In a carnivalesque story, the lowest in societal hierarchy — in the medieval carnival a fool, in children’s books a child — is allowed to change places with the highest: a king, or an adult, and to become strong, rich, and brave, to perform heroic deeds, to have power.
The necessary condition of carnival is the reestablishment of the original order, that is, return to normal life. Carnival is always a temporary, transitional phenomenon–so is childhood. Like the carnivalesque fool, the child can temporarily, by means of magic or his own imagination, become strong, beautiful, wise, learn to fly, trick the adults, and win over enemies. The end of carnival means return to the everyday, but the purpose of carnival is not only entertainment, but a rehearsal of a future moral and psychological transformation.
– Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time In Children’s Literature
A ‘carnivalesque’ text is a kind of book form children in which the child characters interrogate the normal subject positions created for children within socially dominant ideological frames.
Carnival in children’s literature:
- is playful
- is non-conforming
- opposes authoritarianism and seriousness
- is often manifested as a parody of prevailing literary forms and genres
- often has idiomatic discourse
- is often rich in language which mocks authority, even though swearing is taboo in children’s literature (for example Dahl’s use of ‘pulled a pistol from her knickers’)
- often stars a hero who is a bit of a clown or a fool
Carnivalesque texts for children can be divided into 3 types:
1. Those which offer the characters ‘time out’ from the habitual constraints of society but incorporate a safe return to social normality (of which Where The Wild Things Are is one such example). Adults tend to be not present to intervene.
2. Those which strive through simple mockery to dismantle socially received ideas and replace them with their opposite, privileging weakness over strength (Babette Cole’s Prince Cinders, Anthony Browne’s Willy The Wimp)
3. Those which are more recent, and perhaps British in origin, consist of books which are endemically subversive of such things as social authority, received paradigms of behaviour and morality, and major literary genres associated with children’s literature (Out Of The Oven by Jan Mark and Anthony Maitland, Wagstaffe the Wind-up Boy by Jan Needle).
WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE
Where The Wild Things Are is [the first kind of carnivalesque text in three important ways: Max’s behaviour is oppositional to normal socializing expectations; the ‘wild things’ in the illustrations are grotesques, and thus in essence parodies of the natural creatures usually encountered during a wilderness adventure; and the book clearly belongs to the ‘time out’ group, in that Max’s adventure is formally a parenthesis in his relationship with his mother. Roger H. Ford (1979) has suggested that the main characters in several of Sendak’s books are modelled on the folk-tale Trickster figure, dominated by selfish appetites and emotions, given to practical jokes, capable of heroism and generally unselfconscious. Max’s entry into the land of the wild things, whether we regard it as a dream or an act of the imagination, enables him to enjoy a time of unconcerned spontaneity free of the social constraints which define his behaviours in the world as ‘mischief’. Max’s attempt to construct a site for fantasy play in the opening illustration involves causing damage to property, as is foregrounded by the grossly oversized hammer with which he attempts to drive a huge nail into the wall. His second act of mischief is to attack the family dog with a kitchen fork, an actual breach of proper conduct going beyond the quasi-‘hanging’ of his teddy bear included in the first illustration. Max, then, still deeply immersed in the solipsism of childhood, has not yet learnt the first principle of freedom–that freedom of action is bounded by the rights of others. Carnivalesque texts, by breaching those boundaries, explore where they properly lie and the ideological bases for their determination, but without always necessarily redrawing those boundaries…The grotesque in this book is comic and droll rather than frightening, though this was not always perceived when the book was first published. …By giving comically grotesque forms to inner fears, the illustrations image the defeat of that fear. Moreover, Max is always in control. Swanton (1971) offers this as one reason why children do not find the book frightening.
– Language and Ideology in Children’s Fiction by John Stephens
Stephens explains that the carnivalesque story is used not to question the values of the official world (that children being rude to their mothers needs to go punished before they are allowed to eat dinner), but to ‘define the values which may be at most implicit in some of the puzzling actions performed by those in power. In this respect, it is important to see that Max’s return and his mother’s gift of ‘supper’ are not causally linked but contiguous, since each is unconditional.’ Other authors of the era were writing quite different stories re parent/child power. For example, Nesbit. Stephens points out that modern books are not necessarily any better than Nesbits were, in that regard.