Why The Bad Book is not so bad
Andy Griffiths, 2004
The Bad Book is a work of humour. It relies for much of this humour on the fact that the reader recognises both the conventions of good story-telling and good behaviour. This intention is clearly signalled in the title of the book.
Far from encouraging bad behaviour, however, a rhyme like ‘Jack Horner’ causes laughter precisely because the audience recognises that Jack’s wild behaviour is completely inappropriate and opposite to the behaviour we would expect of a ‘good’ child. The children laugh at the ‘Little Willy’ poems precisely because they recognise that setting fire to one’s own body parts is utterly contrary to both good sense, good behaviour and prudent use of matches. The verses themselves acknowledge as much: Little Willy, albeit with comic understatement, recognises that the cat suffers as a result of his actions. In the second verse he himself suffers and acknowledges his action of setting fire to his bottom as ‘dumb’, and in the third he clearly pays the ultimate price for his ill-advised experiments with matches.
Most of the other pieces in the book rely on exactly the same recognition of the appropriate and the expected. Rather than ‘undermine commonly held values in our society’ the pieces simply play off these commonly held values and by so doing may ironically draw attention to them, and in the hands of a skilful teacher, provide an unusual and engaging platform to investigate – and reinforce – what these commonly held values are.
Our prime purpose in writing The Bad Book, however, is not to ‘encourage young people to be better’. This is more appropriately a project for moral instruction, not fiction. Both Terry and I believe that children’s book writers have one overwhelming duty: to fire the reader’s imagination and encourage a love of reading. All other purposes are secondary. Roald Dahl wrote, ‘The prime function, therefore, of the children’s book writer is to write a book that is so absorbing, exciting, funny, fast and beautiful that the child will fall in love with it. And that first love affair between the young child and the young book will hopefully lead to other loves for other books and when that happens the battle is probably won. The child will have found a crock of gold. He will also have gained something that will help to carry him most marvellously through the tangles of his later years.’
The objection to the old woman being driven over is based on a misunderstanding of the genre in which Terry and I are working. The genre is most definitely not realism – it is humour – and more precisely, nonsensical humour. The culpable driver in question is an ant. Apart from the fact that ants can’t drive (or go to Las Vegas and gamble for that matter), the story provokes laughter because of a recognition that the ant is incapable of rendering assistance to the old lady not because it is ‘bad’ as the narrative suggests, but because the ant is utterly incapable of appreciating the old lady’s predicament. To the ant the old lady is just another obstacle to drive over, no more deserving of sympathy than a piece of grass or a stick. Whether our human pride cares – or is able – to acknowledge it or not, our world is as mysterious and inscrutable to the ant as the ant’s world is, no doubt, mysterious and inscrutable to us.
In its strange and often disconcerting way, nonsense allows us to see the world afresh – to think the unthinkable and to entertain the impossible. In his introduction to Alice in Wonderland, Martin Gardner goes as far as to say: ‘Nonsense, as Chesterton liked to tell us, is a way of looking at existence that is akin to religious humility and wonder. The Unicorn thought Alice a fabulous monster. It is part of the philosophic dullness of our time that there are millions of rational monsters walking about on their hind legs observing the world through pairs of flexible little lenses, periodically supplying themselves with energy by pushing organic substances through holes in their faces, who see nothing fabulous about themselves.’
Another very important function of stories and story-telling is to allow the reader a safe forum in which to experience the darker side of their nature – those impulses that are normally – and necessarily – repressed in order for society to function in an orderly way. We believe that to acknowledge this side of our nature is a perfectly natural and healthy thing to do, and that it is much more desirable to experience these things safely within the pages of the book than to act them out in real life. It is no accident that some of the most enduring and famous characters in literature are orphans, or at least temporarily free of adults, and are plunged into uncertain, dangerous and – dare I say – ‘bad’ worlds. A careful analysis of the content of the average fairy tale (e.g. Hansel and Gretel) or nursery rhyme (e.g. Rockabye Baby) will reveal the truth of this.
Many adults seem to labour under the mistaken idea that if something is fun then it is somehow of lesser value than something which is serious. The tragedy of this is that in the name of providing children with ‘quality’ children’s literature, they may inadvertently hinder the very outcome they are trying to achieve. ‘Child-appeal’, if it features at all, is often a long way down on the list of qualities they value in a children’s book. Paul Jennings writes, ‘“Child appeal” is not a dirty phrase. Experts who value books on a set of adult criteria alone must take some of the responsibility for the shortage of easily read, high interest volumes that may attract our less able, older readers. “Child appeal” is the first, and necessary requirement for reluctant readers. I will go further than this – child appeal is the first requirement for any children’s book.’
In a 1922 diatribe against adults using literature for children as a forum for displaying learning, wit and irony designed to please ‘child-loving adults’ rather than children themselves, G.K. Chesterton pointed out that the best nursery rhymes – a very pure form of story-telling for children – were like nursery tables or nursery cupboards: things contructed for a particular human purpose: and that purpose was nothing less – or more – than to give children pleasure. He wrote: ‘Our fathers added a touch of beauty to all practical things, so they introduced fine fantastic figures and capering and dancing rythyms, which might be admired even by grown men, into what they primarily and practically designed to be enjoyed by children. But they did not always do this and they never thought mainly of doing it. What they always did was to make fun fitted for the young: and what they never did was turn it into irony only intelligible to the old….They saw their aim clearly and they achieved it. They wrote utter nonsense and took care to make it utterly nonsensical.’
For too long writing for children has been hampered by the idea that a book should be all things to all people. It can’t and it never will be. Those well-meaning adults who imagine that the world of books is a rarified atmosphere in which we must tiptoe reverentially around are succeeding in doing little more than making books irrelevant to the lives of successive generations. The imaginative world of books is as wild and full of possibilities as the real world. For children to imagine that books are a place where to enter one must leave their sense of humour at the door is a very sad thing.
The challenge for all of us is to bring books into the twenty-first century – to allow books to be as dangerous and wild and exciting and silly and profound as movies, computer games and rock and roll. Children’s books are not for the faint-hearted. Children need to be exposed to a wide range of material if they’re going to develop a love of reading – and an ability to critically analyse it – everything from lowbrow to highbrow. Stories need to be allowed to be funny, dark, mysterious, sad, exciting and sometimes downright silly if they’re to capture the widest possible readership and stimulate the imaginations of as many readers as possible.
The real point of the story ‘The girl who asked too many questions’ in The Bad Book is not that we should not follow the example of the ‘bad’ parents in the story and literally – or metaphorically – bury children who ask questions: rather we should celebrate the fact that our children are asking questions, even if they are too numerous, too difficult or too uncomfortable. If a book – or performance – raises unexpected questions, this is to be welcomed, not censured. Good fiction is a depth charge into a child’s imagination – there’s no telling where it might lead.
The Bad Book is a deliberately silly and spontaneous glimpse into what happens when two people with similarly off-the-wall senses of humour sit down to write and draw together. We wanted the book to reflect the enjoyment we get when we climb into the treehouse of our combined imagination. And above all, we want to encourage children to experience the joy and exhilaration of this process for themselves. The stories, poems and drawings in the book may not be to everybody’s taste, but the book has been produced in a spirit of fun, and we hope that many children will enjoy it in exactly that spirit without turning into a generation of kicking, cursing barbarians.
We’ll give the last word to Dr Seuss, who understood better than anyone the power of humour in books for children:
Did you ever fly a kite in bed?
Did you ever walk with ten cats on your head?
Did you ever milk this kind of cow?
Well, we can do it. We know how.
If you never did, you should.
These things are fun, and fun is good.