Somersault Film Storytelling Techniques

Somersault_movie_poster

Last month I wrote about the film American Honey, set in America but written and directed by Andrea Arnold, who is English. If there’s an Australian equivalent of American Honey, Somersault is it. Somersault is a 2004 film written and directed by another (all-too-rare) female filmmaker, Cate Shortland. Continue reading “Somersault Film Storytelling Techniques”

Waltzing Matilda by Banjo Paterson

Waltzing Matilda Desmond Digby

This month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story. Today I continue with a selection of mentor texts to help kids see how it works. So far I’ve analysed picture books. Today I analyse a song using the same seven-step story structure, which happens to be Australia’s unofficial national anthem. I own Waltzing Matilda in picture book form, though it always scared me as a kid. Although the tune is upbeat, inspired indirectly by Celtic folk music, Waltzing Matilda is a tragic ghost story about theft, suicide and power.
Banjo Paterson wrote the lyrics in 1895. It’s widely believed the song was inspired by events that happened after The Great Shearer’s Strike of 1891.

The billabong which inspired the lyrics is thought to be near Winton, in Queensland. If you go to Winton today you can visit the Waltzing Matilda Centre.

WALTZING MATILDA LYRICS

Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong
Under the shade of a coolibah tree,
He sang as he watched and waited ’til his billy boiled
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me

Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me
He sang as he watched and waited ’til his billy boiled,
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me

Down came a jumbuck to drink at the billabong,
Up jumped the swagman and grabbed him with glee,
He sang as he shoved that jumbuck in his tucker bag,
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me

Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me
He sang as he shoved that jumbuck in his tucker bag,
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me

Up rode the squatter, mounted on his thoroughbred,
Up rode the troopers, one, two, three,
Whose is the jolly jumbuck you’ve got in your tucker bag?
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me.

Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me
Whose is the jolly jumbuck you’ve got in your tucker bag?
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, you scoundrel with me.

Up jumped the swagman and sprang into the billabong,
You’ll never catch me alive, said he,
And his ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong,
you’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me.

Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me
His ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong,
You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me.
Oh, you’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me.

STORY STRUCTURE OF WALTZING MATILDA

Waltzing Matilda is a narrative bush ballad, meaning it’s a complete story set to music. It includes all seven steps.

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

A swagman. A man travelling through the Australian bush with a swag (a rolled up bed). An itinerant worker perhaps, between jobs.

What’s wrong with him?

The swagman’s weakness is that he farmhand or perhaps he is a homeless man out of work. He contrasts with the more powerful individuals, who have somehow managed to get their hands on land, using it only to benefit themselves. Most people listening to this song would identify emotionally with the swagman rather than with the aristocracy.

WHAT DOES THE SWAGMAN WANT?

He wants a rest from his travels. He sits down to make himself a cup of tea but he’s also hungry, so he kills a sheep which happens to belong to the wealthy landowner on whose property he squats. Sheep stations in Australia are absolutely massive, so you don’t necessarily know there’s someone on your land.

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

The opponent is the squatter. If this were an English story, he would probably be an aristocratic landowner, but squatter refers to farmers who didn’t necessarily have the papers to properly own their land. The squatter doesn’t want men killing his sheep, which may well be his only source of income even if he is wealthy by comparison. Importantly, the sheep may no more belong to the squatter than to the swagman.

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

The swagman’s plan is simple. He will kill a sheep and eat it. The simplicity of his plan is his downfall. He should’ve checked he wasn’t being tailed. (It’s likely he was being tailed, given the size of the area, and the low likelihood of randomly being caught.)

BIG BATTLE

Three policemen run after the swagman and apprehend him.

Rather than lose his dignity and his freedom, the swagman dives into the billabong. It’s unclear to me if he meant to suicide with this action — perhaps he hoped to get away somehow. In any case, death is the outcome.

WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?

Main characters don’t learn anything when they are dead at the end. Except occasionally they exist in the spiritual realm. There is an entire subgenre of books narrated by dead main characters, for instance. (The Lovely Bones seems to have started that trend.) Dead narrators seem to suddenly become a lot more emotionally mature, because they’re speaking from beyond the grave and have a more omniscient view of events.

But when main characters die, the reader does learn something. Young child readers learn that stealing can lead to terrible outcomes. Older readers can see that a person without capital can lose everything over very little (a meal), and we learn that some people can gang up on other people without just cause. We learn that life is unfair, basically.

