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Utopian Children’s Literature

HOW TO DEFINE ‘UTOPIAN’ CHILDREN’S STORIES?

Stories which create a myth of childhood by describing it as a myth of the Golden Age. Maria Nikolajeva lists the aspects of Utopian that most researchers agree upon in her book From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature:

  1. the importance of a particular setting
  2. autonomy of felicitous space from the rest of the world
  3. a general sense of harmony
  4. a special significance of home
  5. absence of the repressive aspects of civilisation such as money, labor, law or government
  6. absence of death and sexuality
  7. and finally, as a result, a general sense of innocence

These stories tend to be set in the country and the weather is usually sunny and temperate, unless there’s a storm to symbolise someone’s state of emotion (pathetic fallacy). The setting is often secluded/walled, and this wall provides both security and restriction to push back against. Inside the boundary is the world of the child; outside is the adult world. Characters/readers never worry about where food comes from (there is an inexhaustible supply); same for money. Death and sexuality are entirely absent. In The Wind In The Willows, every single character is male; in Little Women, the story is heavily female. In a pre-homosexual time (where the concept doesn’t exist for children) sexuality therefore never crops up. In general, this is a time of innocence, where characters are oblivious to world politics, intellectual debate and so on.

In utopian fiction there is a transformation of a spatial concept, like a garden, into a temporal state, childhood.

Continue reading

Literary Dogs

I almost always hate when pets are described in books. Unless they’re like Vincent from Lost & integral to plot, I prefer to ignore them. Maybe it’s because I didn’t grow up w/ pets, but I mean – everyone likes their pet & they’re all the same, so why bother pointing them out? It’s like “flowers are pretty” or “babies love their mother.” It can go w/out saying. Pets are either annoying or cute. Not a lot going on. People who had pets: I know you disagree w/ me. Stop yelling :) Like I said, I didn’t have them. Pets = background furniture to me. Whatevs!

– @sarahlapolla

I look into the dog’s eyes. She is as stupid as a barrel of toes. Galaxies of nothing are going on in her eyes. I get up. ‘I’m going to talk to Mum,’ I explain. The dog remains under my bed, as always, deeply nervous about being a dog.

– Caitlin Moran, How To Be A Woman

Hey, dog people, of all the possible verbs you could have chosen, why do you “express” anal glands?

– @studiesincrap

Do you have a favourite literary dog?

Lady: My Life as a Bitch (2001)

Melvin Burgess, Puffin, 208pp, 978-0141310282, O/P

A funny, poignant tale about a 17-year-old girl and her relationship with sexual desire. When Sandra turns into a dog, a world of extremes opens to her. The excited fascination with sex that had led her into conflict with adults when she was a human (although it was legal) is now expected behaviour. The message is that sex can be fun but that compulsive promiscuity is not a wise lifestyle choice and even dogs might not be allowed to enjoy it for long. Thoughtful readers will enjoy the canine debate on what it means to be human, and note that Sandra is becoming “sensible” without adults’ intervention before her dog life even starts.

Ten Top Reads For Young Feminists

Other Dog Links

Picture Book Study: Mr Chicken Goes To Paris by Leigh Hobbs

Mr Chicken Goes To Paris Cover

 

STORY

Not a high concept book — indeed, a chicken goes to Paris. For a holiday. It’s what it says on the tin. This is a third-person version of someone’s summary of a trip, of the kind it’s possible to get quite bored of, unless, of course, the holiday maker happens to be an enormous chicken. A reader’s enjoyment of this story will depend on how funny they think huge chickens are.

There is no real story to this poultry’s holiday and each page jumps to one of Paris’ famous tourist attractions.

– 3 Star Goodreads Review

I’m approximately 30 years older than the target audience, I thought this was rather adorable.

– 4 Star Goodreads Review

WONDERFULNESS

The main drawcard of this story is the disproportionate size of the chicken, who grows larger and larger as the story progresses. Continue reading

Picturebook Study: Scarface Claw by Lynley Dodd

scarface claw book cover

Honestly, for a close-reading I could have picked any of Lynley Dodd’s Slinky Malinki series (or from the even-better-known Hairy Maclary series set in the same world). I find it impossible to pick a favourite. But if I have a favourite character, it is probably a tie between Slinky Malinki and Scarface Claw. Although I grew up in New Zealand, I’m a little too old to have grown up with them, though I have collected the entire series and enjoy reading them to my daughter, over and over again. Every New Zealander who has ever read a picturebook will be familiar with these animals. Teachers will be able to name all of them. If there’s an archetypal New Zealand picturebook series, this is it. For a read-along experience, Penguin has partnered with Kiwa Media and turned some of the Hairy Maclary books into apps. While not created from the ground up for a touch screen, the app versions do offer word highlighting, which can be useful to an emergent reader perhaps.

