Rare Interview With Author Janet Frame

This is a radio interview, transcribed and published in Landfall 178 (Volume forty-five, June 1991) between Janet Frame and Elizabeth Alley.

janet frame

Elizabeth Alley: In the autobiography you seem more willing than in the fiction to open some of the doors about yourself and your life – to correct some of the myths that surround you.

Janet Frame: I wanted to write my story, and you’re right of course, it is possible to correct some things which have been taken as fact and are not fact. My fiction is genuinely fiction. And I do invent things. Even in The Lagoon which has many childhood stories, the children are invented and the episodes are invented but they are mixed up so much with part of my early childhood. But they’re not quite, they’re not the true, stories. To the Is-Land was the first time I’d written the true story. For instance, Faces in the Water was autobiographical in the sense that everything happened, but the central character was invented. But with the autobiography it was the desire really to make myself a first person. For many years I was a third person – as children are. ‘They’, ‘she’… and as probably the oppressed minority has become, ‘they’. I mean children are forever ‘they’ until they grow up.

EA: For a long time you really were quite reluctant to discuss anything that had to do with the genesis or meaning of your work.

JF: Well I write, you see. I don’t tell about my life. I just write and that is my telling, but in order to set down a few facts and tell my story, this is my say.

EA: Tell me about your title, ‘To the Is-Land‘. Is this something to do with your feeling about the truth of words? And the way that you always prefer to take the very literal meaning of words?

JF: Yes, and it arose from my meeting with the word ‘Is-Land’, in an early story I was reading, one of those Whitcombes stories, and my refusal to accept that it was Island, that it really wasn’t Is-Land. Of course, looking at it n ow I chose the title ‘To the Is-Land‘ for obvious reasons, because of the obvious double-triple meanings. I assumed that words meant what they said, and everyone about me seemed to assume that they did. It was just a gradual process of learning the depths of words, I suppose.

EA: Words were always revered in your house though, weren’t they? As ‘instruments of magic’ I think you described them.

JF: Certainly, I think so. I was thinking of that knowing I was coming here to be interviewed by you. I was having a cup of tea at that little place next door and I took out the bus timetable to read. And I remembered that everyone at home always had something to read.

EA: When did you first discover you could make words work for you?

JF: Oh I’ve never discovered that… I’m still working at that.

Continue reading “Rare Interview With Author Janet Frame”

Dreaming In Films And Literature

You may not remember dreaming after you sleep, but you’ll encounter many dream sequences in books.

Isn’t it cheesy to rely on dreams? Don’t rational readers know that dreams cannot predict the future — that dreams are the scrabbled outworkings of a brain tidying itself up?

Dreams, daydreams, visions, prophecies, processes of memory… all of these count as ‘dream sequences’.

Why do authors make use of dreams in fiction? Continue reading “Dreaming In Films And Literature”

The Influence of Edith Nesbit

Even if you’ve never read any of Edith Nesbit’s actual books, you’ve read books in the Nesbit tradition — basically all modern children’s literature. That’s how influential she was.

Edith Nesbit (married name Edith Bland; 15 August 1858 – 4 May 1924) was an English author and poet; she published her books for children under the name of E. Nesbit.

Wikipedia

The Railway Children cover E. Nesbit

E. Nesbit belonged firmly to the writers of the First Golden Age of Children’s Literature, marked by its stories about children who acted rather than thought. These were resourceful and resilient children, and they were proud of their class. They were patriotic. Children are wiser than adults in many respects. Nesbit was one of the first to create this dynamic (e.g. Story of the Amulet), which would not have been possible without the ‘romantic reevaluation of childhood‘.

BASIC BIOGRAPHY

Edith grew up with a mother who had been widowed in a part of Surrey which is now Greater London. Accordingly, Edith thinks that bringing children up in London is awful. She much prefers the freedom of the country for children.

