Northern Lights is a YA story with broad appeal for adults. It follows mythic structure.
The story has been adapted into a film (2007) and also into an action/adventure puzzle game(by Sega). While in some cases films can be just as enjoyable — or even more enjoyable — than the books upon which they are based, that is nowhere near true in this case. There are many reasons for this which resulted from too many cooks spoiling the broth. Not least: Continue reading “Storytelling Tips from Northern Lights by Phillip Pullman”
This is the most succinct explanation of magical realism that I have seen lately:
If you’re looking for a literary agent on Twitter you will find many agents and editors asking for magical realism in children’s books at the moment. They are also complaining that they’re not getting enough of it. When an author says, “Hey I’ve got some for you!” it’s not magical realism at all.
Agent Michelle Witte has a much more detailed series of blog posts defining exactly what magical realism is and is not.
Real-world setting + fantastical elements = magical realism
In visual terms, think of it as a photo that’s blurred around the edges to give it an ethereal, almost otherworldly quality. It has the feel of magic—that anything is possible.
Magical realism focuses on ordinary people going about the humdrum activities of daily life. Everything is normal—except for one or two elements that go beyond the realm of possibility, whether it be magic or fate or a physical connection with the earth and the creatures that inhabit it, but always in a way that celebrates the mundane.
FABULISM OR MAGICAL REALISM?
Bear in mind that the definition of magical realism varies, depending on who you ask. Here is another point of view:
Michelle Witte argues that in fact magical realism did not originate in South America:
Despite the common misconception, magical realism didn’t originate in South America. Instead, German art critic Franz Roch coined the term “magical realism” in 1925 to describe the New Objectivity style of painting. A few years later, the concept of magical realism crossed the ocean to South America, where it was adopted and popularized by Latin American authors throughout the twentieth century as lo real maravilloso, the marvelous real. Notable writers include Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Isabel Allende, among numerous others.
While Hispanic writers were—and still are—a major influence in modern magical realistic literature, the style is not limited to a specific time or place. In fact, writers from across the world have adopted and adapted magical realism to fit their own cultures and within their own frame of reference.
Fifty years on, One Hundred Years of Solitude is still providing profound insights into our evolving human tale where horrors co-exist with wonders, where absurdities don’t provoke a blink.
Along with fantasy, horrors and Westerns, science fiction is one of the highly metaphorical categories of story.
WHAT IS SCIENCE FICTION?
THE UNIVERSAL EPIC
Science Fiction is about human evolution on the grandest scale, literally the universal epic.
Science fiction stories often use the myth form, not only because myth is about the journey but also because myth is the story form that explores the most fundamental human distinctions. What Is Meant By Mythic Structure?
Science fiction is the biggest of all genres, as huge as the universe and beyond. That’s why it’s so notoriously difficult to write well. It has a broad, loose structure that covers vast scales of space and time.
Science fiction is the most creative genre, because you can take nothing for granted. The writer must literally create everything, including the space-time rules by which human life itself operates.
THE MODERN PROPHECY
Howard Suber points out that science fiction is the modern ‘prophecy’ story, which has been popular forever.
As is true for any prophecy, one must understand not only the specifics of what is predicted but also the yearnings and fears they express.
THE FICTION OF IDEAS
Ray Bradbury broadly defines science fiction as ‘the fiction of ideas’. He also thinks science fiction as a genre is not taken seriously enough.
Science fiction is the fiction of ideas. […] Science fiction is any idea that occurs in the head and doesn’t exist yet, but soon will, and will change everything for everybody, and nothing will ever be the same again. As soon as you have an idea that changes some small part of the world you are writing science fiction. It is always the art of the possible, never the impossible. […] The mainstream hasn’t been paying attention to all the changes in our culture during the last fifty years. The major ideas of our time—developments in medicine, the importance of space exploration to advance our species—have been neglected. The critics are generally wrong, or they’re fifteen, twenty years late. It’s a great shame. They miss out on a lot. Why the fiction of ideas should be so neglected is beyond me. I can’t explain it, except in terms of intellectual snobbery. […] I often use the metaphor of Perseus and the head of Medusa when I speak of science fiction. Instead of looking into the face of truth, you look over your shoulder into the bronze surface of a reflecting shield. Then you reach back with your sword and cut off the head of Medusa. Science fiction pretends to look into the future but it’s really looking at a reflection of what is already in front of us. So you have a ricochet vision, a ricochet that enables you to have fun with it, instead of being self-conscious and superintellectual.
— Ray Bradbury
FEATURES OF SCIENCE FICTION
A typical science fiction film has a form as predictable as a Western, and is made up of elements which are as classic as the saloon brawl, the blonde schoolteacher from the East, and the gun duel on the deserted main street.
Science fiction is defined more by setting details than by other story elements.
Sci Fi is often set on other planets, in outer space, or on a future version of Earth. But these settings are not limited to sci-fi. In war films, also, the setting takes place on ‘a front’ — in sci fi and Westerns it takes place on ‘a frontier’. Dramatically, these are equivalent places. At the front/frontier, the organised forces of society are weak, get in the way, or trap the hero.
