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Children’s Stories and Northrop Frye

Northrop Frye was a Canadian literary theorist who died in 1991 aged 78. Frye was considered one of the most influential literary theorists of the 20th century. Sometimes his theories applied equally to children’s literature; at other times he was off the mark. One of his theories — The Displacement Of Myth — does not apply well to children’s literature.

Northrop Frye’s Five Stages Of The Displacement Of Myth

Frye treated literature as ‘displacement of myth’. Here are Frye’s stages, in consecutive order, between full-on myth to what we get today:

  1. Characters are gods (superior to both humans and to the laws of nature)
  2. Romantic Narrative (idealized humans who are superior to other humans but not to the laws of nature)
  3. High Mimetic Narrative (humans who are superior to other humans)
  4. Low Mimetic Narrative (humans are neither superior nor inferior to other humans)
  5. Ironic Narrative (characters are inferior to other characters)

northrop frye

(Terminology note: The ‘mimetic modes’ are also known as ‘realism‘. Mimesis basically means ‘copying reality’.)

Examples Of Modern Popular Characters From Each Of Frye’s Five Stages

  1. Superheroes in general, though writers sometimes limit their powers in aid of a more interesting story. Superman is one of the few who actually fits this category because Superman was never meant to be relatable. (Before he was known as Man of Steel he was known as Man of Tomorrow, in a much more optimistic age when it was thought that humankind is making its way closer to the ideal mindset of altruism for altruism’s sake.
  2. The male love interests in Harlequin romances, in which the story ends before more human aspects of his character are revealed.
  3. Walter White and other genius characters who live among us e.g. Marty Byrde of Ozark which seems to be modelled upon Breaking Bad.
  4. Don Draper; the alter egos of secret-identity superheroes. (See: A Psychoanalysis of Clark Kent.)
  5. Mr Bean,

If you try this exercise yourself, you’ll probably find that contemporary stories tend to fall into the bottom two categories. It’s much harder to find genuine examples from the top two tiers in particular. Some have argued a case for more heroics in stories for adults.

The conventions of literary fiction are that the bourgeois hero (more likely the heroine) be vulnerable, prone to shame and guilt, unable to fit the pieces of the larger puzzle together, and on the same banal moral plane as the “average reader”: sympathetic, in other words, someone we can “identify” with, who reflects our own incomprehension of the world, our helplessness and inability to effect change.

– an example of why we need to read about amazing characters, in an opinion from Anis Shivani

The Displacement of Myth and Children’s Literature

How does Northrop Frye’s Five Stages map onto children’s literature? According to Frye, children (and animals) fall into the fifth category — children are regarded as inferior. Since almost all children’s literature stars children, this suggests all children’s literature is ironic.

This is not the case.

In fact, the corpus of children’s literature includes characters from each of Frye’s levels. This has been pointed out by specialist of children’s literature, Maria Nikolajeva, in Aesthetic Approaches to Children’s Literature: An Introduction.

Examples Of Children’s Characters From Each Of Frye’s Five Stages

  1. The superhero side of Miles Morales; Christopher Robin who to the toys seems like a God. (This also applies to Andy of Toy Story.)
  2. Edward Cullen and other paranormal love interests in young adult romance; Harry Potter winds up here.
  3. Rory Gilmore types, who is herself the granddaughter of Anne of Green Gables (very smart). That said, Rory Gilmore had been cut down a peg or two in the Gilmore girls revival, and Anne With An E showed a more vulnerable side to Anne Shirley. Perhaps this means a contemporary audience likes to see more ordinary characters?
  4. Laura Ingalls, Tom Sawyer, Ramona Quimby, Henry Huggins and all of these kids’ descendants populating realistic fiction, but who sometimes enter a fantasy world. (That said, entering a fantasy world often in itself denotes ‘chosen ones’.) In YA we have Francesca Spinelli (Saving Francesca), the ensemble stars of Tomorrow When The War Began and other ordinary teens who learn to become self reliant after some kind of adversity.
  5. Greg Heffley, Timmy Failure, Nikki Maxwell and many other stars of middle grade, humorous, illustrated novels starring characters who are mean, dim-witted, accident-prone, or who otherwise feel put-upon due to being the middle child, wearing braces or whatever. We see these characters in cartoons, too e.g. We Bare Bears. Comedy is full of them because these characters are easy to poke fun at. We also have serious YA characters such as Charlie from The Perks of Being a Wallflower, or James Sveck of Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You, who are basically overwhelmed by all the changes happening in their teenage years.

As shown above, children’s literature is as diverse as adult literature when it comes to this particular theory of character. ‘Children’ cannot be lumped into the bottom category. The opinion from Anis Shivani above may in fact mean it’s easier to find heroic characters in children’s stories than in stories for adults.

As a side note, animals can’t be lumped into the ironic category, either. That’s because animals in literature are very often stand-ins for humans.

Neo-Regionalism And Realism In Literature

The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck, a well-known example of neo-regionalism.

The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck, a well-known example of neo-regionalism.

REGIONALISM

“In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect, the extremist form of the backwoods South-Western dialects; the ordinary “Pike-Country” dialect; and four modified varieties of this last”

— Huckleberry Finn

Regionalism is an largely American term which refers to texts that concentrate heavily on specific, unique features of a certain region including dialect, customs, tradition, topography, history, and characters. Regionalist writers include Mark Twain and Kate Chopin (The Awakening, 1899), Harper Lee (To Kill A Mockingbird), Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner. Features of regionalist works: Continue reading

Babysitter’s Club Novel Study

It would be easy to dismiss The Babysitter’s Club as an outdated storyline aimed at channeling girls into careers in childcare, turning them into good little obedient baby-machines and not much else. However, never judge a book by its title, right? (Because a lot of the time authors don’t choose their own titles anyhow.) And I’d never actually read a copy.

