Picture books are among our first experiences of literature; we encounter them at an age when we are at our most egocentric and impatient, capable of throwing legendary temper tantrums disproportionate to our tiny size. Using picture books to explore the feelings that provoke such a violent response which we have not yet learned to control is a useful tool in negotiating emotional development and learned cultural values.
Reading picture books about anger can offer techniques for processing feelings of rage, help develop self-awareness and empathy, and can be used, as blogger and teacher Jennifer Downing does with one of the titles below, to explore the kinds of conflict that lead to anger.
These picture books (one from the 60s, one from the 80s and finally one published just six months ago) each examine the nature of anger either in a ‘safe space’ that is fantasy, or as a sharply didactic narrative of lived experience. Contrasts and similarities between the two approaches make the books interesting companions.
Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak
Maurice Sendak’s 1963 classic characterises the anger of protagonist Max as wild even before he retreats into his fantasy world of pesudo-exotic forests, wide seas and Wild Things – large unruly id-beasts, child Calibans that make Max their king.
As I’ve noted before, Sendak’s illustrations are initially squared off by the white space around them, a method that neatly defines the internal reality of the story, so when we see meet Max his world covers only 50% of the page. Max is contained, a pent up ball of energy terrorising toys and dogs and about to burst. His world grows slightly when he enters his bedroom, before expanding to consume first one page then a spread. We are now firmly in the realm of fantasy.
When Max begins his ‘wild rumpus’ words are no longer necessary on the page. Max can be seen commanding his new subjects with his chest puffed, confident and boastful until it is time to go to to bed when the King of the Wild Things experiences the authority that he craved and finds it lacking.
Max is not a Wild Thing, though he could easily become one. Sendak suggests that Wild Things are what we become when we lose our humanity (note the human feet of the wild thing on the cover) and Max has not gone that far yet. The profound ambivalence that Max feels towards his mother may conjour and define the Wild Things but the loneliness he experiences sets him apart from them.
Angry Arthur, Hiawyn Oram. Illus. Satoshi Kitamura.
Angry Arthur, like Where the Wild Things Are, explores anger in the (arguably) safe world of fantasy. Where Max retreats into his own head to face his anger and overcome it, Arthur’s fantasy sees his anger play out uncontrolably, prompting a reductio ad adsurdium narrative that plays on a traditional metaphor for emotion, bad weather. Arthur’s little stormcloud of anger develops first into a hurricane then a typoon before spiralling, despite the pleas of his parents and grandparents, into a shattering ‘universequake’.
Artwork is fractured, with sharp, well defined edges and colour palette of bruise tones. Colour washes and cross hatching create texture. As Arthur’s imagination and anger interact the illustrations become even more jagged and dystopian. Civilisation crumbles into an urban soup. Sight gags punctuate the chaos – a bus advert peddles Typhoon tea; granny wears a space suit while her knitting floats beside her – and as in Where the Wild Things Are the lack of parents in the illustrations speaks to the child’s lack of desire to acknowledge parental authority.
Angry Arthur depicts anger as uncontrollable and disengaging – as the book ends Arthur floats alone on his bed in the vastness of space, unable to recall what provoked his rage. Unlike Max, Arthur does not return to his parents or escape his fantasy. Though Arthur’s loneliness is not mentioned in the text, the corresponding illustrations strongly infer it.
My Big Shouting Day!, Rebecca Patterson
My Big Shouting Day! is appropriate for a younger audience than the previous titles, and it explores a very different kind of anger: the frustrated kind. When Bella wakes up to find baby brother Bob licking her jewellery it is the beginning of One of Those Days – nothing is right.
In recent years fashionable parenting techniques have changed and My Big Shouting Day! reflects this. Bella’s mother appears to be a proponent of Attachment Parenting, which teaches that parents should visibly empathise with angry children, listening non-judgementally and encouraging their children to recognise their anger and its temporary nature. Bella’s mother knows that tomorrow might be a better day, and, in time so does Bella.
Illustrations us a lighter, more inviting colour palette. They are more playful with simpler lines and softer texturing. Anger here is represented not as dangerous, as it is in the earlier titles, but as a normal and surmountable. The message is not that anger is harmful, self-indulgent or something that parents love you despite of.
Parental affirmation closes My Big Shouting Day! as it does Where the Wild Things Are (where a waiting supper is representative of parental love). Bella’s mother is present throughout her daughter’s big shouting day, allowing Bella to feel her rage and calm down in her own time. To read-along parents she might display the odd wry gaze, but to her daughter mother is calm and open, always available for reassuring cuddles.
Bonus material: Where the Wild Things Are (in the style of Christoper Walken).