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How to Write (Good) Bad Children, by Emma Barnes

Apologies – due to illness, we are unable to bring you the poetry interview – which will be posted in due course so keep an eye out.

Stepping into the breach, RosyB’s sister, Emma Barnes, has kindly allowed us to post this article, originally written for the ABBA blog (An Awfully Big Blog Adventure).

Emma has written four books for children including Jessica Haggerthwaite Witch Dispatcher, shortlisted for the Branford Boase award. Her latest book, “How (Not) to Make Bad Children Good”, with fantastic illustrations by Emma Chicester Clark is out this week.*

Writing About Bad Children 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, 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.

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 the horror of children running amok will be even greater after the recent riots. If you want to write about a contemporary child in 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 a 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 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.

6)      Make it inventive, clever and funny – and even your 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?   I can only hope so: but readers must judge for themselves.

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

Please let us know in the comments below.

*Rosyb, having seen a copy of “How (Not)…” (as it’s affectionately known) can confirm it is, indeed, a thing of beauty and urges you all to rush out and buy a copy for your wee friends and relations immediately.

16 comments on “How to Write (Good) Bad Children, by Emma Barnes

  1. RosyB
    August 26, 2011

    Hmmm. I was thinking about this and it’s an interesting thought you bring up…but I’m sort of wondering how it fits with the gritty dark stuff that is also aimed at kids right now. And all the dystopian kids literature that is the rage. Surely, these books can’t be “safe” and children acting in a more protected way? How relevant is the world of the book? Is it that domestic comedies and domestic kids fiction has no naughtiness anymore and why would that be? A reflection of the way parents worry and kids’ lack of freedom to do their own thing anymore or is it some sort of moral thing that books always have to be teaching a moral lesson? I’m interested in the whys…

  2. RosyB
    August 26, 2011

    Oh and naughty characters…hmmm. Noisy Nora? The Elephant and the Bad Baby? Although I think most of my fav characters were animals. I was reading Dahl the other day and thinking of all the things his characters do fairly casually such as in The Twits and Matilda. I liked Fudge but I can’t remember it terribly well now to be honest. I would need ot return to it.

  3. EmmaBarnes
    August 26, 2011

    The dystopian stuff is much older, Rosy. I don’t think there’s much dystopia for under twelves – I await correction on that!

    Dahl is interesting. I would say he comes under 5) fantastical. None of his books are really set in the everyday world, are they? And actually I don’t think his child characters behave that badly. Charlie Bucket is a very good boy, isn’t he? I suppose there is George’s Marvellous Medicine – but then he was provoked. Maybe that should be another category – child heroes can get away with quite a lot of naughtiness if they are pitched against a truly terrible, evil character.

  4. Moira
    August 26, 2011

    I’m racking my brains here, but I don’t remember reading any books about naughty children when I was a kid – mostly, I suspect, because I wasn’t actually interested in reading about other kids, In fact, I read very little fiction (no change there, then). All of my books were about animals. I’ve never read a William book, or Anne of Green Gables or any of the Little House books … I read some Enid Blyton – but of course her children were pretty exemplary as were Nesbitt’s.

    I think I was deprived of role models … 😦

    But it’s an interesting point that you’d probably never get away with William now and it’s only because he was the childhood reading of so many adults, and safely encased in the warm glow of the past that he’s still in print today, (Oh, and Martin Jarvis probably helped a lot too … I think the audiobooks are huge sellers …).

    But naughty kids in books are surely a healthy thing. There’s something everso slightly wrong with a young child who doesn’t push the boundaries, because it’s part of growing up and learning how to live with other people. So if I were a parent (which I’m not) I’d be perfectly happy to have my sprogs reading about less than angelic children, as long as the stories had – as you say – a moral heart.

    Interesting piece, Emma – about a subject I’ve never really given any thought to.

  5. EmmaBarnes
    August 26, 2011

    Agree with you about pushing the boundaries, Moira.

    Enid Blyton wrote a whole series called “The Naughtiest Girl” as well as a series about “Naughty Amelia Jane”, and even a short story collection called something like “Naughty Children” however she wrote so many books you probably just never came across them. (Eight hundred books, I think. She was a one-woman book factory.)

  6. Moira
    August 26, 2011

    Even ENID? No – I never came across those. I seem to remember that my EB reading was limited to The Famous Five. Or possibly The Secret Seven. Not entirely sure which. (Can you tell?) But they had jolly adventures and I’m pretty certain that not one of them was naughty….

  7. ChrisCross53
    August 26, 2011

    Loved your post Emma. I think children need to read about ‘naughty’ characters who help them explore their own emotions as well as making them think about the behavioural boundaries imposed by society. Adults may feel that there should be some kind of retribution for misbehaving, but children seem to like stories about characters who ‘get away with it’ and behave in a way they they can’t. Perhaps the naughtiness needs to be well intentioned (rather than just plain bad), and I’m sure a dash of humour helps.
    And don’t you find that ‘bad’ characters are often far more memorable and attractive than good ones, in adult as well as children’s literature?

  8. Jackie
    August 26, 2011

    Like Moira, I didn’t read books about other kids unless animals were involved. The only name familiar in this piece was Pippi Longstocking, which my sister read. So this was a really revelational post. And even for readers who recognized the other bad kid books, I bet they, like me, never thought about what a tough job they were for an author. Those past bad kids were certainly firebugs!
    I wish Ms. Barnes much luck with her latest book, as well as any others. I enjoyed reading this post & learning so much about topics I never thought about before. Well done!

