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Category: Children’s Literature (page 1 of 24)

Trends in Picturebooks

from Christine VanDeVelde for The Chicago Tribune

I’ve noticed from my feed — due to the publishing professionals I follow —  that editors are on the look out for ‘concept picture books’, and meta picture books are big right now — those such as Herve Tullet’s Press Here. I’ve been looking at those manuscript wish lists (#mswl) and wondering why certain critics are so skeptical of book apps while at the same time embracing the meta.  I don’t have a solid answer for that, but it’s great to see Betsy Bird acknowledging that (even if book apps can’t yet take off and fly), at least developers are having an impact on the wider landscape.

Picturebook Study: Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

Where The Wild Things Are Book Cover

from Better Book Titles

from Better Book Titles

When I started reading books about picture books the first thing I noticed was how much the books of Maurice Sendak are referenced as primary sources, especially Where The Wild Things Are. Handy hint: If you’re thinking of reading academic literature in a bid to understand children’s books, have the Sendak oeuvre at your side. (Also Rosie’s Walk, the picturebooks of Anthony Browne and Chris van Allsburg.)

SENDAK_1963_Where_the_Wild_Things_Are_copyright_page

 

I find it ironic that the Book Depository description of Where The Wild Things Are includes the phrase: ‘Supports the Common Core State Standards’. Sendak famously did not write for children, saying, “I write stories, then someone else decides that they are for children.” I wonder what he would have to say about the heavily pedagogical motivations behind adults encouraging children to read his stories. Continue reading

Types of Plots In Children’s Literature

John Truby’s expertise is in film, but I’m going to use his diagrams and principles to gain a better understanding of children’s stories instead. The following are screen caps from his excellent book The Anatomy of Story. Nodelman, Reimer and Nikolajeva are experts in children’s literature. I’m going to consider Nikolajeva’s book From Linear To Mythic: Time in children’s literature alongside The Pleasures of Children’s Literature by Nodelman and Reimer to come up with my own sort-of taxonomy of plot children’s stories.

THE LINEAR STORY

 

Linear Story

 

As in film, the majority of children’s stories are basically linear. However, the plot doesn’t necessarily begin where the story begins. Home-away-home adventures stories are generally linear.

Dennis Butts, among others, has pointed out that in their use of formulaic elements and stereotyped characters, adventure stories owe a good deal to the structure of traditional folk- and fairy tales in which similar patterns tend to repeat themselves. Butts refers to the ideas of both Propp and Campbell as possible instruments to examine the structure of adventure stories, and to those of Bettelheim to show the appeal of these stories. He also discusses Treasure Island in terms of folktale.

— Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear

  • Tom Sawyer (‘master text’ for adventure story as the Narnia Chronicles are for fantasy)
  • The Epic Of Gilgamesh (the oldest known adventure story — 3rd millennium BC)
  • The Odyssey (by Homer, about 3000 years old)
  • The legend of Saint George and the dragon
  • The Greek tale of Perseus
  • Robinson Crusoe
  • King Solomon’s Mines (1885)
  • Jack and the Beanstalk
  • Treasure Island
  • Kim, Rudyard Kipling (1901)
  • Peter Pan
  • Sherlock Holmes
  • The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings
  • Doctor Who
  • Star Wars
  • James Bond
  • Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
  • Starwars, 1977 (a parody of the hero adventure story)

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Rodents in Children’s Literature

Mice are widely represented in folktales, both as protagonists and as helpers. Apparently, there is a subconscious identification on the part of children’s writers of a small and helpless child with one of the smallest animals, also know–maybe without reason–for its lack of courage. While rats are in many children’s stories presented as ruthless enemies, mice–in reality similarly harmful–are portrayed as harmless and sympathetic. The emblematic meaning of animals in art and literature deserves special attention there is an enormous diversity between cultures. However, in most ancient mythologies, mice are chthonic animals, worshipped as powerful and benevolent towards humans.

Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in Children’s Literature

Hameln1

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Mirrors and Reflections 03: Mirror Moments In Literature

Mirror Moment: a moment in midpoint scene of a novel or screenplay when the character is forced to look within and reflect on who he is and who he must become in order to achieve his goal. If he decides to continue on as he always has, he will surely fail (tragedy).

