Coming Second Half Of 2014

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4 Main Questions To Ask Of Books

There are four main questions you need to ask of every book:

  • What is this book about?
  • What is being said in detail and how?
  • Is this book true in whole or in part?
  • What of it?

If all of this sounds like hard work, you’re right. Most people won’t do it. That’s what sets you apart.

- from Shane Parrish


Illustrating The Dark

A British company has produced a “strange, alien” material so black that it absorbs all but 0.035 per cent of visual light, setting a new world record. To stare at the “super black” coating made of carbon nanotubes – each 10,000 times thinner than a human hair – is an odd experience. It is so dark that the human eye cannot understand what it is seeing. Shapes and contours are lost, leaving nothing but an apparent abyss.

If it was used to make one of Chanel’s little black dresses, the wearer’s head and limbs might appear to float incorporeally around a dress-shaped hole.

- Blackest Is The New Black

 

The Colours Of Night

I have a Pinterest board called ‘Night’, because I’m interested in all the different ways artists show a viewer darkness, when in reality, night is the absence of light. If you’d never had much exposure to art then you’d be forgiven for thinking that a board full of night would look like a sheet of black. Not so! As Vincent Van Gogh apparently said, ‘I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day.’

Apart from black and dark blue, various other colours depict darkness:

  • Purple
  • All the different shades of blue
  • A little more surprisingly: greens
  • Sepia tones
  • Orange (see Józef Wilkón’s picture of a boy sleeping outside in a bed. The sky (which he imagines) is orange.
The night is depicted with green

The night is depicted with green

Józef Wilkón Boy Sleeping

Józef Wilkón Boy Sleeping

How do illustrators depict night time without losing colour and form and interest?

Of course, there has to be a light source from somewhere, even if it’s just from a few stars. And there is always a light source. Light commonly comes from:

  • Moonlight
  • Lightning
  • Light coming out of windows
  • Street lamps or electric lamps
  • Torches and lanterns
  • Candles
  • Fire
  • Phosphorescent insects
  • Through keyholes and crevices

A light source can also be entirely made up:

  • From special objects, for example from the inside of open books, to light up the character’s face. The light may technically come from some reflected light on a white page, though can be exaggerated. Fantasy scenes are best suited for much exaggeration.
  • From a light source which is presumed to be slightly off-stage. Film noir is a good thing to study because you’ll find that shadows appear from unlikely light sources. Light can be artistically manipulated. A light doesn’t really have to exist in real life for the artist to make use of a convenient light source — but it’s unlikely to work unless the artist is manipulating light with purpose.

new yorker cover brightly lit city

 

Adolf Fassbender

Other Tricks

There are other tricks illustrators use to depict the darkness of night even when there isn’t a strong light source in the world of the narrative. Borrowing a film term, you might call these tricks non-diegetic sources of light.

1. At night scenes lose their colour, and so a simple desaturation can work to convey darkness. To maintain the focal point of the painting, an artist can desaturate some things and not others. Desaturation can be used alone to convey darkness. In fact, look at the picture and if it weren’t for the hues, it’s as light-coloured as a daytime equivalent.

shaun tan

chris van allsburg night

We know this isn't a black and white picture because the moon is yellow.

We know this isn’t a black and white picture because the moon is yellow.

2. The desaturation can take on a sepia tone, or ochre, or turquoise etc. In digital art this is easily done. Add a layer of colour over top of all the other layers (gradient, if you like) then set it to multiply. Lower the opacity to the desired amount of new hue. This same trick can be effective for daylight scenes as well, in which you can take the colour of the sky, then set it to about 5 percent opacity. This gives a unifying effect to a picture which may otherwise look quite ununified due to different elements being on different layers, or painted at different times.

The White Night by Adolf Fassbender

The White Night by Adolf Fassbender

3. A lot of artists make the moon bigger than is possible here on Earth. (Earlier in 2014 we saw the moon at it’s biggest in years, and it still wasn’t nearly as big as seen in many story books!) The moon can seem almost as bright as the sun, especially if reflecting off something light, like a blanket of snow. In illustrations where the moon might be mistaken for a sun, a crescent moon can be preferences. (Because the sun is never ‘crescent’.)

Paoli Domeniconi

Paoli Domeniconi

Although in real life the moon is sometimes visible during the day, this isn’t conventional in illustrations, where sun equals day and moon equals night. Even in night scenes without a moon in sight assume the presence of a moon. For example, in the Japanese Fireflies over the Uji River by Moonlight, artist Suzuki Shonen doesn’t show the moon — this would compete for attention with the fireflies, yet the moonlight reflecting off the road is evident, and the artist includes ‘moonlight’ in the title of the work.