Technology is a major component of the setting.
Sci Fi requires an extrapolated or theoretical future science in order to fit the genre.
SCIENCE FICTION AND GENRE
As long as there is science, technology and a future/alternative history, the conventions of almost any other genre may be blended, including comedy, action-adventure and mystery.
HARD VS SOFT SCIENCE FICTION
An ongoing debate in the science fiction community is about the merits of “hard” vs “soft” science fiction. And the role of gender is significant here.
Hard science fiction tends to be a boys’ club, while soft science fiction can be seen as more accommodating to female writers. There is a perceived hierarchy of merit operating in these classifications as well: “hard” sounds masculine and virile, while “soft” connotes a weaker, less potent, feminised form of the genre. This is why “hard” science fiction is more likely to be considered among the “best” science fiction, and why the “soft” science fiction that more women tend to write doesn’t often make the cut.The Digital Reader explains that SF written by women is more likely to be called fantasy:
In 2013, the judges of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Britain’s most prestigious science fiction prize, disqualified a number of submitted books on the basis that they were not “technically” science fiction. They were deemed by the judges to be fantasy – a genre that does not require the realism of science – which has twice as many female authors compared to science fiction. As Damien Walters has observed, women’s writing is “dismissed as fantasy, while the fantasies of men are granted some higher status as science fiction”.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY
The major distinction between fantasy and science fiction is, simply, that science fiction uses one, or a very, very few new postulates, and develops the rigidly consistent logical consequences of these limited postulates. Fantasy makes its rules as it goes along . . . The basic nature of fantasy is “The only rule is, make up a new rule any time you need one!” The basic rule of science fiction is “Set up a basic proposition—then develop its consistent, logical consequences.”
— John W. Campbell (1910–1971), American science fiction writer, editor of Analog Science Fiction and Fact
Many disagree with this distinction. That was written in the 1960s and speculative fiction has come a long way since then. Obviously this explanation has implications for the gender divide described above.
Genre fiction and children’s fiction often functions to allow the reader to experience a particular form of fantasy. Some wishes are considered more worthy than others.
FIVE CHILDREN AND IT
The classic book that is entirely about what happens when you wish: Five Children and It, by E. Nesbit, published 1902. Nesbit had a firm grasp on the main reasons children read, and each chapter explores what happens after certain wishes are fulfilled.
The moral of the story: Be careful what you wish for! Also, simply having your wishes come true doesn’t mean you’re going to be happy. Every outcome has unpredictable consequences. Other people are always caught in your life web — you can’t make a personal wish without it affecting your community.
WISH FULFILMENT AND GENDER
Neil Gaiman has proposed a gender divide when it comes to wish fulfilment in stories.
Boys: Boys are bigger, stronger, faster, invisible, can fly. The wish fulfilment fantasies of boys are historically given more weight — seen as aspirational, part of normal, healthy development.
Girls: Girls’ real lives are based on lies. Their parents are not their real parents — they are secret princesses. There’s a promise of transmutation.
Some wish fulfilment fantasies in genre fiction read largely by girls is historically dismissed as banal, silly, crazy. The wish fulfilment of dark paranormal romance is one example. Girls wish for a handsome hero saviour but also wish to put aside the problems they face in everyday life — responsibility, body dissatisfaction and also the feeling of being unsafe, which girls must deal with as they enter the dating world.
WISH FULFILMENT IN STORIES FOR ADULTS
In adult fiction, the wish fulfilment aspect of story enjoyment is no less hidden — it may simply be invisible.
There are many literary stories about a middle aged man who falls in love with a much younger, beautiful woman. Or a troubled girl comes under the wing of a much older man and he helps her out. When there’s an element of regret in the story, this, too, is a form of wish fulfilment. A story which succumbs to this sort of wish fulfilment is Million Dollar Baby. Another is The Homesman. A story which could have succumbed to this kind of regret but manages to rise above is the film Wildlike, with the screenplay written by Frank Hall Green, whose work you may know from Foxcatcher, Precious, 127 Hours and Mud.
Apocalyptic fiction such as The Walking Dead or The Road explores the wish of a man to save himself and his own tribe using his most macho attributes and weaponry, outside the bounds of the safer, more banal real world in which he lives.
The entire genre of Westerns were about a male wish fulfilment to expand the American empire, travelling from small town to small town as a travelling angel character.
This piece about Game of Thrones and similar stories talks about the damaging wish fulfilment of wanting to rise above another group of people and come up roses with no ill-consequence for yourself.
“It’s the very reason that people play online RPGs,” Bartle said. “In this world we are subject to all kinds of pressures to behave in a certain way and think a certain way and interact a certain way. In video games, those pressures aren’t there.” In video games, we are free to be who we really are—or at least find out who we really are if we don’t already know.
The novel affords Sophie more agency than the film, especially if you watch the film with the English dub, which turns Sophie into more of a passive traveller than the original Japanese does. I hope this is to do with the wish to basically sync syllables with mouth animations rather than some deep-seated desire on the part of Disney to keep girls in check, but you gotta wonder when you see what else Disney has produced over the years…
Here is an excellent breakdown of main differences between the YA novel and Hayao Miyazaki’s film adaptation, from a feminist point of view. Though both Miyazaki and Wynne Jones are known to be feminist storytellers, the feminism of the elderly Japanese man is quite different from that of the Welsh woman.
