Friday, April 20, 2012

Revenge: Does It Have a Place in Children's Literature?

R is for Revenge...There are plenty of books  with feel-good revenge themes for adult readers. We marvel at Edmond Dantes' stamina in THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO when he makes trouble for those who had him wrongfully imprisoned. Many years ago, when I watched the movie version of WAITING TO EXHALE in the theater, a chorus of "You go girl!" sounded around me as Bernadine sets fire to her cheating husband's fancy clothes and car. In MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, even Hercule Poirot sympathizes with the murderers who took their revenge on the evil Ratchett.

I wonder if feel-good revenge is a concept intended only for adults to enjoy. Although there are definitely stories about revenge involving adolescents in young adult lit, I see stories about revenge in picture books or middle grade novels less frequently. When a young character is mistreated or maligned in  most children's books, the subtle message of taking the high road or using your wit to outsmart the villain often overrides the notion of "playing dirty" to even the score. Even when a revenge seeker makes an appearance in children's literature, they are often adults or non-humans.  In HOLES, Madame Zeroni,  stinging from a broken promise, places a curse on the protagonist's ancestor. In SHREK! (the picture book, NOT the movie) Shrek fights the aggression he encounters from others with even more aggression.

Many young characters, especially in contemporary fiction, encounter hindrances or backlash for seeking revenge. In RAMONA THE BRAVE, Ramona gets in trouble for destroying her classmate Susan's owl after Susan wins praise by copying Ramona's owl. In DIARY OF A WIMPY KID, Greg is ready to fight his former friend Rowley for taking sole credit for their comic when a group of older kids come by to harass them both.  In THE SHADOW CLUB, members initially take revenge on rivals by playing silly pranks, but as the dirty deeds become more vindictive, the perpetrators eventually have to face their guilty consciences.  Attempts at revenge  don't often play out well for young characters.

...But there are exceptions.  In MATILDA, Matilda plays all sorts of tricks on the adults who cut her down, from putting crazy glue on her father's hat to using telekinesis  to intimidate the headmistress at her school. And she gets away with all this consequence and guilt-free.

Can you think of more exceptions in children's books where revenge is considered acceptable behavior, for example, in fairytales? How about books where revenge is a no-no? Should there be boundaries on how revenge  is presented in children's books, young adult books, or adult fiction? Do you like stories where revenge is part of the plot?


J.C. Martin said...

Good point. Never noticed that till now. Can't think of any children's literature where the hero attempts revenge. Although I'd love to read one where the hero sets out on an initial quest for revenge but circumstances help change his mind.

J.C. Martin
A to Z Blogger

Tara Tyler said...

no one likes to see a bully or bad guy get away with their evil deeds. recently saw horrible bosses, which was crass but funny. always great to see jerks get what they deserve.

as for kid examples:
the dwarves avenge snow white
max keebles big move
big fat liar
lots of nickelodeon movies!

Shelley Sly said...

You've given me a lot to think about, as I read and write children's fiction. One of my books involves a troublemaker, and she always gets in trouble for the chaos she causes (and eventually cuts back on her bad behavior.) I prefer to have consequences for actions instead of having characters get away with it.

Mina Burrows said...

I think its only natural for children to want revenge. I think in any children's story, it allows for a teachable moment. Great post.

Mikazuki said...

Hmmm, I've never really thought about that before. Interesting. Would The Princess Bride count as a children's movie? (I love that movie so much) Inigo in it wants revenge for the death of his father, and this is presented as an honorable goal that should be achieved.
I'm dropping by for the A to Z Challenge. It's nice to meet you! :)

Rachel Morgan said...

This is what I like to see in books: an immediate desire on the character's part to take revenge (as this is a natural response, and therefore believable) but an eventual realization that revenge isn't the best way to deal with the problem (so either some kind of consequence for taking revenge, or the character decides in the end NOT to take revenge). I don't think it's good to spread the message to kids that taking revenge is a good thing!

Lynn Proctor said...

wonderful question--i can't help but think how cinderella was still kind to her step-mother and sisters

Cynthia said...

J.C.- It wasn't easy for me to come up with examples of revenge in children's lit when I wrote this post, which led me to think that revenge might be a less common theme for this audience.

Tara- Thanks for the movie recommendations.

Shelley- I'm glad my post gave you something to think about.

Mina- I think a child wanting revenge is a natural reaction to have too. Though I wonder what boundaries, if any, there should be to this in books.

Mikazuki- I thought of The Princess Bride when I wrote this post. I didn't read the book, but I saw the movie. In the movie, Inigo is a man, not a young boy. Was it different in the book?

Rachel- Maybe you could write a story about that!

Lynn- Yeah, that particular ending didn't seem so realistic to me either.

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