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Fabulism In Children’s Literature

FABULISM: WHAT IS IT?

In fabulism, fantastical elements are placed in an everyday setting.

It’s called ‘fabulism’ because authors are playing with realism by making use of elements of fable.

For the definition of a fable, see here.

COMMON FEATURES OF FABULIST FICTION

  • ornate
  • Gothic
  • subjective
  • dream-like
  • surreal
  • emphasis on idea or theme
  • settings in other times, places, but not necessarily “historical”
  • exoticism: the extraordinary over the ordinary, the unusual over the usual.

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter is a collection of fabulist stories.

fabulism shaun tan

FABULIST CHILDREN’S BOOKS

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55 Miles To The Gas Pump by Annie Proulx

“55 Miles To The Gas Pump” by Annie Proulx is a concise retelling of “Bluebeard in a remote, rural American setting.

Angela Carter also wrote a feminist re-visioning of Bluebeard in “The Bloody Chamber“. Proulx’s re-visioning is not feminist but grimly humorous.

55 Miles To The Gas Pump

The opening paragraph describes Rancher Croom in one long sentence, repeating his name as if this is an epic poem. Because this is just two paragraphs and one short one to finish, Proulx can get away with sentence fragments and present tense.

In “55 Miles To The Gas Pump”, on Mrs Croom’s reviling discovery in the attic of her husband’s “paramours,” whose corpses she recognizes “from their photographs in the paper. MISSING WOMAN,” the narrator dryly concludes: “When you live a long way out you make your own fun.” Since Annie Proulx herself live[d] on a rather secluded ranch in deep Wyoming, this grotesque and cynical intrusion from the narrator may be read as a metadiegetic comment from the implied author, ironically referring to the playful quality of her writing and to her art of recycling via the short story form.

— Thy Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literatureedited by Stéphanie Durrans

STORY STRUCTURE OF 55 MILES TO THE GAS PUMP

According to author and senior lecturer of creative writing at Kingston University James Miller, “a short story is almost always a distillation of the elements we find in a novel: it intensifies character, location and event; it compresses time and narrative arc.”

Blarb

This is more vignette than story. A vignette with a punch line. At least, that’s how it feels at first glance. But brief as it is, does this ‘vignette’ actually have a full story structure? Sure enough, it does.

WEAKNESS/NEED

This is a story about Mrs Croom. Her weakness is that she has a husband who is up to things she knows nothing about. Presumably she is able to turn a blind eye, somewhat. Annie Proulx doesn’t go into any of this — Mrs Croom’s weaknesses are assumed. We can only imagine what sort of life a woman must lead if she sort of kind of knows her husband is the local mass murderer.

DESIRE

After her husband flings himself to his death over a cliff and into the surf below, Mrs Croom ‘whets to her desire’ to know what’s behind the padlocked doors in her own house.

OPPONENT

Mr Croom, her husband, the mass murderer

PLAN

She will cut a hole in the attic with a saw, because she can’t get through the padlocks. When this doesn’t do the job she changes to a chisel and hammer.

BATTLE

Rather than a battle this story gives us the aftermath of a battle, with enough detail for us to fill in the gaps.

SELF-REVELATION

Sure enough, Mrs Croom has been exactly right about her husband all along. The detail of one of the women with remnants of blue paint on her — the same blue paint used on the shutters years ago — highlights just how close to home and domesticity these gruesome acts are. Mrs Croom has lived here, in this house, with those blue shutters, and now she cannot extricate herself from the crimes.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Rather than outrage, fainting or paralysing fear, Mrs Croom shows herself to be complicit, telling herself that her husband’s crimes are somewhat understandable given where they live and how there’s nothing much to do anyway. This explains the title of the story — the distance to the nearest gas station is indicative of how remote they are from civilisation (and also from civilised behaviour).

Annie Proulx’s The Governors Of Wyoming

“The Governors Of Wyoming” by Annie Proulx is a short novella — one of her concise sagas — divided into parts.

the governors of wyoming is set in a place like this

WADE WALLS

Our characters are introduced, as well as the dynamics between them. From the title we know to pay close attention to Wade Walls.

