There are SO many “great” children’s books out there. Books that make you laugh, books that capture your interest, books that tell amazing stories – this blog is full of recommendations of “great books” that anyone should be able to enjoy either at home or at the library. However, there are far, far fewer children’s books that I would actually describe as “important.” Because “important books” are extremely rare. Important books are titles that deliver an experience that 99% of other books just can’t match. These are books that challenge worldviews, open eyes, or supply your children with some piece of essential social perspective or vocabulary that they will use for the rest of their lives. And, in my humble opinion, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst and Ray Cruz is a very “important” book.
Am I overdoing it a bit on my assessment of Alexander? Possibly. It’s a book that I enjoy a lot and remember fondly from my childhood, so there is a definite nostalgia element to my overall opinion of Alexander. But, my personal baggage aside, I really do think that Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day is one of the top ten ESSENTIAL books that any kid just HAS to read. It’s a book that I think should be one of the cornerstones of any kid’s home library.
Why? Because it’s one of the best books ever written for kids about what it’s like to be a kid. Most books that feature child characters have very set and established modes of storytelling. Some just try to be funny, some try to tell short, sweet adventures, some (more than some) are thinly veiled morality tales – Kid A made Mistake B, learned Lesson C, and never made Mistake B again. Young readers get hit with the same types of story structures again and again and again. They wait for the punchline, the end of the quest, or the very special message and, once everything is wrapped up per usual, they move on to the next title.
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day is a very significant and unusual children’s book because it rejects a lot of those familiar storytelling tropes. There isn’t really a plot to Alexander – we essentially just watch Alexander suffer through having a really not-great day. Everything is narrated from Alexander’s perspective and, from dawn to dusk, we witness things not going Alexander’s way. His opening rant sets the stage perfectly:
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 and by mistake I dropped my sweater in the sink while the water was running and I could tell that it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.
Alexander is a hilarious narrator, particularly because, thanks to Viorst’s clever prose, his rants often inadvertently reveal that Alexander isn’t just a victim of bad luck on his very bad day. Sometimes he’s the one creating his own bad luck.
When we picked up my dad at his office he said I couldn’t play with his copying machine, but I forgot. He also said to watch out for the books on his desk, and I was careful as could be except for my elbow. He also said don’t fool around with his phone, but I think I called Australia. My dad said please don’t pick him up anymore.
A lot of Alexander’s woes are his own fault and I love that Viorst chose to make him such a complex character. Yes, Alexander is totally justified to feel put upon when both of his brothers found prizes in their cereal and he didn’t – admit it, parents, that would’ve driven you nuts as a kid – or when the elevator door closed on his foot. On the other hand, Alexander also sounds completely unreasonable when he complains about having to sit in the middle seat for his carpool or that his teacher didn’t appreciate his picture of an invisible castle (which is an incredibly creative way of saying that he didn’t actually draw anything on his paper).
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day could’ve been a much less interesting work, if Viorst had made Alexander either a pure victim or the sole creator of his bad fortune. Instead she chose to make Alexander into both – he is, legitimately, having a bad day, but he’s also so obsessed with the dark cloud hanging over the day, that, in his mind, he’s turning every moment that doesn’t go his way, whether it’s his own fault or not, into further proof of his bad luck. In effect, Alexander is both suffering through his horrible day and egging it on with his own behavior. And I think that’s a wonderfully real scenario to present to kids.
And Ray Cruz‘s artwork also makes Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day into a total classic – the level of detail on his pen illustrations is unbelievable and I have a hard time thinking of another illustrator who’s better at conveying emotion through slight changes in body language. Even though Cruz and Viorst only collaborated on two Alexander books – Very Bad Day and Alexander, Who Used to be Rich Last Sunday – the composition of Alexander’s world is, in my opinion, one of the most iconic visual styles in the history of children’s literature. (There is a third Alexander book – Alexander, Who Is Not (Do You Hear Me? I Mean It!) Going to Move – which was illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser “in the style of Ray Cruz”.)
So, is that why I regard Alexander so highly? Because the lead character is complex, the scenario is refreshingly real, and the art is to die for? Well, that all helps, but I think the real reason why I adore Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day is that it does something that few other kids’ books ever do – it teaches children to commiserate.
