Absent Parents In Children’s Literature

One job for children’s authors is to get adults out of the way so child characters can solve their own problems.

How do you feel about adults helping children in children’s books?

Some time ago Francis Spufford, author of The Child That Books Built (among many others), spoke with Kim Hill on Radio New Zealand.

Spufford isn’t a fan of the hugely popular Tracy Beaker series by Jacqueline Wilson because he’d rather there wasn’t an ongoing series devoted to the continuing uselessness of adults. He argues that uselessness should be leavened with a bit of helpfulness here and there.

EVERY AGE HAS ITS CONVENTIONS

Kim Hill points out that a few generations ago there was a general absence of parental figures in children’s stories but now the adults are often present, and psychotic a lot of the time. Spufford says that there used to be plot contrivances to get parents out of the way. Now the adults are the problem. Every age has its conventions and adult depravity is presently one of the conventions. Spufford doesn’t like it because it’s unrealistic in the opposite direction. A world in which a child only knows about ‘stranger danger’ is bad.

When children’s authors want to get parents out of the way, how do they achieve this?

TECHNIQUE 1: PARENTS/CAREGIVERS TOO BUSY WITH WORK

absent parent in Pip: The Story Of Olive

In Pip: The Story Of Olive, an upper middle-grade novel by Australian Kim Kane, the mother of the main character is a busy and successful lawyer, left at home alone to tuck herself into bed with a hottie, but with full access to a credit card. When Pip tries to tell her mother (Mog) on the phone what’s been going on in her life, the mother gets interrupted by work colleagues, because they’re working on a big case, and so Olive is left to conclude that talking to her mother is a wasted effort. Continue reading “Absent Parents In Children’s Literature”

What Is A Flaneur?

As described by James Wood in How Fiction Works, the flaneur is

the loafer, usually a young man, who walks the streets with no great urgency, seeing, looking, reflecting.

Flânerie describes aimless behaviour.

In French it’s spelt like this: flâneur, though not if you’re writing in English.

Wood also uses the great phrases ‘porous scout’ and ‘Noah’s dove’ to describe this authorial stand-in.

We know this type from Baudelaire, from the all-seeing narrator of Rilke’s autobiographical novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Briggs, and from Walter Benjamin’s writings about Baudelaire.

Flaneur

The flaneur hangs around cities. There’s not so much for him to do in the country. You won’t find Jane Austen’s characters wandering around aimlessly. But these guys aren’t actually aimless: they wander around with the purpose of deconstructing social life in order to form a critique.

The flaneur is a wandering narrator who is at once an outsider and native to a particular urban environment.

For more on the flaneur, see the Wikipedia article

THE FLANEUR IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

Middle Grade Novels

Since the flaneur loves busy, interesting cities like New York, some critics have made a subcategory of American children’s literature set in New York where we might find the kidlit version of the flaneur. Eric L. Tribunella finds the flaneur in:

Although Tribunella published that paper in 2010, he cites examples from the Second Golden Age of children’s literature, which started after WW2 and ended around 1970.

Picture Books

Do modern young audiences have any time for the flaneur? When it comes to picture books, there is a subcategory designed to take the reader through a city, as an armchair tourist. Some critics have said that this is the picturebook version of the flaneur, in which the reader is the flaneur, not necessarily a character inside the story. Again, look out for American picture books, particularly those set in New York or Los Angeles.

Young Adult Novels

In modern teen fiction, consider the mall instead of the city as a place where young flaneur hang out.

