9 of the best mischievous characters

Published on: 02 November 2022

Rachel Bright, picture book author and illustrator, shares her favourite mischievous characters to share with children

In a world where everyone does exactly as they are told and never challenges the status quo … well ... nothing much happens. Which is why mischief and impulse are some of the most fun and interesting themes to explore through stories. Kids (and grown ups!) are so often told what to do. And what not to do. And for any human being this is not so easy. The feeling of wanting agency over your own decisions is a fire that burns in us right from the beginning, so to ignore it would be a terrible thing. To understand that feeling of rebellion and the adventure and misadventure that result from the desire to go beyond where we are ‘supposed’ to go, can make for the most exciting read (and existence!).

So, when I was invited to reimagine some new adventures for Peter Rabbit, I knew it was going to be a lot of fun. If there’s a poster-rabbit for not doing quite what you are told to do – it’s Peter! I wanted to capture that essence of mischief and independent thinking –never simply accepting that things should be done the way they always have. Hence, I decided to cast Peter as an inventor of his own life! In the first story, Head over Tail, Peter tries to dodge his responsibility of cleaning up after himself, by trying to get someone else (Mrs Tiggy-winkle) to do it for him. Of course, it doesn’t quite go to plan. In the second tale, Hide & Seek, Peter tries to help his friends who are being persecuted by Mr Tod, but he becomes rather full of his own ideas and almost takes his very clever plan off the rails!

This list was great fun to compile. It visits some classics and some contemporaries – which is sort of where this new world of Peter Rabbit was born from – a classic character leaping into a new world. Certainly it proves one thing: a sense of mischief and fun is perennial!

Max in Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

If there is a story that perfectly captures the essence of our wild nature, especially when we are small, it’s this one. Max wants to make noise and rumpus, whether it happens to be a convenient time for the grown ups or not. It’s an overwhelming feeling that, after fully exploring it, he is able to tame all by himself. Absolute deftness of touch in brilliant storytelling – with utterly mesmerising illustrations too.

The Cat in The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss

It’s widely acknowledged that it’s important for children to occasionally be allowed to be bored. Boredom can be the gateway to imagination, which of course is simultaneously the antidote to boredom itself! With quirk, pace and the best kind of read-aloud rhyme, the cat in the hat barrels into Sally and her brothers’ rather uneventful day and turns it upside down in just the most wonderful way, illustrating the domino effect of one misplaced decision, but without a whiff of a disapproving tone. It’s a race to get everything back to how it was before their mother returns!

George in George’s Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl, illustrated by Quentin Blake

What child has not loved to stick all kinds of ingredients together to see what they’d would do?! (Though perhaps not offered it to Granny.) In this absolute classic chapter book, the story escalates very quickly from George attempting to do as he’s told (bringing Grandma her cup of tea of tea and not forgetting to give her her medicine) to soon hatching a much more interesting plan, all of his own. Mischief and magic are a good combination.

The pigeon in Don’t Let That Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Willems

Defiance, perseverance and untameable spirit – sometimes known in younger children as a tantrum. The obvious choice for depicting these feelings might not be a pigeon – wanting to drive a bus – but this is what makes this book so genius! With a hilarious premise – it hands control to the reader to decide (something the young so often don’t get) if the pigeon gets what he wants (however irrational that desire may be!). A simple, deliciously silly story but packing a powerful pigeon punch at its heart!

Alice in Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

I suppose Alice is more curious than necessarily mischievous, but I wanted to include her in this collection because she embodies a kind of ‘innocent’ mischief – a natural curiosity to take the next step into the unknown that is there in every child, but is so often misconstrued by adults as mischief or malice. Her willingness to follow her instinct and face every slightly surreal situation which that creates is wonderful. Quite literally the epitome of living inside a dream.

The Monster in Not Now, Bernard by David McKee

I had to include this one because it’s one of my favourite picture books of all time, which both my girls also love. Every little person has been told ‘not now’ (one way or another) by a grown up in their life and it is SO frustrating! Kids are in the moment and they just want us to be too! That’s why it is so funny seeing this situation taken to it’s nth degree in this story – EVEN when poor Bernard is eaten and replaced by a monster who bites, STILL his parents don’t notice! A cautionary tale for adults, where kids get to show the grown ups in their life a little window of remembering what it is to be small again J.

The Princess in The Worst Princess by Anna Kemp, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie

This picture book really earned its place in this list by being picked off the shelf over and over again by both my girls. It does a great job of subverting the ‘fairytale’ stereotype of the passive princess waiting in her tower to be ‘rescued’ into a life of being pretty and instead defies this skew-whiff logic to speak to the need to choose for ourselves, which is inside us all, big or small. Though not the only tale to try this, this one has such a bounce and pace with quick wit and amazing illustrations that we always giggle our way through it. Thank goodness for princesses who don’t always do what they are told.

Bastian Balthazar Bux in The Never-Ending Story* by Michael Ende

My favourite book of all time (and that’s saying something because I have a lot of favourite books!). What I love about this story is that the star, a boy called Bastian, is an ‘ordinary’ little boy who usually does what is expected of him, even in the face of extraordinary adversity. Yet … when he stumbles (quite literally) upon a book and does something he definitely should not – steals it away to an attic to read – well, a profound door inside him is unlocked … a door to a realisation that with passion and purpose he can become the hero in his own story. Could there be any more poignant message for kids? That they can become the hero of their own story, no matter their circumstances? One single act of daring mischief … an impulse acted upon and everything is forever changed.

(*This is a chapter book and so for slightly older children who love to be read to)

Peter Rabbit in The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter

Well, of course, Peter is here. How could he not be? A rabbit synonymous with mischief – he is the archetypal twinkle in a child’s eye. Always coming from a place of heart, wonder and fun, Peter’s mischief is in a category of its own – it’s sort of pure and light (albeit with sometimes potentially perilous consequences!) but again, gives power to the small, whilst making fun of the big (Mr McGregor), whilst showing the delight of a daring caper with your friends. The stuff of life indeed! I have loved every second of immersing myself in Peter’s world to imagine more tales of mischief for a character who has adventured for so long!

Peter Rabbit: Hide and Seek!, written by Rachel Bright and illustrated by Nicola Kinnear, is available now.

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