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

In this case, the swagman lives on as a ghost near the billabong. He’s achieved freedom from the law, but now he gets to rest by the same billabong forever.


Though my childhood copy of the story is illustrated by Desmond Digby in ‘old master’ style, the song has been more recently illustrated by Freya Blackwood. Freya Blackwood’s style is more oriented to a young audience. Notice the swagman now has a dog, which is not mentioned in the original bush song. However, it’s highly likely he was accompanied by a dog, helping him to bring the sheep down, then sharing the meat.

 

Waltzing Matilda Freya Blackwood

Anyone with an interest in the story which inspired the bush song can read a non-fiction account by Dennis O’Keeffe.

Waltzing Matilda non-fiction

Humour and Storytelling of Kath and Kim

Kath and Kim

Kath and Kim is a satirical Australian comedy series created by Jane Turner and Gina Riley, which aired 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2007. There are a couple of movies, too.

Kath and Kim was remade in America but failed to achieve popularity. Kath and Kim is a specifically (pacifically) Australian series, though enjoyed equally in New Zealand, and not just because Kiwis like to see Aussies making fun of themselves! (It’s because New Zealanders recognise the same characters.)

What can comedy writers learn from Kath and Kim? Below I take a look at the humour of Kath and Kim taking cues from the taxonomy of humour proposed by the creator of The Onion.

IRONY

Any difference between expectation and outcome

Satire is the comedy of beliefs, especially those on which an entire society is based. Satire and irony are not the same, but they commonly go together. (For more on satire, see my post on irony. For the difference between satire, farce and parody, Quora has a good answer on that.)

Continue reading “Humour and Storytelling of Kath and Kim”

Tall Tale Techniques For The Scarily Inclined

A bearded man either listens to or tells a tall tale inside a cave
Aim for this face when you’re telling a scary tall tale. (In both you and your audience) Photo by zamario.

AUDIO EXAMPLE OF A SCARY TALL TALE

First, listen to a master. This bloke (‘Bongo’) rang into an Australian radio station cracking on his story is true. If it’s true, I’ll eat every single one of my hats. Mind you, the guys at Mysterious Universe believe it. Strange things happen in The Outback.

What do you think?

Go to episode 404 of Mysterious Universe and, unless you want to hear all about sleep paralysis and trolls sitting on chests (which is also fascinating), you can skip straight to Bongo’s yarn at 51:25.

No doubt about it, Bongo is a master of the form. I bet he’s been telling this very yarn for years and years (since September of ’78). If you go to the Australian Outback you’ll meet a number of great storytellers just like Bongo; my in-laws love their camping holidays and they’ll tell you exactly where to find these old guys – out near Lightning Ridge and so on. There’s nothing much else to do out there after dark, you see, with no internet connection and no nothing. Spinning yarns while sounding authentic is a valued skill, like playing the banjo or the harmonica… or the Bongos, even. Continue reading “Tall Tale Techniques For The Scarily Inclined”

The Best Quiet Children’s Films

By ‘quiet’ I mean the anti-Dreamworks of yak-yak that drives you crazy when you’re listening to it in the background. These films will help a child to feel calm rather than revved up, especially if viewed without fizzy drink and choc-tops.

These quiet movies are set close to nature, feature classical soundtracks relatively little (if any) dialogue. (For some reason the mother is usually absent.)

Please bear in mind that by ‘quiet’ I don’t necessarily mean ‘appropriate for all kids all of the time’. Quite the reverse. Some of these quiet films are confronting, because when something horrible does happen in a quiet film, it feels all the worse for being isolated from all that babble. That said, my 8-year-old daughter has seen all of them numerous times, and she saw some of them when she was quite young. She tends to absorb story to the extent to which she can understand.

Some of these stories are not for children specifically.

Notice these quiet but often disturbing films are not coming out of America? For a fulsome list we must leave Hollywood.

LIST OF QUIET FILMS FOR FAMILY MOVE NIGHT

1. THE BEAR (1988)

el-oso-lours-1988-online

 

My father took me to see this in the cinema when I was ten. It’s still great. Like many classic stories for children, the mother dies. But the mother bear dies on screen, so it’s not like Cinderella or something like that, in which we never even mourn for the dead mother. The other note about this: There is a bear mating scene. I remember asking my dad in the theatre what they were doing. “They’re mating,” he whispered. I still didn’t really know what that meant, but I knew enough not to enquire further right there and then!

