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Category: Children’s Literature (page 1 of 44)

The Influence of The Lovely Bones on Modern YA

The emphasis in the First Golden Age [of children’s literature] was very much on being healthy in mind and body – if a child became sick, he or she usually got well as part of their story. Today’s reader has no such encouragement. There is an alarming trend in what has been termed “sick-lit” which seems to wallow in the idea of a child self-harming, being ill, dying, or even committing suicide. I trace this back to a novel which was not written for children at all, Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, but it has spread into best-selling books like Ways to Live Forever, Before I Say Goodbye, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars.and many more.

Amanda Craig

Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones wasn’t just influential on the subgenre of YA known derisively as ‘sick-lit’, but which continues to prove super popular with the 2017 release of John Green’s Turtles All The Way Down. It has now been a full sociological decade (15 years) since The Lovely Bones was published. As Sophie Masson writes in an article in the latest edition of The Looking Glass:

In the last fifteen years, fiction set in or about the afterlife has become a popular and critically acclaimed sub-genre within contemporary speculative fiction for young adults especially, but not only, in English language publishing. These narratives, where the main characters die at the beginning of the story and find themselves in an alien world, the world beyond death, have developed into a fertile ground for imaginative and intellectual challenge and discovery, as a means both to depict the ultimate culture shock and a challenging exploration of otherness and alienation.

I highly recommend a read of the actual article as it’s free to access. The following are my own takeaway points.

afterlife young adult paranormal fiction

A BRIEF HISTORY OF AFTERLIFE FICTION

Its roots come from:

  • Myth
  • Religion
  • Classic literature
  • The Gothic mode
  • The Victorian Ghost Story

These days (in Australia, at least) more young people believe in an afterlife than believe in god.

FEATURES OF AFTERLIFE FICTION
  • Modern YA afterlife stories are a subgenre of paranormal YA fiction, which can include vampires, fairies, trolls and so on.
  • The afterlife story is kind of like a portal story,
  • They are usually but not always set in a fantasy storyworld.
  • This afterlife world is a ‘liminal’ space, not the final end point. They are not the absolute territories of Heaven/Hell, but more closely resemble Purgatory/Limbo.
  • The idea of Purgatory in these novels isn’t linked to religion — it’s there for the narrative.
  • There’s still much mundane detail about the real world — what characters are eating, how much money they have. However there tends to be little mention of class.
  • The afterlife world might be a ghostly copy of the real place on Earth. The landscapes and townscapes of the afterworlds are more solid than the portals but are prone to unexpected changes and reversals which makes it hard for characters to carry out their quests.
  • Characters in the afterlife tend to be unable to taste food.
  • The genre blend is most commonly fantasy adventure.
  • Rich narrative and prose styles
  • Strong plots
  • Interesting characters
  • High sales as well as critical acclaim
  • Absence of moral judgement.
  • The main characters of modern afterlife YA have either died violently or after illness, which links this genre to the wider sick-lit movement.
  • There may well be monsters to defeat. These are supernatural beings. They are often transformed by their encounters with the newly dead young characters.
  • There is probably a romantic subplot.
THE ADVANTAGE OF A DEAD NARRATOR
  • There’s a very good reason: The thing that marks YA out from adult fiction is its immediacy of voice. The narrator hasn’t aged much before their story is told. But when the narrator is full on dead, that character is afforded omniscience and wisdom which would otherwise feel unnatural, while maintaining the immediacy.
  • Many stories for young people are about displacement and feeling like you’re ‘the other’. That’s because you’re trying to find your place at this age. By being dead, the main character is very much The Other.
  • If there’s a romantic subplot, it’s the job of the author to keep two lovers apart for the duration of the adventure. Making one of them dead is a really efficient way to keep two characters apart. Or, they may both be dead but of vastly different Earthly ages. Or, the afterlife might be kinder to one than the other.
OTHER EXAMPLES OF AFTERLIFE FICTION

The authors of these works are themselves from diverse backgrounds.

  • How The Dead Live by Will Self
  • My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk
  • Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan
  • His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman (sort of)
  • Everlost by Neal Shusterman and sequels
  • A Certain Slant of Light by Laura Whitcomb
  • More than This by Patrick Ness
  • Afterworld by Lynnette Lounsbury
  • Ferryman by Claire mcFall
  • The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo
  • The Afterlife by Gary Soto
  • When We Wake by Karen Healey
  • Me and Death: An Afterlife Adventure by Richard Scrimger
  • Memor: le monde d’apres by Kinga Wyrzykowska
  • The Ghost Squad by Sophie Masson

An earlier outlier and not really connected to anything that has come since: The Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren. In this story:

  • This is a story about brotherly love in a Narnia-like world.
  • Two brothers die at the beginning.
  • They find themselves in the afterlife world of Nangiyala, a place of campfires and sagas.
  • The brothers have no trouble fitting into the new world.
  • They are happy to be there.
  • There’s no mention of the grieving mother left behind.
  • It’s possible to die again in this afterlife world.
THE AFTERLIFE IN WIDER POP CULTURE
  • Lost, the TV series (American)
  • The Returned, a French series called Les Revants (and all the other franchises based on this storyline)
  • Resurrection (American)
  • The Glitch (Australian)
FURTHER ACADEMIC READING
  • Afterlife in Contemporary Fiction by Alice Bennett, a groundbreaking study in the afterlife as depicted in fiction for adults.
  • Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination by Greg Garrett, who doesn’t talk much about YA in particular.

