Books We Heart, The Second Part February 23 2015

Today's post is the second in our series of Books We Heart.  As mentioned in Part I, I wanted to make this space a collaborative one for sharing the much beloved children's books read by other authors, parents and community members. For Part II, I have enlisted the wisdom and cheeky bad girl aspirations of Kate Lum-Potvin - friend, children's book author, Bozzy Book Club co-conspirator, and mom to two grown children.  Kate enlightens us with her take on the role of the "bad child" in children's books and why we are so drawn to their tendencies.  

Children Behaving Badly….Stories of misbehaviour, and why we love them.

By Kate Lum-Potvin

I was a good little girl.

(Kate's doll, not the real Kate)

At least, I supposed I was. Yes, I fought with my sister—her fault, of course—and no, I didn’t always clean my room. But basically, as little girls went, I was good. Our household, tense from my parents’ divorce, was a place where behaviour was closely scrutinized. I dreaded the critiques that came my way, easily crushed by any failures.

My classmates, however, were unimpressed. “How come you never do anything wrong?” snarled a tangle-haired girl named Sherry.

I peered warily at her chapped lips, as she smacked away at her Bazooka gum. I had no answer. There was clearly something weird about me. Why was I cursed with goodness?

Being good brought praise from adults, of course; I soaked up their words like a needy little fern. But it might have surprised these adults—and all the Sherries—had they seen my favourite book.

My first choice, from about the age of seven, was Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls by William Cole, its pictures, by Tomi Ungerer, depicting gleefully psychotic kids:

 

In the family drinking well
Willie pushed his sister Nell.
She's there yet, because it kilt her -
Now we have to buy a filter.

And,

Young Sammy Watkins jumped out of bed;
He ran to his sister and cut off her head.
This gave his dear mother a great deal of pain;
She hopes that he never will do it again.

 

Why did I re-read this book till its pages crumbled? For the same reason, perhaps, that I loved playing “the bad girl” in pretending games with my sisters. She was generally named Amelia (apologies to any Amelias out there.) She yanked tablecloths out from under food, dropped tiny babies, stole money and mouthed off. The Amelia in me became Pippi Longstocking for fifth grade Halloween, and refused to settle down in class—Pippi would never have sat!

Alas, my rebellion melted away at my teacher’s obvious shock. My “good girl” designation stuck. But we all have some mischief in us. If we can’t express it one way, we find another. Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls was pure escape from my increasingly uncomfortable self-image.

(Illustration by Kate Lum-Potvin, not Tomi Ungerer)

Also much loved by me, and later by my own kids, was the wonderful Mrs. Piggle Wiggle by Betty MacDonald, with fun drawings by Hilary Knight. Mrs. PW first appeared in 1947; her series is still underway, the latest installment in 2007.

Mrs. Piggle Wiggle is an imaginative little woman, an oddity among adults but a delight to children. When the parents of the worst-behaved kids in town despair, she suggests ingenious methods of reform that re-define the phrase “natural consequences.”

There’s young Dick, for example, who refuses to share anything. So his mother, at Mrs. PW’s behest, writes “Dick’s ____, Don’t touch!” on everything he owns: his sandwich, his bicycle, his baseball bat, etc. Wilted by the laughter of all his friends, he promises improvement, if his mother will please remove the signs.

My favourite PW chapter to read aloud is about a pair of quarrelsome twins. Their parents, on Mrs. PW’s instruction, write down every word of the girls’ arguments. All the next day, they re-enact them, so horribly the girls beg them to stop. Having tasted their own medicine, of course, the twins vow never to quarrel again.

Aside from the question of whether or not Mrs. PW’s methods would actually work, these stories are interesting in that they bend a key “rule” of writing for children: namely, that a child should be the hero of every children’s story, the source of the solution to own their problems. This is why, in children’s classics, parents are so often dead or missing (and in more recent books, divorced or distant.) A child with attentive parents, it’s feared, might not be the heroine of her own story. Too much help will cushion her path. No tough problem? No plot.

Yet children delight in the world of Mrs. PW, and in her terrible little neighbours. No matter how “naughty” a child has been, most haven’t strayed as far as these! The humour is wonderfully absurd, as well, almost along the lines of Beastly Boys—like the case of Patsy, who refuses to bathe and ends up with radishes growing on her skin.

Perhaps these stories work because, as a reader, the child can “be” both the miscreant and the wise Mrs. Piggle Wiggle. The “naughty” kid is gratified, the “good” one vindicated. Any inner tension between them is comically resolved. After all, the neighbourhood children love Mrs. PW, and she clearly loves them, keeping her house full of toys and games for them, and building its interior—naturally—upside down.

The third book I’ll mention is a departure from the others. The Friend With a Secret by Angela Bull was a favourite of mine from about age eleven. Its heroine, Lucy Quentin, is a good girl, constricted by Victorian life. She yearns for some sort of excitement, but can’t seem to supply it herself.

And here we find another popular device which works very well in children’s literature: the exciting, mysterious, slightly dangerous new friend, who shakes up the life of the well-behaved child. Olivia Lang is gifted and theatrical, lost in imaginings to escape her own troubles. She draws Lucy into a world of half-truths, threatening characters, and Victorian-style drug dealing. Lucy is torn between her friendship for Olivia and her loyalty to the gentle life she’s always known.

And this is how the “good girl” grows up: from gleeful childish recitations, to more nuanced explorations of what rebellion means. The link between honest self-expression and misbehaviour can now be explored in a richer vein. As Lucy fights her fears to save Olivia, she realizes that, in spite of her own, quieter essence, she has what it takes to find adventure in the world. She also realizes that in some ways, her stability has been a gift, one she can share with the neglected Olivia.

In the book’s afterword, we learn about the two friends’ adulthoods. While Lucy has a family and runs a children’s magazine, Olivia departs for a wilder life in London, marries an actor, and continues being Olivia. I do recall my affinity shifting from Lucy to Olivia at the story’s end. Perhaps it’s no coincidence, then, that I’m currently working on a novel about an eleven year old girl in Victorian London who plans to be a music hall star?

Our great task in growing up is, of course, the weaving together of the many aspects of our selves. Like chefs, we season and re-season, seeking the perfect balance between ingredients that stabilize, and those which add spice. This is where literature can help. For a younger child, uncertain or constrained in some part of her being, stories depicting—or exaggerating—her latent qualities provide catharsis. Older kids, ready for more complex tales, experience their emerging selves through multiple characters.

But there’s no doubt we love our mischief-makers and rebels, whether we consciously classify ourselves amongst them, or not. So thanks, Sammy Watkins, you little horror. Thank you, grubby Patsy and Olivia Lang. Thanks for the laughter, the much-needed release, and the wild possibilities for tomorrow.

(the real Kate channels Olivia, age 22 ... she never actually smoked)

© Kate Lum-Potvin, 2015

Kate Lum-Potvin is the author of many children’s books including What! Cried Granny, Princesses Are Not Quitters and, most recently, Princesses Are Not Just Pretty. Her awards include the Red House Book Award (UK) The Japan Picture Book Award, and the Nick at Night Best Book Award (USA). She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC. Kate lives in Nova Scotia with her husband, a musician, and still loves Olivia Lang.