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The Ancestors of Harry Potter

Readers often assume that each worthwhile story or poem is separate and unique, something that either emerges exclusively from one person’s individual creativity or has been inspired by forces beyond mere human knowledge–a “muse”, perhaps. And certainly, every interesting literary text does express the unique combination of cultural and other forces that make up the imagination of its writer. But writers have repertoires and work from their knowledge of previous texts just as much as readers do. The idea of a story about a detective figuring out which suspect committed a crime doesn’t occur independently to each person who writes a mystery novel. Most mystery writers have read many such texts before deciding to create their own.

The Pleasures Of Children’s Literature, Nodelman and Reimer

It’s no secret that the success of Harry Potter is a big secret. In other words, no one really knows why it became so popular. HP Fans will of course say that it’s because the books are so good, but widely-read specialists of children’s literature don’t fully accept this reason, because Harry Potter contains nothing that was really new or ground-breaking. The Harry Potter stories are good, solid stories (an ‘enjoyable romp’ according to Kirkus), and no better or worse than many similar tales that came before (and after) it.

Indeed, the stories share qualities with much other children’s fiction. Harry Potter himself is an orphan who, to begin with, lives with rigidly conventional people who are nasty to him–just as child heroes of children’s fiction have been orphaned and misunderstood throughout the history of children’s literature.

The tone of the Potter books, a blend of comedy and melodrama, share’s much with Dahl’s writing in Matilda and in books such as James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. As stories set in a school, meanwhile, the Potter books reproduce the typical conventions of boarding school stories, particularly as represented in British boarding school stories from Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays to Frank Richards’s Billy Bunter series: characters of fairly stereotypical types and backgrounds indulging in hijinks, practical jokes, and sporting competitions.

In this case, the novels are fantasies rather than realistic fiction, and the school trains witches and wizards. But that also happens in Ursula Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea and Diana Wynne Jones’s Chrestomanci books. [I would add Jill Murphy’s Worst Witch stories.] Furthermore, many other fantasy series share the Potter books’ emphasis on characters maturing into a growing understanding of of their own powers and of the nature of good and evil through contact with unusual beings, not all of them human: not only Le Guin’s Earthsea books but also C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series, Susan Cooper’s Dark Is Rising series, Monica Hughes’s Isis series, and Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series (which also shares some of the Potter books’ breezy comedy). Like these series, also, the Potter books seem to be heading toward a climactic confrontation between a young protagonist and someone or something powerful, adult, and intensely evil. [Nodelman and Reimer wrote this in the early 2000s — they were right!] Different versions of this plot operate in recent critical successes within the filed of children’s literature such as Philip Pullman’s Golden Compass and Lowry’s The Giver and Gathering Blue, and also in Kristina Applegate’s popular Animorphs series.

Nodelman and Reimer dismiss also the possibility that the Harry Potter books were expertly marketed, because in fact they were marketed no differently from any other book from the same publisher. They posit that the HP books are so successful precisely because they are a perfect blend of what has come before. As John Truby says of screenwriting, blending genres is the hardest thing to do. Perhaps what Rowling did was the kidlit equivalent of this.

Jack Zipes is less impressed than many children’s literature critics with the Harry Potter series. In a critical essay on the first four Harry Potter books, Zipes expresses disappointment that so many people working in children’s literature today as critics and taste makers speak in glowing terms about the mediocre but nevertheless phenomenal series by Joanne Rowling without seeming to have read the books which came before and which, in some cases are superior works of literature. In Sticks and Stones, Zipes recommends the works of:

William Mayne – an English writer for children who is nonetheless notoriously under-read by children but read by adults. He published books between 1953 and 2009, but you may not have heard of any of them. You can still get your hands on A Swarm In May and a few others.

Joan Aiken – English writer specialising in supernatural fiction and children’s alternate history novels such as The Wolves of Willoughby Chase

Rosemary Sutcliff – British author well known for historical retellings of myths and legends

Ursula LeGuin – American author well known for fantasy and science fiction works for children, for example the Earthsea series

Janni Howker – British author of fewer novels than the above writers, as well as short fiction

Some of these authors you have probably heard of — others may be new. In any case, if you know of a reader suffering from Harry Potter withdrawal after reading the final volume, point them in the direction of his formidable ancestors.




See also: 

6 Baffling Attempts to Ride Harry Potter’s Coattails

15 Books As Enchanting As Harry Potter from Julia Seales

What did J.K. Rowling read as a child? Her answer:

“When I was a child, I would read absolutely anything. My favourite books for younger people would be I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, which I really love, The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge, all the classic children’s books. I love E Nesbit—I think she is great and I identify with the way that she writes. Her children are very real children and she was quite a groundbreaker in her day.”