The Ideology Of Persistence In Children’s Literature

If you work hard you will find success. Persistence leads to success is a comforting truism, because we feel the future is under our own control. Work hard, you win.

An episode of a Freakonomics podcast provides a strong, economically sound argument for sometimes giving up.  But you’ll be hard pressed to find a book for which encourages quitting. When a child character quits a sports team or skips out on piano, it will probably be because they’ve replaced their parents’ dream with another hobby of their own. Quitting to hang out on the corner? Hard to find that in a non-tragic story.

persistence Continue reading

Welcome To Camp Nightmare Storytelling Study

R.L. Stine has written a huge number of horror books for middle grade and young adult readers. I was a bit old for them when they first came out, though I recollect reading one or two. Now I’ll read some of his works to see how, exactly, Stine took the horror genre and bowdlerized it into something adults would happily buy for their kids, when many of the same gatekeepers wouldn’t let them watch an actual horror movie.

The Goosebumps books are about 23,000 words long, which is only slightly longer than your average Wimpy Kid novel. Goosebumps books are not illustrated, making the books much slimmer (and quicker to pump out). This is broken into 22 chapters, so that averages about 1000 words a chapter.

Reading them as an adult, these aren’t straight horrors. It’s so easy when writing horror to inadvertently tip into comedy territory that you’re actually safer to just write horror comedy. While these books may be genuinely scary for kids (I guess?) they read as horror comedy for an adult. They’re not laugh-a-minute or anywhere near it, but anyone who has seen a lot of horror will recognise the tropes to the point where the whole story feels like a genre parody. Stine has said, “I was very disappointed with The Girl on the Train. I thought it was humorless,” which conveys something of his attitude toward non-comedy genre fiction needing a bit of comedy regardless. (I feel the same way about The Girl On The Train.)

Welcome To Camp Nightmare is Classic Goosebumps #14. It is also part of the Campfire and Fright Light collections. My daughter is about to go on her first ever school camp, so I thought this was a good one to start with.

Voice in Welcome To Camp Nightmare

There’s nothing embellished about this voice. The writing isn’t good (though perhaps a little better than Christopher Pike). Stine does things in his Goosebumps stories that anyone who’s attended any kind of writing class will have been warned against.

The narrator is a first person 12-year-old boy recounting his story to an unseen audience. Some people hate first person for the following reason: At times he steps out and describes himself speaking in a ‘shrill’ voice, or something like that, suggesting that actually third person would probably have been better. (A ‘shrill’ voice is one of Stine’s pet adjectives, at least in this book.) On the other hand, it’s easier to achieve an original voice writing in first person. This voice reminds me of many books I was reading as a kid — Paul Jennings uses a very similar voice — that of the generic 12-year-old white boy, slightly baffled by people around him and also by the crazy world he’s stepped into — an ordinary kid in extraordinary circumstances.

The similes aren’t all that amazing: ‘His eyes were as calm and cold as marbles.’ There’s no particular metaphorical significance to these similes, which you’d expect from more literary fiction. It’s all about surface-level similarities.

The sky is ‘charcoal grey’, birds chirp in the trees, and readers don’t get hung up on the beauty of any descriptions, because there is none.

Thoughts are often italicised, which adds to the melodrama. This technique has fallen out of fashion lately but works perfectly well for Stine.

Stine doesn’t shy away from rhetorical questions to telegraph a scary bit, either.

I mention these things to prove a point — though writers are told not to do them, we can also utilise them to our benefit. Those rhetorical questions telegraph scary bits which actually makes them less scary when they do come. This achieves the optimum level of scariness. Writing rules sometimes assume the writer has only one goal in mind (e.g. to make something MORE scary), and don’t take into account that sometimes a writer might want to pull back on the emotional impact.

Diversity

In 2017, lack of diversity sticks out, finally. The boys in this book have ordinary white boy names like  Jay and Colin and Roger — names which even in the early 1990s sounded old-fashioned. The girls are Dawn and Dori.

Published in 1992, these kids are 12 years old, which makes them my contemporaries. I should recognise this culture, and I do. I recognise the four girls almost cowering at the front of the bus, as the boys completely dominate the space with their loudness and exuberance. I’m immediately disappointed that this is yet another story where boys completely outnumber the girls. Perhaps there will be a reason for this in the plot? This is a very male perspective — as female reader I’m reminded of how just a few girls in a space attracts boys’ attention and leads to show-off behaviour. I suspect this is something boy readers really relate to, even now.

The girls are written in typical 1990s style. In other words, they’re not the pathetic crybabies of the 1950s, but they’re still written in a very male gazey way. When the two girls daringly and dangerously swim across the lake to tell the boys girls have been going missing, we’re told one of them is wearing a ‘blue, one piece bathing suit’ and that she has damp, blonde hair hanging onto her shoulders. For the boys we are never told what they are wearing. Why are young readers told that the girl is wearing a ‘one piece’ bathing suit? Well, ‘one piece’ sounds more wholesome than ‘bikini’ (more common attire for the pretty female victim in an adult horror film), but  in fact mentioning it at all makes it gazey.  In short, Stine retains some of the stereotypical, woman as victim tropes found throughout adult horror.

