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!

Put The Cat Out

I used to be allergic to this guy.
I used to be allergic to this guy.

Perhaps my dislike of cats can be traced back to The Cat In The Hat.

My adult self can appreciate the punchy rhymes, solid story arc, and gorgeous pen and ink drawings. But a big part of me can’t help but consider Seuss’s most popular book to be a misfire of sorts. Seuss didn’t write for adults, he wrote for kids, and, as a kid, I found The Cat In The Hat to be terribly unsettling.

Think about it. Two children, perhaps seven years old, are home alone. That’s a vulnerable situation to be in. I had firsthand knowledge of this; I was a latchkey kid and was allowed to be home alone at about that same age. I liked having the house to myself because it made me feel very grown up, but those feelings of maturity were tempered by…was it anxiety? I’m not sure. But when I was alone, a teensy little thought sometimes niggled around in the back of my brain: “What if something happens?” I didn’t know what that something could be, but I did know that some somethings could be very dangerous. Would I be able to handle it? Would I know what to do? Could I keep safe?

The Cat In The Hat seemed engineered to tap into that fear. Without warning, or even a knock on the door, a cat, the size of an adult male, bursts into the house and demands that the children take part in reckless and destructive games that aren’t really games at all.

And this cat is a bully. At the first sign of protest – courtesy of a fussbudget fish – he retaliates with a game called “up-up-up with a fish,” perching the finned fellow’s glass bowl on the handle of his umbrella. When the fish protests further, the cat goes out of his way to make him even more alarmed, by grabbing and balancing more household objects until they all inevitably crash to the floor.

For the young me, that fish was The Cat In The Hat’s lonely bright spot. I loved that little guy. Even after a terrifying fall; even though he had to endure the humiliation of swimming in a pot; even though he was in direct conflict with a natural predator; that proud, brave little guy ripped that cat a new one.

Just take a peek at the fish’s post-fall rant:

“Now look what you did!”

Said the fist to the cat.

“Now look at this house!

Look at this! Look at that!…”

And on it goes. It’s a fabulous “I told you so” moment. Oh, I loved it so.

As a child I loved neatness and order. I liked to play by the rules. Because of this, I tended to gravitate toward wet blanket characters in children’s literature. My favorite Sesame Street Muppet? Bert. My favorite animal from Winnie the Pooh? Rabbit. I identified with characters who existed only to be tormented by the act-first-think-later Ernies and Tiggers of the world.

Fortunately, in Bert and Rabbit’s case, the worst punishment either character received was exasperation. That fish, however, was being threatened with bodily harm.

But the little guy still fought, God bless him!

The fish’s moral victory is a fleeting one, of course. A few moments later, the cat unleashes the Things, and the situation goes from bad to much, much worse.

At least the cat didn’t try to destroy the items he balanced on his umbrella. It was an accident. A stupid, selfish, dangerous, and entirely avoidable accident, but an accident nonetheless. Those Things, on the other hand, were wired differently. The destruction they wrought was deliberate. They delighted in it. I found it awful.

Yes, yes, I know. The boy in the story eventually springs into action and traps the Things in a net. Yes, the Cat cleans up the mess before the mother gets home. But that, in my view, did not make everything OK. That self-absorbed interloper created a lot of undue stress for the kids and that fish, all in the name of “fun” – fun that only he was having.

Not cool, cat. Not cool at all.

Dr. Seuss wrote a lot of stories with similar types of mayhem built in, but The Cat In The Hat was the only one I didn’t enjoy. It was a book that knew exactly how to push my buttons.

That said, I did, eventually, learn to appreciate The Cat In The Hat‘s charms. When my older sister was pregnant with her first child, I offered to paint a mural in the new nursery.

What I chose to paint was that confident cat, locked in eternal conflict with that marvelous, underappreciated fish.

This guy is about seven feet tall. Not pictured: two terrible Things flying kites. (Click to see larger.)
This guy is about seven feet tall. Not pictured: two terrible Things flying kites. (Click to see larger.)
Fish detail. I love this guy. (Click to see larger.)
Fish detail. I love this guy. (Click to see larger.)