Professor David Beagley, La Trobe University, available on iTunes U

American, 1977

Australian, 2009

  • There are many similarities between these two books.

  • Helicopter Man is aimed at upper primary school rather than high school aged reader. Realism tends to be aimed at the high school reader, however.

  • The Valley Between by Colin Thiel is about the author’s own life, growing up in the Barossa Valley

  • Suggested Reading: Only Connect. Sheila Egoff died in 2005 but was an enthusiast for the proper intellectual consideration of children’s literature. Being Canadian, she had a huge impact in Canada. (A Canadian literature prize has been named after her.)
  • Also: John Foster, Ern Finnest, Maureen Nimon: Australian Children’s Literature, an Exploration Of Genre and Theme, 1995. Looks at family stories and the ‘problem’ novel.
  • Perry Nodelman’s book The Hidden Adult is about adults who read children’s literature without reminiscing, for the reading experience. Nodelman looks at what the adults can find in the children’s literature and the serious intellectual ideas that are there for children to discard.
  • See also Literature and the Child
  • Give Them Wings, Maurice Saxby
  • Most general books about kidlit have a chapter about realism.
  • In a binary, the two things require each other. Evil needs good. Light needs darkness. That’s a binary, where the two of them are required to define each other.
  • In realism, there is ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ reality. In realism, this idea of the inner world and outer world revolves very much around you as the reader. Whereas primary and secondary worlds were based around the text itself, inner and outer realities rely on the reader and what the reader knows about him or herself. Your inner reality is yours. No one can take it from you. Others can influence it, but only if you let them. The outer reality is anything you share with family, friends, people you know — the settings in which you find yourself, the actions that happen to you, the noises you hear, the dialogues you have with other people.
  • Realism fiction aligns the inner and outer realities and exposes them. We hardly ever find another person IRL that we understand the inner reality with because it depends on a lot of trust, but in a book you can share someone else’s inner reality — how they think/feel/choose.
  • Related to this: in fantasy, extraordinary and probable. In fantasy we start with the fantasy but then move strongly from the probable to the extraordinary. Extraordinary dominates. In fantasy, the inner reality is best related to the probable (primary world). The fantasy is related to the outer world.
  • In a way, in fantasy, outer reality is the focus of the story but when we come to realism it is at the probable/internal/primary world, it’s inside us. It’s not so much the actions of the fantasy world but the ideas that we have in our probable world.
  • We still have ‘probable’ and ‘extraordinary’ in a realist story. But there is more balance. Readers can imagine quite easily encountering these problems themselves. (Maintain the distinction between ‘possible’ and ‘probable’. In a realist story, something isn’t necessarily ‘probable’, but it must be ‘possible’.)
  • In a realist story, something must happen to disrupt the ordinary. This something must not leave the realm of likelihood.
  • Characters have to be the sort of people you could know in real life.

Do you know a Josie Alibrandi IRL?

  • The setting must be somewhere you could go. Bridge To Terabithia takes place an hour of two’s drive from Washington DC. The town in which they live may not be a real town, but it feels familiar. (Lovettsville, Virginia?)
  • The plot itself is often character driven.
  • But if the story is too mundane the reader is going to wonder what the point is. Too much departure takes it into the world of fantasy. The Famous Five are a good example: These stories are now very dated. How come these kids are always on holidays? How do kids this age get so much freedom?
  • Realist books can be didactic (not in a negative sense) in that we can vaccinate our children by giving them a little dose of hardship in a fictional environment where they still have the safety of coming back out of the story.
  • But this leads to books which are so heavily didactic that they are a sermon: This is the way you ought to feel/behave, and if yo don’t, the problem lies with you, the reader.
  • All good reading ought to be vicarious. The readers immerse themselves so heavily within the feeling that disbelief is suspended and we feel the same emotions as the characters. We are really crying, our heart really is beating faster. This can  happen even though we know full well that what we are reading is a story.
  • The role of adults in these stories: The stories must not be solved by adults. In fact the adults are quite often the cause of the problem, if not the direct cause, they contribute by setting the boundaries, setting the situations, causing the situation or by keeping information to themselves, leading to the children to jump to conclusions. Rugrats plots are based upon the misinterpretation of the babies from what the adults say.