It’s essentially a father/son story. It’s actually pretty unrealistic if you know the real truth about male grizzlies, who are in reality inclined to eat their sons. So in fact this is an anthropomorphised story which glamorizes fatherhood after getting rid of the pesky mother (a story we see all to often, even in modern films).

For some reason I still love it.

Young viewers may need to be reassured that no animals were harmed in the making of the film.

Fly Away Home also has a shock opening and follows with a quiet story, but I can’t really recommend it here. My kid finds that one not only quiet but boring.

2. MINUSCULE: VALLEY OF THE LOST ANTS (2013)

minuscule-valley-of-the-lost-ants-2014-movie-poster

There’s no talking in this — the sound effects can sometimes be a bit noisy, because the insect world is depicted using human traffic sound effects, but overall this is a great before bed movie and I can’t think of any particularly disturbing scenes. It’s the safest of the films listed here. You’ll even empathise with a spider.

3. THE FOX AND THE CHILD (2007)

the-fox-and-the-child

There’s very little talking in this, which is good, because if you’re watching in English you can see they’ve dubbed it pretty badly! (It doesn’t matter.) This appears to be a calm, nature-loving story — until the battle sequence. My eight-year-old fox loving kid burst into tears. But then it gets better… I feel it’s a shame they did this.

Spoiler alert:

[The fox appears to be dead but then it’s not really.]

The moral of the story is that you can’t tame a wild animal. You have to appreciate nature for what it is without anthropomorphizing.

4. MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO (1988)

my-neighbour-totoro

I could list a bunch of Studio Ghibli films here.

In My Neighbour Totoro, we again have an absent mother (sick in hospital), and a story that glorifies the relationship between a father and his two little girls, who move to the country to be near the mother as she convalesces. They enter a spiritual world which feels very Japanese but is wholly imaginative, and meet some cuddly creatures.

This appeals to the younger set, even preschoolers. Another in the same vain is Ponyo. I write in detail about that film here. The mother isn’t entirely absent in that one — the father is.

5. SPIRITED AWAY (2002)

spirited-away-movie-poster-2002-1010340447

This is one of the Ghibli films for an older audience (compared to Totoro and Ponyo). The scene where the parents are turned into pigs is confronting for a little kid. But overall the pacing is slow and dreamlike. The parents eventually reunite, after Chihiro learns to work hard. (I thought this was a peculiarly Japanese characteristic of story until I read Brian Selznick’s Hugo Cabret!)

I won’t list all of the Ghibli movies — all of them are on the quiet side. Their latest film (2016) is The Red Turtletheir first non-Japanese production (though not the first non-Japanese adaptation).

6. RABBIT PROOF FENCE

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This historical story is the first live action on the list. Of course, the movie poster features the face of a white dude, rather than the Australian Aboriginal children it actually stars. This isn’t specifically a children’s film.

7. MARY AND MAX (2009)

mary-and-max

Another fine Australian film, claymation, so appealing to kids but really it’s not specifically for kids. It mixes real life scenery with animation (claymation), similar to the Minuscule movies.

It’s said this movie is not for kids. I think this needs saying because we expect claymation to be only for kids. I say it’s a movie for everyone.

8. TEMPLE GRANDIN

templegrandin

While we’re on the topic of neurodifference, I totally recommend this biopic of the world’s most well-known autistic woman.

I wasn’t a huge fan of Clare Danes as an actor — I felt she touched her hair too much in Homeland — but after watching her play Temple Grandin, I have a renewed respect for her breadth.

Children with sensory processing issues will identify with Grandin. (And may be the reason you were looking for a list of ‘quiet’ children’s movies in the first place.)

9. WHAT MAISIE KNEW (2012)

what-maisie-knew

Perhaps not what you’d recommend for a kid? It’s true that not all stories about children are for children, and this is a film for adults, based on a short story for adults. Nevertheless, my daughter loved it.

Since it’s about a girl watching on as her parents go through a divorce, I’d not recommend it to a child in the middle of similar trauma themselves.

The entire film rests on the acting abilities of the child actor, who does an amazing job.