If the story is not a tragedy, the hero realizes he must either a) become stronger to overcome the odds or b) transform, shedding his biggest flaws and become more open-minded to new ideas and beliefs. One way or the other, he must better himself in some way to step onto the path which will lead to success.

– from Story Midpoint & Mirror Moment: Using Heroes’ Emotions To Transform Them 

 

When I think of a ‘mirror moment’ I think of a movie, in which a character looks into a mirror, or a reflection in a shop, or perhaps even a father looking at his son or a similar variation. Novels allow for much more interiority, and therefore a mirror moment doesn’t need an actual mirror. The reader can be told just what any character is thinking (depending on the POV choice).

In her book Second Sight, editor Cheryl Klein says this of mirror moments in children’s literature, and I’ve heard it said by a variety of lit experts:

We base our first impressions of people off what we see and what they say — so your descriptions of your character’s appearance can be important to establishing him in the reader’s mind. I say “can” because too much emphasis on appearance can cut both ways. There’s a terrible cliche in fiction where the main character will stop and look in a mirror and catalogue his or her features somewhere in the first chapter in order to establish the person visually in the reader’s mind. But that never really works for me — partly because it’s such a cliche that it annoys me and marks the writer as less interesting than s/he could be, and partly because that description defines the character in the reader’s mind as someone who likely looks different than the reader, which perhaps weakens the reader’s identification with the character. (None of Sarah Dessen’s book covers feature the faces of her protagonists, at her request, because she wants readers to be able to imagine themselves into the lives of her characters.)

On the other hand, there are are certain types of novels — fantasy especially — where you really want to have the characters described so the reader can visualize them, because the point of the book is that the reader falls into this world and experiences it fully. Or, if your novel is written in first person, we want to see what that main character sees when she looks at other people, which will help characterise those other people for us (and characterize your main character by showing us what she notices about others). So it depends on the point you’re going for whether you’ll want to spend time on appearances.

 

Sarah Dessen Book Covers

 

I have noticed that readers differ in the amount of description they want for a character. I remember once writing a short story then uploading it to my writing group for critique. In the short story I’d mentioned about halfway through that the main character had a beard. I’ll probably always be amused by one beta reader’s comment: “It’s a bit late to spring a beard on us.” (My emphasis.) Now I look at beards on men and think of how the beard might suddenly ‘spring upon’ me… which has pretty much ruined beards, if they hadn’t sort of ruined themselves… Anyhow, moral of that story is that some readers didn’t mind learning he had a beard whereas others had already constructed a strong visual in their mind and didn’t want it altered. So if you are going to describe a person, do it early. That said, I’ve read plenty of popular work in which description is drip fed to the reader.

 

CONCRETIZATION

There is a term used in reference to literacy: Concretization. It is thought that children are better at ‘concretizing’ than adult readers, who no longer require it in order to follow a story. So it’s possible (hypothetically) that children’s literature might provide more in the way of description than books for adults.

 

EXAMPLES AND ALTERNATIVES TO MIRROR MOMENTS IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

Fairytales are not necessarily ‘children’s literature’, at least not until the Grimm Brothers saw a lucrative hole in the kidlit market, but mirrors and reflections have a long tradition in fairytales around the world:

from The World Of Angela Carter: A critical investigation

from The World Of Angela Carter: A critical investigation

 

This is my copy, showing Jonah with that classic 90s bowl cut. I prefer the version with the old man.

This is my copy, showing Jonah with that classic 90s bowl cut. I prefer the version with the old man.

Lois Lowry The Giver Book Cover

In The Giver, by Lois Lowry, the absence of mirrors is significant to the story. In this book, individuality comes a far second to the welfare of the group, and this is symbolised by the absence of mirrors:

Mirrors were rare in the community; they weren’t forbidden, but there was no real need of them, and Jonas had simply never bothered to look at himself very often even when he found himself in a location where a mirror existed. Now, seeing the newchild and its expressions, he was reminded that the light eyes were not only a rarity but gave the one who had them a certain look — what was it? Depth, he decided; as if one were looking into the clear water of the river, down to the bottom, where things might lurk which hadn’t been discovered yet. He felt self-conscious, realizing that he, too, had that look.