At the age of 21 she had a shotgun wedding but her new husband’s business partner made off with all their money. This is why she took up writing and painting greeting cards. Her husband became a writer too, but Edith was the main breadwinner.

She was a bit of a Bohemian Dorothy Parker type. She smoked long before it was acceptable for women to do so. (This gave her bronchial problems and was eventually the death of her.) She bobbed her hair when women were meant to wear it long.

The economic realities of the time: families were often in trouble, as was hers. Nesbit wrote numerous times about families who were struggling with money. The father is ill or redundant or defrauded by a business partner or even in prison. The mother might be ill, or caring for a sick relative. The children often have to go and stay with unsympathetic strangers in horrible lodgings. Even when Edith keeps her fictional families together, it’s usually in slightly impoverished surroundings.

Socialism

An important thing to know about E. Nesbit is that she co-founded the Fabian Society, which is now affiliated with The British Labour Party. So, E. Nesbit was very socialist. This of course comes across in her work. Her books recommend socialist solutions to problems. In the typical Victorian fairy tale class lines are sharply drawn. Aristocratic children are thought to be morally and intellectually and generally superior to everyone else. Most of Nesbit’s characters are middle class but every now and then she wrote a character like Mabel (The Enchanted Castle) from a lower economic rung. Dickie from Harding’s Luck is basically uneducated but is shown to be very smart, imaginative and courageous.  The aristocratic child is mean, cowardly and pretty stupid. This is a common trope today — smart underdogs versus stupid rich kids, but Edith Nesbit started it.

Another common trope of the Victorian era: A rich child befriends a poor one and improves them. In The Mixed Mine Edith inverted it — the poor child improves the life of the rich one.

Serialisation

Many of her books suffer from having been written in serial stories. With Five Children And It, for example, the book is divided into the granting of wishes. Each chapter had to have a self-contained plot and climax, which is not ideal.

Only Children

Nesbit didn’t really ‘get’ only children. She herself had a sister, a half sister and 3 brothers. The closest she got to an only child in fiction was Mabel of The Enchanted Castle.

enchanted-castle nesbit

Nesbit and her husband had an open marriage, though it was mostly the husband who slept with other people. Edith ended up taking in two of his illegitimate children and raising them alongside her own three. (Busy as she must have been, she formed a few romantic attachments of her own, the most famous with George Bernard Shaw. But that was just close friendship.)

MAGIC

Magic is used both as a comic device as well as a serious metaphor for the power of the imagination.

She loved to write about saurian monsters (monsters that look like big lizards). She usually called them megatheriums.

NESBIT’S INFLUENCE ON NARRATION

Nesbit’s voice seems unremarkable to contemporary readers because we see it everywhere. But at the time it was highly unusual. Nesbit spoke to children as if she were one of them, when everyone else was form, leisurely and didactic. Nesbit’s voice is inform, direct and that of a sensible child coolly commenting on the world. She adopts the child’s point of view whole-heartedly.

E. Nesbit introduced the technique of Paralepsis as Secondary Narrative into children’s literature.

NESBIT GOT ADULTS OUT OF THE WAY

Nesbit wrote some magical stories and some realistic ones. In her non-magical stories — The Bastable series — she removes one parent (prison/death/faraway country) and interposes a surrogate (housekeeper/Great Southern Railway Company) between the children and the remaining parent. This surrogate can now be upset without emotional repercussions. The Bastable series has influenced all those books that have come since, in which children have autonomous adventures: e.g. Swallows and Amazons, and the Melendy series: The Saturdays, The Four-Story Mistake, Then There Were Five, and Spiderweb for Two. by Elizabeth Enright.

