Weighing in at a mere 89 pages, THE WHIPPING BOY might be one of the slimmest novels to ever win the Newbery Medal (it did so in 1987). But Sid Fleischman’s little book more than deserved it. It is a gem – a compact, perfect little diamond.
The story concerns Jemmy, an orphan plucked from a grimy, dangerous life in the sewers and streets in order to serve as Prince Brat’s whipping boy – a stand-in punishment-taker for the cruel, mischievous heir to the throne, a boy too important, too royal to be flogged himself. When the prince grows bored with his castle-bound mischief-making, he decides to run away. Jemmy, seeing this as a possible opportunity for his own escape, joins the prince. But when they are abducted by a pair of dim-witted scoundrels and held for ransom, Jemmy is prevented from breaking free, first by the prince’s stupidity, then by the prince’s selfishness, and finally by Jemmy’s own growing concern and feeling for the prince – who, mistreated by his kidnappers and increasingly reliant on Jemmy for his own survival, gradually becomes more empathetic and fair-minded as the story moves along.
Right at the top of the book’s back cover, in big capital letters above the brief synopsis, it says “THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER,” so the similarity to the classic tale is neither skirted around nor denied. But Fleischman approaches this basic plot in a manner all his own. Or, I guess I should say, with a language all his own. Because it’s Fleischman’s language that sets his story of a prince and a pauper apart from all the rest.
Fleischman writes short, straightforward sentences, but imbues each one with an old-fashioned flavor, using curious, evocative phrases and inventively repurposing more-familiar words. For instance, a sewer isn’t just dark, but “blacker’n a stack of black cats.” And when Jemmy is caught off guard by an approaching soldier on the lookout for him and the prince, and he doesn’t have time to hide himself away, there is “nothing to do but brazen it out” and walk on by, hoping for the best.
It helps, too, that Fleischman is funny. Every chance he gets, he injects the zippy plot with a dose of his dry wit, from the chapter titles (“Chapter 18: Of assorted events in which the plot thickens thicker”) to the convoluted series of mistaken identities and the slapstick-y chase scenes.
And yes, the story is ripe with discussion-launching scenarios, and could be used by a parent or teacher to talk with kids about issues such as class and wealth, prejudice and privation. But first and foremost, this book should be given to kids for the language, for the clever and constantly thrilling uses and reuses of seemingly static words, for the way Fleischman shows how flexible and dynamic the English language is and can be. I’d even argue that the close study of his use of language can help achieve the same goals that those issues-based discussions aim to. Because to let children know that they can approach something as seemingly rule-bound and rigid as the English language with playfulness, even irreverence – that is the sort of thing that can get a kid seeing and thinking in an entirely different and profoundly personal way, encouraging them to question what seems immovable and sacred and leading them to make their own unique mark on the busy but still-unfinished canvas that is the world.