Lampshading of Parental Absence

A storytelling challenge for Stine is getting adults out of the way so that the kids can be legitimately scared and make their own way out of trouble. Even in horror stories for adults, writers will often surround the main character with apathetic/useless/evil/disbelieving police officers and officials, who might otherwise be able to help. In a supernatural story this feels quite natural, because why would a police officer believe someone ranting and raving about monsters? This is writers breaking the fourth wall… sort of.

The bus driver wears a prank mask, and when he rips it off it seems like a joke, but then his face changes suddenly and we realise he’s ‘two-faced’ and isn’t the caring adult we might expect from a bus driver hauling kids to camp, so he’s no use. Next we have Larry, the man who is meant to be looking after them at camp. He is equally uncaring — a guy mechanically doing his job. Uncle Al is just as bad. The boys learn there’s no nurse and no infirmary — if they get hurt they’re on their own. We have the trope of the terrible, terrible camp, where kids have to write home to tell their parents what fun they’re having when in fact they’re held captive and terrified.

When people start disappearing, our first person narrator (Billy) gets desperate and he considers calling his parents. If Stine doesn’t lampshade this option, it’ll stick out to young readers who would surely involve caring adults at this point:

I was so eager to hear my parents’ voices, so eager to tell them the strange things that were happening here.

Would they believe me?

Of course they would. My parents always believed me. Because they trusted me.

But when  he gets to the pay phone it’s not a real phone — just a prop. Here at Camp Nightmare, nothing is what it seems. Also, that takes care of the parent problem. A few chapters later the boys find a mailbag of unposted letters. So they can’t even write home.  Finally, visitors day is cancelled. Many boys have been going missing by this point, so Billy’s last option for parental involvement is scuppered.

The huge benefit to storytelling in 1992 was that people didn’t have mobile phones. The existence of technology would completely ruin this plot in 2017, unless they were so far out in the wilderness that there was no reception. Once that ‘no reception’ problem is solved everywhere on Earth, writers will have to come up with something more inventive.

Billy ends up saving Larry’s life in the river by dragging him to the bank.

Tropes In Welcome To Camp Nightmare

Stine has probably used every horror trope several times over by now. He’s even said of Stephen King’s work that some of King’s ideas were so good he just had to steal them — sometimes five times over. The greatest form of flattery? I’m sure King wouldn’t mind — R. L. Stine is creating an entirely new generation of Stephen King readers.

In this particular story, one of the boys goes missing and the camp adults say he never existed at all. This gaslighting trope is also used in stories like Flightplan, starring Jody Foster, in which flight crew try to persuade her there never was a daughter to begin with. The removal of all traces of someone’s existence is called damnatio memoriae (Condemnation of Memory). Apparently the Romans and Greeks used to consider erasing a person from all records a fate worse than death. (I think we should go back to this when reporting (or rather, not reporting) on mass murderers.)

Sure enough, boys keep disappearing. They’re being picked off one by one. This is the Dwindling Party trope.

The ending is what’s sometimes known among writers as Jar Of Tang.

“For you see, we are all living in a jar of Tang!” or “For you see, I am a dog!” Mainstay of the old Twilight Zone TV show. An entire pointless story contrived so the author can cry “Fooled you!” This is a classic case of the difference between a conceit and an idea. “What if we all lived in a jar of Tang?” is an example of the former; “What if the revolutionaries from the sixties had been allowed to set up their own society?” is an example of the latter. Good SF requires ideas, not [bad] conceits.

Critters.org

Then again, plenty of people love Twilight Zone and don’t mind the Jar of Tang endings.

Cliffhangers

Melodrama? No problem! Here’s how Stine ends a chapter:

As we goggled in silent horror, the driver tilted back his monstrous head and uttered an animal roar.

Very close. And getting closer.

I can’t get away.

I was halfway up the ladder when I heard Mike scream.

Larry tossed back his head and started to laugh. “Nurse?” he cried, laughing hard. “What nurse!?”

“Those cries,” he whispered. “They’re coming from… the Forbidden Bunk!”

“Leave me a note with your address so I’ll know where to send your stuff.” (This made me laugh out loud.)

How was I to know that the horrors were just beginning?

Walking backward in front of us, Jay locked his eyes on mine. “How about you, Billy? You coming?”

“Here it comes!” he shrieked. “Now it’s coming after us!”

“Here it comes! It’s coming through the window!”

Not a first name or a middle name. No Roger. No Roger at all. (A possible reversal — the damnatio memoriae trope.)

But my attacker quickly clamped a hand over my mouth to silence me.

My heart thudding, my head spinning in bitter disappointment, I turned away from the wall — and bumped right into Uncle Al.

What is going on here? I wondered. What is going on?

Visitors Day has been canceled!

I…plunged into the  murky swirling waters to save him.

I had no way of knowing that the scariest part of my summer was yet to come.

To my horror, Uncle Al was staring directly at me. And he was holding a rifle in his hands.

“They won’t get away from us!”

I took a step backward with the rifle aimed at Uncle Al — and pulled the trigger.

Violence

Is it okay in a MG novel for an adult to tell a child to shoot other children with a rifle? Well, for a few sentences it appears this is the case, but Stine reins it in a bit and it turns out the rifles shoot tranquilliser darts. Then, when Billy shoots Uncle Al, it turns out the gun doesn’t shoot — the whole thing has been set up as a test of strength and violence, and Billy has passed.

