The best dilemmas in children’s books

posted in: Ella Bailey, Simon Philip | 3

One of the greatest things about books is they way they help us (whatever our age) solve problems. Dilemmas are faced, options explored, and as readers and listeners we get safe dry-runs in all sorts of different scenarios. We learn that tricky problems can arise, but that there are also all sorts of ways to resolve them, or at least survive them.

The dilemma of naming a pet is one that many families may experience, and it’s explored with great wit and charm in Simon Philip‘s and Ella Bailey‘s new book I Don’t Know What to Call my Cat, which I reviewed earlier this week. I’m delighted that today on the blog Simon and Ella are sharing their own favourite dilemmas in children’s books. I do hope it will get you thinking, and you’ll share your favourite tricky situations in books too.

Simon Philip
First up, here are three of Simon Philip’s favourite dilemmas in picture books.

1. When a kite gets stuck in a tree – from Stuck by Oliver Jeffers

This is an everyday problem to which I’m sure we can all relate. My kite always seems to be stuck in a tree. And no matter how hard I pull or swing on it, it never comes unstuck.

This means, of course, that something else must go up to knock it down. Shoes. A cat. The milkman. Fetching a ladder could help. But then that always seem to get stuck up there, too. And so the dilemma continues.

I’m a massive admirer of Oliver Jeffers and his books, and Stuck is one of my favourites. It’s basically the same joke all the way through the story, but it’s a joke that keeps on giving. And you can only admire Floyd’s determination and inventiveness in his quest to retrieve his kite.

Illustration from Stuck by Oliver Jeffers

2. What to do if an elephant stands on your foot – from, funnily enough, What To Do If An Elephant Stands On Your Foot by Michelle Robinson and Peter H. Reynolds

I enjoy it when a book features a dilemma that I’m likely to encounter during daily life – such as on the way to buy milk, whilst buying milk, and on the way back from buying milk. Those sorts of situations.

That’s partly why I love this book. Packed with helpful advice, it’s brilliantly structured to maximise the comic potential of the page-turn – such an important tool in picture books – and concludes with a satisfying ending.

I carry it with me everywhere. Just in case.

Illustration from What To Do If An Elephant Stands On Your Foot by Michelle Robinson and Peter H. Reynolds (click to be taken to the image source)

3. When there’s only one hat, but two turtles that want it – from We Found A Hat by Jon Klassen

I must admit, I’m yet to come across this dilemma in ‘real life’. But it’s a great one nonetheless.

The third and (I’m assuming) final instalment in Jon Klassen’s celebrated hat trilogy, We Found A Hat proves once again that he’s a master of deadpan humour and visual comedy – a genius at making a single word or the direction of a character’s eye say so much.

As a loyal fan of Klassen, a part of me worried that the third and final book could only disappoint. Not because I thought he couldn’t do it again – just that he’d set the bar so very high. I needn’t have worried. It’s perfectly paced and contains just as much humour as the first two hat books, as well as the additional theme of friendship.

Perhaps the best bit about the story and the dilemma – aside from the fact it’s turtles pondering the question of what to do with a Stetson – is that the brilliant buildup leads to a refreshing ending, one that was a complete surprise to me given the endings to the preceding books.

It’s also gorgeously illustrated. Hats off to Jon Klassen, again.

Now here are three of Ella Bailey’s favourite dilemmas in picture books.

Winnie the Witch by Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul

The first book that comes to mind when I think of ‘dilemmas’, is one of my childhood favourites: Winnie the Witch, by Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul. Much like in I Don’t Know What to Call My Cat, the problem revolves around a pesky pet cat! However, the issue here isn’t with the name (the cat is called Wilbur) – it is with his colour! Everything in Winnie’s house is black, including her cat, which causes lots of issues as she constantly trips and sits on her poor pet.

I love how the dilemma in this book plays out – Winnie tries changing Wilbur into different colours, until she finally comes to the solution of changing the colours of her house instead, and letting Wilbur stay his original dark hue. It is a heartwarming, yet still very funny, ending to a very funny story!

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen
Another favourite of mine is I Want My Hat Back, by Jon Klassen. The problem is simple: a bear has lost his hat, and he wants it back. After questioning various woodland creatures about the whereabouts of his hat, the bear solves the problem himself – he realises that he has, in fact, seen his hat after all!

With a wonderful dead-pan delivery, and wicked ending, Klassen turns a small dilemma into a hilarious turn of events.

The Doubtful Guest by Edward Gorey
Last, but certainly not least, I would like to mention a little book by Edward Gorey. The Doubtful Guest is certainly the strangest book on my list – and that is why I love it! Gorey’s picture books are always so wonderfully surreal and gothic, and rarely sport a happy ending. Naturally, this story is no exception.

In The Doubtful Guest, a peculiar creature arrives at the door one day, and gets up to all sorts of strange mischief. It eats plates, tears up books and hides bath towels. The arrival of the guest is certainly a big problem for the house’s occupants, but the best thing about it is, that this dilemma seems to have no solution! The book ends on a hilariously sudden note: ‘It came seventeen years ago – and to this day / It has shown no intention of going away’. That’s it – the end!

What are your favourite dilemmas in children’s books? I rather like the choices to be made in Would You Rather? by John Burningham, and also You Choose! by and Nick Sharratt. I think the use of dilemmas is really clever in the non-fiction series which includes Would You Rather…Dine with a Dung Beetle or Lunch with a Maggot? by Camilla de la Bedoyere and Mel Howells.

Today’s post is the last stop on a week long blog tour celebrating I Don’t Know What to Call my Cat.

Picture Books Blogger
Book Lover Jo
The Book Sniffer
Fiction Fascination

3 Responses

  1. Rebecca Stonehill

    My favourite dilemmas in children’s books (off the top of my head…if I really thought about it I could go on and on ha ha!):

    In Moon Man by Tomi Ungerer, the moon man is desperate to come to earth and yet, once there, is treated cruelly and tries to find a way back to his home in space.

    In The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes, the little hero of the story loves his garden and works hard but doesn’t yield great results as he’s just so little. He is disheartened UNTIL….!
    Rebecca Stonehill recently posted..Use this powerful tool to choose your next holiday read

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