Melendy series Elizabeth Enright

NESBIT’S INFLUENCE ON MODERN POPULAR AUTHORS

Nesbit has been hugely influential on authors from the Second Golden Age of children’s literature:

E Nesbit has perhaps been strongest of all. Her stories, whether magical or not, are firmly rooted in the real world and have been hugely influential on books of the Second Golden Age which people of my own generation loved – Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden, Diana Wynne-Jones’s Chrestomanci books, Lucy M Boston’s Green Knowe quartet, Peter Dickinson’s Changes trilogy, John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk, Joan Aiken’s Wolves of WIllighby Chase sequence and Eva Ibbotson’s hilarious witches and ghosts. Her dauntless brothers and sisters were echoed by Enid Blyton, Arthur Ransome, Noel Streatfeild and, more recently, a constellation of contemporary authors like Hilary McKay, Anne Fine, Fiona Dunbar, Cathy Cassidy, Anthony McGowan, Frank Cottrell Boyce, and Francesca Simon. Above all, she is acknowledged as the single greatest influence on Rowling, presumably because her conception of how the logical consequences of mixing the magical with the mundane is so comical. All have drawn from her faultless ear for family drama, her abundant sense of humour and her social conscience.

Amanda Craig

The works of Edith Nesbit aren’t perfect as works of art. The work Nesbit produced between the age of 20 and 40 is conventional and sentimental (by modern tastes). This all changed with The Story of the Treasure Seekers, about six London children who try to restore the family fortunes. In her character Oswald Bastable, it seems Edith was finally able to unleash the childhood version of herself.

Nesbit had an influence on another well-known children’s writer, C.S. Lewis:

The author’s voice in the Narnia’s books kindly explained things to the child reading…It was a gorgeously certain voice, which in itself lent a wonderful solidity to Narnia’s stars and sausages, so that they blazed in their spheres and swelled in their skins, but it never spoke from a position of adult detachment…He used the trick of uncondescending explanation, borrowed from E. Nesbit, only to involve you in perceptions you couldn’t have had on your own. Which made it doubly frustrating when the book was over, and you couldn’t invent any more of what you had taken part in.

— Francis Spufford, The Child That Books Built

J.K. Rowling counts the books of E. Nesbit of some of her own childhood favourites:

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.

Echoed here by Amanda Craig:

E Nesbit has perhaps given us the strongest DNA of all. Her stories, whether magical or not, are firmly rooted in the real world and have been hugely influential on books of the Second Golden Age – Diana Wynne Jones’s Chrestomanci books, Lucy M Boston’s Green Knowe series, Joan Aiken’s Wolves of Willoughby Chase sequence and Eva Ibbotson’s hilarious witches and ghosts. Her quarrelsome, highly believable brothers and sisters were echoed by Enid Blyton, Arthur Ransome, Noel Streatfeild, Roald Dahl and, more recently, a constellation of contemporary authors like Hilary McKay, Anne Fine, Cathy Cassidy, Frank Cottrell Boyce, and Francesca Simon. Above all, she is acknowledged as the single greatest influence on JK Rowling, presumably because her conception of mixing the magical with the mundane is sharply satirical. The most recent winner of the Costa Prize for Children’s fiction, Kate Saunders, updated one of Nesbit’s most famous books with Five Children on the Western Front – having cleverly worked out that, in just a few years, her famous Edwardian family would have been embroiled in the First World War.

And so does Philip Pullman:

The books I read as a child shaped my deepest beliefs. When I was at university, my friends and I were thrilled to discover that our childhood favourites seemed even more powerful than we remembered. This was true of classic authors such as George MacDonald, Rudyard Kipling, E Nesbit and Tove Jansson; or 1960s writers like Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, Peter Dickinson and Ursula Le Guin.

NESBIT’S REVOLUTIONARY TREATMENT OF ANIMALS

Margaret Blount in Animal Land writes that a little known (now) but influential story about mice was hugely influential (and probably forms the template of Peter Rabbit). See my post  Rodents In Children’s Literature for more about that.

However, it wasn’t until Nesbit came along that readers saw ‘real human souls in human bodies. Until that point, stories about animals had been about humans whose appearance has been changed by magic. Prevailing religious views would not have made such stories possible until Nesbit’s generation of writers came along.