The World’s First Picturebook

The earliest picture book for children is thought to be Comenius’s Orbis Pictus, published somewhere around 1657.

Orbis Pictus is available via Project Gutenberg if you’d like to take a look.


If a recognisable children’s literature requires a recognisable childhood, and should not be totally shared with adults, then we might argue that English-language children’s books only emerged in the eighteenth century, with British publishers such as Mary Cooper and John Newbery. The first book ‘especially prepared for North American youth’, John Cotton’s Spiritual Milk for Boston Babes, was printed ini London in 1646.


In India, children’s books began in Calcutta with the establishment of the School Book Society by missionaries in 1817 and the earliest children’s book in Malayalam (spoken in Kerala), Cherupaithangalkku Upakaratham Kathakal (c. 1824), contained stories translated from English. (By the way, there’s only one copy in existence, and it’s in the British Library.)


This dominance by th e English language has continued: in 1988, half the children’s books published in France were translations from English. (In contrast, France was the domiinant influence upon German childrne’s books.) Today, the traffic between English and other languages remains virtually one-way. For more on that, see Dan Hade on Children’s Literature.

Short Story Study: Little Red Riding Hood

Little Red Riding Hood Well Loved Tales

The history of this story is summed up neatly by Angela Slatter:

It’s been an interesting journey for Little Red Riding Hood. She started life in a tribal tale about a girl who outsmarts a wolf – all on her own, no outside help. A few centuries later, she gets a red cap, loses about twenty IQ points and gets eaten by a transvestite wolf. Add another hundred or so years, the cap becomes a hood, she loses a few more brain credits, gets molested, and then eaten by the same cross-dressing wolf but is rescued by a big, strong man and learns never to disobey the rules again. Adding insult to injury, in the 40s Tex Avery turned her into a stripper. Bruno Bettelheim looked at Gustave Dore’s 1867 Little Red Riding Hood illustrations and saw dirty pictures – Little Red in bed with the wolf, giving him the eye. A red leather-jacketed Reese Witherspoon (oh, puhleeez!) played her in an Eighties film version, Freeway, in which a friendly neighbourhood serial killer fulfils the role of the wolf. Just when you thought it was all over, Angela Carter came along, reclaimed her and set her free.

Why does Little Red Riding Hood continue to be so popular? Perry Nodelman explains the enduring appeal of fairy tales, and uses Little Red Cap as an example to explain that it’s the repetitiousness of fairytales rather than the suspense that brings readers back for more:

If we explore ‘authentic’ versions of fairy tales, particularly those in the collection of the Grimm brothers, we discover that they tend to place particular emphasis on those central episodes that form the spine of the tale and to describe them in more detail. In the story called “Little Red Cap,” we hear a lot about the little girl’s conversation with the wolf but only a quick summary of her flower picking. Further attention is drawn to the spinal episodes because so many of them repeat each other…Red riding hood asks the wolf about a number of his physical characteristics. Furthermore, there often tend to be curious parallels and contrasts that relate even those spinal episodes that are not directly repetitive with each other and that focus our attention on them. In the Grimms’ “Little Red Cap,” for instance, the central moments are all conversations, and most of them involve somebody theoretically wiser telling Little Red Cap what to do–first her mother, then the wolf, then the wolf disguised. 

As we read or hear a fairy tale, these patterns result in a rhythmic intensifying and lessening of interest as we move from central episode to less central episode and then back again; the effect is different from the gradual intensifying toward a climax that we get in other sorts of stories. And for those of us who already know the popular fairy tales we hear–and that surely is most of us at some point early in our childhoods–our pleasure in them must derive from repetition of that rhythmic pattern rather than from the suspense we usually enjoy in story; if we already know the story, there can be no suspense in it for us.

Words About Pictures

The following are notes from:

  • The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood by Jack Zipes
  • Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked by Catherine Orenstein
  • Deconstructing The Hero by Marjery Hourihan


Various Versions and Intended Audience

LRRH wasn’t always a children’s story. It’s a truth seldom acknowledged that fairy tales used to be for everyone. It’s anachronistic to even speak of ‘the child’ before a certain point in history, because the concept did not exist. There were babies, then there were people, sent out to work at the earliest opportunity.

Continue reading

What Is A Child?

Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of merely a descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these are the marks of childhood and adolescence … The modern view seems to me to involve a false conception of growth … surely arrested development consists not in refusing to lose old things but in failing to add new things?

– C.S. Lewis, 1966


One of the oddest things we do to children is to confront them with someone else who is also eight, or ten, or seven, and insist that they be friends … What concerns me is the misconception that people are fossilised at any particular point in a lifetime. We are none of us ‘the young’ or ‘the middle-aged’ or ‘the old’. We are all of those things. To allow children to think otherwise is to encourage a disability — a disability both of awareness and communication.

