschoolers. However, full-length novels and films for older readers do contain elements of the carnivalesque, if not hewing closely to that picture book carnivalesque story structure. Any young adult story which ‘disturbs the universe’ is carnivalesque, sometimes very darkly.

Any story about a woman who overturns the restrictions of patriarchy is also carnivalesque witch stories, stories of pregnant women who ignore taboos around pica to eat what they like… These stories are also carnivalesque.

As you may have already deduced, the carnivalesque story is related to the tall tale, which gets wackier and wackier, and then wackier again.

Medieval Festival, by Fritz Baumgarten  (1883-1966)
Medieval Festival, by Fritz Baumgarten (1883-1966)


In a carnivalesque story, the lowest in societal hierarchy — in the medieval carnival a fool, in children’s books a child — is allowed to change places with the highest: a king, or an adult, and to become strong, rich, and brave, to perform heroic deeds, to have power.
The necessary condition of carnival is the reestablishment of the original order, that is, return to normal life. Carnival is always a temporary, transitional phenomenon—so is childhood. Like the carnivalesque fool, the child can temporarily, by means of magic or his own imagination, become strong, beautiful, wise, learn to fly, trick the adults, and win over enemies. The end of carnival means return to the everyday, but the purpose of carnival is not only entertainment, but a rehearsal of a future moral and psychological transformation.

Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time In Children’s Literature

To borrow ten dollar words: The ‘carnivalesque’ children’s story features a plot in which child characters interrogate the normal subject positions created for children within socially dominant ideological frames.

In simpler language: A child breaks free of the rules, has fun for a while, then returns home. The carnivalesque plot is basically a home-away-home plot, even if the child never literally leaves home e.g. The Tiger Who Came To Tea, or The Cat In The Hat, in which fun walks in the door. In the Dr Seuss example, it is the mother who returns home, but the children have nevertheless been on a journey (of the imagination). The Desire of the children in these stories is simply to have fun for a while. They often start in a state of boredom.


Might there be reasons beyond ‘having fun’ for the huge popularity and longevity of the carnivalesque children’s story?

A.O. Scott has the following to say about And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street by Dr. Seuss (racially problematic):

The book is a hymn to the generative power of fantasy, a celebration of the sheer inventive pleasure of spinning an ordinary event into ”a story that no one can beat,” the recurring phrase that was the book’s original title.

Sense and Nonsense

In this way, carnivalesque stories indirectly model endurance and perseverance. Carnivalesque stories also tend to include adventure, often outside the home. Adventures show children that they are brave, independent and totally okay outside the watchful eye of caring adults.

Carnivalesque stories often have an overt moral, which is in fact undermined by its own self. (SpongeBob Squarepants also works like this.) Returning to the example of And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, A.O. Scott explains: “Objectively, the lesson of ”Mulberry Street” may be ”tell the truth,” but the force of the story and the pictures undermines that moral, making the book a perfect parable of the tension, so basic to the lives of children, between freedom and responsibility.”

If stories both deliver a moral and also undermine them by the way in which they’re told, children are learning that life isn’t black and white. There’s a difference between what children are told to do, and how the world really works.


Although the carnival looks like unmitigated fun, it is socially sanctioned and controlled, originally by the church. (In case you need a word to describe flip side of this: ‘abject’, which describes the taboo and whatever should be repressed.)

Originally, carnivals were particular festivals with unique rituals that mirrored and inverted the essential elements of religious meaning.

“Christmas/Yuletide laughter” was a time people were permitted to laugh. At Easter it was known as “Paschal laughter”. This was originally a pastoral phenomenon, inextricably linked to a Christian phenomenon, designed by the church to cheer up the congregation. (A good word to use for rituals of this era is ‘Christianized’ — ‘adjusted to Christian beliefs’.) Paschal laughter was first mentioned in texts in the early 1500s. The priest would tell jokes from the alter to cheer everyone up. (Maybe this is related to April fool’s jokes.) At all other times people weren’t permitted to laugh in church. Laughter and ridicule were to a certain extent legalised and tolerated on other holidays as well. That’s why the rich body of parodic literature from the Middle Ages is connected to celebrations and holidays.

Carnival tales are best considered to have two sides. These tales celebrate the two most significant stages of human existence: birth and death. In stories for adults, the events of the story are seen as a rebirthing and a reaffirming process for the renewal of society. Think of a body in two different ways: One is to do with birthing and dying. The other is conceived, generated and born. Creation or destruction, one or the other at any given time.

