In stories which attempt to make readers think about beauty – or in stories which inadvertently portray beauty and its opposite in a certain light – what are the common messages? Can you think of any examples?
Consider one of the following tales and answer the following questions:
- Is there any clear link between beauty and goodness?
- Are there instances where danger or harm is associated with beauty or desirability?
- If so, is beauty or desirability the cause?
- Are there any links between beauty and jealousy?
Shrek – If you’re not beautiful you may well marry another not-beautiful creature, but you can still find happiness with that person. But know your ‘level’.
Mean Girls—The most beautiful girls at school are less tolerant of individuality than the other girls and also, beauty correlates highly with vapidness and negatively with academic aptitude.
Cinderella—Kindness and beauty go together. If you’re ugly this will make you mean. Beauty can elevate a woman of low social status out of her class system and into the aristocracy.
Snow White —Mothers (including step-mothers) become jealous of their daughters, since a daughter enters her most sexually attractive years just as mothers move out of theirs.
There are some basic guidelines to crafting modern stories for children: One is that you must not be overtly didactic; another is that you must have the children solve any problems for themselves. That means, in short, that the teachers and parents need to stay right out of it. This is the kidlit version of deus ex machina, in which ‘god’ descends from the sky to resolve the problem for the hero. Let’s call it ‘parentis ex machina’.
What sort of setting is often used for keeping adults at bay?
1. Boarding schools: Harry Potter, Mallory Towers etc
2. Fantasy portals into adult-free realms: Narnia etc
3. Tragic real-world circumstances, in which parents have died or been posted abroad etc.
Are there other reasons for absent mothers, in particular? At Invisible Ink blog, another reason is given:
So, why do so many mothers die in fairytales and other stories? I could be wrong, but I have pondered it, and had even before I was asked the question.
If stories are told and re-told because they contain survival information, as I and others have argued, then why so many stories with deceased moms?
Because, I think, for most of human history this was not an uncommon occurrence. Mothers did die, often in childbirth. But children need to know that life goes on and that they can survive even this ordeal. InBrunoBettelheim’s book on the subject of fairytales, The Uses of Enchantment, he points out that often there is fairy godmother or some such figure that is a kind of ghost of the mother looking after her child even after death.
List of Orphan related tropes from TV Tropes
Best Books About Orphans, a Goodreads list, in which you’ll see that the list is heavily populated with children’s literature
These are notes from the Narrative Breakdown podcast, the one called The Power Of Irony.
Incongruities from the world of opposites.
See All Good Stories Are Ironic from Cockeyed Caravan blog.
Irony is a meaningful* gap between expectation and outcome.
*Some outcomes are simply ‘incongruous’. There was no preceding expectation. This is not irony. This is ‘incongruity’. The outcome must upset the expectation.
Some of these ironies only exist in the mind of the audience. Others occur in the mind of the character. Irony can happen on many different levels.
Ideally, irony creates meaning. For example, a story in which the best minds are bringing America down is ironic because the audience would hope and expect that the best minds are helping America to succeed.
A gap between the audience’s expectations and the outcome in the story.
Genre Subversion – When the audience is used to the tropes of a particular genre, but the story throws in some unexpected ones. Writers of the series Homicide subverted genre expectations by sometimes having the bad guy walk free due to insufficient evidence. Crime story enthusiasts, until that point, had been used to shows in which justice was served.
Narrative Convention Subversion – Seinfeld characters never grow or change. There was no moral lesson. This played with the conventions of narrative which preceded that show.
Promotional Subversion – Sometimes this is unintentional, such as Shyalaman’s film trailer for The Village promised a thriller. But The Village is not the thriller the film trailer suggests. Film trailers more often indulge in intentional subversion. After a brief intro, you’ll hear a needle scratch, and realise that this is not the sweet rom-com initially proposed but a mad-cap romp etc.