One thing the film did do though, was to broaden the audience for this otherwise obscure YA fantasy novel from 1986.
Peter Pan, which few children find readable today, was the first novel in which ordinary children enter a magic world and have an adventure there – something that readers of Alice in Wonderland, The Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter and His Dark Materials will recognise.
Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island has also fallen out of favour with present-day readers, but any number of adventure stories, from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book to The Action Hero’s Handbook derive from it. Stevenson’s young hero, Jim Hawkins, foreshadows the plucky resourcefulness of Anthony Horowitz’s reluctant teenage spy, and Eoin Colfer’s criminal mastermind Artemis Fowl.
Enid Blyton (the most prolific of British children’s authors)
David Walliams is the new Roald Dahl, and has been paired with Roald Dahl’s illustrator Quentin Blake, so the publishers are obviously pushing that comparison, too.
Julia Donaldson is currently one of the biggest selling picturebook authors, paired with illustrator Axel Scheffler
Jacqueline Wilson writes gritty realistic stories for adolescent readers and has been criticised by conservative adults for introducing horrible things to children who are too young to deal with it
J.K. Rowling of course, who is popular all around the world, and has perplexed kidlit academics as to how on earth the Harry Potter series has been sooo successful given the many similar works which, by any yardstick, are just as good.
The ‘classics’ are generally thought to be: Lewis Carroll, Rudyard Kipling, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Arthur Ransome, William Maybe, Philippa Pearce. (Of course, the notion of ‘classic’ is problematic.)
On Wikipedia British children’s literature has been grouped by century to make it more manageable:
The 1740s are commonly regarded as the decade in which both the English novel and the English children’s book got under way. This is connected to new ways of thinking. There was a rise and growing refinement of the middle classes in the 18th century. A growing number of people had the time, the money and the education to read books. Middle class readers were more domestic — they had their own homes — no more great houses or street bustle. Children stopped being dressed as little adults and a specific idea of childhood emerged. Children started to call their parents ‘mamma’ and ‘pappa’.
Publishing houses also started up around this time. Generally until the mid 18th century, people who sold books also made them themselves.
John Newbery (1713-67) was an influential person in the children’s publishing trade. He was wealthy, but not for his interest in printing books for children — he had another job selling pharmaceutical products, and bought the rights to sell Dr James’s Fever Powder, which took off. He married the widow of the previous owner of a printing house, which is how he started in the printing business. He published 30 titles for children. It’s thought he wrote a number of those himself, but no one knows exactly which ones; he employed cheap hacks to write many of them.
Of the titles published by Newbery, the most influential was ‘Goody Two Shoes’.
Though Newbery was English, and his books have fallen out of common use, his name lives on in the prestigious prize for American literature; Newbery was as influential to American children’s literature as he was to English.
In the 1840sless didactic books started to be written, though didacticism was by no means dead. e.g. Captain Marryat’s adventure stories, pointing the way to Ballantyne, Kingston, Robert Louis Stevenson and Henty.
In the 1860s through 1930 or so, English kidlit was characteristic for its misgivings about Christianity and the wish to create imaginary paradises as alternatives. e.g. The Water Babies, Lewis Carroll, George MacDonald. There was a desire to destroy the old order. On the other hand, Winnie-the-Pooh, Wind in the Willows, books of E. Nesbit, Richard Jeffries’ Bevis etc. the authors’ disenchantment with religion led not to destruction but to the construction of green alternatives. (Enchanted places, arcadias, never-never lands.)
By the end of the 18th C, the writing of children’s books was considered to be a job suitable for gentlewomen: Anna Letitia Barbauld, Lady Fenn, Priscilla Wakefield, Dorothy and Mary Jane Kilner, Mary Elliott. These ladies mixed didacticism with a little fun.
There were also some fierce old Puritans: Mrs Trimmer, Mrs Sherwood.
Then there were the English followers of Rousseau: Maria Edgeworth, Mary Wollstonecraft (mother of Mary Shelley, incidentally). Rousseau was all for naturalness and simplicity (the language of the heart, the idea of the Noble Savage.) The fact that Rousseau didn’t like books has been forgotten — he had an unintended influence on kidlit regardless.
The educational purposes of literature have always been an issue, with official reports and curriculum documents from the 1920s emphasising the importance of the role of literature. By implication, children’s literature is influenced by the educational market. The English National Curriculum has spawned a market for certain classroom aligned topics.
In Britain as in America, attention has been given to ‘diversity’ in children’s literature since the 1970s, when it was noticed that a fantasy world populated by middle class white boys isn’t really all that great. However, that hasn’t had much effect. Books which were criticised in the 70s are still being used widely in schools. White middle class male characters still dominate.
Homer, Dickens and Defoe wrote for adults, but their stories are often offered to children in simplified form.
In older works, the notion of the ‘gentleman’ is very important.
In the 1890s, British kidlit was utopian. By the 1990s it was all about children’s needing to/struggling to grow up.
