Wednesday, March 14

Edwardo, The Horriblest Boy in the Whole World

by John Burningham
Knopf 2007

Here's a picture book with a troubling message at the end that may, in fact, not be for children at all but for adults.

Edwardo is a boy. Like some troublesome boys he makes messes, is noisy, acts aggressive. When he makes noise he is the noisiest boy in the world. Or so says an adult. And when he makes a mess he is the messiest boy in the world. So says another adult. And when he acts out, clutters his room, pulls a prank there is an adult nearby to tell Edwardo that he is the ultimate in whatever bad behavior he produces.

Then he kicks a flower pot out of aggression and an adult remarks that he is good with growing things and he becomes a gardener. And when Edwardo tosses a bucket of water on a dog he is seen by an adult as being good with animals and becomes a pet groom. And when he pushes another boy, instead of being seen as an aggressor, he is a hero for moving the downed boy out of the way of a falling object.

All of this makes for great commentary on how children behave when they are labeled except that none of the "good" things Edwardo is recognized for is intentional. The boy is not transformed into the best boy in the world wide world as the text would suggest, only that the majority of opinion has been changed. So there's your lesson. A boy can be a terror, a bully, a slob but as long as he gets positive reinforcement everything will be okay.

Except for the fact that that kind of thinking doesn't work.

A child who is praised as being creative for, say, setting toys on fire gets the message that perhaps the same would happen when setting the neighbors cat on fire. I will grant that adults far too often are quick to pronounce children as being something as definitive as the worst child in the world over simple things, and that a life of such constant labeling ruins a child's self esteem, but the opposite approach does not right the wrongs. To overlook bad behavior and reinforce it through reverse psychology allows for the continuation of the bad behavior to the point where it becomes uncorrectable.

No, sir, no, ma'am, I don't like it.

I think adults might get the message, but the ones who really need to get the message -- those who can only offer criticism to children -- are unlikely to actually get the message, so I'm at a loss for who this book is best suited for. Perhaps if Edwardo were being scolded by other children we'd get to see a message about perception and labeling in a way that would allow for dialog among younger children who are just ripe for understanding these lessons. Otherwise I think this is a miss.

I also have to mention the artwork, a ragged almost sketchy style of line that seems far from Burningham's earlier work that either speaks to his advanced age or a lack of concern. In page after page Edwardo's features and proportions change sufficiently enough that the character is nearly unrecognizable as the Edwardo that came before. There is a fine line between the charm of the naive -- the work of Edward Lear, for example -- and the work of an otherwise accomplished illustrator. I guess I just found the whole package off-putting.
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