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Month: June 2017

A Long Way From Chicago By Richard Peck

A Long Way From Chicago by Richard Peck is a Newbery Honor book from 1998, set in the era of The Great Depression. An adult narrator looks back and remembers his wily trickster grandmother. This book is one of the most moving and well-written children’s books I’ve read, at once comical and resonant.

THE COVER OF A LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO

A Long Way From Chicago

On all the various covers of A Long Way From Chicago the image of Joey in the plane features strongly. In one of the chapters Grandma finagles Joey a ride on a plane at the country fair but the plane ride itself is very much secondary to the chapter, in which we and the child characters learn the extent of Grandma’s cunning — as well as how tricks can somehow backfire.

So what’s with the centrality of the plane illustration? Continue reading

Unreliable Narration In Storytelling

Unreliable narration is a storytelling technique which requires some work on the part of the reader, trying to work out how much of the story is true and how much is subjective, or an outright lie.

The most fallible, most consistently clueless narrator you could hope to meet might be Ford Madox Ford in the novel The Good Soldier (1915).

— How To Read Literature Like A Professor

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

Continue reading

The Long Haul by Jeff Kinney Story Structure

The Long Haul (2014) by Jeff Kinney is the ninth book in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. I wrote about Jeff Kinney’s writing process in this post, after reading various interviews with him around the web. Kinney tells everyone the same thing — he writes the jokes first, finds a way to string them into some sort of story, then does the illustrations in a single two-month flurry of industry. In short, the jokes come first, story a distant second.

However, when Kinney wrote The Long Haul, he already knew it was going to be turned into a movie, and if middle grade novelists can get away with a ‘jokes first’ approach to story structure, Hollywood scriptwriters can’t.

I was writing it with a movie in mind—this is the first book that I’ve written in three acts and with cinematic set pieces. So I really had a different hat on when I was writing this book.

Mental Floss

The Long Haul Jeff Kinney cover

ROAD TRIP STORIES

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The Plot Of Dog Days by Jeff Kinney

Some have said that the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books have no plot, including Jeff Kinney himself. Is this really true? If so, the perennially popular Wimpy Kid series defies a ‘law’ of storytelling — a first of its kind.

Yesterday I read another book from the Wimpy Kid series and decided Dog Days story has a ‘meandering plot’.

Today I take a close look at a random Wimpy Kid book from my daughter’s shelf to see what people really mean when they say Jeff Kinney’s books have ‘no plot’. To do that I’m using the story structure template as outlined by John Truby in Anatomy of Story.

Diary Of A Wimpy Kid Dog Days cover

STORY STRUCTURE OF DOG DAYS

How Events Are Connected

The scenes in a Wimpy Kid story are made up of events in the present (on the day of writing), events of the recent past (the last few days) or flashbacks from weeks/months/years ago.

One event in the present can spark an event in the past, providing a natural segue. Where there is no natural segue, Greg writes a new entry under a different day of the week.