In stories where teens hang out in malls — and often in real life too — teens are not welcome. The mall has the feeling of a safe, cloistered space and mall designers go out of their way to make shoppers feel as comfortable as if they were at home: modern malls are carpeted and warm and play calming music. Comfortable big furniture is provided as islands of refuge. Yet when teenagers congregate in malls they are not genuinely welcome unless they happen to have the disposable income of adults. Therefore, the mall in young adult literature is a setting which functions as a symbol of teenage-hood itself: that liminal space between childhood and adulthood.

weetzie bat covers

Some critics describe the ‘postmodern flaneur’. For example in Weetzie-Bat (1989), the debut punk-rock fairytale novel by Francesca Lia Block, we have a narrator who is both part of her urban environment but also narrates as if she’s an outsider. By this interpretation, the flaneur in children’s literature is unlikely to go away, since the entire category of YA makes heavy use of that feeling of being an outsider trying to find your place.

For more examples of young adult novels with a flaneur quality, see The Flaneur Goes To The Mall at The Millions

Maps In Children’s Books

Is there anything more satisfying than a fictional literary map? Sometimes these maps are designed by the illustrators. Other maps are done by unsung heroes called book designers, whose names are left off the front cover and publicity material. Making a map of a fantastic world is also a favourite thing to do in fan fic, and some fan fiction maps are truly amazing. Some maps are even done by the authors, even if the authors aren’t otherwise illustrators. Sometimes the sketch of an author’s map goes public after a book takes off, as in the case of J.K. Rowling’s map of Hogwarts.

Some of them are from an oblique bird’s eye angle, others are decorated emulations of ye olde worlde maps. Some seem to be to scale while others are designed to give readers the general idea. Since a lot of these maps appear in novels for which there is no budget for coloured illustration, black and white maps need to look great.

For much more on this topic see The Art of Illustrated Maps by John Roman.

Continue reading “Maps In Children’s Books”

Making Use Of The Miniature In Storytelling

Thumbelina Ladybird coverTOM THUMB

Some of the oldest tales about miniature creatures living in oversized land come from fairytales: Thumbelina and Tom Thumb are the first that come to mind.

My method was mostly metaphorical: what if Thumbelina wasn’t actually small, she just felt small?

— Emma Donoghue, explaining how when rewriting fairytales she took tales from the oral tradition and simply considered them in metaphorical terms.

A useful term here is ‘homunculus‘, which means a very small person. The plural is homunculi. This was originally a medical term which comes from alchemy. By the nineteenth century we knew a bit more about how humans come about, so now the homunculus was a fictional character.

WHY DO STORYTELLERS LOVE MINIATURE WORLDS?

This comic by Poorly Drawn Lines spoofs the concept of the miniature concept of tourist destinations.Poo

Continue reading “Making Use Of The Miniature In Storytelling”

The Tale Of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter

The entire story of Peter Rabbit can be read here at Project Gutenberg, but bear in mind that Beatrix Potter was very fussy about the size of her book and everything about the printing process, and it’s therefore meant to be read as a bound copy, in its original small size rather than as part of an anthologised collection.

The Tale Of Peter Rabbit

 

See also: The Size And Format Of Picturebooks

PROBLEMS WITH PETER RABBIT

As Marjery Hourihan points out in Deconstructing the Hero, Peter Rabbit is basically an Odyssean story. A male hero goes out, has an adventure, faces death and then arrives home, changed. Beatrix Potter was following a long tradition of storytelling when she wrote this one.

It’s worth looking closely, too, at the gender attitudes reflected in this tale — attitudes you might expect to have evolved since this story was written, but which haven’t really, in popular children’s literature. Although Peter Rabbit’s sisters are all wearing pink shawl’s, it’s coincidental that it was only several decades later that the colour pink started to be associated with femininity, and blue with masculinity. (Perhaps this partly explains the enduring popularity of Peter Rabbit merch given as baby gifts.) For links on the Pinkification of Everything, see here.

Continue reading “The Tale Of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter”

Domestic Dramas In Children’s Literature

While adventure stories were originally written for boys, domestic dramas were written for girls.