Even in the absence of mirrors, Lowry  manages to create a ‘mirror moment’ by having the protagonist, Jonas, see himself in another person.

Another interesting thing about visual revelations in The Giver is that [SPOILER ALERT] we don’t know until partway through the book that Jonas’ world is devoid of colour. For readers who don’t like beards sprung upon them, I wonder if this works so well.

 

 

Paralepsis in Children’s Literature

Paralepsis*: (Faux) Omission.

Paralepsis refers to the rhetorical device of giving emphasis by professing to say little or nothing about a subject, as in not to mention their unpaid debts of several million, but saying it all the same.

  • I know who farted but I wouldn’t want to embarrass Charles.
  • In the name of anonymity, let’s just call him John. Which is pretty convenient, because his name is actually John.
  • I won’t mention the fact that [X]

As you have probably guessed, paralepsis is a favorite rhetorical device of assholes.

Donald Trump Bette Midler

Paralepsis in Picture Books

In picturebooks, though, a kind of paralepsis can happen when something mentioned in the text is left out of the picture, or vice versa. Negative space might be said to be the picturebook equivalent of paralipsis. For example, a page might be deliberately left blank because the character has disappeared for a time. An empty chair may draw attention to the fact that its usual occupant has died.

Empty Chair In The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers

Empty Chair In The Heart In The Bottle by Oliver Jeffers

Paralepsis In Time-shift Fantasy

The main feature of time fantasy is time distortion. Most often this is expressed narratively by primary time standing still (one kind of paralepsis).

Examples

  • The Story of the Amulet
  • The House of Arden
  • A Traveller in Time
  • The Green Knowe series
  • Tom’s Midnight Garden
  • Jessamy
  • Charlotte Sometimes
  • Playing Beatie Bow
  • The Root Cellar

Paralepsis As Secondary Narrative

Paralepsis can also occur in a secondary narrative in which time is independent of the primary story. This was an integral part of archaic thought — during rituals, time was thought to stand still.  And so it remains as part of human storytelling today. The archaic division between ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’ universes can be likened to the separate literary-fantasy universes of ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ worlds.

Time freezes (or seems to) for everyone and everything in the entire universe, except for the main cast of the story. The characters find themselves in an eerie, calm, silent world where the people and objects around them have become motionless statues. In some stories, this phenomenon happens by accident; in others, the heroes can stop time by using magic, a super power or Applied Phlebotinum.

Time Stands Still at TV Tropes

 

 

Examples

E Nesbit Trilogy

The concept was introduced to children’s literature by Edith Nesbit in her time-travel novels.

Where The Wild Things Are

There’s paralepsis in Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, when Max travels ‘through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year’. This kind of anachrony is common in picturebooks which describe an imaginary journey. For example, all the happenings of Narnia can’t possibly fit into the time the children would’ve spent at the country house.

Where_The_Wild_Things_Are_(book)_cover

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe

The Narnia Chronicles are an excellent example of paralepsis. While the Pevensie children are in Narnia, time in the real world stands still. This is convenient as a plot device too, because it means adults don’t wonder where they are, and interrupt their adventures to come looking for them.

If [Lucy] had got into another world, I should not at all be surprised that the other world had a separate time of its own; so that however long you stayed there it would never take up any of our time.

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe

200px-ScholasticNarnia

 

The real, primary time is linear, and the story is firmly fixed at a specific chronological moment: “during the war”. In The Magician’s Nephew, which is the flashback of the suite, primary time is switched back, but is still quite definable: “when your grandfather was a child…Mr. Sherlock Holmes was still living in Baker Street and the Bastables were looking for treasure in the Lewisham Road”. Entering Narnia, the children leave the linear time behind and enter not only another world, but the mythical, cyclical time. In this time, death is reversible: Aslan is killed and resurrected, and he can also bring the enchanted stone figures to life again. One of the evil schemes of the White Witch is to stop the flow of time altogether, imposing the eternal winter (=period of nonbeing, death) in Narnia, Aslan’s death and resurrection–a performance of the ritual of the returning god, with its pagan rather than Christian meaning–restores the cyclical time. Spring comes, as it always has come after winter, as it always will come. The idyllic setting is recovered, Narnia is brought back into its prelapsarian state, as created by Aslan at the dawn of time (described in The Magician’s Nephew).