  • The sequence and plot structure of a realist story is pretty much the same as a fantasy story.
  • Identity is key. How often do we find that the characters are outsiders, or see themselves as outsiders? It’s often a lonely person. A person at a new school or looking for a friend or something like that. So often these stories are formed around separation of some kind.
  • Justice is another common idea explored in realist fiction. What’s right? How do we decide what’s right?
  • Dramatic, but not melodramatic.
  • There is also a reasonably positive resolution, but not necessarily happy-ever-after. Characters are able to move on.
  • Tiff and the Trout is an Australian story set in Mount Beauty (not called that in the story). The MC’s parents are splitting up. The father is a mountain person and the mother is a beach person. This symbolises their separation and Tiff is caught between. This story is neither melodramatic nor especially traumatic. There is one moment where mum’s new bf takes her fishing. She almost drowns. Apart from that, it’s ordinary, everyday stuff but is a very good exploration and discovery of how Tiff feels, not how the parents feel. In the end Tiff must choose which of her parents she goes to live with.

  • Problems with realistic stories: If a reader hasn’t experienced a situation herself, the plot may feel a little bit exotic. ‘That’s not really going to happen to me’. The author can also be very stereotypical. In the case of Josie Alibrandi, ‘This is how all people of Australian Italian background behave’. It’s perhaps easy to conclude that.
  • When reading Parvana’s Journey, if would be easy to assume girls in Afghanistan are all like this.

  • In Lookinig For X, the MC’s brothers are both autistic. The girl tries to find another homeless person who witnessed something that happened so that her  mother can keep the boys. Is that a little too far from a reader’s experience? Are all Canadian homeless people like this one?
  • Another issue: Currency. When including modern slang/attitudes/brand names and so on, these things will date quickly compared to details in completely made up fantasy worlds.

  • Ten years ago Specky McGee was a popular Australian series, but now the footballers mentioned in the stories are all retired. How current to make a realistic story? [Dated stories can make for very interesting historical documents.]
  • Controversy: How ‘problematic’ must the problem be? If a story is about sexuality or drugs or other grim realities, do the readers really need to know just yet? Just because these things do happen in society, do the children need to read these things in their books?
  • My addendum to this lecture: My Girl (the film) is an interesting work to contrast with Bridge To Terabithia because the plot is very similar, and is about a girl and boy the same age. But the intended audience is adult



Right around middle school, the fun books suddenly disappeared. Dreary realism replaced fantasy.

Read Hatchet. Read Shiloh. Read Sounder. Read The House of Dies Drear. Read about kids in the Great Depression, whose dogs always die. Read about the gruesome fact of slavery. Read about Anne Frank in the attic. Read about Anne Frank in the attic. Today, class, we’ll be reading a graphic novel! …it’s called Maus. No wonder I kept my nose buried deep in Dragonlance novels and The Collected Calvin & Hobbes.
Eventually I accepted that the mark of serious, grown-up books was joy turning into woe. Merry old Gatsby is really a huge fraud who bites it in a swimming pool and no one cares but his neighbor. The end. Jake Barnes is living it up in Paris with Brett Ashley, but he got injured in the war and they can’t have sex, so… the end. The older I got the more books seemed to skip the joy part altogether—they just went from woe to more woe. The Joads are starving in the Great Depression so they head West but find that everyone else is starving too and then somebody dies in the back of a truck… the end. Frank and April Wheeler are hopeful suburbanites who dream of moving to Paris but then she gets pregnant and dies trying to give herself an abortion. The end!
– Why Children’s Books Matter