Humour Study: Overly Literal Characters

Humorous stories about characters who find themselves in strife after taking instructions too literally are old stock comedy fodder. One of the earliest recorded in Europe is the fairytale Clever Hans — an ironic title, because Hans is a fool. Hans does something stupid, his mother tells him to do it differently next time. But when Hans applies the previous bit of commonsense advice to the new, slightly different situation, this leads to different trouble. Trouble increases in magnitude until he ruins his life.

If you’re anything like me, Clever Hans as a humorous tale doesn’t work. It feels out-dated, by centuries. One problem is the heinous nature of the repercussions. Hans ‘stupidly’ plucks out the eyeballs of the farm animals — an example of foolishness which seems cruel rather than funny to me.

But has the archetype of the overly literal fool gone out of fashion? Not at all. In fact, we’re having a bit of a renaissance. I suspect this is partly to do with increasing autism awareness (which is a different thing entirely from autism acceptance). The stereotypical autistic person, promoted by the contemporary corpus of fiction is:

  • White
  • Male
  • Good at maths/fixing and hacking computers/memorising facts about specialty area
  • Non-empathetic
  • And overly literal, to his own detriment

Atypical Netflix

Sam of Netflix’s Atypical series is an excellent showcase of this popular — but ultimately shallow — understanding of level one autism:

Sam is a basically a human whiteboard illustrating the triad of impairments. He talks in a somewhat rat-a-tat monotone voice (demonstrating atypical verbal development), can’t understand social cues and takes everything very literally (social and emotional difficulties), and has obsessions (imaginative restriction or repetitive behaviour), which manifests in his case as an all-consuming interest in Antarctica and the Arctic and all the fauna of those environments, especially penguins.

What Netflix Comedy Atypical Gets Right and Wrong About Autism

Overly literal interpretation of language is not a characteristic shared by every person with a diagnosis of autism. Many autistic people can throw sarcasm with the best of them. Satire — top level comedy — is not lost on autistic people. At the moment, any overly literal comedic character tends to have a pop-culture diagnosis of autism whether the creators declare that or not. The Big Bang Theory is an excellent example of that phenomenon.

This is why I am delighted to see brilliant Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby has revealed her autism diagnosis publicly, a generous act, given that she’s now going to be seconded as ambassador for yet another marginalised group, whether she wants to invest all that time or not. Gadsby does not fit the autistic stereotype. Fortunately for us, she has the gift of seeing satire and absurdity at the deepest level, commenting ironically, manipulating audience emotion with fine precision. Gadsby shares this skill with many in the autistic community.

Perhaps this signals the beginning of a more diverse representation of autism in pop-culture. I hope comedy writers will start pushing the boat out when writing autistic characters, beyond mishaps caused by ‘overly literal’ interpretations. It’s far more difficult to pinpoint humour in the very real differences between autistic and neurotypical communication styles. It really does require #OwnVoices level insight.

Teaching Emotional Literacy Via Chapter Books

Throughout the history of children’s literature, children’s books have existed in large part to teach lessons. Not only do they teach children to be compliant, grateful, pious, and to work hard, children’s books socialise children. Today we might say they teach ’emotional literacy’.

emotional literacy is taught via the Ramona books

“Everybody else on the block rides two-wheelers. Only babies ride tricycles.” She made this remark because she knew Howie still rode his tricycle, and she was so angry about the ribbon she wanted to hurt his feelings.

Ramona the Pest, Beverly Cleary

Adult readers are left to work out motivations, ironies and desires for ourselves — we read between the lines. And this is true for young adult novels, too. But when children are learning to read they are also learning to recognise and name their feelings. Chapter books such as the Ramona series are good at doing that because they add that little extra bit of explanation.

This little bit of extra explanation can be found in children’s books for older readers, too:

“So you should have told me before, that’s what. You shouldn’t hide things like that from people, because they feel stupid when they find out, and that’s cruel.

Northern Lights, Philip Pullman (Lyra to her father)

When an adult is unable to identify their own feelings it’s called alexithymia.

Alexithymia is defined by:

  1. difficulty identifying feelings and distinguishing between feelings and the bodily sensations of emotional arousal
  2. difficulty describing feelings to other people
  3. constricted imaginal processes, as evidenced by a scarcity of fantasies
  4. a stimulus-bound, externally oriented cognitive style.

Alexithymia is found more commonly in the autistic population, but not all autistic people have trouble understanding and identifying emotions. In fact, only about one in two autistic people have trouble with this.

Likewise, a surprisingly high 10 percent of non-autistic individuals are alexithymic.

Reading and understanding complex and difficult emotions are skills that need to be learned by all of us. Another reason not to skip the chapter books!

While Beverly Cleary does it beautifully, it’s easy to name emotions badly.

Storytelling Tips From The Edge Of Seventeen

The Edge Of Seventeen movie poster

This is a coming-of-age movie about an American girl called Nadine who struggles to fit in. That could describe many of us in our teen years, but with Nadine there’s a bit more to it.

STORY STRUCTURE

The film opens to a witty, high stakes dialogue scene in which Nadine rushes to her history teacher and tells him she’s going to kill herself. Mr Bruner is an excellent contrast to Nadine because he is calm and ironic and on the face of it, cruel. Nothing is a drama to him, not even suicide threats from students.

Next we have Nadine as storyteller narrator guiding us through her early life. This ends with her father dying two years back, and she sums this period up as ‘it was shit’ so she doesn’t bore us with the details. The father is grounded while the mother is not. Basically, the writers are taking a girl and doing the worst possible thing to her — taking away her father just as she enters the adult world. We’ve seen just enough of the father to fall in love with him ourselves, too.

When we’re in ‘the present’ the story starts in earnest, with Nadine talking to her best friend under a tree at lunch break, announcing her desire to have sex.

Continue reading “Storytelling Tips From The Edge Of Seventeen”

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”

Oliver by Birgitta Sif

Birgitta Sif is a picture book illustrator originally from Iceland, now living in England. So far she has produced four books. Oliver was first published by Walker Books 2012.

Oliver cover

A nice touch is that the opening page says ‘This adventure belongs to’, where most books say ‘This book belongs to’, leaving space for the child owner’s name. This already feels a lot more exciting. Perhaps this is something Walker books has decided to do with all of their publications recently?

THIS ADVENTURE BELONGS TO

That said, this story is not what I would call an ‘Adventure story’ in the technical definition of the genre. This is a mythic journey: The (male) hero leaves home and goes on a journey to find himself, meeting people and changing in the process. Still, that’s not what most people think of when they think of a mythic picture book, so it’s probably best the opening page doesn’t say ‘This myth belongs to…’.

It’s not unusual these days to find picture books with this few words, but even so, this stands out for its brevity — more than half of the story by far is told by the pictures. My reading of the story is that Oliver is on the autistic spectrum, though readers will bring their own interpretations, I’m sure. He may just be a highly imaginative little kid with some social anxiety issues. Since we don’t hear any dialogue, it’s possible that Oliver does not speak.

Here is the opening double spread, in which we are told that ‘Oliver felt a bit different’. In each of the illustrations we’ll see just how different. Continue reading “Oliver by Birgitta Sif”