Debatables: No Hugging No Learning

It is time once again for Debatables, the monthly column where esoteric kid-lit questions are argued with way too much passion.

My Debatables sparring opponent is, as usual, my colleague, friend, and collegial frenemy, Cricket Muse.

Cricket and I are coming off a bit of a Debatables hiatus, so we’re going to be a bit less argumentative this time around. We also decided to make this month’s esoteric topic more esoteric than usual, so bear with me as I explain what we have in mind:

In most books, the main character goes on a journey. He or she must overcome a challenge or solve a problem or learn a lesson. In other words, the character has an arc. On the journey from Point A to Point B, the character changes.

In the Dr. Seuss book The Lorax, for example, The Onceler has a very pronounced character arc. In the span of a few pages, he changes from a gregarious, short-sighted money-grubber, cheerfully willing put his bank account above the health of the planet, into a regretful hermit, searching for a way to undo the damage he has done.

I love The Lorax. The story is tragic, but The Onceler’s character arc provides hope for a better future.

The Giving Tree, on the other hand, has no character arcs. The Boy hacks away at the Tree without ever giving his actions a second thought. And the Tree happily lets herself get hacked. By the book’s end, the Boy may be older and the Tree may stumpier, but neither character has learned a thing. The Boy is still a narcissistic, entitled turd, and the Tree still thinks nothing of destroying herself to cater to the Boy’s destructive whims.

God, do I HATE The Giving Tree.  

But here’s the thing: I don’t hate The Giving Tree because the characters have no arc. I hate The Giving Tree because the characters are horrible and they stay horrible.

Cricket and I believe that there are lots of great picture book characters who have no character arc.

And that’s today’s topic:

Who’s the Best Arc-less Character in a Picture Book?

Cricket believes it is Harold from Harold and the Purple Crayon.

And I’m going with Ferdinand from The Story of Ferdinand.

So! Let’s begin.



Some literary folk say a character becomes more memorable through the noted distinction of “arc.”

Not true.

I say Harold of The Purple Crayon has perfected the art of arc-lessness. After all, he has been around since 1955, inspired a variety of creative endeavors from movies such as The Story of Us to television icon Homer of The Simpsons. Yet no personal growth, no arc is present in Harold, the kid who goes from point A to point B without expressing any character change.

Harold draws

Harold is no doubt unruffled by all the attention he’s garnered. In fact, he is one of the most pragmatic four year olds in literature. He is a problem solver from the moment he decides to take a walk in the moonlight to finally going to bed after a long night of creating his own little world. No muss, no fuss, just grab a crayon and draw.

His intention is to not learn a lesson nor impart one, he simply wants to do his thing. And he does so.

Who says a character has to arc and sparkle to have meaning? Over 50 years of being Harold, the kid with a purple crayon, he has provided inspiration and insight on what it means to simply “be”. That carries some kind of convincible clout.



I love Ferdinand the Bull. From the time he was a wee calf, he knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life. And, despite the increasing madness that swirls around him as his story progresses, he never wavers. Ferdinand wants to be a flower sniffer. That’s it and that’s all.

Whatta cutie!
Ferdinand sniffs.

You might question the merits of Ferdinand’s life goal, but you certainly can’t argue with the strength of his convictions. He feels no peer pressure to roughhouse with the other bulls in the pasture. He is unswayed by his mom’s gentle prodding to be more bull-ish. (And let’s take a moment to appreciate Ferdinand’s supportive mother! WOO!) And when Ferdinand is foolishly selected to be the ferocious main attraction at the bullfights in Madrid, the peaceful bull feels no pressure to perform for the braying, bloodthirsty crowds.

In fact, Ferdinand barely seems to notice the crowds, the matador, the picadors or anything else. As long as there is a comfortable place to lie and flowers to sniff, Ferdinand is cool.

I love Ferdinand because I see a little of myself in him. I was a peculiar child. I liked to do my own thing, even if it meant doing it alone. So Ferdinand’s quiet and unshowy nonconformity struck a chord with the young me. That flower-sniffing bull taught me that being different was okay. (And, like Ferdinand’s mom, my mom was similarly supportive of my peculiar-ishness.) 

The book The Story of Ferdinand is not flawless—in fact, I’ve written about the book’s flaws on this blog. But Ferdinand the character is flawless in my eyes—and he always will be.

Don’t you go changing, you nutty flower sniffer, you!


And that’s the debate! Who is YOUR favorite arc-less character? Leave a comment and let us know!

33 Replies to “Debatables: No Hugging No Learning”

  1. If this is an invitation to offer our own favorite, I’m going with Imogene, the non-conformist who so shocks her family with antlers, but is completely unbowed in her iconoclasm even after the antlers vanish, in “Imogene’s Antlers.” If, on the other hand, I am being asked to choose between Harold and Ferdinand, I’m afraid I’ll have to sit this one out. They are both lovely, and I honestly cannot decide!

    1. Mike didn’t feel like debating this month (maybe he’s thinking I’ll win yet another round). I like chiming in with your idea. Imogene is great choice.

  2. I love both these characters—they know who they are and they are who they are. But Mike’s personal connection to Ferdinand sways my vote his way.

  3. You all have an advantage of being in the know about children’s books. My kids are in their 30’s and so far the books my grandson likes don’t have much in the way of a plot.
    I’m thinking maybe Ramona Quimby? She also marches to her own tune even if she’s quite young and doesn’t seem bothered by rules or making other people happy.
    If this is a horrible choice, it is because I’ve spent the week with a 2 year old and 5 million Why questions. I’m a little sleep-deprived and have had not much time to myself.

  4. Hey guys! Love that you’re back and have offered up a topic that, like summer itself, is bright and breezy. Not too much passion this time around. I love both characters but have to go with Harold because in fact of Mike’s point regarding Ferdinand: no mother. As any scholar of young adult literature would tell you, the key to classic and effective characters is that they must go it alone without adults. So it’s great that Ferdinand’s mother supports his idiosyncracies (and I’m glad your mother supported yours too, Mike), but that all the more points to Harold’s independence, braving the world on his own, not needing or having support or permission to draw his own path.

    And if we’re looking for arcless characters, let me introduce you all to Ella Sarah. It is a fabulous picture book in which Ella Sarah keeps repeating the same thing regarding what she wants to wear that day, and we watch as every single person in her life–and there are those pesky interfering parents I mentioned–tries to derail her vision. She never changes course. Fabulous.

  5. Well, folks, my favorite arc-less character is the child in “I Ain’t Gonna Paint No More.” That kid is gonna paint the town every time mama turns around. And the dog is definitely in on the joke. But if I had to choose between your two characters, I’d have to vote for—

  6. Well, this is a tough one. Harold is really about creating a new way of making a story, one that appears to unfold haphazardly, a precursor to today’s interactive stories and how they progress. And Ferdinand is a timeless critique of violence. Who can resist a bull with flowers behind an ear, especially in today’s world (actually, so much of what has always gone on in this world is pretty crappy)? I think I’m going to go pick flowers with Ferdinand.

  7. It’s only 10am and you two want me to THINK??

    Sadly, I have gotten out of reading books lately. And even with the hundreds and hundreds of books I’ve read? My brain won’t pick any one book.

    Oh and I like The Lorax too. And Ferdinand. Never read that purple guy tho…

  8. I’m definitely late to the party, but I love both these characters. I’m not sure that either fit, though: Harold has one Crayola-induced trip and Ferdinand learns at least one life lesson.

    Given the terms of the debate and such, I think I’ll have to go with Ferdinand.

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