The Ideology Of Work Ethic In Children’s Literature

Good children work hard.

Lazy children lose out.

This view of work ethic is so ingrained throughout children’s stories that it’s hardly noticed. However, there is speculation these days (in fact since the 1970s) that humanity may be facing a post-work future. Some argue that no human job is ‘safe’ from robots and apps — the caring and creative professions will be last to go, but go they will.

What if our children, or our children’s grandchildren, are born into a world where most of them never work because robots — or a robot spin-off, yet to be invented — are the new slaves? The Romans and the Greeks managed to contribute so much to the world only because their slavery system allowed a well-educated gentry to dedicate themselves to art and ideas.

What if everyone was in that position? Our children’s grandchildren may look back on literature of the modern era — the literature our children are reading right now — and the work ethic may well stick out as an outdated feature of our age.

Some of our oldest stories are popular in part because of their strong work ethic. While Robinson Crusoe (and all of its descendants) is set on an island and is therefore partly escapist, characters don’t actually get to escape work. It’s hard work actually, living on an island. No matter the setting, we love characters who work. If they are lazy, or somehow manage to avoid work through sheer cunning (or even through pragmatism), we generally don’t want to see them get what they want.

Examples Of Strong Work Ethic In Children’s Literature

The Little Red Hen

This is still a popular tale and conveys the clear message that if you want to enjoy something you must work to produce it. You may not jump in at the last minute to enjoy the fruits of someone else’s labour. In Robinson Crusoe, too, Crusoe takes great pleasure in baking his own bread.

The Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton

Blyton’s children were afforded plenty of time to explore the low fantasy worlds right under the adults’ noses, or even to solve crime, but Blyton made sure young readers knew they weren’t off in the woods picnicking until after their household tasks had been completed.

Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

At Mrs Coulter’s house Lyra is mostly decorative and although she is surrounded by beautiful, feminine things and dressed up like a doll, she has no sense of fulfilment until she runs away and is taken in by the gyptian boat people who give her plenty of chores to keep her occupied:

Now that Lyra had a task in mind, she felt all very well, but Pantalaimon was right: she wasn’t really doing any work there, she was just a pretty pet. On the gyptian boat, there was real work to do, and Ma Costa made sure she did it. She cleaned and swept, she peeled potatoes and made tea, she greased the propellor-shaft bearings, she kept the weed-trap clear over the propellor, she washed dishes, she opened lock gates, she tied the boat up at mooring-posts, and within a couple of day she was as much at home with this new life as if she’d been born gyptian.

Spirited Away

Work Ethic in Spirited Away
Work Ethic in Spirited Away

This is an anime for children created by Hayao Miyazaki of the Studio Ghibli studio. Japanese culture is well-known for promoting a strong work ethic, linking work closely to a sense of self. In Spirited Away Chihiro has her name taken away — it is shortened to ‘Sen’. In order to get her full name back (her sense of self), as well as rescue her parents, she must go to work in the fantasy realm. Through pure hard work she somehow saves the day.

Hayao Miyazaki himself was notorious for his strong work ethic and he prioritised work over family, not atypically for a Japanese man of his age. He seems to have retired now, though came back from supposed retirement at least once. Oh, and now he’s back again.

Tar Baby

“The most perplexing aspect of this folk tale is that in many variants the rabbit is portrayed as a free-rider. Asked to help dig a community well, he says he prefers to live off the dew on the grass – and then proceeds to steal water from the well. Asked to till the soil, he refuses, but then proceeds to steal a cabbage here and a turnip there. If the rabbit represents the underdog, how is he also, to use Wagner’s phrase, “a selfish hustler”? Even more curiously, why is he so likeable?”

NPR

The Symbolism Of Altitude

Hills and valleys, cliffs, mountains — altitude in story is highly symbolic. When creating a story, remember to vary the altitude as much as you’d vary any other setting.

mountains and valleys

HILLS AND VALLEYS

A cottage atop a hill can symbolise extreme happiness.