– Penelope Lively


These are notes from Fiction For Young Adults – the fourth in a series of units offered at Bendigo’s La Trobe University

delivered by Professor David Beagley, available on iTunes U


YA is now defined as a market, in fact it’s a market that defines most other fashion, including clothing.

The crossover novel is a concept that first became clear with Harry Potter, when Bloomsbury (the publishers) realised they should start publishing this children’s story with adult covers. The adult versions are dark and sombre. This was so successful that the final two books sold more copies with adult covers than with those designed for children.

‘Notions of the “child”, “childhood” and “children’s literature” are contingent, not essentialist; embodying the social construction of a particular historical context; they are useful fictions intended to redress reality as much as to reflect ideology of Romantic literature and criticism. These ideas have been applied to eighteenth-century children’s authors such as Maria Edgworth. The child constructed by Romantic ideology recurs as Wordsworth’s ‘child of nature’ in such figures as Kipling’s Mowgli and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Dickon in The Secret Garden and, as one critic points out, ‘many children’s books that feature children obviously wiser than the adults they must deal with — like F. Anstey’s Vice Versa or E. Nesbit’s Story of the Amulet — would have been unthinkable without the Romantic revaluation of childhood’.

– from History and Culture in Understanding Children’s Literature edited by Peter Hunt


What exactly is a child?

The labels themselves have the result of setting boundaries: child, adolescent, teenager, young adult.

Historically, during the Renaissance (1400s onwards), society’s thinking changed hugely, starting with religion, into ideas of government. Art changed, music changed. All of these things happened over a couple of centuries. The change in attitude towards the child is typified by this painted icon of Madonna and Child (1228), and conveys the idea that the child is simply a smaller version of the adult.

The baby Jesus is being held by his mother, in terms of the proportion of the arms/legs/head is an adult figure. [Might this simply be a bad painter, or reflecting the idea that the baby Jesus was never a normal baby? However, I get the idea.]


A different but related idea:

I think the way we’ve constructed adulthood against and alongside our construction of childhood is bad for adults. It’s bad for children, too, but it’s also bad for adults. In the same way that sexism is bad for women and men, so too is our adoration of The Child bad for the child and the grownup.

–          The Moving Castle


What is a naughty child?

When you see a child throwing a tantrum in the supermarket and the carer smacks the child – should you use violence on a child? Is the child being naughty or is the child simply doing what the adult doesn’t want? Does the child have the capacity to make the moral judgement between good and evil? Before the Renaissance, it was assumed. Humans were thought to be inherently evil, because we were descended from the evil Adam and Eve. Therefore every child ever since is sinful and accepts responsibility just like everybody else. John Locke and others presented the idea that the child became not the adult but the baby Jesus, essentially innocent and pure, corrupted by the world. This is a huge change in thinking.


Should children be treated differently?

A couple of the gospels from the Christian Bible: Mark 10:14, repeated at Luke 18:16. A group of children were trying to get to Jesus. They were being held back, but said that the children are special and let them come to me. The bible says unless we humble ourselves like little children we’ll never get into heaven. This was recognition that children could not and should not be treated as adults, but it took the rest of the Western world another 1500 years or so to wake up to this idea, but wake up they did, in the Renaissance.

Schooling became a structured, organised social activity, not just something parents passed onto their children. Before the Renaissance, if your father was a weaver, you were a weaver. Schooling became a social construct between the 1700 and 1800s. It was originally provided by the church, in Britain and then copied in Australia. Eventually schooling was compulsory – in 1872 both in Britain and in Victoria here in Australia. That separated children as a social group. They were not just part of a family, but part of the group of ‘school children’.

Before this were labour laws prohibiting children from being employed, originally when they were 12, then 14. Even in the 1930s and 1940s, most people left school after about the age of 14 (what we would call Year 8) and go to work. Only a few would go on to specific qualifications to become professionals. Anne of Green Gables finished school at about year eight. Next year she’s back as the teacher, teaching the class. After a couple of years of doing that she goes off to university to become a teacher.

There were laws about when a person could marry, engage in sexual activity, when they could inherit and so on. These laws gradually started coming in to protect the child and childhood. The middle class came about after leisure came about. People had money to buy books, for example.

Teenagers, or the concept of ‘teenagehood’ came about much later, in the 1950s.

[Rock around the Clock]

Huge social upheavals happened. Disposable income, compulsory schooling – all of those elements were leading to this point, and probably should have happened earlier, but the World Wars and Great Depression inserted turmoil. Gender roles were also important. Women were required in the workforce and therefore unable to look after the children as they were able to before.