DOMESTIC DRAMAS AND PLOT SHAPES

Adventure stories are linear. The hero starts the story by leaving. He often finds himself in a new home after completing his journey. This is a linear plot. In contrast, domestic dramas are circularDomestic stories are home-away-home stories, with the implication that a girl’s proper place (indeed, only place) is in the homeThe chapters of domestic stories tend to be episodic rather than suspenseful, a la Anne of Green Gables, in which a number of the scenes could be switched around and it wouldn’t really matter to the timeline of the plot. Domestic dramas emphasise the seasons, since seasons are themselves cyclical and therefore circular.

For more on the major plot shapes in children’s literature see this post.

STORIES FOR MEN, STORIES FOR WOMEN

Even today, stories thought to be more popular with men tend to feature stronger narrative drive. Breaking Bad, for instance, has recently been a very popular fictional work among men and women alike, and its heroes are men. But the women of Breaking Bad exist mainly as wifely opponents, with the addition of a non-wife female role only in the final season (Lydia). Breaking Bad has episodic elements to it — each episode features a different self-contained plot such as a factory heist to steal a drum full of chemicals, or a visit to the guy with the gold tooth to blow up his lair. At the end of each of these episodes, Walter White returns to his home. As the series progresses it becomes more and more linear. Walter White does not end up back in the home.

Breaking Bad

We might compare and contrast Orange Is The New Black for a modern television drama starring women, ‘for’ women. This is a far more episodic show. Though there is a linear narrative holding the scenes together, the audience derives pleasure not from intense curiosity about what’s about to happen next, but in enjoying the moment — the humour and the dialogue of each scene.

Orange Is The New Black

There are of course genre differences between Breaking Bad and Orange is the New Black, but it’s no coincidence that one stars men and the other stars women; there is a long history of just this sort of gender division in our popular fiction.

 

VICTORIAN DOMESTIC DRAMAS

Examples
  • The Wide, Wide World by Elizabeth Wetherell — a sentimental, religious story. A girl is sent to live with a country aunt after her mother is sent away to die.
  • The Lamplighter by Maria Cummins — Gerty is dragged up by a brutal woman in a Boston slum, popular on both sides of the Atlantic. (Read online.)
  • The works of Miss Charlotte M. Yonge — a very ‘Victorian’ woman, believing in the inferiority of females. She edited a magazine for girls called The Monthly Packet for more than 40 years. (See it online.) Considering her works are now out of print and seldom read, she was very popular in her time. She wrote The Daisy Chain, which is an important forerunner to Little Women.
  • Little Women by Louisa May Alcott — the first two books in this series have been an enduring success. As well as sermonising, the stories feature human reaction against sermonising, which is probably part of their longevity. The character of Laurie is probably a precursor to the likes of Edward Cullen — not entirely fleshed out as a male character, but filling girlhood dreams of boys at a certain developmental stage. This series set the tone for many girls’ books to follow.
  • Elsie Dinsmore by Martha Finlay — a series about a tearful eight-year-old who is an extreme goody-goody.
Elsie Dinsmore Number 6
Modern cover model looks a lot like Elaine Benes to me, though I doubt there are many similarities.
  • What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge — starts off active and ‘feisty’ but ends up married to a handsome naval officer as the series continues.
  • The Gypsy Series by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps — the heroine Gypsy Breynton is an appealing and sporty main character, but there’s no realistic place for her one she is past adolescence, so she ends up supporting her brother as he goes off to Yale.

Gypsy Breyton sopping wet

 

