“I went to sleep with gum in my mouth,” the book begins, and that would be a good opening sentence on its own––Kafka with a splash of David Sedaris––but from there it careens forward, one clause tripping into the next, undisciplined by anything so polite as a comma. “I went to sleep with gum in my mouth and now there’s gum in my hair and when I got out of bed this morning I tripped on the skateboard and by mistake I dropped my sweater in the sink while the water was running . . .” Before the sentence ends, there’s one more clause, the famous one, in which the narrator draws from this pileup of woe the conclusion that feels, to him, inescapable: “I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.”
The story, as many readers will have recognized by now, is Judith Viorst’s “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day,” currently celebrating its fiftieth year in print. I’ve always been aware of the book––not least because the string of adjectives in its title is a longtime staple of newspaper headlines (“Crypto’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Week”)––but I can’t remember reading it as a child. My wife did, though, and several months ago she suggestively placed her treasured copy on the shelf in our son’s room. One night, a few weeks ago, he picked it out at bedtime. A few minutes later, our first reading was finished; since then, we’ve read it again most nights. The book’s remarkable endurance makes sense to me. It does things that, in books for children, still feel rare, and worth celebrating.
The plot is spare. Alexander goes to school, to the dentist, to his dad’s office, to the sneaker store. At home, he has dinner and a bath. He goes to bed. Throughout, he takes everything that happens to him as evidence of how bad his day is. His brothers Anthony and Nick find prizes in their cereal boxes; he finds nothing but cereal. While carpooling to school, he gets stuck in the middle seat and feels carsick. At school, his teacher repeatedly singles out the poor quality of his participation in class, his best friend demotes him to third-best, and everyone’s mom but his seems to have packed a nice dessert with their lunch. Anthony makes him fall in the mud; Nick calls him a crybaby. The sneaker store doesn’t have the sneakers he wants. At dinner, he’s forced to eat lima beans. In the bath, he loses a marble down the drain. Everything’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad. He repeatedly fantasizes about moving to Australia.
Finally, it’s time for Alexander to go to bed. And . . . that’s it. The end. He never turns things around. His assessment of his day never changes. He doesn’t learn any lesson that shifts his perspective––like, say, that his day could have been much worse, and that other people’s days certainly were. We don’t learn some “real” reason he’s so unhappy. He just goes to bed. To the end, the indignities keep piling up. “Nick took back the pillow he said I could keep and the Mickey Mouse night light burned out and I bit my tongue. The cat wants to sleep with Anthony, not me. It has been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.”
Anyone who has spent any time in the world of books for young kids will appreciate how unusual this is, and how refreshing. Most of these books are––for good reason––focussed on the world as a source of delight, wonder, and uplift. When they do address the fact that life is not always delightful, there’s typically some optimistic bright-siding thrown in. Another one of my son’s favorites, Suzanne Lang’s “Grumpy Monkey,” is a perfect example. The main character, a monkey named Jim, is grumpy––but spends much of the book refusing to admit it. Eventually, he learns that it’s perfectly fine to admit you’re grumpy, and that, by naming an unpleasant feeling, you can get some relief from it.
To be clear, I think this is a good lesson to learn. My son loves “Grumpy Monkey.” I love “Grumpy Monkey.” But I also see how much my son loves “Alexander.” He’s only two, so I can only speculate as to why, and I’m aware that, in doing so, I am inevitably projecting my own adult literary sensibilities. But it has struck me that part of what thrills him might be the coexistence of Alexander’s boundless foul mood with the refusal of any clearly formulated conclusion about how to respond to foul moods or anything else. What fun it must be to approach the point in a story where the explicit takeaway typically arrives, only for no such takeaway to materialize, its absence forming a portal you can walk through and, having entered, look around and begin to make your own interpretations.
Crucially, “Alexander” is a book where multiple interpretations are possible. This, more than anything else, might be what sets it apart from its peers. The closer you look––by, say, reading it to your son again and again, night after night––the more attuned you become to the possibility of a disconnect between Alexander’s day and his retelling of it. Yes, some unpleasant things come his way. But he also sometimes seems to be going out of his way to make things worse, and to minimize his own role. When his teacher remarks on his work, it’s in part because, in his telling, she “liked Paul’s picture of the sailboat better than my picture of the invisible castle.” This is an inventive way of saying he has drawn nothing at all. Similarly, at his dad’s office, he’s a genuine terror, knocking over books and messing with the copy machine. “He also said don’t fool around with his phone, but I think I called Australia,” Alex remembers, confessing without really confessing, let alone apologizing or expressing remorse. On this same page, Ray Cruz’s charming black-and-white illustrations create a genuinely shocking twist, one I noticed only after twenty-odd readings: Alexander is eating an ice-cream cone, despite having said nothing about any stop for ice cream, presumably because “Mom took us for ice cream” would contradict his central thesis about his day’s uninterrupted horribleness.
There are hints, too, that Alexander might be especially prone to negativity. When he says, on the way to school, that he’s going to be carsick, “no one even answers.” Later, when he tells his mom and siblings that he’s having a very bad day, the same thing happens: no one says anything. Maybe the people in his life are especially unsympathetic. Or maybe Alexander complains a lot, his complaints tend to feel exaggerated, and they’re sick of it. Maybe it’s a bit of both, in shifting proportions. Again, there’s no fixed answer lurking below the surface, no reward for definitively decoding the mystery. I was unsurprised to learn that, after writing “Alexander,” Viorst embarked on a six-year formal study of psychoanalysis, a discipline fundamentally concerned with stories we tell ourselves, and the possibility that revising them might make our terrible days a little less so.
“It has been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day,” Alexander says, on the book’s penultimate page. “My mom says some days are like that.” His mother acknowledges his experience without endorsing (or rejecting) any specific interpretation. Maybe she’s decided to give Alexander some space to figure things out on his own. In this way, I’ve come to see her as a stand-in for Viorst herself, who offers no easy lessons about working through tough days, or tough feelings. Instead she puts the tough stuff on the page and lets us do what we will with it. Does my son enjoy the book because it invites him to form his own interpretation of Alexander’s day? Or because it gives him license not to interpret it at all? (Sometimes a day is just a day.) Maybe someday we’ll be able to talk about it. Until then, not exactly knowing is part of the fun. Reading “Alexander,” we’re together in the mystery. Some books are like that: they court our engagement, and frustrate––pleasantly––our attempts to pin them down. We call them classics. ♦