The Whipping Boy tells the story of, well, a whipping boy and the prince whose punishments he gets. The whipping boy hopes to be dismissed from the castle so he can go back to the sewers to work as a rat catcher like his father did. He fondly remembers the freedom of that life.
The prince (called Prince Brat behind his back because he’s so poorly behaved) is no more content with his life and decides to run away because he’s bored. Not willing to go alone, he orders the whipping boy to come with him. Jemmy, the whipping boy, figures he can ditch the prince once they leave the castle, so he agrees. Soon they encounter highwaymen who capture them and hope to ransom the prince. Through cleverness and a developing friendship and deeper understanding of each other, the boys figure out how to save themselves.
It’s a story of unlikely friendship and learning to see things from someone else’s point of view. Full of illustrations and short chapters, it’s an amusing story that gently pushes young readers to consider that there may be more to a person or a situation than appears on the surface.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
It’s a cute book and all, but I’ll have to check the competition from 1987 to see if I can figure out why this won the Newbery Award, as well as being named an ALA Notable Book and a School Library Journal Best Book. However, unlike many award winners, this is utterly lacking in gratuitous death, so that’s definitely a bonus. (UPDATE: OK, so I didn’t recognize any of the honor books, either. I guess it wasn’t a particularly memorable year. However, it is really nice that a book without tragedy won awards!)
Jemmy’s father died well before the book opens—that’s why he’s living at the castle as a whipping boy. No mention of his mother. The girl with the dancing bear is also on her own after her father’s death. No mention of her mother. The prince is convinced that his father doesn’t care about him at all, although there are hints that this isn’t quite true. No mention of his mother. The book fits fairy tale tropes pretty well with this trend, though.
The prince flatly refuses to learn his lessons—he pointedly can’t read or write at all. But Jemmy has been present for all of the prince’s lessons, so he’s learned to read and write along the way. This helps Jemmy convince the highwaymen that he’s actually the prince—part of his clever plan to escape from them. He also realizes that now that he has some education, he’ll never be content to go back to the sewers.
Softhearted kids may have issues with some details of this book. Jemmy used to capture rats from the sewers to sell for rat and dog fights. While on the run, they meet one of his friends who has a terrier who fights rats and Jemmy points out that the rats there are all practically tame—they’d hardly put up any fight. While in the sewers, they encounter rats who attack anyone who comes near. A girl has a pet bear who dances for money. If your kid is a champion for animals, they may not be happy with how animals are portrayed and treated in this story.
People Are Watching
The prince wants Jemmy to yell when he gets whipped, but Jemmy never gives him that satisfaction. Later, when the prince gets hit, he makes no sound because Jemmy never did. The prince is now looking to Jemmy as inspiration. People in the town don’t realize who the prince is, and they talk about what a brat he is and how they think he’ll make a terrible king. This is a turning point for him—it’s like he never realized that his behavior could affect how others viewed him.
The rats in a certain part of the sewer are particularly nasty because they live under the brewery and feed on the grain from it. Something is described as so unlikely that “cows would give beer first!”
Jemmy assumes that the prince has friends because he’s the prince, but as he thinks about it, he realizes that he’s the closest thing the prince has to a friend. Through their adventure, the prince learns more about how to be a friend and Jemmy starts to view the prince more sympathetically. Jemmy is afraid that the prince will go back to his bratty ways, but he comes up with a way to reward the people who helped them and to keep Jemmy from being punished for running away with the prince.
There’s a convict ship in the harbor near the fair. It’s pointed out that it makes a sharp contrast to the nearby celebration. However, later we learn that the highwaymen stowed away on that ship—they’re on their way to a convict island, even though they weren’t caught.
Overall, people get what they deserve in this story. The people who help Jemmy and the prince get rewarded. The people who tried to hurt them get bitten by rats and stow away on the wrong ship. The prince gets a whipping, which he handles as Jemmy taught him. Both Jemmy and the prince get a friend and a better future.
It’s an amusing story with some thought-provoking aspects. The story moves quickly with non-stop action and short chapters. It’s good for young readers ready to handle short chapter books, and probably a fun read aloud.
The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman
Published in 1986 by Harper Collins
Read my daughter’s copy