Renti – female, chews fruity gum, a small grubby woman in black tights and construction worker boots, ingrained dirt on the backs of her arms, her face handsome and impatient. Hasn’t met Wade before. Renti is from Taos, staying with Roany and her husband . Lives on a ranch 22 miles south of Slope in mima mount country. “Biscuit land”. (Low domes of earth cast up on the plain by ancient rodents or frost action, no one was sure. She’s been a highway construction flagger, run a candle-wrapping machine, sold art in the lesser galleries etc. She lived with a man (Pan) and an Alsatian wolfhound for a year but has now left him after a disturbing dream about a Chihuahua. Has a kitchen that looks like a home decorating magazine, ranch style. Continue reading

Liars In Storytelling

Liars are everywhere in stories. Entire genres are about finding out the truth:

  1. Detective Crime is all about deciding whose version of a story is the truth. Our crime fighting heroes always care deeply about the truth.
  2. Mystery asks “How can we come to know the truth?” (By definition, a mystery is simply something that defies our usual understanding of the world.)
  3. Anti-Westerns critique the story given by classical Westerns and ask us to consider the truth about The Wild West (that it was a brutal, unjust, hellish place)
  4. In magical realism characters—especially the narrator—might not know what is happening any more than the reader, so they are discovering the truth of their reality as they go along.
  5. In a thriller, the perpetrator is known, but his guilt is not absolutely certain—or the hero wishes not to accept the truth of his guilt. (The uncertainty enhances the suspense.)
  6. Superhero stories are wish fulfilment fantasies in which everyone eventually ‘learns the wonderful truth about me’ (I am amazing when you unwrap my everyday clothes and put me in lycra).
  7. In many comedies a hero will be wearing some kind of ‘mask’ but eventually, after some sort of spiritual crisis, this mask will be ripped off and the other characters will learn who this hero really is.
  8. A parable illustrates a simple truth for teaching purposes.
  9. Absurdist stories focus on the experiences of characters in situations where they cannot find any inherent purpose in life, most often represented by ultimately meaningless actions and events that call into question the certainty of existential concepts such as truth or value

THE DIFFERENCE IN TRUTH BETWEEN FICTION AND REALITY

Fictional stories are make believe on the surface but true underneath. Real life, on the other hand, may be believable on the surface but is often unbelievable underneath. … In movies, screenplays and novels, we need to know the inner truths of the characters. Your characters’ actions in response to whatever incredible situation you’ve created must be reasonable, justified and believable.

— Michael Hauge, Story Mastery website

The most dangerous untruths are truths slightly distorted.
~ G.C. Lightenberg

TRUTH AND STORY STRUCTURE

Within a story structure, the truth will be revealed at the ‘self-revelation’ stage. (After the Battle, before New Equilibrium.)

Sometimes the audience is let in on the truth of the situation at the beginning of a story. For instance, in some crime stories the reader knows who the villain is from the get-go. This type of detective story is no longer a whodunnit but a whydunnit.

UNRELIABLE NARRATION

a famous liar from fiction

Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.

– F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

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The Pirts: A Short Story About Pirates

Introducing The Pirts: by Hannah age 8. Like Pirates, only briefer.

Introducing The Pirts: by Hannah age 8. Like Pirates, only briefer.

chapter one dinner

fry the bones

make the hair into spaghetti

Is this the most mournful horse you ever did see? I’m actually a little disturbed.

dish up

Is this a vampire pirate now? Not emo, anyway. Gleeful. Definitely gleeful.

salty sea

It’s hard to know when to end a story.

Strays Like Us by Richard Peck Storytelling Tips

Strays Like Us is a 1998 middle grade novel by American author Richard Peck. (155 pages)

Peck not only understands the fragile emotions of adolescents, he also knows what kind of characters will pique their interest. In this tender novel, he paints a richly detailed portrait of Molly, a drug-addict’s daughter sent at the age of 12 to live with a great-aunt she has never met. Molly soon discovers others like her in this small town full of secrets.

Publisher’s Weekly starred review

STORY WORLD OF STRAYS LIKE US

Strays Like Us is set in The (American) South but is not a Southern Novel as such. This is one of those American stories which could easily be set elsewhere — like lots of ‘midwestern’ stories set in suburbia or small towns. Molly’s story could belong to many kids all over.

