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

The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen

To a modern audience, The Little Match Girl is unbearably tragic. Perhaps, like me, you vividly recall reading your version of this story as a young kid and being profoundly affected. For me, it was probably the first time I considered the possibility of childhood death.

Hans Christian Andersen was commissioned to write a story based on a woodcut. This woodcut illustration was by painter Johan Thomas Lundbye and was of a poor girl selling matches, dressed in rags. It was widely recognised in Denmark at the time and appeared in calendars with a caption encouraging people to give to the poor. Lundbye himself died at the age of 29, during the Three Years War in Denmark but it’s not clear whether he was accidentally shot or whether he took his own life.

STORYWORLD OF THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL

For the Victorians, child death was all around them. These days when a young life ends we focus on all the years lost. But the Victorian mindset was a little different. Sad as death inevitably still was, the focus was not on the years wasted but on the opportunities presented when one is able to fly up to heaven with their childhood innocence intact.

Alison Lurie writes not of The Little Match Girl but of Peter Pan when she talks about the Victorian ideology of childhood innocence, but it applies equally to the mindset of Hans Christian Andersen:

In every society, every century, some time of life seems to embody current cultural ideals and have superior prestige. In ancient China, we are told, the greatest honor was given to old age; America in the 1960s admired teenagers, attributing to them boundless energy, political altruism, and a polymorphously joyous sensuality.

The Victorians, on the other hand, preferred children who had not yet reached puberty. The natural innocents of Blake and Wordsworth reappeared in middlebrow versions in hundreds of nineteenth-century stories and poems, always uncannily good and sensitive, with an angelic beauty and charm that often move the angels to carry them off. But the early death of these children was not felt as wholly tragic, for if they never became adults they would escape worldly sin and suffering; they would remain forever pure and happy.

— Don’t Tell The Grownups: The Subversive Power of Children’s Literature

How do we really know this is set in Victorian times, though? That is the assumption, because Hans Christian Andersen lived during this time, and the sensibilities line up. But this is a more timeless story than that, and others adapting this tale have chosen a variety of different eras and places for the story. Another common era for setting this story is the early 20th century, sometimes in an American city, sometimes in London. Continue reading

The Symbolism Of Windows

Many children’s stories feature windows, whether it’s children gazing from windows, opponents framed by windows, yellow squares of light offering the solace of civilisation. Windows are important to plot but are also symbolic.

THE WINDOW REFLECTION

Below is a screen capture from The Homesman. This is a trick often used by film directors as a way of showing an actor’s face and what the character is looking at simultaneously.

CHARACTER GAZES FROM WINDOW

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Story Structure 05: The Battle

All complete narratives feature a battle scene. No, that doesn’t have to be a literal battle scene, Lord of the Rings style. In fact, we should be thinking outside that box altogether. One thing I love about Larry McMurtry’s wild West novels (especially Lonesome Dove) is that he condenses the gun battles and torture scenes in favour of character conflict.

battle

WHAT IS THE BATTLE SEQUENCE?

  • Throughout the middle of the story the hero and opponent engage in a punch-counterpunch confrontation as each tries to win the goal.
  • The battle is the final conflict between hero and opponent and determines which of the two characters wins the goal.
  • A battle can be violent or it can be of words. In an action thriller it will probably be violent. In a rom-com it will probably be verbal.
  • The battle is an intense and painful experience for the hero. The hero has to come close to death, even if only metaphorically.

THE BATTLE SEQUENCE IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

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Pygmalion In Modern Stories And Literature

Pygmalion was a sculptor who falls in love with an ivory statue he had carved. The most famous story about him is the narrative poem Metamorphoses by Ovid. (Pygmalion can be found in book ten.) In this poem Aphrodite turns the statue into a real woman for him. In some versions they have a son, and also a daughter together.

In Ovid’s narrative, Pygmalion was a Cypriot sculptor who carved a woman out of ivory. According to Ovid, after seeing the Propoetides he was “not interested in women”, but his statue was so fair and realistic that he fell in love with it.

In time, Aphrodite’s festival day came, and Pygmalion made offerings at the altar of Aphrodite. There, too scared to admit his desire, he quietly wished for a bride who would be “the living likeness of my ivory girl”. When he returned home, he kissed his ivory statue, and found that its lips felt warm. He kissed it again, and found that the ivory had lost its hardness. Aphrodite had granted Pygmalion’s wish.

Pygmalion married the ivory sculpture changed to a woman under Aphrodite’s blessing. In Ovid’s narrative, they had a daughter, Paphos, from whom the city’s name is derived.

In some versions Paphos was a son, and they also had a daughter, Metharme.

Basically, Pygmalion/Daedalus is a story in which a man gives birth to a woman. You might say, it’s a type of wish fulfilment for men: The wish to create someone, especially someone in his own image. The creator might be deformed, and wishes he could have the advantage of beauty, like a beautiful woman. (Because women are the main objects of The Gaze, and always have been.) Or maybe he’ll change a small thing about her to make her his version of ideal. Or it might be about controlling her fertility. 

