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.”
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 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.
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!
Hi, Betsy! Come on in. Pull up a chair. How do you like your waffles?
Thanks, Mike! I’m so honored to be here. As to my waffles, normally I just have syrup, but since this is a special occasion, I say go all out: gimme some whipped cream, blueberries and strawberries. I feel like living large today.
Then live large you shall. How did you get started in the advice book business? Was there an epiphany, an aha moment when you thought, “Hey, this stuff I’m doing might help others?”
There kind of was. I remember lying in bed one night running through a potential scenario with my kids, advising them how to handle whatever situation had befallen them, as I tended to do whilst trying to fall asleep, and I thought, these situations may never happen, but I should still write this stuff down.
And then I never did.
Months later, a publishing connection fell into my lap, so I decided to pitch the idea of a humorous parenting book. It was accepted, and I finally made good on the promise to myself to let the thoughts in my head come out and play.
I like to think my style is a decent mix of permissive and authoritative, in that I know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, and know when to walk away. (But only when the dealing’s done, of course.)
My style has definitely changed. I’ve learned to let go of trying to be a perfect parent with a perfect home. I’ve become happier, accepting that I can’t achieve perfection. And that’s okay. I think my kids are probably happier as a result, too, since I’m less stressed and more able to focus on having fun with them. Fortunately, my older kids have been trained to clean up after themselves thanks to my earlier frantic years, so I guess it all worked out in the end.
What is the most awesome parenting moment that you have ever witnessed in public?
The first thing that comes to mind is something I witnessed while in the process of writing this book. Hence, it made its way into the book. I was at a playground and a mom of a boy and a younger girl were at the monkey bars. The boy made it across with ease, but the girl was crying because she couldn’t do it. The mom assured her daughter that her brother had had more practice. She told the girl, “Practice makes progress.” I respected that she didn’t use the usual trope of practice makes perfect, because in reality, no one can be perfect at everything. We can however, get much better with repeated effort. I found that to be a great lesson worth imparting to all children.
And what’s the worst? Because I gotta know.
Likewise at a playground, many years ago when my girls were young, the only other family there was a mom and her two sons. She wanted to leave. She told her boys it was time to leave. They kept playing. A few minutes later, she said, “Let’s go,” and they completely ignored her. I saw her throw nervous glances in my direction, and I knew she was afraid to discipline her boys in front of me. Though we’d barely gotten there, I was tempted to leave just to give her a chance to do what she needed to do, but I knew that would be unfair to my kids. We did eventually leave before her. She had long since given up trying to get her sons to come with her. I felt sorry for her. It’s too bad parents are afraid to lay down the law in front of strangers. No doubt her kids intrinsically knew that and were taking advantage. Ideally, she would’ve had them trained by then to know that when she says it’s time to go, it’s time to go—I say from my high horse. I’ve probably been in that same position at some point and have repressed the memory.
Most couples have a good cop and a bad cop. Who would your kids say is the more lenient disciplinarian?
My husband is Good Cop. I’m the one who lays down the law. I think that’s because I’m the more anal one who cares about a clean house and bedtime schedules. He’s far more laid back, but I love that about him. He balances me out when I get a little nutty.
I remember times, years ago, when he would look me in the eye to hold my gaze so I wouldn’t look past him into the messy playroom and say to me as he shut the door, “Just don’t look in there.”
Well, thanks for stopping by, Betsy! Before you go, let me just ask you a quick question. I see that you have written a book in Polish! What’s it about?
Oh, how cool it would be if I’d really written a book in Polish. What you’re seeing is actually the Polish translation of my first book, 101 Tips for a Happier Marriage.
Oh, so you don’t speak…?
There’s also a Korean and Indian version. The Indian version is in English but reprinted by a in a way that makes it more affordable for locals, which I respect. It’s an honor that the book was found worthy of sharing in other countries.
That’s great, but I was hoping to get a Polish lesson.
By the way, these waffles are so good. I’m getting full. Could I have just one more?