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.
Mischief is also the stock and trade of the Captain Underpants
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.
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
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.
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
Ramona’s antics in Beezus and Ramona
Olivia’s wild lies about saving the circus in Olivia Saves the Circus
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
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.