Japanese Fireflies over the Uji River by Moonlight

Japanese Fireflies over the Uji River by Moonlight

4. If you’re not painting the dead of night, it’s convenient to add a band of sky colour on the horizon. A band of orange or yellow in the sky can tell us something about the time of day as well as lending colour to an otherwise monotone scene. Even in illustrations which are not set at sunrise or sundown, there is often an inexplicable light source coming from behind some houses or trees. The sky often gets lighter towards the horizon. In this case, it’s the top of the sky which gives the reader the night-time cues.

Notice how the sky gets lighter as it gets further away due to aerial perspective.

Notice how the sky gets lighter as it gets further away due to aerial perspective.

5. Some illustrations do nothing whatsoever with the hue or tone to convey darkness, apart from showing a character in bed, or telling us in the words that it is night-time. This seems to work! (See illustration by Gyo Fujikawa, in which the blue of the sky outside might be used equally to depict a bright, sunny day.) See also the book cover The Terrible Thing That Happened To Barnaby Brocket by John Boyne, illustrated by Oliver Jeffers. The turquoise and the purple form a limited palette which the reader is used to associating with night-time. The shades themselves are bright — and therefore appropriate on a book cover for children.

by Gyo Fujikawa

by Gyo Fujikawa

6. The pink illustration by Guy Shield shows young lovers kissing at the drive-in. This example shows that it doesn’t really matter what palette you use, as long as it’s a limited one, it can suggest the desaturation of night. The viewer also knows that it is night-time because that’s when teenagers used to go to drive-in movies. So the surrounding narrative is also important.

Lakewood Drive in by Guy Shield

Lakewood Drive in by Guy Shield

7. In night time scenes some tonal diversity is still necessary — a wider range of tones makes it easier to create interest. With a little imagination, lighter tones can be exaggerated or made up. An imaginary light source is one thing, but there are also rain droplets on a window which may collectively add up to quite a light painting if there is something lighting them up. Fog and mist are also light in colour, and so a light horizon might be put down to that. Cities seem to light up from below, even in the dead of night. Bodies of water are reflective, and provide sources of light by virtue of reflection. (Presumably a moon.) In any case, a strong contrast between the foreground and the background helps greatly with night scenes. The foreground can be in silhouette (popular at the moment in games such as World Of Goo and also on YA book covers). In this case the background will be more or less in full colour. Alternatively, the foreground can be light against a dark background.

The Graveyard Book Italian Version

Total Darkness

What about when the illustrator wants to depict true darkness, possibly because the darkness itself is part of the story? How do we show darkness while still showing some sort of picture? Jon Klassen worked with this exact problem when he illustrated The Dark by Lemony Snicket. He got around it by making use of the a silhouette technique. The light parts are surrounded by large blocks of black, in which neither the viewer nor the character sees anything at all, at least not until illuminated by chinks of light.

the dark jon klassen

The same technique has been used by a variety of illustrators:

darkness outside the night

Strawberry Hill by Kurt Knobelsdorf is a painting of a house at night which is also very dark, even though there is indeed a light source coming from one of the windows and a small moon in the sky. Tsuta Spa, Mutsu 1919 by Kawase Hasui is a Japanese example of something very similar — a genuinely dark picture of dark. Even so, the three squares of light give the picture enough interest to warrant it being look-at worthy.

Tsuta Spa, Mutsu 1919 by Kawase Hasui

Tsuta Spa, Mutsu 1919 by Kawase Hasui

Strawberry Hill

 

 


Comparative Children’s Literature: A Blog Post In Progress

With very few exceptions, children’s lit in different countries has very little in common. Where there are works in common, they are fairytale collections, or books which were originally written for adults (Robinson Crusoe).

Kidlit is becoming more isolated, not less so. Fewer books are getting translated.

EUROPE IN GENERAL

When you talk about your writing with Europeans, they’re more interested in what you’re saying with your fiction–your themes and influences. Americans tend to be interested in how much it pays, and when the movie’s coming out.

Olen Steinhauer

Could this mean that Europeans have more interest in themes and messages in kidlit, also?

