Onomatopoeia, Mimesis and Children’s Literature

goh-goh

Someone in a children’s writing forum crowdsourced recently: What does a waterfall sound like?

They were after an onomatopoeic sound. Some replied ‘trickle’. Others said ‘trickle’ is no good at all for a waterfall, as ‘trickle’ suggests a piddling amount of water.

I don’t know what they decided, but I thought of my years learning Japanese. Japanese most definitely has the perfect word to describe the sound of a waterfall: “goh-goh”.

That explains the wonderful and also one of the lesser-known, extremely challenging aspects of learning Japanese non-natively: Everyday Japanese language bursts forth with onomatopoeia, and not just onomatopoeia, either: mimesis in general.

ONOMATOPOEIA AND MIMESIS: THE DIFFERENCE

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The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin by Beatrix Potter

Squirrel Nutkin cover

The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin (1903) is the second picture book written and illustrated by Beatrix Potter. Squirrel Nutkin is an example of a story from the First Age of Children’s Literature, though Beatrix Potter herself did much to usher in the more modern style of children’s story.

Though the page turns and small size of the book are a vital component of the reading experience, you can read The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin at Project Gutenberg, as Beatrix Potter’s work is now in the public domain.

When you think of Beatrix Potter, you probably think of ‘talking animal’ stories. A while back I quoted a taxonomy of animal-ness in (mostly) children’s literature. We have humans in animal-shaped bodies at the top and outright ordinary animals at the bottom. (Or inversed, if you like.)

The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin is interesting in its inclusion of three different levels of animal-ness in the one story:

  1. The squirrels, who can talk (riddles) and who are basically children in the bodies of squirrels. Unlike Peter Rabbit in his little blue jacket, these squirrels are not wearing clothes, but they do use their bushy tails as sails for their log boats, which elevates them into the human realm.
  2. Then there’s their opponent, the owl, who never replies to the prancing and taunting. It becomes clearer and clearer to the reader over the course of the story that the owl perhaps can’t talk, even if he wanted to, because he is a plain old owl! He does live in a ‘house’ (a tree) with a door and he cooks his meat (presumably) because smoke comes out of his ‘chimney’. But apart from these human attributes, the possibility that he might eat the squirrels if he’s going to eat a mole is terrifying, because the squirrels have been making meaty offerings, all the while failing to realise that they themselves are meat.
  3. And the offerings, of course, are the most animalistic of the characters, not the least bit personified. Indeed they are meat rather than animals–the three fat mice, the fine fat mole, seven fat minnows and so on.

THE DANGEROUS STORYWORLD OF SQUIRREL NUTKIN

Unlike Dahl’s Matilda, Nutkin presents outlaw behavior as opposed to promoting outlaw behavior. Unlike Sendak’s Wild Things, Nutkin’s wild revels are no wild rumpus where the border between the fond and the fierce is terrifyingly blurred: “We’ll eat you up—we love you so!” This is not the world of Beatrix Potter, but this is not to say her world is safe. The thing that all three have in common is danger, and it is the thing that makes their stories delightful for children, for childhood is the most dangerous thing in the world. For all of her whimsy, Beatrix Potter never lost sight of reality, even its tensions and terrors. Peter Rabbit’s father was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor. Jemima Puddle-Duck’s eggs were devoured by her canine rescuers. Squirrel Nutkin was mutilated by Old Mr. Brown. The world of Beatrix Potter is the real world: moral, but not moralistic; a world of pursuit and prey, of dangers and delights, of existence and enchantment.

Crisis Magazine

STORY STRUCTURE OF SQUIRREL NUTKIN

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Introducing your character’s age in a children’s novel

child age

Readers want to know early on the age of a main character in a children’s book. In a (non-illustrated) book, we don’t have a visual before us. So character age is one of the most important things we need to know up front.

How and when to convey that bit of information?

I took a look at character age and how this boring but necessary bit of information is introduced in various children’s books I happen to be reading lately. Continue reading “Introducing your character’s age in a children’s novel”

I Kill Giants As Perfect Example Of Being-toward-death

I Kill Giants movie poster

I Kill Giants is an American comic book written by Joe Kelly, illustrated byJ. M. Ken Niimura. The comic series is now ten years old. This post is about the 2017 film adaptation, directed by Anders Walter. The guy who wrote the comic also wrote the screenplay. I watched it on Netflix last night with my ten-year-old daughter and trust me when I say, this is a film for the tween-adolescent crowd — a reality which is always reflected in IMDb scores (which are not graded by ten year olds, and certainly not by ten-year-old girls). That’s why it gets a paltry 6.2.