Despite the fact that in real life Billy would be left with PTSD, it turns out this whole thing has been a government testing lab.

Story Structure Of Welcome To Camp Nightmare

WEAKNESS/NEED/PROBLEM

Billy is imprisoned at a dangerous camp where boys are being picked off one by one.

DESIRE

Billy wants to go home as soon as possible.

OPPONENT

This story follows the formula of ‘nearby opponents’ as well as ‘outside, monster opponents’. The adults running the camp are apathetic at best, murderers at worst. But there are also non-human monsters just outside the camp, waiting to pounce. This combination of human/monster opposition is seen in many popular series. Courage the Cowardly Dog utilises it, as does Spongebob Squarepants.

PLAN

Right up until p105 (08t of 136), Billy is still hoping his parents will come to save him, marking this out as firmly middle grade fiction. It is only when visitors’ day is cancelled that he realises he must rely on himself.

BATTLE

The battle scene takes place on a choppy river with swirling water and tall rocks on either side. (See more on river symbolism here.) A storm is brewing and of course they encounter rapids. Horror fans will know there’s going to be a storm at exactly the right moment because Billy awoke to a grey, overcast morning with the air heavy and cold. Larry the instructor has thrown them in the deep end, so to speak — it’s as if he’s trying to kill them by making them canoe down these rapids. Then the boys seem to enter a portal:

We rowed past tangles of yellow- and grey- trunked trees. The river suddenly divided in two, and we shifted our paddles to take the left branch.

Crossroads (or forked roads/rivers) are also symbolic. They very often symbolise an important decision, and on a river (which flows in one direction) there is absolutely no turning back.

SELF-REVELATION

There are two reversals in the final chapter — ridiculously melodramatic. First, Billy learns he has passed three tests and that he’s brave and moral. The audience has it revealed that this story hasn’t taken place on Earth at all and, like Billy, we learn that the stakes were actually pretty low.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Billy will be accompanying his scientist parents on a trip to Earth. This turns the story into a never-ending, circular structure, similar to many picture books.

 

 

Birds In Children’s Literature

 

Birds occupy a special place in children’s stories, as they do in the Bible, in folklore and in fairytales. Are they good or are they evil? No other creature has so successfully been both, equally. If you’re writing a children’s story, you can do what you like with birds.

evil fairytale bird

The hooked beak of this bird is undoubtedly evil.

BIRDS IN THE OLD TESTAMENT

Remember that dove which Noah sent out, to see if the waters had subsided elsewhere? Everyone knows of that dove, because we see it depicted in art holding an olive leaf in its beak. Less memorable, for me at least, is the raven. Remember that? Noah sent out the raven first but it never came back. He only sent that dove out a week later. When he sent the dove out again and it didn’t come back this time, he knew waters had subsided enough for the bird to find somewhere on land.

I wonder what was supposed to have happened to that raven. Ravens today are super smart birds. I think maybe the raven was smarter than the dove and found dry land more easily. That’ why it never came back!

There’s more to this literary symbolism, of course. The raven is black and that dove is white. Ravens = bad, doves = peace. This is seen over and over again throughout our history of storytelling.

The Old Testament is all about ‘clean’ birds versus ‘dirty’ ones. When Noah gets off the ark he thanks God for the clean birds he took onto the ark with him. What’s the difference between a clean bird and a dirty bird? (Okay, ‘unclean’.) Dirty birds eat carrion. The clean birds mostly have a diet of grain, fruits, and vegetation. Humans are safer when eating ‘clean’ birds than birds who eat dead meat themselves — less chance of getting sick. However, when all the birds of the Old Testament are taken as a group, there is no clear-cut line we can draw between a clean and an unclean one. To our modern taxonomies, some of the birds on the unclean list seem a bit random.

CATS AND BIRDS

Continue reading

Symbolic Archetypes In Children’s Stories

Light vs. Darkness

Light usually suggests hope, renewal, or intellectual illumination. Darkness implies the unknown, ignorance, or despair.

Pure black is rare in children’s illustration but Jon Klassen makes use of matte black in The Dark, which is obviously all about the dark.

the dark jon klassen

In general, Jon Klassen makes much use of shadows to subtly frame the focal points of his illustrations. This is a technique reminiscent of 1960s illustration, found in animation such as 101 Dalmatians. Below, a scene from 101 Dalmatians contrasts blues (darks) against warms (lights), and the light from a fireplace casts a frame as our baddie creeps towards the door. Continue reading

Story Structure: Character Desire

Kurt Vonnegut famously advised writers: characters must want something, even if it’s just a glass of water. This advice is so fundamental, every storytelling guru will tell you a version of the same thing.

Some people use different terminology: motive, goal, want. The ‘quest’ plot has a strong desire line built into its plot, which partly explains its enduring popularity over the last 3000 years.

John Yorke prefers ‘active goal’:

All archetypal stories are defined by this one essential tenet: the central character has an active goal. They desire something. If characters don’t then it’s almost impossible to care for them, and care we must. They are our avatars and thus our entry point: they are the ones we most want to win or to find redemption — or indeed be punished if they’ve transgressed, for subconsciously we can be deeply masochistic in our desires. Effectively they’re us. […] If a character doesn’t want something, they’re passive. And if they’re passive, they’re effectively dead. Without a desire to animate the protagonist, the writer has no hope of bringing the character alive, no hope of telling a story and the work will almost always be boring.

