Slap Happy Larry

picturebooks, apps, eBooks, short stories

Middle Grade Fiction Study: The Babysitter’s Club

from Better Book Titles

from Better Book Titles

It would be easy to dismiss The Babysitter’s Club as an outdated storyline aimed at channeling girls into careers in childcare, turning them into good little obedient baby-machines and not much else. However, never judge a book by its title, right? (Because a lot of the time authors don’t choose their own titles anyhow.) And I’d never actually read a copy.

After hearing The Babysitters Club series is was recently reissued as ebooks I decided to actually read one, for the first time in my life. You’d think I’d have read a number of the series already because I was nine years old when the first book, Kristy’s Great Idea was published, and therefore in exactly the right demographic.

In year six a school friend invited me to her house for a playdate and I was impressed to see that she owned the entire series. Her parents had bought her a weekly subscription and they had arrived in the mail. My Trixie Beldens and Famous Fives and Secret Sevens remained incomplete on my bookshelf — not only that, some were hardbacks, some were paperbacks — my books just didn’t look as neat as these super attractive pastel-coloured spines lined up in all their complete numerical order. In hindsight I don’t know if it was the stories I coveted but the books as works of art.

And those covers! Now that Photoshopped images are ubiquitous, those photo-realistic depictions of happy-looking American adolescents were an unusual sight in graphic design back then. It’s easy to forget that. I have memories of gazing at those covers marveling at how the pictures fit somewhere between photo and paintings. What skill, I thought, to be able to paint like that!

Unlike the authors of other series of the 80s, such as Sweet Valley High and the never-die Nancy Drew, the author of The Babysitter’s Club is a real woman and that is her real name. Given Martin’s high work output, and the generic sounding everyname, I had wondered if she were a group of authors contracted to write a few books each. But no, Ann M. Martin obviously cares very much about her work — as much as any other authors writing under their own name.

As for the books themselves, I’m pleased to report that yes, they have dated (in a good way) and no, they are not the least bit sexist. In fact, they’re a damn sight better than a lot of the series being published now. If you can pick up a series of Babysitters Club cheap second hand and give them to your middle school daughter, you’ll be doing good.

BOOK ONE: KRISTY’S GREAT IDEA

Kristy's Great Idea cover

 

Kristy is responsible for looking after her little brother David Michael, but so are her two older brothers. Likewise, we learn that while Kristy refuses (initially) to babysit for her mother’s man-friend, one of her older brothers has already volunteered. So right from the outset, babysitting is not portrayed as a task for girls. Kristy knows her own mind, and will not be railroaded into doing something she doesn’t want to. The brothers are possibly more pliable than she is.

Kristy’s mom (who is divorced) “likes the fact that she can support us so well.” The mother has a ‘very good job at a big company in Stamford’… ‘but she still feels guilty‘. This reminds me of feminist conversations that would have been happening back then, before the 90s kicked in, and everyone assumed women had achieved equality now, so most people stopped writing things like this ‘out loud’. In the mid-eighties, divorced families were more of an oddity too. This sort of family situation is a lot more common today, and more young readers will identify with antagonistic feelings towards a parent’s new partner. I would add that this book is looking a bit too Brady Bunch at this point, because Kristy seemed to bond with her step-father-to-be quite easily in the end. I hope there will continue to be real-life blended-family issues in following stories.

The girls are inventive. First, there’s the Babysitter’s Club itself, which is spurred by Kristy herself. Their inventiveness is an historic kind; the girls have already worked out a way of communicating between the houses at night using torches. This is the sort of detail which dates the book, but not in a bad way.

There are other cultural references which set these stories firmly in the 80s, with references to G.I. Joe and Sesame Street, but I’m pretty sure a lot of these childhood icons are still about. At any rate, the cultural shock for a modern kid reading a story from the 1980s would be no more stark than that of a little New Zealand kid reading these same stories back when they were new. I still have no idea what a fudgesicle or a jawbreaker is. (Hello, Internet. Turns out a jawbreaker is a gobstopper. A fudgesicle is a chocolate icecream popsicle.)

“Mary-Ann and I ran home together.” For me this was a lovely scene of two adolescent girls enjoying the last of their childhood. Very soon I expect they will stop running, and become more aware of the expectations of ladyhood. I had a flashback of running along under the covered-way at my own very large high-school when a group of boys older than me yelled something disparaging about the fact that I was running instead of walking. I stopped running after that, having learnt that very day that high school girls do not run. (Also, cool people in general do not run. They don’t even walk. Cool people swagger, and make space on the footpath for no one.)

