Friday, 17 October 2014

Unhappily Ever After? By Pippa Goodhart

Does horror have a place in picture books?

There’s been a lot of recent discussion as to whether or not there are too many unhappy and hopeless endings in books for teenagers. But what about unhappy endings in picture books?




Jon Klassen’s ‘This Is Not My Hat’ won the Kate Greenaway prize at the same time that Kevin Brooks’ controversial book 'The Bunker Diary' won the Carnegie. Both deal in horror. Both could be said to end unhappily.

‘This Is Not My Hat’ is a very beautiful book. It's a very simple book. It's a very powerful book. It’s truly dramatic and exciting. (Spoiler alert!) We are told the story in a few sentences narrated by a little fish who is boasting that he’s stolen a hat from a big fish, but the big fish is asleep and probably won’t notice. But we can see in the pictures that the big submarine shaped fish isn’t asleep: he’s awake! And he’s angry! And he’s going after the little fish into a mass of green weeds … before coming back out with his hat. And that little fish voice has stopped.




Why is that so powerful? Its power is in what is not said or explained. It is in that space left to be filled with the reader’s own imagination.  What most of us imagine is a horrible massacre of the little fish by the big one. So it is us, rather than Jon Klassen, making the story end with horror. Is finding horror in ourselves more powerful than being given it from the outside?

A lot of the reviews on Amazon say that this is a book for adults and older children rather than children of the usual picture book age. When I think of my daughters at, say, two to five years old, they would have made that grisly imaginative leap and been upset by it. But would they actually, at some level, enjoyed the thrill of that horror, or just been upset? I don’t know.

One Amazon reviewer took from that book a message of: find out the perpetrator, kill him and eat him. But it's more complex than that. The supposition that the fish has been eaten (and it’s only happened in the reviewer’s mind, remember, not explicitly on the page in any way!) raises the big and important question of fairness. Did the little fish deserve to die for stealing something that wasn’t his, and then cockily boasting that he’d got away with it? Small children have strong opinions about fairness. Where does fairness lie in this case? And is capital punishment fair? It’s all so interesting! I think it’s the interesting moral dilemma in this story that stays with us more than the horror, whereas it was definitely the horrors in Struwwlpeter that have haunted me and has stayed with me long after ‘nice’ books have faded from memory.



There is the view that childhood is a golden time of innocence, where the nasty side of life doesn’t yet have a place. For some children their early years truly are like that, and I think I’d hesitate to upset things for those children with too early a dose of unhappily ever after. There are plenty of picture book stories that deal in horrors (think of The Owl Babies raising the possibility that Mum has been eaten by a fox!) but in which things are brought to clearly happy endings. The difference here is that we are left still mid-horror, albeit in a way that many would take as black humour more than straight horror.



There are ‘unhappy’ books that are aimed squarely at addressing some real life horrors, of course. Rebecca Cobb’s beautiful ‘Missing Mummy’ shares the misery and misunderstanding and anger of a small girl whose mother has died. I wouldn’t offer that to a child who had no notion yet that a mother could die, but it makes a wonderful discussion point for children who have experienced the death of their mother, or for those who know another child going through that real horror. 

Different books are going to suit different children in different situations and at different times, and we adults have a role in guiding the right books to the right children at the right moment. We have the luxury of a huge choice, even within picture books. I think that’s wonderful. But it trips some people up.


Look at the reviews for Jean Willis and Tony Ross’s ‘Tadpole’s Promise’, and you’ll find much greater outrage than for ‘It’s Not My Hat’. I suppose that is because people have picked up what looks like a nice little love story about a tadpole and a caterpillar who promise to love each other for ever and never to change …. And they haven’t thought through the inevitable problems implicit in that set-up! Clearly people have bought the book, and not read it themselves before reading it aloud to a small child audience who are sometimes horrified when the frog eats the butterfly! An outraged adult reader is going to produce an upset child. Maybe some children will be upset even if the reader has warned that this is a story that isn’t going to end happily. But for some the kind of bright child who delights in following an idea through to a logical conclusion, that book is an absolute delight! Besides, the frog isn’t unhappy because it’s oblivious of quiet who it has just eaten. And the butterfly isn’t unhappy because it’s, well, dead. This is a great book to read out loud to students of writing. They tend to gasp and say, ‘but I didn’t think that children’s books could end like that!’


Should they? What do you think?

18 comments:

  1. Great post Pippa and one that really strikes a chord with me!

    I have to say that, after hearing all the hype, I was surprised to discover how coy the supposedly ‘shock’ ending of “THIS IS NOT MY HAT’ is with Klassen literally ‘drawing a veil’ over any unpleasantness. As you say, “It’s a very simple book”. The story is a little too thinly spread for my tastes and I much prefer Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross’s “Tadpoles Promise”, which you also mentioned in your post. I think Willis and Ross's book, with it’s innovative spread arrangement and seasonally-affected backdrops would have been far more worthy of Greenaway recognition – and Ross’s illustrations actually show the poor butterfly being eaten!

    We currently have an unfortunate tendency to mollycoddle in picture books. By going out of our way to accommodate the delicate sensibilities of some readers, we neglect the tastes of others who want to be thrilled and this latter group often abandons books and turns to TV, films and video games to find satisfaction. I doubt that my own son or daughter would have been upset by “THIS IS NOT MY HAT” when they were picture book age. The ending is very muted in comparison with some of the dramatic scenes in the U certificate films that they were fond of, such as ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Beauty and the Beast’.