— John Yorke, Into The Woods

Without desire, no story. This is so basic — at first glance what more could be to it? This comic strip by Poorly Drawn Lines takes a common desire line and spoofs it.

comic about power and desire

Why does it work as a joke? Because of the juxtaposition between (noble) quest and the completely  unremarkable character arc — the discovery that he can eat his roommate’s leftovers with basically no consequences. This flaunts the basic rules of storytelling which we all know intuitively: When a character has a strong desire they go on an important quest and undergo significant character change as a result.  Continue reading

Child Moves House Trope In Middle Grade Fiction

Child moves house and starts at new school. This trope is hard to write well because it has been done so many times before.

child moves house

Some specific plot elements, or motifs, that we find in children’s novels are not as prominent in the mainstream fiction. The first is coming to a new home. Naturally, this element–connected to the basic motif of dislocation, inherent in all fiction–is present in quite a number of mainstream novels, such as Jane Eyre or Mansfield Park. However, I would state that the new home is more dominant in children’s fiction and also more significant, since the change of setting is a more dramatic event in a child’s life than in an adult’s. The character’s reaction to the change is very revealing.

The Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Fiction by Maria Nikolajeva

Maria Nikolajeva published that paragraph in 2002 and goes easy on the child moves house trope. Since then, despite every children’s author knowing full well that the child moves house trope — or motif — or whatever you’d like to call it had been done thousands of times before, we get to 2017 and Betsy Bird (librarian and reviewer for School Libarary Journal) has this to say about the state of middle grade literature:

If you read too many middle grade novels in a given year, you begin to sense patterns that no one else can see. In 2017 I’ve started down that path. I’ll give you an example of a particular pattern: The new kid in school. It’s not a new idea for a book (Joseph Campbell would probably tell you that it’s just a variation on the old “A Stranger Comes to Town” storytelling motif) but this year it’s gotten extreme. In book after book authors have hit the same notes. Kid is new. Kid is awkward in the lunchroom (seriously – if I never read another lunch room scene again it’ll be too soon). Kid makes friends with outcasts. Kid triumphs by being true to his or her own self. Simple, right? They blend together after a while, but it’s not the fault of the format. A good book, a really good book, transcends its format. Much of what I’ve read this year has already faded into a fuzzy haze in my brain.

Betsy Bird, SLJ

The contributors to TV Tropes have also noticed the moving house trope has become super popular in the last 10 years. The trope New House, New Problems refers specifically to a new family moving into a new home, whereupon strange happenings begin to reveal themselves. It’s not just a middle grade thing — it’s a horror thing.

Who knows what contributed to this trend, but I suspect big hits such as Neil Gaiman’s Coraline have something to do with it. The TV Tropes page also points out that every other Goosebumps book begins with a kid moving to a new house. In YA we have the huge successes of Twilight, 10 Things I Hate About You and Mean Girls, so audiences must love the trope. Writers love it too, because it allows a natural discovery of a new milieu, as our new student discovers how the new environment works, along with readers.

The question is, do young readers like it as much as writers do?

 

Children’s Stories and Northrop Frye

Northrop Frye was a Canadian literary theorist who died in 1991 aged 78. Frye was considered one of the most influential literary theorists of the 20th century. Sometimes his theories applied equally to children’s literature; at other times he was off the mark. One of his theories — The Displacement Of Myth — does not apply well to children’s literature.

Northrop Frye’s Five Stages Of The Displacement Of Myth

Frye treated literature as ‘displacement of myth’. Here are Frye’s stages, in consecutive order, between full-on myth to what we get today:

  1. Characters are gods (superior to both humans and to the laws of nature)
  2. Romantic Narrative (idealized humans who are superior to other humans but not to the laws of nature)
  3. High Mimetic Narrative (humans who are superior to other humans)
  4. Low Mimetic Narrative (humans are neither superior nor inferior to other humans)
  5. Ironic Narrative (characters are inferior to other characters)

northrop frye

(Terminology note: The ‘mimetic modes’ are also known as ‘realism‘. Mimesis basically means ‘copying reality’.)

Examples Of Modern Popular Characters From Each Of Frye’s Five Stages

  1. Superheroes in general, though writers sometimes limit their powers in aid of a more interesting story. Superman is one of the few who actually fits this category because Superman was never meant to be relatable. (Before he was known as Man of Steel he was known as Man of Tomorrow, in a much more optimistic age when it was thought that humankind is making its way closer to the ideal mindset of altruism for altruism’s sake.
  2. The male love interests in Harlequin romances, in which the story ends before more human aspects of his character are revealed.
  3. Walter White and other genius characters who live among us e.g. Marty Byrde of Ozark which seems to be modelled upon Breaking Bad.
  4. Don Draper; the alter egos of secret-identity superheroes. (See: A Psychoanalysis of Clark Kent.)
  5. Mr Bean,

If you try this exercise yourself, you’ll probably find that contemporary stories tend to fall into the bottom two categories. It’s much harder to find genuine examples from the top two tiers in particular. Some have argued a case for more heroics in stories for adults.

The conventions of literary fiction are that the bourgeois hero (more likely the heroine) be vulnerable, prone to shame and guilt, unable to fit the pieces of the larger puzzle together, and on the same banal moral plane as the “average reader”: sympathetic, in other words, someone we can “identify” with, who reflects our own incomprehension of the world, our helplessness and inability to effect change.