 

SCANDINAVIA

Scandinavian Folktales For Kids from What Do We Do All Day

 

SWEDEN

Best loved books: The Wonderful Adventures of Nils  did much better overseas. Hans Christian Andersen, Peter Pohl is the Swedish equivalent of Robert Cormier but hasn’t taken off in the USA

  • Gained fame at the end of the 20th century for excellent picturebooks
  • Swedish lit is much better known in Norway than the other way round
  • Everyday realism dominated in the 60s and early 70s
  • Mothers don’t tend to stay home with their children, and children are likely to attend childcare
  • Spending time in a principal’s office is alien to Swedish children
  • Corporal punishment is prohibited by law, even by parents
  • Even preschool books can contain four-letter-words
  • Kid lit often explores traumatic experiences
  • No happy ending or no ending at all
  • Running for class presidency, talent shows, athletic achievement not part of the culture
  • “Don’t think that you are worth anything” – self-pity and self-contempt
  • Fantasy as a tradition is almost non-existent despite a few big exceptions
  • ‘…while there may be elements of Scandinavian storytelling with its use of stillness and sub-text, the plotting has momentum.’ – from a review of The Returned

 

BELGIUM

Best loved books: Asterix, Tintin (French language)

  • Like Canada, children’s lit is divided according to language by region (French and Flemish)

 

DENMARK

Best loved books:

  • The Danes don’t have much patience for daydreaming and escapist themes, so aren’t fans of Astrid Lindgren. [According to Nikolajeva, though it's interesting that a Danish company offered to translate Midnight Feast... which is entirely about night dreaming.]

FINLAND

Best loved books: by Tove Jansson (who writes in Swedish), Lena Krohn, the Minerva books, winners of the Finlandia Prize and also the Finlandia Junior award. The popular Heinähattu ja Vilttitossu (‘Hayhat and Fluffshoe’, illustrated by Markus Majaluoma, Tammi) series of children’s novels by the sisters Sinikka and Tiina Nopola has now been relaunched for picture-book readers. Timo Parvela’s novel Ella ja Äf Yksi (‘Ella and F One’, Tammi), part of his Ella series set in a primary school, reached the silver screen last year in a film version directed by Taneli Mustonen. Dystopia, fantasy that reaches out into the future, is clearly on the way to becoming a new and trendy subgenre of domestic fantasy. The best examples include Annika Luther’s De hemlösas stad (‘The city of the homeless’, Söderströms), as well as Routasisarukset (‘The frost children’,WSOY), the splendid opening volume of Anne Leinonen and Eija Lappalainen’s fantasy trilogy…The realistic novel for young adults is clearly going through a critical stage. The number of self-contained (non-serial) novels for young people is decreasing. (From ‘Once Upon A Time’.) the classic novel by Aleksis Kivi. Joulupukki (1981), published in English as Santa Claus, is arguably the world’s best-known Finnish children’s book.  Kirsi Kunnas (born 1924) is the queen of Finnish children’s poetry.

  • Finnish picture books for children have long been reliable export goods around the world…Now young adult literature has also blazed a trail on to the international market. (Books From Finland)
  • Not much in the way of ‘anarchy’. (The first children’s book by Alexandra Salmela, who has previously published a novel for adults, brings some sorely needed anarchy to Finnish storybooks. - Alexandra Salmela:
 Kirahviäiti ja muita hölmöjä aikuisia
 [Giraffe mummy and other silly adults]
  • Most Finnish board books have been following the contemporary trend for strong colour palettes with pared-down character designs. – from a review of Toivon talvi
 [Toivo's winter]
.
  • The buyers of Christmas presents favour books written by Finnish authors.
  • All new mothers in Finland receive a ‘maternity package’ from the state containing items for the baby (including bedding, clothing and various childcare products) intended to give each baby a good start in life. This tradition, which started in 1938, is believed to be the only such programme in the world. Each package also contains the baby’s first book, traditionally a sturdy board book by a Finnish author. – from Future, fantasy and everyday life: books for young readers
  • Novels for beginning readers often carry an indication of the publisher’s recommended age range on the front cover. This has led to confusion among young readers as well as library staff who recommend books to readers. The first decade of the 21st century was a time of upheaval in Finnish reading culture, with diagnoses of various reading disorders, more entertainment options competing for children’s attention and the increase in the number of children from immigrant backgrounds all putting new demands on children’s literature. (from same source as above)
  • Sci-fi/fantasy writing now appears to be taking over from realism in Finnish young adult literature. A number of authors who previously favoured realism (Salla Simukka, Laura Lähteenmäki, Anne Leinonen & Eija Lappalainen) have now turned their attention to dystopias, though the themes of independence and growth are still present in their new works. Supernatural romances with vampires and trolls are also making their presence felt in Finnish literature. (same)
  • There is a tradition in Finnish children’s literature of giving an idyllic portrayal of the natural world. From a review of Mila Teräs & Karoliina Pertamo: Elli ja tuttisuu [Elli and the dummy]. Today, Finnish children’s relationship with nature is limited to the surroundings of the summer cabin.
  • Modern picturebooks are influenced by traditional Finnish folktales such as the Kalevala, a Finnish folk epic. (See here for an online collection.The Kalevala and other mythological subjects appear in Louhi, the adventure-packed final book in Timo Parvela’s Sammon vartijat (‘Guardians of the Sampo’) trilogy, in Reeta Aarnio’s children’s fantasy Veden vanki (‘The prisoner of the water’), and in Sari Peltoniemi’s Hämärän rengissä (‘The servant of darkness’), which is an imaginative combination of alternative history and fantasy. (reference here)
  • The supply of titles for children and young adults is greater than ever, but the attention the Finnish print media pays to them continues to diminish.
  • Literature aimed at older teenagers is coming close to matching the diversity of adult literature.
  • Families in stories are increasingly diverse. Of the Finlandia Junior Prize, the chief judge said in 2010: ‘‘It caught my attention that in none of the six shortlisted children’s books are there any so-called nuclear families, at least not for long. The main characters constantly live and grow without something – the lack of parents or the attention of an adult is a serious matter to a child. However, in these books there is always someone who cares, not perhaps a stereotypical mom or dad, but an adult nevertheless.’
  • The retro fad, with its interest in the lifestyles of previous eras like the 1960s and 70s can be seen not just in fashion and interior design, but also in children’s book illustrations, the delicate tones of the 70s can be seen both in the visuals and in the earnest didacticism reminiscent of 70s children’s books.

