I first read The Whipping Boy (1987) when I was in elementary school and I loved it. I remember reading and rereading it, identifying (as an oldest child) with Jemmy, the orphan boy who is pulled off the streets to take Prince Brat’s beatings. As an adult and teacher, rereading this book, I still love the irreverence of Jemmy, but found more than the obvious connection-to-personal-experience to focus on when I read this with my students.
First, the language in this book is advanced, intelligent, and even a puzzle to figure out. The voices of the characters are distinct, and the narrator is flippant and derisive with his words, creating a dark tone that's fantastic. It’s a great example of how authors create worlds, images, and tone that are unique and memorable.
The message of the importance of reading, literacy, and education escaped me when I was younger and more focused on the concept of the underdog, Jemmy, getting one over on Prince Brat. But, as a teacher, the idea that learning happens even in the most awful of situations (waiting to be beaten for Prince Brat’s refusal to do his work) and that you never know when you’ll use what you learn are two ideas running through this book that my students can relate to.
Finally, the theme of friendship and role reversal comes out clearly in the plot. Jemmy and Prince Brat switch roles from start to finish and, while Jemmy’s character stays much the same throughout the book, we watch Prince Brat change dramatically. On one hand, this is vindication for kids who have a sibling or enemy they at once want vengence on and comradeship with. And, it’s an example of how authors use characters and plot to drive home a point about friendship and life in general—you never know how challenges can change a person.
When I read this with my students I’ll use this Missouri EdThemes page for author info and ideas.