Story Structure: Character Weakness, Need and Problem

Most writers are well-aware that a main character needs a weakness. Christopher Vogler and other high profile story gurus often talk about a lack:

It can be very effective to show that a hero is unable to perform some simple task at the beginning of the story. In Ordinary People the young hero Conrad is unable to eat French toast his mother has prepared for him. It signifies, in symbolic language, his inability to accept being loved and cared for, because of the terrible guilt he bears over the accidental death of his brother. It’s only after he undertakes an emotional hero’s journey, and relives and processes the death through therapy, that he is able to accept love.

– Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey

First, there’s the issue of the Hero’s Journey as an ideology:One issue w/the “Hero’s Journey”: its insistence on individualism v. collective strength and community. Yes, the “hero” has help but those who help are relegated to the side, their purpose mostly reduced to further the hero’s goals, often at the expense of others.

Tricia Ebarvia

Aside from that, Vogler’s advice does not go far enough. Go one step further and break it in half.

Everyone who gives writers advice about characterisation has something to say about this topic. Author of the book Story Genius Lisa Cron says that it’s the character’s internal struggle that makes the external struggle important. This echoes exactly what John Truby says about external desires on the surface vs character weakness underneath.

What about children’s books? Do they follow the same rules?

Mostly, but not always. Some picture books do not feature characters with weakness. These stories tend to be of the carnivalesque variety. A few standout examples feature the reader as protagonist. These, too, do not follow the rules of story.

Children’s books for older readers do follow the same rules as those applied to narrative aimed at adults. Modern picture books which win big awards are also likely to follow these rules.

CHARACTER WEAKNESS

character weakness

According to the rules of story structure aimed at screenwriters and writers with an audience of adults…

 

Every Main Character Needs…

  1. A PSYCHOLOGICAL WEAKNESS: What are the fundamental flaws? (Lacking confidence, scarred by former lovers, afraid of intimacy, overly pessimistic etc.)
  2. A MORAL WEAKNESS: How does this character treat others badly? (Lacking empathy, overbearing, two-faced, greedy, lying, selfish etc.) The Seven Deadly Sins feature prominently in this part of the weakness.

It’s a very old idea. Aristotled called it ‘hamartia’.

Harmatia is a term developed by Aristotle in his work Poetics. The term can simply be seen as a character’s flaw or error. The word hamartia is rooted in the notion of missing the mark (hamartanein) and covers a broad spectrum that includes accident and mistake, as well as wrongdoing, error, or sin. In Nicomachean Ethics, hamartia is described by Aristotle as one of the three kinds of injuries that a person can commit against another person. Hamartia is an injury committed in ignorance (when the person affected or the results are not what the agent supposed they were).

— Wikipedia

 

Like anything, this rule of story has developed some tropes. As an example:

Common Weaknesses of Young Women

This trope comes from the Gothic tradition.

The story of the poor girl who overcomes obstacles and makes a good marriage in the end, what might be called the Horatia Alger story, is very common in nineteenth-century fiction, especially fiction written by women. This heroine does not have to begin in absolute poverty — even Cinderella’s family must have been middle-class or her stepsisters wouldn’t have been able to go to the ball in such style. But she does have to be in some way underprivileged at the start of the boo, and she must go through many difficulties before she can marry the prince.

Occasionally she is poor in other than the economic sense, as with some of Jane Austen’s heroines: Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey is poor in intellect; Marianne Dashwood of Sense and Sensibility is naive and muddleheaded; while Fanny Price of Mansfield Park is … poor in spirit. Charlotte Bronte, even more daring, made the heroine of Villette plain.

— Alison Lurie, Don’t Tell The Grown-ups: The power of subversive children’s stories

The weakness of being ‘plain’ continues to be explored in young adult fiction today, as beauty privilege continues to be a thing in modern society.

An Outdated Way Of Showing Character Weakness

In the simple thriller form the antagonist is marked out by their desire to control and dominate the lives of others. They don’t follow the moral codes of the community; more often than not they’re an embodiment of selfishness. They are also, historically, often marked by physical or mental deformity. Le Chiffre’s maladjusted tear duct in the film of Casino Royale is the modern equivalent of Dr No’s missing hands or Scaramanga’s third nipple in the Man With The Golden Gun. In a more politically correct age, the physical flaw (clearly an outer manifestation of inner damage) has been scaled down to a level society finds acceptable. If the antagonist is internal, the same principles apply: the enemy within works in opposition to the host’s better nature — it cripples them. It stands in opposition to everything they might be.