 

NORWAY

Best loved books: by Tormod Haugen, Ann-Catharina Vestly (the grand-dame of Norwegian kid-lit) who wrote Hello Aurora (radically questioned gender stereotypes). A Norwegian children’s classic is When the robbers came to Cardamom Town by Thorbjørn Egner.

  • Many of Norway’s best books are practically unknown in Sweden

 

THE NETHERLANDS

Best loved books: by Annie G.M. Schmidt

 

GERMANY

Best loved books: Momo and The Neverending Story by Michael Ende; by Benno Pludra and Krista Koszik (from former East Germany)

  • Divided by the Berlin Wall
  • Eastern German kid-lit was destroyed after the unification

 

AUSTRIA

Best loved books: by Christine Nostlinger

  • Often lumped in with Germany’s kid-lit

 

SWITZERLAND

Best loved books: totally unknown outside Switzerland: Erich Kastner, Janosch, Ottfried Preussler, James Kruss,

 

THE ENGLISH SPEAKING WORLD IN GENERAL

Walking around at Bologna, there is so much good work from so many countries (as well as a lot that is, well, market driven, to be polite), whether in text or illustration, that you wonder why more of it isn’t represented in Britain. Take the Andersen and Astrid Lindgren award winners for instance. Andruetto isn’t published at all in English and only two of Guus Kuijer’s over fifty titles have ever been translated. And this isn’t just about translation, because there’s a lot from other countries that publish in English that doesn’t reach us. … To be at Bologna, then, is to be astonished both by what is published for children internationally, how little of this we see in Britain, and yet how large a presence British children’s books have worldwide.

- Books For Keeps

BRITAIN

Best loved books:

 

ITALY

Best loved books: by Rene Reggiani, Gianni Rodari (also an academic of kid-lit), Pinnochio

 

THE FORMER SOVIET UNION

russian fairytales

Best loved books: The True History of a Little Ragamuffin by James Greenwood (written by an English author, for adults, but little known in the UK), Boris Zakhoder (who translated Alice In Wonderland into Russian very adeptly)

  • Non-USSR books are very popular, like Winnie-the-Pooh, Peter Pan, Mary Poppins, C.S. Lewis, Tolkien but Edith Nesbit, E.B. White and Lloyd Alexander are still unknown
  • Contemporary Russian fantasy seems hopelessly outdated due to isolation, with writers not following the same evolution as in other countries
  • Russian children have little in the way of material possessions, so when they encounter children in books who have cars, jellybeans, tech gear etc. they assume privilege where none was intended in the story
  • Don’t usually have a room of their own
  • Know very little about where babies come from
  • Menstruation is taboo
  • Punishment at school is severe
  • Race for marks and awards
  • Only recently acknowledged that homosexuality exists
  • Russian girls not allowed to wear pants to school
  • Mothers don’t tend to stay at home with the children, who often arrive home to an empty house
  • Slang and swear words are absent from kid-lit by tradition
  • Astrid Lindgren is very big in Russia because of a cartoon adaptation, but Russians aren’t familiar with her name
  • Russians like characters who step out of social hierarchy (Pippi Longstocking)
  • Russians appreciate the creative use of language to outwit censorship
  • Russian children love escapist stories which liberate the imagination. Fairy tales, fantasy and all imaginative literature were banned for a long time.
  • Atheistic

 

CZECH REPUBLIC

Best loved books: by Jan Prochazka (who wrote his kids’ books in exile)

 