Edith Nesbit’s The Cathood of Maurice was groundbreaking in this regard. It is the first short story in a collection of twelve, published in the anthology called The Magic World.

The Magic World

Another two stories of this tradition were The Sword in the Stone by T. H. White and Jennie by Paul Gallico.

NESBIT AND TIME TRAVEL

In The Story Of The Amulet, Nesbit basically invented a new subgenre of the time travel story. That way of thinking about time travel can be seen in stories from Sherman and Peabody to Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. For more on that, listen to the Long Now: Seminars About Long-term thinking delivered 5 June 2017 by James Gleick.

Published in 1906, the very concept of time travel was very new at that time. In The Time Machine, H.G. Wells has to go to great lengths to explain the fourth dimension to the friends who have gathered in his drawing room. The modern reader may wonder why. That’s because the term ‘time travel’ was not familiar to anyone, and people learned in school that there were three dimensions. Einstein came along quite soon after and proved that time really is the fourth dimension. (In case you’re wondering, H.G. Wells didn’t have any special insight into astrophysics — the fact that he’d written fiction about what later turned out to be dead accurate is more of a commentary on ‘ideas that were in the air’ around the turn of the century.)

In any case, Nesbit had her finger on the pulse. Without the Internet, how did Edith Nesbit have access to these ideas? There can only be one answer: She was immersed in an interesting subculture of people and was having in depth conversations. Nesbit was a member of this intriguing organisation. She was no doubt also well-read. She had a special interest in ancient civilisations in general and in ancient Egypt in particular.

C.S. Lewis seemed to borrow the time travel ideas of Nesbit and used them in  The Horse and His Boy (1954) and The Magician’s Nephew (1955). C.S. Lewis knew Nesbit’s work well and happily borrowed from her tone, her devices, and her effects.

As I read E. Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet, a tale of children’s magical adventures, a feeling of familiarity came over me. This 1906 book seemed to anticipate C. S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew, published almost exactly half a century later (1955) but, unlike the rest of the Narnia series, set back in the era when Nesbit herself was writing. It’s well known that Nesbit influenced Lewis’s Narnia series – he acknowledged it himself. His template – a group of sibling children having magical adventures – was inspired by Nesbit’s books, and scholars have identified various specific instances in the Narnia books that Lewis adapted from different Nesbit stories.

The Toronto Review Of Books

If you’re a socialist rather than a Christian and you enjoy the Narnia stories you might consider going back to read Nesbit.

NESBIT AND GENDER

E. Nesbit, Enid Blyton and Arthur Ransome wrote for both boys and girls in an era when books were gender bifurcated — domestic stories for girls; adventure stories for boys. They did this by including both boys and girls going off on adventures. There were no adventure stories for girls starring only girls. In Blyton and Ransome’s books, the males are generally more active, making the plans and decisions.

Nesbit was an early feminist (though didn’t necessarily use that term). At the time her girls were highly subversive. They are brave and adventurous, just like their brothers. They never sit round waiting for someone to rescue them.

“Father, darling, couldn’t we tie up one of the silly little princes for the dragon…? I fence much better than any of the princes we know.”

— a girl’s dialogue from The Last Of The Dragons, more reminiscent of Pixar’s Brave than of anything else from that era.

As a child Nesbit would have been described as a ‘tomboy’. She declared that she never loved a doll in her life, she loved playing pirates with her big brothers during the holidays and was generally rebellious, both at school and at home.

Five Children and It

Nesbit’s Phoenix is referred to as “It”, and is not described in terms of gender. The female children, Anthea and Jane, enjoy a range of activities, and do not appear to be limited by societal restrictions related to gender. Prior to these stories girls were treated to a whole lot of domestic dramas, whose main purpose was to persuade girls that being at home was fulfilling and the place to be.