  • Three Vassar Girls Abroad — the first story to feature young women at university, as was happening in the real world with the admission of women to Vassar College and other women’s colleges in America.
  • Little Prudy by Sophie May — for younger readers. Prudy is mischievous and fired with enthusiasm, perhaps a precursor to the likes of Junie B Jones
  • The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew by Margaret Sidney — notable for being the first story about genuinely poor people rather than just ‘hard up’.
  • Seven Little Australians by Ethel Turner — the first notable Australian story of this kind, starring model children,  though it reads as quite English, since the father was English.
  • Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm by Kate Douglas Wiggin — very similar to Anne of Green Gables, though it came first
  • Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery — Anne exemplifies the ‘Ugly Duckling’ plot, not present in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Later books in the series have been described as ‘sentimentally dishonest’.
  • Jackanapes by Mrs. Ewing — a later Victorian work. A low-tension story about a boy and his growth into manhood with a war setting.
  • The Cuckoo Clock by Mrs Molesworth — Griselda goes to live with her two old-maid aunts in an old-fashioned house. She gets bored and enters into a fantasy world with a real-life friend who has come to live nearby.
  • Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances Hodgson Burnett — similar to Mrs Ewing and Mrs Molesworth but by a much more powerful writer. This book is described as ‘namby pamby’ but the main character isn’t all that odious, apparently, if you read the story. Instead,  he is likeable and unaffected and has left-wing politics for his class. The moral is that the only true nobility is within oneself. A Little Princess is like Fauntleroy but in reverse — a story about a girl who goes from aristocracy to the street. The moral is exactly the same. The Secret Garden was written 20 years after Burnett’s first, and is a lot more complex. Mary Lennox has to struggle before achieving a heroine’s status, whereas for the other two main characters it came naturally. The Secret Garden does not espouse Victorian values, in which children should be seen and not heard and do as they’re told. Instead, the book encourages self-reliance and cooperation, which may explain its enduring appeal.

Little Lord Fauntleroy

NOTES ON DOMESTIC DRAMA
  • The function of domestic dramas was to teach girls that a home life is a glamorous one, and to give them a glimpse of life outside the home, presumably so they’d be happy to stay inside the home.
  • But looking closely at these stories, they weren’t really about promoting how wonderful it was to scrub and cook and look after babies — the absolute ideal has always been that these tasks are done by ‘some other woman’ rather than the heroine.
  • There’s no doubt that most reading girls would have been reading adventure stories too, especially if they had brothers. Unfortunately for them, they never got to see themselves in those stories, except as annoying mothers who needed to be broken away from.
  • The more successful domestic dramas were less pious and had more action, which shows what girl readers really wanted, despite what was thought to be good for them. For example, the character of Nancy (a friend to the heroine) made The Wide, Wide World successful because she was a bit of a tearaway, and Gerty of The Lamplighter was also a wild child.
  • “Domestic” does not necessarily mean “bliss” in a children’s book. From the mid 20th Century authors didn’t shy away from portraying threats to young characters’ well-being. But even earlier than that, intimacy didn’t equal peace.
  • Domesticity has always been considered an unstable state. The word itself has meant different things in different eras (think of today’s common usage, as police terminology). It has gone from ideal to pejorative.

 

FURTHER READING

WRITTEN FOR CHILDREN BY JOHN ROWE TOWNSEND

KEYWORDS FOR CHILDREN’S LITERATURE BY PHILIP NEL, LISSA PAUL

 

A Brief History Of Animals In Literature

Animals are divided into…

• those that belong to the Emperor,
• embalmed ones,
• those that are trained,
• suckling pigs,
• mermaids,
• fabulous ones,
• stray dogs,
• those included in the present classification,
• those that tremble as if they were mad,
• innumerable ones,
• those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush,
• others,
• those that have just broken a flower vase,
• those that from a long way off look like flies.
 
from the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge by Jorge Luis Borges

The Evolution Of Animals In Stories Over Time

1. Animals are magical. See folklore and fairy tales. They take over human identities with their magic.

2. Animals are amusing. Animals are no longer objects but characters in their own right. Now they are being used to show up human foibles. (Mrs Gatty, Charles Kingsley)

3. Guilt. Animals in stories are there to show us all our human weakness, and also how animals should properly be treated. (Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, Sarah Trimmer’s religious stories (1782-1819). Other writers such as George Orwell use them as pawns in satire (Animal Farm). Other writers  allow animals to retaliate against humans who have treated them badly (Daphne Du Maurier’s The Birds, The Chronicles of Narnia).

Animal stories rose as religious stories declined in popularity.

