Picture books where naughtiness goes unpunished and unredeemed

The phenomenal, ongoing success of Horrid Henry and the recent rebranding of Blyton’s Naughtiest Girl in the School series (with new illustrations by Kate Hindley) show how many young children love to read about kids getting up to no good. Picture books which revel in really bad behaviour are less common but Children are Naughty by Vincent Cuvellier and Aurelie Guillerey and The Cake by Dorothee de Monfreid (@DdeMonfreid) are two new books which are exceptions to the rule. In these books there is no moral finger-wagging telling readers the behaviour is inappropriate or unacceptable; the naughtiness is not redeemed by charming features elsewhere (such as in Pippi Longstocking, for example) but rather they are celebrations of all that is entertaining about unadulterated misbehaving.


Children are Naughty covers just about every bit of bad behaviour you might find kids getting up to, from pulling hair, to not sharing toys, throwing tantrums and refusing to do what is asked of them. There’s a funny nod to an adage all too often wheeled out in parenting: “Do as I say, not as I do” (or in this case did) – acknowledging that adults too were once kids, and of course as kids we were always angelic and never ever broke any rules (ahem). The illustrations have a 1960s feel about them (as does the text at times with some casual sexism I didn’t feel comfortable with) and are beautifully produced to look like vintage prints (a technique the publisher, Flying Eye is very good at, as can also be seen in their reproductions of Dahlov Ipcar books).


In The Cake a bunch of hungry friends agree baking a cake would be a good solution to their predicament. But they can’t agree on what sort of cake to bake and [spoiler alert] their disagreements end up in an enormous food fight. The tone and visual style of The Cake will appeal to fans of Poo Bum by Stephanie Blake (from the same publisher, Gecko Press); full bleed pages of bold, saturated colour, and characters drawn with thick black lines and a certain wobbly naivety.


Both have provoked me to reflect on my own values and where the boundaries lie (if there are indeed any boundaries) when it comes to what content I as an adult (as a book buyer, as a librarian, as a parent) am happy with. It’s not often I’m made uncomfortable by a picture book! I wonder if it is just coincidence that both books are translations from French (Linda Burgess translated The Cake, but sadly no translator is acknowledged in Children are Naughty). Is unrepentant naughtiness one of those themes like sex and death which are more common in continental European picture books than English/US picture books?

I don’t think these are books for everyone. Some will love the cheekiness, the rebelliousness of these books. Others will feel they go a step too far. One of my girls loved both books, whilst the other was actually saddened by them, feeling that the behaviour was a bit mean. I’d encourage you to seek them out and see how not only you, but also your kids react to them. You might be surprised.

Connecting with our inner rebels, these books encouraged us to have a food fight of our own. Instead of pistols it was plates of squirty cream at dawn:


It has to be said we laughed a LOT doing this. There really was something exhilarating about doing something so “naughty”. I won’t be encouraging a repeat performance, but we had 20 minutes of unbridled joy. I’m pretty certain this particular playing-by-the-book will find a place in family lore in years to come.

Music to go with cake and/or a food fight includes:

  • Rock Melon by Gustafer Yellowgold – a food fight but with melon balls!
  • Cakenstein also by Gustafer Yellowgold
  • Chocolate Cake by Musical Playground

  • Other activities which go well with reading The Cake include:

  • Baking a chocolate cake. Here’s the recipe for our favourite chocolate cake. It only uses half a kilo of chocolate….
  • Reading a brilliant poem about cake – All Join In by Quentin Blake has a super verse featuring chocolate-fudge-banana cake. Or treat yourself to watching Michael Rosen recite his delicious Chocolate Cake poem.
  • Trying a cake with unusual ingredients. Here are some ideas featuring avocado, sauerkraut and tomato soup….

  • What is the most unusual cake you’ve ever eaten? Have you ever had a food fight? And just how comfortable are you with books, especially picture books, which don’t model angelic behaviour?!

    Disclosure: I received a free review copy of both The Cake and Children are Naughty from the books’ distributor.

    8 Responses

    1. Catherine

      When I reviewed The slightly Annoying Elephant by David Walliams I did say that although I don’t condone his behaviour he does make us laugh. My daughter loves the book but understands that the elephant’s behaviour is rude and outlandish. I think that if behaviour in a book is really outlandish, children find it funny, quite shocking and know that it is not acceptable. If behaviour is only slightly naughty it can give the impression that it’s acceptable. Different people have different opinions as to what acceptable behaviour is.

      I know a lady who didn’t like us singing Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed at playgroup. She felt it encouraged her son to do something that she found unacceptable, I hadn’t interpreted it that way at all until she said something.
      Catherine recently posted..My Family Tree Book by Catherine Bruzzone / Caroline Jayne Church

    2. Zoe

      Hi Catherine, yes, everyone’s boundaries lie in different places – I love the anecdote about the monkey song – I would never in a million years have considered that as encouraging bad behaviour!

    3. Ali B

      I think some children love reading about naughty behaviour because there is a vicarious thrill in it. William, Horrid Henry, Peter Rabbit, Clementine, Penny Dreadful et al may get their come-uppance, but there they are in the next story still being naughty. Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are and In The Night Kitchen don’t end in punishment; I adored them as a child as I would never have dared to be so naughty! These books are intriguing me, Zoe; I’ll look out for them.

    4. Donna McKinnon

      Interesting post, Zoe. I will admit that I love books where naughtiness abounds, and the ‘lessons’ are not heavy-handed. They can be a lot of fun. The only book I can think of at the moment that crossed the line (for me) was The Waiting Dog by Carolyn Beck. A dog waits for the postman to show up, and then devours him (in very gruesome detail.) Good illustrations, but very dark humour. I don’t think it got the balance right. Instead of giving me a Gorey-esque giggle, I was just disturbed. Maybe it’s because I love dogs…and mail people!
      Donna McKinnon recently posted..Winston & George

    5. Zoe

      Thanks Donna – I’ll have to look up The Waiting Dog. Do you think that naughtiness is often more explicit in MG books rather than picture books? Like Ali lists, I think there are quite a few MG books which revel in naughtiness, but out and out bad behaviour seems far less common in picture books, I think.
      Zoe recently posted..New stock in my bookshop! And a worldwide giveaway!

    6. Becky

      We didn’t like the Amelia Jane books because we thought all the paybacks form the other toys were too mean. Nor did we like Mr Pinkwhistle. Neither I nor the kids felt comfortable with these books.
      Becky recently posted..Win a Copy of The Playful Parent

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