— John Yorke, Into The Woods

Do Children’s Book Characters Need A Moral Weakness?

Or any weakness at all?

The short answer is that, yes, an interesting modern children’s book character needs at least a psychological weakness, and the story might also support a moral weakness. This wasn’t always the case, as you’ll already know if you’ve read from the First Golden Age Of Children’s Literature. It was the amazing Edith Nesbit who changed all of that.

All of Nesbit’s characters have both virtues and flaws: not only are the children’s actions always a push and pull between their better instincts and their baser impulses, but the various authority figures they encounter are equally complicated. The magical Psammead creature is peevish, the Queen of Babylon is kind-hearted but imperious, and the upstairs scholar is helpful but blind to the magic he experiences.

The Toronto Review Of Books

Until Nesbit came along, adults who wrote for children believed children read as medicine. The viewpoint characters therefore had to demonstrate impeccable behaviour, or else be punished for wrongdoing, learning to be good along the way.

The older the reader, the more likely they are reading about characters with both types of weakness. But when it comes to picture books, no. That’s because a picture book character is quite often ‘The Every Child’, and because children are all different, the writer doesn’t always want to tell us much about the character at all. In this case, the child’s main weakness is the fact that they are a child: naivety, weakness, lack of freedom, lack of knowledge. These are weaknesses common to all children and cannot really be called ‘psychological’ weaknesses. This is the main difference between a protagonist in a children’s book and a protagonist in a story for adults.

Children’s writers have to deal with something other writers do not: The expectation from a large proportion of the book-buying public that the empathetic character behaves in a model-like fashion. And if they don’t? That’s okay, so long as they’re punished.

 

Must Children’s Book Characters Treat Others Badly?

After looking at a lot of children’s books with this exact question in mind, the answer is no. There are several reasons for this:

  1. Some characters in children’s books represent the Every Child. When a reader is meant to paste themselves onto the character we don’t want that character to be too specific. For similar reasons a lot of picture book characters are cartoon-like and minimalist. (For more on that see Taxonomy Of Detail In Character Illustration.) Even in stories for older readers, these Every Child characters are given a ‘cosmetic’ weakness rather than a psychological and moral one, which makes them far more generic and less interesting. For instance, a common cosmetic weakness in young adult romance is ‘clumsy’. Bella Swan is one example. Even in stories for adults you’ll find the Every Man. Susan from Desperate Housewives is clumsy but this clumsiness functions to provide comedy. Susan has many other psychological weaknesses. She is unconfident and needy but also fake-nice and backstabbing. Susan’s clumsiness has nothing to do with storytelling.
  2. There are gatekeepers of children’s literature — people responsible for buying the books and putting them into children’s hands — who choose literature with the philosophy that characters in stories need to serve as role models for good behaviour. These people might approve of characters who treat others badly but only if that character is punished. For more on that see Picturebook Study: In Which Baddies Get Their Comeuppance.
  3. The wish to avoid child characters as morally corrupt may come from JudeoChristian thought in which it is thought that people enjoy an ‘age of innocence’. Strictly speaking, we’re better off using the phrase ‘age of accountability’ because the Bible does not suggest at any point that children are sinless, but rather that children can’t be held accountable for certain things due to their inexperience. Thirteen is the most common age suggested for the age of accountability, based on the Jewish custom that a child becomes an adult at the age of 13. This is no doubt related to The Magical Age of 12 in children’s literature. (There’s nothing in the Bible, however, to suggest 13 is a significant age.)
  4. Complex, rounded characters simply aren’t necessary in all types of stories. For action stories with exciting plots, or genre fiction — such as mysteries and thrillers — all the reader really wants is a great story. In fact, the characters can’t change all that much if the book is part of a series. Series fiction is very popular with young readers and the best-selling books are all part of a series, year after year.

The view that badly behaving children’s characters must be punished is increasingly challenged, mostly by writers and publishers who refuse to believe in the concept of the young reader as tabula rasa (blank slates), who trust children and young adults to read critically and not blindly follow their main characters into bad situations. The modern main character in children’s stories will most definitely have both a psychological weakness and a moral weakness. In other words, they will be treating others badly in some way.

