Monday, 5 July 2021

A look at Cautionary Tales with Mini Grey

How much violence is the right amount of violence in picture books? Or is it none at all? Is it OK for violent words, but not okay for violent pictures? And if so, does this mean pictures are more powerful than words?

        I came upon this Amazon review of my version of Hilaire Belloc’s Jim: for this reviewer the depiction of a severed head in Jim -  was clearly unacceptable. 

Here’s the moment in full:

Maybe I’d have been wiser to depict the head less gorily.

In her Jim illustration, Posy Simmons shows just pure head sitting like a bun on the ground at the zoo. (I love the stern words the Honest Keeper is having with Ponto the Lion in the background.)

Some of the very first children’s books were highly moralising tales of children being good and bad, intended to be extremely improving. Here’s a scene from William Carus Wilsons’s Child’s First Tales (c. 1829).

 It encourages us to have a really good look at a naughty girl who is having an epic stroppy meltdown (worthy of Barbara Throws a Wobbler.) "Oh how cross she looks!"

Barbara Throws a Wobbler, a fantastic book by Nadia Shireen

But the bad child doesn’t have a chance to learn to calm down and put things in perspective (as Barbara does), because a sentence later God strikes her dead. Reader, you’ve been warned.  

In contrast, above right are some good children. They’ve been so good that they’ve earned a special treat. Which is to be able to drink tea by themselves. So here they are drinking tea, still being good, and all so happy, and not being struck dead by the Almighty.  

So these type of children’s books are what Heinrich Hoffman was taking the mickey out of when he created Struwwelpeter.

In 1844, Hoffmann – a doctor and writer in Frankfurt – was struggling to find a book to give his three-year-old son Carl for Christmas. Tired of stern ‘moralising stories’, he bought a blank notebook and filled it with his own bizarre tales and cartoonish drawings. These were probably inspired by the stories he told to entertain young patients.

And Hoffman’s pages are quite innovative. 

Here’s Harriet going up in flames after playing with matches, accompanied by a sort of Greek chorus of wailing cats who end up projectile-weeping on her ashy remains.

And here is Augustus being reduced from a fine bouncing boy to a stick man in a comic-book type sequence. And it only takes five days without soup to kill Augustus. I think Hoffman was definitely intending to make his children laugh.

One inheritor of Hoffman’s black humour is perhaps Edward Gorey. His unfortunate Gashlicrumb tinies don’t really have a chance to learn anything before having their lethal alphabetical mishap. Here are Amy, Titus and Zillah.

 (I really sympathise with Zillah as my gin consumption was a bit enthusiastic over lockdown.) 

So now we get to Hilaire Belloc. The great thing about Belloc’s cautionary tales is he tells you right at the beginning how the child is going to die. For example: 


Who told Lies,

and was Burned to Death.

Here’s Posy Simmonds’ Matilda. She is telling an enormous lie. 

Matilda told such Dreadful Lies,

It made one Gasp and Stretch one’s Eyes;

 But have a really good look at Posy’s picture. Matilda’s aunt is so distracted she’s pouring tea into her lap, the butler looks like he might just drop the cake, the gentleman has gone bright red, and the dog looks like its eyes are going to pop out. What OUTRAGEOUS WHOPPER did Matilda just say? It’s so wonderful. But part of the inspiration for this scene from Posy Simmons is the sheer understatement from Belloc who leaves the content of the lies completely to our imagination.

Here is Matilda’s Aunt’s house burning down. It’s such a gloriously elegant inferno. You can have a look at more here:

As a child I loved the Belloc Cautionary Tales and learned some by heart – they are brilliant for performing out loud. One of the Bellocs I learned was Rebecca (who slammed Doors for Fun, and Perished Miserably). Ages ago I made a book of Rebecca (for Fun) – I thought a book full of doors could be good. Here are some pages:

 Later I was drawn to Belloc’s Jim (who Runs Away from his Nurse, and is Eaten by a Lion)– it was like a delicious present full of fantastic things to draw: tea and cakes and jam, and slices of delicious ham and chocolate with pink inside. But there’s something about the pink inside the chocolate that might be a bit dangerous, a bit like poison.