I’m interested in this film regardless, because last week I happened to be reading Disturbing The Universe by Roberta Seelinger Trites, who takes the philosophy of Heidegger — particularly his concept of ‘Being-toward-death’ — and points out that this view of life/death is perfect to describe pretty much every young adult novel. (Or film, I’ll add.) I updated my Death In Children’s Literature post last week to reflect that lightbulb moment (thanks to Trites) and it just so happens I’ve spent the following Saturday evening watching the perfect example of a Heidegger YA movie. It’s like Joe Kelly read Heidegger (or Trites) before sitting down to compose I Kill Giants.

FTR, I don’t honestly believe that’s how creativity happens — these things are ‘in the air’. Storytellers absorb the ideas, reshuffle, re-vision, and (re-)produce old ideas using original character webs and new settings. I’ve done it myself. I can apply Heidegger’s philosophy to stuff I wrote before I’d even heard of the guy, let alone the concept. We’re all products of some big ur-Culture.

I’m especially interested by these concepts which are ‘in the air’, unnamed until someone names them — a philosopher, a literature professor, a writer in interview. It’s only then that patterns start to reveal themselves. Covert ideologies come to the fore — some of them hugely problematic. I have no major political beef with I Kill Giants; I’m interested in this children’s story because I am a reformed Goth it makes for an excellent primer in Heidegger and death. Buckle in.

What is Being-toward-death?

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Bullying In Children’s Literature

bullying children's literature

“Middle school wasn’t much fun for me. We had some bullying going on, and the best thing to do was to stay out of their way.”

— Jeff Kinney, author of Diary Of A Wimpy Kid

bulling diary of a wimpy kid
Rodrick Heffley from Diary of a Wimpy Kid early films. Rodrick bullies his younger brother.

WHAT IS BULLYING?

Bullying is repeated verbal, physical, social or psychological aggressive behaviour by a person or group directed towards a less powerful person or group that is intended to cause harm, distress or fear.

If two people disagree, that is not bullying.

If two people dislike each other, that is not bullying.

A single episode of aggression also does not count as bullying. This is especially important because an act of retaliation on the part of the bullied does not mean ‘both sides are at fault’.

COMMON BULLYING TACTICS

When authors cover the topic of bullying it can be super helpful to young readers, explicitly teaching what bullying is and how to recognise it for what it is. Even if we as adults have no further advice — I don’t consider myself qualified to give advice on how to deal with bullying — recognising bullying behaviour is a huge help to kids on the receiving end of it.

So, what does bullying look like? Some of these are obvious to neurotypical kids but in my opinion even neurotypical kids need explicit training on what bullying looks like. By putting these tactics into words, we are holding kids to higher standards. They then hold each other to higher standards.

  1. Touching someone in anger, or touching someone who doesn’t want to be touched
  2. Saying something nasty then putting ‘just joking’ on the end as a way of blaming others and demeaning the reaction of the victim
  3. Spreading untrue information about a person
  4. Threatening to tell an authority figure that a person has done something they have not
  5. Sharing true but personal information about a person
  6. Taking photos of someone without their consent, worse when shared, even worse via social media
  7. Mimicking the way someone walks/talks/eats etc
  8. Excluding someone because of skin colour/religion/culture and similar
  9. Microagressions are also a subtle form of bullying e.g. constant reference to someone’s difference from the wider peer group
  10. Barring someone from entering or exiting a space (commonly stairwells, toilets, shared play spaces)
  11. Practical jokes and pranks which are designed to humiliate someone, probably in front of a group
  12. Going into someone else’s bag/pockets/locker/desk without their consent
  13. Or more generally, messing around with someone else’s stuff with the intention of annoying them or shaming them
  14. Touching someone’s clothing, especially with the intention of exposing their body to others
  15. Provoking someone to anger, in general, hoping they will explode and get into trouble with teachers and parents
  16. Threatening to withdraw friendship unless someone does what you want them to do
  17. More generally, any behaviour designed to control another person. A lot of the bullying that goes on between girls mirrors exactly the abuse we call ‘coercive control’ when it happens in an adult relationship. Unfortunately, a history of falling victim to coercive control as a child/teenager primes someone to fall victim to it as an adult, too. (We can flip this, but we have to first name it, and teach it explicitly.)