This wasn’t always the case, and if you take a look at books from the First And Second Golden Ages Of Children’s Literature you’ll find many more Mary Sue/Pollyanna types, who have been written as model children for young readers to emulate. These characters are not well accepted by contemporary young readers, who have a vast selection of books to choose from and are not stuck with moralistic stories as earlier generations were.

The idea of child readers as tabula rasa was particularly strong in the Victorian era, and if young readers didn’t want moral stories they really only had the Gothic to turn to. These stories offered all the bloodshed, villainy and titillation lacking in the ‘stories for children’.

Not all writers of children’s stories are interested in this concept. Hayao Miyazaki has never formally studied screenwriting or storytelling technique, and goes about creating his Studio Ghibli films in his own auteur fashion. Miyazaki’s main characters don’t tend to have an external desire. He doesn’t bother with that. They do have psychological needs, however, and by the end of the story they haven’t necessarily got anything they wanted — but by immersing themselves in a new world, they have grown emotionally.

For this reason I feel the very concept of desire is a Western one. In Japanese language, to say “I want” something is considered childish and you’ll rarely hear those words (even though the grammar and words for desire exist). Instead, a Japanese interlocutor will avoid the assumption that you are a spoilt baby with desires and ask you what you ‘need’. English: “Do you want a drink of water?” becomes “Do you need a drink of water?” I believe Hayao Miyazaki brings his specifically Japanese sensibilities towards ‘desire’ to the table when creating his main characters — Chihiro doesn’t seem to want anything in Spirited Away — she is simply there, and if she works hard, things will come good. Desperately wanting to turn her parents back into humans would probably work against her cause.

Common Character Weaknesses In Children’s Books

They may be common but that doesn’t mean you can’t keep using them:

  • Naivety. This is arguably the biggest weakness any children’s book hero has. It’s a good one, too, because the child can’t help it. Failure to understand the world is an easy weakness to improve upon over the course of the story, providing ample opportunity for a character arc. Hence, every story is a coming-of-age story.
  • Cheekiness. These characters are fun to be around. They won’t let horrible adults get away with treating kids badly without at least a little backchat. Judy Moody.
  • Talking too much. Anne Shirley grew up in an age when children should be seen and not heard. There are many modern Anne Shirleys, always getting into trouble but adorable nonetheless.
  • Shyness. Then you have your socially anxious characters who don’t find themselves in trouble with authority but who must learn to stand up for themselves and others, and for what they truly believe in.

Below are some modern and not so modern case studies of weakness and desire in (Western) children’s literature.

That said, the most popular, award-winning, beloved contemporary picture books for children often feature characters with a moral weakness.

Psychological weaknesses are also common:

Even in children’s books, the most interesting and beloved characters do have both kinds of weakness. This character isn’t necessarily the viewpoint character.

  • Scarface Claw by Lynley Dodd  — Scarface is mean to the dogs but this particular story shows us that he is also a scaredy-cat underneath.
  • Olivia by Ian Falconer is basically a narcissistic little girl in a pig’s body. While I personally have no love for Olivia, she is very popular.

CHARACTER NEED

There is probably a finite number of human needs, though so many you’ll never be short of material. Take a pyramid you’re probably familiar with, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. There are a few problems with this hierarchy, so it pays to look at it critically:

The modern integration of ideas from neuroscience, developmental biology, and evolutionary psychology suggests that Maslow had a few things wrong. For one thing, he never gave much thought to reproduction. He conceived of “higher needs” as completely personal strivings, unconnected from other people, and totally divorced from biological needs. Parental motivations were completely missing from his hierarchy, and he placed “sexual needs” down at the bottom— along with hunger and thirst. Presumably, sexual urges were biological annoyances that could be as well dispatched by masturbation as by having intercourse, before one moved back to higher pursuits like playing the guitar or writing poetry.

Psychology Today

The psychological need of your main character is closely associated with their weakness.

CHARACTER PROBLEM

In children’s stories where there is no psychological or moral weakness and won’t learn anything or change in any way by the end of the narrative, your character will (probably) have a Problem. This problem is external to their psychology. Stories like this don’t tend to be as emotionally interesting, but are appropriate for, say, humour.