Firsts

Fables go way back, of course. But when it comes to published work, the advent of animals in literature, it all started happening from the mid 1700s. Black Beauty started a trend.

The first dog book was The History of Pompey the Little (1751)

Black Beauty is the first real animal novel (1877)

The Jungle Book (1893) is the first attempt to enter an animal world

The Story of Dr Dolittle (1922) is the first to consider animal rights

Mary Plain (1930) is the first animal (a bear) to share the human one

What Was Your Mother’s Favourite Childhood Book?

POOKIE BY IVY WALLACE (1946)

This was my own mother’s favourite series of picturebooks when she was very young, and she has a hardback copy held together with yellowed sticky tape. This one before me is a much later version, which has come out since in soft cover.

I wonder if fairies will make a true comeback. The illustrations in this book are marvelous. Like many fairy books of its time, the world Pookie inhabits is magical, with woodland creatures living happily in treetrunks, and magical little creatures in mushrooms. It reminds me of the illustrations in The Magic Faraway tree, which was brought to life in colour by Georgina Hargreaves. The language is Blyton-esque, with character names such as ‘Nommy-Nee’ and ‘Primrose-Dell’, in a world where you’re likely to run into a ‘pie-man’ who easily loses his temper because you don’t have any money. Like Blyton, Wallace makes use of popular rhymes and older fairytales. Ivy Wallace was also no doubt influenced by Beatrix Potter. “Mother rabbit said Pookie was more trouble to her than Wiggletail, Swifflekinds, Twinkletoes, Brighteyes, Tomasina, Bobasina and Weeny-One all put together!” At one point Pookie meets a man who would like to turn him into a pie. It’s easy to forget that until Beatrix Potter, animals hadn’t really been personified in picturebooks. She started a trend which only now is starting to wane a little bit. Talking animals dressed in clothes are no longer novel in themselves.

As for the story of Pookie, I’m not sure it holds up so well for modern children. I think ideally it would benefit from fewer words to go with those stunning pictures. I wonder if post-war children were still interested in fairies at a slightly older age, when they could cope with all of those words, or if post-war children had longer attention spans due to an absence of television. Maybe both.

Pookie is a rabbit fairy: two cute things in one. He sets out to ‘seek his fortune’ even though he has no idea what a fortune looks like. Along the way he learns that ‘fortune’ means different things to different people. He is eventually taken in by a very kind human-looking girl called Belinda who exclaims, ‘Why, his tiny heart is broken!” She then mends him with a kiss and Pookie knows that he has found his fortune.

It would be unusual these days to find a picturebook in which a fairy rabbit is male gender, in which ‘goblin tailors sat cross-legged on their toadstools, stitching away at filmy fairy frocks made of scented flower petals’, but this story isn’t otherwise gender-bending. The working world (teachers, merchants) is of course typical of its time — populated with men —  and it would have to be a girl (a perfect wartime nurse in training) who tends to Pookie and mends his wounds, since kindness and love were not desirable traits in a man right after manly men saved us all in that war. Indeed, Belinda’s is a level of kindness I haven’t seen in any gender much, and even in modern children’s stories, kind boys are much more rare than kind girls, unless they’re also the introverted, shunned type. (The kind no boy would really want to emulate.)

And with lines such as, “Oh, Pookie, look at your wings now! All they needed was Love, Pookie! Look at them now!” this story is just a little bit twee for modern tastes. Or maybe just for my tastes. But I see why my little-girl-mum would have liked it.

 

Fairy books collated in the Miami University database

Gross-out Children’s Books

What Are Gross-out Books?

Gross-out books are frequently classed as ‘trash‘ and rarely win the big awards, perhaps partly because they sell so well.

Gross-out books fall into the category of ‘carnivalesque’. In academic terms, these gross-out books might be called ‘carnivalesque-grotesque’.