HOW IS BULLYING TREATED IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE?

Almost any story set in a school or a school stand-in will involve opposition between peers. Bullying is a common topic in children’s literature from chapter books onwards.

Adults know way more about how bullying works than a couple of generations ago. This can be traced through fiction (or ask any elderly person about their experiences of bullying in school).

Fictional bullies occurred frequently in school/boarding school stories, and it wasn’t treated as bullying, but more of a ‘character building exercise’, designed to prepare school aged children for a world in which they’ll be ranked in an adult hierarchy.

Today’s authors show a better understanding of the true nature of bullying, in which bullying is a social system, rather than a person:

All kinds of attitudes have changed, mostly for the better. Bullies were hated in Tom Brown’s Schooldays but now, as in Louis Sachar’s Holes, they are both villains and victims.

Amanda Craig, writing about the third golden age of children’s literature

We’re all doing better now, but still have a long way to go. How are adults, specifically adult writers, still getting bullying a bit wrong?

BULLIES WHO LOOK LIKE STEREOTYPICAL BULLIES

“There was a bully at Peter’s school and his name was Barry Tamerlane. He didn’t look like a bully” writes Ian McEwan in chapter four of Daydreamer. The explicit and direct message here is that “There’s no such person who looks like a bully.”

He wasn’t a scruff, his face wasn’t ugly, he didn’t have a frightening leer, or scabs on his knuckles and he didn’t carry dangerous weapons. he wasn’t particularly big. Nor was he one of those small, wiry, boney types who can turn out to be vicious fighters. At home he wasn’t smacked like many bullies are, and nor was he spoiled. His parents were kind but firm, and quite unsuspecting. His voice wasn’t loud of hoarse, his eyes weren’t hard and small and he wasn’t even very stupid. In fact, he was rather round and soft, though not quite a fatty, with glasses, and a spongy pink face, and a silver brace on his teeth. He often wore a sad and helpless look which appealed to some grown-ups and was useful when he had to talk himself out of trouble.

— Ian McEwan, Daydreamer

I do wonder if there’s an unfortunate implicit message in here, though. When we describe the appearance of bullies, no matter how we do it, we’re conveying the implicit message that if you just study this hard enough, you’ll find you can typecast people according to how they look. ‘Bullies don’t look how you think they look… they actually look like this’, is one possible interpretation of the passage above, when I believe the intention is ‘You can’t pick a bully based on what they look like.’

McEwan does side with the young reader and does what most authors do: He acknowledges the fact that adults will never understand the complicated and subtle social dynamics of adolescents:

Of course, Peter kept out of the bully’s way, but he took a special interest in him. Barry Tamerlane was a mystery. On his eleventh birthday Barry invited a dozen boys from school to a party. Peter tried to get out of it but his parents would not listen. They themselves liked Mr and Mrs Tamerlane, and so, by the terms of grown-up logic, Peter must surely like Barry.

— Ian McEwan, Daydreamer

MODEL VS IMPERFECT CHARACTERS

Authors sometimes set up a character web with ‘model’ children versus ‘imperfect’ children. By the end of the book, the young reader is supposed to have worked out for themselves who is in the wrong, and mimic the behaviour of the model children in real life. An example of this kind of book is Pigface by Catherine Robinson. The focus character learns a lesson when he breaks his leg playing football. While he’s away on the couch, a new boy joins the class. This new boy is preternaturally mature. When our focus character returns to school he realises he should stop calling Harry ‘Pigface’ because he probably doesn’t like it. He has also learned to stick up for other people, and not to judge others at face value. The reveal is that this cool new boy was bullied at his previous school.

This story for emerging readers does not attempt mimesis. It attempts (and achieves) a clear line between bullying and friendly behaviour. The reality is that a boy who was bullied at his previous school is likely to continue to be bullied at a new school, though bullying cultures do differ from school to school. It is possible to start with a clean slate in a new environment, though perhaps not quite so cleanly.

WRITING DEVELOPMENTALLY INCORRECT BULLYING

When do people start forming social hierarchies? As soon as they start interacting with groups of peers. But when does that real ‘mean-girl’ crap start happening?