This one happens to take place in small town Missouri. The ‘small’ town is significant because of the way gossip works:

“How did the guys find out anyway?”

“Becasue they don’t let you keep a secret in a town like this.”

Although this is like a 1950s utopia in some ways, there is a lot of poverty in this town and turns out to be an apparent utopia. Richard Peck is making a statement about income inequality when he writes:

“There’s things they can do now for what Fred had,” [Aunt Fay] said finally. “But he didn’t have insurance.”

The story opens with Molly up a tree. She is in semi-hiding up here, melding with nature, and although in reality trees are reliant on each other via their root system, the common understanding of tree symbolism is that they stand ‘tall, proud and alone’, like Molly at the beginning of her character arc.

Strays Like Us tree cover

Molly Moberly in the foreground with neighbour Will in the background.

The exact year of this story is unclear — there is mention of computers and microwaves so I believe it is set in the late 1990s, at time of publication. Still, there is a 1950s feel about it. Locals are starting to feel suspicious of strangers, because until this period everyone has known everyone here. Continue reading

A Lonely Coast by Annie Proulx

"A Lonely Coast" involves a dark highway drive along a dark highway such as this

The first thing that feels different about “A Lonely Coast” in the Close Range collection by Annie Proulx is the voice. It’s written in second person, then switches to first in the second paragraph. The previous stories were all written by a third-person unseen narrator with an intimate knowledge of the milieu and deep understanding of character. Immediately I am wondering: Why has Proulx chosen first-person for this one? Also: do we have an unreliable narrator on our hands? Of course, all first person narration is on the ‘unreliable continuum’. But since Proulx normally writes in third, I suggest a good reason for the switch up.

STORYWORLD OF “A LONELY COAST”

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The Magical Age of Twelve

the magical age of twelve is utilised in The Artifacts

Read enough children’s books and you’ll realise something magical happens after age twelve. It’s even embedded in the English language, which thirteen marks the beginning of the teen years. Twelve is the final age of innocence. In JudeoChristian terms, 12 is the final year in which you can get away with things. Next comes ‘the age of accountability’.

“Nothing that happens after we are twelve matters very much.”

— J.M. Barrie, nearly a century ago.

Johnny My Friend also utilises the magical age of twelve

Twelve is the magical dividing line, we all know that. I don’t care what grown-ups say, but that’s when your childhood comes to an end.

 

Twelve As The Age Of Initiation

Amazingly many children’s novels portray characters of eleven or twelve. I do not think this is a coincidence. This is the age of initiation in many archaic cultures, and although this connotation has been lost in Western society, some remnants may be left in the authors’ imagination. Children in The Giver are assigned their jobs, and therewith their place in society, at the age of twelve. Here is what another character says about this age: “Twelve is the magical dividing line, we all know that. I don’t care what grown-ups say, but that’s when your childhood comes to an end” (Johnny My Friend, 89). Formally, of course, after twelve you are a “teenager”, not a child.

— from The Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature by Maria Nikolajeva

The age of twelve is significant in Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

Tally watched the last few uglies make their way inside, gawky and nervous, unkempt and uncoordinated. Twelve was definitely the turning point, when you changed from a cute littlie into an oversize, under-educated ugly. (page 77)

The age of twelve is pivotal for characters in The Giver by Lois Lowry

It’s no accident that in Lois Lowry’s book The Giver, Jonas and his peers are chosen for bigger things at the age of twelve. Jonas feels overwhelmed by this metamorphosis from child to adult:

Jonas trudged to the bench beside the Storehouse and sat down, overwhelmed with feelings of loss. His childhood, his friendships, his carefree sense of security — all of these things seemed to be slipping away.

Twelve As The Age Of In-between

Onkeli portrays a child of around 11 to 13 who is confused by many things. Researchers consider this age group to fall into an in-between area: there aren’t enough appealing activities on offer for kids of this age, who are treated as an awkward bunch both at home and at school.

– Kreetta Onkeli: Poika joka menetti muistinsa [The boy who lost his memory]

 

Powerless Matthew Cody Magical Age Of Twelve

In the book Powerless, a boy learns that his friends are superheroes who mysteriously lose their powers when they turn 13. It’s no accident that Matthew Cody chose this age.

