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Category: Children’s Literature (page 1 of 45)

Middle Grade Novel Study: Coraline

Coraline is a 2002 novel by Neil Gaiman. Strangely, it is called a novella, despite being the typical length of a middle grade novel (30,640 words). This is one of those ‘children’s books’ for a universal audience, drawing on fears we all had as children. Neil Gaiman has said that adults find Coraline more terrifying than children do.

In 2009 Coraline was adapted for film, rendering the character Coraline slightly more passive with the addition of a male sidekick.

Coraline is an example of the female myth form, and in order to adapt to a feature length film it was necessary for the director to add quite a bit of material. This is in line with my theory that the female myth form is naturally shorter than the traditional, masculine mythic form. (I think Inside Out would have been better a bit shorter, too.) Continue reading

Missing May by Cynthia Rylant

Missing May is a 1992 American middle grade novel by Cynthia Rylant. This is one of Rylant’s best-loved works, and won the Newbery in 1993. It is about grief and pulling oneself out, realising that life goes on even after great loss.

After the death of the beloved aunt who has raised her, twelve-year-old Summer and her Uncle Ob leave their West Virginia trailer in search of the strength to go on living.

Missing May is short, at 89 pages. Part one details the state of grieving, and part two is the journey out.

Missing May Part One: Still As Night


The first person narrator seems a lot older as she writes about the time her mother died and she went to live with her aunt and uncle. She can’t be all that much older though, because she talks about growing up with Garfield. Garfield is only 40 years old this year, and Missing May was published in 1992. In fact, the narrator is not a lot older — she is a lot wiser.

Uncle Ob makes whirligigs, and these whirligigs represent all sorts of things, like storms or heaven. This marks him out as a bit of an eccentric. I read him as an adult autistic man. He may get sensory pleasure from looking at the whirligigs.

Another story (film) in which a motherly figure dies suddenly, leaving the young newcomer alone with an eccentric man is the New Zealand production Hunt For The Wilderpeople, itself based on a classic novel. This particular character duo allows both to undergo a character arc, and the eccentric, bereft man will learn to come out of his own grief with the assistance of the young person. The young person will in turn learn some profound life lessons from the older eccentric man.

That’s what I’m expecting from this novel after two pages. After reading the whole story, I feel Summer is more of a viewpoint character than the star of her own story. She seems more in tune with her uncle’s feelings than she is with her own.

Summer has come from Ohio to a trailer house located in Deep Water, Fayette County, which is in West Virginia. Cynthia Rylant herself grew up in a small town in West Virginia. In her Newbery acceptance speech Rylant says that she was brought up by her grandparents for several years at a place called Cool Ridge, not in a trailer house but in a small house, with a garden much like Aunt May’s.

We don’t learn until the end of the chapter that she is six years old when she moves. This immediately puts me in mind of Lois Lowry’s The Woods At The End Of Autumn Street. Similarities so far:

  • A six year old girl who has moved from one place in America to another
  • To live with distant relatives
  • Death
  • An opening chapter which is written in a nostalgic tone, looking back on a time long, long ago (though this must have been the 1980s).
  • We don’t yet know her name, giving this character a universal feel.

Food is important to the narrator, and in children’s stories generally. At the age of six, Summer is impressed at the groceries in her aunt and uncle’s trailer house. As an adult I recognise this as cheap processed food with little nutritional value, but I also recognise the honey inside the plastic bear, which was popular in the late eighties, early nineties. This noticing marks her out as a neglected child who wasn’t fed properly.

Children are often compared to mice, who are equally small and at the mercy of larger creatures:

Every house I had ever lived in was so particular about its food, and especially when the food involved me. I felt like one of those little mice who has to figure out the right button to push before its food will drop down into the cup. Caged and begging. That’s how I felt sometimes.

This is Summer’s weakness. In other respects, Summer is ‘The Every Child’. Like any child, she needs to learn to move on after great loss.


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The Woods At The End of Autumn Street by Lois Lowry

Lois Lowry is an American children’s author, best known for The Giver. The Woods At The End Of Autumn is an upper middle grade novel set in WW2 America.

