Saturday, 20 August 2011

How Bad Can You Get? by Emma Barnes

I love writing about naughty children. I loved reading about their exploits as a child – whether it was Anne of Green Gables walking the roof-pole, Daisy Bagthorpe setting fire to the dining-room, or Laura Ingalls giving her prissy sister a good slap. So naturally I wanted to create my own fictional little demon.

But writing about naughty children is harder than it looks. Too wild – and the adult world of parents and schools will be down upon you. Too tame – and your readers will lose interest. And unfortunately that balance is harder to find now than it has ever been.

How so, I hear you say. Isn’t children’s literature more embracing, and less preachy, than it has ever been?

Not really. Just look at this example:

A boy keeps kicking footballs over the garden fence. His crusty neighbour refuses to give them back. So that night he dons a mask, and breaks into her house. He finds the ball in her living-room, and when she comes into the room, he pretends to have a gun and threaten her, thus making his escape. She reports the incident to the police – exaggerating the circumstances – and he blackmails her into never keeping his ball again.

Which child is this? Horrid Henry or Dirty Bertie? No. This school boy rogue is Just William. First appearing in print in the 1930s, naughty William is able to do things that no contemporary child hero would be able to get away with. (Leading a gang, and regularly setting fire to things, being two others I can think of.) Naughty William may still be in print – but only because he is so wrapped around in the glow of nostalgia. Otherwise, just imagine the outcry!

For all the talk about liberal parenting, and “anything goes”, it just ain’t so. Most modern children do not go far afield compared to previous generations; they do very little without adult supervision. And horror of children running amok will be even greater after the recent riots. If you want to write about a contemporary child is a realistic setting you have to take this into account.

And yet every new generation needs new anti-heroes. They need to see child heroes push the boundaries – if only in fantasy-land. It’s an form of escape. And it’s good fun.

So, how to make it work? Here are some thoughts – using as examples some wonderful, classic anti-heroes.

1) Keep the protagonist young.
Younger children have the “Get Out of Jail Free” Card in that they can’t be blamed. Judy Blume’s Fudge falls into this category. When he eats his older brother’s pet turtle, it’s OK, because he really doesn’t know any better.

2) Keep it to home and school.
Current favourite Horrid Henry rarely goes beyond this world: his arch rival is his little brother, his bitterest enemies good old Mum and Dad. In the safe haven of the family, chaos can still reign!

3) Have a moral heart.

Perhaps my favourite naughty children are the Herdmanns, created by Barbara Robinson. They are seriously naughty – the first thing they do is to burn down a shed. They also bully, thieve, swear and smoke, and they never really pay for their bad actions either.

And yet nobody could object to the Herdmanns! For the stories have a moral centre to them that is irresistible, whatever your own particular set of spiritual beliefs, because it is ultimately compassionate and humane. Also, they are set in a small town world that seems inherently safe and secure in its values.
Which leads me on to –

4) Set your story in the past.

My Naughty Little Sister seems gloriously nostalgic now, but the stories were “old-fashioned” even when they were written, in that the writer was recalling her own childhood. A child’s exploits are a lot less threatening if they they are taking place in another era.

5) Make it fantastical.
Pippi Longstocking refuses to go to school, but she is a larger-than-life character in a larger than life world – so that’s OK. And finally:

6) Make it sufficiently inventive, clever and funny
– and even the sternest teacher or parent will forgive you!

Have I made it work in my new book How (Not) To Make Bad Children Good?

Well, my heroine, Martha, is young, and her world is mainly that of home and school. There is a fantastical element too: the Guardian Agent Fred who is sent from an Agency in Outer Space that specialises in Making Bad Children Good. But the story is set now, because I wanted to write about the contemporary world we live in.

And is there a compassionate, moral heart? And is it inventive, clever and funny? Readers must judge for themselves.

So what are your thoughts on writing about naughty children? And who is your favourite little rascal?

How (Not) To Make Bad Children Good out now
Emma's web-site is


Stroppy Author said...

This is very thought-provoking, Emma.

I think the issue has become more complex because the way we discipline children has changed.

In the past, a child who burnt down a shed - an action more dangerous and destructive than the label 'naughty' suggests - would expect a good beating at the very least. Perhaps that put really bad behaviour into the realm of fantasy and escapism for most kids. But now it might result in a stern talk about respecting the property of others and endangering the self it is more of an option - and so less acceptable in fiction, perhaps?

Martin H. said...

Interesting post, Emma. Just William for me, I guess. Despite the bad reviews (by adults) the most recent BBC adaptation had our four year old granddaughter glued to the screen, her mouth wide open in disbelief.

John Dougherty said...

Spot on, Emma! We often listen to William audiobooks (read by the incomparable Martin Jarvis) on long journeys, and more than once I've thought, "You'd never get away with that these days!"

Sue Purkiss said...

Really interesting, Emma. I used to love Jennings and Darbishire as a child, but now would probably opt for William - very much enjoyed the tapes with our kids.

Nicola Morgan said...

I'd never thought about this but you're quite right. That was a great post, very thought-provoking.

Like Sue, I loved the Jennings stories. But I never got on with Just William, for some reason. I also loved Katy in the Susan Coolidge books.

Emma Barnes said...

Hello Stroppy - actually the children who burned down the shed (the Herdmanns) got away with it - they even got some dough-nuts, as they snaffled the ones sent over for the police! But, the authors explained, they were lucky - they burnt down a shed everybody hated and thought should be condemned. (I don't know how she got that past her editors - and American editors too, especially alert for the moral messages.)

I loved the recent Just William adaptation, but like Sue and Nicola, I have always loved Jennings more...I wish the BBC would make a TV adaptation of them. They are pure genius! And today's children still enjoy them...when they are given the chance.

Leslie Wilson said...

Just William, absolutely! Though maybe I should revist Jennings...

Emma Barnes said...

Leslie, Jennings is pure genius, and will brighten up the darkest drearest winter-blues weekend. Jennings and Darbishire or Jennings Little Hut are the books I turn to in those angsty moments of despair.

And Nicola, I loved Katy too. I'm trying to remember what she actually did that was so bad though - climbing the school wall is the only bit I can remember.