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

The River Between Us by Richard Peck

THE RIVER BETWEEN US STORYWORLD

The River Between Us cover

This cover gives no indication of the intended audience. Nor does it show that this is the story of a family. Anyone would think Noah were the star, and the faceless woman in the background the stereotypical love interest. This is one of my least favourite children’s book covers.

There are historical notes in the back of The River Between Us but unless you’ve been through the American education system and already know quite a bit about the Civil War and the history of New Orleans, I’d recommend flipping to that first.

  • July 1916 is the wrapper time
  • Summer
  • North America
  • Starts in St Louis, South Illinois. The family lives on Maryland Avenue in the West End. See: Maryland Avenue today. (Peck tends to center his stories in Illinois, and most often in Southern Illinois.)
  • Cars are a big deal to a young boy because unlike today you don’t see them any old where. “It was a big thing to drive a car out of town.” They’re not yet very reliable so preparation for a long trip is important. For example, cracking a raw egg into the radiator so it would hard-boil and seal any leaks. Fuel is to be strapped onto the car itself because there aren’t many fuel stations around yet. Only the upper middle class can afford them (hence the narrator is the son of a doctor). You have to crank it up and the windshield isn’t up for city driving. There are a lot of flat tyres — four in one day is not unusual.
  • This is the story of a journey. Stories with rivers are generally about journeys. See: The Symbolism Of The River In Storytelling.
  • Baseball is important. The local team is called The Browns (and was only later the Baltimore Orioles).
  • World War I is raging across Europe. Americans know it’s just a matter of time before they get caught up in it. They anticipate restrictions on travel once that happens.
  • ‘The War’ just as often refers to the Civil War
  • Grand Tower is a ghost town. There never was much to it but showed some progress after the Civil War, with a saddle factor, cigar plant, gun shops, brick works. There’s a hill called Devil’s Backbone. (These days it’s a park.)
  • The grandparents’ house is like going back in time, with the metonym of a black iron range standing for the earlier era.

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The Ideology Of Fatness In Children’s Literature

FATPHOBIA AND THE DEPICTION OF FAT KIDS AS BULLIES

A fat bully character in a book implies that fatness is connected to bullying—because our culture already has that stereotype entrenched. A fat bully character in an individual book invokes the culture in which it exists, and brings all that to bear. Can’t help but.

diceytillerman

fatness blubber fatphobia Continue reading

Secret-Keeping And Lies In Children’s Literature

Many books for children explore the ideas of truth, lies and secret-keeping. Young characters commonly keep secrets from adults. Often (especially in portal fantasy) it’s because the adults simply wouldn’t believe the children (that there’s a world on the other side of the wardrobe; that there’s a creature who grants wishes that last for a day). This is a ‘plot level’ secret, and serves to keep adults out of the story. That’s one of the main challenges for children’s authors — keeping adults from solving all the kids’ problems.

In other stories, secrets are thematically and didactically explored.

secret-keeping pig the fibber

Pig the Pug tries to keep a fart secret but when everyone can smell it he blames it on Trevor.

 

 

