Naughty Kids, Flawed Kids, Unlikely Saviors

Elizabeth Bluemle - September 24, 2009

Today I had an attitude,
That’s what my parents say.
They said it was a bad-itude
And took my toys away.
So now I’m stuck here by myself
With nobody who cares —
I wish when they had attitudes
They’d send themselves upstairs!

I wrote this poem a few years back and sent it to a family magazine, which decided the premise did not strike an appropriate tone and sent it back with a note to that effect. Sincere regrets, etc. I didn’t mind that it wasn’t published—it is just a smartypants little poem—but I found the logic faulty: kids relish a little bad behavior and subversive self-expression in books; they’re a safe outlet at the least, and can be life-changers at the most.

I was an absurdly well-behaved child—due to parental insistence more than my own nature, I’m afraid—which is why, I suppose, I gravitated toward naughty kids in literature. I loved Eloise and the insouciance with which she strewed mild destruction in her wake. I loved the poetry of Shel Silverstein with its litany of dreadfully disobedient children, and John Ciardi’s cheerily doomed boys and girls in You Read to Me, I’ll Read to You (a treasure still in print, illustrated by Edward Gorey; don’t miss the read-aloud goodness of its Halloween poem, by the way). I couldn’t get enough of William E. Cole’s delightful (but now OP) Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls, a veritable menagerie of obnoxious children wreaking mischief and havoc. They refused to brush their teeth. They taunted sharks. They interrupted adults. They put MUSTARD in each other’s SHOES! And those were the good kids.

If I felt guiltily gleeful reading about over-the-top naughty characters who got away with things my parents decidedly would not have tolerated, I was alarmed and fascinated by the overtly obstinate. I never exactly identified with "terrible, horrible" Edie, Isabelle (the "itch"), Maureen in The Wicked, Wicked Ladies in the Haunted House, or bully Veronica Ganz, but they fascinated me, and I understood that they were, by and large, misunderstood (and what child can’t relate to that?).

The Secret Garden‘s Mary was shockingly pinchy and sallow. Although I wasn’t generally a sullen child, I certainly had my moments, and I appreciated Mary for being as ugly as I felt in my most unpleasant incarnations, or at least a close contender. I could feel the tonic powers of Dickon’s rosy cheeks and cheerful whistle—and, of course, the garden itself—on Mary’s prickliness, and it worked on me, too. Robert Burch’s Queenie Peavy is also angry for good reason; she misses her dad, who is in jail, and the shame and public teasing from other kids is a lot to bear. Her experiment with being "good" for a day has unexpected results.

I wasn’t lucky enough to be a child when Katherine Paterson’s brilliant The Great Gilly Hopkins came out, but reading it as an adult made me feel like an eleven-year-old again. Gilly is a much tougher cookie than I ever was, and I loved her for it. She said "no" when she meant "no." She acted mean when she felt mean. She stole money—from a blind man! She was horrible, and very, very human. I was astonished that Paterson "allowed" Gilly to be so bad, to be—worst of all—callously, ignorantly racist. These were brave decisions for an author to make, because they are so alienating to readers. And yet Gilly is lovable; her defiance comes from pain, she is smart and funny and a secret optimist, so when Paterson takes Gilly step by step through her slow transformation and unfolding, we believe it, and we forgive her. She learns how to be strong without destroying others and walling off her own heart.

There was a less well-known character who was as prickly as Mary, as difficult as Gilly, and as angry as Queenie: her name was Kizzy. She was the tough, lonely main character of Rumer Godden’s The Diddakoi—retitled Gypsy Girl in a re-release that is now also, sadly, OP—a "gypsy" girl on her own in the world and bullied to the point of collapse. It was an upsetting book to read as a kid, to experience children’s cruelty at its worst, but Kizzy’s resilience was inspiring and hard-earned, and her story (much like Eleanor Estes’ The Hundred Dresses) paints a picture of both true compassion and its ugly opposite. These were indelible images, indeed, for middle-graders trying to navigate the waters of who they want to be.