The First Golden Age, which took off in the 1850s, thanks to the increasing number and status of children, was particularly dominated by five authors: JM Barrie, Robert Louis Stevenson, E Nesbit, Frances Hodgson Burnett and Anna Sewell. These authors have been hugely influential on subsequent authors.
Carnivalesque children’s stories were popular mid 20th Century. (e.g. The Hobbit, the Narnia Chronicles)
The decade of the 1920s was a sorry one in England, with few new stories being published, and old ones being reprinted which were nonetheless second-rate. (This contrasts with America, where children’s literature was starting to boom.)
Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome (starting in the early 1930s) marked the beginning of a story now seen as far from ‘realistic’, but Ransome did write seriously and without condescension, similar to the ‘realistic’ writers of today. There are 12 in the series published over 18 years, but the time span they cover is only 5 years. In these books there’s a clear preference for country over town, for wind-power over mechanization. The parents are understanding figures in the background and the children are always right-minded. In the books, they are always on holiday.
Ballet Shoes (1935) by Noel Streatfeild was the beginning of a new genre: The career novel. This book and all that followed by the same author were all based on detailed research.
In Britain, the 1950s were a hopeful decade. Publishing houses at last appointed children’s editors with standing and ambition. Puffin Books had been established by Penguin during the war with Eleanor Graham as editor. This company became the world’s first major children’s paperback imprint. A new wave of writers included: Rosemary Sutcliff, Philippa Pearce, William Maybe and artists such as Brian Wildsmith and Charles Keeping.
By the 1960s many talented writers had been attracted to the children’s book world. Educators started to take notice of kidlit. The term ‘reluctant reader’ first started being used. A big complaint of books of this era was that they were too middle class. They reinforced the existing social structure.
The recession of the 1970s hit Britain as much as it hit America. A declining library market meant that publishers became more dependent on sales in the bookstores (and supermarkets) with the result that they were on the whole selling to less informed purchasers than the librarians. There was more demand for shelf appeal and less for literary quality. Even libraries started to look for popularity rather than literary merit.
While American kidlit tries to be conservative, British kidlit encourages children to grow up.
By the mid 1990s, experienced editor David Fickling said, ‘Nothing can save the hardback at its present price‘. Gone were the days of ‘librarian books’, which only librarians knew about and would recommend to their more discerning child readers alongside the top sellers.
In both America and Britain there has been a swing from library to bookshop sales. Books are published by corporations which operate on both sides of the Atlantic. Fiction for older children suffers most because while adults are happy to guess at what a toddler wants to read, they’re less likely to guess what an older child is interested in, and don’t gift books so readily.
While there were plenty of new writers in Britain in the 1950s-1970s, there has been a dearth of them since then. Too high a proportion of the worthwhile children’s books of the 1980s came from writers whose reputations were already made.
Realism started mainly in America, but has made its way to Britain.
Fantasy continues to be huge in YA everywhere, but historical fiction has taken a steep dive. The historical story has traditionally had high standing in Britain. The standard is still very high, but there has been a shift in the perception of children’s needs. It used to be thought that an education in history was necessary for children but now it’s thought that history lacks relevance for children. The big name in British historical fiction is Rosemary Sutcliffe (1920-1992). The young heroes of historical novels tended to be very right-thinking and upright. The trend is towards replacing such heroes with ‘real children’, whose flaws are obvious. (See also: notes on Historical Realism)
It used to be easy for Britain to sell its writers in America, but now it’s more the other way around — British teens are reading American fiction but not so much the other way around. One or two generations ago, most British children would hardly have been aware of quality American literature.
Children’s literature is getting less and less attention in major newspapers and magazines, and the status of children’s authors is low.
Picturebooks started to bloom in the 1960s. (In America they had started to bloom after the second world war.) Leading names of the 1960s: Charles Keepings, Brian Wildsmith. John Birmingham and Quentin Blake also started illustrating for children in the late 1960s.
Food fantasies are important in kidlit because children, ideologically, are supposed to be very interested in food. But in British children’s literature food has been particularly copious and rich and sweet. Fat-laden foods are frequently served to children who seem to have huge appetites. Food in seemingly never-ending quantities is a regular feature in classic British stories for children, but can also be seen echoed in many early Australian stories such as The Magic Pudding.
Traditionally, British kidlit is good at fantasy whereas American kidlit is great on realism, but of course now you find great realistic stories coming out of Britain and great fantasy coming out of America, not to mention the rest of the world.
Here is a ridiculously inflammatory clickbaitarticle which nevertheless detaials interesting points about how American literature and British literature for children differ — writte I think by a fan of fantasy rather than by a fan of realism.
Although Britain is part of the European Union, when it comes to children’s literature, it makes more sense to regard Britain as standing apart from Europe.
When you talk about your writing with Europeans, they’re more interested in what you’re saying with your fiction–your themes and influences. Americans tend to be interested in how much it pays, and when the movie’s coming out.
Could this mean that Europeans have more interest in themes and messages in kidlit, also?
In European countries that remained as dictatorships after WW2 (like Spain), the production of children’s books remained very much under state control and didn’t flourish.
