Guest Post: Author Bonny Becker – Have We Gone Too Far In Stripping Bad Things From Picture Books?

I’m excited today to have amazing author Bonny Becker guest posting on my blog. If you don’t know Becker from her adorable new book A Birthday for Bear or from the cute A Visitor for Bear among her other wonderful books including My Brother, The Robot, An Ants Day Off, The Christmas Crocodile, Holbrook, A Lizard’s Tale, Just a Minute or The Magical Ms. Plum (links go to my reviews) then you are simply missing out.  And if you didn’t run out and read her books after my last interview, well, shame on you and  you have another chance to redeem yourself today.  Bonny’s post is fantastic, so please give her a warm welcome and a comment or two.

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Author Bonny Becker

I was always fascinated by the image of the green, crumpled elephant in Babar. Green and crumbled because,  “Alas, that very day, the King of the elephants had eaten a bad mushroom. It poisoned him and he became ill, so ill that he died. This was a great calamity.”

And that was the end of the issue. On to naming the new King who was, of course, Babar. The matter-of-fact way in which it was all dealt with was quite gratifying.

In thinking about some of my favorite picture books, I realized that many of them have that same matter-of-fact attitude toward misfortune. I mean where are Eloise’s parents? When I read Eloise to my daughters, the question never came up. Why should it when Eloise is living her life with such aplomb?

Who didn’t want to her appendix out after reading Madeline? Or, if not that, at least a broken arm and a big dramatic cast to show off at school?

Bad things happen. As a child, I found it scary, intriguing—and encouraging—when bad things happened in books. Encouraging because I felt trusted with grown-up information; yet even more encouraging was the fact that bad things happened, but I could move on. I couldn’t have put it in words, but the message was misfortune didn’t mean despair.

Now, as a grown-up writer of picture books, I wonder if we’ve gone too far in stripping “bad things” from our mainstream picture books?

In my picture book “Just a Minute” I couldn’t get away with Mom leaving 8-year-old Johnny in the big, busy ground floor of a department store under the watchful eye of “Mabel, selling socks.” The sales clerk Mabel, became Auntie Mabel, for everyone’s comfort.

Banished was even the hint of a possibility of something bad happening—which we won’t mention, because it is so horribly bad, but we all know is the barest chance our child might get kidnapped. Rather than spare my child the thought of being left to wait by themselves with Mabel selling socks (and spare myself the thought of what might happen!) I’d suggest reading “The Ransom of Red Chief” by O. Henry.

A funny, ridiculous story like this of a kidnapping gone very badly awry is encouraging in the most basic way—and that, rather than a diet of constant, unspoken fear seems much better nourishment for ourselves and our children.

In another picture book of mine, “A Christmas Crocodile,” [Maw Books review] a crocodile gets delivered to the wrong address on Christmas Eve (as if there’s a right address to deliver a crocodile on Christmas Eve…). The crocodile eats up the family’s big, elaborate Christmas. And for a while there was some discussion with the publisher of ending the book with an illustration of the family redecorating a new tree.

But I had very deliberately not gone there in my ending. The family had the best Christmas ever, but all was not restored. Sometimes something good is lost (the crocodile ate all the presents, too) but it’s fine. And David Small, the illustrator, agreed. (Little did I know at the time, what David knew about things not being restored. If you haven’t read his graphic memoir “Stitches” I’d recommend it.)

Could a story like “Sylvester’s Magic Pebble” by William Steig get published today? Sylvester turns into a rock. Our main character, a child, has disappeared, apparently died and his parents are left in mourning! Some kids’ story!

Everyone is sad, but even so, Sylvester tries to get used to being a rock. Fall comes, winter passes and in the spring, Sylvester’s parents come to the rock for a picnic. Sylvester’s father says, “Let us try to live again and be happy even though Sylvester, our angel is no longer with us.”

Sadness is acknowledged, but the story isn’t sad. Not only because the reader knows that Sylvester isn’t dead, but because of the straightforward march of the story. The voice seems to say, bad things happen. Winter comes to us all, but even so winter always turns to spring. It’s just a matter of fact.

Thank you so much Bonny Becker for being with us today courtesy of Provato Marketing.  Visit Bonny at her website as well as the Maw Books reviews and interview found at the links at beginning of article.