Audience knowledge versus characters’ knowledge. In a good story, every single scene has dramatic irony. Hitchcock and Spielberg are well-known for their understanding of what the audience is thinking. To employ dramatic irony successfully, this is a must.
Uses for dramatic irony:
- Building suspense
- Creating a misunderstanding, which can then drive an entire plot
- To make the audience feel smart, and in cahoots with the narrator rather than the characters
- For generating schadenfreude, as in Road Runner, when the audience knows that Wily Coyote’s traps are not going to work
- To create empathy
OPPOSITE OUTCOME IRONY
A person’s action producing an outcome that’s the opposite of what’s intended. In any scene in which a character has an ironic expectation of what’s going to happen (the character expects the opposite of what actually does happen), the audience must know of this irony beforehand, otherwise we won’t identify with the character. That seems to be a rule.
The film Flight starring Denzel Washington is piloted by a drunkard, but actually it’s possibly because he was drunk that he was able to land the plane safely. This film works with irony in many ways.
Maybe the effort a person puts into something does not match up with the outcome. Someone puts in a lot of effort organising a birthday party, then no one turns up.
A negative may lead to a positive. Classically, lemons are turned into lemonade. The Apartment is a film which is full of this kind of irony. Something bad happens and it turns into something good for the main character. The universe is out to thwart him. This results in satire about the spirit of the age: We are living in a topsy-turvy time when up is down and down is up.
SURPRISING MEANS TO AN END
In order to bring Al Capone to justice, lawyers got him on the relatively minor charge of tax evasion. The Producers is a film about some producers of a musical who try to make money by making the worst broadway musical ever. There are lots of better ways to make money than that, the audience knows, yet that’s what the producers of the fictional musical do, to hilarious end. This film produced the phrase ‘creative accounting’, an inherently ironic phrase. Yet there’s truth in it. This is an irony that reveals a deeper truth.
Intrinsic irony/Logical absurdity – eg. a person attending his own funeral, as in Tom Sawyer.
Ironic backstory – A lot of writers try to drive themselves crazy trying to devise a backstory for their main character, when in fact the audience can usually guess how they wound up there. Usually it’s a believable series of events, but the only time you should ever reveal backstory is if it’s an ironic backstory. Captain America is a big-boss guy but he was originally weakling and the government made him this way. All superheroes have ironic backstories. They’re the last guys anyone would expect to have suddenly morphed into heroes. X-Men First Class did a great job of revealing that ironically each superhero had started off as the opposite. But it’s not just superheroes who have ironic backstories.
Reputation vs Action – A character is known for acting one way but then acts the opposite way.
Incompetence vs Confidence – ironic character presumptions. A person acting with complete incompetence while mucking everything up. Will Farrell has made a whole career out of that.
Giving someone a taste of their own medicine – eg if you caught Spiderman in a web. Bart Simpson has joined something like the Boy Scouts and says, ‘What are you going to do, learn to make chairs?’ Then he sits down and the chair breaks beneath him. He says, ‘D’oh! Stupid dramatic irony!’
Today, global megacorp publishing does not encourage the quirky, the original, the risky, the inventive – the books that will become staples for the next generation because they have something new and relevant to say.
The following is from an article in the New York Times, and the ideas within are familiar to those of us listening to professional criticism of our products:
“There’s a lot of interaction when you’re reading a book with your child,” Dr. High said. “You’re turning pages, pointing at pictures, talking about the story. Those things are lost somewhat when you’re using an e-book.”
In a 2013 study, researchers found that children ages 3 to 5 whose parents read to them from an electronic book had lower reading comprehension than children whose parents used traditional books. Part of the reason, they said, was that parents and children using an electronic device spent more time focusing on the device itself than on the story (a conclusion shared by at least two other studies).
- Is e-reading to your toddler story time, or simply screen time?