From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature by Maria Nikolajeva

 

Momo by Michael Ende

The final showdown between the titular heroine of Michael Ende‘s Momo and the Men in Grey happens after the local God stops time in the whole world, leaving only Momo (because she is carrying a certain MacGuffin), the Men in Grey, and a magical turtle (who is a fully-functional MacGuffin of her own right) able to move.

— TV Tropes

Momo_English

Molly Moon

In Molly Moon Stops The World, Molly is able to stop time thanks to a Call Back from the first book.

Molly Moon Stops The World

Artemis Fowl

The fairies in Artemis Fowl can stop time within an area by surrounding it with a pentagram (and warlocks, originally, though they developed Magitek generators since there is a limit to how long a warlock can hold up his arms). They often use this in combination with a bio-bomb to contain its effect. Escape from a time-stop is possible, but the method is unusual: the time-stop preserves all beings in the state they were in when time stopped – people who are awake stay awake, while people who are asleep go on with the normal flow of the world. When an awake person uses something like sleeping pills to artificially change their state, the stop shunts them into normal time, making them disappear from inside the stop.

— TV Tropes

Artemis Fowl Covers

 

*Paralepsis is also spelt paralipsis.

 

The Carnivalesque in Children’s Literature

Pippi Longstocking, Swedish favourite, is the ultimate carnivalesque character.

Pippi Longstocking, Swedish favourite, is the ultimate carnivalesque character.

In a carnivalesque story, the lowest in societal hierarchy — in the medieval carnival a fool, in children’s books a child — is allowed to change places with the highest: a king, or an adult, and to become strong, rich, and brave, to perform heroic deeds, to have power.

[…]

The necessary condition of carnival is the reestablishment of the original order, that is, return to normal life. Carnival is always a temporary, transitional phenomenon–so is childhood. Like the carnivalesque fool, the child can temporarily, by means of magic or his own imagination, become strong, beautiful, wise, learn to fly, trick the adults, and win over enemies. The end of carnival means return to the everyday, but the purpose of carnival is not only entertainment, but a rehearsal of a future moral and psychological transformation.

– Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time In Children’s Literature

A ‘carnivalesque’ text is a kind of book form children in which the child characters interrogate the normal subject positions created for children within socially dominant ideological frames.

Carnival in children’s literature:

  • is playful
  • is non-conforming
  • opposes authoritarianism and seriousness
  • is often manifested as a parody of prevailing literary forms and genres
  • often has idiomatic discourse
  • is often rich in language which mocks authority, even though swearing is taboo in children’s literature (for example Dahl’s use of ‘pulled a pistol from her knickers’)
  • often stars a hero who is a bit of a clown or a fool

Carnivalesque texts for children can be divided into 3 types:

1. Those which offer the characters ‘time out’ from the habitual constraints of society but incorporate a safe return to social normality (of which Where The Wild Things Are is one such example). Adults tend to be not present to intervene.

2. Those which strive through simple mockery to dismantle socially received ideas and replace them with their opposite, privileging weakness over strength (Babette Cole’s Prince Cinders, Anthony Browne’s Willy The Wimp)

3. Those which are more recent, and perhaps British in origin, consist of books which are endemically subversive of such things as social authority, received paradigms of behaviour and morality, and major literary genres associated with children’s literature (Out Of The Oven by Jan Mark and Anthony Maitland, Wagstaffe the Wind-up Boy by Jan Needle).