10. THE PRIZEWINNER OF DEFIANCE, OHIO (2005)

the-prizewinner-of-definance-ohio

Speaking of the wonderful Julieanne Moore…

This is the least ‘quiet’ of all the films above, because it centres on the life of a big family, told from the perspective of a mother’s grown-up daughter. It’s based on the daughter’s memoir. I’d like to include it in this list to bolster the number of mothers. Overall it’s a feelgood film, though the scenes with the moody father might be a bit confronting.

11. WAITRESS (2007)

waitress

I’ve written about that film here. After watching this my daughter started an imaginary game of cafes, wearing an apron, writing menus and making food out of plasticine.

It will require prior knowledge of, or a discussion about, babies and where they come from, and how women sometimes end up with babies they didn’t plan, and have to make the decision about whether or not to keep them. This is something which can prey upon young girls’ minds anyway, so I feel such a discussion is never a bad thing. Overall, the message is conservative. The waitress ends up with a daughter, played by the writer/director’s real life daughter. The writer/director was subsequently murdered in real life by a man, but no need to mention that to your kid.

As I keep coming back to, real life is way worse than fiction. Might as well scaffold real life with slightly confronting fiction.

 

 

The Lost Thing By Shaun Tan

the lost thing cover

THEME

Interestingly, the flap copy manages to describe the theme in a metafictional kind of way:

I guess you want to know what this book is about, just by reading this cover flap. Fair enough too; time is short, lives are busy, and most smart, thinking people have better things to do than stand around looking at picture books about some big red thing being lost in a strange city…

This is basically a critique of people wandering through life not noticing things.

The narrator’s parents are too busy keeping up with current events. This reminds me of a Freakonomics podcast Why Do We Really Follow The News? tl;dl: We follow the news to seem smart. We follow news for entertainment, treating politics like a kind of sport. But does following news really make you smarter, or do you just seem smarter? Are you following the right amount of news, or is your interest in current events perhaps leaving you without time for the small things in your immediate surrounds?

The final page is again metafictive: “And don’t ask me what the moral is.” This is a nod to the fact that children’s books are expected to have morals (even though the best and latest ones don’t at all.)

Readers will bring their own meanings to this story. I’m inclined to see stories as metaphors for autism. The boy’s massive collection of bottle tops is one clue, as is the fact that he is able to notice things others don’t. He’s offered a sign and “I can’t say I knew what it all meant.” There is a popular view of autism as illness, in which an autistic child is expected to learn to fit in with allistics in order to get on in life. Social skills can indeed be learned, but only at the expense of losing that highly individual part of yourself.

More widely, this could be a story about any child with an unusual worldview who, by social conditioning, is gradually forced into adult conformity.

CHARACTER

Continue reading “The Lost Thing By Shaun Tan”

Black Dog by Pamela Allen Analysis

Black Dog by Pamela Allen (1991) is about a girl who actually neglects her dog, but learns not to by the end.

A few weeks ago I took a close look at the much more recent picture book with a similar name, Blackdog by Levi Pinfold. In that, I interpret the black dog as agoraphobia or a similar mental illness that descends in winter.

Here is another book with a black dog, a winter setting and a mental illness metaphor, this time from 1991.

For a history of the symbolism of depression and black dogs, see here. (tl;dr: Winston Churchill made it well-known, but the symbolism goes back to medieval times.)

STORY STRUCTURE OF BLACK DOG

If you’re ever wondering who the main character of a story is ask the following question: Who undergoes the greatest character change?

After thinking carefully about who is the hero of this book — Christina or the Black Dog — I’ve come to the conclusion that the girl and the dog are two halves of the same character.

WEAKNESS/NEED

The first three pages of the story, written in the iterative, explain how happy Christina and the dog are playing together during spring, summer and autumn.

Christina black dog happy_600x509

Black Dog Pamela Allen seasons01Black Dog Pamela Allen seasons02_600x620

Then we have a switch to the singular: One cold day in winter the wind blew and the trees shivered.

The personification of the trees (‘shivering’), and the image of the girl and her dog walking into the forest, shows how much the girl is part of the landscape. Christina is the winter.

Wind symbolises change. Also, the wind is blowing towards the house, which makes the trees lean in to retrieve her.

One cold day_600x553

DESIRE

It was then Christina first thought how hungry the birds must be now the worms were deep in the ground and there were no seeds to be found.

So she goes to the cupboard and breaks a small piece of bread and scatters the crumbs on the ground, in an image that will immediately put the reader in mind of a scene out of Hansel and Gretel. The forest in Hansel and Gretel is the ultimate ur-Forest — whenever a child character enters a forest we know that danger lurks.