  • PRESENT: Mother insists Greg goes outside to play because Greg is in his room by himself under a blanket.
  • RECENT PAST: Greg goes to country club with Rowley where a girl they invited ditches them
  • FLASHBACK: Greg complained to Mr Jefferson about the fruit smoothies and other things but after complaining was uninvited to the country club
  • Greg’s mother makes him go to the local pool, which is a comedown from the country club.
  • FLASHBACK: Being terrified of the hairy naked men in the changing room
  • PRESENT: Greg learns the family can’t afford to go to the beach this year.
  • FLASHBACK: Last year he wouldn’t go into the surf because he realised sealife uses the sea as their toilet. He did enjoy a ride called the Cranium Shaker.
  • PRESENT: Mother says they’ll have a fun holiday at home hanging around the local area. Greg is looking forward to his birthday and the final Lil Cutie comic running in the paper.
  • ONGOING PRESENT: Argues with father about sleeping hours, screen time.
  • PRESENT: Greg’s photo album, with big gaps in it due to him not being the first born. “I’ve learned that photos aren’t an accurate record of what happened in your life, anyway.”
  • [Segue = Manny and mother seashell photo opportunity] FLASHBACK: Watching the same thing happen to his little brother, Greg realises mother bought seashells, buried them at the beach then took photos of Greg ‘finding’ them.
  • [New thread] Mother takes Greg to get haircut at a salon where old ladies get theirs done. Greg gets addicted to soaps.
  • [Segue = tabloids at the hairdresser] Grandmother isn’t using the phone because she read in a tabloid that they erase the memory of the elderly.
  • RECENT PAST: Mum has been throwing out grandmother’s tabloids but Greg has been reading them before they get thrown out.
  • PRESENT: At the hair salon, Greg had a long wait.
  • RECENT PAST: The old ladies who work there have been gossiping to him.
  • PRESENT: Mother interrupts story about Mr Peppers and Greg never gets to hear the end.
  • PRESENT: Greg is now hooked on soap operas. Mother tells Greg to invite Rowley over. They go to the basement and riffle through Rodrick’s stuff. They find a horror film. They’ve never seen one before so Greg arranges for Rowley to stay the night.
  • FLASHBACK: Last summer the boys had a sleepover in the basement. Rowley slept next to the boiler room because Greg is scared of it. They got spooked. This gag is a minor ghost story in which Greg tries to persuade his parents the house is haunted. But it was only one of Manny’s dolls.
  • RECENT PAST: Last night (it’s more feasible that Greg is writing his diary the day following a sleepover) the move was about a muddy murdering hand which walks. They spent the rest of the night in the bathroom with the lights on and were found this morning by Mr Heffley.
  • PRESENT: Yesterday mum gave Greg a lecture on horror movies. She has decided to start a reading club, which isn’t supposed to be a punishment but to Greg it is. This morning a few neighbourhood boys turned up.
  • FLASHBACK: When Greg was 8 years old he borrowed a book from the library but is now terrified of the librarian because he’s sure he owes thousands in fines for losing it.
  • PRESENT: This time it’s only Greg and Rowley at the book club.
  • FLASHBACK: About a book with a scantily clad woman on the cover which Greg has read, and the book doesn’t have any women in it.
  • PRESENT: Greg is the only one left in his mother’s book club.
  • RECENT PAST: Greg hasn’t been able to get through his assigned reading because he’s distracted by the thought of the muddy hand coming to get him.
  • and so on

This structure of scenes does make the plot seem in complete disarray (or ‘plotless’) but if you take away all the flashbacks and asides, there is a linear progression from ‘beginning of summer’ to ‘end of summer’. This is a Robinsonnade in the sense that Greg doesn’t go anywhere — unlike The Long Haul he is ‘marooned’ at home for much of it.

WEAKNESS/NEED/PROBLEM

I’m pretty sure Greg Heffley is on the psychopathic spectrum. His creator Jeff Kinney has said he never meant Greg to be a role model, but looking at the way he treats his friends, family and neighbours — he has no affinity to any of them. Not even to the dog who comes to stay. That personality trait leads to the inciting incident…

Without knowing (or caring) who has to pay for it, Greg and Rowley rack up a huge fruit smoothie at the country club snack bar, where Rowley’s father is a member. The reader sees him doing this, and like Greg, we pay no mind as to who is paying for all these drinks.

Some authors would introduce the issue of payment near the start, but in this story a lot of extraneous gags happen before we even realise this will be a problem. We are, however, shown within the first few pages that Greg has been drinking fruit smoothies.

DESIRE

On the first page we see that Greg only wants to sit inside under a blanket and play computer games all summer.

OPPONENT

As usual, the main opponent is Greg’s mother, who says it’s ‘not natural’ for boys to be spending so much time alone in their room. So she forces him out of the house.

PLAN

Greg plans to mooch of Rowley’s family’s country club membership while enjoying all the accoutrements of a lavish lifestyle, despite not really liking Rowley all that much. His unreliable, ironic narration has him complaining about the girl who ditched him and Rowley for the better-looking lifeguard. “The lesson I learned is that some people won’t think twice about ditching you, especially when there’s a country club involved.”

BATTLE

Another reason this story feels without structure is because we’re mostly used to a structure which builds to some sort of climax. This is achieved partly by a series of battles which (in most stories) build in intensity until the big, final showdown where the hero comes close to death. There’s nothing like that in this book. Greg has many, many small battles but these don’t lead to anything massive. The whole point of these events in Greg’s empty summer is to demonstrate the wide-open, goal-less days in the Every Boy’s summer.

SELF-REVELATION

Turns out this is essentially a story about a father/son relationship. But in Greg Heffley style, the deep and meaningful messages found in serious literature is parodied. Greg doesn’t learn much at all:

I guess some people would say that hating a comic is a pretty flimsy foundation for a relationship, but the truth is, me and Dad hate LOTS of the same things.

Me and Dad might not have one of those close father-son relationships, but that’s fine with me. I’ve learned that there is such a thing as TOO close. [An image of Rowley on the toilet talking to his father at the vanity.]