These 12 year old girls are never late for a job. This is spelled out, and is one example of how Kristy is a good role model for adolescent readers. Via the running of the Babysitters’ Club, readers learn the basics of  business management: how to run meetings, members of a board, dealing with interpersonal issues, in-coming and outgoing expenses… This series would be a good introduction for any kid with aspirations of starting her own small company.

Fashion has changed a lot and the descriptions of clothing is very entertaining. Claudia is held up as the goddess of fashion with her ‘short, very baggy lavender plaid overalls, a white lacy blouse, a black fedora, and a red high-top sneakers without socks… I felt extremely blah compared to her.’

Claudia’s older sister Janine has an IQ of 196, and is really quite an annoying character. I can’t think of many examples in school stories in which the nerdy genius character is female — it’s more often a male trope: ‘Her second best friend is her computer.’

So I only read one, but if the stories continue in that fashion, I would be perfectly happy for my daughter to take a liking to them when she’s older.

RELATED LINKS

The Babysitter’s Club: Idea And Phantom from Beauty And The Armageddon

Graphic Novels Aren’t Just Comic

12 Facts About The Babysitter’s Club from BuzzFeed

The Baby-Sitters Club: The Things You Notice Reading as an Adult from Beauty and the Armageddon

The Babysitter’s Club at TV Tropes

Ann M. Martin is still writing books. (Not Babysitters Club books.)

Does that missing apostrophe bother you? (It bothers me in the same way that the title Gilmore girls does not capitalise Girls.) Anyhow, there are internet discussions on this.

If you’re into 80s fashion and derive pleasure from learning what the members of the Babysitters Club were wearing during their suburban adventures then you might check out Buzzfeed’s Definitive Ranking Of Babysitters Club Cover Outfits (and they even put in an apostrophe for you).

The Inspector Gadget Remake Summarises How Children’s Media Has Changed

In which girl character and dog character have equal billing

In which girl character and dog character have equal billing

Interestingly, Esquire calls this ‘the digital era’, under the idea that the use of computers has an integral impact on narrative. The medium is the message, and all that.

1. FASTER PACE

Steven DeNure, president and COO of DHX Media, was thrilled to acquire the rights to Gadget in 2012. But he worried the old Gadget wouldn’t appeal to its target audience of young children.

For starters, the pacing was painfully slow. Kids today are used to fast-moving commercials, quick cuts, and a thing called the Internet.

2. FEMALE CHARACTERS ARE STILL DEALING WITH A WORLD IN WHICH THEY’RE SO OFTEN RELEGATED TO SECONDARY ROLES UNDER BUMBLING MALE PROTAGONISTS

Gadget remains as clueless as ever, and Penny remains just as brainy.

This is related to what has been called The Hermione Trope. We see it in movies such as Monster House, too, and ParaNorman, in which the bossy brainy girl saves the day, but completely behind the scenes. 35 years later, girls are still swots, boys are still adventurous etc. Boys see that they don’t need to be such swots to get on in the world — they’ll be the stars of the story because of their gender.

3. CHILD CHARACTERS ARE MORE FREQUENTLY SEXUALISED

“What we wanted to do was make Penny a little older,” says Chalopin, who estimates she was between 10 and 12 before and is now in her mid-teens. She also has a new love interest: Dr. Claw’s spiky-haired nephew, Talon. “He’s more of a kid of today,” Chalopin says.

4. ‘GOOD LOOKS’ ARE EVER MORE IMPORTANT, FOR BOTH BOY AND GIRL CHARACTERS

[Talon] makes a great counterpart to Penny with his good looks and his charm.

5. CHILD CHARACTERS MAKE USE OF MOBILE PHONES AND OTHER TECHNOLOGIES, WHICH CHANGES THE STORY

“Penny had a smartphone way before it existed,” Chalopin says, so that wouldn’t impress children today. To get around the problem, he created “holographic protection” for Brain and a computer that appears out of thin air when Penny needs it.

6. FOR FINANCIAL REASONS, CHILDREN’S CONTENT CAN’T JUST BE FOR CHILDREN

Financing remains an uphill battle. Much of what’s selected today, at least for content streaming services like Netflix, must not only reach a broad group of viewers but transcend countries and age groups as well. As Erik Barmack, Netflix’s vice president of global independent content, says, “The things we look for in general is if the shows transcend countries, have a new story to be told, or a new way of reimagining characters.” Gadget, he says, ticks off all three criteria.

This explains the increasingly sexualised teen characters over a pre-adolescent girl character.

– How Inspector Gadget Was Remade For A New Generation from Esquire

What is a metaphor for?

Every metaphor or simile is a little explosion of fiction within the larger fiction of the novel or story.

