An Awful Book

“Always make the audience suffer as much as possible.”
–Alfred Hitchcock

Can you remember a book from your childhood in which the main character suffered so much that it, in turn, made you wriggle in your seat with agony?

Henrys Awful MistakeFor me, this book was HENRY’S AWFUL MISTAKE, by Robert Quackenbush. [You can find a reading of it on YouTube]  I must have been a masochist even as a kid, because, while this reading experience was an agonizing one, it was still one of my favorites. Henry is making dinner for his friend Clara’s visit, when he sees an ant in the kitchen. He doesn’t want Clara to see the ant and decides it “has to go”. What begins as a simple task becomes mayhem; a shifting of the stove, a small crack in the wall, a gaping hole, a damaged pipe, a FLOOD . . . an entire house sunk.

“Don’t draw on the walls” is one of the first lessons I can remember learning (I’m guessing this is true of many), so as a kid, seeing the first crack in the wall made me squirm, the gaping hole made me wriggle, and then absolute horror set in as the entire house is gradually destroyed. Poor Henry! To an adult this might not be quite as painful to read, because, well, we understand the fact that it isn’t real. But kids are sensitive and take things very seriously. It’s good to remember this as picture book builders, so we can use awful things in our stories with intention.

At an SCBWI conference in 2011, I remember hearing author Donna Jo Napoli speak about the importance of writing books for kids in which terrible things happen. Why? For those kids who are growing up experiencing awful things, it makes them see that they’re not alone (Gary Paulsen’s life story is a great example of this). And for those kids who grow up well-cared for and protected, it builds awareness and empathy without forcing them to experience those awful things first-hand.

antsBooks like HENRY’S AWFUL MISTAKE reflect back some of our own crazy tendencies in ways that are exaggerated and humorous. Sometimes we obsess and get carried away over small things (making them worse). Sometimes we care too much about what others think and go through great pains to try to control the uncontrollable. We recognize ourselves in these situations and hopefully don’t have to experience them first-hand in order to learn from them.

Luckily, Henry does learn from his mistake. He ends the book in a beautiful new house, with his friend Clara arriving for dinner, when he sees another ant . . .
(I’ll leave the last line for you to experience for yourself).

Many picture books don’t NEED awful things to happen in them. Do you really want such emotional ups and downs for a bedtime story? Some of our books exist to simply foster comfort and joy.  But for the right story, a little awful can have good impact. And if you are writing one of those ‘everything goes wrong’ books, a little 4-year old Eliza implores you: please make that awful story pay off with a satisfying ending!

Eliza Wheeler

Eliza Wheeler is the author-illustrator of MISS MAPLE’S SEEDS (Penguin), which debuted on the New York Times Best Seller list. She also illustrated Holly Black’s Newbery Honor winning novel DOLL BONES (Simon & Schuster), Pat Zietlow Miller’s picture book WHEREVER YOU GO (Little Brown), Mara Rockliff’s picture book THE GRUDGE KEEPER (Peachtree), and Tricia Springstubb’s new middle grade series CODY (Candlewick). Eliza received the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Grand Prize Award for best portfolio at the 2011 SCBWI National Conference. Eliza is a northern Wisconsin native currently living with her husband in Los Angeles, California. See her work at www.wheelerstudio.com

14 Comments:

  1. Ha! I haven’t read this one. I loved Beverly Cleary’s books–bad stuff was always happening to Henry and Ramona (but funny stuff too). I really enjoy reading (and writing) chaotic, everything-goes-wrong picture books–but I still want things to turn out okay in the end.

  2. Ashley Bankhead

    I read and liked this book as a kid, too!

  3. I don’t know this one – but now I want to! Thanks, Eliza. 🙂

  4. I love that you remember that dread-feeling — and that you also remember loving that book. I’m guessing you went back to it again and again… why, do you suppose? And out of curiosity: do you like Hitchcock (and the likes) now?
    SAM BANGS AND MOONSHINE had a similar effect on me, I think.

    • Thanks, Anna! Why did I go back to it again and again? That’s a great question. Hmm, I’m sure the roller-coaster journey with the satisfying ending helped. Henry is also so lovable, and you feel ‘with him’ in a familiar feeling situation. SAM, BANGS, & MOONSHINE looks awesome! I can’t wait to check it out.

      I enjoy Hitchcock movies, but probably appreciate his role in the history of storytelling more than many of the films themselves. This quote of his came to mind for this type of story!

  5. I haven’t read Henry’s Awful Mistake and it’s not available at any of the libraries I use. Hope I can get my hands on it one day. I need to find out about that last line. This is a helpful post and gave me some ideas for stories. Thanks!

  6. I don’t usually comment but just wanted all of you who post these great little articles, like this one,that the are truly appreciated and always teaching me something new. So thanks to all of you. Keep them coming!

  7. I had never read that book. I just went to You Tube and watched it. Loved it – great ending!

  8. Watched a YouTube reading! Ha! So cute!

  9. Rita D. Russell

    “…a little awful can have good impact.” So inspired by the message of this post. Thanks!

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