There’s another kind of story where the ‘main character’ is the reader. Where Is The Green Sheep? by Mem Fox and Judy Horacek is one example of this: The reader’s problem is that the book asks them to locate a green sheep, but that’s impossible until turning the final page. Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown is another example of a perennial favourite which doesn’t seem to follow any of the usual rules of story — again, this book addresses the young reader directly. The child is the character, saying goodnight to the items. This is more secular prayer than complete narrative.

Do all children’s book characters need a Problem, if they don’t have a moral or psychological weakness? Again the answer is not always, actually.

  • The Biggest Sandwich Ever by Rita Golden Gelman and Mort Gerberg is a carnivalesque story in which a man turns up and makes an enormous sandwich. In a carnivalesque story, there doesn’t have to be a problem as such, because the unsupervised play itself is the story — equivalent to the battle scene in a more common type of story. A carnivalesque story is a ‘toy story’ — all about play and enjoyment with no ‘broccoli’. However, even in The Biggest Sandwich Ever, the characters do face a problem by the end: After stuffing themselves full of sandwich, they are now faced with the task of eating a giant pie.
  • More! by Peter Schossow  is a wordless picture book which celebrates the joy of walking (flying) along a beach on a windy day.

A golden rule about problems in story: The initial problem gets more complicated as soon as the main character tries to solve it.

complicated problem comic
comic by Poorly Drawn Lines

Sometimes the initial problem exists only to get the story rolling. This is what Hitchcock called a McGuffin.

Common Wish Fulfilment In Children’s Fantasy

Genre fiction and children’s fiction often functions to allow the reader to experience a particular form of fantasy. Some wishes are considered more worthy than others.

Wish Fulfillment Children's Literature

FIVE CHILDREN AND IT

The classic book that is entirely about what happens when you wish: Five Children and It, by E. Nesbit, published 1902. Nesbit had a firm grasp on the main reasons children read, and each chapter explores what happens after certain wishes are fulfilled.

The moral of the story: Be careful what you wish for! Also, simply having your wishes come true doesn’t mean you’re going to be happy. Every outcome has unpredictable consequences. Other people are always caught in your life web — you can’t make a personal wish without it affecting your community.

WISH FULFILMENT AND GENDER

Neil Gaiman has proposed a gender divide when it comes to wish fulfilment in stories.

Boys: Boys are bigger, stronger, faster, invisible, can fly. The wish fulfilment fantasies of boys are historically given more weight — seen as aspirational, part of normal, healthy development.

Girls: Girls’ real lives are based on lies. Their parents are not their real parents — they are secret princesses. There’s a promise of transmutation.

Some wish fulfilment fantasies in genre fiction read largely by girls is historically dismissed as banal, silly, crazy. The wish fulfilment of dark paranormal romance is one example. Girls wish for a handsome hero saviour but also wish to put aside the problems they face in everyday life — responsibility, body dissatisfaction and also the feeling of being unsafe, which girls must deal with as they enter the dating world. 

WISH FULFILMENT IN STORIES FOR ADULTS

In adult fiction, the wish fulfilment aspect of story enjoyment is no less hidden — it may simply be invisible.

There are many literary stories about a middle aged man who falls in love with a much younger, beautiful woman. Or a troubled girl comes under the wing of a much older man and he helps her out. When there’s an element of regret in the story, this, too, is a form of wish fulfilment. A story which succumbs to this sort of wish fulfilment is Million Dollar Baby. Another is The Homesman. A story which could have succumbed to this kind of regret but manages to rise above is the film Wildlike, with the screenplay written by Frank Hall Green, whose work you may know from Foxcatcher, Precious, 127 Hours and Mud.

Apocalyptic fiction such as The Walking Dead or The Road explores the wish of a man to save himself and his own tribe using his most macho attributes and weaponry, outside the bounds of the safer, more banal real world in which he lives.

The entire genre of Westerns were about a male wish fulfilment to expand the American empire, travelling from small town to small town as a travelling angel character.

This piece about Game of Thrones and similar stories talks about the damaging wish fulfilment of wanting to rise above another group of people and come up roses with no ill-consequence for yourself.

Games such as Grand Theft Auto, surprisingly, aren’t really about enjoyment. They’re about “The Ideal Self At Play” — a.ka. self-actualisation.

“It’s the very reason that people play online RPGs,” Bartle said. “In this world we are subject to all kinds of pressures to behave in a certain way and think a certain way and interact a certain way. In video games, those pressures aren’t there.” In video games, we are free to be who we really are—or at least find out who we really are if we don’t already know.

