Mischief is a very common feature of children’s books. But is reading about mischief good for kids? In this article I will discuss the developmental value (or disvalue) of mischief in children’s books, as one of several criteria for choosing books for children. I will try to distinguish benign mischief from pernicious mischief, and to give adults some guidance on choosing or avoiding books that feature mischief.
This article is an installment in my continuing series on criteria for choosing books for children. For the last article in this series, “Character Development in Children: Books with Exemplary Characters”, click here. To read the series from the beginning, click here for “How to Choose Children’s Books.”
Criteria for Choosing Books for Children: Mischief
So, what do I mean by “mischief” in children’s books? By “mischief” I mean intentional behavior by the characters in the book that strays, to some extent, from what is appropriate or good. The function of mischief in children’s books is generally to elicit laughs. Some examples will help clarify what I mean.
In Olivia, by Ian Falconer, the main character, a five- to six-year-old pig, is quite mischievous. For example, after returning from the Museum of Modern Art she decides that she can paint just as well as Jackson Pollock, and she proceeds to splatter paint on her living room walls. In Olivia Saves the Circus, she tells fantastic and fallacious tales of her summer vacation in front of her classmates. When questioned by her teacher, she affirms that her stories are “pretty all true”. These mischievous deeds were, of course, met with irrepressible giggles when I read the books to my kids years ago.
Mischief is also the stock and trade of the Captain Underpants graphic novels. George Beard and Harold Hutchins—protagonists in the Captain Underpants series—are consummate pranksters. For example, they put black pepper in the pom-poms of their school cheerleaders causing the cheerleaders to sneeze uncontrollably, they put bubble bath in the marching band’s horns so the band’s playing just ends up blowing bubbles, and they replace the football team’s muscle rub lotion with “Mr. Prankster’s Extra-Scratchy Itching Cream.” Such antics, of course, almost always make kids laugh.
However, as I noted in my review of The Adventures of Captain Underpants, I think George and Harold’s high jinks cross the line at times. For example, in chapter 2 George and Harold sneak into the school office and make several hundred copies of their Captain Underpants comic book, which they proceed to sell at a profit on the playground. Moreover, in chapter 12 after hypnotizing Mr. Krupp (their principal), the boys steal Mr. Krupp’s videotape evidence of their disruptive pranks.
In my view, several considerations distinguish these latter acts of mischief from the pranks Harold and George pulled on their schoolmates, and make them examples of pernicious mischief that adults ought to avoid in choosing children’s books. First, and perhaps most obviously, the acts of photocopying their comics with the school copier and stealing Mr. Krupp’s videotape both cross ethical lines—after all, they are both cases of stealing.
Now, behavior of characters in children’s books that crosses ethical lines is not necessarily pernicious. However, when coupled with the fact that the characters get away with such behavior—or are rewarded for it (which is the case in The Adventures of Captain Underpants)—it begins to be pernicious in my view. Children subtly get the message that unethical behavior such as lying and stealing is a good way out of sticky situations.
As I noted in “Character Development in Children: Books with Exemplary Characters”, the power of such a message is enhanced by the fact that children identify with the characters in the books they read, and become friends with them in a certain sense. Moreover, the fact that such mischief inspires laughs makes matters worse: kids are actually enjoying Harold and George’s transgressions, which promotes the opposite of the sensibility that adults should be aiming to cultivate in children. As I noted in my review of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, I think Jeff Kinney’s Wimpy Kid books suffer from a similar defect: they encourage kids to revel in behavior that is downright mean and unethical.
Thus, in short, I think adults should avoid children’s books that encourage kids to laugh and enjoy as the protagonists cross ethical boundaries with impunity. Such behavior from central characters—which I call “pernicious mischief”—encourages the wrong sort of character in children, and thus can hinder positive child development.
Benign mischief, on the other hand, is mischief that makes a book humorous (and therefore subjectively appealing) to a child, without pernicious effects on a child’s character. Such mischief is nothing for adults to worry about, and may well be a reason for choosing a book, if it makes a book especially attractive for a child. Benign mischief may take several forms.
First, it could simply be behavior that is inappropriate in a minor way that does not cross ethical boundaries. For example, in Roald Dahl’s Matilda, one day the central character, Matilda, puts a live fish in the drinking water of her tyrannical principal, Miss Trunchbull. Although such an act might have been mean under certain circumstances, given Trunchbull’s prior cruelty, the act amounts to a humorous form of justice that does not violate any ethical boundaries.
Ramona’s antics in Beezus and Ramona provide another example of this kind of benign mischief. As I noted in my review of Beezus and Ramona, one day while her older sister Beezus is looking after her, 4-year-old Ramona sneaks into the basement, finds a box of apples, and proceeds to take one bite out of each apple in the box. Why? Because the first bite of an apple is always the best. Here again, the misbehavior does not cross any ethical boundaries and exhibits a kind of endearing childish rationale that makes even adults chuckle. Moreover, Ramona is not simply let off the hook for her mischief. Thus, I take this to be an example of benign mischief.
A second form of benign mischief is misbehavior that is only partially intentional. For example, in Kay Thompson’s Eloise Takes A Bawth, the main character Eloise fills her bath to overflowing and imagines herself on wild water adventures. In the process she floods the high-rise hotel she is staying in. While Eloise seems to intentionally overflow her bathtub (thereby making her behavior mischievous), two factors ameliorate her mischief. First, she got carried away in her world of imagination, and thus her behavior was only partially intentional; she surely did not mean to flood the hotel. Second, the consequences of Eloise’s misbehavior come out okay in the end.
Olivia’s wild lies about saving the circus in Olivia Saves the Circus seem also to be only partially intentional. Yes, she knows she is stretching the truth (she probably went to see the circus at least), but her wild imagination seems to carry her away such that she is not entirely in control of her faculties. For this reason, her tall tales seem benign to me. The mischief of the Junie B. Jones series seems to be roughly of this sort too.
A third kind of mischief is behavior that is so fantastical that children know it is not a model for behavior in any sense. Eloise’s bawthtub escapades border on this sort of fantastical, but Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat is a better example. In this classic “Beginner Book”, the Cat in the Hat—not to mention Thing 1 and Thing 2—performs all sorts of destructive mischief. However, the whole context of the story is so fantastical that there is no danger of identification and emulation: kids realize that this is basically an exercise in imagination. If anything, kids identify with the worried fish and the children in the book, not the Cat and his minions of mayhem. Moreover, the Cat cleans up all the mess before mom gets home.
In the end, I have to admit that this is all very subtle. The line between benign and pernicious mischief reminds me of the line between funny and hurtful when giving a friend a hard time about something: sometimes it is hard to know exactly where that line is, but it is usually clear when you’ve crossed it. I’ve tried to offer some objective criteria for distinguishing between benign and pernicious mischief in children’s books, but the truth is that this topic is pretty squishy, contextual, and open to different perspectives. So, I’m pretty certain not everyone will agree with where I’ve come down in this article.
In fact, if you find yourself kind of annoyed right now, I’d love to hear what you have to say in a comment. Show me the error of my ways! This is just my first written thinking about the subject, and I’d love to learn more.
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In the next article in this series I will discuss stories and character formation.