Edward Burne Jones painting of Pygmalion

Pygmalion and The Image by Edward Burne Jones

The Pygmalion/Daedalus story has been told many times, and continues to be told. There is inherent sexism in this story, of course, or at least there is in many modern renditions, unless the whole point of the retelling is to point out the sexism. The modern form is that a man makes a woman into who she is. Ironically, the males do not find fulfilment for having helped a woman fulfil her potential. His control of her generally leads to his downfall rather than to exultation.

As feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey once put it, the woman stands as a “signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command, by imposing on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as a bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.”

PYGAMLION AND LITERATURE FOR ADULTS

Some examples in stories for adults:

  • The Winter’s Tale, William Shakespeare, about controlling pregnant women’s bodies among other things
  • Million Dollar Baby, the 2004 film starring Clint Eastwood, who turns trailer park kid Hilary Swank into a prize fighter. The film poster would have you believe that this is a film about a female protagonist, but the real hero — the one who changes over the course of the story — is Clint Eastwood.
  • Annie Hall, the 1977 Woody Allen movie. Annie actually resists Alvy’s attempts to turn her into something in his own image, subverting the story. (Woody Allen is a feminist? Who knew!)
  • The Phantom of the Opera, who falls in love with an obscure chorus singer Christine, and privately tutors her while terrorizing the rest of the opera house and demanding Christine be given lead roles
  • Titanic, becauseJack helps Rose speak out and assert her independence from her suffocating family and fiance.
  • The Birth-Mark by Nathaniel Hawthorne, in which a man is repulsed by the birth-mark on his wife’s cheek, so dreams he cuts it out with a knife while she’s asleep, comparing himself to Pygmalion. The man is a natural scientist, so in real life makes a concoction and has her drink it.
  • George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion. A professor of phonetics wagers that he will be able to transform the cockney speaking Covent Garden flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, into a woman as poised and well-spoken as a duchess.
  • Pretty Woman, in which creator and created are united at the end (and is probably why audiences loved it so much)
  • John Cheever’s short story Metamorphoses translates legends from Ovid into Westchester settings.

Stories in which a man helps a woman have a sexual awakening might also be considered part of the Pygmalion wish-fulfilment fantasy of men. This can be traced at least as far back as fairytales:

The disadvantage — or, if you prefer it, the advantage — of being a princess is that you are essentially passive. You just sit there on your throne, or on a nearby rock, while the suitors and the dragons fight it out. In an extreme form of this passivity you are literally asleep or in a trance like Sleeping Beauty or Snow White. This particular archetype is one that has always appealed to men, and it turns up again and again in their fiction. The trance takes different forms: soemtimes it is physical virginity, sometimes it is a sort of psychic virginity. Often the princess is frigid, or sexually unawakened like Lady Chatterley; sometimes she is intellectually or politically awakened, like Gwendolen Harleth in Daniel Deronda or like the Princess Casamassima in Henry James’s novel of the same name, which is in  many ways, and not always successfully, very much like a fairy tale.

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

This Pygmalion trope is not limited in stories for and about men; take the Fifty Shades of Grey series by E.L. James. The success of this series shows that the trope has worked its way into a widespread female fantasy of the 2010s.

PYGMALION IN PSYCHOLOGY

The Pygmalion effect, or Rosenthal effect, is the phenomenon whereby higher expectations lead to an increase in performance. A corollary of the Pygmalion effect is the golem effect, in which low expectations lead to a decrease in performance; both effects are forms of self-fulfilling prophecy.

 

 

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Gothic Horror And Children’s Books

Gothic horror is also known as gothic fiction. This refers to a type of story with a combination of horror, death and romance. The characters generally get caught up in paranormal schemes. The victim of these schemes is normally an innocent and helpless female character. In some instances, supernatural features such as vampires and werewolves are later explained in perfectly natural terms, but in other works they remain completely inexplicable.

A Short History Of Gothic Horror

gothic horror

Its origin is attributed to English author Horace Walpole, with his 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto, subtitled (in its second edition) “A Gothic Story.” It originated in England in the second half of the 18th century. Only in the late 1790s did “Gothic” take on some of the meanings we most frequently associate with it today: Gothic as synonym for grotesque, ghastly and violently superhuman. 

The Gothic continued with much success in the 19th century, with the popularity of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Another well known novel in this genre, dating from the late Victorian era, is Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

The height of the Gothic period is closely aligned with Romanticism (1764-1840).

The word Gothic also refers to the (pseudo)-medieval buildings, emulating Gothic architecture, in which many of these stories take place.

When the Gothic was emerging as an important genre in its own right, medical science was just starting to replace the mystery of the female body with scientific facts. Hysteria was the dominant response to sexual confusion and abuse. Cultural codes were still writing marriage as a loss of power and autonomous identity for women. Pregnancy and childbirth were downright dangerous, messy and awful. Today things are a bit different: We understand (basically) how the body works. We know that hysteria is actually depression. Women are brought up to believe we can have it all (itself a kind of fairytale). But the Gothic ideas are still recognisable to modern readers.

