A few months ago, I had a really interesting chat with a fellow parent who had bought Can-do Kat for her daughter. She said it was a refreshing change to see a character, especially a female character, getting angry and expressing that anger in a children’s book. Her daughter sometimes finds it difficult to manage her anger, so seeing Kat getting angry was really useful for her because it made her feel like she wasn’t the only one who felt that way sometimes. It gave parent and daughter a chance to really talk about her anger and think about the different ways she might be able to manage it.
For me, it was an eye-opening conversation. I hadn’t set out to write a book about anger but then I started thinking about all my characters: Megan in The Winter Garden, Kat in Can-do Kat, Eshna and Yan in Faces in the Water, the princesses in The Twelve Dancing Princesses, even Lilly in Lilly Mae. In all of these books, there are moments when these characters get angry. Sometimes, this anger is because they think they have been treated badly or because they see an injustice that needs to be challenged, and at other times they are just angry because they are humans and humans get angry about things that might not always seem rational. But just because an emotion doesn’t appear to be rational, that doesn’t make it any less valid.
‘Of course Mum won’t allow it, but aren’t you all angry that someone thinks it’s okay to ask a stranger to spy on us and then offer to let that stranger choose one of us to marry?!’
The girls fell silent.
‘No, that is not okay,’ Hayley said, finally breaking the silence. ‘That is not okay at all.‘
The princesses talking in The Twelve Dancing Princesses – the true story
A few weeks after my chat with this parent, I stumbled across a review for the free eBook version of The Winter Garden. It was a 3-star review, which, being an insecure author, immediately made me begin to sweat with nerves and self-doubt … and, yes, there was definitely some indignant anger swirling around in there too. Why would someone only give it 3 stars? I mean, sure, it is just a cute little children’s book that I wrote one day on a whim and decided to share with the world. It’s not my life’s work. I haven’t agonized over it … but still, 3 stars?!!
Actually, the review was pretty nice when I read it:
A little girl wants nothing more than snow. Megan becomes a very glum child each morning as no snow arrives even though it’s almost Christmas. With some magic and a wish things change.
I didn’t fully like Megan personally I found her a little bit bratty, but I do understand she dreamt of one wonderful snowy day and it was making her down. What I did love was the magic, this story takes you to a beautiful magical place and it was so perfectly wintery you can’t help but love it.
It was a good sweet read, with some cute illustrations to accompany the story. It’s a good winter read; one you can cosy up with your child had read with them during the holiday season.‘
So, it seems to me that the only reason this book got 3 stars instead of, perhaps, 4 or 5 is because the reviewer found the main character, Megan, ‘a little bratty’.
Well, we are all entitled to our opinions and not all books or characters or stories will appeal to everyone. Besides that, feedback is essential for writers and, whilst we might not always like what we are told about our work, it is always beneficial to hear different points of view. In this case, perhaps I will be more mindful of how characters come across in future.
However, I disagree with the reviewer’s analysis of Megan here and I think it reflects a deeper issue about how anger is depicted and talked about, or even avoided, in many children’s books and TV shows. I hate books and TV shows in which the children (and the parents) are unrealistically good- tempered all the time. What does that teach children? Can they even relate to that?
Megan is grumpy in my book. She stomps around the house because she is in a bad mood, and she refuses to do up her coat or eat her breakfast. I guess you could call that ‘bratty’. Or you could just call her a
kid human! Everyone, kids and adults alike, act like a ‘brat’ sometimes and I don’t think it does anyone any good to pretend otherwise. My own kids are clever, inquisitive, funny, kind, ridiculous, gentle, rough, calm, crazy, good-tempered, bad-tempered, and yes, often, pretty bloody grumpy about things that really don’t seem to make any logical sense to my adult brain. And that’s okay. I think showing these emotions in books is a good thing. It’s a way of opening up discussions about emotions and how to manage them.
Perhaps Megan does behave badly but why might that be and what could she and her parents do to change that? And, not to get too ‘English graduate’ about a story book I wrote for fun one Christmas, but there are clues to Megan’s ‘bad behaviour’ in the book. For one thing, she has a new baby sister, and her mum and dad are perhaps not giving her the attention she is used to. That might be a useful discussion opener for some people.
Interestingly, I have had feedback from several other parents saying they loved reading about Megan precisely because she was bad-tempered. They said it made them feel better to know that their kids were not they only ones who behaved like that.
The truth is, anger is an emotion that all of us experience and, personally, I don’t think it does children any good to pretend anger doesn’t exist, or to only show well-behaved children in books. Children will feel anger whether we want them to or not. By only showing well-behaved, good-tempered children in books, all we are doing is teaching kids to be ashamed of their anger, to be scared of it, to push it down and hide it — and that doesn’t help anyone.
Anger is a bloody excellent emotion when handled in the right way! I’m a big fan of anger, and it seems I am not the only one. I had just finished writing the first draft of this piece when I came across an absolutely fantastic post on A Mighty Girl, which is all about this very subject.
It begins, ‘Most parents talk to their children about their emotions, but there’s one emotion that people often leave out when talking to girls: anger,’ and goes on to later quote Mara Wilson, the former child actor best known for her roles in Matilda and Mrs. Doubtfire:
‘All my life I’d wondered where the other angry girls were. I spent so many years trying to fight my anger, to hide it, and that never worked. I don’t think it’s possible to ignore anger, and I don’t think it can be fought. But it can be controlled, transformed, used. It can be a tool. Anger can inspire art, and anger fuels activism. What if we knew girls could be angry? What if we showed them how to use it? What if we let them know that they weren’t alone? … [I]n dark times, our inner fire glows brightest.’
For me, Mara puts it perfectly. Where are all the angry girls? Well, there are a fair few of them in my books, standing up for what they believe in and speaking out against injustice. And do you know what? I’m not going to apologise for that. So there!
‘If something seems wrong, then question it. Don’t just do it anyway,’
Queen Cassandra in The Twelve Dancing Princesses – the true story
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject. Do you agree that we need to be more open about anger? Have you got any recommendations for great reads, books or other resources on the subject? As always, feel free to get in touch.
If you’ve enjoyed this article and have ideas or stories about how to help get this message out there, I’d love to hear from you. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and don’t forget to browse the Can-do Kids website and follow us on Instagram. Plus, don’t forget to sign up to the Can-do Kids Club for extra updates and exclusive material.