— James Wood, How Fiction Works

The metaphor is a fabricated image, without deep, true, genuine roots. It is an ephemeral expression. It is, or should be, one that is used only once, in passing. We must be careful, therefore not to give it too much thought; nor should the reader think too much about it.

— Gaston Bachelard, Poetics of Space

The Difference Between Imagery and Metaphor

A metaphor gives concrete substance to an impression that is difficult to express. Metaphor is related to a psychic being from which it differs. An image, on the contrary, product of absolute imagination, owes its entire being to the imagination.

— Gaston Bachelard, Poetics of Space

And what about the mixed metaphor?

A mixed metaphor is defined as ‘a combination of two or more incompatible metaphors’.

Actually, there is a way in which mixed metaphor is perfectly logical, and not an aberration at all. … In contemporary parlance, what people dislike about mixed metaphor is that it tends to combine two different cliches, as in, say, “out of a sea of despair, he has pulled forth a plum.” The metaphorical aspect is actually dimmed, almost to non-existence, by the presence of two or more mixed cliches (which be definition are themselves dim or dead metaphors).

— James Wood, How Fiction Works

The Secret Of Powerful Metaphor

Often the leap toward the counterintuitive, toward the very opposite of the thing you are seeking to compare, is the secret of powerful metaphor. […] Obviously, whenever you liken x to y, you will be drawing attention to the fact that x is really nothing like y, as well as drawing attention to the effort involved in producing such extravagances. The kind of metaphor I most delight in, however […] estranges and then instantly connects, and n doing the latter so well, hides the former. The result is a tiny shock of surprise, followed by a feeling of inevitability.

— James Wood, How Fiction Works

(I’ve heard that ‘surprise plus feeling of inevitability’ combo before, elsewhere, in describing ‘the perfect ending’ to a story. In short, metaphors and endings have a few things in common.)

Metaphor In Children’s Literature

When the image or metaphor is within a child’s range of sensory, emotional, cognitive and moral experience and is expressed in linguistic terms that can be apprehended and comprehended by young readers, a book becomes classed as a children’s one.

— Maurice Saxby, Give Them Wings

TV Study: Stranger Things (2016)

stranger-things-banner

**CONTAINS ALL THE SPOILERS**

Stranger Things is a Netflix series created by the brilliantly named ‘Duffer Brothers’, out this year but set in 1983. Though I suspect strong ‘recency bias’, season one scores a very high 9.2 on IMDb.

The show feels like a mixture of Twin Peaks (with the missing kids and small community), Freaks and Geeks (with the three nerdy boys playing Dungeons and Dragons and the older sister trying to find her place in the cool group), something done by Stephen King, and Minority Report (with its sensory deprivation bath and freaky magic-genius girl).

Minority Report Stranger Things

The show also feels a bit like the computer games Don’t Starve and Minecraft, with its own version of the Nether (“The Upside Down”).

Don't Starve

Continue reading

The Most Dubious Gender Ratio In Children’s Stories

Geronimo Stilton_600x439

If you ever open a book and you find there is one female and three main male characters

AND the female is described in relation to the main male

AND she has extra eyelashes/a pink female signifier…

You can almost guarantee this is a sexist story.

The girls in Geronimo Stilton love frivolous things like shopping.

The girls in Geronimo Stilton love frivolous things like shopping.

See Also

The Smurfette Principle the Wikipedia explanation

The Minority Feisty from Reel Girl

The Female Maturity Formula In Modern Storytelling

Will Boys Watch Stories About Girls? from Blue Milk, which is about film, but could equally be about literature

Children’s Books And Segregation from The Society Pages

Stories Are Genderless from Foz Meadows

Boys read for pleasure as much as girls

The three to one ratio is typical across all of children’s literature, in case you are thinking Geronimo Stilton is a standout example. This podcast from The Book Show on ABC, features Janet McCabe,
Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Florida, talking about her study on Gender in Twentieth-Century Children’s Books. McCabe found that Little Golden Books, for which new stories were published between 1942 and 1993, depict an especially small proportion of female characters: 3.2 males for every 1 female.

Pyrrhic Victories and Tragic Dilemmas In Fiction

What Is A Pyrrhic Victory?

  • A pyrrhic victory is a ‘victory’ in which the costs of winning are so enormous that winning becomes an ironic term.
  • In the ultimate pyrrhic victory, the main character has achieved what needs doing but is dead by the end of the story. The hero can ‘transcend’ what in the real world we would call a victory.
  • Some people think that successful stories have to have happy endings. This is simply not true if you look around at what’s popular, even out of Hollywood. Pyrrhic victories are extremely common.
  • A subset of pyrrhic victories are stories in which the main character faces a tragic dilemma.