In religious terms, one is seen as a vessel (a temporary state before salvation), the other is corporeal and organic. This is why churches focus on saving the soul. (This view of bodies has been historically terrible for women. Men also have bodily functions, but with women’s grotesque and confronting childbirth or regular bleeding, women’s bodies are a constant reminder that humans are corporeal, not magical.)


In the Hebraic tradition, it’s probably the Adam and Eve story: the ‘adult children’ prance about in an Arcadia, and do something they know they’re not supposed to do — eat an apple. They’re trying to discover where the boundaries lie.

John Milton seemed to like that story, too, with Paradise Lost — a poem about the ‘arch transgressor’ Satan. Milton was himself transgressive. He was anti-clerical, a radical heretic and a political revolutionary.

In Hellenic myth we have Prometheus and his transgressive bestowal of fire upon humanity.

In both the Hebraic and Hellenic traditions, the ‘birth of imagination’ came from an act of rebellion against the divine order of things. In Western culture, transgression and imagination are strongly linked.


Shakespeare is just one example of a storyteller who has played with the carnivalesque. For instance, all the spells and enchantments in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream create a carnivalesque atmosphere for the lovers in which the normal rules of life just don’t apply.


Mikhail Bakhtin was a Russian critic and philosopher. Bakhtin’s ideas are an evolution of the work of Francois Rabelais. For Bakhtin, the carnivalesque concerns everything that middle-class people with good manners don’t talk about, the lower part of the body, farts, pigs, untidy and unclean environments and anything which reminds us that humans are just another type of animal.

Mikhail Bakhtin’s four categories of the carnivalesque world:

  1. Familiar and free interaction between people: Unlikely people are brought together. They interact and express themselves freely.
  2. Eccentric behaviour: Unacceptable behaviour is welcomed and accepted. A character’s natural behaviour can be revealed without the consequences. (The idea that there’s a wild inner person behind a thin veneer is a Freudian way of looking at psychology.)
  3. Carnivalistic misalliances: Everything that may normally be separated reunites. Heaven and Hell, the young and the old, the powerful and the low-status, the rich and the poor, humans and animals etc.
  4. Sacrilegious: Carnival allows for sacrilegious events to occur without punishment. These plots are creative theatrical expressions of manifested life experiences in the form of sensual ritualistic performances.


Though Mikhail Bakhtin had four categories, John Stephens divides carnivalesque texts for children into three main types:

  1. Those which offer the characters ‘time out’ from the habitual constraints of society but incorporate a safe return to social normality (of which Where The Wild Things Are is one such example). Adults tend to be not present to intervene.
  2. Those which strive through simple mockery to dismantle socially received ideas and replace them with their opposite, privileging shortcoming over strength (Babette Cole’s Prince Cinders, Anthony Browne’s Willy The Wimp, Fungus the Bogeyman by Raymond Briggs)
  3. Those which are more recent, and perhaps British in origin, consist of books which are endemically subversive of such things as social authority, received paradigms of behaviour and morality, and major literary genres associated with children’s literature (Out Of The Oven by Jan Mark and Anthony Maitland, Wagstaffe the Wind-up Boy by Jan Needle).

Carolyn Daniel, in Voracious Children, explains that texts that transgress adult food rules generally fall into either the first or third of these types. For more on the importance of feasting in children’s literature, see Sex Equals Food In Children’s Literature.

It’s all related to this concept of carnival, which points earthwards rather than heavenwards. Eating and other bodily functions are to do with Bakhtin’s “material lower body stratum”.

The Nonsense Verse Of Edward Lear Illustrated By John Vernon Lord 1984 utmost disorder
The Nonsense Verse Of Edward Lear Illustrated By John Vernon Lord 1984 utmost disorder


An Every Child is at Home

The Every Child wishes to have fun.

Disappearance or backgrounding of the home authority figure

Appearance of an Ally in Fun

Hierarchy is overturned. Fun ensues.

Fun builds!

Peak Fun!

Surprise! (for the reader)

Return to the Home state


Gross-out books are also a subcategory of carnivalesque tales, focusing on bodily functions. During childhood we learn to come to terms with how the body works, which parts are private. (There is still a dearth of literature which affords the same level of comfort with menstruation compared to the other bodily functions. That said, I wouldn’t like the ‘gross out’ treatment for menstruation, because of a long history of taboo and disgust around women’s body.)

Series such as Diary of a Wimpy Kid are not gross-out books per se, though characters like Fregley seem to revel in it. There are regular scenes in which Greg Heffley is disgusted by the human body, for instance when he visits the local pool. He is of course terrified of impending puberty.

The PhD thesis by B.F. Haynes (2009): Elements of Carnival and the Carnivalesque in Contemporary Australian Children’s Literature. The work of Paul Jennings and Andy Griffiths comes up again and again. These two authors have ‘focalised the role of bodily functioning as narrative device’.