Examples of secret-keeping in children’s stories

  1. Secrets are dangerous and should be shared with a trusted individual such as a parent, teacher or friend. This is a non-controversial message about secrets and a safe one to put in a book. No parent likes to think that their young child is keeping secrets from us. Parents are terrified of grooming and we no longer automatically trust teachers, coaches and bus-drivers. We like to think our children will tell us everything. Gatekeepers of children’s books therefore like books with this message.
  2. However, sometimes secrets are even more dangerous to share than to keep, and this danger can affect others as well as the secret-keeper.
  3. Even though it’s best to share your own secrets with friends, your friends‘ secrets should never be shared with others even if you feel you yourself need psychological support. Once you pass on a ‘secret’, it’s no longer a secret.
  4. Among groups of friends, secrets are swapped (even complete fabrications) as a mode of toxic bonding. Mean Girls features a Burn Book, for example, started by Regina George for two reasons: First it establishes a social hierarchy with herself at the top and second it bonds a small group of insiders together, using shared ‘knowledge’ as currency. People (mostly female characters) who use secrets and lies as social currency deserve every horrible thing that comes to them, and readers should never imitate this behaviour in real life. These stories exist to show readers that it happens, why it happens, and asks them to criticize the practice. There is also that wish-fulfilment of retribution in Mean Girls, when Regina George finds she’s met her match in the down-to-earth newcomer whose social gullibility turns out to be her strength. Machiavelli agreed that lies always hurt the teller, and Aesop agreed.
  5. Is lying by omission to help someone else a good secret or a bad secret? Not all secrets are the same. They come in different colours — black, white and grey. Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk does a good job of exploring this line of thought.
  6. If you try to keep some horrible deed secret then get caught out, don’t deflect blame. Lying for your own gain and only your own gain means you deserve retribution. Pig The Fibber by Aaron Blabey is a humorous picture book example of this message.
  7. If you have suicidal thoughts or have been abused then you should never, ever keep that secret. That’s the message of 13 Reasons Why. The TV adaptation comes with messages about the existence of Lifeline, a mental health helpline.
  8. Perhaps the most famous liar in children’s literature is Pinocchio, whose nose grows longer whenever he tells a lie. The image of a growing nose has entered the public consciousness and idiomatic language, regardless of whether we’ve ever read the story or not. The messages about lying are complex in this classic. Pinocchio is not the only liar. Gepetto sells his winter coat (which he needs) in order to buy Pinocchio a school book but he tells Pinocchio the coat was too hot anyway. Presumably this lie is okay, because it’s a ‘white lie’, designed to avoid a child feeling bad and help him in the noble goal of getting an education. For more on lying in Pinocchio, see here: “Lies that have short legs are those that carry you a little distance but cannot outrun the truth. The truthful consequences always catch up with someone who tells a lie with short legs. Lies that have long noses are those that are obvious to everyone except the person who told the lie, lies that make the liar look ridiculous.”
  9. While children should never lie to parents, if (good) parents lie if it’s to protect children. 
  10. Beware ‘tricky’ adults. An example of a nasty-nice stranger who reels a child in with lies is the White Witch, who reels him in with Turkish delight than tells him to keep a secret. The secret-keeping leads to Edmond being ostricised by his family when they find out he’s been lying about the existence of Narnia. The message in C.S. Lewis’s Christian works is that lying is always bad and will always be found out. We are often told that lies will always be outed. This stems from the monotheistic view of the omniscient eye watching our every move, reinforced by the idea that all our bad deeds will be judged upon our death. But not everyone holds these views. Do lies really always come out? Is there some law of ‘physics’ which makes that happen? Or perhaps this is far, far from reality — many secrets and lies die everyday around the world, along with the people who’ve been keeping them. And were they right to keep them?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Notion of The Living Truth

Bonhoeffer argues that it is naive and misleading, perhaps even dangerous to suppose that the literal truth always or even typically conveys what we mean when we talk about telling the truth. Of course we often tell a straightforward lie, and for morally blameworthy reasons. But we also often make statements that are not literally true—that are in fact literal lies—while conveying a deeper truth that an honest statement of the facts could not communicate. So, for example, if Geppetto told Pinocchio, “I sold my coat in order to buy you a schoolbook,” he would be speaking the literal truth, but his meaning might well be (or be understood by Pinocchio as) “Look what sacrifices I make for you!” By telling Pinocchio that he sold his coat because it was too hot—a lie—he communicates to Pinocchio something like “My coat doesn’t really matter to me, and your schoolbook does, and I don’t want you to feel bad about the fact that I sold my coat.” This is a very nice example of what Bonhoeffer means by the living truth, the more important meanings in communication that may not, and sometimes cannot, be conveyed by strict reportage. So many of the stories we tell our children are of this kind—Santa Claus is the obvious example—and we should ask ourselves, as parents and also as lovers: How many stories might my child, or my boyfriend, or my partner, or my mom be telling me, not in order to mislead me but rather to tell me something that, if said outright, might be misunderstood or cause me harm?

The New Yorker

Apart from Pinocchio, can you think of some children’s stories which play with the concept of ‘the living truth’?