See: Hansel and Gretel by Neil Gaiman and Lorenzo Mattotti

Food In Children’s Literature

Christina wants to keep feeding the birds through winter.

Using a trick from classic fairytales, Pamela Allen sticks to the rule of threes: first one little bird comes to eat the crumbs; next two little birds, then a magnificent big blue bird.

OPPONENT

Who is the opponent in this story? It’s a bit tricky to work out, but not if we start from the idea that in children’s books featuring animals, the animal and child character very often meld into one.

You could argue it’s the blue bird, who probably doesn’t even exist. This figment of Christina’s imagination causes her to obsess, and neglect her dog (and herself).

Christina is Black Dog’s opponent because she is supposed to be taking care of him.

Christina is her own worst enemy.

Depression, obsession and false hope is the overall opponent here.

Blue bird dream_600x1062

PLAN

After getting thinner and thinner from neglect, it is black dog who hatches the plan.

He will climb the tree and pretend to be a bird.

As is usual in children’s books in which the animal hatches the plan, we don’t actually see the plan until it’s carried out. But we do see him lying on the ground with his eyes looking up as if he’s thinking about something.

BATTLE

The ‘set piece’ of the book is when Black Dog leaps from high in the tree.

Black Dog flying_600x421

SELF-REVELATION

But it is Christina who has the revelation. We see her pick him up carefully, gently, and carry him inside and lay him on her bed. She cuddles him and tells him she loves him.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

We don’t see Christina’s emergence from depression, but we do see that she has now realised she must pay attention to her dog.

In other words, she must take care of herself during this dark time.

 

The American School System: A guide for those from Down Under

Down Under, we grow up reading American books and watching American TV, so the following words are familiar even if we don’t use them ourselves. That said, our language and culture is borrowing more and more from North America. High schools often have faculties now instead of departments, and I’ve heard teenagers start to say ‘math class’ instead of ‘maths class’. New high schools are calling themselves colleges.

The following terms refer to Americans in  high school AND in university.

year 1: Freshman
year 2: Sophomore
year 3: Junior
year 4: Senior

We call Freshmen ‘first years’. At university in New Zealand, a ‘freshman’ is often required to do an ‘intermediate year’, which is the first year of a university course. It’s relatively easy to get into university there, in fact you don’t even have to pass a thing at high school – you can simply wait until you turn 25. But if you want to do a rigorous course such as medicine, you’ll have to do an intermediate year of health science, from which only the top students are accepted for further study.

In New Zealand they are called second years (university), or year tens (high school).

Sometimes Americans might say “I’m a junior” and will have to clarify if that’s high school (age 17) or college (age 21ish).

PAYING FOR UNIVERSITY IN AMERICA

  • Prices vary between states but it looks to be around $10,000 tuition per year. Plus you need $10,000 (give or take) per year for room, board, fees, books.
  • An out of state school public could be $20,000 a year and up.
  • There is no free option at this time unless you apply for and receive a scholarship or grant.
  • Also, there are government sponsored loans that are easy to get for young first time college students to help offset the costs. They have to be paid back monthly for many years after you graduate, which is the same in New Zealand and in Australia. In NZ it’s called the student loan scheme, and in Australia it is shortened to HECS.
  • All American students can fill out the FAFSA https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FAFSA which helps the govt decide how much money kids can get for college.
  • Low income Americans can get  the expensive application fees waived for colleges but that’s about $100 each and doesn’t cover much in the scheme of things.
  • There are also waivers available for the tests to get into college (SATs and ACTs). There are also waivers for low income high school students down under, so they can sit their tests even if their parent(s) can’t pay for it.
  • You’ve probably heard Americans talk quite a lot about SATs. Here’s a confusing thing for us: elementary school SATs are different.
  • You can actually sit for your SATs in many places around the world — they’re held six times per year.
  • SAT stands for Scholastic Aptitude Test. It is administered by the College Board in the USA, and is a measure of the critical thinking skills needed for academic success. The SAT assesses how well you analyse and solve problems. (Some would argue that it tests how well you have already been educated, and how savvy you are at taking tests.)
  • It is made up of three parts: Critical reading/Math/Writing
  • Here’s a site that tells American college graduates where they might get into college based on their SATs and ACT scores.
  • What’s a good SAT score? If you want to get into one of the best schools it seems you need about 1500 or above.
  • But you also need to show that you’re a well-rounded person, and you should be into sports/arts/charity work.