“The mean-girl thing is happening much sooner than everyone realizes,” our elementary school counselor told me when I called to talk it through. “I see it all the time.”

The Washington Post

The parent who wrote this article found it first started happening to her daughter in fourth grade. I also have a daughter of that age (in NSW Australia it’s called ‘year four’) and I can confirm it started happening this year. What form does it take? For my daughter, it has involved social exclusion. Friend has a birthday, brings enough cupcakes for everybody, gives extra cupcakes to her ‘besties’, refuses to give cupcake to one girl in particular as some kind of social punishment. It’s easy to almost laugh at this ridiculous example, but if this happened to us in our workplace, we’d be equally wounded. Apart from blatant social exclusion:

The most common ways girls ages 8 to 12 bully is by mocking, teasing and calling people names, says Cosette Taillac, a child and adolescent therapist

The Washington Post

Though that article focuses specifically on the types of bullying that goes on among girls, it strikes me that at 8-12 years old, there’s no significant difference between how girls and boys bully others. Boys use this same strategy of ‘mocking, teasing and calling people names’. However, the nature of these names might be different. Because of a cultural emphasis, girls are more vulnerable to commentary about physical appearance:

“Girls at this age are extremely conscious about how they look in relationship to others,” Taillac says. “Any way they look ‘different’ is a potential target. This goes beyond weight — it can also be about being taller or shorter, skin color, or even about things like having freckles or pimples.”

The Washington Post

(No one is saying boys aren’t also picked on due to how they look; the difference is that all girls are judged based on their looks no matter what they look like, whereas physical appearance only comes into it for boys when the boy does actually fall outside the ‘accepted norm’, and ‘the norm’ is wider for boys. Which is of course no comfort to boys who do fall outside the accepted norm for boys. And boys are getting more judgemental about each other’s appearance, unfortunately. Living in the exact same culture, it’s getting worse  for girls as well.)

On a more positive note, this form of bullying has all but disappeared by senior high school.

This opinion piece written by a teenager echoes something I’d already noticed myself:

In my school, most people like each other! We might not like the same brands or bands, but that doesn’t mean we have a burning desire to watch those more traditional or popular fail. (That would be middle school.)

While this HuffPost article is painting too broad a stroke with an inflammatory headline about not liking YA novels in general (there are many different genres within that category), the writer is pointing out that bullying takes on a different form altogether once students move through high school. (But it doesn’t disappear completely.)

HOW BULLYING CHANGES DURING ADOLESCENCE

Bullying among the 8-10 year old set looks completely different from bullying in senior high school. This needs to be reflected in stories.

I Study The Psychology Of Adolescent Bullies is about Donald Trump but offers an insight into how bullying works at each age. The subheading sums it up: Kids who dominate other kids are often popular — for a little while.

Below is the reason given for why middle school is terrible for bullying, though I grew up in a country where middle school was often attached to the primary school — no major reshuffling necessary. I don’t know how the social dynamics are different in those cases but:

Although bullies are never liked, they are popular in certain situations. Our research shows that bullies initially become “cool” during their first year in middle school. We think that this link between bullying and popularity is strengthened by the collective uncertainty associated with the transition to middle school. As youth are trying to acclimate to the new setting, many worry about their own social standing and ask: Where do I fit in? Who should I hang out with? When the future is uncertain, it is vital to know not only where one fits, but also who is in charge. Dominance hierarchies help group members find their places and form alliances, and bullying is among the most primitive ways to establish dominance.

I have noticed in some stories, especially those on TV, middle school level bullying continues long past its due date. By the time students are about 15, explicit, racist or un-woke bullying behaviours have morphed into social dynamics far more subtle. But what does it turn into?

Our research on middle-schoolers also shows that the popularity of bullies wears off after the transition period. That is, after the first year in middle school, bullies’ popularity gradually decreases. […] When a young child is questioned whether he ate the last cookie (even when there are crumbs on his lips), the immature response is: “I didn’t do it.” Children deny the act before they learn that it is socially beneficial to admit the wrongdoing but deny any negative intent. Teens tend to become even more skilful and elaborate on various mitigating circumstances, such as not turning in their homework due to illness or because they were helping an ailing grandmother. These accounts reduce the likelihood of punishment and facilitate forgiveness.