FRANCE

Best loved books: Babar, The Little Prince, Tistou of the Green Thumbs

 

THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

Best loved books:

  • On the whole is more down-to-earth after America’s children’s writers rejected fantasy and escapism
  • When authors do do fantasy it’s often set in the old world (Madeliene L’Engle, Lloyd Alexander)
  • Puritanical compared to Europe – closer to Russia than to Sweden in this respect
  • Many mothers stay at home with their children
  • Translates very few foreign books, and many of those fail to catch on
  • European books don’t do well in America
  • Rationalism
  • Everyday situations
  • Comic events
  • Down-to-earth
  • Material things in general
  • Raised on a national myth of a strong and active hero
  • Acquisition of material wealth preferenced over spiritual knowledge and maturity
  • The spirituality of European kid-lit is alien
  • European kid-lit seems introspective
  • Something has to happen
  • Churchy
  • Against nakedness
  • In the middle of last century kid-lit tended toward idyllic or slightly humorous (Vera and Bill Cleaver, Elaine Konigsburg, Beverly Cleary)
  • In the 1970s and 80s there was a trend towards problem oriented books (Katherine Paterson, Cynthia Voigt, Betsy Byars)
  • Alongside the problem oriented stories fantasy has also thrived (Lloyd Alexander, Madeleine L’Engle, Susan Cooper, Natalie Babbitt, John Bellairs, Jane Yolen, Anne McCauffrey, Robin McKinley, Meredith Ann Pierce etc)
  • The difference between books ‘for girls’ and books ‘for boys’ is clearer than for example in Asian countries, where people like Hayao Miyazaki are confidently making mainstream movies for children starring female protagonists, without expecting that ‘boys won’t be interested in stories about girls’ (but not vice versa). This is surely related to a culture which romanticises masculinity: I recently heard about a study showing that in the United States, girls three to six years of age have a much better ability to regulate their emotions and their behaviors than boys of the same age. Interestingly, this gender difference in self-regulation wasn’t found in any of the three Asian cultures included in the study. The lead author’s take-away was that here in the US, we expect girls to be more self-regulated than boys. – Boy Behaviour or Bad Behaviour from Good Men Project

CANADA

Best loved books: Anne Of Green Gables (in English) and others by L.M. Montgomery such as Emily Of The New Moon; more recently, winners of the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award (TD is the name of a bank, who sponsor the award). Robert Munsch is an American born Canadian author.

  • French and English speaking kid-lit worlds are quite separate, translations rare (this is unfortunate!). The TD Award has both an English and a French category.
  • CM: A Reviewing Journal of Canadian Materials for Young People(also known as Canadian Materials) was published from 1971 to 1994 by the Canadian Library Association. CM is now published biweekly by the Manitoba Library Association asCM: Canadian Review of Materials. You can read current issues ofCM on our web site. 
  • Celebrating Tim Wynne-Jones, a blog post from Children’s Book a Day Almanac. (Born on August 12, 1948 in Bromborough, Cheshire, Great Britain, Wynne-Jones emigrated to Canada in 1952. Wynne-Jones was raised in British Columbia and Ontario. Wynne-Jones currently lives in Perth, Ontario.) Apparently Tim Wynne-Jones is not related to Diana Wynne Jones.

 

AUSTRALIA

Best loved books: Possum Magic, The Magic Pudding, Lockie Leonard by Tim Winton (who is also a very popular writer of novels for adults), Melina Marchetta, John Marsden (Tomorrow When The World Began), Sonya Hartnett (whose books are designated for a YA audience even though she says she doesn’t create work with a certain audience in mind), Margo Lanagan (fantasy short story writer, who finds fantasy has a wider world market than realist work which feels specifically Australian), Jacqui French (Diary of a Wombat and many more), many picturebooks featuring distinctively Australian flora and fauna, Christmas books which claim a hot and sweaty Christmas Day with everyone wearing singlets and cooking barbecued meat on a sandy beach; Paul Jennings and Andy Griffiths are popular with emergent readers, with focus on what boys stereotypically like; Shaun Tan’s picturebooks which appeal to adults and children alike; winners of the Children’s Book Council of Australia Award

  • In the 1800s Australian settler children were regarded as British and were expected to read British children’s books. But by the late 1800s and early 1900s, children’s books were exploring the experience of being Australian. They started to feature self-consciously Australian characters – human and animal, from Australia.gov
  • The boundaries between children’s and adults’ literature are looser now than in the past, for example, the 2011 Children’s Book Council’s Book of the Year was Mirror by Jeannie Baker, a wordless picture book suitable for adults as well as children.
  • Each year schools celebrate children’s literature with ‘National Simultaneous Reading Hour’, in which the last few years have been picturebooks by Nick Bland.
  • The earliest books published for children were mostly instructive tales – stories to teach children how to behave. By the late 19th century, Australian writers began to focus on stories showing real life experiences and everyday adventures, such as settling in Australia and family life. Ethel Turner is a well-known writer of that time – her highly successful book, Seven Little Australians , was published in 1894, Australia.gov

NEW ZEALAND

Best loved books: Hairy Maclary series of picturebooks by Lynley Dodd, Margaret Mahy’s novels for middle graders and YA.