Finally, there were the funny flawed girls. There was something wonderfully reassuring about kids like Harriet (the spy), Barbara Brooks Wallace’s Claudia, Beverly Cleary’s Ramona, and Constance C. Greene’s Al, four comfortably rumpled girls whose imperfections were sometimes funny, sometimes not. Their ill-advised choices or unlovely thoughts weren’t sugar-coated, but they came to realizations about themselves and others, and apologized, and were forgiven, and redeemed themselves, and moved on. I think that’s what was so appealing, in a nutshell: these girls proved that there was life after mistakes, that love wasn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. These were real kids, stumbling clumsily along, with as much laughter as crisis, and tender, vulnerable hearts beating underneath the bad behavior. When you’re a kid, and your brain is still transitioning from concrete, literal thinking to being able to see and tolerate shades of grey, redemption (untidy as it may be) is both nourishing and necessary. It’s a tasty dish for adults, too.

Who were your favorite "bad" boys and girls, and why?


(Thanks to Liza Woodruff for the perfect sketch.)

Books mentioned in this post (* = in print):

*Eloise (and series) by Kay Thompson, illus
by Hilary Knight (Simon & Schuster)

*Books by Shel Silverstein (HarperCollins)

*You Read to Me, I’ll Read to You by John Ciardi, illus. by Edward Gorey (HarperCollins)

Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls by William E. Cole, illus. by Tomi Ungerer (OP)

Terrible, Horrible Edie by Elizabeth C. Spykman (coming back in print from New York Review of Books 5/18/10)

Isabelle the Itch by Constance C. Greene (OSI)

*The Wicked, Wicked Ladies in the Haunted House by Mary Chase, illus. by Peter Sis (Yearling)

*Veronica Ganz (also Peter & Veronica) by Marilyn S. Sachs (

*The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, illus. by Tasha Tudor (HarperTrophy)

The Diddakoi by Rumer Godden (later titled, Gypsy Girl) (OSI)

*The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, illus. by Louis Slobodkin (Harcourt)

*The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson (HarperCollins)

*Queenie Peavy by Robert Burch, illus. by Jerry Lazare (Puffin)

*Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (Yearling)

*Claudia (and *Claudia and Duffy and *Hello, Claudia,by Barbara Brooks Wallace (

*Ramona the Pest, by Beverly Cleary (now with a very cute cover) (HarperTrophy)

*A Girl Called Al (the rest of the series is OP) by Constance C. Greene, illus. by Byron Barton

26 thoughts on “Naughty Kids, Flawed Kids, Unlikely Saviors

  1. Karen Romano Young

    Funny thing about this: I know every one of these books intimately, as well as a few others: No Fighting, No Biting (Else Minarik); Ramona the Pest; Sam, Bangs, and Moonshine; Arabelle and Mortimer (and the rest of the series). Thank you for reminding me! I love the drawing, too. I feel just like that when I get up, some mornings.

  2. Carol Chittenden

    At about age 5 I first met that early rebel, Little Toot. It was all I could bear to sit through the story, knowing he was risking bad, bad trouble. We had it on a Little Golden record, which I played over and over, with delicious dread every time.

    1. Victoria Pomeroy

      This was a record I played as a child, too. When the boat got out into the ocean, it scared the everloving stuff out of me. Unfortunately, I grew up with a mom who wasn’t very nice, who told me that “that’s what happens to children who goof off too much” – completely missing the actual point of the book, and freaking me out besides. I didn’t even enjoy the “Toot as Hero” trope, because of this.

  3. david e

    it took me YEARS of my adult life to recognize that it was in “beastly boys…” that i first came across the aforementioned shel silverstien poem advocating for shoes full of mustard (and driving nails through their feet!). i’ve sense hunted down most of those wm. cole/tomi ungerer collaborations and find them to still make for great reading.

  4. Mary Quattlebaum

    Kudos on your poem, which fairly bristles with humor and righteous kid indignation! As for favorite bad characters, I loved Carlie in “The Pinballs” by Betsy Byars. She was so quirky and prickly, with a great ability to needle adults and yet with her own version of tough kid love when it came to the other two boys in the foster home. Plus, she would read only the first page and the last page of her nurse novels and declare that she had “read” the book. Such gall thrilled me!

