Learning Your Lesson (or not) by Kael Tudor

Character development. It’s the backbone of storytelling, where our main character (or in some cases villain) come away from the story a changed person, having learnt lessons from their adventure and grown as a character. 

Picture books are no exception. In The Bad Seed by Jory John and Pete Oswald, the titular seed changes his ways and makes a choice to be kind. In Gustavo the Shy Ghost by Flavia Z. Drago, Gustavo overcomes his social anxiety and finds the friends he’s been wanting all along. In Ravi’s Roar by Tom Percival, Ravi realises that his anger hurt the people around him and apologises. 

Besides being excellent stories, these books, and the countless others like them, have subtle, but very important lessons for the children enjoying them; be kind, be brave, take responsibility for your mistakes.

But what about stories where the main character learns absolutely nothing, despite having the chance to, and ends the book in the exact same position (or sometimes even worse) than where they started? Would children’s literature - and picture books for that matter - really portray characters who learn zip? Zilch? Nadda?

Of course! Here are some of my favourites. 

But beware, from here on in there be spoilers! 

I am a Tiger - Karl Newson and Ross Collins

The premise of I am a Tiger is simple. Mouse refuses to accept that she’s not a tiger, despite a colourful cast of characters insisting otherwise. But when she comes face to face with an actual tiger, is it time for Mouse to admit that she’s really a mouse? Um… no. 

Stuck - Oliver Jeffers
Floyd’s kite gets stuck in a tree, so in order to knock it down he throws his shoes, his cat, a bicycle, a duck, an orangutan, and so on. There are delightful moments throughout the book where you think that Floyd’s had an epiphany (a ladder, the fire brigade, a saw), but instead of using them to get his kite sensibly, he lobs them up into the tree instead. 

Cockatoos - Quentin Blake
Professor Dupont’s cockatoos are well and truly fed up of the annoying way he greets them every morning, so they declare that enough is enough, escape through a crack in the conservatory glass, and hide from him throughout the house. After a day of trying to find his precious cockatoos (delightfully, they are hiding on every page, just out of sight), Dupont goes to bed, but wakes to find that they’ve returned. And how does he react? He greets them the same way as always, of course. 

That’s What Dinosaurs Do - Jory John and Pete Oswald
William the dinosaur spends his days roaring at anyone and everyone as loud as he can. Why? Well, because that’s what dinosaurs do. However, at the start of the book he gets a sore throat and is given strict no-roaring orders from his doctor. After a week of rest and happy townsfolk, William can’t wait any longer, and roars his dino heart out at everyone. And does he see the error of his ways when everyone comes to his house to complain? Not one bit. 

Rescuing Mrs Birdley - Aaron Reynolds and Emma Reynolds
Miranda Montgomery, keen nature expert, spots her teacher, Mrs Birdley, at the supermarket. Concerned that Mrs Birdley has strayed, Miranda decides to capture her and put her back in her natural habitat, the school. When Miranda finally accomplishes her goal, it looks like things are finished, but then she spots her headteacher, and the whole process is set to happen again, with Miranda none the wiser about how you cannot capture school staff and lock them in the building. 

Here Be Dragons - Susannah Lloyd and Paddy Donnelly
A knight is on the hunt for a dragon, to prove his naysaying friends wrong. But despite the warning signs, subtle hints and obvious sightings (including an epic battle involving the dragon, a princess and the knight’s horse), the knight completely fails to find what he was searching for, even when half of his armour has been melted away by dragon fire.  

In addition to books such as these, I’ve reserved a special subsection for stories with a different sort of ending. One thing that all of the books on the above list have in common is that, while the characters don’t learn from their experiences, nothing particularly bad happens to them, either. They finish the book completely unchanged, but they do finish it. I like to call this next list (I just came up with the name, as I wrote this) the Grave Consequences list, for obvious reasons. 

The Fate of Fausto - Oliver Jeffers
Fausto is a man who believes that he can claim everything in the world to be his own, and for the most part he proves himself right. Flower, sheep, mountain and boat all bow before him and allow themselves to be claimed by Fausto. But when he attempts to claim the ocean, and the ocean refuses, Fausto loses his temper and decides to stamp his foot on the ocean to prove how cross he is, with Grave Consequences. 

Not Now, Bernard - David McKee
A book so good it should be included on literally every list relating to picture books ever. Whether viewed as a commentary on parents not devoting enough time to their children or simply a story about a boy, his parents, and a monster in the garden, one thing is the same: Bernard keeps talking to people who are too busy and ultimately is on the receiving end of some Grave Consequences. 

So the question stands: why? Why do children’s books with protagonists that learn nothing and teach their readers nothing exist? Shouldn’t all children’s literature, especially books for children as young as the picture book audience, teach children something? I’d argue not. While there is a huge need for stories with morals, I’d say there’s an equally important space for books like those on this list, where characters are flawed and don’t always learn the first time around. At the end of the day, can we all say that we’ve never made the same mistake twice? 

Could children say the same? Children who can spot a forced lesson from a mile away, who love being in on a joke, and who delight at the sign of mischief because often so much of their time is spent being taught the correct way to behave. Sometimes it’s just fun to hear a story about someone who isn’t willing, or capable, of learning from their experiences. 

And besides, there undeniably something lip-smackingly delicious about getting to the end of a story and realising that the main character is going to make the same mistakes all over again, and it’s often these endings that have solicited the biggest laughs, from both myself and the children I’ve been reading the stories to. When you consider that, sometimes the biggest lesson is that there shouldn’t be one at all. 

Kael Tudor is a children’s writer from Swansea. He’s not allowed to talk about whether or not he’s got any books in the pipeline, but is silently excited. He loves chatting all things picture books, so if you want to say hi, or suggest even more picture books with characters who don’t learn or change at all, you can do so on Twitter at: @KaelTudor

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