PLOT

Most readers will already know from previous books that Scarface Claw is ‘the toughest tom in town’, introduced thus in Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy. This book focuses specifically on his toughness, presenting a range of scary scenarios that are not the least bit daunting to Scarface Claw. Finally the reader finds out that there is ONE little thing Scarface Claw is scared of **SPOILER ALERT**: Scarface is scared of his own reflection.

Scarface Looks Into The Mirror

WONDERFULNESS

The most amazing thing about Lynley Dodd’s books how nice they are to read aloud, over and over and over again. Actually, I think the weakest in this regard is the first and most famous Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy. I’ll admit I sometimes get ever-so-slightly tired of the repetition of that, which may be as much a comment on how many times I have been called upon to read it aloud. Hairy Maclary is a book which builds on itself, which is excellent for child literacy and speech development and so on, but taxing on an adult reader. For a repetitious book, Hairy Maclary is still excellent. But it is in the subsequent books that Lynley Dodd’s poetic language really shines. To borrow from culinary-world, the mouthfeel is wonderful. It’s all to do with the scansion.

 

Font is also important. The reader is given clues on how to read with use of all caps:

WHO

is the roughest

and toughest

of cats?

The boldest,

the bravest,

the fiercest of cats?

Wicked of eye

and fiendish of paw

is mighty,

magnificent,

SCARFACE CLAW.

The poetry has a distinctive meter, and if you tap the rhythm on the table you’ll see how scary it sounds, sort of like the narrative poems of yore, a la The Highway Man (though this is different again).

Something that may pass unnoticed until it is pointed out is that the animals do not talk. There are many picture books about animals, which I would divide into two distinct types: First are the anthropomorphised animals who are human stand-ins. This is of another kind, in which the animals are actual animals, thinking and behaving as humans expect animals might. This requires a good understanding of animal behaviour, and it’s clear Lynley Dodd has a history of living with pets.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to complexity of vocabulary for young readers, and apparently Lynley Dodd’s work has sometimes been criticised for including words beyond the comprehension of her audience. Another school of thought believes that children should be exposed to vocabulary beyond their comprehension; this is exactly how they learn. I fall into the second camp, and I doubt Dodd would have achieved such perfect rhythm and meter if she had limited herself to words from a children’s dictionary. In the end, does it matter if children don’t know the exact meaning of some words? The illustrations and the language are more than enough to compensate.

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION

As with pretty much every picturebook, a lot of the story’s success rests upon the facial expressions of the characters — or animals.

Who needs talking animals, when so much language is exchanged in the eyes?

Booksellers New Zealand Blog

In this particular story, even the scary black spiders have big, expressive eyes. As for Scarface Claw himself, this is not a truly scary creature — few creatures really are in picturebooks, which are often read right before bedtime. The young reader is instead encouraged to laugh at Scarface, and also to emphasise with him; children will be familiar with the feeling of being scared of some things and content about others. Here, the contentedness of Scarface is achieved via the closed eyes. Plus, isn’t it always funny to see a cat licking his leg? There’s something graceful and private about it, and when the reader sees Scarface in a more vulnerable moment, empathy is encouraged.

 

scarface claw content licking leg

Scarface Licks His Leg

The real gem illustration occurs on the penultimate page. After seeing Scarface in a variety of relaxed poses (and scary ones, in previous books) the reader sees for the first time Scarface looking both terrified and adorable. He now has big eyes and flat ears. I accidentally skipped this page when reading to my daughter, who realised a page had been missed. She knew the word that went with it, too. “Where’s the page with EXCEPT…?’ she asked. This was an interesting exercise, borne of nothing more than two pages being stuck together, because I realised just how important this penultimate page was to the story, which could have worked without it, but wasn’t nearly so good.

Another technique Lynley Dodd uses in a number of her books is an intriguing object only just visible on the page — it’s usually someone’s tail, propelling the reader forward to the next page, where fans will know exactly whose tail it is; the next page need only confirm it. In this book, the reader sees Scarface Claw’s tail dangling down from the wall. On the following spread we see Scarface himself, in repose:

Scarface Relaxes Fencetop

 

The technique isn’t limited to tails — the reader sees the leg of the oh-so-vital mirror before seeing the mirror itself, a good three pages later. So this technique doesn’t necessarily need to be used on consecutive pages, but can foreshadow well in advance.

To go with the ominous rhythm, horror elements have been included judiciously into the illustrations. The picture of Scarface Claw at night outside in a lightning storm features trees with curved, finger-like branches which I have since learnt to associate with Tim Burton. But overall, the book’s scariness is tempered by insertions of comedy. The dogs are supremely comical with their ‘lolloping and leaping’, and their tongues hanging out, with Hairy Maclary grinning like a muppet.