Miss Rumphius Barbara Cooney house on hill

From the porch of her new house Miss Rumphius watched the sun come up; she watched it cross the heavens and sparkle on the water; and she saw it set in glory in the evening. She started a little garden among the rocks that surrounded her house, and she planted flower seeds in the stony ground. Miss Rumphius was almost perfectly happy. “But there is still one more thing I have to do,” she said. “I have to do something to make the world more beautiful.” But what? “The world already is pretty nice,” she thought, looking out over the ocean.

Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney

Elefante by Franco Matticchio -- going down into the valley
Elefante by Franco Matticchio — going down into the valley

Wolf Hollow is an interesting storyworld because it is an apparent utopia. ‘Hollow’ is a poetic sounding name (as the creators of Stars Hollow surely recognise). While dips in the landscape generally indicate evil (basements are scary, valleys attract mysterious fog and harbour secrets), ‘hollows’ are metaphorically similar to islands, sheltered from the evils of the outside world. That’s why ‘Hollow’ is such a great choice for this book — it is in many ways a utopian setting (sheltered from the World War going on elsewhere) but also a terrible place, with its inhabitants dangerously bigoted.

Hills and valleys have a logic of their own. Why did Jack and Jill go up the hill? Sure, sure, a pail of water, probably orders from a parent. But wasn’t the real reason so Jack could break his crown and Jill come tumbling after That’s what it usually is in literature. Who’s up and who’s down? Just what do up and down mean?

First, think about what there is down low or up high. Low: swamps, crowds, fog, darkness, fields, heat, unpleasantness, people, life, death.High: snow, ice, purity, thin air, clear views, isolation, life, death. Some of these, you will notice, appear on both lists, and you can make either environment work for you.

— Thomas C. Foster, How To Read Literature Like A Professor

In storybook illustrations, it’s very common to find a house on a hill. A house on a hill is a safe house — from here you won’t be susceptible to flooding, and you can see enemies approaching. A house on a hill might also be close to the sea, but protected from it by the slight altitude.

from Treasure Island
from Treasure Island
Powder and Crinoline, 1912 Kay Nielson
Powder and Crinoline, 1912 Kay Nielson

MOUNTAINS

Where The Mountain Meets The Moon

Mountains are somewhat cliched as ‘the land of greatness’ in stories but they are still used a whole heap and the symbolism still works.

[The mountain] is where the strong go to prove themselves—usually through seclusion, meditation, a lack of comfort, and direct confrontation with nature in the extreme. The mountaintop is the world of the natural philosopher, the great thinker who must understand the forces of nature so he can live with them and sometimes control them.

Structurally, the mountain, the high place, is most associated with the reveal.

In the 1997 film Contact, for instance, the Jody Foster character sits on a high piece of land when she has her self-revelations.

Revelations in stories are moments of discovery, and they are the keys to turning the plot and kicking it to a “higher,” more intense level. Again, the mountain setting makes a one-to-one connection between space and person, in this case, height and insight.

This one-to-one connection of space to person is found in the negative expression of the mountain as well. It is often depicted as the site of hierarchy, privilege, and tyranny, typically of an aristocrat who lords it over the common people down below.

The mountain is usually set in opposition to the plain. The mountain and the plain are the only two major natural settings that visually stand in contrast to one another, so storytellers often use the comparative method to highlight the essential and opposing qualities of each.

— John Truby, Anatomy of Story

  • The Moses story (the ur-mountain-story in the Christian world)
  • Greek myths about gods on Mt Olympus
  • Brokeback Mountain
  • Heidi
  • Cold Mountain
  • The Shining
  • The Bears On Hemlock Mountain
  • Serena

CLIFFS

The association between cliffs and peril is so strong that occasionally cliffs can be misused in drama, for instance in The River Wild.

And what about the sequences in which Strathairn cuts crosscountry, climbing mountains, fording rivers, walking faster than the river flows? Impossible, but he does it. At one point, in a scene so ludicrous I wanted to laugh aloud, he even starts a fire to send smoke signals to his wife. At another point, he clings to the side of a cliff, while we ask ourselves what earthly reason he had for climbing it. And he works wonders with his handy Swiss Army knife.

