A look at Cautionary Tales with Mini Grey

How much
violence is the right amount of violence in picture books? Or is it none at
all? Is it OK for violent
words, but not okay for violent pictures? And if so, does this mean pictures are more powerful than

        I came upon this Amazon review of my
version of Hilaire Belloc’s Jim: for this reviewer the depiction of a severed head in Jim -  was clearly unacceptable. 

Here’s the
moment in full:

Maybe I’d
have been wiser to depict the head less gorily.

In her Jim illustration, Posy
Simmons shows just pure head sitting like a bun on the ground at the zoo. (I love the stern words the Honest Keeper is having with Ponto the Lion in the background.)

Some of the
very first children’s books were highly moralising tales of children being good
and bad, intended to be extremely improving. Here’s a scene from
William Carus
Wilsons’s Child’s First Tales (c.

 It encourages us to have a really good look at
a naughty girl who is having an epic stroppy meltdown (worthy of Barbara Throws
a Wobbler.
) "Oh how cross she looks!"

Barbara Throws a Wobbler, a fantastic book by Nadia Shireen

But the bad child doesn’t have a chance to learn to calm down and
put things in perspective (as Barbara does), because a sentence later God
strikes her dead. Reader, you’ve been warned.  

In contrast, above right are some good children. They’ve been so good that they’ve earned a special
treat. Which is to be able to drink tea by themselves. So here they are
drinking tea, still being good, and all so happy, and not being struck dead by
the Almighty.  

So these
type of children’s books are what Heinrich Hoffman was taking the mickey out of
when he created Struwwelpeter.

In 1844, Hoffmann – a doctor and writer in
Frankfurt – was struggling to find a book to give his three-year-old son Carl
for Christmas. Tired of stern ‘moralising stories’, he bought a blank notebook
and filled it with his own bizarre tales and cartoonish drawings. These were
probably inspired by the stories he told to entertain young patients.



Hoffman’s pages are quite innovative. 

Here’s Harriet going up in flames after
playing with matches, accompanied by a sort of Greek chorus of wailing cats who
end up projectile-weeping on her ashy remains.

And here is Augustus being
reduced from a fine bouncing boy to a stick man in a comic-book type sequence.
And it only takes five days without soup to kill Augustus. I think Hoffman was
definitely intending to make his children laugh.

One inheritor
of Hoffman’s black humour is perhaps Edward Gorey. His unfortunate Gashlicrumb
tinies don’t really have a chance to learn anything before having their lethal
alphabetical mishap. Here are Amy, Titus and Zillah.

 (I really
sympathise with Zillah as my gin consumption was a bit enthusiastic over

So now we get to Hilaire Belloc. The great thing about
Belloc’s cautionary tales is he tells you right at the beginning how the child
is going to die. For example: 


Who told Lies,

and was Burned to Death.

Here’s Posy Simmonds’ Matilda. She is telling an enormous

Matilda told such Dreadful Lies,

It made one Gasp and Stretch one’s Eyes;

 But have a really
good look at Posy’s picture. Matilda’s aunt is so distracted she’s pouring tea
into her lap, the butler looks like he might just drop the cake, the gentleman
has gone bright red, and the dog looks like its eyes are going to pop out. What OUTRAGEOUS WHOPPER did Matilda just say? It’s so wonderful. But part of the inspiration for this
scene from Posy Simmons is the sheer understatement from Belloc who leaves the
content of the lies completely to our imagination.

Here is
Matilda’s Aunt’s house burning down. It’s such a gloriously elegant inferno.
You can have a look at more here:


As a child I
loved the Belloc Cautionary Tales and learned some by heart – they are
brilliant for performing out loud. One of the Bellocs I learned was Rebecca (who slammed Doors for Fun, and Perished
Ages ago I made a book of Rebecca (for Fun) – I thought a book
full of doors could be good. Here are some pages:

 Later I was drawn to Belloc’s Jim (who Runs Away from his Nurse, and is Eaten
by a Lion
)– it was like a delicious present full of fantastic things to
draw: tea and cakes and jam, and slices of delicious ham and chocolate with
pink inside. But there’s something about the pink inside the chocolate that
might be a bit dangerous, a bit like poison.