The following biographical information feels relevant to The Woods At The End of Autumn Street:

  • Born in 1937, that makes Lois Lowry the same era/age as Liz in Autumn Street. The details of the era therefore ring true, from the racial and playground gender segregation to the freedom afforded young children, allowed to enter the woods.
  • Lois’s sister Helen, three years older than her, died in 1963 at the age of 28 of cancer. A number of Lois Lowry’s books feature death, e.g. A Summer To Die, Number The Stars and this one.
  • Lowry’s father was a career military officer – an Army dentist – whose work moved the family all over the United States and to many parts of the world. Autumn Street is set during WW2, and the children have been moved to a new place. Moving to a new place is something Lois Lowry herself would be highly familiar with.

The book opens with a self-contained first chapter, meaning it could almost stand alone as a short story or vignette. The characters are ghosts and float above Autumn Street in Pennsylvania, bordering woods as if from a fairytale.

The reader wonders, why are all these people dead? Why is the narrator, and only the narrator, alive? We already know the narrator is an old woman. Continue reading

Hair In Children’s Stories

It’s stating the obvious to point out that, in children’s fiction, a character’s hair maps onto personality. But in continuing to use hair-personality shortcuts, are writers perpetuating stereotypes?

Canadian teen actor Sophie Nélisse plays the title role, a young girl in foster care who we know is not terribly well-off emotionally because her hair is so flat. Her attitude stinks, too.

review of the film adaptation of The Great Gilly Hopkins 

As is usual for matters of appearance, this post applies mainly to girl characters. The hairstyles of boys are far less commonly attached to their personalities, desires and psychological weaknesses.

Some authors, such as Daniel Handler, avoid mentioning how a girl looks in books. We didn’t know what Violet looked like until Netflix adapted A Series Of Unfortunate Events for screen. (We only knew that Violet had long hair because she does something with the bow on it.)

The distinction  between ‘inborn’ and ‘styling choices’ of a character is important:

Anyone who has read a book is likely familiar with this phenomenon. Characters’ hair, for example, is often written as a remarkably accurate reflection of their personalities: feisty heroines are endowed with hair as sassy as they are, and these ‘wild manes’ subsequently spend every scene ‘struggling to escape’ from hair ties, messy buns, or other oppressive hairstyles. Granted, a green mohawk may imply a certain individuality of temperament, but self-styling can at least be controlled—this is very different to insinuating that because a person is born with curly hair, they’re automatically incapable of keeping their temper. Worse still is when this descends into racial stereotyping.

ACT Writers Blog

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Matilda by Roald Dahl Novel Study

Matilda is a classic, best-selling children’s book first published in 1988. This story draws from a history of children’s literature such as classic fairytales and Anne of Green Gables.

Matilda was written by Roald Dahl, but significantly improved by a talented editor and publisher, Steven Roxburgh. For half of his writing career, Dahl wrote for adults. When Dahl found publishing success in the children’s book market he stuck with that, but his editors were constantly having to make them more suitable for kids. The happy place where the stories ended up — creepy and scary but in a childlike kind of way, filled a real hole in children’s literature at the time. Children needed scary stories which spoke to our revenge fantasies, our hatred for certain adults in our lives and our trickster instincts.

Charactersiation In Matilda — Pre-edited and Post-edited Comparison

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Nice Does Not Equal Good

A lesson we must all learn at some point: ‘nice’ person does not equal ‘good’ person. I use these words as shorthand for ‘outwardly amenable’ and ‘morally generous’. Defining morality is a mammoth task in its own right and a nihilist might argue there’s no such thing as morality. I take the view that there is a shared cultural view of morality. Stories for children conform to that shared view. Banned books are usually at the vanguard of social change, which is why they are banned in the first place. Most banned books are tomorrow’s classics, their authors upheld as yesterday’s soothsayers.


naughty is not the opposite of nice

Classic fairytales explore the difference between niceness and goodness, though with problems: In fairytales, if a character was good-looking they were also unquestionably good. However, they did get into duplicitous behaviour, and the way people conceal their true motivations by acting in a friendly way. In classic fairytales the characters are archetypes, so there is no possibility of starting out nasty and later becoming nice.