At what age can (neurotypical) children understand this concept? For many autistic children development is atypical when it comes to social lying, which is a definite thing. When you live with an autistic child you realise the extent to which everyday communication runs on secrets, lies, omissions and short-cuts as social niceties. Autistic readers in particular can benefit hugely from children’s literature which explores the full gamut of ideologies around secret-keeping and lying.

What does the field of psychology tell us about the toll of secret-keeping?

Traditionally, scientists have studied secrecy as a social act, as the willful hiding of information from others. According to this view, it’s the suppression of the secret—the keeping it in, the self-monitoring, and the tactical contortions that go with it—that exact a cost on the keeper. But Slepian argues that secrets cause suffering in other ways, too. Yes, there are occasions when you have to actively steer a conversation away from the rocks, like when you’re attempting to disguise from your office mates the fact that you’re looking for another job. But most of the time you’re by yourself with your secret, thinking about the many ways in which it could be discovered or you might accidentally let it slip. […]

It is established that keeping a secret can take a toll:

Secrecy, as they see it, is less an activity than a state of being. We don’t keep secrets; we have them. And what’s harmful about a secret isn’t the content so much as the mind’s need to keep revisiting it and turning it over—not the murder itself but the incessant beating of the telltale heart. […]

However, if the secret-keeper is able to avoid ‘dwelling’ on it — if the secret isn’t actually bothering them — well, no problem? We shouldn’t assume that keeping secrets is always going to be harmful for the keeper. It depends on the secret and on the person:

By a margin of two-to-one or more, people dwelled on their secrets on their own time far more than in social situations. And the dwelling, more than the concealing, hurt their sense of well-being. By constantly chewing over a secret, Slepian suggested, people remind themselves of their own deceptiveness; they feel “inauthentic, disingenuous.” […]

Other people, or the same people in different situations, might be better off sharing secrets to avoid letting it harm their sense of integrity. This may apply in particular to sharing with others who we really are. For example, living one’s whole life concealing sexual orientation/identity is going to take a very real emotional toll on a person:

Secrets are largely solitary creatures and can be tamed with company. “Talking about it with another person will really go a long way,” he said. Melissa Ferguson, the Cornell psychologist who studied the cognitive and physical effects of concealing one’s sexual orientation, added that we shouldn’t lose sight of the costs of social secrets.

The New Yorker 

On the other hand, for many young gay and transgender people around the world, coming out to their families and communities is more physically dangerous than the secret-keeping is emotionally dangerous. In which case, what is the answer for those readers looking for similar lives within books? Dan Savage, well-known gay sex columnist, often advises young people from bigoted communities be very careful about coming out, as it can lead to loss of educational opportunities, homelessness and physical harm. The time for coming out can occasionally be postponed a few years.

Alongside all those stories about unburdening, stories about secret-keeping — at least for a while — are also needed.

 

 

Liars In Storytelling

Liars are everywhere in stories. Entire genres are about finding out the truth:

  1. Detective Crime is all about deciding whose version of a story is the truth. Our crime fighting heroes always care deeply about the truth.
  2. Mystery asks “How can we come to know the truth?” (By definition, a mystery is simply something that defies our usual understanding of the world.)
  3. Anti-Westerns critique the story given by classical Westerns and ask us to consider the truth about The Wild West (that it was a brutal, unjust, hellish place)
  4. In magical realism characters—especially the narrator—might not know what is happening any more than the reader, so they are discovering the truth of their reality as they go along.
  5. In a thriller, the perpetrator is known, but his guilt is not absolutely certain—or the hero wishes not to accept the truth of his guilt. (The uncertainty enhances the suspense.)
  6. Superhero stories are wish fulfilment fantasies in which everyone eventually ‘learns the wonderful truth about me’ (I am amazing when you unwrap my everyday clothes and put me in lycra).
  7. In many comedies a hero will be wearing some kind of ‘mask’ but eventually, after some sort of spiritual crisis, this mask will be ripped off and the other characters will learn who this hero really is.
  8. A parable illustrates a simple truth for teaching purposes.
  9. Absurdist stories focus on the experiences of characters in situations where they cannot find any inherent purpose in life, most often represented by ultimately meaningless actions and events that call into question the certainty of existential concepts such as truth or value
  10. Drama is often about the difference between a character’s public persona and what’s really going on underneath. We watch drama to learn about the lives we never find out about in our real-world acquaintances.

