One of my three-year-old’s favorite reads lately is the Richard Scarry classic book on manners: Pig Will and Pig Won’t. Like most Richard Scarry books, this little volume’s illustrations are crammed with details that make each page interesting. But the force of it, unlike the meandering but oh-so-fun-to-look-at Cars and Trucks and Things That Go (another favorite) is felt in the storyline. At first I wasn’t sure why, so I sat down to do some hardcore literary criticism on this knee-high book.
A Study in Contrasts
Like the ever-entertaining Goofus and Gallant of Highlights, or any number of compare-and-contrast character sets, Pig Will and Pig Won’t are immediately understandable by their polar opposition to each other. For a boy of three, they are very easy to understand, from Pig Will’s bright smile and wide eyes to Pig Won’t’s sour expression and punky pig-ears overshadowing his eyes. Before they even do anything, you know the difference visually.
But the biggest difference is also clear in their names: their attitudes are diametrically opposed. One will, one won’t. And this willingness (or lack thereof) actually strikes at the heart of the matter, in a book that could easily devolve into a behavior-based ethic. Scarry touches on what actually drives obedience – a willing heart. By contrast, a recalcitrant heart drives disobedience.
The first question on most of our minds when we encounter characters like this is: what’s going to happen to them? Richard Scarry does not disappoint.
Reaping What You Sow
In one of the clearest depictions of “reaping what you sow” that we have on our shelf, Scarry puts the opposing paradigms of Pig Will and Pig Won’t through the ringer. As you may have guessed, Pig Won’t reaps the whirlwind. He won’t help out with the shopping, he won’t obey his parents, he won’t do the work required. So, from the rather alarming spanking he receives in only the first few pages, to landing sick in bed after not listening to his mother’s petition to wear a raincoat, Pig Won’t is duly punished, both by his circumstances and by his parents.
Ultimately, he’s learning how the world works – and my son is picking it up right along with him.
One of my duties and privileges as a parent is to help my children to understand how the world works, and this involves both punishing them when they intentionally disobey and allowing the consequences of their actions to occur. Of course we do not give them what they truly deserve (God doesn’t give us what we truly deserve!), but if I were to withhold consequences for their actions they would be ill-prepared for a world in which actions have consequences. It’s one of my jobs to help my adorable little terrors to understand and experience this, and it’s not an easy one.
The fact of our world is that willingness yields actual rewards, while unwillingness yields actual difficulty. When we don’t see these things happen, we know that justice is failing in some respect. It’s built into us.
And Richard Scarry is hammering this fact into our heads. If Pig Won’t decides he doesn’t want to do the work of helping plant, water, harvest, and cook the corn… He won’t get an ear to gnaw on.
I have a good guess as to what many of you might be thinking right now. Of course this isn’t always the case. The wicked sometimes get away with their crimes. The righteous suffer. Of course this understanding is only part of the picture of a gracious God, a Father Who loves us so much that He withholds judgment from we who deserve it. But we can’t forget that this is the way God designed the world to work. Scarry won’t let us forget.
Which is why the turn of the story is so effective.
Pig Won’t is lying alone, sick in bed, having disobeyed his mother’s warnings to wear a raincoat. He’s listening to the happy sounds of Pig Will’s birthday party downstairs. And he is feeling sad.
And who should come to the door but Lowly Worm.
Although Pig Won’t doesn’t deserve it, Lowly Worm brings him a piece of birthday cake to go with his cough medicine. “It’s too bad you couldn’t have been at the party,” says Lowly.
I love that this act is totally unexpected, and totally disconnected from any expectation that Pig Won’t will change. I love that it is tied so closely to receiving medicine. And because it’s backed up by myriad examples of Pig Won’t’s total depravity, it shines all the more brightly. My children know very well that Pig Won’t doesn’t deserve that cake. But the kindness of Lowly Worm (what a perfect character to give this act to, right?) proves to be the catalyst Pig Won’t needs to reassess his heart.
This is, in part, how the grace of God works. It’s surprising, because it is undeserved and disconnected from our actions in the past or future. It’s a sheer act of love. And a sheer act of love is what it takes to change a heart.
The final vignette in the book is another study in contrasts: Pig Won’t thanks Lowly Worm (something he would never have done before), and Lowly responds with this: “It’s nice to be nice. You should try it sometimes. Then you will have many friends.”
And Pig Won’t does a complete u-turn, exemplifying total change accompanied by a new name: Pig Me Too. I love that his change of heart and name is so closely related to gaining a new community as well.
This isn’t a perfect story by any means; it requires plenty of clarification. And you know, Pig Will’s incessant goodness and consequent blessings irk me. I kind of wish Scarry had written a sequel where Pig Will cracks and reveals a psychopathic dark side, and Pig Me Too has to drag him back from the brink of destruction with a selfless act. But there are other stories for that.
For now I will be happy with the fact that, even in a book on manners, truth and grace can shine through.
Chris writes regularly at his blog, https://chriswheelerwrites.com/, and posts all sorts of semi-interesting stuff on Instagram and Facebook.