Gypsies In Classic Children’s Literature

Madeline and the Gypsies heterotopia of the circus

What did Enid Blyton and E. Nesbit have in common? Apart from a dislike of only children and a shared love of ginger beer, they both wrote stories about groups of children going out into the countryside and finding adventure. In these natural environments the children came across good people and bad people (policemen, shopkeepers etc, smugglers etc.) and then there were ‘gypsies’, who readers understood were instant opponents.

Five Children and It cover

The four children encounter gypsies in chapter 3 of Five Children and It. They get sick of their baby brother and wish someone, anyone, would take him. So the Psammead arranges for that to happen, and no they can’t take the wish back. But since the wishes only last until sunset, this chapter gives E. Nesbit a chance to dismantle a popular anglo belief at the time: That gypsies stole children. Much like the Elf on the Shelf, who it was said kept an eye on children even in parental absence, if children did not do as required it was often said that if they were not careful the gypsies would come and get them.

Even today it’s thought that gypsies abduct children. The high profile Madeleine McCann case is a good example.

See The Legend of the Child Snatching Gypsies.

Thomas Acton, a renowned Professor of Romani Studies, says that there is no documented case of Roma or Travellers stealing non-Gypsy children anywhere.

Peter McGuire

In Shadow The Sheepdog we see that gypsies came in useful as an archetype for missing dogs, too. Johnny is required to enter a gypsy caravan, where he finds the drugged Shadow inside a bag.

shadow-the-sheep-dog-1

Madeline and the Gypsies is one of the few children’s book from the Second Golden Age of Children’s Literature to portray a gypsy as a rounded, caring and responsible individual.

WANDERERS NOT GYPSIES

  • Today, calling the Roma or the Irish Travellers ‘gypsies’ is very similar to calling Native Americans ‘Indian’. The word ‘Gypsy’ is often used in a derogatory way and is based on the mistaken idea that gypsies came from Egypt.
  • There are two main, distinct groups of travellers — the Roma and the Irish travellers. They are both nomadic but are separate. Romany gypsies have roots in India but Irish Travellers are, well, Irish.
  • Irish travellers speak a language called Cant, Gammon or Shelta. The hit UKTV show Big Fat Gypsy Wedding focuses on a group of Irish Travellers and is considered to be a poor representation of travellers. Back in the 1940s these people were called ‘Tinkers’. They became travellers due to a history of discrimination against the Irish, and may have had land taken from them.
  • The Romani language is based on Punjabi/Hindi.
  • The word ‘Romani’ has nothing to do, by the way, with the country Romania, or the Ancient Romans.
  • Australia has its own Romani population, who first came to Australia in the early 1900s from Greece.
  • Meanwhile in America, these wanderers might be referred to as hobos.

POPULAR WESTERN BOGEYMEN

No matter how safe childhood becomes, modern folklore still requires bogeymen. Apart from the Roma, we’ve also had:

  1. Fairies — originally fairies were used as the bogeyman: “Be good or the fairies will take you!”
  2. Jews — It was thought Jews abduct Christian children and use them as sacrifice in strange rituals.
  3. Witches — as portrayed in Roald Dahl’s middle grade novel, in which he explains witches look like everyday women.
  4. Black cars — in Estonia black cars were supposed to be especially dangerous because they contained people who wanted to kidnap you for your organs. Black cars are also suspicious in the West.
black car mystic river
the black car from Mystic River

And now we have men in white vans.

from Silence Of The Lambs
from Silence Of The Lambs

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.

Paralepsis in Children’s Literature

Paralepsis*: (Faux) Omission.

In rhetoric, paralepsis refers to the device of giving emphasis by professing to say little or nothing about a subject, as in not to mention their unpaid debts of several million, but saying it all the same.

  • I know who farted but I wouldn’t want to embarrass Charles.
  • In the name of anonymity, let’s just call him John. Which is pretty convenient, because his name is actually John.
  • I won’t mention the fact that [X]

As you have probably guessed, paralepsis is a favorite rhetorical device of assholes.

While @Bette Midler is an extremely unattractive woman, I refuse to say that because I always insist on being politically correct.

Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me “old,” when I would NEVER call him “short and fat?” Oh well, I try so hard to be his friend – and maybe someday that will happen!

— Donald J. Trump

 

This rhetorical device is also called apophasis.

