Odd Kid Out: In praise of the underdog in children's books

Published on: 09 September 2020 Author: Simon James Green

Life of Riley author Simon James Green is a big fan of underdog characters - but just why are they so popular? Simon reveals why he loves them here...

A photograph of Simon James Green and the front cover of his book Life of Riley: Beginner's Luck

One thing was standing between me and certain glory: a gym vaulting horse... and an audience of my Year 6 classmates. I could do this. I took my run up, gathering speed, and... well, I not only smacked straight into the side of the thing, I managed to also rip my PE shorts, revealing He-Man underpants – a catastrophic choice for a 10 year-old boy with delusions of sophistication. Horrifically, someone started slow clapping.

It was just one of a multitude of school-based humiliations that ensured, during PE at least, that 'underdog' was very firmly marker-penned on my forehead (not literally - it wasn't that bad at my school).

Nobody enjoys being the kid who is destined for failure, who is picked last for the sports team, who doesn't fit in, or who feels like they don't belong. Yet their popularity has endured in fiction for all ages. Aside from my own books, we have Adrian Mole, Oliver Twist, Wimpy Kid, Bella in Beth Garrod's brilliant Super Awkward books, and Matthew in Lisa Thompson's The Goldfish Boy, to name just a few. We love seeing these kids triumph over adversity, battling against the odds to win their little piece of glory.

But for young readers, it's so much more than just a satisfying character arc. Kids are bombarded with images of 'perfect' from an increasingly young age. From Hollywood films and (usually American) TV shows, to the carefully curated lives of social media influencers, the world is apparently full of very beautiful, very successful, very glossy people.

But what happens when your life is nothing like the movies? If 2020 has shown us anything, it's that life is full of unexpected twists, turns, trials and tribulations. Plans go awry. Disappointments are rife. Life can actually be really hard.

If you're comparing yourself against some popular kids who always seem to be swanning around Cancún screaming 'Spring Break!' then I think you're going to feel pretty bad about yourself. Why isn't that me? What did I do wrong?

Enter the fictional underdog. Usually armed with little more than a refusal to let life beat them down, these plucky kids are determined to be the hero of their stories, to weather the storm, and to go for glory.

In my new book Life of Riley, our titular hero is already unpopular at school, and getting cursed by a fairground fortune-teller does nothing to improve things. Plagued with bad luck, he's determined to remove the curse and turn his life around, before new kid Brad Chicago (whom he would like to make into his best friend) finds out the awful truth.

Riley is faced with a litany of terrible calamities, from being attacked by killer seagulls to losing his swimming trunks to a crazed dog at the water park, but he finds it within himself to remain optimistic. He's determined.

Building resilience is the key to dealing with life's ups and downs. In reading about underdog characters, young people can see that life does sometimes go wrong, and it's OK to feel sad about that, it's OK to mourn and wish things were different, but that ultimately, you have to find a way to keep going.

Although it's hard, you can win through, and with that belief in yourself, you know what? You might just get your happy ending.

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