The first of these studies is behind a paywall, and I’m interested to know if the researchers published the exact materials used in the study. I’m not reading to pay the 12 bucks to find out, because some other researchers I’ve seen are reluctant to let on which book apps, exactly, they used in the study. The second hyperlink in the NYT excerpt above, from a report by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, is a case in point: We’re not told which book apps exactly were used, but we do know that they were appified versions of printed matter. It would be difficult to compare two completely separate products, so for research purposes, this makes some sense:
Note the wording ‘We selected the enhanced and basic e-books’. This suggests that a number of each media type were used in the study, but further on we learn that, actually, only two book apps were used:
Honestly, I’m not sure if the article refers to ‘book apps’ or ‘e-books’ which are two different things, though perhaps not in the consumer’s mind (except insofar as the consumer must retrieve them from different places on the App Store). I’m not sure if by ‘science themed’ they’re using non-fiction titles. But why not give us the titles?
The study isn’t just aimed at educators and consumers; apparently designers of apps are to take note:
This is all good advice, but it’s too general to be of much use. Unless publishers of studies are going to release which book apps they studied, it’s difficult for we developers to learn much from it. Ideally, we want to download and go through these apps ourselves. If this study is published in longer form elsewhere, and someone knows where to find it, please point us in the right direction.
Here are some other problems with reports/studies such as these:
Printed books which have been turned into apps/enhanced e-books are not the same as books which were created as apps from the ground up. It is indeed possible to turn a successful printed book into a wonderful appified version, but this is simply not happening very often. Instead, developers are using static, scanned versions of the printed matter, adding a few cheap enhancements such as wiggling assets and stock sound effects, then relying on the success of the printed matter to sell the apps, which in turn help to sell the printed books (and associated merchandise) by being visible in another place (the App Store).
The media selected for study was ‘produced by a recognized publisher of enhanced e-books’. What does ‘recognized’ mean? Does this mean the e-books/apps they considered worthy of study came from one of the big 5 publishing corporations, who are presumably the best funded and presumably putting out the best material? This is a big assumption indeed. Until publishing corporations start to see profit in book apps (and that may actually be never), they’re unlikely to pump thousands of dollars into their book apps. And by ‘book apps’, I’m not talking about cheap apps starring big-brand characters, of which there are plenty of ho-hum examples.
There’s another phrase which needs further clarification: ‘Just for fun’. The researchers themselves recognise the limitations of this phrase, putting it in speech-marks.
My question is this: What is the difference, exactly, between ‘fun’ and… actually I’m only guessing its corollary: ‘educational’? This is a false dichotomy. Fun does not equal ‘non-educational’, just as ‘serious’ does not equal ‘educational’. Enhanced e-books and apps are perhaps uniquely singled out for this form of literary criticism, or perhaps this question has been asked of pop-up and novelty books and I just never noticed it.
Another question: The study above focused on e-books/apps for 3-6 year olds. Most of the existing book apps on the App Store are indeed catering for this age-group, so it is indeed a sensible place to begin with the research. I’m keen to know whether older readers approach apps in the same way as the younger set, who tend to push buttons with abandon (in my own limited experience). When the iPad was first released, Steve Jobs said that he had designed it so that even two-year-olds could use it. Indeed, we had a two-year-old at the time, and Apple succeeded in its mission. As a result, the App Store became flooded with kids’ apps designed for the 3-6 age range, with far fewer apps available, even now, in the older categories. Something I’ve wondered all along, in the midst of criticism of book apps: Might book apps actually be better suited to older children who have already learnt how to progress through a printed book, despite the fact that even a 2-year-old can (technically) ‘use’ an iPad? We’d love to see age-specific research. Because are iPads really as easy to use as we think they are? Watching a little kid swiping and pinching at a touchscreen has a certain fascination for those of us who underestimated the digital dexterity of 2-year-olds — for me it’s a bit like watching a monkey deftly open a banana. But ducking between apps, pinching and swiping with grace, is not quite the same thing as ‘utilising a touchscreen to its best advantage’. We’d like to see broader research on how, exactly, toddlers and young children are making use of touchscreens.