If bullying is still going on in senior high school, it is insidious and covert and ridiculously difficult to deal with. It can usually be denied completely. ‘Social exclusion’ looks a lot like, simply, exercising your right to choose your own friends.

COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT BULLYING

  1. Bullying is a problem that bullying people have. It does not follow that someone targeted by a system of persistent bullying is the one doing something wrong.
  2. Children and teens need friends. Friends aren’t just ‘the icing on the cake’.
  3. In order to be happy, children don’t need a wide circle of friends. Sometimes all it takes is one friend. The difference between no friends and one friend is like night and day.
  4. Unkind behavior toward children without social status is rewarded with social capital and elevated social status, because it highlights the status differential.
  5. It is not easy — in fact it is an act of rare and unusual bravery — to step in and defend someone with low social capital. Defending a low-status child is like touching someone with “cooties,” so bystanders rarely step in.
  6. A child at the bottom of the social ladder becomes “untouchable.” Even if that child has a delightful personality and loads of friends elsewhere, in a social system in which she lacks social capital, she is not likely to acquire friends. Take away point: a child can have loads of friends in one situation and none in another, because ‘untouchable’ cultures can pop up anywhere if not kept in check.
  7. Children with status erroneously believe that the reason untouchables have no social status is because they are repulsive, but in truth, it is precisely the reverse. The lack of social status is what makes an untouchable appear repulsive.
  8. Adults are no more likely to sacrifice their own social capital to stop bullying than children are. Adults don’t magically go through a character arc in which they are immune to all this crap. Most of us quietly become part of the system.
  9. When adults instruct kids to simply ‘walk away’ from bullying, we are indoctrinating them into this system. Parents justify this by going back to the concept of ‘freedom’. ‘My child must be granted the freedom to choose her own friends’.

–Happiness and the Pursuit of Leadership

Can we end the whole “you attract who you are” myth? There are abusive, terrible and mediocre people who latch on to vulnerable, kind and generous folks.

Another myth to abolish: You don’t have to “love yourself” first in order to be worthy of love in return. You are worthy of being loved, of being safe and well-cared for regardless of how you feel about yourself.

— @femmefeministe

RELATED RESOURCES ON BULLYING

A New Way To Reduce Playground Bullying

Bullies and Bullying In Kids’ Books

For more on coercive control, this podcast (actually the entire series) is excellent.

Amy Alkon coined the term ‘social greed’ to describe someone’s unwillingness to risk their own social capital without an anticipated return on investment.

Father Christmas by Raymond Briggs

Father Christmas Raymond Briggs

This month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story.  Earlier in the month I looked at a wordless picture book, The Snowman by Raymond Briggs. Today I continue with a selection of mentor texts to help kids see how it works. Let’s look closely at Father Christmas, a seasonal picture book by the same author-illustrator. It’s not Christmas here, but it’s never wintry at Christmas Down Under. I prefer to read wintry books in our actual winter. This is just as much a winter tale as it is a Christmas one. Father Christmas is also a very British tale. You’ll soon see why.

At first glance, this picture book also seems to break the main rules of storytelling. It works because it is short. Father Christmas is partly making use of a comedic structure rather than classic dramatic structure.

STORY STRUCTURE OF FATHER CHRISTMAS

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

Father Christmas.

What’s wrong with him?

Sometimes the foreign translations of a picture book give you extra clues about the story. The Japanese title means ‘Father Christmas The Cold-blooded Creature’ (or ‘Person who feels the cold easily’). The Japanese publishers put the thing that’s wrong with him right there in the title. More specifically, this is his weakness. He doesn’t like the cold. But I’d say his weakness is a little different.This is not your usual Jolly Santa, the guy most kids are exposed to — the man who lives to give. This Father Christmas’s weakness is that he’s grumpy by nature.  Or is it really a weakness? Is he really that grumpy?

This is a comment on a specific cultural milieu — this old man is proficient in the art of grumbling. He is cranky as a matter of habit, not because he has all that much to complain about. This is grumbling almost as a mantra to self, a reminded that although things may be terrible now, they may get better later. Father Christmas is grumbling to no one in particular, but he is drawing us in with his grumbling. We are invited to grumble along with him as a form of phatic communion. At the end of the story he has broken the fourth wall by directly addressing the reader, so we know we were supposed to hear him grumbling. He was inviting us to feel the cold with him, creating the weather as the mutual enemy to bring two characters (him and us) closer together.