STORY SPECS

This is one of Lynley Dodd’s later books, first published in 2001 by Puffin. Dodd has said that it takes her a year to write and illustrate each book. My softback edition places the colophon at the back of the book. The back side of the front cover very cleverly doubles as both a promotional poster for other books in the series and a checklist of cats which my daughter loves to name before the story begins. As far as she’s concerned, it’s a part of the story.

slinki malinki and friends

Slinky Malinki And Friends, inside the front cover

This story is only 160 words.

COMPARE WITH

For an example of a picturebook that is written around the technique of ‘tails first then turn the page’ (or whatever it’s actually called) see the Australian classic I Went Walking, which doubles as a book for toddlers as well as an early reader for slightly older children.

I Went Walking Cover

I Went Walking Tails First

When a character is scared of something a child doesn’t find scary, this is a sure source of humour for a child, and is utilised by other writers, too. In series one, episode eleven of Lake Campbottom, the character of Gretchen fails to be frightened of all sorts of nasty things, but is then terrified of a cute chipmunk with big eyes.

scary chipmunk

 

Discuss: Goodies and Baddies

In traditional hero stories there are ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ (better known to adults as heroes and adversaries). The activities of the heroes are sanctioned by society whereas the activities of the adversaries are considered wrong. Apart from pickpockets/thieves, the following groups tend to be depicted as adversaries in stories, because their ways of making a living undermine our perceptions of how decent society works. For example:

  • Smugglers
  • Pirates
  • Gypsies
  • Prostitutes
  • Highwaymen

What are some examples of stories you’ve enjoyed featuring each kind of adversary?

Are the adversaries in these stories threatening to the wellbeing of the hero, or to the ‘ideal society’?

Do your examples condemn the adversaries, or do they encourage analysis?

Are the adversaries presented as innately wicked, or as complex/downtrodden members of society, whose circumstances lead them to less savoury lifestyles?

ANTIHEROES

An antihero is a hero who lacks the attributes society accepts as moral and good. An antihero is a leading character in a story. The story is set up so that the audience cheers him on, though we are probably encouraged to question our own values at some point in the story.

Who are your favourite antiheroes?

What about female antiheroes? Can you think of any?

Of your favourite antiheroes, do any of them embody a sort of wish-fulfilment? For example, Walter White of Breaking Bad embodies the wish of ordinary men to become kingpin by putting his underappreciated knowledge/skills to full use.

POST READING: HILDA BEWILDERED

There are a few clues in the illustrations of Hilda Bewildered which hint at the princess’ inspiration for a criminal anti-hero. What are they?

Mirrors and Reflections 01: Twins In Literature

Hero and the Imagined Self from Hilda Bewildered

Hero and the Imagined Self from Hilda Bewildered

1. VILLAINOUS TWINS

A New Zealand YA novel from 1992 may be a rather obscure example, but Underrunners by Margaret Mahy includes a scene with twins Guy and Brian Morley, who seem twice as dangerous and mean to our hero precisely because there are two of them.

In his book for adults, Atonement (2001), Ian McEwan includes among his cast of characters some nine-year-old twins who are not villainous, but at times perceived to be so by their elder sister Lola. “Everyone thinks they’re little angels just because they look alike,” Lola says after her brothers have given her scratches and Chinese burns, “but they’re little brutes.” When Jackson and Pierrot run off into the night, this changes the course of the plot. Lola’s dialogue highlights something about fictional twins, though: The disconnect that can happen with duality. Since the twins look alike, they have had a certain cuteness bestowed upon them. When it turns out they’re not cute at all, the fact that there are two of them make the shock at learning so double.

 

2. THE FASCINATION FACTOR

Enid Blyton make use of twins for no obvious reason other that she found them fascinating, and expected the reader to get equal pleasure out of her using them as a gimmick. Take The Famous Five  novel, Five On Finniston Farm (published 1960), in which the part about the twins is summarised by a user of EnidBlyton.net:

I’m sooooo bored with twins by now, especially as they’re named “the Harries”—the boy is named Henry which “naturally” became Harry (I never understood that logic), and the girl is named Harriet, which “naturally” became Harry too. And because Henry “can’t grow his hair like a girl,” it’s down to Harriet to crop hers so that the two look like peas in a pod. Except for a scar on Henry’s hand, apparently the only way to tell them apart. They have a dog called Snippet, a small black poodle. The twins are characterized as quiet and sullen, perhaps resentful at first, because they see visitors to the farm as more work for their poor hard-working mother, Mrs. Philpot. And while the twins are in this stand-offish mode, they speak in unison. Literally every piece of dialogue is spoken by “the twins,” no matter how much is said.

– Keith Robinson

Some characters in children’s literature really don’t need to be twins. So what’s the point? Well, a twin does allow a conversational partner. Dialogue is easier to write, and also easier to read for young readers, at least compared to internal thoughts, or an omniscient narrator who may or may not be reliable. Blyton’s Harry Twins are an extreme example of this, but other authors of the time would use characters interchangeably, with no discernible difference between them. Take P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins as an example. The eldest boy and girl might as well be the same person. Two genders exist presumably to appeal to the widest possible audience.