Leading on from that, the first studies were naturally conducted on families who were new to touchscreens. We know from our own user testing that there is a huge difference between asking an owner of an iOS device to open your book app, and someone who has never seen a smart phone or an app in their life. What was the touchscreen experience of the families in the study? Had those 32 families used a touchscreen before? If not, the device would have indeed got in the way of the experience. When I first picked up the iPad one, I had a bit of a learning curve when it came to swiping to turn the page of certain apps without accidentally activating other functionality. The iOS itself requires a certain dexterity in this manner: touch with too many fingers and you’ll be taken out of the app; swipe too low or too high and you’ll bring up the universal task bars… These are things you quickly get used to if you use a touch screen daily, and if researchers are going to conclude that the device is ‘getting in the way’ of the reading experience, I’d like some reassurance that their test subjects are not touchscreen newbies.
Here in Australia, when daily screentime for children becomes a topic of conversation, it usually crops up alongside The Childhood Obesity Epidemic. While no one is blaming screens solely for this epidemic, there are some problems with focusing on the screens themselves. Rather, this is a conversation about ‘sedentary activity’.
I detect a definite class issue surrounding the hierarchy of bum-sitting; for adults it has always been thus (until recently maybe, when it suddenly became okay to admit to ‘binge-watching’ certain high-quality TV series). For adults and children alike, books (preferably hardback serious tomes, preferably not genre fiction and definitely not YA) equal good sedentary activity while TV equals bad/lazy/beer-gut inducing/mind-numbing/brain-draining/crumbs down the side of the squabs squalor-y baddy bad bad sedentary activity.
(Is ‘sedentary activity’ an oxymoron? For my purposes, no.)
I worry when I hear the term ‘screentime’ that our thoughts on childhood sendentary behaviour are too narrow in focus.
- We should be talking more about how much sugar is getting into the food system. I’m pro-regulation of this. There is no call for putting sugar into canned vegetables. Baked beans covered in sugary sauce should not be allowed to carry the Heart Foundation tick.
- We should be talking more about how neighbourhoods are set up for children. We need green spaces and footpaths and sports facilities. These need to be safe.
- Workplaces need to offer more flexible working hours so that more parents can take their children to these spaces after school, or coach local sports teams, or simply supervise on the sidelines as kids work out their own games.
- Our children should be given an hour of physical activity during class time each morning before recess. That’s how school was run when I was a kid in New Zealand in the eighties, but my daughter has one afternoon of sport per week due to an overcrowded curriculum, and she’s only in kindergarten. She and half of her classmates take the bus to and from school, which adds up to several more hours of sitting per day. This is Australia, distances are vast, and we have no local school despite adequate numbers of children, who are all riding in vehicles to neighbouring towns.
- We should be talking about eyesight. Our daughter has codliver oil each morning, 1950s style. (I mask the flavour in a smoothie.) Her parents both wear glasses. She may yet need glasses herself because genes are against her, but as a culture we seem to have lost some of our ancient wisdom when it comes to nutrition. Is a backlit screen worse for eyes than words on a printed page, or is it the sustained near-sighted focus which is the problem for children spending less and less time outdoors?
- How are backlit screens impacting sleep patterns? The research I’ve seen suggests avoidance of screens an hour before bedtime. Does that mean that we should also be dimming the lights? What kinds of family activities might we instead be engaging in during that last hour before bedtime? Family readalouds, from my observation, are best practised by church-going families, perhaps instigated by their wish to read the Bible together, but is this a lost practice that families should strive to bring back? Crafts while listening to audiobooks? Dishes and next-day’s-lunch-preparation with the lights turned low?
We’re right to be thinking about screentime, of course, but if childhood has lost some of its magic, the problem is so much wider than time spent on screens.
While much is being said about digital stories which supposedly get between the adult and the parent, I wonder what might be said about this little device: a ‘family robot’ which is shown not just reading a book to a little girl (and blowing down her tent, Nosy Crow Pig style) but then doing the bedtime routine by wishing her goodnight.