– an example of why we need to read about amazing characters, in an opinion from Anis Shivani

The Displacement of Myth and Children’s Literature

How does Northrop Frye’s Five Stages map onto children’s literature? According to Frye, children (and animals) fall into the fifth category — children are regarded as inferior. Since almost all children’s literature stars children, this suggests all children’s literature is ironic.

This is not the case.

In fact, the corpus of children’s literature includes characters from each of Frye’s levels. This has been pointed out by specialist of children’s literature, Maria Nikolajeva, in Aesthetic Approaches to Children’s Literature: An Introduction.

Examples Of Children’s Characters From Each Of Frye’s Five Stages

  1. The superhero side of Miles Morales; Christopher Robin who to the toys seems like a God. (This also applies to Andy of Toy Story.)
  2. Edward Cullen and other paranormal love interests in young adult romance; Harry Potter winds up here.
  3. Rory Gilmore types, who is herself the granddaughter of Anne of Green Gables (very smart). That said, Rory Gilmore had been cut down a peg or two in the Gilmore girls revival, and Anne With An E showed a more vulnerable side to Anne Shirley. Perhaps this means a contemporary audience likes to see more ordinary characters?
  4. Laura Ingalls, Tom Sawyer, Ramona Quimby, Henry Huggins and all of these kids’ descendants populating realistic fiction, but who sometimes enter a fantasy world. (That said, entering a fantasy world often in itself denotes ‘chosen ones’.) In YA we have Francesca Spinelli (Saving Francesca), the ensemble stars of Tomorrow When The War Began and other ordinary teens who learn to become self reliant after some kind of adversity.
  5. Greg Heffley, Timmy Failure, Nikki Maxwell and many other stars of middle grade, humorous, illustrated novels starring characters who are mean, dim-witted, accident-prone, or who otherwise feel put-upon due to being the middle child, wearing braces or whatever. We see these characters in cartoons, too e.g. We Bare Bears. Comedy is full of them because these characters are easy to poke fun at. We also have serious YA characters such as Charlie from The Perks of Being a Wallflower, or James Sveck of Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You, who are basically overwhelmed by all the changes happening in their teenage years.

As shown above, children’s literature is as diverse as adult literature when it comes to this particular theory of character. ‘Children’ cannot be lumped into the bottom category. The opinion from Anis Shivani above may in fact mean it’s easier to find heroic characters in children’s stories than in stories for adults.

As a side note, animals can’t be lumped into the ironic category, either. That’s because animals in literature are very often stand-ins for humans.

Chicken Little, Cassandra and Modern Horror

Chicken Little (mostly America) is also known as Chicken Licken or Henny Penny (mostly Britain).

I hope the current generation of children don’t grow up thinking the 2005 animated movie version of Chicken Little has much to do with earlier versions of this story. The movie logline sounds okay on paper: “After ruining his reputation with the town, a courageous chicken must come to the rescue of his fellow citizens when aliens start an invasion”, but tonally, this Disney production is loud, bright and frenetic. The natural ‘opponent’ of the acorn has been turned into the more interesting and formidable aliens in order to sustain a movie length story. Against that tone, the frenzy of Chicken Little himself is absorbed rather than emphasised. Further than that I can’t comment, as I find the movie entirely unwatchable.

chicken little little golden book

Then again, am I really advocating for the continued teaching of the moral of Chicken Little? What does this fable teach us, really?

STORY STRUCTURE OF CHICKEN LITTLE

This is a cumulative tale — you know, the kind you get sick of reading to your kid unless the wordplay is excellent. The ending is tragic, depending on how kind you feel towards foxes. In any cases, we’re not really encouraged to empathise with the birds, so when they die it kind of feels like just desserts for them. I’m sure the characterisation of this tale has something to do with the fact that humans have a long history of eating birds but not foxes. Continue reading

Story Structure: Character Weakness and Problem

Most writers are well-aware that a main character needs a weakness, but this does not go far enough. Go one step further and break it in half.

Everyone who gives writers advice about characterisation has something to say about this topic. Author of the book Story Genius Lisa Cron says that it’s the character’s internal struggle that makes the external struggle important. This echoes exactly what John Truby says about external desires on the surface vs character weakness underneath.

What about children’s books? Do they follow the same rules?

Mostly, but not always. Some picture books do not feature characters with weakness. These stories tend to be of the carnivalesque variety. A few standout examples feature the reader as protagonist. These, too, do not follow the rules of story.

Children’s books for older readers do follow the same rules as those applied to narrative aimed at adults. Modern picture books which win big awards are also likely to follow these rules.

CHARACTER WEAKNESS

character weakness

According to the rules of story structure aimed at screenwriters and writers with an audience of adults…

 

Every Main Character Needs…

  1. A PSYCHOLOGICAL WEAKNESS: What are the fundamental flaws? (Lacking confidence, scarred by former lovers, afraid of intimacy, overly pessimistic etc.)
  2. A MORAL WEAKNESS: How does this character treat others badly? (Lacking empathy, overbearing, two-faced, greedy, lying, selfish etc.) The Seven Deadly Sins feature prominently in this part of the weakness.

Like anything, this ‘rule’ of story has developed some tropes. As an example:

Common Weaknesses of Young Women

This trope comes from the Gothic tradition.