In Snow White, the wicked stepmother dresses as a door-to-door pedlar woman. She is ‘nice’ to Snow White, offering to sell her a shiny, red apple. Snow White falls for the niceness. The audience learns she should have looked harder. Significantly, in most versions the step mother is illustrated as an ugly old woman with missing teeth and a face of wrinkles. This is her ‘true nature’, using the visual fairytale shortcut that ugliness equals bad character. The stepmother is most ugly at the moment her ugliness comes out.


Even after centuries of fairytales, we must all learn at some point that

  1. Looking good doesn’t mean being good
  2. Behaving nicely also does not mean being good.

The first is the easier lesson. The #metoo movement is highlighting the extent to which contemporary adults are still wrestling with the distinction between nice and good.

monsters nice not good

It’s hard to deal with the fact that nice people can be sexual predators or, rather, that sexual predators are most often very nice.  A boss who is nice to you may be very not nice to someone else, in private. An unwillingness to believe victims when they speak out is partly an unwillingness to believe women (because abuse is gendered), but is also an unwillingness to acknowledge that we are not as good at discerning character as we previously believed. Once you learn, really learn, that nice does not equal good, that skilled people with good jobs and families of their own can be terrible, you must embark upon the lifelong work of not turning into a complete misanthropist.

In adult literature, Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies does a great job of portraying an abuser who is also ‘nice’. But during promotion of the American TV adaptation, various commentators showed a fundamental misunderstanding of how abuse works by saying it was really interesting to see a successful family man also be an abuser, as if those things don’t usually go together.

But when is it developmentally appropriate for children learn this lesson? That’s another question altogether. If we teach children too early that the nice people in their lives might just as easily be terrible behind closed doors, are they able to deal with that in their vulnerable positions?

Only parents can decide. If you would prefer your children to learn this sooner rather than later, there are children’s books which touch on big issues in a gentle way.



Terry Pratchett writes for an adult/YA crossover audience. His Tiffany Aching series (starting with Wee Free Men) features elves who are beautiful and magical and give children candy, but they are incapable of compassion or caring. The witches who watch over the people are petty, argumentative, difficult and always have a sharp word on the tip of their tongue. However, they do what’s right even when it’s the harder choice. Pratchett uses various ways of approaching this message,  but overall, Tiffany isn’t learning to be nice. She’s learning to do what’s right. Via the viewpoint of Tiffany, the reader is also asked to consider appearance vs morality.

Different in voice but similar in theme we have The Girl Who Drank The Moon. The characters are complex and our understanding of them evolves as the story progresses, with the character initially perceived to be evil/not nice (Witch) ultimately being revealed as good, while the character initially perceived as good/nice (Grand Elder) is ultimately revealed to be evil. Perception and deception are emphasised.  Superficial judgements may not accurately reflect true character. This makes it a more modern fairytale — in traditional tales, nice and nasty are inherent, immutable traits.


Joyce Carol Oates creates such a character in her YA novel Big Mouth and Ugly Girl. ‘Ugly’ refers to the way the heroine is seen, and how people in general (particularly girls?) are perceived by others whenever they stand up for what’s right. There’s no way of standing against the status quo without facing criticism from peers who are too afraid to stand up themselves.

I suspect female characters are more commonly used in these types of stories. We’re moving through a social period in which girls — for the first time ever — are properly taught to respect their own feelings and to reject social conditioning which teaches female people to prioritise others’ feelings over their own.

Similarly, witches have been used in many ways throughout the history of storytelling but the witch has turned — modern fictional witches may look nasty but their warts and hooked noses belie upright morals. Who’s in a better position to recognise injustice than witches, after all?

See also Gregory Maguire’s reimagining of the Wicked Witch Of The West in his novel Wicked.