As I mentioned before, there are libraries FULL of books that teach children about heroic ideals, morality, and humor, but I can’t think of many books that teach children how to give and receive empathy and sympathy. And that is where Alexander really shines. It presents children with a child going through an experience that they can IMMEDIATELY empathize with – a bad day. Everyone has a bad day sometime. And, as Alexander goes through his day, there’s no real lesson to learn, there’s no goal he has to achieve. At the end of the day, all we can do for Alexander is shake our heads and say, “Wow. That sucks, kid. We’ve all been there.”
That’s a powerful cultural experience – being able to empathize with another human being. I love that Viorst doesn’t have Alexander reform his mischievous ways or resolve to always look on the bright side of life. Bad days can’t be prevented. They just exist. All Alexander can do is endure his bad luck and, at the end of the day, his mother reminds him that “some days are like that.” Throughout the book, Alexander keeps threatening to abandon his bad day and move to Australia and his mom lets him know in the final pages that bad days like this one exist EVERYWHERE, even in Australia.
And I don’t regard that as Alexander’s mom trying to teach him a lesson. I’ve always seen that as his mom commiserating with her son – she’s telling him, “I know days like this are horrible. But they happen. They just do.” And his mom doesn’t offer him a solution or give him an inane bit of Pollyanna advice that turns his attitude around. She just tells him that “bad days HAPPEN” and he goes to bed with the unspoken hope that it won’t happen again tomorrow.
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day is all about problems that can’t be solved, which is really unusual for a kids’ book. Most children’s texts revel in passing along life lessons and bits of instructional knowledge – and I’m not criticizing that. That’s one of the most effective ways that children learn through reading. But what I like about Alexander is that it takes a huge abstract problem – bad things happen – and presents it in a very honest and very humanistic fashion without pretending that it can offer an answer to such a universal dilemma.
Plus Viorst gets extra points for layering in even more psychological insights on top of Alexander’s central woes, as the readers, while commiserating with Alexander, start seeing how Alexander both perpetuates and exaggerates his bad luck at times. The concept is very simple – a boy has a bad day – but Viorst’s execution of that concept is so complexly universal that ANYONE can read the book and immediately think, “Oh yeah, been there.” Which, I think, is EXACTLY what Viorst was going for.
Again, maybe I’ve overthinking this – that should be the new subtitle for the blog – but I’m just in awe of how Alexander actively teaches its readers about the importance of empathy and commiserating with others. How sometimes, when a friend is faced with an impossible problem, the best (and only) thing you can do is just sit down, listen to them, shake your head, and agree with them that yes, indeed, things DO suck sometimes. Even in Australia.
THE DETAILS ON ALEXANDER AND THE TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD DAY
AGE RANGE: The stated age range is 5-9, but I think the themes of Alexander are so universal that even younger kids can easily connect to the story. Plus, and I can tell you this from experience, there are few things as cute/heartbreaking as a 3-year-old hanging her head low and whispering, “I’m having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, Daddy.”
PAGE COUNT: 32 pages
RELATED WEB SITES: Here’s the official Simon & Schuster page for Alexander where you can find some information on the book, excerpts, and activity pages. You can also find the S&S page on Judith Viorst here.
BUY IT, BORROW IT, OR FORGET IT?: For me, this is an essential kids’ book. If I ever do a feature on the “ten kids’ books ANY home library MUST own”, Alexander will be on the list. It’s like Citizen Kane, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Wire, Sgt. Pepper – it’s just part of the canon of contemporary culture.
IF YOU LIKED ALEXANDER AND THE TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD DAY, YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE:
- Pete’s a Pizza by William Steig – I listed this one as one of my favorite board books and I think it has some thematic parallels to Alexander too. What I love about Pete’s a Pizza is that – it’s all about a boy who’s sad that he can’t play with his friends, so, rather than having a deep talk with his son about the nature of expectations and disappointment, the boy’s father just decides to make his kid laugh by pretending to make him into a pizza. Like in Alexander, Pete’s a Pizza shows parents who solve their kids’ woes, not by modeling behavior or teaching lessons, but rather by just being there for their kids and commiserating with them. Not enough parents, in literature or reality, do that.
- The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Dave McKean – Another extremely visually arresting picture book that, I think, captures a lot of the same anarchic fun that Alexander exemplifies. One of my favorite parts of Viorst’s book is listening to Alexander’s crazy kid logic constantly rationalize and justify his bad day – the way he laments the lack of praise for his invisible castle is such a perfect kid moment. Gaiman’s protagonist in The Day I Swapped My Dad has a similar mind, which is evident both as he constantly justifies his decision to trade his dad and as he then is forced to negotiate for his dad’s return.