Last time, I set about thinking about anti-heroes in children’s literature.
Turns out, they’re not always so easy to find. Often, the baddie turns good by the end, even if there have been some shabby deeds along the way.
And my point from last time is: it’s all about the ending. The ending shows us the way forward, the moral message. And if a character has been bad, one way or another, being bad at the end seems to seal their fate.
They become the anti-hero. Sounds bleak. But it’s not.
We still can’t stop reading about them. Maybe even, admiring them still, just a bit.
Entry 1: Horrid Henry
Since Henry was the starting point of the discussion, it only seems fair to begin with him.
Henry, as his name indicates, is (generally) horrid. He may occasionally promise to do nice things – or even actually do them – but this is usually to get his own way in the end, or get one up on his brother Perfect Peter.
So, fitting my criteria: Henry is usually still horrid at the end of each story. He may have lied, faked dreadful illness, done unspeakable things to Peter’s toy lamb collection, and so on.
But we still like him. Because part of the point of anti-heroes is that they make the world work for them in ways that we wish had done so for us. (At least a little bit.)
Sometimes, there is even something closer to regular heroism about Henry. If your school dinner lady was nasty to everyone, every day, wouldn’t part of you be rather pleased at contriving her comeuppance?
Other times, it’s more about an honest response to tasks grownups put upon children. If you had a writing assignment for school that you hated, wouldn’t it be enjoyable to subvert it?
Henry doesn’t always get things his own way – which is why he has a matching anti-heroine in Moody Margaret. Henry may play tricks on Margaret – but he usually gets at least the same back.
There’s much more that could be written about Henry (and I’m sure has been, one way or another). But we shall leave him to his Secret Club and stinkbomb plans, and consider someone else.
2. Just William
Before there was Henry, there was William. Just William, that is, of the famous Richmal Crompton stories.
I confess to having read a bit less William than Henry, but I shall make up for this by saying ‘so far’. (I have a couple of Just William books stashed away for Junior Reader, for when the time is right.)
William is the bad boy, in a similar vein to Henry, finding numerous situations in which he fails to make ‘good choices’, to use the current parlance in schools.
William also has a gang – though it seems a more dependable gang than Henry’s. William is the leader of it (of course), but is perhaps less deliberately self-centred than Henry.
William has the added advantage of having a dog, which offers a certain grounding to things – Henry doesn’t do much looking after things (apart from his Killer Boy Rats CDs, perhaps).
(And you should know that, in the TV adaption from the 1970s, William’s dog looked just like the first dog I had. Sadly, my internet searches have been unable to turn up a picture to prove my point.)
But the important point is that William can be relied to show a child’s perspective on what is fun, what is worth doing – and how much of the adult world does not fit into that category.
One of our more recent discoveries has been Blart, a pig herder who is dragged into, amongst other things, a questionable quest.
(Blart is written by Dominic Barker, whose Adam and the Arkonauts we also highly recommend.)
Blart is more an anti-hero by virtue of his determination not to be a hero. Like Henry, he is selfish, and generally uninterested in matters of the greater good.
Blart is a stage beyond Henry and William – he is no longer a child, though his take on life certainly fits a more teenagerly mode.
When given the opportunity to do something noble or important, Blart will tend to focus on pigs instead. But this is not necessarily a sign of heroic humility – Blart likes the pigs in his care, but remains fairly unlikeable himself.
Unlike other poor but effective heroes of children’s books, Blart can also be duped. (Maybe this is part of the undercutting of anti-heroes in children’s literature: they are effective, but not always that consistent.)
And yet. To survive a series of quests when you don’t want to be involved in them, he is probably braver than Henry, overall.
And finally, Iznogoud, the Grand Vizier, in a series of comics from the writer of Asterix, Goscinny, paired with the artist Jean Tabary.
Our local library has one copy of Iznogoud – sadly no more than one (though we should see what inter-library loans can do for us.)
Iznogoud is permanently piqued at remaining in the second-most important job in the kingdom. His aim in life is to become top dog – the Caliph of Baghdad – by whatever means necessary.
It goes without too much saying that, were he to be successful early on, there would clearly be no series. The fun is in the ever more complex ways in which he hopes to secure what he believes to be rightfully his – and of course, fails.
To have a look at Iznogoud, and his famous catch phrase “I want to be Caliph instead of the Caliph”, this site will show you pictures, and more detail of Iznogoud’s various schemes.
Iznogoud is a stage beyond the others. He is an adult, a relatively powerful one at that. We don’t know whether his darker qualities emerged through dint of remaining in the no. 2 slot – or whether they are the outworking of his earlier self.
We know he is the lead character – the titles indicate that, and the Caliph is more like the cuddly and rather ineffectual Sultan in Aladdin, rather than a hero in his own right.
But Iznogoud’s pride and ambition keep him in the anti-hero position – despite every botched job, he is still determined that there will be a next time.
I’m sure there are at least a few more anti-heroes to be found in children’s books. (And there are also Bad Girls, a favourite category on children’s book blog Tygertale.)
Despite the (seeming) villainy of these characters, they can also be made fun of relatively easily. Their position may be important (in their own eyes), or, as in Blart’s case, they may simply want to get on with the task of living with pigs.
Maybe the main point of anti-heroes is that they bring us to stop and think – about what is good; what is self-centred.
We recognise that they have a certain power in their own right – and a power over us too, as readers.