Paralepsis in Picture Books

In picturebooks, though, a kind of paralepsis can happen when something mentioned in the text is left out of the picture, or vice versa. Negative space might be said to be the picturebook equivalent of paralipsis. For example, a page might be deliberately left blank because the character has disappeared for a time. An empty chair may draw attention to the fact that its usual occupant has died.

Empty Chair In The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers
Empty Chair In The Heart In The Bottle by Oliver Jeffers

Paralepsis In Time-shift Fantasy

A main feature of fantasy is time distortion. Most often this is expressed narratively by primary time standing still (one kind of paralepsis). Obviously, we’re now talking about a different concept altogether from the rhetorical device mentioned above. It helps to know that the word comes from Greek and means ‘disregard’.

Examples

  • The Story of the Amulet
  • The House of Arden
  • A Traveller in Time
  • The Green Knowe series
  • Tom’s Midnight Garden
  • Jessamy
  • Charlotte Sometimes
  • Playing Beatie Bow
  • The Root Cellar

Paralepsis As Secondary Narrative

Paralepsis can also occur in a secondary narrative in which time is independent of the primary story. This was an integral part of archaic thought — during rituals, time was thought to stand still.  And so it remains as part of human storytelling today. The archaic division between ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’ universes can be likened to the separate literary-fantasy universes of ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ worlds.

Time freezes (or seems to) for everyone and everything in the entire universe, except for the main cast of the story. The characters find themselves in an eerie, calm, silent world where the people and objects around them have become motionless statues. In some stories, this phenomenon happens by accident; in others, the heroes can stop time by using magic, a super power or Applied Phlebotinum.

Time Stands Still at TV Tropes

Examples

E Nesbit Trilogy
The concept was introduced to children’s literature by Edith Nesbit in her time-travel novels.

In Chapter Four of Five Children and It, Nesbit first tells the young reader she is not going to describe the picnic, then goes on to do exactly that. This makes the reader feel as if we are not being lectured at — something the narrator professes not to do, unlike every other children’s book that has come before:

I do not wish to describe the picnic party on the top of the tower. You can imagine well enough what it is like to carve a chicken and a tongue with a knife that has only one blade — and that snapped off short about half-way down. But it was done,. Eating with your fingers is greasy and difficult — and paper dishes soon get to look very spotty and horrid. But one thing you can’t imagine, and that is how soda-water behaves when you try to drink it straight out of a syphon — especially a quite full one. But if imagination will not help you, experience will, and you can easily try it for yourself if you can get a grown-up to give you the syphon. If you want to have a really thorough experience, put the tub in your mouth and press the handle very suddenly and very hard. You had better do it when you are alone — and out of doors is best for this experiment.

However you eat them, tongue and chicken and new bread are very good things, and no one minds being sprinkled a little with soda-water on a really fine hot day.

Five Children And It, E. Nesbit

 

Where The Wild Things Are

There’s paralepsis in Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, when Max travels ‘through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year’. This kind of anachrony is common in picturebooks which describe an imaginary journey. For example, all the happenings of Narnia can’t possibly fit into the time the children would’ve spent at the country house.

Where_The_Wild_Things_Are_(book)_cover

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe

The Narnia Chronicles are an excellent example of paralepsis. While the Pevensie children are in Narnia, time in the real world stands still. This is convenient as a plot device too, because it means adults don’t wonder where they are, and interrupt their adventures to come looking for them.

If [Lucy] had got into another world, I should not at all be surprised that the other world had a separate time of its own; so that however long you stayed there it would never take up any of our time.

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe

200px-ScholasticNarnia

 

The real, primary time is linear, and the story is firmly fixed at a specific chronological moment: “during the war”. In The Magician’s Nephew, which is the flashback of the suite, primary time is switched back, but is still quite definable: “when your grandfather was a child…Mr. Sherlock Holmes was still living in Baker Street and the Bastables were looking for treasure in the Lewisham Road”. Entering Narnia, the children leave the linear time behind and enter not only another world, but the mythical, cyclical time. In this time, death is reversible: Aslan is killed and resurrected, and he can also bring the enchanted stone figures to life again. One of the evil schemes of the White Witch is to stop the flow of time altogether, imposing the eternal winter (=period of nonbeing, death) in Narnia, Aslan’s death and resurrection–a performance of the ritual of the returning god, with its pagan rather than Christian meaning–restores the cyclical time. Spring comes, as it always has come after winter, as it always will come. The idyllic setting is recovered, Narnia is brought back into its prelapsarian state, as created by Aslan at the dawn of time (described in The Magician’s Nephew).