Carnivalesque-grotesque narratives directly address the personal and sociocultural anxieties induced by knowledge of the vulnerability of both the individual and the social bodies. Vulgar, obscene and taboo-breaking forms of comedy in popular culture are neither a modern nor a culturally specific phenomenon. The presence of grotesque humour has been noted in youth culture, in particular, for at least the last few hundred years.

Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

Howard Suber dates such stories from a much earlier time:

[Gross-out humour is] a tradition that goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks. In Greek theatrical celebrations, there would be a cycle of three tragedies, followed by a satyr play or other comedy in which fart jokes, feces-throwing, giant erections, and bosoms were all incorporated in a way that would make any fourteen-year-old male die with laughter. […] While lots of tragedies were preserved, hardly any complete raunchy Greek comedies survive to this day. Even Aristotle’s book on comedy, which was the companion to his work on tragedy, was allowed to disappear from the face of the earth.

— Howard Suber, The Power of Film

Daniel then says that Bakhtin’s work has revealed the use-value of grotesque texts for medieval and Renaissance popular culture and Maria Tatar backed this up. In short, gross-out humour crosses time and culture. Why is it popular today?

The continuing appeal of this type of narrative attests tot he problematic cultural construction of body functions and fluids as abject and disgusting, the importance of the inside/outside dualism in both individual and social psyches, and the psychological and social need to overcome abjection in order that society can function normally.

— Daniel

The Aldi Revolting Rhymes Controversy

revolting rhymes

If you were a child reader in the eighties perhaps you remember this book with this cover — I was also gifted the sequel, Dirty Beasts and derived much enjoyment from both books at about age 8. I have clear memories of reading these poems to me parents, who laughed and laughed, and I felt so much pride at my performance it was as if I’d crafted these poems myself. That said, I was always a little wary of them. In one of the poems one of the young heroines ‘pulls a pistol from her knickers’ and I remember that line perplexed me: What is the obsession with little girls’ knickers? I wondered. Why are girls’ knickers more inherently funny than boys’ underpants, which are never mentioned? I wasn’t able to put it into words, but I was certainly aware of feminist issues even as an eight-year-old girl. The answer of course, to my unasked question: Girls’ knickers are more funny because girls are taught more body shame, so by exposing a female’s under garments you are exposing her basic humanity and opening her up as vulnerable and powerless, despite everything else she has achieved. This is actually the stuff that underpins rape culture.

Much more recently Aldi Australia offered Revolting Rhymes as a weekly special buy and parents about my age flocked to the store and bought this classic for their own children, only to get home and realise that culture has changed a bit since the 80s, and some weren’t too happy about the word ‘slut’, which has changed irreversibly in meaning. (Did people in the 80s still remember its original meaning though — in which slut refers to a slovenly woman who can’t keep the house clean?)

There was of course the usual backlash against Aldi after they made the decision to stop selling the books, with consumers criticising ‘censorship’ from do-gooders.

In truth, the word ‘slut’ is representative of the much wider gender problems in this particular gross-out books, and even modern gross-out books have their issues.

Carolyn Daniel points out in her academic work Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature that gross-out books are written for children, especially boys, and writing about bums is almost licence to print money. I think this is rather overstating the case — if you’ve ever read a really bad example of a gross-out book, written by someone who thinks that all you have to do is write a whole heap of the most disgusting stuff you can imagine, you’ll see that the best-selling gross-out books do still have plots, and plots are never easy no matter the genre, otherwise everyone would be a bestseller.

Since Daniel’s criticism was published (2006) she would not be surprised to see the continuing success of the Andy Griffiths series The Day My Bum Went Psycho, which I have to admit, is surprisingly clever as a spoof given the title. Until I picked it up I wondered how on earth it was possible to write an entire novel that could live up to the cover image:

The Day My Bum Went Psycho

It’s even a TV series now. The book is basically a spoof of a war story, and manages dual audience humour, which only readers familiar with war story tropes would understand. I’m no fan of the book myself, and my daughter lost interest, but I can see the appeal. As  you can see, I’m one of the conflicted.