With the exception of Britain, translated books are seen to have an important educational and hence ideological function, fostering mutual understanding and European unity.
With the exception of Britain, in European countries up to 35% of their published children’s literature has been translated from another language. (Britain’s rate is 1%.)
Britain, like America is not translating enough European children’s literature.
Walking around at Bologna [International Children’s Book Fair], there is so much good work from so many countries (as well as a lot that is, well, market driven, to be polite), whether in text or illustration, that you wonder why more of it isn’t represented in Britain. Take the Andersen and Astrid Lindgren award winners for instance. [Argentinian writer] Andruetto isn’t published at all in English and only two of [Danish writer] Guus Kuijer’s over fifty titles have ever been translated. And this isn’t just about translation, because there’s a lot from other countries that publish in English that doesn’t reach us. … To be at Bologna, then, is to be astonished both by what is published for children internationally, how little of this we see in Britain, and yet how large a presence British children’s books have worldwide.
If anyone would like to see this changed, do support small publishers such as New Zealand based Gecko Press who translate some of the best work from (mainly) Europe for English speaking children to enjoy.
There’s a rule of writing fantasy which all professional writers are familiar with. (No, I’m not talking about the dangling preposition.)
Fantasy writers are allowed one big lie per story.
As Michael Hauge writes at his Story Mastery website:
The quality that gives every movie its emotional appeal: It isn’t the fantasy element of a story that is interesting, exciting, romantic or funny. It’s the REACTION of the everyday world to that fantastic situation. Therefore you are only allowed to introduce that single incredible element into your story; everything else must be logical and believable.
— Michael Hauge, Credibility (Part 1)
Robert McKee advises the same thing in his well-known screenwriting book Story:
[O]f all the genres Fantasy is the most rigid and structurally conventional. We give the fantasy writer one great leap away from reality, then demand tight-knit probabilities and no coincidence–the strict Archplot of THE WIZARD OF OZ, for example.
– from Story, page 70, in a chapter about setting
I believe the writing advice ‘One Lie Per Story’ is generally sound. What I worry about, however, is that writing teams may be using this axiom as an excuse to avoid examination of their own biases.
Take a film like Ratatouille. That’s a story starring a talking rat. Yet when feminists point out the dearth of female characters, apologists rebut with the fact that ‘in real life, professional kitchens are staffed mainly by men.’ But Ratatouille is a story about a talking rat. The writers could have written that story any which way they liked. Except the one ‘lie’ is the talking rat. Everything else, in their justification, would have to ‘ring true’ in order for audiences to accept that talking rat, including the typical gender breakdown of a professional kitchen.
But McKee also has this to say about verisimilitude, as he describes a common feature of failed screenplays:
The “personal story” [one kind of failed screenplay] is understructured, slice-of-life portraiture that mistakes verisimilitude for truth. This writer believes that the more precise his observation of day-to-day facts, the more accurate his reportage of what actually happens, the more truth he tells. But fact, no matter how minutely observed, is truth with a small ‘t’. Big “T” Truth is located behind, beyond, inside, below the surface of things, holding reality together or tearing it apart, and cannot be directly observed. Because this writer sees only what is visible and factual, he is blind to the truth of life.
– Story, by Robert McKee
A truly masterful storyteller is indeed able to tell a story which casts females in traditionally male roles, yet it still feels believable.
Some storytellers are even able to write futuristic worlds in which women have equality, and they still manage to tell a truth; not only truth, but Truth. That’s because they are masterful storytellers.
[F]acts are neutral. The weakest possible excuse to include something in a story is: “But it actually happened.” Everything happens; everything imaginable happens. Indeed, the unimaginable happens. But story is not life in actuality. Mere occurrence brings us nowhere near the truth. What happens is fact, not truth. Truth is what we *think about* what happens.
– Story, Robert McKee
From a master storyteller himself: Everything happens. Sexism happens. And there is absolutely no excuse at all for the reproduction of outdated, anti-female and outright nasty portrayals of girls or white people in any work of fiction, especially for children.
Consider also the following concepts of storytelling:
‘THE WORLD OF THE WORK’
In talking about what Paul Ricoeur calls “the world of the work”, we assume, of course, that the work offers up a world of its own. Literary works summon such a world through their arrangement and adherence to formal rules; through their use of tradition and genre; through their intent and use of language. We might say that it is through style that literary works become more than the sum of their sentences. Literary works create new worlds by replacing the world itself and it is the metaphorical statement that reveals this operation. “Metaphor’s power of reorganizing our perception of things,’ Ricoeur writes, “develops from transposition of an entire ‘realm'”. Ricoeur calls this realm a “new referential design”, which I specify as the work’s metaphorical design.
– from Goth: Undead Subculture
In other words, a writer can invent any kind of world they want to. Let’s not pretend otherwise. Imagining only worlds full of white boys with a token girl and a token black child is simply a failure of imagination on the part of the storyteller.
THE ‘REAL-FICTIONAL DICHOTOMY’
…literary scholars tend to divide characters in terms of what I will call the real-fictional dichotomy. According to this notion, fictional characters, by definition, are “unreal” and human beings “real.” … we “construct an image of a person” by “fabricating [the image] in consciousness.”