THE DIFFERENCE IN TRUTH BETWEEN FICTION AND REALITY

Fictional stories are make believe on the surface but true underneath. Real life, on the other hand, may be believable on the surface but is often unbelievable underneath. … In movies, screenplays and novels, we need to know the inner truths of the characters. Your characters’ actions in response to whatever incredible situation you’ve created must be reasonable, justified and believable.

— Michael Hauge, Story Mastery website

The most dangerous untruths are truths slightly distorted.
~ G.C. Lightenberg

TRUTH AND STORY STRUCTURE

Within a story structure, the truth will be revealed at the ‘self-revelation’ stage. (After the Battle, before New Equilibrium.)

Sometimes the audience is let in on the truth of the situation at the beginning of a story. For instance, in some crime stories the reader knows who the villain is from the get-go. This type of detective story is no longer a whodunnit but a whydunnit.

UNRELIABLE NARRATION

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

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The Pirts: A Short Story About Pirates

Introducing The Pirts: by Hannah age 8. Like Pirates, only briefer.

Introducing The Pirts: by Hannah age 8. Like Pirates, only briefer.

chapter one dinner

fry the bones

make the hair into spaghetti

Is this the most mournful horse you ever did see? I’m actually a little disturbed.

dish up

Is this a vampire pirate now? Not emo, anyway. Gleeful. Definitely gleeful.

salty sea

It’s hard to know when to end a story.

Strays Like Us by Richard Peck Storytelling Tips

Strays Like Us is a 1998 middle grade novel by American author Richard Peck. (155 pages)

Peck not only understands the fragile emotions of adolescents, he also knows what kind of characters will pique their interest. In this tender novel, he paints a richly detailed portrait of Molly, a drug-addict’s daughter sent at the age of 12 to live with a great-aunt she has never met. Molly soon discovers others like her in this small town full of secrets.

Publisher’s Weekly starred review

STORY WORLD OF STRAYS LIKE US

Strays Like Us is set in The (American) South but is not a Southern Novel as such. This is one of those American stories which could easily be set elsewhere — like lots of ‘midwestern’ stories set in suburbia or small towns. Molly’s story could belong to many kids all over.

This one happens to take place in small town Missouri. The ‘small’ town is significant because of the way gossip works:

“How did the guys find out anyway?”

“Becasue they don’t let you keep a secret in a town like this.”

Although this is like a 1950s utopia in some ways, there is a lot of poverty in this town and turns out to be an apparent utopia. Richard Peck is making a statement about income inequality when he writes:

“There’s things they can do now for what Fred had,” [Aunt Fay] said finally. “But he didn’t have insurance.”

The story opens with Molly up a tree. She is in semi-hiding up here, melding with nature, and although in reality trees are reliant on each other via their root system, the common understanding of tree symbolism is that they stand ‘tall, proud and alone’, like Molly at the beginning of her character arc.

Strays Like Us tree cover

Molly Moberly in the foreground with neighbour Will in the background.

The exact year of this story is unclear — there is mention of computers and microwaves so I believe it is set in the late 1990s, at time of publication. Still, there is a 1950s feel about it. Locals are starting to feel suspicious of strangers, because until this period everyone has known everyone here. Continue reading

The Magical Age of Twelve

the magical age of twelve is utilised in The Artifacts

Read enough children’s books and you’ll realise something magical happens after age twelve. It’s even embedded in the English language, which thirteen marks the beginning of the teen years. Twelve is the final age of innocence. In JudeoChristian terms, 12 is the final year in which you can get away with things. Next comes ‘the age of accountability’.

“Nothing that happens after we are twelve matters very much.”

— J.M. Barrie, nearly a century ago.