  • As in Australia, it took New Zealanders a while to identify ourselves as distinct from Britons, with distinctly NZ literature being only a few generations old.
  • Popular Australian fiction is also popular as study within schools as the cultures are somewhat similar
  • Witi Ihimaera is one of the few authors writing specifically about the Maori experience, and although some of his work is quite dark and features a lot of taboo language, is also studied in senior highschools. The younger high school students study his lighter stories such as Yellow Brick Road and A Game Of Cards
  • This paper is interesting because it’s about New Zealand young adult literature from an American perspective.

 

LATIN AMERICA

Best loved books:

  • Although Latin America shares a language with Spain and Portugal they do not share a children’s literature

 

BRAZIL

Best loved books: by Lygia Bojunga Nunes, Ana Maria Machado

  • The best known authors above are writing fantasy even though Brazil is not associated with a fantasy tradition

 

AFRICA

 

ASIA

 

  • Has a lot of bilingual authors who write in two languages
  • Canadian publisher and former IBBY President Patsy Aldana [said] that the peculiarity and uniqueness of Chinese culture helps Chinese books for children get “better and better every year.” (From China At The Forefront Of Children’s Literature)

 


Storytellers Are To Blame

vonnegut storytellers are to blame

See also: On Happy Endings


Which Children’s Book Character Are You?

I got Curious George, which is funny because I distinctly remember watching the cartoon on TV and pleading with mum to buy us a monkey. She finally shut me up not by saying that they make a lot of mess in the house (‘as much as another kid’) but because you’re not actually allowed to own monkeys as pets in New Zealand.

curious-george


Mirrors and Reflections 02: Same Protagonist, Dual Plotline

This kind of story relies on what TV Tropes calls ‘The Alternate Self’.

I doubt Sliding Doors (1998) was the first well-known story to use this structure, though it is perhaps one of the best known, since more people watch popular movies than read books. This is a plotline in which a character has a difficult decision to make. Instead of having the character choose one path, then carry on the story until a good point to stop, this kind of story decides to explore the consequences of each decision by having the character follow both paths, perhaps with alternating chapters or something quite complicated plotwise.

 

 

This kind of plot can be quite didactic. Usually this sort of story has the following message:

However you imagine your life might have been had you made X decision instead of Y, your imagined other life isn’t as romantic/glamorous as the imagined life in your imagination.

 

Here are some examples of books which use this plotline.

 

THE POST-BIRTHDAY WORLD BY LIONEL SHRIVER (AMERICAN AUTHOR, SET IN ENGLAND, DARK)

THE POST-BIRTHDAY WORLD by Lionel Shriver

Anyone who has read Shriver’s later (and better known) We Need To Talk About Kevin will already be expecting something quite dark. It’s what Shriver is good at. I thoroughly enjoyed this story. Shriver is an expert at plotting, as evidenced by her adept execution of this device, which is used for the end purpose of exploring long-term, stable relationships such as in marriage. The end message, for me, was that

…the story breaks into two narratives with alternating chapters: In one, Irena pursues an affair with Ramsey and leaves Lawrence; in the other, she restrains herself and stays loyal. Each choice has its downside.

- Kirkus Reviews (Starred review)

 

I think that this book is just as good as We Need To Talk About Kevin. Don’t be fooled by the cover; the bright colours may suggest chick-lit, but it is nothing of the sort.

JUST LIKE FATE (Young Adult)

JUST LIKE FATE by Cat Patrick

I have not read this one myself, but here’s what Kirkus had to say:

In an ambitious narrative device, the book juggles two alternating plots, following a prefatory “Before” section. Chapters titled “Stay” are based on the premise that Caroline chooses to remain with her grandmother in the hospital and hears her dying words of love for her granddaughter; in those titled “Go,” Caroline succumbs to her friends’ pressure to go to a party, thus missing the moment when Gram dies.

Kirkus Reviews

ME MYSELF I BY PIP KARMEL (AUSTRALIAN CHICK-LIT)

This is a book from 2000 which has been adapted into a film starring Rachel Griffiths. This is much more light-hearted than Shriver’s, and makes use of a structure oft-utilised by writers of picturebooks. When the protagonist comes back from the fantasy world (or in this case, wakes from a vivid dream), they are lead to believe it wasn’t really a dream because they have brought something back with them from the ‘dream world’. Or things have been moved slightly, and their world view is significantly changed (in almost all cases, for the better).