OTHER AMERICAN TERMINOLOGY

BLEACHERS – For the longest time I thought this was something you’d find in a janitor’s closet. Then I read about some kids kissing behind the bleachers, and I realised the handle of a mop would hardly provide cover, so I took the time to look it up. Turns out they refer to those tiered seats you get on playing fields and lining gymnasiums. I have no idea what we call them, but I’ve never heard anyone talk about ‘bleachers’. Perhaps we call them ‘forms’. They’re not standard equipment, in any case.

pic by Garrett Coyte

JANITOR – But we don’t say ‘janitor’ either. That would sound distinctively American. We just say ‘cleaner’.

GRADUATE – In New Zealand you don’t ‘graduate’ high school. You just get your qualifications (or not) and finish up. You graduate from university.

CAFETERIA – New Zealand and Australian schools don’t tend to have those huge dining hall set-ups. We had to eat a packed lunch outside. If the weather was terrible we were (reluctantly) allowed to eat inside our home classroom, but in year ten, several drop-ins broke windows, so we were all locked out no matter the weather. I have memories of sitting inside a cleaner’s closet with two friends because it was snowing outside. (There were no bleachers in there.)

If students want to buy lunch (which is usually a meat pie because salad rolls are for pansies) they go to the ‘canteen’ or the ‘tuck shop’, but there’s no place to sit down and eat lunch at a civilised table, unless you go to an expensive private school. Even then, such privileges are often reserved for seniors.

‘SIGNING UP’ FOR CLASSES – This sounds more like something you’d do as a university student, but American books tell me that high school students ‘sign up’ for their classes at the start of an academic year. Senior high school students here do have a day in which you have to go in at the beginning of the year and show the timetabling teacher the marks you got, to prove you indeed still want to do the same subjects you’d picked before summer.

Down Under, there is a core of compulsory classes (English, maths, science) and even in senior high school, you have to select your subjects the year before, in the hope you’ll pass your end of year exams and get into them. Therefore, ‘signing up’ for a class is more a matter of visiting your subject teachers on the first day back and letting them know haven’t changed your mind about your subject choices over the summer holidays – or if you haven’t passed your NCEA courses, you’ll be having a sit down with a careers teacher to discuss your options. ‘Signing up’ sounds like there’s way more freedom than there actually is, because even with elective subjects, you’ve still got to choose something. (Maybe that’s the deception.)

CHEERLEADERS – I don’t know of any local high schools with a cheerleading team, and while I appreciate the strength and agility required, to me it is on a par with pole dancing. That said, there is a local gymnastics teacher who offers classes in cheerleading to little girls. (I suppose little boys could join in too, though I doubt it’s full of male participants.) Since pole dancing seems to have taken off lately, it wouldn’t surprise me if cheerleading took off in high schools here in the next generation. We do have cheerleading teams for regional and national rugby games, so the concept is here.

pic by arbron

HOMECOMING QUEEN – I’m so glad we don’t have this tradition. Really. It sounds just awful. We do have end of school celebrations.

PROM –  Some of our schools call them ‘balls’. Others call them ‘formals’. But I’ve not heard proms. What is it short for? There is usually an ‘after party’, which is shut down if the teachers get wind of it, then it moves somewhere else. Traditional high schools still teach their students ballroom dancing beforehand, and retain the ‘invite a partner’ thing, but more and more liberal high schools are deconstructing the idea of ‘partners’, and instead encourage their students to just turn up and have a good time when they get there. This is to avert the need for major stress for students who can’t find a partner, and avoids discrimination of non-heterosexual students, who are still banned from bringing their partners to the school ball at some schools, both state and religious.

In Australia, there is ‘schoolies’ week – an huge week-long party which started at Broadbeach. But not everyone is interested in attending that. It receives a lot of media attention every year because bad things happen there too. A lot of Australians have very fond memories of schoolies. In New Zealand, there isn’t a huge organised thing like that, but lots of students get together with friends and stay for a week in someone’s family bach (holiday home) or take a car trip around New Zealand before spending the rest of summer stacking shelves at a supermarket.

pic by Capt Piper

DRIVER ED – Are not usually run through a school in the way they are in America. Until recently, we got taught by our dads. But licences have gotten a little harder to pass, and have now turned into a formal industry. It’s hard to pass the tests unless you get taught by a qualified instructor. So more and more high schools now are taking the American model, and hiring driving instructors through the school. Unlike what I saw in Mr Holland’s Opus, these instructors are not their regular teachers, but contractors who specialise in driving instruction. In a film such as Mr Holland’s Opus we see that some high school teachers earn money over summer by teaching driving lessons. This is because America doesn’t pay their teachers well enough to sustain them over the entire year. Down here, driving instruction is a separate industry, though recently a lot of high schools are providing a driving program through the schools. Some even have their own designated car.