– Believable Fictions, On the Nature of Emotional Responses to Fictional Characters by Howard Sklar
Sklar argues that: ‘We bring many of the same intuitions and forms of evaluation to our encounters with fictional characters that we use with real people. With this in mind, I attempt to show that our emotional responses to fictional characters more greatly resemble real-life emotions than some aesthetic theorists would like to concede.’ This argument makes it all the more important that we’re exposing children to a diverse range of characters, if children are indeed reacting to fictional characters in the same way they would react to a person in real life.
I came across the term carnivalesque when reading Maria Nikolajeva*, who finds this concept very relevant to children’s literature.
Children’s book are often criticised for being not true to life.
In fact, verisimilitude (the appearance of being real) should not be confused with reality.
‘Carnivalization’ is a means to achieve a distance from cruel aspects of reality.
An example of ‘carnivalization’ common in fiction for younger readers is use of allegorical names for people and places, which would never occur in real life, but say something meaningful about the story at hand. (Gogol and Evelyn Waugh do this also.)
An example of an author for adult readers who has perfected the use of carnivalization is Franz Kafka. The technique is strangely accepted in the work of Kafka, but often questioned by critics when the same thing appears in children’s books.
*who quotes Bahktin, initially describing the work of Dostoyevsky and Gogol
There is no possible narrative excuse for failing to include more female characters and characters of colour in children’s films.
Storytellers must do away with the idea that in a work of fantasy (e.g. one with talking planes), that no other deviation from reality is possible. Verisimilitude is a robust beast.
‘truth’ is not ‘Truth’, and the slavish duplication of human reality in film indicates a failure to make use of story as metaphor for life.
An audience is able to cope with ‘unreal’ situations in fiction because we understand intuitively the ‘real-fictional dichotomy’. Audiences understand that ‘the world of the work’ is different from ‘the real world’. We get it. We can cope.
The reason these concepts are ‘intuitive’ to an audience is due to a long history of storytelling which makes use of devices such as carnivalization (and metaphor and other figures of speech…)
There is no reason, other than unchallenged sexism/racism, why established storytelling techniques cannot be utilised in big-budget children’s films to reimagine an inequal world.
INTERESTING LINKS ON VERISIMILITUDE IN STORYTELLING
Based on a “true” story: expecting reality in moviesOxford University Press blog points out that ‘our emotional involvement with a movie depends on the degree to which we expect or “appraise” the events to be real.’ In other words, we expect different things from a story that is based on reality, even though such stories are a blend of fact and fiction. Scientists have measured things like palm sweat and found that viewers are even more affected by, say, a disaster movie, when they know the story is based on true events. The Coen Brothers utilise this when they tell viewers at the beginning of the film Fargo that the story is based on true events (even though it is completely fabricated).
The Beautiful Creatures authors give us the rules for creating a believable fantasy from io9. Beautiful Creatures is a fantasy romance based on a book. It’s a story set in a small town and includes witches and devils. Margaret Stohl explains that the co-authors were able to come up with a believable universe because they ‘came out of old school world building, we had a Bible for our universe. We knew histories of characters you’ll never meet. That was a part of it. Obeying your own rules is a huge part of it. things have to matter, laws cause and effect.’
I have conflicted views about Enid Blyton, but Thirteen O’Clock story is relatively free of the problems I (and many others) have taken issue with in these slightly more enlightened times. We still have a story in which a young patriarch-in-training helps an older female character out by tending to her minor injury and finding a lost cat, which some may read more generously as an example of feminine caring.
All that aside, this was one of my most favourite books as a preschooler — that lady sure knew how to tell a tale to children. Mine is the 1974 version illustrated by Tom Barling in very 70s style. The story itself may have been written much earlier, though Enid Blyton was writing right up until 1975, and it’s not easy to find the years in which specific short stories were published.
WONDERFULNESS OF THIRTEEN O’CLOCK
Enid Blyton was well-schooled in a kind of superstitious mysticism which she made great use of in her fantasy stories. Fairies, goblins, pixies, brownies, witches, portals into other lands… In this story, she makes use of a very old superstition surrounding the number 13. What’s the basic back story of this unlucky number?
Oddly, superstition around the number 13 derives from various unrelated cultures around the world, not just one. This may have something to do with lunar-solar calenders, in which there are 12 point something ‘months’ per solar year. This gives a culture 12 ‘months’ plus a bit of a month (the thirteenth) per year.
The number 13 may rather disturbingly be linked to a form of ancient misogyny: In ancient cultures, the number 13 represented femininity, because it corresponded to the number of lunar (menstrual) cycles in a year (13 x 28 = 364 days). The theory is that, as the solar calendar triumphed over the lunar, the number thirteen became anathema, because (obv!) periods are evil.
In modern times, even people who actively avoid the number 13 probably don’t really think of that reason, but superstitious types still manage to find reasons to believe that there is something inherently wrong about the number.