Tragic Dilemmas

Moral philosopher Bernard Williams argued that there are lots of situations in life where something won’t work, where we are just stuck and there’s no way out.

  • Agamemnon by Aeschylus — A great king has to either betray his army by abandoning his expedition to Troy, or sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia, because the goddess Artemis was preventing the wind from blowing the right way, and demanded this price.
  • Sophie’s Choice — perhaps the most obvious example of a tragic dilemma — expressed even in the title. Sophie has to decide which of her two children is to be sent immediately to the gas chamber.
  • A Streetcar Named Desire — Writer and critic Joseph Wood Krutch, in appraising Blanche, says, “Her instincts are right. She is on the side of civilisation and refinement. But the age has placed her in a tragic dilemma. She looks about for a tradition according to which she may live and a civilisation to which she can be loyal. She finds none. Ours is a society which has lost its shape.”

English Speaking Cultures Are Not Translating Enough Non-English Children’s Literature

Although Britain is part of the European Union, when it comes to children’s literature, it makes more sense to regard Britain as standing apart from Europe.

Here’s why.

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?

  • In European countries that remained as dictatorships after WW2 (like Spain), the production of children’s books remained very much under state control and didn’t flourish.
  • With the exception of Britain, translated books are seen to have an important educational and hence ideological function, fostering mutual understanding and European unity.
  • With the exception of Britain, in European countries up to 35% of their published children’s literature has been translated from another language. (Britain’s rate is 1%.)

Britain, like America is not translating enough European children’s literature.

Walking around at Bologna [International Children’s Book Fair], 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. [Argentinian writer] Andruetto isn’t published at all in English and only two of [Danish writer] 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

 

If anyone would like to see this changed, do support small publishers such as New Zealand based Gecko Press who translate some of the best work from (mainly) Europe for English speaking children to enjoy.

The Psychological Novel

Also called “psychological realism”.

psychological novel is a work of prose-fiction which places more than the usual amount of emphasis on interior characterization, and on the motives, circumstances, and internal action which springs from, and develops, external action.

Wikipedia

A Brief History Of The Psychological Novel

  • Psychological novels co-evolved with psychoanalysis (Freud et al) in the first half of the 1900s.
  • Henry James was one of the first to focus on the motives and psychology of his characters rather than on their actions.
  • The reader has more work to do. We don’t just read what happens, we are now expected to analyse the characters.
  • English novels were influenced by French and Russian novels. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were especially influential.
  • Stream of consciousness is one of the distinguishing features of a Psychological Novel.

Dostoevsky was the great analyst — in a sense, almost the inventor — of the psychological category that Nietzsche called ressentiment. Again and again, Dostoevsky shows how pride is really very close to humility, and how hate is very close to a kind of sick love.

— James Wood, How Fiction Works

 

Ways In Which Modern Children’s Literature Resembles The Psychological Novel

Modern children’s literature tends to resemble the psychological novel.

1. Abandonment of overt and controlling narrative voices in favour of single and multiple focalisations

In other words, the didactic unseen omniscient voice died.

 

2. Changes of perspective

The ‘camera’ of the narrator zooms in and out, sometimes right inside the head of a character, oftentimes further away, commenting on an entire scene. Chapters can alternate first person narrators, or switch between first and third. We see characters from both the inside and from the outside.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell alternates first person narrators, with one chapter narrated by Eleanor, the next by Park.

3. Montage effects

Montage novels are a type of modernist novel which is ‘cinematic’, but we shouldn’t conclude from that, that cinema was influencing the novel. (It’s just as likely the other way around.)

In the 1920s and 30s a lot of development was going on in the arts. The word ‘montage’ started to be applied to other kinds of art, not just film.

Montage ‘involves juxtaposing two fragments and combining them into a new representation whose sense is equal neither to the sense of each fragment nor to their sum.’ (Ėjzenštejn)

  • contrasting ways of expression (collage)
  • different points of view or hyperfragmentation of the text (cubist montage)
  • joining elements from heterogeneous cultures, citations, various subtexts or sources
  • ‘contaminations’ of motifs or genres

While montage in the cinema is the basic means of connecting fragments, montage in literature serves to show their dissociation.

Critics have always had trouble defining the montage novel and you could argue the term is basically meaningless now.

However, the modernist novel — which includes the montage novel — is different from the pre-WW 1 era in that it emphasises the irrationality of life and lost faith in traditional values.

4. Internal monologues

We know what the characters are thinking. The opposite of this is what we see on a Shakespearian stage, for example, in which the only way we can possibly tell what a character is thinking is via a monologue or a murmur to the side.