 

LIFE AFTER LIFE BY KATE ATKINSON

Atkinson’s (Started Early, Took My Dog, 2011, etc.) latest opens with that conceit, a hoary what-if of college dorm discussions and, for that matter, of other published yarns (including one, mutatis mutandis, by no less an eminence than George Steiner). But Atkinson isn’t being lazy, not in the least: Her protagonist’s encounter with der Führer is just one of several possible futures. Call it a more learned version of Groundhog Day, but that character can die at birth, or she can flourish and blossom; she can be wealthy, or she can be a fugitive; she can be the victim of rape, or she can choose her sexual destiny. All these possibilities arise, and all take the story in different directions, as if to say: We scarcely know ourselves, so what do we know of the lives of those who came before us, including our own parents and—in this instance—our unconventional grandmother? And all these possibilities sometimes entwine, near to the point of confusion.

- from Kirkus

 


Boys and Princesses

Princess books tend to fall into several categories:

1.pink and sparkly

2. fairytale and traditional

3. subversive and ‘tomboyish’ and ‘feisty’

and occasionally

4. as flawed and real

These books are purchased for and I daresay read mainly by — in public — by girls.

But boys seem to like princesses, too. Or, they get princesses whether they really wanted them or not.

I recommend the article Your Princess Is In Another Castle by Arthur Chu at The Daily Beast, which is tag-lined with:

Nerdy guys aren’t guaranteed to get laid by the hot chick as long as we work hard. There isn’t a team of writers or a studio audience pulling for us to triumph by getting the girl.

 

We all need to understand this, and the consequences of teaching boys that if they’re good, then their prize is a big-breasted, scantily clad young woman.

Of course, feminists have been saying this for a long time. But it takes a man to write it before it gets published at a mainstream non-feminist site such as The Daily Beast.

 


If A Book Has Power

I am always saddened to hear that some teacher or librarian is in trouble because of something I have written. They are the true heroes in my mind. But I have come to believe that if a book has power, it will always have the power to offend someone. I don’t want to write books that have no power to move or inspire the reader. 

- Katherine Paterson


Mirrors and Reflections 01: Twins In Literature

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Hero and the Imagined Self from Hilda Bewildered

1. VILLAINOUS TWINS

A New Zealand YA novel from 1992 may be a rather obscure example, but Underrunners by Margaret Mahy includes a scene with twins Guy and Brian Morley, who seem twice as dangerous and mean to our hero precisely because there are two of them.

In his book for adults, Atonement (2001), Ian McEwan includes among his cast of characters some nine-year-old twins who are not villainous, but at times perceived to be so by their elder sister Lola. “Everyone thinks they’re little angels just because they look alike,” Lola says after her brothers have given her scratches and Chinese burns, “but they’re little brutes.” When Jackson and Pierrot run off into the night, this changes the course of the plot. Lola’s dialogue highlights something about fictional twins, though: The disconnect that can happen with duality. Since the twins look alike, they have had a certain cuteness bestowed upon them. When it turns out they’re not cute at all, the fact that there are two of them make the shock at learning so double.

 

2. THE FASCINATION FACTOR

Enid Blyton make use of twins for no obvious reason other that she found them fascinating, and expected the reader to get equal pleasure out of her using them as a gimmick. Take The Famous Five  novel, Five On Finniston Farm (published 1960), in which the part about the twins is summarised by a user of EnidBlyton.net:

I’m sooooo bored with twins by now, especially as they’re named “the Harries”—the boy is named Henry which “naturally” became Harry (I never understood that logic), and the girl is named Harriet, which “naturally” became Harry too. And because Henry “can’t grow his hair like a girl,” it’s down to Harriet to crop hers so that the two look like peas in a pod. Except for a scar on Henry’s hand, apparently the only way to tell them apart. They have a dog called Snippet, a small black poodle. The twins are characterized as quiet and sullen, perhaps resentful at first, because they see visitors to the farm as more work for their poor hard-working mother, Mrs. Philpot. And while the twins are in this stand-offish mode, they speak in unison. Literally every piece of dialogue is spoken by “the twins,” no matter how much is said.

- Keith Robinson

Some characters in children’s literature really don’t need to be twins. So what’s the point? Well, a twin does allow a conversational partner. Dialogue is easier to write, and also easier to read for young readers, at least compared to internal thoughts, or an omniscient narrator who may or may not be reliable. Blyton’s Harry Twins are an extreme example of this, but other authors of the time would use characters interchangeably, with no discernible difference between them. Take P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins as an example. The eldest boy and girl might as well be the same person. Two genders exist presumably to appeal to the widest possible audience.