Roger Ebert’s review of The River Wild

In the illustration from Beauty and the Beast below, the family has lost its fortune at sea and has had to move to a small cottage and live as peasants. They live precariously in this community, not fully accepted (except for Beauty, of course, whose beauty privilege makes up for a lot).

from Beauty and the Beast illustrated by Binette Schroeder 1986
from Beauty and the Beast illustrated by Binette Schroeder 1986

house on cliff

Cliffs are also high in altitude but they have a quite different symbolism from mountains. Cliffs are precarious.

See the Hayao Miyazaki film Ponyo for an excellent example of cliff symbolism, in which the precarious cliff is a symbol for the precarious balance of nature.

from The Adventures of Robin Hood
from The Adventures of Robin Hood

Fire and cliffs make for a wonderfully camp symbolic admixture in this Three Investigators mystery story.

a cliff scene in The Artifacts by Slap Happy Larry
a cliff scene in The Artifacts by Slap Happy Larry

For a short story collection which makes full use of altitude, set in the vertiginous landscape of Wyoming, see one of Annie Proulx’s Wyoming collections (e.g. Close Range). Proulx makes use of mixed topography and everything you find in that:

  • mountains
  • high desert landscapes
  • canyons
  • buttes (an isolated hill with steep sides and a flat top (similar to but narrower than a mesa)
  • eroded outcroppings (known in North America as hoodoos)

When reading Proulx’s stories, one of the most important concepts to grasp is her ‘geographical determinism.’ This refers to the way in which the landscape has the upper hand in a game against the insignificant humans who live there, but temporarily. We know the characters are going to have tragic endings; we read the stories to find out how much of a fight they put up, and to know the exact nature of their downfall.

Ponyo by Miyazaki Symbolism and Structure

Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo is a feature-length anime which makes heavy use of  myth and symbolism but is aimed squarely at a young child audience.

崖の上のポニョ Ponyo Film Poster
Gake no ue no Ponyo. A Japanese promotional poster. In some Japanese films the English title is extended (Totoro becomes ‘My Neighbour Totoro’) but in this case, ‘Ponyo On Top Of The Cliff’ has rather a clunky sound to it, and this time is shortened to just ‘Ponyo’.

 

I love the kanji for cliff because it actually looks like what it is.

がけ

Dani Cavallaro, in Magic as Metaphor in Anime: A Critical Study describes Ponyo as ‘an intimate bildungsroman’ and writes:

Sousuke’s developmental journey begins with his rescue of a plucky little goldfish that has run away from her underwater home and is desperately keen on becoming human (presumably unaware that such a status is by no means unproblematically advantageous), whom the boy calls Ponyo, vowing to protect her at any price. At the same time, the anime’s intimate mood is reinforced by its close focus on domestic life and the little boy’s relationship by its close focus on domestic life and the little boy’s relationship with his mother Lisa. The bildungsroman dramatized in Ponyo concentrates concurrently on two interrelated journeys. One of these addresses the human protagonist’s emotional and intellectual development as he negotiates the various complications attendant on his relationships not only with the heroine and the marine domain she comes from but also his caring mother and often absent father. The other focuses on Ponyo’s evolution from the moment she decides to abandon her father’s protected abode and explore the outside world with all its unforeseeable wonders and perils.

STORYWORLD

Food

Food usually has its own starring role in the setting of Miyazaki movies.

  • The feast that turns the parents into pigs in Spirited Away, then the steamed red bean buns and the sponge cake scene
  • The bacon and eggs in Howl’s Moving Castle
  • Herring pot pie and rice porridge (おかゆ) as well as all the fresh bread products from Kiki’s Delivery Service
  • More rice porridge in Princess Mononoke
  • Bento boxes from My Neighbour Totoro
  • The fried egg in bread (目玉焼きパン) and the winter vegetable stew (煮物) from Laputa
  • Fried horse mackerel (アジフライ) from Up On Poppy Hill (nothing to do with horses — it’s a different kind of mackerel)

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