Johnny My Friend also utilises the magical age of twelve

Twelve is the magical dividing line, we all know that. I don’t care what grown-ups say, but that’s when your childhood comes to an end.

 

Twelve As The Age Of Initiation

Amazingly many children’s novels portray characters of eleven or twelve. I do not think this is a coincidence. This is the age of initiation in many archaic cultures, and although this connotation has been lost in Western society, some remnants may be left in the authors’ imagination. Children in The Giver are assigned their jobs, and therewith their place in society, at the age of twelve. Here is what another character says about this age: “Twelve is the magical dividing line, we all know that. I don’t care what grown-ups say, but that’s when your childhood comes to an end” (Johnny My Friend, 89). Formally, of course, after twelve you are a “teenager”, not a child.

— from The Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature by Maria Nikolajeva

The age of twelve is significant in Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

Tally watched the last few uglies make their way inside, gawky and nervous, unkempt and uncoordinated. Twelve was definitely the turning point, when you changed from a cute littlie into an oversize, under-educated ugly. (page 77)

The age of twelve is pivotal for characters in The Giver by Lois Lowry

It’s no accident that in Lois Lowry’s book The Giver, Jonas and his peers are chosen for bigger things at the age of twelve. Jonas feels overwhelmed by this metamorphosis from child to adult:

Jonas trudged to the bench beside the Storehouse and sat down, overwhelmed with feelings of loss. His childhood, his friendships, his carefree sense of security — all of these things seemed to be slipping away.

Twelve As The Age Of In-between

Onkeli portrays a child of around 11 to 13 who is confused by many things. Researchers consider this age group to fall into an in-between area: there aren’t enough appealing activities on offer for kids of this age, who are treated as an awkward bunch both at home and at school.

– Kreetta Onkeli: Poika joka menetti muistinsa [The boy who lost his memory]

 

Powerless Matthew Cody Magical Age Of Twelve

In the book Powerless, a boy learns that his friends are superheroes who mysteriously lose their powers when they turn 13. It’s no accident that Matthew Cody chose this age.

 

The age of twelve is the end of naive hope

In Peck’s middle grade novel Molly turns 13 and loses the naive hope of her drug addict mother returning to care for her.

RELATED

What do you remember best about being twelve? from NYT

Writers over at Book Riot understand that there’s something magical about being under 13, because they have published a list of 50 books to read before you’re 11 and 3/4.

Scarecrows In Children’s Stories

Tattybogle

Perhaps this story has more longevity as a stage play because my daughter’s class performed it last year as part of the Year 2 drama unit here in Australia. The book, however, is out of print.

A bogle, boggle or bogill is a Northumbrian and Scots term for a ghost or folkloric being, used for a variety of related folkloric creatures including:

  • Shellycoats
  • Barghests
  • Brags
  • The Hedley Kow
  • Giants such as those associated with Cobb’s Causey (also known as “ettins”, “yetuns” or “yotuns” in Northumberland and “Etenes”, “Yttins” or “Ytenes” in the South and South West).

They exist for the simple purpose of perplexing mankind rather than seriously harming or serving them.

Worzel Gummidge

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Picturebook Study: Mr Big by Ed Vere

STORY STRUCTURE

This is a tale told by a storyteller narrator, who we meet on the very first page and then soon forget. Almost all picture books have third person narrators but most often we don’t consider who that might be, so there must be a good reason for introducing Mr Big’s friend. The good reason is that the friend is very small, taking up about an eighth of the title page. Then, when we meet Mr Big on the following page, he seems adequately and ridiculously large.

The ideology of the story exists as back cover copy: A true friend comes in any shape or size!

WEAKNESS/NEED/PROBLEM

“Now, Mr Big had a small problem,” we are told. “Compared to everyone else he was extremely… (page turn) big!”

The rule of threes is utilised as the first ‘act’ of the picture book takes us through various situations in which Mr Big is lonely. He is so big he scares everyone away from

  1. The park
  2. The cafe
  3. The bus

His psychological weakness is clearly explained: “No one stuck around to find out who he really was. So inside, Mr Big felt very, very small.”

