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Books in the Home: Committing the Crime Without Doing the Time

by Jessica Angotti

I was a nanny for two years. In my care were three little girls under the age of seven. Since the older two were in school most of the day, the youngest, Hope, was my main responsibility. At twenty-one months, Hope loved books. She liked “reading” them to herself, and she liked being read to. She liked toting books around in her plastic grocery cart and dumping them into the bathtub to see if they could swim. We carried them to the park, to the doctor, to the pottery studio, and to China Grill at the mall. Yes, Hope had quite the fondness for books.

I noticed that Hope, like any young reader, would jump right into the story. She would align herself with the character so much that she would even demand the main character’s name be removed and her own name replace it: “Once there was a little girl called Goldilocks” — “NO!” Hope would shout. I would start over: “Once there was a little girl called Hopie.” The correction would be met with a satisfied smile and the story would continue. Goldilocks Hopie is sent on a muffin errand and promises not to cut through the forest in order to get to the village bakery. Goldilocks Hopie is accused of being “one of those naughty little girls who do exactly as they please.” No argument from my young reader there. As Goldilocks Hopie doesn’t have much screen time in the next few pages, we zip through the bear scenes and find the little girl entering the bears’ house, “without even bothering to knock.” Hope gives me a sly, closed-mouth smile. (I hate this smile. It means she is enjoying the vicarious disobedience involved in broken promises and entry into the forbidden forest. I begin to review Hope’s personal forbidden list and wonder if she will be giving me this sly smile an hour from now when she is, say, locking me out of the house. I push these thoughts away.) For the next ten pages Goldilocks Hopie is tasting porridge, spitting out porridge, devouring porridge. She’s sitting on a chair, getting stuck in a chair, and breaking a chair. And of course, she’s climbing up onto a bed, falling down into a bed, and falling asleep in a bed. All the while saying aloud, “Just right,” in a singsongy voice that I wish never came out to play. So far everything is going perfectly. Hope is having a ball testing and ruining someone else’s stuff, and I haven’t slipped and said Goldilocks for quite a few pages. It’s a storytime success.

Re-enter the bears.

Suddenly, accusations are flying and Hope is hiding behind tucked-up knees. Her sly smile has vanished, and she’s biting her lower lip. After touring the porridge-splattered kitchen and the splintered-wood–filled parlor, we arrive in the third bedroom where Hope knows what’s coming: “Somebody has been lying in my bed, and she’s still there! Now see here!” roars Papa Bear. I say, “Hopie wakes up with a start.” “NO!” Hope shouts. I start over: “Goldilocks wakes up with a start.” Hope looks relieved.

This kind of shift also happened with Ian Falconer’s Olivia. Replacing the pig for the first twenty-seven pages, Hope would wear people out, scare off her annoying little brother, refuse to nap, and mimic a Jackson Pollock on her mother’s white wall. Now Hope is in her vicarious glory, happily enjoying life as a pompous pig. Her shoulders roll back and her little face tips up, mimicking Falconer’s illustrations. Then comes page twenty-eight. “Hope” has been caught, and the punishment is the dreaded naughty step. No way, no how — Hope is out of there! A page earlier she was contentedly exercising her artistic rights of personal expression, but in a quick switch, Hope tags herself out while tagging the original character in. Poor Olivia. She’s back in the limelight only to be stuck on the step.

In, out. Hopie, Goldilocks, Hopie, Olivia. I could barely keep up.

It’s quite a conundrum child readers find themselves in. On the one hand they want to chase after dogs (like Sendak’s Max in Where the Wild Things Are), refuse naps (like Olivia), and threaten to run away (like Henkes’s Lilly in Julius, the Baby of the World), but on the other hand all that naughty behavior results in discipline — discipline they would rather avoid. What is a reader to do? Remain at a safe distance, not participating in the delinquent but exciting behavior and therefore avoiding the inevitable punishment? Or jump into the story, no holds barred, commit the crimes, and do the time? Perhaps what Hope was doing demonstrated a third option.

Based on my observations, it seems children find a loophole. Straddling reality and fantasy allows them to keep one foot in the story, dancing all night and getting into trouble, and the other one out, avoiding time-outs or bed without dinner. This hokey-pokey stance gives young readers the best of both worlds; in for the good times, out for the bad. Who would want it any other way?