 

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE

where-the-wild-things-are-2

Where The Wild Things Are is [the first kind of carnivalesque text in three important ways: Max’s behaviour is oppositional to normal socializing expectations; the ‘wild things’ in the illustrations are grotesques, and thus in essence parodies of the natural creatures usually encountered during a wilderness adventure; and the book clearly belongs to the ‘time out’ group, in that Max’s adventure is formally a parenthesis in his relationship with his mother. Roger H. Ford (1979) has suggested that the main characters in several of Sendak’s books are modelled on the folk-tale Trickster figure, dominated by selfish appetites and emotions, given to practical jokes, capable of heroism and generally unselfconscious. Max’s entry into the land of the wild things, whether we regard it as a dream or an act of the imagination, enables him to enjoy a time of unconcerned spontaneity free of the social constraints which define his behaviours in the world as ‘mischief’. Max’s attempt to construct a site for fantasy play in the opening illustration involves causing damage to property, as is foregrounded by the grossly oversized hammer with which he attempts to drive a huge nail into the wall. His second act of mischief is to attack the family dog with a kitchen fork, an actual breach of proper conduct going beyond the quasi-‘hanging’ of his teddy bear included in the first illustration. Max, then, still deeply immersed in the solipsism of childhood, has not yet learnt the first principle of freedom–that freedom of action is bounded by the rights of others. Carnivalesque texts, by breaching those boundaries, explore where they properly lie and the ideological bases for their determination, but without always necessarily redrawing those boundaries…The grotesque in this book is comic and droll rather than frightening, though this was not always perceived when the book was first published. …By giving comically grotesque forms to inner fears, the illustrations image the defeat of that fear. Moreover, Max is always in control. Swanton (1971) offers this as one reason why children do not find the book frightening.

Language and Ideology in Children’s Fiction by John Stephens

Stephens explains that the carnivalesque story is used not to question the values of the official world (that children being rude to their mothers needs to go punished before they are allowed to eat dinner), but to ‘define the values which may be at most implicit in some of the puzzling actions performed by those in power. In this respect, it is important to see that Max’s return and his mother’s gift of ‘supper’ are not causally linked but contiguous, since each is unconditional.’ Other authors of the era were writing quite different stories re parent/child power. For example, Nesbit. Stephens points out that modern books are not necessarily any better than Nesbits were, in that regard.

 

Curious George Show Me The Monkey

cat in the hat

 

Bugs Bunny

Most critics agree that there are at least three types of animal stories:

  1. those portraying animals in their natural environment and only partially allowing them human-like abilities (Black Beauty, Tarka The Otter, Watership Down)
  2. those portraying anthropomorphic animals–talking, wearing clothes, thinking and behaving like humans–in separate communities, with or without contact with humans (The Wind In The Willows, Beatrix Potter’s stories, Charlotte’s Web, The Hundred and One Dalmatians, and, to go beyond the English language sphere, Little Tiger and Little Bear stories)
  3. those portraying anthropomorphic animals living among humans, as friends or intelligent pets (Babar, A Bear Called Paddington, Purrkin the Talking Cat)

Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic To Linear: Time in children’s literature

See also: Why so many animals in picture books?

The Three Assumptions Behind Most Underdog Stories

1. In every situation there always has to be a winner and a loser, so that a happy ending requires not just someone’s triumph but also someone else’s defeat

2. The best way to win is to have the individual power to take control and win by one’s own actions

3. A truly happy ending occurs only when a person who was oppressed achieves a position in which it’s possible to oppress others. 

Where_The_Wild_Things_Are_(book)_cover

Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are  is an excellent representation of these political assumptions. Surprisingly few award-winning texts for children celebrate the value of groups of people working together as equals; far more celebrate the power of individuals controlling groups.

– from The Pleasures of Children’s Literature by Nodelman and Reimer

 

The opposite of an ‘underdog story’ is a ‘carnivalesque’ story. Read Pippi Longstocking for a prime example of carnivalesque.

Examples of Desire and Need in Children’s Literature

Says John Truby in his screenwriting book, Anatomy of Story:

  • A story doesn’t become interesting to the audience until the desire comes into play.

  • Desire is the driving force in the story.

  • Desire is intimately connected to need. In most stories, when the hero accomplishes his goal, [s]he also fulfills his need.

  • Need has to do with overcoming a weakness within the character.

  • Desire is a goal outside the character.

  • Need and desire have different functions in relation to the audience. Need lets the audience see how the hero must change to have a better life, but it remains hidden, under the surface.

  • Desire gives the audience something to want along with the hero. Desire is on the surface and is what the audience thinks the story is about.

character desire need

Of course, these points apply to stories for children as much as they relate to films for adults. Some case studies, below.

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