DESIRE

As in many picture books, our  main character’s weakness has been clearly stated in words. In this format there’s no time to show it, hoping the reader will work it out for themselves.

The desire, on the other hand, is left up to the reader’s deduction.

Mr Big is lonely; therefore he wants __________. Any child can probably work that out.

This has me asking a question I haven’t had until now, even after all this time of breaking down the structure of picture books: Do successful picturebooks spoon feed EITHER weakness/need/problem OR desire, but not both? This is something I’ll have to take a closer look into.

OPPONENT

Mr Big’s opponent is his own body — a variation on ‘he’s his own worst enemy’. But for a story that’s never quite enough — the opposition has to be personified (anthropomorphised in this story, ‘peopled’ with animals). The opponents are all the smaller creatures who refuse to stick around to get to know who he really is.

PLAN

Mr Big gives up on friendship with ‘people’ and instead seeks solace in the company of a piano who looks all alone in a shop window. He feels a connection to it, takes it home and sits down to play, to assuage his own loneliness.

BATTLE

Instead of everyone gathering for an epic battle, everyone gathers in the square to listen to the beautiful music coming from Mr Big’s window, sort of reminiscent of Rapunzel. Remember how the prince hears Rapunzel singing as he rides by and makes it his mission to discover who it is? I’m also reminded of the 1999 film Gloomy Sunday in which a piano player has the ability to enchant the people around him, changing their lives.

The ‘battle’ sequence in this kind of story is perhaps better called the ‘Culmination’. The piano playing ends with him getting invited into a local jazz band.

The ultimate success of a piano player is to be seen on the stage, and so we see him playing to a crowd, who now think he’s marvellous.

SELF-REVELATION

But the stage scene is also the self-revelation.

At last everyone could see the real Mr Big!

Just like a film such as Le Week-end, self-revelations/end-of-battles often occur in front of an audience. This is a staple from traditional mythic structure. The 3000-year-old version of ‘Photo or it didn’t happen.’

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Wisely, the author replaces the problem of loneliness with the problem of celebrity:

Mr Big has a new problem. He doesn’t get much time to be alone… and that’s just the way he likes it!

 

Fairytale Study: Rumpelstiltskin

The tale of Rumpelstiltskin asks a moral question: Who is the worst of the three men? The lying father who gives away his own daughter, the greedy King who threatens death, or the proto-men’s rights activist dwarf?

This is my all-time favorite fairy tale because it’s so twisted. It’s got everything: greed, abandonment, deceit, royalty. If you ask anyone who the monster of this story is, they’d most likely say Rumpelstiltskin, the little man who bargains with the desperate young woman for her firstborn child. But here’s the real story: The young woman’s father wants to impress the king, so he brags that his daughter can spin straw into gold. The king imprisons her over the course of a series of nights and demands that she perform this trick (which she does, thanks to Rumpelstiltskin). The last time, the king tells her that if she doesn’t succeed he’ll kill her, and if she does succeed, he’ll marry her. So of course she does succeed, and then she gets to marry the king who threatened to kill her. Happy ending?

That last story gets me every time. Who’s the real monster? Is it actually the little guy who fulfills his promise? Or is it the father who sells out his daughter to impress the king? Or is it the greedy king who is already rich but threatens the life of a powerless young woman in order to get even richer…and then forces her into marriage? I don’t know about you, but there are a couple of pairs of red-hot iron shoes I’d happily give to those guys.

Riveted

Or perhaps we are to pass judgement on the miller’s daughter, who promises her first born under duress and then ‘fails’ to follow through, by handing the baby over to the gold-spinning dwarf? We are certainly invited to pass judgement on The Frog Queen, who promises to marry a frog if he retrieves her golden ball, and then promptly changes her mind once the frog has given it back. The idea that women have free will is a much newer concept than this tale. The morality of the miller’s daughter is interesting because she is both trapped in a prison, but also an honored guest. Scholars of feminism will realise that this gilded cage has resonance for many women even today.

This is a rags-to-riches tale of sorts — we don’t hear about the miller after he gives his daughter to the King, but we can assume he lived in comfort, at least for a good while. Continue reading

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