The young protagonist in David Shannon’s David books is a superstar when it comes to acting out. In David Goes to School he exhibits naughtiness and is reprimanded by his teacher on nearly every page. But the reprimands aren’t enough to put a stop to his escapades, so for twenty-five whole pages young readers can misbehave in a way they wouldn’t dream of doing in an actual classroom. However, on page twenty-six David is sentenced to stay after school, and the young reader catapults out of the story. Scrubbing desks is for truly bad kids, and the reader is certainly not one of those. Luckily, David sees the error of his ways and zips through his punishment swiftly and silently. The reader can quickly slip back into the story just in time to receive a gold star and head pat. Not a bad way to round out a day of shenanigans.

This method of reading allows children the pleasure of misbehaving without the dread of being caught or punished. With one foot in reality and one foot in fantasy, young readers have options. They don’t have to commit to being only the little angel or only the little devil. Children can cause mayhem merely by shifting weight. If they lean a bit more to the left, they’re soaring paper airplanes through a classroom, but a quick shift to the right allows them to be curled up in bed, hearing a story about a naughty little boy named David.

Although young readers find these stories thrilling, there are those who believe literature should not indulge children with stories that showcase misbehavior. But what fun is reading about characters who always listen and would never think of disobeying? They’re not just boring, they’re irritating. Although children like the reassurance of, say, the Berenstain Bears, they also want excitement, rebellion, subversion. All day long they hear, “Put away your toys. Don’t drown your sister. Forks are for eating, not for stabbing.” They always have the option of disobeying, but punishment is inevitable, and no one wants to sacrifice playtime for time in the “uncooperative” chair (à la Lilly). So rather than try out true naughtiness, children turn to book characters who actually do what they themselves have only dreamt about. Living vicariously is the perfect alternative.

Of course, all this jumping around can make reading aloud difficult for the adult. The dichotomy of children loving mischief but wanting to be kept safely out of the hands of punishment is a tricky one to straddle. Authors do not follow one standard blueprint: the order of naughty actions and their repercussions changes from book to book. Does the character disobey in the beginning or toward the end of the story? Does the punishment come on page four or page twenty-four? When exactly should the adult reader be prepared for a cast change? The more familiar you are with a particular child’s vaulting from reality to fantasy, the better you can decipher a sly smile from a nervous smile and know when the change will occur. Not to mention having a much better chance of making it through a whole story without a name slip-up. I have to hand it to young readers — they’ve figured out a method that allows them to play like a bad kid but avoid discipline like a good kid. Hope had it down to a science. Her sumo-wrestling stance put her “naughty girl” foot in the story, but kept her “good girl” foot in reality. She could replace the worst of them — Goldilocks, Olivia, Max, David, Lilly — but still manage to scoot out of the picture (or, rather, off the page) before suffering any consequences. Hope understood the phrase “It’s not a crime unless you get caught,” and she made it a point never to get caught.

Much Mischief

Giggle, Giggle, Quack (Simon, 2002) by Doreen Cronin; illus. by Betsy Lewin

Carl’s Summer Vacation (Farrar, 2008) by Alexandra Day

Harriet, You’ll Drive Me Wild! (Harcourt, 2000) by Mem Fox; illus. by Marla Frazee

The Nine Lives of Rotten Ralph (Houghton, 2009) by Jack Gantos; illus. by Nicole Rubel

The Chicken-Chasing Queen of Lamar County (Kroupa/Farrar, 2007) by Janice N. Harrington; illus. by Shelley Jackson

Really Truly Bingo (Candlewick, 2008) by Laura McGee Kvasnosky

Oink, Oink Benny (R&S/Farrar, 2008) by Barbro Lindgren; illus. by Olof Landström

Elinor and Violet: The Story of Two Naughty Chickens (Little, 2001) by Patti Beling Murphy

The Patterson Puppies and the Rainy Day (Candlewick, 2009) by Leslie Patricelli

A Cold Winter’s Good Knight (Dutton, 2008) by Shelley Moore Thomas; illus. by Jennifer Plecas

Max’s Bunny Business (Viking, 2008) by Rosemary Wells

The 3 Bears and Goldilocks (Atheneum, 2008) by Margaret Willey; illus. by Heather M. Solomon

From the March/April 2010 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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