All of a sudden there was a jump between the child to the 18 year old adult, fixed by warfare, because you were unable to fight before the age of 18. This gave birth to ‘the teenager’. Rock and Roll occurred because there was a group who couldn’t yet fight or do other adult things.

When do you pay full fare to the movies or on the plane? (When you fit into a seat rather than on someone’s knee.)

When can you leave school?

When can you work?

It’s blurred there, because there is an upper limit on hours for teenagers. When can you smoke, marry? Between 10 and 16 children can engage in sexual activity, as long as the two partners are both consenting and within two years of age. If you’re over 16 there are still some limits, if you’re over 18 open slather, with anyone. Anywhere between about 3 and 25 for certain inheritance laws. Is a 19 year old the same as a 13 year old? They’re both ‘teenagers’. The word ‘adolescent’ implies that there is growth but it is not yet there.


Bahr, Nan & Pendergast, Donna (2007) The millennial adolescent. Australian Council for Education Research, Camberwell, Victoria.

Art History Highlights

Insofar as art history is useful to picturebook lovers, here is a useful infographic from Indulgy:

The Evolution Of The Vampire In Fiction

See The Romanticization Of Hollywood Vampires from Nosferatu to The Twilight Saga from Prof Maria Lunk for the short version on YouTube.

These are notes from Romance And Vampires, lecture 9, Fiction for Young Adults by David Beagley, La Trobe University, podcast available on iTunes U

Can vampires ever be any good for young women?

See: How the vampire became film’s most feminist monster

Peter Cushing is shown in typical roles


There has been a huge amount of critical commentary on the Twilight series – serious academic commentary. Here is some of the best:

Silver, A. Studies In the Novel – these journals are not just YA journals. This one normally looks at adult, serious literature. Twilight is not good for maidens: gendered sexuality in the familyTwilight.

(Un)safe sex: romancing the vampire is from a movie journal, Cineaste.

Mercer, J.A., Pastoral Psychology Vampires Desire Girls and God.

Anne Klaus and Stefanie Krüger’s Vampires Without Fangs can be read in entirety from a home computer.

This looks more broadly at the development of the vampire as a character in literature, Journal of American Culture. (May be this one.)

An excellent book is  Bitten By Twilight: Youth culture media and the vampire franchise, a series of articles by different people.

Nayar, P.,  How to Domesticate a Vampire, from the journal Nebula, an Australian teaching journal., available freely online.

Hermeutics is looking at the separate parts in order to understand the whole.


a clutch of vampires


The Evolution Of The Vampire

How did the vampire become an outstanding character in fiction?

Until the 19th C the vampire existed as something to be feared. It was a revenant, coming back to haunt the living. The vampire is based on a real animal (a bat) which has a couple of fangs and lives on blood. Only trouble is, you can fit it in the palm of your hand. It usually feeds on slow moving grazing animals such as cattle. It’s quite a problem in certain parts of the world, where animals that are stabled are a lot of trouble because they can’t escape it. The bat flies down and nicks the animal with its incredibly sharp teeth, then drinks the blood that oozes out. But if there are a lot of them they weaken the host.


This animal is then linked to a real person in history: Vlad the Impaler. (1431-1476) He lived in Bulgaria and was a member of the House of Drăculești. In Bulgaria he is seen as a war hero. He is reputed to have killed tens of thousands of people.

In 1922 a movie called Nosferatu was made.  He’s not an especially good-looking character – he was meant to be an absolute monster. He was presented as a bit of a sad outsider, a bit like Frankenstein created by Mary Shelley. The monsterness wasn’t inherent in him – it was that society rejected him and made him an outsider. (Grendel in Beowulf is a similar example.) There’s virtually no literature that includes a vampire until the early 1820s, the time of Frankenstein.

Let The Right One In is a Swedish story about bullying. A boy in Sweden is being bullied mercifully at school. An odd girl appears around his housing estate and starts looking out for him. She has no parents and has a middle-aged man there but she’s obviously the one in charge.

The ending is classically understated, as often seen in Scandinavian cinema. It’s quite horrific. This movie depicts the traditional view of the vampire as a monster.

Yet in 1819, 1820 a slight evolution took place in the presentation of the vampire as a monster. The monster vampire became seductive. The Vampyre has a sinister, haughty aristocrat, with much physical beauty. Instead of blood and violence being the focus, this antihero has much physical beauty. He drinks blood but he is immensely charming. This is also the point at which the victims become predominantly female.

In 1872 Carmilla was published, in which the vampire is a female, though this is an exception. The human sexuality of this lesbian-esque story is very much in this particular vampire story. She still has the bloodlust and the unnatural strength and near indestructibility of the male vampires but this is the dangerous lover – the outsider who lures women away from their proper place, but who is defeated by the good, moral, upstanding man.

