Lit Kid: the anti-hero in children’s books

Junior Reader and friends have some interesting discussions in the morning before school. Some of these I hear at the time; some are relayed to me later. And some of them touch on Lit Kid topics.

“Do superheroes get married?”

Easy answer: Yes – see The Incredibles. (In this household, it is always right to see The Incredibles.)

Longer, harder answer: yes, probably, but often no, because…but I would need a much bigger knowledge of Marvel-style comics to answer that.

A recent discussion brought in opinions of Horrid Henry. Junior Reader is quite fond of Horrid Henry, both book and audio (and my opportunity to do a shout-out for Miranda Richardson’s brilliant audio versions of the books).

Junior Reader’s friend thought Horrid Henry was “a bit dark”. Dan weighed in, and suddenly the terminology of anti-hero appeared.

Junior Reader relayed this to me later, somewhat unsure. So I added my tuppence worth about heroes vs anti-heroes.

In this (thinking on my feet) version, heroes are the main character, (generally) do good things, and we like them. Anti-heroes are the main character, (generally) do bad things, but we still like them. At least a bit.

This seemed to work for Junior Reader, who then got on with other important tasks like cutting yet another paper snowflake. Which left me time to think about this some more.

I think the point is: what is a lead character like at the end of the book? Are they generally good or generally bad?

(I do say generally, because often a well-written character will have some quirks or flaws, but you can still tell that they’re a goodie – or baddie.)

A hero can be various things earlier in the story – a bit brave, pretty cowardly, terribly nervous, and more. But what they are like by the end seems to seal their fate on the hero scale of things.

An anti-hero, by contrast, needs to remain (generally) bad by the end of the story.

They haven’t seen the error of their ways – or they are having too much fun to stop – or they lack enough self-awareness to see that their actions aren’t doing so well on the popularity side of the scale.

So much of children’s literature has a moral point to it. We tell stories at least in part to instil the appropriate values for the culture around us.

We tell stories to show what works with others, and what doesn’t – in part, we hope, so children can avoid making those mistakes.

But anti-heroes do not fit with this. They do not reform. They do not obey societal norms. They may even be given opportunities to change – but (generally) they do not.

So I wondered who the anti-heroes of children’s literature might be. And why, after all their (presumably) dreadful deeds, we still like them.

Because the point of an anti-hero is (I think) that we find some place of affinity with them.

We may not be like them, we may not aspire to be either, but we are still drawn to them.
They ring true as characters, and we respond to them.

I know we do, because I started off writing a post twice this size, telling you about the ones
I found.

But in the interests of a cliff-hanger, you’ll have to come back next week to find out who
I picked.