The time for gross-out books is limited to a very narrow window of childhood (and some kids never enjoy them at all). What does this turn into? Well, discomfort with living in a body doesn’t disappear. In young adult literature it simply takes a different form.

The Bakhtinian concept of the medieval grotesque — a dark focus on the corporeal — combines easily with the carnivalesque in adolescent literature because of adolescents’ extreme anxieties about their physical bodies.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe

As stand-out examples, Trites offers the works of:

  • Judy Blume
  • M.E. Kerr
  • Hadley Irwin
  • Richard Peck

Each of these authors ‘could be read as jesters parodying the adolescent body.’


  • is playful
  • is non-conforming
  • opposes authoritarianism and seriousness
  • is often manifested as a parody of prevailing literary forms and genres often has idiomatic discourse
  • is often rich in language which mocks authority, even though swearing is taboo in children’s literature (for example Dahl’s use of ‘pulled a pistol from her knickers’)
  • often stars a hero who is a bit of a clown or a fool

Maria Tatar has pointed out that children’s characters often begin from a place of boredom:

Look closely at children’s books and you will find that the heroic child often begins as a bored child, a child faced with the challenges of coping with the tedium of everyday life. … Oddly, the bored literary child often touches magic by falling asleep and dreaming about places like Oz, Wonderland, or Neverland. In real life, relief comes in the form of a setting rather than sleep.

Maria Tatar, Enchanted Hunters

Which — again — goes against much advice to writers — to create go-getter characters who want something specific and then go for it. Carnivalesque characters are different. They are generally just a stand-in viewpoint character for the child reader, with no real distinguishing characteristics of their own except for a fun body type (an animal in clothes, a rogue pet etc). These children have no more distinguishing characteristics than your average picturebook moose.

However, carnivlesque main characters can also have highly individuated characterisation. It depends on what the storyteller wants the book to be. Is it a story about pure fun (less individuated) or is it a story in which the character learns something (more individuated, starting out with shortcomings).


The fool is a useful character in a carnivalesque tale.

  • The fool is most often gendered male.
  • The fool is free to speak the truth as he sees it but in turn usually reflects those believes of the society he mocks.
  • In the upside-down setting of the carnivalesque, the fool provides the opposition to established order.
  • The fool provides laughter for everyone. Laughter negates authority. Bakhtin said that the fool ‘speaks the laughing truth’. (You can probably think of real life examples of people with large platforms, who alternate between ‘speaking the truth’ and also saying outlandish things.)
  • The fool’s message might be farce, satire or parody.
  • As you can see, the fool is rarely made of pure stupid. This character is almost mandatory in any successful comedy. Seinfeld’s Kramer is alternatively naive and also lives outside mainstream society and is therefore able to see some of its absurdity, revelling in fun inside his own apartment by setting up a wonderland replete with spa pool and so on, focusing heavily on his stomach (food). In SpongeBob Squarepants, Patrick is alternately flat out wrong about basic truths but as the story requires he is able to point out a lot of truths to SpongeBob, who is a different kind of naive. In Kath and Kim, Kath quite often has a handle on the real situation and is able to give pretty good advice to the younger women in the show, namely Sharon and Kim.
  • Bakhtin has broken the particular stupidities of the fool down into further subcategories:

Of course, every fool needs his ‘straight man’, so the King archetype is equally necessary in carnival. Another take on the King archetype is the Lord or Abbot of Misrule — the leader of youth groups who were important in organising processions, competitions etc.

Misrule doesn’t have to be a ‘fool’ — jesters and clowns are related archetypes.


Carnivalesque characters are often given props with which to have fun. In Where The Wild Things Are, the saucepan becomes a crown, which highlights the absurdity of the props of hierarchy. Speaking of Max…