YEAR BOOKS – Most high schools seem to produce year books here, which are either put together by a teacher or by a group of students. Either way, I’ve not ever seen a ‘Student most likely to…’ situation. That sounds rather unkind to me. That’s not to say year books are not unkind, especially if the students collating photos have malevolent intention. Mind you, this is no worse than what goes on online, where ‘friends’ can tag you in the most heinous positions, and then share those photos with the world. I wonder if year books are on their way out everywhere. An online forum would be a less expensive way to share photos and memories of school. Mind you, its very fluidity is also its downfall.

 

The Implications of Preferencing The Children’s Books Of Yesteryear

The Telegraph (UK) this week published a summary of a survey in which parents were asked for their opinion on which books every child should read by the age of 16.

Can you guess what the top books were?

I’ll give you a hint: The books most highly recommended by parents were all around when we parents ourselves were children. In short, most parents think that children should be reading what we were reading when we were their age.

A WITHERING LOCAL PUBLISHING INDUSTRY

I’m not sure about the publishing industry in the UK, but I have heard from a list_serv I’m on that Australian picture book sales have taken a nose dive over the past ten years, which directly influences how many new Australian books are produced. I had noticed myself how difficult it has become to purchase even very good Australian picture books if they’re even a little bit old (especially if they missed out on top awards), but I hadn’t realised it was such a recent and such a violent downward thing, and I hadn’t realised it started 10 years ago.

What happened there, then? I’m sure a publishing expert knows far more than I do about this, though the Internet and parallel importing from Amazon owned businesses surely had something to do with it. Despite trying my best to purchase an Australian picture book this week from Not Amazon, I failed. The bookstore I sent money to told me five days later that the book that had appeared to be in stock actually wasn’t, and now I have to wait an extra week or so for the refund. Say what you will about Book Depository, but they don’t do that.

It’s easy to believe from the sheer number of picture books published each year that the children’s book market is flourishing, and in some ways it most definitely is. The big corporations are making a lot of money out of children’s books. On the other hand, take a look at the picture books on the shelves of children you know and you’ll see the same books over and over again. A lot of Australian kids have books by Nick Bland, because for several years his work has been chosen for National Simultaneous Reading Time, and there was a super-cheap (I think $5) version produced so that every child could afford a copy. Then you’ll find books that are sold in boxed sets in places like Aldi (always the classics), or Costco (the best-selling modern series). There are highly gendered books you can get as birthday presents from places like Target and Big-W — pink and glittery for girls, blue and action-packed for boys. You can also find in chain stores those books which are ‘tentpole’ books such as those by Lemony Snicket, Jon Klassen and Julia Donaldson. A lot of those make their way onto children’s bookshelves.

What else do you find there? Battered and loved books from our own childhoods. In some cases (ours no exception) old books make up the bulk.

But I can tell you as a keen and discerning buyer of books which kind of books my own daughter prefers. She most definitely prefers the new books I buy for her. And you know what else? I do too! The more modern books I read, the more outdated the classic books feel. As a culture, we are far too used to a children’s literature landscape which is predominantly white and abled and male.

There are actually very few adults seeking out the high-quality, lesser-known picture books. It doesn’t help that these tend to cost twice as much, and are often available only in hardback. It’s difficult to find the wonderfully quirky books of Australian Chris Kimmie on any home bookshelves, and if you want to complete your series of Lily Quench by Natalie Jane Prior, good luck, because these wonderful books seem to have fallen out of print.

In sum: Childhood is surprisingly short. Children move through developmental phases very quickly, and there are only so many books that can be read during each window. If your child is busy reading The Secret Seven, she is not busy reading Lily Quench, with the wonderfully ‘strong’ female hero. This is actually a zero sum game, even for the most enthusiastic readers.

DIVERSITY

Quite rightly, a lot is being said about the lack of diversity in children’s literature, and I feel like the discussion really took off — on Twitter, at least — with the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign.