 

3. THE SHADOW AND THE HERO

This is the biblical Cain and Abel story. One twin is evil, the other good.

 

4. THE IMAGINARY OTHER SELF

She left the cafe, and as she walked along the Common she felt the distance widen between her and another self, no less eral, who was walking back towards the hospital. Perhaps the Briony who was walking in the direction of Belham was the imagined or ghostly persona. This unreal feeling was heightened when, after half an hour, she reached another High Street, more or less the same as the one she had left behind.

- Atonement by Ian McEwan

In this case the main character wonders what her life might be like if only a few, though significant, things had been different. An imaginary other self is a way of exploring possibilities.

Like most excessively beautiful persons, [Moody] had studied his own reflection minutely and, in some way, knew himself from the outside best; he was always in some chamber of his mind perceiving himself from the exterior. He had passed a great many hours in the alcove of his private dressing room, where the mirror tripled his image into profile, half-profile, and square: Van Dyck’s Charles, though a good deal more striking. It was a private practice, and one he would likely have denied–for how roundly self-examination is condemned, by the moral prophets of our age! As if the self had no relation to the self, and one only looked in mirrors to have one’s arrogance confirmed; as if the act of self-regarding was not as subtle, fraught and ever-changing as any bond between twin souls.

- The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

The sentence which follows soon after: ‘He could see his own self now, poised in the doorway of the smoking room’ shows that this mirror-self is a form of narcissism, but also of self-consciousness: ‘He was near trembling with fatigue; he was carrying a leaden weight of terror in his gut; he felt shadowed, even dogged; he was filled with dread.’ The very clever thing about this character and his twin of a reflection which dogs him is that the room he is about to enter houses ‘studded couches’ which ‘gleamed with a fatness that reflected the girth of the gentlemen upon them.’ In this way, the man is of his environment.

 

5. TWO HALF PEOPLE; ONE COMPLETE PERSON

Berner and Dell Parsons are the twins of Richard Ford’s 2012 novel Canada. Told from Dell Parson’s first-person point of view, this is the story of a bank robbery, committed by the twins’ parents. After the parents are taken away by the police, Berner runs away and Dell is taken to Canada by a motherly friend where he becomes something of a hunting guide.

At first glance, the fraternal twins of this story have a bond which is not particularly stronger than any sibling bond, and it is mentioned time and again how much smarter and older-seeming Berner is than Dell. Yet as the story progresses it becomes apparent that the twins don’t really consider themselves as separate beings, which makes their separation even more significant.

I’d begun to believe it would be nice to be around girls. Berner, of course, was a girl. But most of our lives we had treated each other as being the same thing because we were twins. That same thing was neither male nor female, but something in between that included us both.

To reinforce the idea that Dell and Berner are two halves rather than one whole, Berner is left-handed while (it is assumed) Dell is right.

As Dell continues to tell the story of his family, his twinness becomes increasingly significant, because his relationship with his sister reflects the relationship he has with his twin sister:

Nothing that had happened had been in any way normal. Whatever changes had occurred in them and to them defied any idea I had of familiar. They looked like two people I knew, who I was again seeing across a distance, some unspannable divide, much greater than the border that separated us by then. I could say that their intimate familiarity as my parents, and their ordinary, generalised humanness had become joined, and one quality had neutralised the other and rendered the two of them neither completely familiar nor completely haphazard and indifferent to me.

Overall, with the twins’ fortunes significantly different, the fact of them  being twins shows how trauma during youth can pan out in vastly different ways.

 

6. ANTHROPOMORPHISED TWINNESS

‘Are you a wizard too?’

‘Yes,’ said Marco. ‘But I was never a very good one. I don’t have the twin signs.’

…Then his father had taken him by the shoulders and looked deep into his eyes. ‘My magic is weak,’ he said, ‘it’s untutored and without power—I have never saved anyone. But you, Leo, you will be different. You have the two signs of wizardry, my boy—silver hair and golden eyes. You have the sun and moon within you.’

- from The Witch In The Lake by Anne Fienberg

This from TV Tropes, although twins as metaphor is not limited to the sun and moon, but can be applied to a great number of opposites:

The sun and moon have also been personified by having both of them be a specific sex. For example, the pairing could be a masculine and harsh sun paired with a feminine and soft moon. In historical religions, the sexes associated with the sun and moon vary greatly, and in some cases both a male and female deity may be ascribed to a single celestial body. According to The Other Wiki, it is somewhat more common to view the sun as male and the moon as female due to the prevalence of that portrayal in Greek and Roman religion.