Child Moves House Trope In Middle Grade Fiction

Child moves house and starts at new school. This trope is hard to write well because it has been done so many times before.

child moves house

Some specific plot elements, or motifs, that we find in children’s novels are not as prominent in the mainstream fiction. The first is coming to a new home. Naturally, this element–connected to the basic motif of dislocation, inherent in all fiction–is present in quite a number of mainstream novels, such as Jane Eyre or Mansfield Park. However, I would state that the new home is more dominant in children’s fiction and also more significant, since the change of setting is a more dramatic event in a child’s life than in an adult’s. The character’s reaction to the change is very revealing.

The Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Fiction by Maria Nikolajeva

Maria Nikolajeva published that paragraph in 2002 and goes easy on the child moves house trope. Since then, despite every children’s author knowing full well that the child moves house trope — or motif — or whatever you’d like to call it had been done thousands of times before, we get to 2017 and Betsy Bird (librarian and reviewer for School Libarary Journal) has this to say about the state of middle grade literature:

If you read too many middle grade novels in a given year, you begin to sense patterns that no one else can see. In 2017 I’ve started down that path. I’ll give you an example of a particular pattern: The new kid in school. It’s not a new idea for a book (Joseph Campbell would probably tell you that it’s just a variation on the old “A Stranger Comes to Town” storytelling motif) but this year it’s gotten extreme. In book after book authors have hit the same notes. Kid is new. Kid is awkward in the lunchroom (seriously – if I never read another lunch room scene again it’ll be too soon). Kid makes friends with outcasts. Kid triumphs by being true to his or her own self. Simple, right? They blend together after a while, but it’s not the fault of the format. A good book, a really good book, transcends its format. Much of what I’ve read this year has already faded into a fuzzy haze in my brain.

Betsy Bird, SLJ

The contributors to TV Tropes have also noticed the moving house trope has become super popular in the last 10 years. The trope New House, New Problems refers specifically to a new family moving into a new home, whereupon strange happenings begin to reveal themselves. It’s not just a middle grade thing — it’s a horror thing.

Who knows what contributed to this trend, but I suspect big hits such as Neil Gaiman’s Coraline have something to do with it. The TV Tropes page also points out that every other Goosebumps book begins with a kid moving to a new house. In YA we have the huge successes of Twilight, 10 Things I Hate About You and Mean Girls, so audiences must love the trope. Writers love it too, because it allows a natural discovery of a new milieu, as our new student discovers how the new environment works, along with readers.

The question is, do young readers like it as much as writers do?

 

In The Middle Of The Night by Robert Cormier

In The Middle Of The Night is a young adult horror novel by American author Robert Cormier. Written in the mid 1990s, this was one of his later works.

The cover reads like the poster for a horror film and gives us a horror tagline: “The sin of the father will be visited upon the son.”

in the middle of the night

Although Goodreads reminds me I read (and reviewed!) this book back in 2013, I have zero recollection of ever picking it up. This probably says more about my memory than about the book, though I do have strong memories of some of Cormier’s other work, particularly Fade, which I read as a teenager and left a strong impression.

I’m reading In The Middle Of The Night again making read-along notes as I go, hoping to learn what I can about horror and suspense from a master of the form. Continue reading “In The Middle Of The Night by Robert Cormier”

What Is A Motif, Visual Motif and Leitmotif?

A visual motif is a subcategory of the motif. First, what is a motif?

A motif is a recurring pattern. 

When related images repeat to enhance or bring attention to an idea, you know you’ve identified the story’s motif. It’s not a motif unless there is symbolic or thematic significance in the story. Simple repetition does not equal ‘motif’. A motif is like a symbol, but symbols are widely understood by the culture, whereas a motif might be specific/unique to the work at hand. We’re learning what the motif means within the story as the story progresses. That’s why repetition is necessary.

A motif might be:

  • a sound
  • an action
  • an object
  • a character
  • a literary device
  • a word/phrase
  • an image

A visual motif is a repeating pattern in the visual arts.

In film noir, an example of a visual motif would be the use of shadow to obscure part of a character’s face.

shadow motif
Here we have shadow used as a motif for a duplicitous personality, one side good, one side bad.

A visual motif in a film (or a story app) isn’t necessarily a static image. Hitchcock repeatedly made use of mirror shots and divided screens, which became a visual motif. He also made much use of light and shadow. There were reasons for this, which is what makes it a motif. See also: 10 Visual Motifs that American Science Fiction Borrowed from Anime from io9.

In our storybook app Midnight Feast, lights are used as a visual motif throughout. As lights dance around Roya, she fails to ‘see the light’ — she fails to see what’s right outside her own window.

A leitmotif is a repeating pattern in the musical arts.

In music, a leitmotif is a recurrent theme throughout a musical or literary composition, associated with a particular person, idea, or situation.

In films and plays a leitmotif is a specific melody is associated to character or a given situation or a given setting. For example, a triangle which accompanies repeated actions to cumulative effect.

But how is this any different from ‘repetition’, right? As in choruses or any sort of repeated musical sequence?

First, the answer in relation to music:

When repetition in music becomes identified with a character, it is called a “leitmotif”.

— Howard Suber

Next, the answer in relation to literature:

In literature leitmotifs often present as sound devices such as alliteration, rhyme and onomatopoeia:

Examples of leitmotif from Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce:

“wasching the walters of, the weltering walters off. Whyte.”

“and watch her waters of her sillying waters of”

“And his dithering dathering waltzers of. Stright!”

“arride the winnerful wonders off, the winnerful wonnerful wanders off”

“baffling with the walters of, hoompsydoompsy walters of. High!”

“Amingst the living waters of, the living in giving waters of. Tight!”

Leitmotifs are also said to be present in the works of Samuel Beckett, Virginia Woolf, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Thomas Mann, Chuck Palahniuk, and Julian Barnes, among several other writers.

The work of Annie Proulx, too, has been described in terms of the leitmotif, notably in relation to an opera adaptation of Brokeback Mountain, in which leitmotif describes actual music:

[In adapting the short story for stage] Wuorinen says that he wanted to do something that the film didn’t: instead of the beautifying effects of the cinematography on the mountainous landscape of the North American West, the opera returns to the sense of threat, of danger, of hard-fought existence that the Wyoming mountains are really about, something that’s there in the story but less apparent in Ang Lee’s film. You can hear that even in the brief excerpts from the opera that underscore this interview: the mountain looms in that ominous orchestral chord, which becomes a kind of leitmotif for the multiple threats to Jack and Ennis’ love as the opera develops.

The Guardian

But below, the word ‘leitmotif’ is used to describe not a musical but the musicality of Proulx’s prose — a voice she uses for her darkly comic stories:

One of the clues that Annie Proulx’s short stories cannot be taken too literally lies in the leitmotif of the Devil, which reappears as a character in several marvelous stories as well as in the character’s quotidian imagery and sociolect. These more comical, satirical stories casting the Devil and his demons as protagonists seem to have been born from fantasies set free by folklore, by postmodern lifestyle, and by the hellish living and natural conditions in Wyoming.

— Bénédicte Meillon

In this case Meillon could probably  have simply used the word ‘motif’, but wanted to emphasise the musicality of the prose.

Then we have the mnemonic leitmotif, though I’m not sure if anyone other than James Wood uses this term. I’m not even sure if the phrase is redundant, since the whole reason for a leitmotif is to impress something upon the audience’s memory.

Tolstoy uses a method of mnemonic leitmotif — a repeated attribute or characteristic — to secure the vitality of his characters.

— James Wood, How Fiction Works