Poor Jim doesn’t do anything really naughty. He is plied with sweets and treats but isn’t allowed any freedom – so the one time when he successfully runs away, it’s into a lion’s paws at the zoo.

 And this zoo is the world’s safest zoo. 

In Jim there is stifling safety, many hands, distant parents…

…so could the message really be about the dangers of absolute safety and not getting a chance to experiment with freedom in a potentially dangerous world?

And the Belloc voice is one of breath-taking understatement - which lets your imagination fill in the gaps. Look at what the adults are doing – are they the real culprits?

And there’s useful information on the correct sequence to eat a child bit by bit (feet upwards).

Belloc's Cautionary Tales -  could they be written today? Looking to writing in the tradition of Belloc: first stop could be Roald Dahl. 

Look at the 5 nasties in Willy Wonka. Augustus Gloop, Violet Beauregard, Veruca Salt, Mike Teevee: a Cautionary Tale, every one. 

Here's my Chocolate Factory Chocolate Box, with the Willy Wonka Children immortalised in chocolate:

I have to confess I stopped reading David Walliam’s books with the Demon Dentist. But cautionary tales is a perfect arena for Walliams to unleash mayhem. David Walliams' World’s Worst Children  – it’s interesting to look at protagonists. One who is just unrelentingly awful and doesn’t change is boring; discovering a useful quality can steer towards a happy end. Or else a glint in the eye of the awful person can make the whole bloodbath worthwhile (as in Matilda?) 

Walliams' cautionary tales seem to be an exploration of what happens if you take something to the absolute extreme. There are children who have problems that aren’t their fault – like the dribbler or the sleeper – is it fair to punish for badnesses that aren't deliberate?. 

Less is more. What made me laugh was Earnest Ernest and his photograph album of traffic lights and copies of Spoon Monthly. But then, I'm a fan of spoons and if Spoon Monthly was available, I'd be a subscriber.

In the usual picture book arena the reader is able to travel through the dangerous woods to the happy end. But in Cautionary Tales there’s no happy end…well, usually.

In Catherine Emmett and David Tazzyman’s hilarious The Pet, Digby is a demanding Wanter of pets but a negligent Tender of pets. Cautionary Tales are for children and for their  grown-ups – as it says on the cover. So grown ups – pay attention!

I love the Flea Circus on Doris the Pet Shop owner's counter!

Look to Daddy whose hair turns slightly grey but who always agrees to the demands. (I’m getting a whiff of Veruca Salt’s Dad here) 

But the ending is not (SPOILER ALERT!!) fatal for Digby – a bit more like a Not Now Bernard-style role reversal. The surprising hero is Digby’s final pet, who turns out to be an excellent organiser.



I have the complete Cautionary Tales by Belloc, and Matilda, Jim and Rebecca are streets ahead my favourites. Reading through the rest of them rapidly gets a bit exhausting. So they’re a bit like a box of chocolates – once you’ve picked out your favourite ones, chomping through the Coffee & Crab Cream and the Nutmint-Cracknel just gets tedious and makes you feel mildly queasy.

 So a little goes a long way, with Cautionary Tales. And the last word on depicting decapitation might have to go to Hilaire Belloc.

When asked: “Is it true?” he replied, dryly:

And is it True? It is not True.

And if it were it wouldn’t do,

For people such as me and you

Who pretty nearly all day long

Are doing something rather wrong.

Because if things were really so,

You would have perished long ago,

And I would not have lived to write

The noble lines that meet your sight,

Nor B.T.B. survived to draw

The nicest things you ever saw.


Nick said...

A very clever and insightful review of the genre! Thanks, Mini.

Mini Grey said...

My pleasure, Nick!