11 comments


  1. This is a great guest post. I do think that we sometimes do our children more harm than good when we overprotect them.

    on November 23rd, 2009 at 7:24 am
  2. This topic has been on my mind lately as I read Lenore Skenazy’s “Free Range Kids.” This generation of parents (of which I’m a member) has been so bombarded with fear-monging news reports and realistic TV murder-mysteries (how many Law & Order shows are there?) that we’ve become paranoid, over-protective fools. Yes, I called us fools.

    For example, I sprained my ankle last week and couldn’t pick up my daughter from school. I asked a neighbor to get her. The teacher knew I was injured, but the neighbor was not on my “emergency list” so I received a phone call from the school. They “didn’t want anyone stealing” my kid.

    I laughed. The neighbor who picked up my child has two daughters in the school, they’ve known her for years. So she’s going to steal my daughter? All common sense has been discarded because of irrational fear.

    This school won’t even let the kids RUN at RECESS. No. They might fall and get hurt. Well, I sprained my ankle walking. Maybe we should just make them sit on benches and stare at each other.

    Sylvester and Madeline are two favorites in our house. It’s hysterical when Sylvester’s parents think he’s dead but the reader knows Sylvester is a rock. Kids love it when they know more than a character in a book–they’re suddenly smarter than a grown-up.

    And yes, my kids have asked to have their appendix removed. And if wished they fell off a bridge. It’s funny stuff. They’re not going to jump off the Golden Gate or check themselves into a hospital. They’re just not. But they will laugh at characters who do. And that’s a great thing.

    on November 23rd, 2009 at 1:32 pm
  3. “And wished they fell off a bridge” like in another Madeline tale.

    on November 23rd, 2009 at 1:35 pm
  4. What a wonderful post! As a mom, I agree – so many of the newer picture books seem to be overly sanitized.

    on November 23rd, 2009 at 1:50 pm
  5. Great post. And so true. The sanitized fairy tales have infected children’s literature as well.

    While I love happily ever after (HEA) as much as the next person, removing even a hint of peril from stories tends to ruin the richness of them.

    on November 23rd, 2009 at 2:24 pm
  6. Thanks Bonny and Natasha, great post!

    We all seem to be living in a climate of fear, and much of it is fear of litigation. So we take the challenging equipment out of parks, in case a parent sues the city when Johnny falls and breaks an arm. Kids take risks elsewhere, secretly. We also sanitize children’s books in case a Fundamental Flopwhocker takes vocal offence at some mention of a naked teapot.

    Yes, bad things happen, and we learn from them. Pragmatism is an attitude I believe we need to encourage in our youngsters.

    on November 23rd, 2009 at 3:14 pm
  7. And yet the authorites say a high percentage of kidnapped children actually know their kidnapper…so where is the balance in all of this?

    on November 23rd, 2009 at 5:56 pm
  8. [...] Bonny Becker is guest posting today on the Maw Books Blog!  Do go check it out as Bonny’s written a fabulous article about picture books that you don’t want to miss. [...]

    on November 24th, 2009 at 10:14 am
  9. Thanks for your comments everyone. It is hard to find a balance. That’s one of the things I love about “Mad Men”–kids bouncing around in the car without seat belts, playing with dry cleaning bags over their heads, mixing cocktails for the adults, Betty smoking and drinking throughout her pregnancy… it’s horrible, but hilarious.

    on November 24th, 2009 at 1:20 pm
  10. What an interesting thought! I agree that many things have been kept out of younger books to “protect” kids from sad things. It is a difficult balance trying to introduce hard things without being too much at once.

    on November 24th, 2009 at 3:49 pm
  11. You’re so right! It’s also why most fairy tales and many fantasy adventures are missing the mother or otherwise manage to get the parents out of the way–one Horn Book essayist wrote about this last spring in an essay called something like “Why Mom’s a Buzzkill.” And I suspect the things you’re saying is why I’m finding myself drawn to subversive picture books like I’d Really Like to Eat a Child, The Odd Egg, and The Flim-Flam Fairies these days. –Kate (Book Aunt)

    on November 29th, 2009 at 9:17 am

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