Have We Made Up Our Minds About These Books? Really?

The Andy Griffiths books are probably found on the shelves of every public Australian school library. So a friend of mine was confused when her then six-year-old daughter, having just finished reading The Day My Bum Went Psycho, get into big trouble — along with a group of friends — when they were taken to the computer lab for research and did a google search for ‘worlds biggest bum’. It seems we’re all a bit confused about what is okay and isn’t okay for kids. “Oh no! They’re googling bums! Butt it’s okay, everyone’s got a bum…Bums are perfectly natural But what if the parents find out about this and we get into serious trouble! Also, Andy Griffiths! And at least the boys are reading something.”

Attitudes To Gross-out Books

One popular argument: As long as my boys (in particular) are reading, I don’t care what they’re reading.

Addendum: If kids are enjoying reading it must be good for them, both for their emotional health and for their decoding skills. Also, reading trash is a gateway to reading good literature when they get round to it.

A counter argument: Funny, light, popular books can still be harmful. Reading bad books is perhaps even worse than watching a lot of high-quality TV.

I’m inclined to go with the latter, not because I think kids are already gross enough and don’t need bad behaviour encouraged (I don’t believe it works like that) but because the messages under the surface are actually more powerful than the top layer of story. This is exactly why all the award winning books are heavy on metaphor.

Are There Good Things To Come Out Of Gross-out Books?

Can the grotesque images in carnivalesque texts contain any subversive potential at all? According to Kristeva they can: such narratives are able to “lay bare, under the cunning, orderly surface of civilizations, the nurturing horror that [socio-cultural systems] attend to pushing aside by purifying, systematizing, and thinking.” In other words, for children, carnivalesque-grotesque material can reveal what adults are trying to suppress and it makes a move toward deconstructing sociocultural systems and laying bare their values.
— Daniel

Problems With Gross-out Books

However:

what these narratives do not reveal is the underlying misogynistic discourse that form the basis for such systems and values and, in fact, I think they may work (perhaps through the jouissance they evoke) to normalize such discourses.

— Daniel

Daniel uses Fungus the Bogeyman as an example, but this is not a book I’d like to delve too deeply into because my adult self is easily repulsed by such stories.

Bakhtin also thinks the problem with subversive humour is that at first glance it’s all ‘Look how subversive and transgressive we are’, but when you look a little more closely it’s all about preserving the social norm.

These stories are actually pretty moralistic:

Laughter itself…arguably stems from a culturally derived sense of humor and grotesque humor is, therefore, a licensed affair. … there are norms that define what is funny, that determine the “domain of the laughable and ridiculous.” These norms…demand that “mockery take such a form that it reveals its limits and thereby pays homage to that which is mocked.” … one of the most important functions of the carnivalesque children’s text is its didacticism, confirming through a dialectic of high and low aesthetics what is considered eternal and transcendent and what is temporal and material. Children’s carnivalesque texts are … transgressive of such things as social authority [and] received paradigms of behaviour and morality but by transgressing them they also confirm them.Carnivalesque texts, by breaking boundaries, explore where they properly lie.”

— Davies

And misogynistic:

It is vital to clarify that sociocultural taboos exist because of social and psychological fears concerning the abject/grotesque functions of the body. The fears exist because of misogynist individualistic cultural discourses that define the abject. These discourses define the abject as as an intrinsically maternal/feminized concept. The ability to recognize the abject is … “a condition of individual needs to recognize the abject and to suppress it, to achieve repressed or unspeakable condition. However, while the abject can be recognized and suppressed, it cannot ever be fully obliterated, but always “hovers at the borders of our existence, threatening the apparently settled unity of the subject with disruption and possible dissolution. … Grotesque narratives…work conservatively to justify the taboo status of the abject and to confirm the otherness of the maternal/female body. They are not, therefore, radically transgressive/subversive but, rather, serve patriarchal hegemonic interests.