The story of the poor girl who overcomes obstacles and makes a good marriage in the end, what might be called the Horatia Alger story, is very common in nineteenth-century fiction, especially fiction written by women. This heroine does not have to begin in absolute poverty — even Cinderella’s family must have been middle-class or her stepsisters wouldn’t have been able to go to the ball in such style. But she does have to be in some way underprivileged at the start of the boo, and she must go through many difficulties before she can marry the prince.

Occasionally she is poor in other than the economic sense, as with some of Jane Austen’s heroines: Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey is poor in intellect; Marianne Dashwood of Sense and Sensibility is naive and muddleheaded; while Fanny Price of Mansfield Park is … poor in spirit. Charlotte Bronte, even more daring, made the heroine of Villette plain.

— Alison Lurie, Don’t Tell The Grown-ups: The power of subversive children’s stories

The weakness of being ‘plain’ continues to be explored in young adult fiction today, as beauty privilege continues to be a thing in modern society.

An Outdated Way Of Showing Character Weakness

In the simple thriller form the antagonist is marked out by their desire to control and dominate the lives of others. They don’t follow the moral codes of the community; more often than not they’re an embodiment of selfishness. They are also, historically, often marked by physical or mental deformity. Le Chiffre’s maladjusted tear duct in the film of Casino Royale is the modern equivalent of Dr No’s missing hands or Scaramanga’s third nipple in the Man With The Golden Gun. In a more politically correct age, the physical flaw (clearly an outer manifestation of inner damage) has been scaled down to a level society finds acceptable. If the antagonist is internal, the same principles apply: the enemy within works in opposition to the host’s better nature — it cripples them. It stands in opposition to everything they might be.

— John Yorke, Into The Woods

Do Children’s Book Characters Need A Moral Weakness?

Or any weakness at all?

The short answer is that, yes, an interesting modern children’s book character needs at least a psychological weakness, and the story might also support a moral weakness. This wasn’t always the case, as you’ll already know if you’ve read from the First Golden Age Of Children’s Literature. It was the amazing Edith Nesbit who changed all of that.

All of Nesbit’s characters have both virtues and flaws: not only are the children’s actions always a push and pull between their better instincts and their baser impulses, but the various authority figures they encounter are equally complicated. The magical Psammead creature is peevish, the Queen of Babylon is kind-hearted but imperious, and the upstairs scholar is helpful but blind to the magic he experiences.

The Toronto Review Of Books

Until Nesbit came along, adults who wrote for children believed children read as medicine. The viewpoint characters therefore had to demonstrate impeccable behaviour, or else be punished for wrongdoing, learning to be good along the way.

The older the reader, the more likely they are reading about characters with both types of weakness. But when it comes to picture books, no. That’s because a picture book character is quite often ‘The Every Child’, and because children are all different, the writer doesn’t always want to tell us much about the character at all. In this case, the child’s main weakness is the fact that they are a child: naivety, weakness, lack of freedom, lack of knowledge. These are weaknesses common to all children and cannot really be called ‘psychological’ weaknesses. This is the main difference between a protagonist in a children’s book and a protagonist in a story for adults.

Children’s writers have to deal with something other writers do not: The expectation from a large proportion of the book-buying public that the empathetic character behaves in a model-like fashion. And if they don’t? That’s okay, so long as they’re punished.

 

Must Children’s Book Characters Treat Others Badly?

After looking at a lot of children’s books with this exact question in mind, the answer is no. There are several reasons for this:

  1. Some characters in children’s books represent the Every Child. When a reader is meant to paste themselves onto the character we don’t want that character to be too specific. For similar reasons a lot of picture book characters are cartoon-like and minimalist. (For more on that see Taxonomy Of Detail In Character Illustration.) Even in stories for older readers, these Every Child characters are given a ‘cosmetic’ weakness rather than a psychological and moral one, which makes them far more generic and less interesting. For instance, a common cosmetic weakness in young adult romance is ‘clumsy’. Bella Swan is one example. Even in stories for adults you’ll find the Every Man. Susan from Desperate Housewives is clumsy but this clumsiness functions to provide comedy. Susan has many other psychological weaknesses. She is unconfident and needy but also fake-nice and backstabbing. Susan’s clumsiness has nothing to do with storytelling.
  2. There are gatekeepers of children’s literature — people responsible for buying the books and putting them into children’s hands — who choose literature with the philosophy that characters in stories need to serve as role models for good behaviour. These people might approve of characters who treat others badly but only if that character is punished. For more on that see Picturebook Study: In Which Baddies Get Their Comeuppance.
  3. The wish to avoid child characters as morally corrupt may come from JudeoChristian thought in which it is thought that people enjoy an ‘age of innocence’. Strictly speaking, we’re better off using the phrase ‘age of accountability’ because the Bible does not suggest at any point that children are sinless, but rather that children can’t be held accountable for certain things due to their inexperience. Thirteen is the most common age suggested for the age of accountability, based on the Jewish custom that a child becomes an adult at the age of 13. This is no doubt related to The Magical Age of 12 in children’s literature. (There’s nothing in the Bible, however, to suggest 13 is a significant age.)
  4. Complex, rounded characters simply aren’t necessary in all types of stories. For action stories with exciting plots, or genre fiction — such as mysteries and thrillers — all the reader really wants is a great story. In fact, the characters can’t change all that much if the book is part of a series. Series fiction is very popular with young readers and the best-selling books are all part of a series, year after year.