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

The holiday is ‘pretty much over’ when Mrs Heffley finishes the photo album. This final montage of the photo album is a one-image per gag rundown of each incident, but from the mother’s point of view. This provides some ironic distance between the mother and son’s version of events, and highlights the unreliable nature of Greg’s narration. We are reminded that the mother, too, only has a small part of the story of her son’s summer to document as she hasn’t the foggiest idea about all that goes on.

 

THE PLOT SHAPE OF DOG DAYS

Dog Days is far from plotless. If it appears plotless that is because it’s an example of a ‘meandering’ story structure, in which one event leads to flashbacks and asides. The hero has a desire, but it is not intense. He covers a great deal of territory in a haphazard way and he encounters a number of characters from different levels of society. Ulysses and Alice and Wonderland are well-known examples of the meandering plot, which foregrounds other aspects of story over the desire, plan and battle of the main character.

Dog Days is also a spoof on ‘serious literature’ of the sort put on summer reading lists by gatekeepers of children’s literature such as teachers and mothers. This is depicted by Mrs Heffley’s book club idea. If serious literature is meant to add to a child’s life, Greg’s summer is full of ‘mind-rotting’ activities eschewed by concerned adults such as playing video games, watching soaps, imbibing gossip at the beauty salon and reading trashy comics. No matter what Mrs Heffley tries to do to enrich her son’s life, Greg finds a way of turning even a trip to the pool into something ‘as bad as’ a horror movie.

The message of this book is that there is no message. Father and son remain united only by their common dislike of a comic, in which Jeff Kinney lampoons the mawkish comic strips often found in 20th century American newspapers. The epiphany, likewise, is that there is no substantial epiphany. In this respect (and this respect only), Dog Days is similar to Annie Proulx’s The Half-skinned Steer — another upending of a common mythic story structure.

Diary Of A Wimpy Kid And The Buddy Comedy

Jeff Kinney’s Diary Of A Wimpy Kid was first published in 2004. The twelfth in the series is due November 2017. Kinney originally planned ten, unless the quality dropped off. At this point he plans to continue indefinitely, so long as they’re still popular.

Diary Of A Wimpy Kid cover

THE AUDIENCE OF DIARY OF A WIMPY KID

By this point in his career, Kinney knows his audience really well.

“Kids usually discover my books around seven or eight. Once they are nine they really understand them. They read them until about 13, when they grow out of them.”

“You can’t really write for kids or you might write down to kids.”

ON WRITING FOR CHILDREN

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The Ideology Of Wealth In Children’s Literature

Where there is wealth there are assholes. This is the overriding message we get from stories in general, be they for children or adults. However, sometimes by working hard a hero can become rich. In a Cinderella story goodness leads naturally to riches, in a Rhonda Byrne The Secret sort of bullshit idea. Characters in other stories are eventually revealed to be nice people despite being rich. Sometimes in children’s books an adult reader can see perfectly well that there is a discrepancy in income between the parents of the children, but child readers themselves won’t necessarily pick up all the clues on that. Kids are kids in the end.

cinderella before wealth

This 1919 illustration of Cinderella by Arthur Rackham shows Cinderella literally in rags.

Storytelling Technique: Rich and Poor Together

One technique writers use to add interest and conflict to a story is to put wealthy and poor people in the same place. You’ll find this is done at some point in almost every TV show. Movies do it too.  Continue reading

A Brief Taxonomy Of Book Titles

Here’s a secret: many, many, many titles are changed once a publisher gets hold of them. In fact, every single one of my book titles has changed, if you can believe it.

from Alison Winn Scotch, writer

Well, I will admit to thinking that if Marketing truly had their way, the title for every book would be an artless string of words broadcasting its selling appeal. The Hunger Games would be called ACTION PACKED DYSTOPIAN LOVE TRIANGLE.

– from Boxcars, Books and a Blog

taxonomy book title

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What is the meaning of hermeneutics?

The theory about interpretation of texts is called hermeneutics. The word alludes to the name of the Greek god Hermes who was the messenger between gods. Hermeneutics thus emphasizes that a message needs someone to carry it, someone to explicate, to elucidate, to interpret. A hermeneutic analysis involves pointing out and explaining how what we read or otherwise perceive embodies a meaning. The main premise of hermeneutics is that in extracting a meaning from a piece of art we alternate between the whole and the details.

For instance, when we look at a painting, we can start by perceiving it as a whole, noting the general composition, theme, color scheme, and so on. Provided that we are interested enough in learning more about the painting, we may then study the details, for instance each depicted object, figure, or shape; the foreground and the background; the particulars of hues and saturation; the individual brushstrokes (or other technique); and so on. However, if we stop at this stage, our perception of the word will be fragmentary. Therefore we must go back to studying the whole, this time with a better preconception, since we know more about the constituent parts of the whole.