 

3. THE SHADOW AND THE HERO

This is the biblical Cain and Abel story. One twin is evil, the other good.

 

4. THE IMAGINARY OTHER SELF

She left the cafe, and as she walked along the Common she felt the distance widen between her and another self, no less eral, who was walking back towards the hospital. Perhaps the Briony who was walking in the direction of Belham was the imagined or ghostly persona. This unreal feeling was heightened when, after half an hour, she reached another High Street, more or less the same as the one she had left behind.

Atonement by Ian McEwan

In this case the main character wonders what her life might be like if only a few, though significant, things had been different. An imaginary other self is a way of exploring possibilities.

Like most excessively beautiful persons, [Moody] had studied his own reflection minutely and, in some way, knew himself from the outside best; he was always in some chamber of his mind perceiving himself from the exterior. He had passed a great many hours in the alcove of his private dressing room, where the mirror tripled his image into profile, half-profile, and square: Van Dyck’s Charles, though a good deal more striking. It was a private practice, and one he would likely have denied–for how roundly self-examination is condemned, by the moral prophets of our age! As if the self had no relation to the self, and one only looked in mirrors to have one’s arrogance confirmed; as if the act of self-regarding was not as subtle, fraught and ever-changing as any bond between twin souls.

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

The sentence which follows soon after: ‘He could see his own self now, poised in the doorway of the smoking room’ shows that this mirror-self is a form of narcissism, but also of self-consciousness: ‘He was near trembling with fatigue; he was carrying a leaden weight of terror in his gut; he felt shadowed, even dogged; he was filled with dread.’ The very clever thing about this character and his twin of a reflection which dogs him is that the room he is about to enter houses ‘studded couches’ which ‘gleamed with a fatness that reflected the girth of the gentlemen upon them.’ In this way, the man is of his environment.

 

 

5. TWO HALF PEOPLE; ONE COMPLETE PERSON

Berner and Dell Parsons are the twins of Richard Ford’s 2012 novel Canada. Told from Dell Parson’s first-person point of view, this is the story of a bank robbery, committed by the twins’ parents. After the parents are taken away by the police, Berner runs away and Dell is taken to Canada by a motherly friend where he becomes something of a hunting guide.

At first glance, the fraternal twins of this story have a bond which is not particularly stronger than any sibling bond, and it is mentioned time and again how much smarter and older-seeming Berner is than Dell. Yet as the story progresses it becomes apparent that the twins don’t really consider themselves as separate beings, which makes their separation even more significant.

I’d begun to believe it would be nice to be around girls. Berner, of course, was a girl. But most of our lives we had treated each other as being the same thing because we were twins. That same thing was neither male nor female, but something in between that included us both.

To reinforce the idea that Dell and Berner are two halves rather than one whole, Berner is left-handed while (it is assumed) Dell is right.

As Dell continues to tell the story of his family, his twinness becomes increasingly significant, because his relationship with his sister reflects the relationship he has with his twin sister:

Nothing that had happened had been in any way normal. Whatever changes had occurred in them and to them defied any idea I had of familiar. They looked like two people I knew, who I was again seeing across a distance, some unspannable divide, much greater than the border that separated us by then. I could say that their intimate familiarity as my parents, and their ordinary, generalised humanness had become joined, and one quality had neutralised the other and rendered the two of them neither completely familiar nor completely haphazard and indifferent to me.

Overall, with the twins’ fortunes significantly different, the fact of them  being twins shows how trauma during youth can pan out in vastly different ways.

 

6. ANTHROPOMORPHISED TWINNESS

‘Are you a wizard too?’

‘Yes,’ said Marco. ‘But I was never a very good one. I don’t have the twin signs.’

…Then his father had taken him by the shoulders and looked deep into his eyes. ‘My magic is weak,’ he said, ‘it’s untutored and without power—I have never saved anyone. But you, Leo, you will be different. You have the two signs of wizardry, my boy—silver hair and golden eyes. You have the sun and moon within you.’

– from The Witch In The Lake by Anne Fienberg

This from TV Tropes, although twins as metaphor is not limited to the sun and moon, but can be applied to a great number of opposites:

The sun and moon have also been personified by having both of them be a specific sex. For example, the pairing could be a masculine and harsh sun paired with a feminine and soft moon. In historical religions, the sexes associated with the sun and moon vary greatly, and in some cases both a male and female deity may be ascribed to a single celestial body. According to The Other Wiki, it is somewhat more common to view the sun as male and the moon as female due to the prevalence of that portrayal in Greek and Roman religion.

7. TWINS AS PART OF THE STORY AND THEME

I feel this is one of the best uses of twins in fiction. In The Giver by Lois Lowry, twins are used to explain the plot and setting:

“I want to get to sleep tonight,” Father said, “Tomorrow’s a busy day for me. The twins are being born tomorrow, and the test results show that they’re identical.”