Gothic motifs change rapidly and consistently, both in form and in significance. It all depends on what is feared and valued at any given time. The Gothic genre is especially responsive to historical moment and cultural location.

These days, readers are unwilling to unilaterally assign blame. Even in children’s literature, villains are more complex. They are not inherently evil, but behave badly as a result of their environment. The innocent victims, too, are afforded some dignity in that they are assumed to have some part in their own predicament. In other words, modern victims have a psychological and moral weakness, whereas earlier victims were more ‘victimy’ and more boring as heroes, to be fair.

Modern gothic stories don’t seek to expel the evil completely, but rather to accommodate it and give it its own space. Modern gothic stories are about finding some sort of middle ground.

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A Taxonomy Of Humour In Children’s Stories

There are thought to be 3 main theories of humour.

  1. Superiority Theory — Hobbes — about the “sudden glory we feel when we see an eminence in ourselves compared to an inferiority in someone else.” This is the guy slipping on a banana peel. But of course misfortune does not lead to humour, otherwise we’d laugh at homeless refugees.
  2. Relief Theory — Freud — we’re a cauldron of desires/sexuality/aggression. We suppress the aggression to express the sexuality and so on.
  3. Incongruity Theory — Something that doesn’t fit is made to fit.

But none of these theories on its own is helpful if you want to go about writing humour yourself. The fact is, humour is the most technical of all writing styles. Treat it like learning magic tricks. Dissect it, emulate the humour you love, get into the zone. Comedy writing is a skill that takes a lifetime to learn.

Founding editor of The Onion wants to help with the job of learning the write comedy. Stephen Johnson argues that every joke falls into one of 11 categories. At first glance this sounds like the ‘Seven Basic Plots’ idea, which is a pretty unhelpful way of looking at story if you’re harbouring hopes of telling one — forget whether there’s some elemental truth to it or not. That said, I am a fan of The Onion — they get humour right the vast majority of the time — so I decided to take these 11 categories and apply them to some popular humorous children’s books. Is Scott Dikkers right? Are there really only 11 categories of humour.

Also, can we apply these same categories to humour written for children?

 

1. IRONY

First, a refresher: What even is irony exactly? The Onion’s definition: Intended meaning is opposite of literal meaning. Honestly, I’m sure from the outset — if a joke doesn’t fall into any of the other categories, the definition of ‘irony’ is so broad that I predict it can be shoved into this one.

I’ve heard it said that we can’t rely on children to pick up irony until the age of about 8, give or take according to individuals. The thing about children’s books is, we never know the exact developmental stage of each individual reader, so there’s always a chance irony will be taken literally. On the surface this doesn’t matter. If the kid doesn’t get the joke they don’t get the joke, right? But what if ‘not getting the irony’ means seeing straight up sexism/meanness/racism or something like that? We need to be careful here.

This irony thing is important because a lot of children’s stories (especially films) are written with the ‘dual audience’ in mind, especially in film and in picture books, where the adult is required to sit alongside the child.

Rosie’s Walk is the classic example of a picture book demonstrating an ironic distance between picture and text. The words say something completely different from the text. Today there are many more examples of ironic distance in picture books.

  • In A Long Way From Chicago, the grandmother is a comical character but the humour is often understated irony which involves nothing more than our narrator point it out: ‘She said she never slept but she had to wake herself up to go to bed.’ 
  • Dramatic irony is when the reader understands something before the character does. In The Seriously Extraordinary Diary Of Pig, Pig sees a funny looking farmer at the fair. From the illustrations, the reader understands immediately that this is no farmer. She looks like an archetypal villain. But Pig simply says, “She is the most ugly farmer I’ve ever seen” and describes an archetypal villain without putting two and two together himself.
  • Another excellent example of dramatic irony can be seen in I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen. The reader sees the red hat long before the main character does.
  • In a story with no pictures, dramatic irony can come from an unreliable narrator, who is not telling the reader the full story. This might be because they don’t understand what’s going on. (But the reader does.) Unreliable narrators are useful for many reasons, and sometimes, in the hands of an expert storyteller, can lead to humour.
spongebob squarepants ironic distance

Here we see an ironic distance between what is illustrated and what the characters are saying. Funnier because both characters are duped, perhaps by each other. Perhaps because they can’t count that high.

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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

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.

The Pursuit Of Wealth As A Story Goal

Of the three principal preoccupations of adult fiction — sex, money and death — the first is absent from classic children’s literature and the other two either absent or much muted. Love in these stories may be intense but it is romantic rather than sensual, at least overtly. […] Money is a motive in children’s literature, in the sense that many stories deal with a search for treasure of some sort. These quests, unlike real ones, are almost always successful, though occasionally what is found in the end is some form of family happiness, which is declared by the author and the characters to be a “real treasure.” Simple economic survival, however, is almost never the problem; what is sought, rather, is a magical (sometimes literally magical) surplus of wealth.

— Alison Lurie, The Subversive Power Of Children’s Literature

A lot of children’s literature is set in a kind of utopia where the characters never have to worry about money. Food is always there. A classic example of that is The Wind In The Willows.

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

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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