Utopian Children’s Literature

Utopian stories are those which create a myth of childhood by describing it as a Golden Age.

Depictions of utopia have a long history. Medieval comic genres depicted worlds of abundance and enjoyment, at least for the male characters.

FEATURES OF UTOPIAN CHILDREN’S STORIES

Maria Nikolajeva lists the main qualities of the Utopian category 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

Utopian 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 (ie. 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 “Utopian Children’s Literature”

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

Scarface Claw by Lynley Dodd Picture Book

Scarface Claw is a wonderful animal villain.

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. Still, 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 picture book will be familiar with these animals. Teachers will be able to name all of them. If there’s an archetypal New Zealand picture book 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 OF SCARFACE CLAW

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 leaves a big impression at only 160 words.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

Scarface Claw may have been inspired (consciously or not) by the American Little Golden Book classic The Large and Growly Bear. Like Scarface Claw, the Large and Growly Bear is an outwardly fierce creature who takes great delight in scaring the creatures around him. The climax is that he is scared of his own reflection in a pond. I expect this plot comes from something even older — probably a folk or fairy tale. I simply haven’t found it yet.

Some people are terrified of mirrors, mostly because of superstitions related to reflections and the dead. This fear is called spectrophobia.

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?

Twins In Children’s Literature

Twins fascinate us. In stories, they may exist for this reason alone, but there are other reasons why twins feature prominently in stories, especially in stories for children.

1. VILLAINOUS TWINS

A New Zealand young adult 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

twin beds

by Colette Calascione
by Colette Calascione

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.

Twins Brooding YA Hero

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.

Twins Used To Illustrate The Moral Dilemma

Jon Klassen’s We Found A Hat features identical tortoises. This is played for gags. One tortoise briefly goes rogue, clearly showing a moral dilemma. Each tortoise represents two options.

 

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.

8. TWIN TRICKSTERS

TWIN TRICKSTERS

9. TWINS TO EXIST AS A MALE-FEMALE INDISTINCT CHARACTER

In order to appeal to both boys and girls, sometimes it seems a writer/illustrator has created twins simply because they couldn’t decide whether the hero should be a boy or a girl. Perhaps they don’t want the nuisance of sibling rivalry in the story. That’s not to say that sibling rivalry can’t happen when the siblings are twins; however, in Bush Picnic, the children enjoy a great day out together and may as well be different sides of the very same kid.

twins_600x381
Bush Picnic, 1970

RELATED LINKS ABOUT TWINS

See also: Twins In Literature from The Guardian

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

Cryptophasia is what you call a special language developed in early childhood between twins as they tend to communicate only with each other. This is interesting because humans in general have the ability to create language from nothing, or from very little. Look at how creole languages come up — children learning pidgin but incomplete languages from the adults in their lives, then fleshing it out until it becomes as nuanced as any existing full language.

Sex In Stories For Teenagers

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 combined with my own.

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

A Librarian

The sex in TV and movies can be simultaneously explicit and evasive. Sex, particularly non-committed sex, is typically presented as fun and advisable; rarely is it awkward or silly or challenging or messy or actively negotiated or preceded by discussion of contraception and disease protection. There’s always plenty of room in the backseats of those limousines, and nary a pothole in the road.

— Peggy Orenstein, Girls and Sex

One way to discover what Americans are concerned about is to delve into the books they read. Or more tellingly, the ones they reject. […] “America seems to be very exercised about sex,” Mr. LaRue said.

— Banned Books Week, NYT

Films such as American Pie are where boys are learning about sex from the male perspective.
Films such as American Pie are not specifically for teenagers but about teenagers. In this franchise, boys are learning about sex and we see a male perspective.

You may have heard the phrase, “Children’s literature is both a mirror and a window,” meaning when children (indeed anyone) is exposed to someone else’s story, two things happen:

  1. We get a glimpse into someone else’s experience via the ‘window’
  2. We see ourselves reflected back via the ‘mirror’.