The vampire can be compared to the wolf – the seducer wolf in Little Red Riding Hood and other stories. This is heading into the bad-boy lover genre, parodied in Grease. The vampire is the extreme example of that.

Bram Stoker was the writer to bring the name ‘Dracula’ together with the vampire story. He brings all the humanness of Vlad the Impaler to a monster.

Lately there has been another development in vampire literature. It follows the idea of vampire as seducer/seductress.

The Sympathetic Vampire

Anne Rice’s stories the Vampire Chronicles in the 1970s started this. LeStat and Louis are two vampires on a quest to understand themselves, understand the nature of vampireness and find out why they are this way. Why do people fear them? They philosophise, discuss and are presented as character who the reader is meant to understand. Rather than being monstrous, they are simply misunderstood.

This continues with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, particularly in the character of Angel, who is the love interest for Buffy, even though he is a vampire. His role is to go away and try and be good. The Edward Cullen character is developing in this way as well.

The Count is a children’s version. He speaks in an Eastern European accent and the outward appearance of a vampire but all he wants to do is count.

Count Duckula is a vampire duck.

The Little Vampire is a delightful movie. This family could be the prototype of The Cullens, simply looking for somewhere to live and be safe.

Being for children, there is no harm and no danger in these stories.

The audience is being asked to pity the poor misunderstood outsider. When the vampire changed from a monster into a sympathetic character, the audience of vampire literature changed from a largely male one to a female one, because the emphasis is now on caring and nurturing, with all the traditional stereotypes that go along with that.

It all comes together in Twilight. Twilight was almost waiting to be written. It didn’t just suddenly magically appear out of nowhere. It developed from a long stream of styles in literature.

The Author As One Of The Players

Rather than as a god-like creator, setting something up, with the reader taking everything the author says.

Stephanie Myer, born 1973, married at 21 and never worked in a major career role. She did work briefly as a receptionist but stopped paid work when the children arrived. She had never published anything before the Twilight novels. She is reasonably well educated but only through to high school. She is a copious reader and has quite deliberately structured elements of other stories in her book. She quite deliberately used parts of Pride and Prejudice in Twilight.

Now with the success of Twilight, Myer runs the commercial arm of her business which delivers Twilight, the movies, the spinoffs etc. Her husband has left work to look after the kids while she does all of that.

One of the key elements that keeps coming up about Myer: She is a member of the Mormon church. It’s a much larger movement in the USA than in Australia because it began in the United States. It’s a branch of Christianity, started by Joseph Smith near New York, who received, he says, a book from the angels which he translated.

Within that book of Mormon, looking largely at America as a centre of religious belief, and Native Americans as connected to the New Testament story of Jesus. Joseph Smith and his family said that God had given him a mission, that all the other churches had got it wrong and become corrupted. It was now up to him to change them and get back to being good.

Christian Primativist churches (of which Mormon is one) is a movement toward returning to earlier beliefs. Mormonism is based around the idea of ‘crusade’. It has a stated role to change things. All churches fit somewhere on that continuum, but in Mormonism this crusade part of the culture is clearly expressed.

How does this affect the commentary on Twilight?

The books are very, very sexualised. There is a huge emphasis on physical appearance, male-female interaction, desperately falling in love, the expression of the key characters’ sexuality. There is also a lot of violence. The very concept of the vampire is dangerous. The sheer physicality is there. Despite that, the morality (the right and wrongness) is very very conservative.

Abstinence is emphasised. The whole book is structured around unresolved sexual tension. Will I or won’t I? I want to. You mustn’t. Abstinence is the key to it.

It’s also heteronormative – standard boy-girl relationships. Similar appearance, similar age. White Europeans.

There’s also submissive femininity. The girls go along with what the boys suggest.

The vampires are worried about the souls, not only of themselves, but of the people around them, and whether they can be redeemed. Twilight is neither a horror nor a monster story; it is a love story. Morality revolves around interpersonal relations, not upon the diet of vampires.

In the story itself, what do we have that demonstrates those ideas?

Bella has virtually no agency. She can’t make choices and decisions that change the course of her life. It starts with her parents who split up. Bella is left to go somewhere. From then on she responds to Edward. She is reactive, not proactive to his suggestions. Is Edward a stalker? He lets slip that he hangs round her bedroom all night. He’s been doing it for a month before they’ve even started going out together. This is symbolic of him as the one controlling/supervising/demanding/initiating/concluding all of the actions. When she decides to go shopping and gets into trouble with some boys following her, of course he’s there. He’s the one who solves the problem of getting rid of other vampires. Bella almost sleep walks throughout he story. In moral terms, though, he is the one who won’t kiss her. He is the chaste vampire. In fact, she is seen as quite unreliable. She freely admits that she’d probably leap into whatever situation he suggested at the drop of a hat.