  9. RosyB
    August 26, 2011

    I was at an event with Jonathan Lynn at the book festival in Edinburgh yesterday. He of Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister fame. And he talked of how comedy comes from anger. Which I agree with. And how little children feel a kind of primal rage against those that control them like parents and teachers or other kids…and they have to learn how to control this anger and comedy is one way of doing this. I think there is something in this idea and also that children do like to have their own kind of escapism. How many kids’ books (including much of Enid Blyton and Harry Potter) have dead or asbsent parents? To allow the kids to have adventures and be the protagonists without so many boundaries and provide a sense of escapism? I’m sure we all romantically imagined being orphans from time to time as children. Of course in reality the most awful thing that can happen to a child.

  10. EmmaBarnes
    August 27, 2011

    “comedy comes from anger. Which I agree with. And how little children feel a kind of primal rage against those that control them like parents and teachers or other kids…and they have to learn how to control this anger and comedy is one way of doing this.”

    This interested me – Francesca Simon, the author of Horrid Henry, has said in interviews that she thinks part of the huge success of those books is that there is a fierceness to them, that other children really identify with. (Really wish I’d seen that Jonathan Lynn talk by the way!)

    I think it’s true – whether it is Anne of Green Gables, Just william or Horrid Henry, the “naughtiness” is often frustration against adult authority. And yes, the humour is a way of learning to deal with that.

  11. Hilary
    August 27, 2011

    Goodness me, yes! What a lovely piece, and thanks for making me look back to see what naughty children I recall from my childhood reading. I loved this analysis of how to make them work, and smuggle them past the grown-ups.

    Actually, there seem to be two sides to this in my own childhood reading – on the one hand, there’s William, and my all-time favourite Violet Elizabeth Bott, who is bad in another sense (spoilt), where the badness is the point. On the other, my childhood reading was littered, teeming even, with children doing wrong and learning a lesson, or getting comeuppance, or proving to turn out good underneath it all – to the extent that I can’t remember reading much at all about Good Children. That could just have been my taste, because I by-passed completely Swallows and Amazons, Narnia and the Famous Five. Maybe consciously or unconsciously, I sought out the frisson of reading about children behaving badly.

    Susan Coolidge’s Katy learns the hard way to be good – her disobedience earns her one of those mysterious 19th century spinal complaints and a year in bed. Jo and Amy, with their differing takes on behaving badly, were my favourite Little Women. (Even my first ever, ever, Ladybird Book was called ‘Mick, The Disobedient Puppy’! See? That has stuck with me since I was 4.)

    I reviewed Stalky and Co a few months ago, and in it this trio of schoolboys were lionised for being essentially mad and bad – no team spirit – lowered the tone of the school. But behind that (now I’m grown up and reading it afresh) was a latitude given them as training for Empire-building, and specifically in the case of Stalky for low-intensity operations on the North West Frontier. I can see their manipulation by the adult world now. But when I was a child reading it, the deliciousness was that they broke bounds, tormented their teachers and beat the grown-ups at their own game.

  12. hrileena
    August 27, 2011

    I like Stalky. Which is all shades of politically incorrect, but he’s such fun.

  13. Lisa
    August 29, 2011

    Really liked this piece. I tried to think back to when I was a little kid and I think the reason I enjoyed reading about naughty children was because, well, they often seemed pretty justified in their behaviour in a world dominated by adult rules that often seemed rather arbitrary. In fact, I don’t think it ever occurred to me that anything Anne did in Anne of Green Gables was at all naughty. It was the adults and their rules that were wrong . . . The thing that stands out for me is the moment when Anne goes to church (or Sunday school was it?) and she has adorned her plain bonnet with a garland of flowers. All the adults deem her to have made a spectacle of herself and Marilla is mortified when she hears of the escapade, but from Anne’s POV she’s done nothing wrong, she’s just improved her hat! I love that about AOGG. You’re so firmly in Anne’s POV that even the roof-walking feels necessary and justified. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that notions of good and bad behaviour feel somewhat different to me now that I’m an adult (and a parent). As a youngling being continually bossed about by an assortment of adults (for reasons I often didn’t understand or consider important) I was always rooting for the rebellious children in books. Bring on the naughtiness!

  14. kirstyjane
    August 29, 2011

    Just to say thank you very much Emma for this brilliant post — and I’m loving the discussion!

  15. EmmaBarnes
    August 29, 2011

    I’m loving the discussion too kirstyjane – thanks for so many thought-provoking responses!

    Lisa – of course Anne of Green Gables is often accident-prone rather than naughty. But I think some of the things she does – dying her hair, getting her friend drunk (albeit by accident) and losing her temper with an adult and refusing to apologise, would have seemed fairly shocking at the time. (As with the flowers and the hat.) On the other hand, some of the things that might seem shocking now – eg walking the ridge-pole, and almost drowning – were maybe less so then. Our attitude to risk and children has changed so much.

    I never read Stalky – I am adding it to my reading list.

  16. Pingback: How To Write Good!

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This entry was posted on August 26, 2011 by in Entries by Rosy and tagged , , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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