(I don’t think it’s just a ‘feeling’. See: The 2015 Youth Media Awards: A Crossover Year for Diversity, an excellent article from SLJ.)

The main problem with expecting children to read what we read, and oftentimes what our grandparents read (see Enid Blyton for a glaring example of this), is that apart from preferencing the experiences of white boys, you’ll find if you re-read critically, a lot of problematic ideas which no longer deserve a revered place on our children’s bookshelves.

Despite having loved Enid Blyton myself, and despite owning a 2-metre-wide collection of Blyton stories, I have decided not to encourage my own daughter to read these. I haven’t got around to it yet, but I intend to free up some shelf space by giving them away. Truth be told, I don’t even want to do that. If I donate them to Vinnies, someone will buy them and some other kid will be the recipient of some very dodgy ideas.

My distaste for Enid Blyton is controversial. I’m aware of that. Not really because her sexism and racism aren’t well-known, but because of the parenting style which ‘Lets Kids Be Kids’. Kids, apparently, can read as critically as adults, and by exposing them to racist, sexist stuff, you’re somehow promoting critical thinking skills.

I’m not so sure about that. I did a school project on Blyton when I was about 12 — technically old enough to be engaging in critical thinking. I found articles about the problematic racism and sexism in those books. I had noticed the sexism all by myself, but I hadn’t noticed the racism. That’s because I myself was a white kid living in a predominantly white environment. No one at all pointed out to me the racism.

OUTDATED MORAL CODES

What I realised for the first time about reading Folk of the Faraway Tree as an adult,was the way in which the young reader is asked to identify with Dick, Bessie and Fanny, and jeer with them about the ridiculous Connie in her fussy, frilly dresses. There’s some very uncomfortable femme-phobic bullying in there of the sort that was tolerated when I was at school but which is not now. My point being: A lot of what’s wrong with older books goes completely under the radar for young readers.

If we are to accept that literature is life-changing for the better, we must accept that literature can be life-changing for the worse.

WHY DO WE PREFERENCE OLDER CHILDREN’S BOOKS?

Part of it is snobbery. See another article from The Telegraph, in which Jemima Lewis bemoans the changing landscape of children’s literature:

The study notes a “marked downturn” in children’s reading habits from the age of 11. Instead of aiming higher than their age range, they swivel back on themselves, returning to the likes of Walliams and Jeff Kinney (author of the smash-hit Diary of a Wimpy Kid series). Their most sophisticated literary excursions take them no further than the Hunger Games and Percy Jackson franchises.

Back when one was allowed to make artistic value judgments, these latter books would have been described as Good Trash. Well‑crafted, entertaining and fun – but not intellectually sustaining on their own.

When I was a teenager, there wasn’t much Good Trash around. The “Young Adult” market had yet to be invented, so we skipped straight to “Adult” for our low-brow pleasures. I devoured Jilly Cooper’s early romances – Imogen, Harriet, Octavia and the rest – and even dipped into the unarguably Bad Trash of Jackie Collins.

I actually share a lot of Lewis’s concerns: The binarily-gendered book covers, the reluctance for publishers to acquire much of anything that isn’t part of a hit series. The Scholastic Book Club pamphlet my six-year-old presented me with yesterday is full of plush toys, craft-kits and branded  products: Super Heroes, movie tie-ins, TV tie-ins and the odd tent-pole Australian series, to the exclusion of all others.

To be honest, I’m not sure where I stand on the so-called ‘dumbing-down’ of children’s literature, but I’m inclined to think that modern children’s literature offers modern young readers everything they’ll need to do very well in this world, thank you very much. The main reasons for reading in childhood are to:

  1. Enjoy childhood
  2. Develop decoding skills (the tech aspects of reading)
  3. Practise empathy for people who are not us and who are not like us
  4. Learn about the world

The only drawback I can see in your child reading contemporary literature to the exclusion of all else is a possible lack in number four. Reading contemporary books ‘about’ history isn’t exactly the same as reading books that were set in historical eras. But if your child is reading all the classics to the exclusion of much that is contemporary, they’re going to fall short at number three. And possibly at number one, if they’re having your old beloved classics forced upon them. Take your pick.

 

If anyone is reading all of this, I realise I’m preaching to the choir, but we really must make an effort to spend money buying the sorts of books we’d like to see more of in this world.