Myer has therefore been called anti-feminist. She romanticises an abusive relationship. This is a very unequal relationship. All of the red flags of an abusive, over-controlling relationship are there in the story. Bella is absolutely dependent upon Edward. He is there to protect her life, her virginity, her humanity.

Myer has disagreed with this. It’s all around Bella’s choice, and she’s the one who chooses Edward. “Her damsel in distress persona is only due to her humanity.” But surely that’s the feminist point – that she is being portrayed as human and therefore weak.

So what message does this send to readers about the moral capacity of girls to make their own choices?

They require a strong male to protect her.

The sin is in the girl, and requires a strong boy to protect her from herself. (There are places in the world where women are not allowed to leave the house without a male protector. We see this as incredibly wrong yet surely this is what Edward Cullen is doing here.)

The ordination of women in Catholic Churches – this is a theological argument.


A couple of books later, when finally Bella and Edward do get married, have sex, and have a baby, Bella explodes and childbirth kills her. (This being a vampire story, they live happily ever after.)



Emory University has a list of short videos about movies and pop culture on YouTube. Twilight Taboos: Breaking The Rules Of The Traditional Vampire is ultimately positive about the Twilight Series, and views this new reimagining of the monster as a ‘literary’ vampire in which anything is possible. The literary vampire is different from the ‘folkloric’ vampire, which is a monster, and the subtext is that we shouldn’t criticise Myer’s ‘sparkly vampires’ because we’re expecting creatures of the folkloric tradition.

The Great New England Vampire Panic from The Smithsonian

The 10 Best Vampire Novels No one Has Read from Barnes & Nobel

Revamped – How the Twenty-First Century Vampire Is Redefining Masculinity from Interesting Literature

10 of the Grossest and Most Grotesque Vampires from Folklore from io9

Vampire Movies — how many off this list have you seen? (Me: 2.5)

A list of books about vampires from Miami University database

The New England Vampire Panic was more recent than you might think, as explained by Stuff You Missed In History podcast.

Plot In Children’s Literature

There has…been a notable shift in Western children’s fiction, beginning in the 1960s, toward a more profound interest in character, toward psychological, character-oriented children’s novels. In many contemporary novels for children, we observe a disintegration of the plot in its traditional meaning; nothing really “happens.” There is no beginning or end in the usual sense, no logical development toward a climax and denouement; the story may seem to be arbitrarily cut from the character’s life, or is even more often a mosaic of bits arbitrarily glued together.

– Maria Nikolajeva, Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature

This isn’t to say plot is no longer of central concern.

From What Publishers Look For In A Children’s Book: An Editorial Perspective from Tina Nichols Coury

Is my plot compelling? Why will my readers want to turn the page?

  • The story has “a great beginning,” “a well-crafted narrative arc,” and “a satisfying ending.”
  • The story is built on “conflict,” “friction,” “tension.”
  • The story has “internal logic,” “believability.”
  • The story is “artful,” “crafted,” “rhythmic.”
  • The story “invites the reader to turn the page.”
  • The story creates urgency in the reader: “Must…find…out…what…happens!”
  • The story is full of “clever twists.”
  • The story is “exciting,” “compelling,” “fast-paced.”
  • The story “is not didactic.”

I don’t want to lift too much, but if you go to the article and read the bit about ’emotional impact’, it’s clear — without it being named as such — that character development is also important in modern kidlit.

Nudity In Picturebooks

Sam The Eagle On Nudity

This morning Cosmopolitan reports that UK authors are pushing for children’s literature to include sex in fiction for kids. That’s quite a headline grabber. Of course, reading the actual article offers a less sensationalist request:

  • Malorie Blackman says that including sex in fiction for kids will expose them to it in a shame-free, healthy and positive “safe setting”
  • Philip Pullman agrees, and says that  kids can benefit from seeing sex in a “moral context” where “actions have consequences”.

They’re not asking too much, are they?. Bear in mind that in the publishing world, ‘children’s literature’ includes the young adult category.

I wish them all the luck in the world and, given the current attitude towards nudity in picturebooks, I think they’ll need it. Things haven’t changed all that much since Maurice Sendak’s most controversial book In The Night Kitchen was released in 1970. In that book is a picture of a little boy with no clothes on. We can see his penis.

I haven’t seen anything quite like that in picturebook since. Maybe illustrated eBooks and self-publishing will offer writers opportunities to push the boundaries a little more? After all, not everyone is on board with the censorship of innocent nudity in picturebooks, and I count myself among them. However, distribution of our work relies on bigger powers, and here are the developer guidelines from Apple:


apple-rating-chart setting-a-rating-apple-guidelines


I recently saw a picture from a fellow developer who’d had his 4+  rated app rejected by Apple. The screenshot depicted a very innocent, almost inhuman looking, smooth-bodied creature. The advice from Apple was to ‘put some clothes on it’.

