Books for Kids Who are Grumpy, Moody, and Just Plain Cranky

Originally published on Bookslut (October 2007)

I have been blessed with a grumpy child. He’s a glass-half-empty, partly-cloudy kind of seven-year-old who thinks the sunny side only appears on fried eggs, which he hates. There are, of course, things that get his jets going -- five-foot waves that knock him over like socks in a spin cycle, afternoons of Super Mario Brothers on his Game Boy, and drinking at least half of my Diet Coke when I’m not looking. A redeeming part of his nature comes from the fact that he has what so many people lack -- self-knowledge. He’s aware of his attitude, and with it comes a keen appreciation, on his part and mine, for books about grumps.

Grumpy Bird by Jeremy Tankard, introduces us to the main character as he awakens with a sneer on his face in his messy nest. Except for the rising bright orange sun, he’s surrounded by inky splats of purple and blue. Our hero is too grumpy to eat or play, or even fly. He just walks. On the way he meets some supportive friends -- a sheep, a rabbit, a raccoon, a beaver and a fox who steadfastly follow along, hoping to turn his mood around. Bird finally finds a way to make himself happy -- and a big part of the change comes making the others around him happy too. A good lesson for all of us and one that is presented by Tankard with charm and humor.

One of the kids in What Are You So Grumpy About? by Tom Lichtenheld starts out on the wrong side of the bed, and things go downhill from there. Before he even gets out of the house, he falls in the toilet, has to wear a shrunken “goofy” outfit and is forced to eat Whole Grain Bran Cereal with no added sugar. Lichtenheld has a knack for zeroing in on the absolute worst things kids have to endure. The illustrations and text are enhanced by dialogue bubbles and sidebars like “Gravy + Peas = Poison” and the ever-present grown-up conversation that sounds like this -- “BLAHBLAHBLAHBLAH FURNACE FILTER BLAHBLAHBLAHBLAH GALL BLADDER BLAHBLAHBLAHBLAH STOCK MARKET BLAHBLAHBLAH…”

I was most impressed with Lichtenfeld’s insight about the torture that occurs when “your dad takes you to the most boring museum in the universe.” Of course, things turn out okay in the end because, like it or not, sooner or later, something good happens. When it does, feeling good creeps up and suddenly everything feels okay. A smile is a turned-around frown. Tell that to Grumpy Gracie, the sour protagonist in Sam Lloyd’s book about a girl whose mood is so sour she makes flowers cry. Gracie’s frown is etched along each page until she meets a monkey hanging upside down in a tree who persuades Gracie to turn the book around. Sure enough, smiles appear on page after page. Her day is literally turned around. A great book for pre-schoolers.

Anna Dewdney’s Grumpy Gloria tells a tale in rhyme about three children trying to cheer up their bulldog. The book has a simple alliterative cadence with phrases that kids will love to repeat like, “Squeaky? Squawky? Jumpy? Jabby? Gloria was feeling crabby.”

Gloria, like Gracie, eventually cheers up. Most books today follow suit with a neat ending. But it wasn’t always that way. You have to reach back over three decades to find the classic grump.

One of my favorite unapologetic grumpy characters is Piper Paw in Tomi Ungerer 1973 book No Kiss for Mother. Be forewarned -- the book is edgy, subversive, and won’t appeal to every child. Black, white and gray pencil drawings reflect the bleak outlook of Piper, a school-aged cat whose mother desperately wants a smooch from her son, which he refuses to supply. But that’s the least of his mother’s problems. Piper neglects to brush his teeth or face, pours airplane glue down a little girl’s neck and finally ends up with a “left ear that is half torn off” after a fight with a classmate.

Chapter Two begins, “In school, Piper is known as rowdy. He is the troublemaker of his class.” Further on, we learn something that many parents know about their “rowdy” sons -- “Piper has been blessed with an active brain.”

No Kiss for Mother is the kind of book that will resonate with truth for some, or prove too gritty for others. Consider the fact that this book was both short-listed in the 2006 Bizarre Book Contest and also included in the You Read to Me & I’ll Read to You anthologized by Janet Schulman -- which typically includes books with much milder tones.

Perhaps the best known grump with the worst day imaginable is found in Judith Viorst’s classic Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, illustrated by Ray Cruz. The narrator is beset by circumstances that would send anyone into a downward spiral. The first paragraph-long sentence begins: "I went to sleep with gum in my mouth and now there’s gum in my hair and when I got out of bed this morning I tripped on the skateboard by mistake I dropped my sweater in the sink while the water was running…”

The passing of over thirty years has done little to diminish the impact of how these events can spoil a day. And things don’t get much better. Ultimately, readers will sympathize and relate as the narrator outlines a day filled with lima beans, cavities and ugly pajamas.

Piper Paw and Alexander are lucky to have understanding mothers. Mrs. Paw gratefully receives a bouquet of yellow roses from her son and accepts the fact there will be not PDA with it. Likewise Alexander’s mother takes it on the chin and gives her child sound advice: “Some days are like that.”

So, parents of grumpy sons and daughters take heart -- you are not alone. All of us know that having these children brings with it a special reward. There is no gift sweeter than a smile, a whispered “I Love You” and dare I say -- a kiss -- coaxed from these reluctant lovable children.