The view that badly behaving children’s characters must be punished is increasingly challenged, mostly by writers and publishers who refuse to believe in the concept of the young reader as tabula rasa (blank slates), who trust children and young adults to read critically and not blindly follow their main characters into bad situations. The modern main character in children’s stories will most definitely have both a psychological weakness and a moral weakness. In other words, they will be treating others badly in some way.

This wasn’t always the case, and if you take a look at books from the First And Second Golden Ages Of Children’s Literature you’ll find many more Mary Sue/Pollyanna types, who have been written as model children for young readers to emulate. These characters are not well accepted by contemporary young readers, who have a vast selection of books to choose from and are not stuck with moralistic stories as earlier generations were.

The idea of child readers as tabula rasa was particularly strong in the Victorian era, and if young readers didn’t want moral stories they really only had the Gothic to turn to. These stories offered all the bloodshed, villainy and titillation lacking in the ‘stories for children’.

Not all writers of children’s stories are interested in this concept. Hayao Miyazaki has never formally studied screenwriting or storytelling technique, and goes about creating his Studio Ghibli films in his own auteur fashion. Miyazaki’s main characters don’t tend to have an external desire. He doesn’t bother with that. They do have psychological needs, however, and by the end of the story they haven’t necessarily got anything they wanted — but by immersing themselves in a new world, they have grown emotionally.

For this reason I feel the very concept of desire is a Western one. In Japanese language, to say “I want” something is considered childish and you’ll rarely hear those words (even though the grammar and words for desire exist). Instead, a Japanese interlocutor will avoid the assumption that you are a spoilt baby with desires and ask you what you ‘need’. English: “Do you want a drink of water?” becomes “Do you need a drink of water?” I believe Hayao Miyazaki brings his specifically Japanese sensibilities towards ‘desire’ to the table when creating his main characters — Chihiro doesn’t seem to want anything in Spirited Away — she is simply there, and if she works hard, things will come good. Desperately wanting to turn her parents back into humans would probably work against her cause.

Common Character Weaknesses In Children’s Books

They may be common but that doesn’t mean you can’t keep using them:

  • Naivety. This is arguably the biggest weakness any children’s book hero has. It’s a good one, too, because the child can’t help it. Failure to understand the world is an easy weakness to improve upon over the course of the story, providing ample opportunity for a character arc. Hence, every story is a coming-of-age story.
  • Cheekiness. These characters are fun to be around. They won’t let horrible adults get away with treating kids badly without at least a little backchat. Judy Moody.
  • Talking too much. Anne Shirley grew up in an age when children should be seen and not heard. There are many modern Anne Shirleys, always getting into trouble but adorable nonetheless.
  • Shyness. Then you have your socially anxious characters who don’t find themselves in trouble with authority but who must learn to stand up for themselves and others, and for what they truly believe in.

Below are some modern and not so modern case studies of weakness and desire in (Western) children’s literature.

That said, the most popular, award-winning, beloved contemporary picture books for children often feature characters with a moral weakness.

Psychological weaknesses are also common:

Even in children’s books, the most interesting and beloved characters do have both kinds of weakness. This character isn’t necessarily the viewpoint character.

  • Scarface Claw by Lynley Dodd  — Scarface is mean to the dogs but this particular story shows us that he is also a scaredy-cat underneath.
  • Olivia by Ian Falconer is basically a narcissistic little girl in a pig’s body. While I personally have no love for Olivia, she is very popular.

 

CHARACTER PROBLEM

In children’s stories where there is no psychological or moral weakness and won’t learn anything or change in any way by the end of the narrative, your character will (probably) have a Problem. This problem is external to their psychology. Stories like this don’t tend to be as emotionally interesting, but are appropriate for, say, humour.

There’s another kind of story where the ‘main character’ is the reader. Where Is The Green Sheep? by Mem Fox and Judy Horacek is one example of this: The reader’s problem is that the book asks them to locate a green sheep, but that’s impossible until turning the final page. Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown is another example of a perennial favourite which doesn’t seem to follow any of the usual rules of story — again, this book addresses the young reader directly. The child is the character, saying goodnight to the items. This is more secular prayer than complete narrative.

Do all children’s book characters need a Problem, if they don’t have a moral or psychological weakness? Again the answer is not always, actually.

  • The Biggest Sandwich Ever by Rita Golden Gelman and Mort Gerberg is a carnivalesque story in which a man turns up and makes an enormous sandwich. In a carnivalesque story, there doesn’t have to be a problem as such, because the unsupervised play itself is the story — equivalent to the battle scene in a more common type of story. A carnivalesque story is a ‘toy story’ — all about play and enjoyment with no ‘broccoli’. However, even in The Biggest Sandwich Ever, the characters do face a problem by the end: After stuffing themselves full of sandwich, they are now faced with the task of eating a giant pie.
  • More! by Peter Schossow  is a wordless picture book which celebrates the joy of walking (flying) along a beach on a windy day.

A golden rule about problems in story: The initial problem gets more complicated as soon as the main character tries to solve it.

complicated problem comic

comic by Poorly Drawn Lines

Sometimes the initial problem exists only to get the story rolling. This is what Hitchcock called a McGuffin.

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