So, regardless of my personal attitude towards censorship, the real decision makers are standing at the gate of that walled garden.


Censor or suck it up? Racism and children’s books At Misrule

On censorship

Below are some notes from an interview between Australian author Sally Rippin and Kim Hill (Saturday Morning With Kim Hill, Radio New Zealand)

Examples of things which have been taken out of children’s books before publication:

  • children from walking alone (because guardians are legally obliged to accompany children)
  • sharp objects (because children shouldn’t be given sharp objects)
  • a boy climbing a ladder (so as not to encourage the climbing of ladders)
  • ‘Crossover’ fiction gets away with more compared to books marketed as ‘young adult’.
  • Gatekeepers are parents, teachers, librarians. There is a certain amount of self-censorship when writers write.
  • There is pressure on illustrators to create racially ambiguous characters rather than specific to one culture.

Sort of kind of related and also interesting: a post on female sexuality as depicted in young adult fiction, at YA Highway. And here is an article by author E.M. Kokie about how much more difficult it is to write about the sexual experiences of a female character than a male.

The most challenged books of 2012, and why from Book Riot




Sales of digital comics have soared in the past three years. Readers love the look of comics on the iPad screen and they also love the convenience of in-app purchasing, which allows consumers to buy and store their comics within a single app. So it’s a big deal when Apple bans a comic—usually because of sexual or mature material or nudity—and it has happened to at least 59 comics this year.

Are Comics Too Hot For Apple?

You may think that creators of picturebooks for the iPad have less to worry about, but in fact the innocent nudity of bathtime and related day-to-day activities is banned equally by Apple. I have seen children’s apps rejected which feature only the vaguest representations of human creatures. If nudity offends you, you’re safe with Apple. If, on the other hand, you think there should be more normalised nudity in children’s media, your bookshelf will need supplementation, because Apple does not distinguish between ‘nudity’ and ‘nakedness’.

Perry Nodelman explains why Apple employees, when working under deadline to accept or reject app submissions, might have trouble with such a distinction in his book Words About Pictures:

In Ways Of Seeing, John Berger suggests that the characteristic poses of nudes in paintings imply the superiority of the viewer, presumably male and dressed, and the subservience of the person they depict — inevitably female, totally exposed, and apparently delighted by her vulnerability in the face of superior power. While the naked human body is not as significant a subject of picture books as it is of conventional painting, its depiction in picture books deserves some discussion. Not only does it reveal much about the kinds of narrative information implied by the depiction of postures and gestures — above all, the communication of attitudes toward characters — but also it suggests how even cultural assumptions we believe we have outlived survive in surprising ways in literature and art.

As Berger defines it, nudity can be distinguished from mere nakedness by means of gestures. Naked people simply have their clothes off; nude people take on certain postures that suggest their availability, their passivity, their willingness to be vulnerable and to put themselves at the disposal of a superior viewer who has the right to survey them. They tend to be supine, relaxed, smiling sensuously with an implied consciousness of a viewer or with their eyes closed. If such poses and gestures represent nudity, then the unclothed children of picture books are, surprisingly often, nude — and not, surely, because artists with to suggest the sexual availability of young children but more likely because the gestures of nudity are so conventional and so interiorized that artists use them unconsciously when they depict naked bodies.

– Code, Symbol, Gesture

Nodelman offers some examples of such nudity in picturebooks:

The Water Babies, illustrated by Jessie Wilcox Smith



And that, folks, is how we end up with a blanket ban on nudity in the App Store. Meantime, I did wonder if Midnight Feast would be accepted, due to the bathtime pages. Fortunately the app has made it through twice so far. Fingers crossed it keeps making it, though I will wonder every time we submit an update if a naked female back may at some stage not pass muster. Nodelman does point out that although female nudity in picturebooks is rare due to its close connection to sexuality, ‘the rare female nudes in picture books tend to sit in bathtubs or hold towels around themselves or hide behind trees; they almost always take on the traditional gestures of nudity, and they almost always smile out at viewers’.

Isn’t it interesting, that even when clothed, female characters — in picturebooks, not just in comics — ‘almost always take on the traditional gestures of nudity’.

While I understand the line must be drawn somewhere, I am reminded of a documentary I watched recently about young British naturists, who were joined for afternoon tea by a female friend who felt uncomfortable with complete nakedness, but equally uncomfortable fully clothed, so she thought she’d achieve a happy medium by eating afternoon tea in her underwear. As pointed out by one of the naked young men, her underwear had the uncanny ability to make the young woman appear more naked than if she were wearing nothing at all. Female underwear is highly sexualised; as for nakedness, not necessarily.

