Anti-hero in a picture book?

by Anonymous

Your little anti-hero?

Your little anti-hero?

Am I crazy to want to put an anti-hero in a picture book?

Okay, I'm posting this to the forum, but it's directed at you, Steve, as you are probably the best situated person ON THE PLANET to answer my question. I have been a fan ever since your movie, I've been watching this site for awhile, and because I don't like admitting I'm a fan, I'm going to stay anonymous, and hope that doesn't hurt my chance of getting some feedback from you on my question. Here goes!...

Like you, I like writing about the dark side. I have in mind a picture book not about "the good kid" but about "the bad kid." I think I've got some great ideas, but I'm concerned about marketability. Sure, anti-heroes are all the rage now, but not in picture books (at least as far as I can tell). Am I kidding myself to think I might be able to get such a book published?

I await your reply with bated fan breath...

Picture book anti-hero

Anonymous, you crack me up...and flatter me! Screenwriters don't have "fans." No one can even name a screenwriter. But I'm willing to go along, because it's a great question. My answer: It all depends on presentation, how you conceive and then execute the story.

Let me tell you about the quickest deal I ever made in H'wood, because it goes right to my point. An exec who was pretty huge at the time - Variety page 1, a guy I'd been lucky enough to get to know personally - gave me a call out of the blue. His cable network wanted a show about a "strong woman" (that was considered to be my niche), and he wanted to know if I was interested in creating a pilot for such a show.

"A lawyer, a cop, a detective," he suggested.

I was unmoved. (I was a lot more successful back then!) I said, "How about a strong woman criminal?"

He said, "Does she kill people?" (I was kind of known for that.)

I said, "She doesn't have to."

He said, "Who does she victimize?"

I said, "Men."

He said, "Can they be creeps?"

I said, "Sure."

He said, "Deal."

(Postscript: the pilot was made but the show never aired.)

Do you get it? The people who have to sell your work have concerns, and it's your job to speak to them. So the question becomes, how can you conceptualize your anti-hero book so that it remains marketable?

Well, it's easy to depict a "bad" kid if he's not the main character, i.e. the protagonist. For instance, your viewpoint character could be attracted to the dark side, as represented by a bad boy who seems to be having a lot of fun being bad.

But since you used the term anti-hero, I'm guessing that you want to go all out and have your protagonist BE the bad kid.

That, as you clearly realize, gets stickier. But what could make it palatable to a publisher?

Well, if you're aiming at the largest possible market, you could always start with a bad kid...who then learns to be good. For instance (or, as we used to say in Hollywood, "Here's the bad example...") a kid who gets joy out of being difficult until he does something where he actually witnesses enough of his victim's hurt that he taps into his own empathy...and then changes.

What made my movie feel kind of groundbreaking to some people back in the day were two things:

  • villain as protagonist, not antagonist, and

  • villain getting away with it

I doubt that we're at the place where getting away with it is actually a saleable outcome for a picture book anti-hero...and frankly I hope not. Though it's almost certainly a saleable outcome for Young Adult reading material (because it's the teenage derelicts themselves who get to choose what they read, not their parents!).

Now, the great thing about the bad kid who turns good is that you get to spend half the book reveling in his badness! You can get in his head and let a reader know how much fun it is to get away with things. You can keep him blind to the emotional damage he leaves behind. Until, of course, it's time for him to learn his lesson.

(Which, now that I think about it, doesn't have to come from empathy. It could, for instance, come from comeuppance. I suspect there are bullying books that have taken that approach.)

You know, Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Peter Rabbit is about a "bad" boy. Ms. Potter doesn't even give him the benefit of being gray. She tells you right out that he's "naughty," while his siblings are simply "good."

Maybe that should give you comfort: there's a "bad boy book" that's over one hundred years old. Of course, there's nothing particularly heroic (or anti-heroic) about Peter, and we really don't like him, and it's all about comeuppance (and terror, really).

Old stories were a little more brutal, truth be told. Back when kids died with much greater frequency than they do now, stories and fables were rife with life and death lessons. Today we don't like to worry the little ones with weighty consequences like that.

I'm not sure how much help I'm being. Frankly, I wish my parents had had a book in their repertoire that depicted a kid being the right amount of devilish. I was a timid kid for awhile there, too fearful of consequences, and it would have been nice to have a literary (anti)hero who sometimes chose not to say, "Please" or "Thank you" and wasn't condemned to eternal damnation for it.

I guess if I want you to take anything away from this disjointed response, it's that no matter how clear you are on your story's plot, there are still an infinite number of ways to shape and present it. Villains can be protagonists - or not - viewpoint characters - or not - triumphant in the end - or not. They can learn their lesson - or not.

That marketability that you're worried about - assuming your skills themselves are marketable - will likely hinge on your handling of the subject matter. If you recognize all the different ways to present your material you can probably come up with one that passes commercial muster...and still lets you have the kind of writing fun you want to have.

Then you'll be my anti-hero.

That's all I've got!

Comments for Anti-hero in a picture book?

Click here to add your own comments

Badder than Max?
by: Steve B. (webmaster)

When I was shopping for free clip art to put atop your page here, I was struck by the image I ended up posting. He looks a lot like Max in Where the Wild Things Are, doesn't he? Probably the most popular picture book of all time. And Max is kind of a "bad kid," isn't he? When we meet him, all we really know of him is that he's been banished to his room, likely for good reason.

Of course, among the book's charms is that it conveys the message that there really is no such thing as a bad kid, that sometimes the little devils just need to act out a little...before running back to Mommy.

It might be a book worth examining, Anonymous. (At the very least, it can be a reminder that bad behavior can take place in backstory.)

And it might be the book I wish my parents had had on a shelf when I was growing up!

Steve, you're MY anti-hero
by: Anonymous

That was more helpful than you could know. I think I was very locked into the story and how I planned on telling it, without remembering that there are lots of different ways to tell (and frame) it. I need to go back to the drawing board on that.

Thank you!

Plugging myself
by: Steve B. (webmaster)

Hey, just wanted to say that what we just talked about is really at the heart of my little writing books that I sell on the site. Visit brainstorm children's book ideas.

Click here to add your own comments

Click here to write your own.

Best Children's Books - Find, Read or Write home page.