J.K. Rowling used this trick in her characterisation of Snape. The message?  Teachers who are the most scary are sometimes also the most ‘good’. Appearances can be deceptive. Not just how someone looks, but their lack of social graces or unwillingness to ingratiate.

It’s impossible to give further examples of this technique without also spoiling stories, because the true intent of the ‘villain ally’ is utilised as a major reveal.

In any case, this ‘villain who’s actually an ally’ plot encourages readers to reconsider who are the real opponents and who are the real allies in their own life. At their best, these stories ask readers not to judge others too soon.

The inverse ideology would be: Trust your gut about people. This is also an ideology worth exploring.

Popular Kids In Stories For Adolescents

Children’s literature is at the vanguard of change; ‘children are the future’ and all that. For children, ‘popular’ means something different.


My daughter is a Sims fan. As I ambled past the PC she announced that she’d discovered how to become popular on Sims 3. Since she’s a little too young to be playing Sims without occasional parental input, I ask, “What does that mean?”

“Well, it means you get to do things like change the names of shops and you can fire people and stuff like that.”

For more on what popular means in the Sims world, it’s all on their Wiki:

Sims with the Popularity Aspiration desire flocks of friends and killer parties, so if they aren’t on the phone, practicing politics, or dancin’ the night away, they probably should be. Their Aspiration Meters will fill with every friend, fair-weather or not, and allow them to live long and famous lives.

“Hmm,” I say. “Sounds like popular people are not nice people.” (See what I did there?)

“Yeah,” she agreed.

Before walking off, I asked my nine-year-old to tell me what she thinks ‘popular’ means. She thought for a moment and gave me a great, denotative definition: “Lots of people know you.” Given the state of politics right now, and who has been elected to make big decisions, I’d say this definition is the better one.

I mean in contrast with the Google definition: ‘liked or admired by many people or by a particular person or group.’ Young people know — partly through the stories we tell them, I’m sure — that ‘popular’ has nothing to do with being liked or admired.  The warm connotations of nice and good and admired have been lost, and the dictionaries are yet to catch up.

In children’s stories, the opposite message is by far more common: Popular people are horrible. Again and again, the popular kids are depicted as:

  • underhanded
  • cliquey
  • unaware of their privilege
  • shallow
  • judgemental
  • self-serving

These attributes are in line with the Mean Girls definition of popularity.

Mean Girls popular


In the character web of a high school story, the popular group are most often pitted against the geeky group. It is rare to get a story from the point of view of someone inside the popular group, though in the case of Mean Girls we do have someone coming in briefly from the outside, soon to leave. Most stories with popular cliques are commenting on them from the outside. However, we do have very popular (haha) series about cliques of popular girls, most notably the Gossip Girl series and Pretty Little Liars. Even the titles (gossip and liars) clue readers in on how we should feel about these characters. They are great for fiction however, as they are interesting.

‘Feeling like an outsider’ is so common in coming-of-age stories, it can probably be considered a universal emotion of adolescence. The existence of the popular group serves another good function, apart from one of pure opposition — the very existence of a Popular Group makes all of us feel like we will never really fit in, because of who we inherently are.

The morals of the popular group are frowned upon, which also offers opportunity to everyone else to evaluate where their own morals are.

Fictional popular kids are therefore stock characters — to be feared, yes, but also to be laughed at.

(In real life, the genuinely popular kids have completely different attributes. They are friendly, easy to get along with, co-operative and socially mature for their age.)


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 Sophie Masson’s article as it’s free to access. The following are my own takeaway points.

afterlife young adult paranormal fiction


Its roots come from:

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

Writers and thinkers have always been exploring the afterlife. Afterlife stories can be divided into their own subcategories. For example, there’s a related subgenre of Grim Reaper plots. An example of the grim reaper plot is On a Pale Horse by Piers Anthony. On a Pale Horse is a fantasy novel from 1983. A feckless young man is about to shoot himself when the Grim Reaper appears. He kills the Grim Reaper instead, and then has to take the Grim Reaper’s place. However, this seems quite different from the modern afterlife story kickstarted by Alice Sebold.