“One for here, one for Elsewhere,” Lily chanted. “One for here, one for Else–”

When the twins are born, one is taken away and euthanised. The reader by now should be getting the idea that Jonas lives in a dystopian world, not a utopian one. Identical twins are not allowed to exist because it would be confusing to try and tell them apart. Human life is not valued. Nine-year-old Lily wonders what if we’re all twins, and what if our twins live in an alternative universe, leading different lives. This should encourage the reader to identify with characters who are living in a different but nonetheless recognisable world of fiction. The final sentence of the book ‘But perhaps it was only an echo’ underscores the importance of the duality theme.

See also: Twins In Literature from The Guardian

There seems to be a sub-category of Time Travelling Twins.

Sex In Teenage Literature

The prevalence of ‘sluts’ and ‘whores’ in young adult literature and schoolyard banter is enough to make a feminist mother weep. Our daughters learn early the same sexually oppressive messages that we learnt: that female sexuality is a prize to be given to (or taken by) a man.

Daily Life

 

These are notes from the Kid You Not Podcast, Episode 10 as well as my own notes.

 

You won’t find men’s genitalia in quality literature.

A Librarian

 

***CONTAINS PLOT SPOILERS***

 

THE HISTORY OF SEX IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

Laura Ingalls Wilder, who wrote the semi-autobiographical Little House series with her daughter Mary from the 1930s, had a real life which wasn’t quite the fairytale depicted in the stories or in the Disney miniseries. Laura Ingalls married “Manly” Wilder at the age of 15. Manly was at the time 25. This age difference and the marriage of a bride so young was common and acceptable in that time and place, but by the 1930s had become a taboo subject in a feel-good story for children. The real age difference was therefore never mentioned.

Would this age difference be acceptable in a book for children today? We see in kidlit what is considered acceptable at time of publication, with an extra tendency to sit on the conservative, didactic side of acceptable.

For more on Laura Ingalls Wilder, listen to Stuff You Missed In History Class Episode December 23, 2013.

 

THE INFLUENCE OF JUDY BLUME

Judy Blume’s Forever (1975) revolutionised the way sex was portrayed in teenage literature. The striking thing about Forever is how clinical and de-eroticised the sex actually is. There really is nothing titillating about it, despite how much it was banned at the time. First you seek advice by going to the clinic like a good girl… The female is assumed to take sole responsibility to take birth control. Although this ideology is very much of its time, this book provides a sensitive treatment of sex, and helped quite a lot of young women worried about the hygenics and practicalities of the sex. Even though sex is much more a part of YA literature these days, it’s still hard to find stories which address young girls’ concerns in such a practical manner rather than the emotional side.

Also, the idea that health of the family is the female’s responsibility has hardly gone away. You can find daily examples of advertisements, for health food, for dentists, for glasses, which are aimed at women. Just this morning I had a newsletter in my inbox advertising a (dodgy) app which helps to ‘educate mothers’ about health for the sake of our families:

caring-is-for-mothers

RETRIBUTIONAL REPRESENTATIONS OF SEX IN MODERN YA NOVELS

Sex is no longer a taboo subject and is therefore more common. But it is never, even today, something that just happens; it’s almost always a key aspect of the plot and there are always consequences. If the sex is reckless then invariably the female protagonist has a pregnancy scare or ends up pregnant. Despite the fact that now it is more common to depict protagonists having sex, it has not become normalised.

An example of this kind of morality occurs in a subplot of Numbers by Rachel Ward. The male character dies, then lo and behold, the female character is pregnant. [I’ve noticed a lot of war stories contain this plot. The male has to go off to war, and it’s discovered that the woman left at home is going to have his, or someone else’s baby.] Sex cannot pass by unnoticed.

In Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman, the two main characters who are deeply in love have sex. The boy dies; the girl gets pregnant.

In Twilight Bella and Edward get married, have sex, and Bella dies (sort of).  Again, huge consequences. In Twilight, the absence of sex is the sex. [The Erotics Of Abstinence.]

With the notable exception of the Twilight Series, the culture has moved on from the idea that sex must only happen within marriage, but hasn’t moved all that much further; sex is still something you do only within a loving, secure relationship. You must think carefully and deeply about birth control first.

 

In the literature of antiquity, sex is almost a last resort for the expression of love, and it seldom ends well. It’s the classic pitfall of the Old Testament.

Paris Review

TITILLATION OR VOYEURISM?

Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma is about incestuous sex between a brother and sister. In this case the brother ends up dead. Contemporary teen culture has no trouble with eroticism. This story provides more than simply titillation, instead putting the reader in the situation of a voyeur. That’s one of the main differences between the seventies and now.

 

WHERE ARE THE BOOKS ABOUT THE TEENAGE MALE SEXUAL EXPERIENCE?