carnivalesque wild things

Where The Wild Things Are is [the first kind of carnivalesque text in three important ways: Max’s behaviour is oppositional to normal socializing expectations; the ‘wild things’ in the illustrations are grotesques, and thus in essence parodies of the natural creatures usually encountered during a wilderness adventure; and the book clearly belongs to the ‘time out’ group, in that Max’s adventure is formally a parenthesis in his relationship with his mother. Roger H. Ford (1979) has suggested that the main characters in several of Sendak’s books are modelled on the folk-tale Trickster figure, dominated by selfish appetites and emotions, given to practical jokes, capable of heroism and generally unselfconscious. Max’s entry into the land of the wild things, whether we regard it as a dream or an act of the imagination, enables him to enjoy a time of unconcerned spontaneity free of the social constraints which define his behaviours in the world as ‘mischief’. Max’s attempt to construct a site for fantasy play in the opening illustration involves causing damage to property, as is foregrounded by the grossly oversized hammer with which he attempts to drive a huge nail into the wall. His second act of mischief is to attack the family dog with a kitchen fork, an actual breach of proper conduct going beyond the quasi-‘hanging’ of his teddy bear included in the first illustration. Max, then, still deeply immersed in the solipsism of childhood, has not yet learnt the first principle of freedom—that freedom of action is bounded by the rights of others. Carnivalesque texts, by breaching those boundaries, explore where they properly lie and the ideological bases for their determination, but without always necessarily redrawing those boundaries…The grotesque in this book is comic and droll rather than frightening, though this was not always perceived when the book was first published. …By giving comically grotesque forms to inner fears, the illustrations image the defeat of that fear. Moreover, Max is always in control. Swanton (1971) offers this as one reason why children do not find the book frightening.

Language and Ideology in Children’s Fiction by John Stephens

John Stephens explains that the carnivalesque story is used not to question the values of the official world (that children being rude to their mothers needs to go punished before they are allowed to eat dinner), but to ‘define the values which may be at most implicit in some of the puzzling actions performed by those in power. In this respect, it is important to see that Max’s return and his mother’s gift of ‘supper’ are not causally linked but contiguous, since each is unconditional.’ Other authors of the era were writing quite different stories re parent/child power. For example, E. Nesbit. Stephens points out that modern books are not necessarily any better than Nesbit’s were, in that regard.


Pippi Longstocking, Swedish favourite, is the ultimate carnivalesque character, and a rare female example. Ramona Quimby, Junie B. Jones and various new female stars of chapter books and middle grade are filling a bit of a hole there, but I have heard literary agents lament that they have all but disappeared by the time the reader advances to young adult literature. If carnivalesque female characters exist, they tend to be the main character’s best friend.

Pippi Longstocking, Swedish favourite, is the ultimate carnivalesque character.
Pippi Longstocking, Swedish favourite, is the ultimate carnivalesque character.


You’ll notice in the picture below, carnivalesque children’s characters are often depicted in mid-air, mid-mischief. By the way, the inverse of a carnivalesque character is the underdog. Readers also love underdog characters, so long as they break free of that status.

Flying is a carnivalesque (fun) thing to do.

The Symbolism Of Flight In Children’s Literature


The O.G. of carnivalesque picture book characters.

In The Cat In The Hat, Theodore Geisel (Dr Seuss) slyly revealed that discipline and anarchy live on opposite sides of the same street. (Cheersome fact for writers: Though fun to read, it took a year and a half of struggle for Geisel to write.)

The Cat In The Hat is the ultimate carnivalesque character
The cat grins at the reader in complicity. Let’s have fun together!


The Darling Children, like their more anxious counterparts in The Cat In The Hat, move from the orderly routines of a space ruled by their mother to rowdy antics and alluring adventures in a setting that bears a distinct resemblance to the way we imagine the mind of a child.


The stand-out carnivalesque character from retro cartoon world would be Bugs Bunny, who is all about fun and over-turning whatever social hierarchy is in place.

Bugs Bunny ultimate carnivalesque character
What’s he poking fun at? Authority, no doubt.


Now I’ve given you all those examples of laughing, prancing characters, remember what I said above about the dark flip side of carnival.

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier is not a fun novel. Yet we use this story as a young adult literature example of the carnivalesque. When the main character decides not to sell chocolates, he is rebelling against the authority of an institution. This ultimately leads to his downfall. Perhaps a good way of summing up the carnivalesque is simply ‘disturbing the universe’.

Henri-Julien-Félix Rousseau, Carnival Evening, 1886
Henri-Julien-Félix Rousseau, Carnival Evening, 1886

In fact, the carnival is a way for people — including children — to come to grips with scary things.

Children are frequently involved as subjects and players [in carnivals], and not only during Halloween. Guaranteeing their survival is a central part of the story, and different festivities face up to dangers that can assail from any number of directions—sickness, animal predators, witchcraft, devils, cannibals, ogres, succubi, fire and flood and famine. The magical attempt to secure safety takes two predominant forms: either the participants impersonate the danger itself, as in the carnival masks and fancy dress of Halloween, and thus, cannibal-like, absorb its powers and deflect is ability to inflict harm; or they expose themselves and by surviving the ordeal, prove their invulnerability.

Marina Warner, No Go the Bogeyman
Lemon girl young adult novella


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Those who tell the stories rule the world.

Native American Proverb