Poor Jim
doesn’t do anything really naughty. He is plied with sweets and treats but
isn’t allowed any freedom – so the one time when he successfully runs away,
it’s into a lion’s paws at the zoo.

 And this zoo
is the world’s safest zoo. 

In Jim there is stifling safety, many hands, distant

…so could the
message really be about the dangers of absolute safety and not getting a chance to
experiment with freedom in a potentially dangerous world?

And the
Belloc voice is one of breath-taking understatement - which lets your imagination
fill in the gaps. Look at what the adults are doing – are they the real

And there’s
useful information on the correct sequence to eat a child bit by bit (feet

Belloc's Cautionary Tales - 
could they be written today? Looking to writing in the tradition of Belloc: first stop could be Roald Dahl. 

Look at
the 5 nasties in Willy Wonka. Augustus Gloop, Violet Beauregard, Veruca Salt, Mike Teevee: a Cautionary Tale, every one. 

Here's my Chocolate Factory Chocolate Box, with the Willy Wonka Children immortalised in chocolate:

I have to
confess I stopped reading David Walliam’s books with the Demon Dentist. But
cautionary tales is a perfect arena for Walliams to unleash mayhem. David
Walliams' World’s Worst Children  – it’s
interesting to look at protagonists. One who is just unrelentingly awful and doesn’t
change is boring; discovering a useful quality can steer towards a happy end.
Or else a glint in the eye of the awful person can make the whole bloodbath
worthwhile (as in Matilda?) 

Walliams' cautionary tales seem to be an exploration of what happens if you take something to
the absolute extreme. There are children who have problems that aren’t their fault – like
the dribbler or the sleeper – is it fair to
punish for badnesses that aren't deliberate?. 

Less is more. What made me laugh was Earnest Ernest and his photograph
album of traffic lights and copies of Spoon Monthly. But then, I'm a fan of spoons and if Spoon Monthly was available, I'd be a subscriber.

In the usual
picture book arena the reader is able to travel through the dangerous woods to
the happy end. But in Cautionary Tales there’s no happy end…well, usually.

In Catherine
Emmett and David Tazzyman’s hilarious The
Digby is a demanding Wanter of pets but a negligent Tender of pets. Cautionary
Tales are for children and for their  grown-ups – as it says on the cover. So grown
ups – pay attention!

I love the Flea Circus on Doris the Pet Shop owner's counter!

Look to Daddy whose hair turns slightly grey but who always
agrees to the demands. (I’m getting a whiff of Veruca Salt’s Dad here) 

But the
ending is not (SPOILER ALERT!!) fatal for Digby – a bit more like a Not Now
Bernard-style role reversal. The surprising hero is Digby’s final pet, who
turns out to be an excellent organiser.



I have the
complete Cautionary Tales by Belloc, and Matilda,
Jim and Rebecca are streets ahead my favourites. Reading through the rest
of them rapidly gets a bit exhausting. So they’re a bit like a box of
chocolates – once you’ve picked out your favourite ones, chomping through the Coffee & Crab Cream and the Nutmint-Cracknel just gets tedious and makes you
feel mildly queasy.

 So a little
goes a long way, with Cautionary Tales. And the last word on depicting
decapitation might have to go to Hilaire Belloc.

When asked:
“Is it true?” he replied, dryly:

And is it True? It is not True.

And if it were it wouldn’t do,

For people such as me and you

Who pretty nearly all day long

Are doing something rather wrong.

Because if things were really so,

You would have perished long ago,

And I would not have lived to write

The noble lines that meet your sight,

Nor B.T.B. survived to draw

The nicest things you ever saw.

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