5. Stream-of-consciousness and similar techniques

The opposite of stream-of-consciousness is dramatic monologue and soliloquy.

Picturebook Study: Olivia and the Fairy Princesses by Ian Falconer

Olivia-the-fairy-princess

This is the third Olivia book I’m taking a close look at; the first was Olivia, which I really liked; the next was Olivia and the Missing Toy which I really didn’t and now for a story which has garnered Olivia a bit of a reputation among reviewers on social media for being a great feminist read.

The ideology is clear: Little girls don’t need to ALL dress up as pretty pink fairytale princesses if they don’t want to . They don’t even have to be pretty. And if they do want to dress up as a princess, there are plenty of options from other cultures from which to choose.

I live in the Village in New York City, and it has become radically gentrified in the last 15 years. All of these little girls walk around with their wands and their tutus. There are squads of them roving the streets. And Olivia would want none of that.

The story came out of working with my sister, who is also my assistant, and doing the marketing. We oversee as best we can the kind of toys they produce. We kept running into this problem – they all wanted to do pink, pink, pink. I had to say, “No, no, everybody’s doing pink! How many pink tutus can you sell?” Marketing people just want to stick to something safe, I guess.

— from the Publishers Weekly interview with Ian Falconer

Falconer also says he was directly influenced by this video which went viral a few years back, which shows you the power cute YouTube rants can have on pop culture!

Anyone with a passing interest in issues such as those discussed in Cinderella Ate My Daughter or Packaging Girlhood will be happy to see a message like this.

Cinderella Ate My Daughter coverPackaging Girlhood

But is this Olivia story by Ian Falconer ‘feminist’?

I count this as an example of a children’s book which unjustly basks in the glory of seeming feminist only because, after a few centuries of symbolic annihilation, the bar is set so very low. Continue reading

Picturebook Study: Anton Can Do Magic by Ole Könnecke

Anton Can Do Magic cover

This is a great book for parents who would like to teach their kids The Magic of Reality (as expressed by Richard Dawkins and others).

Written and illustrated by a German picturebook maker, this was translated by New Zealand’s Gecko Press.

This is part of a trilogy (The Anton Saga):

  1. Anton and the Girls (2004)
  2. Anton Can Do Magic (2006)
  3. Anton’s Secret (2007)

As far as I know, only this one has been translated into English by Gecko.

bird is in a tree

STORY STRUCTURE

WEAKNESS/NEED

Anton’s weakness becomes clear only as the story progresses and we see he is easily duped and overconfident.

DESIRE

Anton wishes to impress his friends by performing a real magic trick. This desire is made clear even before the story begins, on the interior title page, where we see Anton gazing up at a poster of a famous (we assume) magician.

The reader is addressed as one such friend, and from the first page we are told, ‘Here comes Anton. Anton has a magic hat. A real one.’ We are invited to believe it. On the following page:

Anton wants to do some magic. He wants to make something disappear.

OPPONENT

This little bird with a mind of its own may ruin Anton’s magic trick and the stakes are upped when ‘the girls’ come along, since boys are especially keen on impressing girls.

But the bird turns out to be a false-enemy ally, or we might consider the bird to have no motivations whatsoever. The bird simply flits around. This is a ‘real’ bird rather than a storybook bird who wears clothes.

Anton and the bird

A better opponent is Luke, the boy who doesn’t believe that Anton can do magic. There’s more at stake when the opponent is human, because there’s a chance Anton will be humiliated. The reader does not want him to be humiliated, no matter how silly he is.

PLAN

Often in stories the initial plan does not work and needs to be modified.

Anton stares at the tree.

Then he does some magic.

When this doesn’t work he changes his plan slightly. He’ll try something smaller. The bird.

BATTLE

The battle scene is the bit where three children are waiting for Anton to produce the missing bird.

Anton produces the bird from under the hat and wins the battle, as well as the respect of the three children.

SELF-REVELATION

This is a Chekhovian story in that the main character is not the one who undergoes the revelation — Anton walks off the page at the end of the story and as far as he knows, he has made a bird appear. But the reader knows differently. We learn that although sometimes something appears to be magic, but it is really just coincidence and circumstance.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

The final image shows us that Greta is happy to have her bird back, Luke is trying to do his own magic with the flower in his little pot, and Anton is satisfied.

 

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

When the child is a few years older, it’s time for this book. (Yes, much could be said about Richard Dawkins and all the junk that comes out of his Twitter feed, but I have to say it, this book is excellent.)

The Magic of Reality cover

« Older posts

© 2016 Slap Happy Larry

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