Wordless Books

Johnny’s Bad Day

Edward Ardizzone

Edward Ardizzone was a hugely popular British children’s book illustrator in the mid twentieth century. He is best known for his series of eleven Little Tim titles, the sixth of which won the first Kate Greenaway Medal in 1956, but he also wrote a number of other children’s books and illustrated the works of many other authors. In addition he worked as a commercial artist and was an official War Artist in the Second World War.

Johnny’s Bad Day spread

Johnny’s Bad Day, a wordless picturebook published in 1970, was the British edition of a title that was originally commissioned by Doubleday in America, where it was called The Wrong Side of the Bed. In the cover image we see Johnny literally getting out of bed on the wrong side, with everything else in the room also askew and awry. The morning goes from bad to worse, with a telling-off from both his mum and his dad to a tumble when he is pushed over by a group of bigger boys and girls. Just nothing goes right for Johnny, until at last he buys some flowers and heads home to ‘make up’ with Mum.

The book is small, which is not only practical for young children but also gives an intimate feel that is entirely appropriate to both the domestic setting of the story and the boy’s own perception of himself as being insignificant and isolated. Ardizzone worked in his favourite medium of pen and ink and made skilful use of crosshatched lines. These often directly echo the mood of the child, as can be seen in the dark mass of jagged lines around the boy’s hair and forehead in the cover image.

Johnny’s Bad Day spread

Mostly there is only one picture per page, drawn on a white background and coloured with a loose watercolour wash in a peachy-pink or a soft green. The unbordered edges of the pictures are soft and irregular, suggesting informality and fluidity. Two key images, though, extend across double-page spreads and in one of them, where Johnny is rejected by the older children, the usual left-to-right movement changes to a right-to-left one, indicating the reversal of Johnny’s fortunes by making it appear as if he is going backwards rather than forwards. There also are four half-page illustrations, which follow a particular fast-paced logic of Johnny’s thought processes.

Ardizzone uses body language to depict Johnny’s frustration and anger – the boy’s shoulders are hunched, his head is bent and his hands are clenched into fists. But the artist also injects an element of humour by using visual thought bubbles. So the child crossly imagines his father as a pig dressed up in a suit, or himself being swathed in bandages after his fall.

Johnny’s Bad Day spread

Each page shows Johnny involved in some new disastrous action. When he knocks over the milk jug, we see the milk cascading downwards and we imagine the messy splash onto the floor and the fast exit of the frightened cat. Similarly on the following page we anticipate certain sounds, such as the crash of the chair as it hits the ground and the scream of his baby sister when he pulls her hair. The rollercoaster of Johnny’s emotions only comes to an end when he gives his mum the flowers and receives a forgiving cuddle in return. The spell of the bad mood is finally broken.

There’s a wider resonance to this story as difficult days (and hopefully their resolution) is something most of us will have experienced at some time or another. And Ardizzone’s tender drawing of Johnny’s emotional reconciliation with his mum is stirring stuff – it may even bring a tear to your eye.