If you care about this in the context of children’s books (at which point I must assume you’re like, eight years old and probably don’t belong here anyway): the following post has a spoiler warning for Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back and its follow-up, This Is Not My Hat.
Rob Donoghue sent me the first “hat” book, and it is easily my favorite book to read to my son. Further, B-Dub likes it, too. When he wants it, he makes growling noises and taps his head, or calls out any of the animals within (a particular favorite is turtle, or “toor-tull”).
Yesterday, I poked through Barnes & Noble (hey, look, physical bookstores still exist! even though this one was phasing out of existence even as I walked through it, the air shimmering and revealing a panoply of retail possibilities — Panera, Old Navy, Coldstone Creamery, Big Dan Don’s Buttplug Bonanzaporium) and I found the sequel, This Is Not My Hat.
I read it.
And I realized:
The two books are essentially the same.
They tell the story of a most ungracious hat thievery, in which one small animal steals the tiny hat of a larger animal. In the first book, a rabbit steals that from a bear. In the second book, a little fish steals the hat off a much larger fish.
In both books, the big animal discovers what has happened and, despite being a bit big and doofy, eventually tracks down the hat thief and… well, it is implied that the bigger creature eats the smaller creature in order to regain the precious and titular hat.
Here’s where a critical storytelling lesson lies:
In the first book, the bear is the protagonist. The bear’s hat has been stolen.
In the second book, the tiny fish is the protagonist. The tiny fish has stolen a hat.
First book, we side with the victim.
Second book, we side with the thief.
We read the first book, and we feel for the bear. When he finally goes ahead and eats the rabbit and reclaims his hat, there is a moment if triumph (if a triumph of some black humor) because: YAY BEAR HAS HIS HAT BACK.
We read the second book, and we feel for the tiny fish. The tiny fish gives all his reasons for having stolen the hat. The tiny fish believes he has gotten away with, erm, clean fins, as it were. When the big fish finally tracks down the tiny fish and eats him to reclaim the hat, there is a moment of horror because: OH GOD THE TINY FISH IS (probably) DEAD.
But a shift in perspective wildly alters our perception of that story.
From triumph, to revulsion.
From a tale of a dumb bear reclaiming his beloved hat…
…to the tale of a tiny delusional hat-thief getting his brutal comeuppance.
The lesson is, of course, that a simple shift in perspective changes so much in a story. Use a shift of perspective in fiction — and, perhaps, in life — to deepen the complexity of the story and to gain fresh understanding. Ignore this shift to keep things more narratively monochromatic. Further, it’s a lesson that few antagonists believe themselves evil: the tiny fish does not steal the hat because he is evil but rather because he is selfish and is able to delude himself about that selfishness. He has his reasons. He is, as are most antagonists, the hero of his own story.
For a kid’s book, it’s powerful stuff.
Maybe too powerful right now for B-Dub, who is not even two years old —
But powerful, just the same.