This feels very British to me.

WHAT DOES FATHER CHRISTMAS WANT?

Father Christmas wakes up dreaming of a summer beach so we know right away that he wants to be on holiday somewhere. Sure enough, in another book in the series, Raymond Briggs takes him off on holiday. I haven’t read that one, though I’ve no doubt he grumbles about everything while on holiday, too.

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

His opponent is the cold weather. Father Christmas expends a lot of energy just keeping warm — tending to the fire, looking after the animals (who can’t be out in the elements), filling his belly with hot cups of tea.

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

goodbye cat goodbye dog

We already know what Father Christmas does at Christmas time because this is a well-known cultural narrative. He delivers presents to children all around the world. We watch him do this, but Raymond Briggs’ new spin on it: Father Christmas considers this work, just like anyone else doing shift work on a freezing cold night would feel like they are doing work.

BIG BATTLE

As you can see already, this is another mythic structure, in which the main character goes on a journey. This is not your classic mythic structure, however. Father Christmas is a modified version of that — known as a home-away-home story. A character leaves home, has an adventure, then returns home again. This home-away-home story usually takes place over a single day, and the child (or childlike) character usually goes to sleep at the end.

In general, a series of minor battles end in a big one. But sometimes, when there’s no fight or argument or near-death experience, the story includes something that stands-in for a battle.

In Diary of a Wombat, Jackie French used the ‘accumulation’ technique, where several objects pile up/come together.

Raymond Briggs uses a variation on that. After visiting a number of ordinary houses to deliver presents, including a caravan which he has trouble getting into, Father Christmas visits the Palace of Westminster, presumably to deliver presents to the most important children in the land. We have an accumulation effect going on, but it isn’t a piling up of objects. Instead, it goes from ‘ordinary to extraordinary’, or ‘ordinary to grand’. This stands in for the big battle scene, which exists to let us know the journey is coming to an end.

WHAT DOES FATHER CHRISTMAS LEARN?

Nothing. Because this story is comedic, not dramatic. Father Christmas is the ultimate recurring character. He appears year after year and never changes. Therefore it makes sense if he doesn’t change. It also makes sense if he’s a bit grumpy about that. Which is the gag.

However, the story still works as a complete story. Why?

In lieu of a character arc, in which Father Christmas learns something, we see Father Christmas on an emotional arc. When Santa gets up he’s grumpy because there’s so much work ahead of him. But over the course of his day he overcomes many small hardships, stopping in between to enjoy his snacks. Finally at the end he is happy to be home, but before bed he’s unhappy again, because he knows he’ll have to do it all again next year. The unrelenting nature of work would appeal to adults more than to children, I’m guessing. This story therefore appeals to a dual audience. Young readers also know what it’s like to do something they don’t want to do, and everyone (in most parts of the world) knows what it feels like to be uncomfortably cold.

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

It won’t, but Father Christmas is home safe in bed, which is enough to close the story on. It’s not original, but it works, time and time again.

 

FURTHER NOTES ON THE STORY STRUCTURE

Did you pick up the main ways in which this story is not typical dramatic structure?

  1. The only opponent is the weather. Usually there is a human opponent, or a monster as well.
  2. The main character doesn’t learn anything.
  3. His life won’t be any different from before. He’s basically an automaton.

This is because the story is a comedy. Here’s the thing about comedic structure: It only sustains its audience for 5-10 minutes before we tire of it. That’s why comedic structure can work in picture books. They’re short. When Father Christmas was adapted into a short film, and by short I mean over 20 minutes, the script writers wisely decided to combine two of Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas books. There is simply not enough in this picture book to sustain 20 minutes’ worth of entertainment.

Middle Grade Novel Study: Coraline

Coraline book cover

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 “Middle Grade Novel Study: Coraline”

Missing May by Cynthia Rylant

Missing May cover

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

CHAPTER ONE

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.

CHAPTER TWO

Continue reading “Missing May by Cynthia Rylant”

The Woods At The End of Autumn Street by Lois Lowry

The Woods At The End Of Autumn Street

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.
CHAPTER ONE

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 “The Woods At The End of Autumn Street by Lois Lowry”

Hair In Children’s Stories

Merida from Brave

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

Continue reading “Hair In Children’s Stories”