 

The age of twelve is the end of naive hope

In Peck’s middle grade novel Molly turns 13 and loses the naive hope of her drug addict mother returning to care for her.

RELATED

What do you remember best about being twelve? from NYT

Writers over at Book Riot understand that there’s something magical about being under 13, because they have published a list of 50 books to read before you’re 11 and 3/4.

Storytelling Tips From ‘Anne With An E’

I’m a big fan of Anne Of Green Gables, the 1980s TV miniseries and also of Breaking Bad, so I anticipated Moira Walley-Beckett’s 2017 re-visioning of Anne Of Green Gables with great enthusiasm. I’m not disappointed. ‘Anne With An E’ is great.

There’s much to learn from Moira Walley-Beckett. How did she manage to not only update L.M. Montgomery’s classic for a 2017 audience, but add to the original story?

First a few notes:

  • Walley-Beckett doesn’t agree that her version is ‘dark’ so I’m going to avoid that word. I also don’t think it’s particularly dark. (She calls it a deep and honest take.)
  • This miniseries breaks from the book. Walley-Beckett felt that the novel was ‘too fast’ for her. She wanted to go back and fill in some gaps. She describes herself as an ‘incremental’ storyteller. I guess by that she means she introduces a concept but likes to build on it, digging deeper before moving on. Anne Of Green Gables has a main narrative but is a highly episodic novel. ‘Incremental’ is a word that better describes what a modern audience will enjoy.
  • Every article mentions that Moira Walley-Beckett wrote for Breaking Bad and expresses surprise that one writer would work on two such different stories. But at the deeper level, these stories are not all that different. I think the surprise lies in the idea that Anne Of Green Gables is some melodramatic, sappy crap only enjoyed by girls and nostalgic women. I think there’s a bit of that. Breaking Bad is about a white man, and is allowed to join the ranks of prestige TV.

Anne’s transformations are easy to see as part of a trend in TV and film, one in which suffering has become indistinguishable from gravitas and even the most cheerful superheroes come complete with psychological baggage. In a world where Superman no longer smiles, Archie Andrews is an ennui-filled singer-songwriter and Belle’s mother in “Beauty and the Beast” tragically dies of the plague, of course Anne has PTSD. But this new interpretation of Anne also treats a young, female character with the attention and focus often reserved for difficult men and the perversions of their machismo. In emphasizing Anne’s past, Walley-Beckett may be roughing up a sunny tale, but she is also insisting that a plucky 13-year-old girl is as worthy a subject as anyone.

NYT

  • I had assumed Walley-Beckett used a writers’ room for this show but she wrote all seven scripts herself.
  • In the book Anne is 11 but here she is 13.

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Annie Proulx’s “A Pair A Spurs”

A Pair A Spurs by Annie Proulx is set on a couple of Wyoming Ranches in the late 1990s

A Pair A Spurs by Annie Proulx is set on a couple of Wyoming Ranches in the late 1990s

STORY WORLD

SURROUNDING CULTURE

Rather than open with landscape, sky-scape and weather, this time Annie Proulx opens with a political era. I remember it well, with lots about mad cow disease on the news in the late 1990s:

The coffeepot southeast of Signal had been an o.k. little ranch but it passed down to Car Scrope in bad times — the present time and its near past. The beef-buying states, crying brucellosis which they fancied cattle contracted from Yellowstone bison and elk on the roam, had worked up a fear of Wyoming animals that punched the bottom out of the market. It showed a difference of philosophies, the outsiders ignorant that the state’s unwritten motto, take care a your own damn slef, extended to fauna and livestock and to them. There was a deeper malaise: all over the country men who once ate blood-rare prime, women who once cooked pot roast for Sunday dinner turned to soy curd and greens, warding off hardened arteries, E. coli-tainted hamburger, and cold shakes of undulant fever. They shied from overseas reports of “mad cow” disease. And who would display evidence of gross carnivorous appetite in times of heightened vegetarian sensibility?

This time seems so bleak to people living in this farming area that it is possible to think the end of the world is nigh.

Landmarks, like people, are allegorically named. Continue reading

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