Most experiences of sex in YA novels are female experiences. There’s the notable exception such as Melvin Burgess’s Doing It, but that was precisely so notorious because no other book before had presented sex from the perspective of a teenage boy. As erotic and explicit and pornographic as this book is, it’s still incredibly didactic: “This is not the way you treat girls.”

A large amount of teen readers are girls. There is an alternative for learning about sex as a teenager: The Internet, magazines. But perhaps it is not the ‘good girl’s option’ to look to other types of media. There is something more wholesome-feeling about reading a novel compared to watching a film, say.

 

SEX IN THE WORK OF ROBERT CORMIER: A DIFFERENT FUNCTION

In Robert Cormier’s Fade presents all forms of deviation: incest, rape, prostitution, voyeurism, in an incredibly harsh and provocative way which truly questions the intrusion of sex in the lives of teenagers. This book provides no solace or emotional understanding.

 

THE FEMINISATION OF SEX IN YOUNG ADULT LITERATURE

Depending on your ideology, whether we like or not, to some extent the sex in YA literature is gendered. A lot of the most commercial fiction seems to have the aim of tucking its girl readers into particular feminine roles — sexual and gender roles. For example, in YA fiction that appeals to girls, sex is emotional. [Girls are often passive, too, waiting for boys to ask them out, not learning about themselves.]

 

 

THE CULT OF VIRGINITY

The Gossip Girl series has been described as Sex In The City for modern teenagers. Although there is sex, it is littered with consequences and always for the girl. The character Blair spends the entire first novel gearing up to have sex with her boyfriend, who she has been seeing for two years.

 

(For more on the Gossip Girl series, series such as this have been criticised by Naomi Wolf. This paper further delves into the role of these books and the impact they may/may not have on teenage girls.)

 

A book of short stories called Losing It, written by many prominent different children’s authors, write about lots of different ways of losing virginity. So many books revolve the plot around two people having sex and one of them is a virgin. Losing virginity is like a gate through the door into adulthood. Virginity is a strong symbolic obstacle.

Losing It Keith Gray

 

PREGNANCY AS REPURCUSSION

Malorie Blackman’s Boys Don’t Cry is a rare example of a story about teen pregnancy that is not all about the girl. He doesn’t know his former girlfriend has had a baby when she turns up one day and leaves him with their baby.

 

The books featured above are the Big Books about sex and teens, and there are almost certainly lesser known books which take a more mature [less didactic, more naturalistic] view of teenage sex.

 

LGBTQ SEX

Sex in YA fiction is heteronormative and has only just started to branch out into stories about other sexualities.

See the paper Creating Realms of Possibilities from Dail and Leonard

Also Would You Want To Read That? Using book passes to open up secondary classrooms to LGBTQ Young Adult literature from Emily S. Meixner

And Creating A Space for YAL With LGBT Content In Our Personal Reading from Katherine Mason

Connecting LGBT To Others Through Problem Novels from Hayn and Hazlett

10 Of The Best Teenage Novels With Gay and Lesbian Characters from Books For Keeps

 

 TEENAGE EROTICA

 

House Of Holes has been recommended in major publications as a good example of erotica for a teenage audience. Erotica, of course, is a different thing from ‘the odd sex scene that crops up in typical YA’.

the good news is that there is nothing inHouse of Holes that we wouldn’t want our youth to read. Indeed it is exactly the sort of filth that you would want them to read first (if you don’t mind exposing them to something so decidedly heterosexual).

In the traditional sex talk, parents don’t say much about pleasure—presumably neither party wants to get into details. But wouldn’t it be nice for parents to have a way to convey our highest ideals on the subject? House of Holes will introduce impressionable readers to many interesting sexual possibilities without a whisper of stereotype or slur.

The New York Review Of Books

 

RELATED

What’s Going On Inside Of Me? Emergent female sexuality and identity formation in young adult literature, by Evelyn Baldwin

Emily Maguire is an Australian author, including of YA novels such as Taming The Beast. In this article she explains what it was like to be a teenager, sex-drive-wise.

 

 

Ideology In Children’s Literature

One of the fundamental changes in critical thinking and teaching over the past twenty years has been the acceptance that ideology is not a separate concept ‘carried by’ texts, but that all texts are inevitably infused by ideology. This has been particularly difficult to accept in the world of children’s literature, which is still widely assumed to be ‘innocent’ of concerns of gender, race, power, and so on — or to carry transparently manipulative messages.

– Peter Hunt

The following are notes from Episode 9 of the Kid You Not Podcast, and from the book Language and Ideology In Children’s Literature by John Stephenswith extra insertions from me. If you’ve ever wondered what exactly is meant by ‘ideology’ and have come across words like ‘hegemonic’ without really understanding what the words mean, the Kid You Not podcast is a great way to spend 25 minutes. It’s clear and concise.