Other authors have taken the number 13 and used it in a plot device for genres such as thriller and horror, but Blyton, in writing for children, pairs this rather sinister tradition with the childlike tradition of blowing dandelion ‘clocks’ in order to tell the time. (Blyton had no significant qualms about refusing to use literature as a conduit to a rounded scientific education.) In Blyton’s story, ‘once in a blue moon’ means that the blue literally turns blue.
The thing I loved most about this book was the thing I also loved about the Faraway Tree series, in which Blyton’s wood whispers ‘Wisha wisha’ as the wind blows through the trees. This phrase gave me a deliciously thrilling feeling as a young reader. In Thirteen O’Clock, Blyton not only encourages word play with phrases such as ‘Hoona-looki-allo-pie’ but has created another marvellous phrase of frisson: ‘The witches are coming! The witches are coming!’ This had me hiding under my blankets.
NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION OF THIRTEEN O’CLOCK
What makes the illustrations in this book seem distinctively from the 1970s? The 1970s was a decade wedged between a time of great printing advancements, with the widespread introduction of colour printing in the 1960s, and the beginning of digital illustration used (at least for some parts of the process) by many illustrators working today. Illustrators were working in colour, but they were also drawing and painting by hand.
ILLUSTRATIONS OF THE 1970S
It was in the 1960s that a new type of picture book emerged — those in which illustrations dominated the text. This particular book isn’t one such example — in fact, this book is more accurately a richly illustrated short story, since the story can exist in its own right (and indeed does, inside various anthologies) without these pictures.
One thing that makes Tom Barling’s illustrations seem specifically 1970s is the strong use of line. Another illustrator working around this time was Pat Hutchins, who published Rosie’s Walk in 1968, just a few years earlier. In Rosie’s Walk, too, the influence of folk art is strong; line exists not only to add form and shadow to objects but also to act as a decoration in its own right. In Thirteen O’Clock, likewise, there is no attempt made at any kind of aerial perspective; leaves on a tree in the distance are depicted in detail, even though the unseen viewer is too far away from that tree to realistically perceive anything more than a green clump.
To provide some rest for the eyes, Barling was making good use of white space — as modern illustrators are still doing today — the roads and the sky are white, and there is an area of blank reserved for the text on every double spread.
Tom Barling has of course dressed Sandy in 1970s fashion, with tight jeans that flare at the bottom and a wide belt. He wears his hair long (which happens to be in fashion again for adolescent boys, but isn’t always). It’s interesting to look at how various illustrators of children’s books deal with fashions of the day; if we dress our characters in clothing specific to the year or decade, this will place our stories firmly inside that decade even if the story itself is more universal than that. Is there an ‘unmarked’ wardrobe illustrators can use to avoid decade-placement as much as possible? Certainly, some illustrators rely upon stock clothing for their characters. Mercer Mayer is a good example of that. Though he has illustrated the Little Critter books over decades, his Mother Critter still wears a long dress and apron; the main character is still wearing pyjamas with an unbuttonable backside in them. Mayer’s characters are in fact middle class, 1950s, white America, and sometimes even stretch to Amish (for the mum) but for some reason a disproportionate number of illustrators hold onto lesser versions of this same milieu when illustrating modern books for children. I think it’s because we tend to idolise the era. (Hence Mad Men, which cleverly subverted our expectations.)
Is there a normcore fashion for picture books? Even Shirley Hughes, who places no value in creating Pinterest-worthy interiors or youthful faces (even in children) or dressing her characters up in high-fashion places her characters in a specific era: as Frances Spufford said of her Alfie series, the mother ‘is a frizzy-haired CND-supporting social worker from about 1985’. Though Spufford also points out that child readers won’t assume this about her. In fact, non-British readers — and readers who were ourselves children in the 1980s — probably won’t know this about her — I had to look up CND — fyi, it stands for Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which picked up in the 1980s as a backlash to the Thatcher years.)
The historical view of witches is that they are not quite women.
You should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so. (Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 3)
In art history, many witches are genuinely unattractive in a reproductive sense, either because they’re very old or because they make no effort to present themselves as alluring, and probably both.
By the 1970s, the nature of folkloric witches in the West had evolved to the point where witches were often depicted as feminine women, but the grotesque mismatch between unattractive essential witchness is made more stark by their feminine style choices. Barling’s witches might also grace the pages of Dahl’s chapter book, The Witches, published about a decade later; their faces are asymmetrical and their noses and chins are comically masculine, but these witches wear lipstick and earrings, and have their hair styled into layered bobs.
Though these witches are standard in any illustration of witches in picture books, I recently happen to have read Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity by Julia Serano, in which the author points out the extent to which femininity (and here, feminine accoutrements) is seen as an untrustworthy artifice, which is problematic for anyone presenting as feminine, but is especially problematic for transgender women. (I’m sure someone has done a study on witches and femininity in picture books. I’m guessing the witches of picture books are more feminine than scary due to the age of the target readership.)
Extratextual musings aside, Blyton’s imaginary world has no layers; everyone is exactly how they appear.
“I’m going to be nice to her. Besides she’s got a friendly face, rather like my granny’s — I’m sure she isn’t a bad witch.”