Censorship is a murky, muddy, ever-shifting beast, but I do wonder if the emphasis on nakedness in apps for children isn’t completely misplaced when the female characters who do appear in children’s media are so often striking the ‘nude pose’.

iPhone Screenshot 5

Minnie Mouse Matching Bonus Game



Nodelman writes, “In fact, pictures of naked boys almost all show them clearly doing something–moving, active, not posing.”

I would suggest from all this that it’s not the nakedness per se that offends certain censors*, because we get ‘clothed nude’ in spades; it is in fact naked female agency.


*Censorship technically only refers to government restriction. A company who decides not to allow something is technically making a business decision rather than imposing censorship in the truest sense.


In The Buff from The Smart Set

iBooks and their covers are also subject to Apple’s business decisions. Apple refuses to allow female nipples on the cover of La Femme.

Two Pieces Of Reading Theatre

Kate De Goldi discusses children’s literature with Kim Hill on Radio New Zealand Saturday Morning.

Reading theatre in children’s literature was pioneered by Paul Fleischman, who has done heaps and heaps of books, many different forms, for many different age groups. He is a one man master.

Bull Run by Paul Fleischman

American geography, civil war history… Even the adult reader will learn a lot from this. Photography came of age during this war so was the first war to be photographed. Fleischman writes this book with a series of monologues. There’s a woodcut at the top of each chapter which changes according to who it’s by — this woodcut serves as a beautiful example of a pictorial aid, but a very quiet one, which allows the reader to remember who is who.

There are also fantastic maps in the front, with great detail.

Bull Run was the first big battle of the Civil War. His basic theme is about what we bring to our expectation of battle as a country — excitement, a sense of righteousness. What we might regard as virtuous causes are actually not. He beautifully shows the dashed expectations and the horror of the battle through the different monologues. There’s a multicultural cast, pale of skin (so able to sign up, since the unions don’t want the blacks fighting for them). The photographer doesn’t really care who he’s photographing — capturing both sides. One of the photos is blurred to make the soldier look like a spirit, even before he is killed in battle.

The women are beautifully caught. Lily never actually goes to battle but is living a pretty degraded life.

The striking thing to a modern reader is how long it takes to hear of any news about what’s happening during war.

Flora watches all three of her sons go to war, but later on is called upon to nurse union soldiers.

Another man goes to war to find a family among the horses. What cuts him to the quick is what happens to the animals on the battle field.

This book stands out because it crosses race and gender lines in its telling.

This book will appeal to good readers and history buffs, but also to less good readers because the pieces are very short. This book would be a great teaching tool. While history buffs can become obsessed with the way a battle is actually fought, this book deals with the humanity in the war.

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a medieval village

Laura Amy Schlitz is an increasingly well-known writer and very good. Schlitz is a librarian at a middle school in Baltimore and this book arose out of her love for history. She wrote a play set during the middle ages and all 17 children wanted a part, so she wrote a series of monologues so that each part would be as important as another. There are 22 different voices in this, all young characters, all different ways of looking at life around a medieval manor in 1255. From this you learn an awful lot about the period. For example what a ‘sniggler’ is — the vocabulary is amazing. She brings back words that have gone out of our language, but also she doesn’t stint on an adventurous vocabulary simply because of the younger age of her readers. She writes with a poet’s ear, with beautiful rhythm and phrasing. Interpolated between the monologue she gives little essays with factoids that can be skipped over or read in order. The pictures are beautiful woodcut illustrations by Robert Byrd. (He has also illustrated at least sixteen books for other authors, including Jack StokesRobert KrausBruce KrausLaura Amy SchlitzKathleen KrullMarilyn Jager Adams, and Paula Fox.)

This would be one great way of a primary school classroom working together to learn about the middle ages. This book really brings this period to life.

Winner of the Newbery Medal 2008

This author has just published Splendors and Gloom, a Victorian Gothic mystery involving puppet masters.

For How Long Have Picturebooks Been Around?

Storybook apps are very new indeed, and today it seems as if the picturebook (the kind you hold in your hand) has been around for centuries and centuries, but that is not the case at all:

It is difficult to be precise about when the modern picturebook first made its appearance but most authorities seem to be agreed that during the late nineteenth century picturebook makers such as Randolph Caldecott played a decisive role in transforming the Victorian toy book into something much more like the modern picturebook. Similarly, although many fine picturebooks were published prior to the 1960s, a number of factors converged around that time to enable publishers to produce and sell high quality picturebooks in larger numbers than before.

– from the introduction to Reading Contemporary Picturebooks by David Lewis


If you’re anything like me, you’re wondering ‘What on earth is a Victorian toy book?’ Good old Wikipedia has the answer.

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