 

DEFINITION OF IDEOLOGY

From a literary criticism perspective, all texts, especially fictional texts, are imbued with ideological content. This can refer to a system of values/beliefs/fears/world views, which are all linked to concepts of power. These values and beliefs will be distilled within language, whether through the words/images on the page or the words and images that are not there. [See: Where Are The People Of Colour In Picture Books?] Even picture books aimed at very young children can be ideologically charged. Sometimes ideology is transparent, because we’re bathed in it and therefore don’t even see it.

No text, and therefore no children’s book, is devoid of ideology. This isn’t necessarily a terrible thing. Ideology isn’t necessarily in reference to Nazi or communist propaganda. It might simply be an ideology of capitalism. While extremist groups have historically leaned on children’s literature to share their beliefs with impressionable audiences, but this is not what’s generally meant by ideology. Generally, ideology refers to children’s books at one end of the spectrum: Books designed to teach children something or deal with a specific problem. But every book has an implicit ideology, and it is this kind of book which tends to be the more powerful vehicle for an ideology, because it is invisible and therefore there exists the implication that things are simply ‘so’.

The more covert the social practice in narrative, the more a text demands a reader who knows how to interpret a fiction. This demand is itself an ideological assumption.

 

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Humour In Children’s Literature

The following are notes from Episode 7 of the Kid You Not podcast about children’s literature.

First, Clem and Lauren read an excerpt from Angus, Thongs and Full-frontal Snogging which was a teenage favourite for both of them. [I have an issue with the amount of ‘body critique’ which goes on in books aimed at teenage girls, because I think it not only reflects it but promotes it. Though I don’t doubt the extent to which teenage girls identify with characters who are worried about the size of their breasts etc.]

This book is one of a series, collectively referred to as Confessions of Georgia Nicholson.

Notice the difference in titles in the two versions below. ‘Perfect Snogging’ seemed better for the movie version, apparently.

Geraldine Brennan describes this book as:

Louise Rennison’s Confessions of Georgia Nicolson series – all 10 laugh-out-loud volumes – is firmly in the my-so-called-life tradition of teenage diary fiction. The tales are for and about girls who are trying to beat puberty into submission, and Rennison understands the need for stimulation, fun and comfort in this age group. Georgia is self-obsessed, melodramatic and boy-crazy but also funny, loyal, and deft with language. She has sensible friends who curb her excesses with kindness, like fun teachers or adventurous aunties. The books are much more substantial than the covers make them appear. Above all, they teach non-acceptance of the adults’ design for living, with laughter the best weapon in the battle for teenage identity.

Ten Of The Best Books For Young Feminists

Humorous books do sell well, though it’s not the case that a kids’ book has to be funny in order to sell. Twilight and Harry Potter are not humorous.

From The Guardian:

Louise Rennison’s teen novel Angus, Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging was turned into a smash hit film that made everyone in the whole world cry with laughter. Apart from Americans. But why?

Diary of a Wimpy Kid is a best-selling humorous book for kids. This series contains all the characteristics that make it a good funny book for children:

  1. everyday high school life
  2. cartoons (funny by definition)
  3. language
  4. situational humour
  5. good-natured kids who are not the top-dog

The protagonist of DoaWK is deeply flawed — he tries to humiliate his friends to climb higher up the popularity ladder

There’s a fair bit of femme phobia and other undesirable reflections of school life in these books, which is exactly what makes them funny.

Kinney says that the reason the books are immensely popular is because everyone’s been to high school and felt the peer pressure. These stories manage to dedramatise this misery. He’s picked a time of life in which characters are deeply self-conscious, wondering what their peers are thinking of them.

A common characteristic of humour: About everyday life and what makes human beings appear less than their best.

Twilight/HP/His Dark Materials are all books about heroic characters, but funny books are all about the human faults. Children can relate to this quite easily.

The humour in kidlit is common to sitcoms for adults. The same rules apply. Characters feel awkward or humiliated. It’s difficult to think of comic heroes who don’t have significant flaws. Georgia Nicholson is obsessed about her looks, a little bit selfish, mean to her friends. Greg is that as well. You would think this is a reason not to like these heroes but in fact children relish these portrayals. They like finding their own weaknesses in comic heroes. [Do these flawed heroes really remind adolescents of themselves? I suspect that would feel too cringe-worthy to enjoy. I suspect they see their friends and school enemies in these characters.]

 

Age Sensitivities In Children’s Books

You often hear adults say that the jokes are too ‘old’ or too clever — above the comprehension of children. This says more about adults than children, but when a book appeals to both children and adults, the adults tend to say that ‘it’s more for adults really’. Adults appropriate kids’ stuff if they find it appeals to them. [The same thing happened with Harry Potter and the ‘adult’ book covers.] Lauren says that when her father took her younger sister to see Fantastic Mr Fox he said that it was much more of an adults’ film than a kids’ film. He didn’t understand how she got the jokes even though she was laughing along.

