Naughty Kids, Flawed Kids, Unlikely Saviors

Elizabeth Bluemle -- September 24th, 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

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