    When I was writing my own picture book, “Here Be Monsters” I was aware that I was following a classic horror pattern. In the story, a crew of greedy pirates sail into monster-infested waters in search of treasure and are picked off one by one. Substitute “greedy pirates” for “foolish teenagers” and “monster-infested waters” for “zombie-infested backwoods” or “haunted house” and you have the plot of dozens of horror movies. At the end of the story [SPOILER ALERT] the villainous pirate captain is eaten by baby monsters. I’m sure that some would regard this scene as being unsuitable for a picture book age child. However the villainous Hopper is seen meeting a very similar fate (he’s fed to a nest of baby birds) at the end of Pixar’s “A Bug’s Life”, which was the first U certificate film that my three-year-old son saw at the cinema.

    At the moment I think picture books cater to much narrower spectrum of tastes than other children’s media. If we want every child to respond to books as enthusiastically as they would to TV shows, films and video games, we need to reflect this spectrum more accurately. So yes, I think that horror definitely does have a place in picture books!

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  2. Those are really interesting comparisons with films. I agree that the tendency is to go for the safe option too often, and that's allowed teachers and parents to assume that picture books will all end happily ever after. What we really need is for adults (parents, teachers, librarians, etc) to know both the children in their care and the books available, and then match book to child as appropriate. Handled well by an adult who signals by OTT reading style that this absolutely IS just a game, I can't think of a single child who wouldn't enjoy those pirates getting eaten by monsters, Jonathan!

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    1. It does come down to adults judging what's suitable for individual children, but I don't think picture books need to be treated any differently to other children's media. Parents are accustomed to assessing if the content of tv shows, films and video games are suitable for their particular children. There's no reason to assume they are less capable of doing the same for picture books.

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  3. I have nothing against a few queasy scares in picture books. Since The Three Little Pigs and Peter Rabbit children have heard stories about animals getting eaten. However, I do hope there won't be a trend towards the dark in picture books the way there has been in Young Adult and Adult books, films and tv shows. There is something troubling about a culture that glories in horror and darkness instead of trying to find beauty and hope.

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    1. I agree. We need a balanced diet of books just as we need a balanced diet of food. There certainly is too much violence as entertainment on television and perhaps in YA fiction. But I would, perhaps oddly, argue that there is beauty and hope in Tadpole's Promise.

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  4. I love the variety of picture books today. And Tadpole's Promise was one of my perfect picture book Friday reviews precisely because of the emotional punch it packs and discussions it can segue into. That said, a parent should know what they're reading to their children. Pre-reading or reading a review is essential if you don't want to have these conversations with your kids.

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    1. Exactly. We need to hang on to expert children's librarians and booksellers, and we need teachers to be encouraged to really know their books. Parents too, of course.

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  5. When I first discovered ...Not My Hat, I wasn't that interested, but the minimal text meant I could skim it in 60 seconds while standing in the book store. I found I loved the surprise ending! Does that mean I like unhappy picture books? I don't think so. But I do believe it's important for kids to be exposed to stories that teach "not all endings are happy". I could talk for hours on this subject. :)

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    1. I think that what we like in the book is the cleverness of it; the wit. And the beautiful simplicity of both pictures and text. It plays a trick on us, and we can enjoy that rather than glorying in anything horrible.

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  6. I think a child has to learn about the consequences of actions and the importance of picking his/her battles. Jon Klassen's book deals with that in a funny way imho. And his other book about the bear and his stolen hat does it too.
    Yes, Struwwlpeter is the stuff of nightmares, 'Hat' isn't. It's not as if it will be read in isolation anyway. Plenty of cheerful stuff to balance it with out there. Not that I've ever dealt in characters dying myself, which makes what I've written above somewhat specious.

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  7. I agree that there's an element of tough love in sharing the less obviously happy stories with children. Forewarned is forearmed and all that!

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  8. This is very interesting ....I think in all cases, you have to know the child and be aware of what is likely really to upset them. There's also the fact that children become saddened or upset by very odd things! My daughter had to have a picture of quintuplets on an alphabet frieze covered with a sheet of white paper !

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    1. Children are people, and that's why they're so unpredictable! The scary quintuplets are fascinating!

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  9. I recently did my research on these books - borrowed them all from my local children's library. I must confess a vested interest, as I've recently done a pb based on rubbish, rotting and renewal which my agent doesn't like, but which I do, so I'm sending it out solo.

    The tadpole story ending came as a shock, even to my grown-up daughter who'd never encountered it, and I wonder what my agent might have said about that! The fishy tale was brilliant, and both books controversial - horror, humour and ethics combined in a way that can only be found in picture books.

    Adele - I was taken when very little to see THE BLUEBIRD - a 'happy ever after' film aimed at small children, and I had nightmares for WEEKS!

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    1. Well, agents are also people, so have different tastes in stories! I hope your rubbish story finds a good home, Enid.

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  10. Really interesting discussion. Thanks to all. Children, when really quite young, have the capacity to enjoy black humour and often create it themselves when playing. However, that's a skill they don't share with most publishing sales executives...

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  11. Ha ha, you're exactly right about that, Moira! Perhaps we should appoint child Sales department advisors?!

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  12. My personal preference is for a story to end in hope or at least ambiguity. I have no problem with the brilliant 'This Is Not My Hat' because the ending is open to interpretation. In fact, I never thought the big fish killed the little fish and I'm taken aback at the suggestion! My feeling is that 5s and under deserve not to be scared or upset at bedtime (when large numbers of picture books are read) and therefore a book should not spring a disturbing and incontrovertible ending on the child. When pre-schoolers and reception children pick books at the library they are picking the visual story and if the story obviously looks scary then that's their choice. Parents also assume a cosy-looking book is going to be acceptable and the first time it's read will probably be when it's shared with the child. As children move on to Year 1 and have more experience, then I feel that is a better time for picture books to experiment with scariness. Anyway, that's how I feel!

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