Indeed, the witches of this story are not nasty at all:
“You’re the cleverest, kindest boy I’ve ever met!” said the witch. “Most people are afraid of witches because they think we will change them into blackbeetles or something–but that’s an old-fashioned idea. Nowadays we witches are gentle folk, making magic spells that will do no one any harm.”
So there you have it: an anti-bigotry moral from an author who was quite well-known for her xenophobia.
THAT PESKY GUTTER
It’s clear reading this book in 2015 that publishers of picture books sometimes had a few lessons to learn in this new era of double-page colour spreads. It’s hard to find a professionally produced book these days in which the illustrator has been schooled in avoiding placing characters’ faces right where the gutter goes.
STORY SPECS OF THIRTEEN O’CLOCK
Thirteen O’Clock appeared in a number of different Enid Blyton anthologies, and is the title story of this one, which demonstrates its popularity:
Illustrator Tom Barling was born in 1936, and illustrated a few of Enid Blyton’s stories over his career. He had a varied creative life as author of eleven crime novels about gangsters. Tom Barling is also well-known as a comic illustrator and an animator on the 1973 TV series of The Addams Family. If you look for books hoping to find more of his illustrations, though, you’ll find most of them seem to be out of print.
However, did you know that Bananas in Pyjamas is not just an irritating but super popular Australian children’s show but was originally a book written by Enid’s nephew, Carey? That was also illustrated by Tom Barling.
Barling also illustrated in an art noir style when required:
Comic book illustrators are required to draw from a variety of different, extreme perspectives. We see this skill a little bit in Thirteen O’Clock with a low-angle view of Sandy:
COMPARE AND CONTRAST WITH THIRTEEN O’CLOCK
There are many fantasy picture books (and chapter books) in which the child character goes off for an adventure, finds him or herself in a magical world, then goes back to the main parent (usually the mother) and is told that whatever happened is nonsense. But the reader is let in on the secret. Blyton’s authorial voice comes through clearly in the final paragraph:
“Eat up your lunch and don’t talk nonsense!”
But it wasn’t nonsense, was it? Sandy always puffs the time on all the dandelion clocks he sees now — perhaps one day it will be thirteen o’clock again!
The message here for children is to cling on for dear life to childhood, because the world of adults is devoid of magic. This sort of plot might be compared to a book for children written by Richard Dawkins, presumably as an antidote to stories such as these.
The Magic of Reality is a fantastic book and I wish every child in the world would read it as they embark upon the study of high school science. But I think there is room for fantasy; clearly, some forms of fantasy are simply better done than others — fantasy which tells readers something about the real-world is the most valuable, and fantasy which urges children to believe in fairies even after the story is over is perhaps the laziest way of ending a story. However, Blyton was nothing if not prolific, and her stories were written in the oral tradition. It is therefore up to the adult co-reader to read this story with a nudge and a wink.
WRITE YOUR OWN
If fantasy stories for children are to do anything other than entertain — and pure entertainment is a satisfactory goal, no mistake — we must aim to pull readers out of a fantasy world with something to ponder. An io9 article outlines how reading Harry Potter has been shown to make readers better people.
…because Potter is continually in contact with stigmatized groups. The “muggles” get no respect in the wizarding world as they lack any magical ability. The “half-bloods,” or “mud-bloods” – wizards and witches descended from only one magical parent – don’t fare much better, while the Lord Voldemort character believes that power should only be held by “pure-blood” wizards. He’s Hitler in a cloak.
— Robbie Gonzalez
Is this partly what makes the Potter books so popular, even though scholars of children’s literature struggle to put their finger on exactly why H.P. took off while many recent ancestors of the series which seem just as adeptly written muddle along with middling sales?
How to leave the preschool reader a better person by making use of fantasy in a picture book? That’s your ultimate challenge.
The only time you truly become an adult is when you finally forgive your parents for being just as flawed as everyone else.
— Douglas Kennedy
It is partly a children’s book convention that you write from the kids’ point of view, so you cannot be entirely fair to the parents as well. If you are going to write about children of twelve and thirteen who have totally understanding and marvellous parents, there’ll be nothing to write about.
— Gillian Rubenstein
The subject of mothers is apparently very sensitive for Peter [Pan]: “Not only had he no mother, but he had not the slightest desire to have one. He thought them very over-rated persons”. This is rather a puzzling statement, since Peter’s desire is to have Wendy as his mother. But the desire is extremely ambivalent, and the Lost Boys can only speak of mothers in Peter’s absence, “the subject being forbidden by him as silly”. “Now, if Peter had ever quite had a mother, he no longer missed her. He could do very well without one. He had thought them out, and remembered only their bad points.” We know that Peter ran away the day he was born, because he heard his parents talk about what he was to be when he became a man, which was not his intention: “I don’t want ever to be a man…I want always to be a little boy and have fun”.
—From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature by Maria Nikolajeva
Frances Spufford writes that characters in fairytales are symbols.
A character in a story exists in particular before it exists in general. A wicked stepmother is a woman before she is a symbol of what a child might fear in motherhood. The story of Snow White therefore says things about gender, and the encounters of daughter, stepmother, father and lover, before it can become a picture of a psychological process.