Recently, I gave a talk about children’s literature in an academic setting, and a student who plans to work in education one day told me he struggles with the ending to Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back. Personally, he told me, he enjoys the story, but he wondered how he could reconcile that with reading the violent ending to a child. The ending is ambiguous, but clearly this person had decided that the bear in the book kills the rabbit, and he was worried about what type of message that sends to a child.

I don’t remember my response. This isn’t the type of thing that would cross my mind. I think it’s very likely I rambled on about reader-response theory as articulately as I could. (I am not a literacy expert, by any means.)

Templar Books just this week released a picture book from Japanese author/illustrator Yoko Shima, who goes by Yokococo, called Matilda and Hans. This story got me thinking again about this question from the Education major.

Using boldly-outlined, naïf mixed media and watercolor illustrations, Yokococo tells the story of Matilda and Hans. Matilda is a good cat. Hans is always misbehaving, wreaking havoc in the shadows of night. He’s also always in disguise, so savvy children will suspect that Hans is really Matilda’s alter ego, and they’d be precisely right. There’s a wanted poster for Hans, complete with a $1,000 reward. In the end, “Hans” takes off his hat, his mask and his whiskers to reveal himself to a cop as none other than sweet Matilda.

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Caveat: The subject of naughty children in children’s literature (or, in this case, fractious felines) is one of the subjects my co-authors, Betsy Bird and Peter D. Sieruta, and I discuss in our upcoming book, Wild Things!: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature, to be released early next year. This means I won’t go on about this too much here. Frankly, I’d like you to read our book, too.

But I’ll say this: 1) Children love living vicariously through a children’s book protagonist who is, as Selma G. Lanes once put it, “a rotter through and through,” and 2) it’s not necessarily going to lead them to a life of crime. No, really. I’m not being flippant for the fun of it. I know children’s literature is powerful in the lives of its subjects, but it’s powerful (for one) in the opportunities it provides them to experience empathy—not so much as how-to manuals in bad behavior. If this sounds too obvious to point out, let me say that I still hear parents fret about this kind of thing—and on a regular basis.

In other words, if a child believes that Klassen’s bear literally sat on the rabbit, will he do the same to his pesky little brother, who just that morning stole his favorite toy? Not likely to happen. Will a child climb the gates of the local zoo, steal the zookeeper’s keys and set all the animals free, as Hans does? (I’m tellin’ you: Hans is hard core.) Or something similarly fiendish? I dare say I can pretty much guarantee she won’t.

             Matilda and Hans Spread

Of course, any reasonably-minded parent wouldn’t think this, yes? I suppose the core of the issue here is that some parents only want to see the angelic, obedient (even subservient) side of children in children’s book protagonists.

But here’s what happens instead: A child who has felt the sting of betrayal, as does Klassen’s bear, may get a wild kick out of the bear’s revenge (no matter who wielded it in the end). Children might absolutely hoot aloud when Matilda asks the cop “very sweetly” after turning herself in, “Can I have the reward now, please?” (Oh yes, you read that correctly. Best part about the book. To boot, the good, “Matilda” side of her even decides to misbehave when it’s all said and done.)

In Don’t Tell the Grown-Ups: The Subversive Power of Children’s Literature, Alison Lurie writes that the adult who is shocked by such behavior in a protagonist has forgotten what childhood is really like. Many great works of children’s literature, she goes on to write, subvert “honored figures and piously held beliefs.” Children know all too well they’re expected to behave. They will instinctively sympathize, as Lanes put it, with those characters capable of such rotten behavior, behavior we’re all capable of as human beings. What a thrill, too, to read about behavior that isn’t approved of by the grown-ups in a child’s life. We need not worry that the vicarious thrill will lead to copycat behavior. Sometimes it’s just a kick for a child to read about another child (or bear or cat or whatever stands in for the child) triumphing over the adult world. This is something Roald Dahl, for one, understood so well.

So, here’s to Hans. And Rotten Ralph. And Matilda. And Max. Here’s to rotters through and through.  

MATILDA AND HANS. Copyright © 2012 by Yokococo Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.