Here’s something to bear in mind about YA readers: these days (in Australia, at least) more young people believe in an afterlife than believe in god. Readers will happily accept it.

  • 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 may be supernatural beings. These monsters and beings are often transformed by their encounters with the newly dead young characters.
  • There is probably a romantic subplot.
  • There’s fancy terminology to describe narration which takes place outside the world of the story: extradiegetic. (It helps to know that ‘diegetic’ refers to something that occurs within a story world: ‘Inside-universe’.) Extradiegetic basically means ‘out-of-universe’. By making a character dead, that character is outside the main world of the story. There are other ways authors can create extradiegetic characters. For instance, they can create an elderly person looking back on an earlier part of their life. However, if you’re doing this, you’re probably not writing YA.
  • An extradiegetic character is closer to the audience than they are to the other characters within the story, because an audience (in narratology terms) is also extradiegetic. The audience exists outside the world of the story. (We are ‘extradiegetic narratees’, to be exact.) Therefore, a story with a dead narrator can achieve emotional closeness with the reader. This sounds counterintuitive at first — you’d think a dead person would be hard to relate to!
  • 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.

The authors of these works are themselves from diverse backgrounds.

  • The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas (1881) — the narrator of Brazilian author Machado de Assis’ novel dedicates his memoir to “the worm who first gnawed on the cold flesh of my corpse.”
  • How The Dead Live by Will Self
  • My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk — published the same year as The Lovely Bones and begins, “I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well.”
  • 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
  • If I Stay by Gayle Forman — First person narrator Mia dies in a car crash then follows her friends and family as a kind of ghost, watching their reaction and writing about her life before she died.
  • I Stop Somewhere by T.E. Carter was pitched as Asking For It meets The Lovely Bones. The narrative viewpoint comes from The Lovely Bones — the main character is basically wandering around telling what happened before she died.

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.
  • Futility by Morgan Robertson (1898) — a fictional account of the Titanic disaster which was written 14 years before the Titanic sank. Futility tells the story of the world’s biggest ocean liner and how, on its maiden voyage, on a freezing April night, it strikes an iceberg and sinks, carrying its cargo of fabulously wealthy passengers to the bottom of the Atlantic. It was penned by a struggling sci-fi writer named Morgan Robertson. The name of his fictional doomed passenger ship? The Titan. 
  • Sunset Boulevard, classic film (American) — the man lying face down in a pool turns out to be none other than William Holden, whose voiceover narrates his story and who is indeed dead.
  • 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)

It’s not hard to find people who dislike dead narrators. But why?

  • It can feel like the author cheated — ‘a little too easy, a little too glib’.
  • In Peter Selgin’s words, it requires suspension of all four laws of thermodynamics. Some readers are fans of mimesis, so this won’t suit them.

Specialists in young adult literature have noticed over the decades that literary trends start with YA and work their way ‘up’ into adult fiction. As they expected, The Lovely Bones influenced adult fiction which is coming through now, a decade later. Take Lincoln in the Bardo for instance, an experimental novel by George Saunders. The ‘bardo’ refers to an intermediate space between life and rebirth. Though this book wins a Man Booker Prize and is hailed as ‘experimental’, it also owes a lot to less critically celebrated trends which started a decade ago in YA.

In Saunders’s conception, the “ghosts” that inhabit the bardo are “disfigured by desires they failed to act upon while alive” and are threatened by permanent entrapment in the liminal space.[20]They are unaware that they have died, referring to the space as their “hospital-yard” and to their coffins as “sick-boxes”.



Might we count The Book Thief by Marcus Zuzak as afterlife fiction?

This book takes the dead narrator concept a step farther, with the Grim Reaper himself narrating, though some would argue that his “Death” is nothing but Omniscience wearing a hooded cloak and carrying a scythe.

— Peter Selgin

  • 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.
  • Dead Narrators by Peter Selgin at Janet Friedman’s blog

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.


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.

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


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.


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


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


Billy wants to go home as soon as possible.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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