In studying a literary text, we also usually begin with the whole: the storyline, the central characters, and their role in the story. When reading for pleasure, we often stop at that. Working with the text professionally, as critics or teachers, we will most probably go on to study the details: composition, characterization, narrative perspective, style and underlying messages. We may go still further into particulars, for instance, and only examine metaphors, or only concentrate on direct speech, or only investigate how female characters are portrayed. Such a detailed study is, however, only fruitful if we afterward go back to the whole, and hopefully we will then have a better understanding of the text.

Aesthetic Approaches to Children’s Literature: An Introduction, by Maria Nikolajeva

hermeneutics is from Hermes

Tall Tale Techniques For The Scarily Inclined

A bearded man either listens to or tells a tall tale inside a cave

Aim for this face when you’re telling a scary tall tale. (In both you and your audience) Photo by zamario.

AUDIO EXAMPLE OF A SCARY TALL TALE

First, listen to a master. This bloke (‘Bongo’) rang into an Australian radio station cracking on his story is true. If it’s true, I’ll eat every single one of my hats. Mind you, the guys at Mysterious Universe believe it. Strange things happen in The Outback.

What do you think?

Go to episode 404 of Mysterious Universe and, unless you want to hear all about sleep paralysis and trolls sitting on chests (which is also fascinating), you can skip straight to Bongo’s yarn at 51:25.

No doubt about it, Bongo is a master of the form. I bet he’s been telling this very yarn for years and years (since September of ’78). If you go to the Australian Outback you’ll meet a number of great storytellers just like Bongo; my in-laws love their camping holidays and they’ll tell you exactly where to find these old guys – out near Lightning Ridge and so on. There’s nothing much else to do out there after dark, you see, with no internet connection and no nothing. Spinning yarns while sounding authentic is a valued skill, like playing the banjo or the harmonica… or the Bongos, even. Continue reading

Ideology Of Psychotropic Drugs In Children’s Literature

What are psychotropic drugs?

Psychotropic drugs include:

  • Antipsychotics (used in the treatment of schizophrenia and mania)
  • Anti-depressants (tricyclics, SSRIs, MAOIs etc.)
  • Anti-obsessive Agents
  • Anti-anxiety Agents
  • Anti-panic Agents
  • Stimulants (used in the treatment of AD/HD)

Mental health remains highly stigmatized. While adults who need blood thinners, cholesterol-lowering medication and insulin can take their drugs without fear of judgement, making the decision to drug your child with psychotropic drugs is considered controversial.

What does this all have to do with children’s literature? Surely writers are steering clear of the topic. When was the last time you read a best-seller that said anything at all about your child’s AD/HD medication, for instance.

The Incorrect, Dominant Ideology Of AD/HD Drugs In Children’s Literature

Goes something like this:

When children are given AD/HD drugs they lose their creativity along with the very thing that makes them kids. ADHD drugs, if anything, *enhance* creativity by allowing the child some much-wanted brakes on the frontal cortex. The mistaken idea that ADHD drugs take away the wonderful things about ADHD kids mean that, especially in this country (Australia), ADHD drugs are less likely to end up where they’re needed.

There’s also this idea that AD/HD is what can happen to any of us if we’re not careful to exercise our brains, for example by reading long books. Here’s an example of that assumption, this time from an interview (with Ray Bradbury) in The Paris Review:

INTERVIEWER

Why do you think you prefer short stories to novels? Is it an issue of patience? They call it attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder these days.

The Paris Review

In fact AD/HD is a matter of different brain wiring. No one is correctly calling ‘short attention span’ attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. This idea goes completely unchallenged in The Paris Review literary magazine.

When it comes to children’s literature, there is also a fetishization of The Natural. This is seen in ‘country kids are  more wholesome than city kids’, and extends (of course) to what adults are putting into their children’s bodies:

The wholesome fictional child eats natural, home-cooked, home-grown food, with eggs collected by hand-raised hens. The wholesome fictional child is naturally exuberant and energetic and should never be given chemicals in a capsule to dampen their wonderfully childlike spirit.

Related to that:

Children are naturally energetic. Many AD/HD children move a lot. Therefore, AD/HD children are the epitome of childlike and should be allowed to continue as they are.

An unchallenged assumption:

AD/HD children are always happy to be AD/HD and would not change a single thing about themselves, including the option to put some chemically induced brakes on their oftentimes embarrassing and humiliating impulsivity.

 

Commentary On Psychotropic Drugs In Dog Man by Dav Pilkey (2016)

Dog Man includes commentary on psychotropic drugs Continue reading

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