From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature by Maria Nikolajeva

 

Momo by Michael Ende

The final showdown between the titular heroine of Michael Ende‘s Momo and the Men in Grey happens after the local God stops time in the whole world, leaving only Momo (because she is carrying a certain MacGuffin), the Men in Grey, and a magical turtle (who is a fully-functional MacGuffin of her own right) able to move.

— TV Tropes

Momo_English

Molly Moon

In Molly Moon Stops The World, Molly is able to stop time thanks to a Call Back from the first book.

Molly Moon Stops The World

Artemis Fowl

The fairies in Artemis Fowl can stop time within an area by surrounding it with a pentagram (and warlocks, originally, though they developed Magitek generators since there is a limit to how long a warlock can hold up his arms). They often use this in combination with a bio-bomb to contain its effect. Escape from a time-stop is possible, but the method is unusual: the time-stop preserves all beings in the state they were in when time stopped – people who are awake stay awake, while people who are asleep go on with the normal flow of the world. When an awake person uses something like sleeping pills to artificially change their state, the stop shunts them into normal time, making them disappear from inside the stop.

— TV Tropes

Artemis Fowl Covers

Paralepsis instead of omniscient narration?

Some critics have said that, technically, paralepsis would be a good word to use for the sort of narration you sometimes get when first person narration morphs into the omniscient, in which a character couldn’t possibly know what’s going on elsewhere in the story. (The reader is to ‘disregard’ this device, I suppose, hence the term.)

*Paralepsis is also spelt paralipsis.

 

The Symbolism Of Flight In Children’s Literature

Flight is amazingly common in children’s stories. Several other motifs should be considered symbolically similar:

  1. floating — e.g. by holding onto helium balloons, levitating by magic or by supernatural means
  2. going up onto a high place, such as a roof or a tree(house) — Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton’s tree house series are mega bestsellers in Australia
  3. hovering — a subgenre in African American books
  4. leaping and jumping — In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s fourth book for children, On The Banks Of Plum Creek, Laura and Mary jump with unrestrained joy off a stack of hay (until they’re told not to by their father). This contrasts with later chapters in the book where the outdoorsy Laura finds it difficult to concentrate in class, where she is required to sit still, restrained like a caged creature.

 

Christopher Vogler has this to say about how flight doesn’t always mean actual flying:

Fairy tales include a chase that involves a whimsical transformation of objects, known as the magic flight motif. In a typical story a little girl escapes from the clutches of a witch with the help of gifts from animals she’s been kind to. The girl throws down the gifts one by one in the witch’s path and they magically transform into barriers that delay the witch. A comb becomes a thick forest that slows the witch while she gobbles it up. A scarf becomes a wide river which she has to drink.

Joseph Campbell gives several illustrations of magical flights, and suggests the motif stands for a hero’s attempts to stall the avenging forces in any way possible, by throwing down “protective interpretations, principles, symbols, rationalizations, anything…(to)…delay and absorb” their power.

What the hero throws down in a chase may also represent a sacrifice, the leaving behind of something of value. The little girl of the fairy tales may find it hard to part with the lovely scarf or comb given by the animals. Heroes of movie adventures sometimes have to decide what’s really important, and toss money out the window to slow their pursuers and save their lives. Campbell cites the extreme example of Medea. Escaping with Jason from her father, she had Jason cut up her own brother and toss his pieces into the sea to delay the pursuit.

– The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters

FLOATING = FLYING

When considering flight as a metaphor, include floating. As John Truby writes in his review of Avatar, ‘In the history of utopias, the single most important quality is floating or flying. Think of the floating tea party in Mary Poppins, Harry Potter playing Quidditch on his broomstick, or the floating house in Up.’

A good picture book example of floating can be seen in Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak, in which Ida floats backwards out the nursery window, then floats through the fantasy landscape as if she’s underwater. Gravity works differently in this imaginary world of hers, in which her little sister was kidnapped by goblins.

Truby points out that if a fantasy world is to be successful on a grand scale, it must have the qualities of a utopia.

In other words, a successful utopia requires flight. Continue reading “The Symbolism Of Flight In Children’s Literature”