  5. Cinda Chima

    I LOVE your poem, Elizabeth!! When I was a kid, I loved Ramona Quimby (Beverly Cleary). She was so deliciously bratty and yet totally human. These days I love Clementine for some of the same reasons.

  6. shelftalker elizabeth

    I love all the secret rebels coming out to post. Isn’t Liza’s sketch for the poem just perfect? I don’t know why I didn’t put Ramona in with the other funny, flawed girls. She is of course the original princess of mishap, the ur-funny-flawed-girl, and I thought about her as I wrote, but somehow left her out. She doesn’t deserve such short shrift. Now she’ll get a complex.

  7. Nikiofware

    I love your poem. I think you should start resubbing it. With Olivia and the No David books being top-sellers, now is the time. I also wanted to say that I have very few books that survived my childhood. Among them are two from your list: The Wicked, Wicked Ladies in the Haunted House & Queenie Peavy. Another favortie of mine was THIS CAN’T BE HAPPENING AT MACDONALD HALL. Bad behavior galore.

  8. Andrea Vuleta

    There were a lot of slightly naughty characters in my books as a kid. The ones that I truly remember best are all the kids from Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. The awful consequences of not eating or having a messy room are still with me! And Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s advice to let things run their course was over the top!

  9. Shirley

    Harriet the Spy for me….I still only write in the black and white notebooks. I was just given two mini ones for my birthday. Such a great surprise from a daughter who understands!

  10. Jen

    I loved your poem as well! And thanks for writing about the “bad” boys and girls of kids lit- I’ve always been a big fan as well. Many of my favorites have been mentioned already, but a few that haven’t are Pierre: A Cautionary Tale in Five Chapters and a Prologue by Sendak and Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Come to think of it, Judith Viorst also wrote some great poetry with some wonderfully naughty characters as well.

  11. Rahel

    I enjoyed your poem a lot, and I think it ought to be published! It reminds me of the protagonist of a new children’s book called I Always, Always Get My Way (written by Thad Krasnesky, illustrated by David Parker). The protag, three-year-old Emmy, gets her way until things spin out of control and she ends up being sent upstairs to her room… but not before having a whale (or at least an iguana) of a time! If Emmy could find her way into print, I think your poem should, too! I loved Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls when I was a kid! Our teacher used to read it to us in school. What a shame that it’s OP. (I still remember: “William, with a thirst for gore/Nailed his sister to the door:/Mother said, with humor quaint:/Now, Willy dear, don’t scratch the paint!” And there was also John who was driving with his wife, Ruth, when “The car hit a bump./Ruth hit a tree./And John kept going/Ruthlessly.”) I also loved Harriet in Harriet the Spy and all her adventures, though the book sometimes made me feel a bit sad. Even in a non-fiction book such as Sydney Taylor’s All of a Kind Family, one chapter shows Sarah’s stubborn streak, and Charlotte and Henny get into all sorts of hi-jinks throughout. I never forgot how Henny dyed her oldest sister Ella’s dress with tea in order to hide the fact that she’d borrowed it without permission. And who couldn’t fall in love with Max of Where the Wild Things Are?

  12. shelftalker elizabeth

    Rahel, oh my gosh, you brought back memories with those poems. I remember them so well! Can you imagine an author trying to get the nailing-his-sister-to-the-door poem published today? *snort* Thanks to everyone’s kind comments about the poem. I consider it published here, and people are welcome to share it with feisty kids, or kids who wish they were fesity. 🙂

  13. Librarian Lou (Lou Hunley)

    As a child in the sixties, I loved an early (pre-Ramona) Beverly Cleary book called Otis Spofford. Otis was the bad boy in his class, though mild by today’s stories. He was the child of a busy single mom. He was also picking on shy Ellen Tebbits. One day Otis was shooting spitballs in class, and his teacher, Mrs. Gitler, made him throw spitballs all afternoon. He also cut Ellen Tebbit’s hair. My childhood friend, Nancy and I would play games where we pretended to be Otis Spofford and Ellen Tebbits. I think this book is still in print.
    I want to do a post on naughty children in chapter books on my blog, Librarian Lou-coming in January 2016


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *