Munsch Ado About Nothing: The Boy in the Drawer as an Allegory for Tantrums

Munsch Ado About Nothing: The Boy in the Drawer as an Allegory for Tantrums

Tantrums, lies, and blame transference.

These are the hallmarks of a three-year-old's behaviour problems.

No wonder my son has very little interest in Robert Munsch's The Boy in the Drawer.

Munsch's stories very often grant children power and label adults as inconsistent, selfish, unreasonable, unhelpful, or incompetent. No wonder the books are so popular with kids.

I've discussed in the past children's need to feel empowered and how children's fiction caters to that need. But what happens when an author renowned for meeting that need takes a 180 and instead offers a bizarre narrative that disempowers children on multiple levels?

You get the only among 8 Munsch books that my kid is not way into right now. Even the admittedly scary A Promise is a Promise gets higher preference, not least of all cause there are crabs in it. The list of crowd pleasers with my son are is as follows:

  • Pigs

  • Moira's Birthday

  • A Promise is a Promise

  • Mortimer

  • The Paper Bag Princess

  • The Fire Station

  • Thomas's Snowsuit

Why does he dislike The Boy in the Drawer to the point of exiling it from his room altogether? Clearly, he's already developing his father’s analytical skills.

This is a book that, on the surface, makes no sense whatsoever. While cleaning her room, Shelley finds a tiny boy in her drawer making a huge mess. She tells her parents about the boy, but they just instruct her to clean up. More messes are made by the boy, and Shelley gets disciplined some more. Eventually, Shelley yells at the boy and paints his ear black. With each reaction, the boy grows bigger and bigger. He floods the kitchen while bathing in the bread box, so Shelley turns up the hot water. This just makes him grow more. Once the boy finally reaches normal child size, the father tries a new approach and hugs the boy. This makes him shrink. A kiss from the mom makes him disappear altogether. Then the parents hug Shelley, who happily cleans up all the mess with no difficulty at all.

So what is happening here? It was bothering me for some time, but I think I've got it figured out.

It's a story about tantrums and general bad behaviour. Shelley projects her violent and destructive tendencies onto the boy, blaming the mess on an invented figure. Since she fails to acknowledge her role in creating the messes, she feels resentment at having to clean them up. She replicates her parents' strategies of yelling at her by in turn yelling at the boy. This is also why he is so tiny: she devalues him by rendering him small. But as she gives him more and more power to upset her, he grows, until they are equals.

This is like parents who respond to children's tantrums by yelling and becoming as upset as the child - this elevates the child, or rather diminishes the parent, until they are of the same stature. Shelley tries to gain power by emulating an agitated parent and discovers an ineffective parenting strategy. The actual parents of the story achieve the upper hand in the end by demonstrating to Shelley that their firmness of command is accompanied by a lovingkindness that nurtures the boy (to the point of non-existence).

If we take the boy purely as the negative side of Shelley's impulses, then his disappearance is not so disturbing. Shelley is shamed into understanding that parental power is only valid when fairly wielded, and so she gladly accepts the rule of her benevolent dictators, as evidenced when she dutifully cleans up at the end.

Very well, but what happens if we regard the boy as not simply as a symbol or projection of Shelley's destructiveness? We get a further layer of childly powerlessness. The boy grows and shrinks against his will, but without any corresponding increase or decrease of autonomy (much as Alice grows and shrinks at random within Wonderland). He merely remains an uncontrollable force that must be loved out of existence. The socialization of the child entails the disappearance of the essence of childishness - impulse. In the moment of tantrum, the child is a non-entity who must be removed from polite society. In our case, we have some alone time in our room until we can learn to not yell and hit.

Clearly, my child understands all of this and resents the implication of a story that positions the adult figures as morally and intellectually superior beings that will eventually civilize the hell out of him.

It's quite a betrayal Munsch has played upon his readers.

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