Since stories function as windows, they also function as ‘super-peers’ — teaching us not only how others live in the world, but also providing scripts on how to live a good (or a not so good) life.

Though writing about porn in particular, Peggy Orenstein’s description of the nuanced interaction between ‘media’ and ‘consumer’ is explained below: Continue reading “Sex In Stories For Teenagers”

Ideology In Children’s Literature

ideology

Every novel, every painting, every work of art with meaning contains an ideology. This includes stories written for children.

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

We believe some ideologies so deeply that we consider them Truth: such ideologies as “education can improve people’s lives” and “it’s better to be rich than poor” can be difficult for people brought up in capitalist societies to recognize as arguable positions. But all adolescent novels are informed by such sociopolitical beliefs. Laura Ingalls Wilder, for example, infuses her own libertarian ideologies* into all of the Little House books, but most especially into the later books written for adolescents. Although in actuality the Ingalls family was closely connected to their neighbors during the historical season of blizzards depicted in The Long Winter (1940), Wilder portrays the fictionalised Ingalls family as living entirely isolated in self-sufficiency. Influenced by libertarianism, her ideological goal was to portray ogovernment intervention as both unnecessary and suspicious. William Sleator’s House of Stairs (1974), Robert Cormier’s I Am the Cheese (1977) and Virginia Hamilton’s The Gathering (1981) provide similar ideological critiques of government politics.

— Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature

*I feel it’s a bit easier for a non-American to see libertarian ideologies when they crop up. From my perspective here in Australia, Australians value equality, in contrast to North Americans, who seem to value freedom. Though membership to a certain culture gives one kind of insight, sometimes it’s easier to spot ideology in stories from a slightly different culture. It’s certainly easier to spot ideology in work from the past. You’ve probably experienced the phenomenon of sitting down to watch a classic film — Gone With The Wind or The Long Hot Summer or even Friends from the early 2000s, and noticed how ideologies which were once accepted and loved now seem hopelessly sexist, homophobic and racist. That’s exactly how future audiences will see the stories of today.

In order to understand…political ideologies…the reader has to understand at least two things: the historical context in which the story is set adn the historical context in which it was written. The distinction is especially important for historical novels like The Long Winter, when the historical setting is significantly removed from the date of the novel’s publication.

— Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature

The following are notes from various places, notably 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. Peter Hollingdale has written about the distinction between implicit and explicit ideology.

He didn’t go so far as to explain that an explicit ideology can be communicated either directly or indirectly — but this is definitely the case. The difference between the two:

  • Novels with directly explicit ideologies go out of their way to explain certain views to the reader, in case the reader doesn’t pick it up.
  • Novels with INdirectly explicit ideologies trust that the reader has enough prior knowledge to pick up the messages in the book.

Some writers will tell you that books with direct and explicit ideologies are out of fashion, described as moralistic. But it’s a bit more complicated than that: Here’s what’s gone out of fashion: direct and explicit ideologies coming out of the mouths of adults. That includes adult characters and (presumably) adult unseen narrators. You’ll still see examples of direct and explicit ideology coming out of the mouths of first person young adult narrators. An example is the mini-lecture by the YA narrator of Am I Normal Yet? in which she describes the problematic language around casual use of words like ‘OCD’ thrown around in everyday discourse. If this had come out of an adult, then it would have sounded didactic.

Not every book has an explicit ideology. But every single story has an implicit one, and it is this kind of book which tends to be the more powerful vehicle for an ideology, precisely because it is invisible. 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.

Different categories of stories tend to have common ideologies. For example, in the mouse tale it’s common to find the idea that ‘When mice become too reliant upon human technology, this leads to the downfall of their own society.’ Is this saying something about isolated, ‘primitive’ human cultures and what happens to them when they rub up against technologically advanced civilisation?

Continue reading “Ideology In Children’s Literature”