[Regarding Fantastic Mr Fox (Wes Anderson), I also think it’s for adults, not kids, but not because the kids won’t enjoy it, but because its ironic sexism is sexism nonetheless, and may be taken literally by people who haven’t yet learned irony — whatever age that is. (Some say that’s around age eight.) I explain in full here.]

 

Types of Humour In Children’s Literature

  1. Verbal Humour is the one that adults generally think children don’t understand.
  2. Children are expected to like Gross-out Humour, but not all children (if many) like this. (Poo, toilet humour, underwear, farting, The Mole Who Knew That It Was None Of His Business). It’s assumed that children will laugh at the most basic functions of the human body, and obviously a lot of children do. These are subjects that make people uncomfortable. They’re a little bit taboo (not like sex or anything) but it does have a bit of a cathartic effect. Children seem to enjoy the transgression of it. This humour performs a very specific function. The transgressive nature of this humour is empowering. [The word ‘subversive’ is used here, but I prefer transgressive. Are poo jokes truly ‘subversive’? If so, what do they subvert?]
  3. Other types of humour can be more problematic in kidlit, from an adult’s point of view. Irony is one example. [I’m one such adult, especially when an unironic interpretation is flatout sexist, or racist (which is far less common these days, though sexism is strangely tolerated.)] One example of a book that plays on irony is Haunted House, which is a very popular pop-up picture book published in the 70s. On every page you find the most terrifying monsters but the verbal text tells a completely different story, about a lovely cozy, safe house. Will young children understand that there can be a gap between the pictures in a book and its text? [No, probably not, though there’s an argument that they’ll need to learn if they’re to become visually literate, which is more and more important in a heavily image based society, full of advertising images everywhere.]
  4. It’s often said that Parody falls flat unless the audience understands what’s being parodied in the first place. This is not limited to children — it’s true for adults as well, who won’t understand parody unless they know the background. The Willoughbys is a parody of earlier children’s literature, making fun of works such as Little Women and the books by Frances Hodgson Burnett (The Secret Garden, A Little Princess). There is enough humour in the rest of the book for children who haven’t been exposed to this literature. Not everyone gets every joke that a comedian says. It’s never expected that the audience will get every joke.

 

Can Adult Jokes and Children’s Jokes Co-exist In The Same Work?

David Walliam’s books are about 50/50 adult humour/kid jokes. David Walliams is a British comedian — one half of Little Britain [which most people wouldn’t expose their young kids to]. Clemente remembers not understanding all the jokes in Asterix, a childhood favourite, until she was an adult and realised that the Brits are in the habit of starting sentences with ‘I say’ (which was an oddity in the French translation).

 

Humour and Translation

Humour doesn’t always transcend cultures. Humour can be harder to sell the foreign rights to, because humour is often so culturally specific. Angus, Thongs and Full-frontal Snogging is very English. It’s hilarious that the American edition has to have a glossary with it. A ‘fag’ in England is very different from a fag in America, for example. It’s odd to pick up something light and require a glossary. If a joke needs explaining it’s not as funny. This cultural difference explains why many of the titles of this series had to change.

Clemente read ATaFFS in French and points out that it still worked in translation because of imperialism. While everyone understands British and American humour, the Brits and Americans don’t understand the rest of the world’s humour. [Having grown up in NZ and living in Australia I would agree that the Down Under humour is a bit different from the English and sometimes significantly different from the American, but we do generally really enjoy TV shows and humourous movies from both parts of the world. Did the Americans understand the humour behind Kath and Kim when it was redone for the American audience? No. It fell flat and had poor ratings. It’s safe to say they didn’t get it.]

In successful translations of humour, the humour is not really ‘translated’; it is ‘transposed’. It’s particularly difficult to transpose humour for children and requires much skill.

There are probably books which cannot be successfully translated, for example funny books which relies on rhyme. The Gruffalo doesn’t really take off outside its English language version [because what makes it so good is its rhyme and rhythm.]

 

Are Funny Books Taken As Seriously?

In 2008 Michael Rosen set up the Roald Dahl Funny Prize to reward authors and books which otherwise get looked over in the major awards.

Funny books are easier to read, garner a wider audience and by definition are not ‘serious’ books, so not ‘taken seriously’. They don’t challenge readers in the same way. This isn’t true, but a common view. The body of scholarship on Pippi Longstocking (very light and funny) in Scandinavian is astonishing. The body of academic work shows that it is taken seriously. It’s one of the few books that challenges authority. This is an example of a classic which, despite its status as a funny book, garners a lot of respect. So maybe things aren’t as bad as they look, and that after a book has acquired status as a classic makes people wonder what is being said about bigger things.

 

RELATED

A list of funny kids’ books suggested by M. Jerry Weiss

 

 

Who was the first American picturebook maker to give black children a central place in literature?

Ezra Jack Keats.

 

 

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