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What can children learn from crime classics like Peter Rabbit?

What can children learn from crime classics like Peter Rabbit?

What can children learn from crime classics like Peter Rabbit?

From the Tale of Peter Rabbit to the Albergs’ classic Burglar Bill, our Book Doctor seeks out the best children’s books exploring crime – and the great moral debates you can have after reading them!

The ultimate criminal: Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter. Copyright © Frederick Warne & Co., 1902, 2002. Reproduced by kind permission of Frederick Warne & Co.Photograph: © Frederick Warne & Co., 1902, 2002. Reproduced by kind permission of Frederick Warne & Co./Frederick Warne & Co

Funnily enough, a lot of crime – stealing rather than murder and most of it largely harmless - takes place in children’s books largely because it is a very good plot device!
Crime requires dramatic action, provides tension and readily separates goodies and baddies. Pirates are obvious examples; they are largely criminal since their gains come from theft and murder. They make notably heroic baddies who are generally much-loved – although also feared - by young readers.
Typically, they come to a bad end unless they have a significant and obvious change of heart so lessons can be learnt that crime doesn’t always pay.
Even for the very young, crime fiction is also a good way of highlighting the pitfalls of disobedience. And it seems to start early! Even in nursery rhymes such as “Tom, Tom the Piper’s son/ Stole a pig and away did run/ The pig was eat and Tom was beat/ And Tom went roaring down the street” leaves no doubt that Tom was a thief – even if modern interpreters tell us that the pig wasn’t a live animal but a pie of some sort.
Although neither Peter Rabbit in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit or the baby in Elfrida Vipont’s The Elephant and the Bad Babycould quite be described as criminal, both do set out on a spree during which they take freely from other people.
Peter deliberately squeezes under the gate to find out what is in Mr McGregor’s garden – even though he knows his father had a fatal accident there. In Raymond Brigg’s delightful illustrations the Bad Baby is shown perched on top of the Elephant encouraging it to use its trunk to help itself to fruit, ice cream and cake at will until the Elephant himself calls the escapade to a halt. Peter Rabbit and the Bad Baby are useful for teaching simple morals about disobedience and politeness respectively but they also provide an opportunity to discuss good or “right” behaviour.anet and Alan Ahlberg’s classic Burglar Bill gives the very young a distinctly cuddly view of theft in a delightful story about a burglar who steals a whole bag of swag in the time-honoured way of climbing into other people’s houses through open windows. Burglar Bill only mends his ways when he steals a baby, meets Burglar Betty and ends up living happily ever after. Designed more for fun than use, Burglar Bill should not be read too literally except that it shows that you can never be quite sure what you’ll get if you take from other people.
Lydia Monk’s picture book What the Ladybird Heard is largely a wonderfully simple introduction to the mooing, clucking and baaing of a farmyard which deafen the very silent Ladybird. But the ebullient animal noises don’t completely drown out the nasty plot to steal the prize cow. Only the Ladybird, the quietest creature of all can hear. She is the one who can catch a thief!
At the heart of Dick King-Smith’s best-selling The Sheep-Pig, the story of Babe, a piglet who is trained to become a sheep dog, there is also a serious animal-stealing crime. Babe’s role in defending the sheep from the rustlers who arrive to steal them is one of his most heroic.
Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl is described as a “master criminal” although he is only 12 years old. His crime? Kidnapping a fairy and trying to get tho the fairy crock of gold by asking for a huge ransom for her. Among his other skills, Artemis is a brilliant code breaker – a very useful trick for any criminal. In the richly-imagined world of ferocious leprechauns led by the quick-witted captain Holly Short and a police force led by its very determined chief who happens to be an elf, crime is solved and resolved in this richly imagined story.
For greater realism and an example of how children’s reaction to crime can be used in a story, Erich Kästner’s Emil and the Detectives is a dramatic account of how a whole gang of children set about catching thief after Emil has been robbed on a train. Eric Kästner tells a life affirming story of clever and quick thinking children pulling together. The children’s belief in the importance of proving “who dunnit” and catching him or her reflects children’s deep seated sense of right and wrong.
The same belief in justice burns within the hearts of Roberta, Phyllis and Peter whose father is arrested on suspicion of spying in E Nesbit’s The Railway Children. Their determination to prove his innocence fuels the classic story and shows children that injustices of all kinds must be fought against.

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