— Daniel

Obviously, with an abstract passage like that, you need some examples.

Goldilocks Dahl

Returning to Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes, Daniel takes Dahl’s version of Goldilocks (click for full version) as an example:

The language used in grotesque narratives for children is generally not coarse and abusive (unlike their own texts) because it is written and licensed by adults. Stories written for them in these genres often contain language that might be categorized as within the realms of mild taboo, designed to titillate, rather than shock. The language itself reinforces adult authority–children all know plenty of abusive language (as their play-rhymes clearly show) but its very absence from their literature didactically reinforces the taboo. Roald Dahl directly refers to this in his version of “Goldilocks” in which the little girl, he suggests, is a less than pleasant character. She has just sat upon and broken baby bear’s chair:

A nice girl would at once exclaim
“Oh dear! Oh heavens! What a shame.”
Not Goldilocks, she begins to swear
She bellows, “What a lousy chair.”
And used one disgusting word
That luckily you’ve never heard
(I dare not write it, even hint it
Nobody would ever print it)

It is interesting to note Dahl’s judgement upon that “nice girls” say and to see how he frames his protagonist by implying that her abusive language is so foul that it is unprintable. She is therefore definitely not a nice girl and is deemed to be abject. The readers are nice, however, because Dahl tells them that they have “never heard” the offending word. As the word is not mentioned this is a pretty safe bet. The text explicitly and implicitly signals suitable language for children’s use. Carnivalesque texts for children often include playful intrusion by the narrator as Dahl’s does. This draws attention to the social forces which…determine the relationship between signs and things, reinforcing what is socially desirable with regard to cultural and linguistic mores. Furthermore, the reader is thus suddenly and deliberately situated outside the text, by the narrator’s intrusion, and so is discouraged from empathizing with the protagonist. Indeed, the reader is encouraged to disapprove of Goldie’s language, to take the culturally legitimate stance, to be mildly amused but also shocked, to be be ultimately disapproving and condemning. Dahl uses the technique again to condemn Goldilocks, once more reinforcing the condemnation with mention of the abject. Goldilocks has climbed into baby bear’s bed with her shoes on:

Most educated people choose
To rid themselves of socks and shoes
Before they clamber into bed
But Goldie didn’t give a shred
Her filthy shoes were thick with grime
And mud and mush and slush and slime
Worse still, upon the heel of one
Was something that a dog had done

I say once more, what would you think
If all this horrid dirt and stink
Was smeared upon your eiderdown
By this revolting little clown

Here the narrator directly addresses readers and seeks their opinion (“what would you think?”). In employing this tactic, Dahl further distances readers from Goldilocks, refusing to allow identification with and implicitly condemning her activity and power. Dahl’s work is openly didactic, reinforcing his personal notions of appropriate behavior for girls. This is cleverly achieved through his undoubted wit, word play, and by stretching the limits of the taboos he is ultimately reinforcing.

— Daniels

It’s important to add that this is just one example of the misogyny that runs right through the gross-out category of books for children. Think of the short stories of Paul Jennings and count the number of female characters. When you do find female characters in gross-out books, what are they doing? Are they breaking stereotypically female roles or are they transgressing them.

Undone cover 1

R.L. Stine uses visceral descriptions in his books for a middle grade audience. Who does the shrieking and who does the saving in the R.L. Stine books? Are girls punished for becoming powerful and active saviours?

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The One Big Lie Per Story

I have a theory that the more transgressive children’s stories are in the gross-out sense, the more carefully they stick to stereotypically gender roles. I’ve certainly seen this at work in movies, and it applies equally to the most mind-bending sci-fi and fantasy. It’s almost as if there’s a rule of writing: The more the audience is expected to travel on a highly imaginative journey, the more closely authors stick to a 1950s version of society — expecting readers to imagine both a completely different planet and one in which women are not cooking everyone’s breakfast is almost too much to expect.

Related

An Ode To The Gross Out Cartoons of Yore by Joseph Luster