After hearing The Babysitters Club series is was recently reissued as ebooks I decided to actually read one, for the first time in my life. You’d think I’d have read a number of the series already because I was nine years old when the first book, Kristy’s Great Idea was published, and therefore in exactly the right demographic.

My Own Backstory With Babysitter’s Club

In year six a school friend invited me to her house for a playdate and I was impressed to see that she owned the entire series. Her parents had bought her a weekly subscription and they had arrived in the mail. My Trixie Beldens and Famous Fives and Secret Sevens remained incomplete on my bookshelf — not only that, some were hardbacks, some were paperbacks — my books just didn’t look as neat as these super attractive pastel-coloured spines lined up in all their complete numerical order. In hindsight I don’t know if it was the stories I coveted but the books as works of art.

And those covers! Now that Photoshopped images are ubiquitous, those photo-realistic depictions of happy-looking American adolescents were an unusual sight in graphic design back then. It’s easy to forget that. I have memories of gazing at those covers marveling at how the pictures fit somewhere between photo and paintings. What skill, I thought, to be able to paint like that!

Ann M. Martin

Unlike the authors of other series of the 80s, such as Sweet Valley High and the never-die Nancy Drew, the author of The Babysitter’s Club is a real woman and that is her real name. Given Martin’s high work output, and the generic sounding everyname, I had wondered if she were a group of authors contracted to write a few books each. But no, Ann M. Martin obviously cares very much about her work — as much as any other authors writing under their own name.

As for the books themselves, I’m pleased to report that yes, they have dated (in a good way) and no, they are not the least bit sexist. In fact, they’re a damn sight better than a lot of the series being published now. If you can pick up a series of Babysitter’s Club cheap second hand and give them to your middle school daughter, you’ll be doing good.

*I have since handed my second-hand Babysitter’s Club books to a friend whose son loves them. Yes, son. He read them all voraciously at age 8.

BABYSITTER’S CLUB #1: KRISTY’S GREAT IDEA

Kristy's Great Idea cover babysitter's club

 

Kristy is responsible for looking after her little brother David Michael, but so are her two older brothers. Likewise, we learn that while Kristy refuses (initially) to babysit for her mother’s man-friend, one of her older brothers has already volunteered. So right from the outset, babysitting is not portrayed as a task for girls. Kristy knows her own mind, and will not be railroaded into doing something she doesn’t want to. The brothers are possibly more pliable than she is.

Kristy’s mom (who is divorced) “likes the fact that she can support us so well.” The mother has a ‘very good job at a big company in Stamford’… ‘but she still feels guilty‘. This reminds me of feminist conversations that would have been happening back then, before the 90s kicked in, and everyone assumed women had achieved equality now, so most people stopped writing things like this ‘out loud’. In the mid-eighties, divorced families were more of an oddity too. This sort of family situation is a lot more common today, and more young readers will identify with antagonistic feelings towards a parent’s new partner. I would add that this book is looking a bit too Brady Bunch at this point, because Kristy seemed to bond with her step-father-to-be quite easily in the end. I hope there will continue to be real-life blended-family issues in following stories.

The girls are inventive. First, there’s the Babysitter’s Club itself, which is spurred by Kristy herself. Their inventiveness is an historic kind; the girls have already worked out a way of communicating between the houses at night using torches. This is the sort of detail which dates the book, but not in a bad way.

There are other cultural references which set these stories firmly in the 80s, with references to G.I. Joe and Sesame Street, but I’m pretty sure a lot of these childhood icons are still about. At any rate, the cultural shock for a modern kid reading a story from the 1980s would be no more stark than that of a little New Zealand kid reading these same stories back when they were new. I still have no idea what a fudgesicle or a jawbreaker is. (Hello, Internet. Turns out a jawbreaker is a gobstopper. A fudgesicle is a chocolate icecream popsicle.)

“Mary-Ann and I ran home together.” For me this was a lovely scene of two adolescent girls enjoying the last of their childhood. Very soon I expect they will stop running, and become more aware of the expectations of ladyhood. I had a flashback of running along under the covered-way at my own very large high-school when a group of boys older than me yelled something disparaging about the fact that I was running instead of walking. I stopped running after that, having learnt that very day that high school girls do not run. (Also, cool people in general do not run. They don’t even walk. Cool people swagger, and make space on the footpath for no one.)

These 12 year old girls are never late for a job. This is spelled out, and is one example of how Kristy is a good role model for adolescent readers. Via the running of the Babysitters’ Club, readers learn the basics of  business management: how to run meetings, members of a board, dealing with interpersonal issues, in-coming and outgoing expenses… This series would be a good introduction for any kid with aspirations of starting her own small company. A criticism might justifiably be: The teaches our kids to be little capitalists. But then, isn’t that what they’re expected to be? Economically self-sufficient?

Fashion has changed a lot and the descriptions of clothing is entertaining. Claudia is held up as the goddess of fashion with her ‘short, very baggy lavender plaid overalls, a white lacy blouse, a black fedora, and a red high-top sneakers without socks… I felt extremely blah compared to her.’

Claudia’s older sister Janine has an IQ of 196, and is quite an annoying character. I can’t think of many examples in school stories in which the nerdy genius character is female — it’s more often a male trope: ‘Her second best friend is her computer.’

So I only read one, but if the stories continue in that fashion, I would be perfectly happy for my daughter to take a liking to them when she’s older.

RELATED LINKS

The Babysitter’s Club: Idea And Phantom from Beauty And The Armageddon

Graphic Novels Aren’t Just Comic

12 Facts About The Babysitter’s Club from BuzzFeed

The Baby-Sitters Club: The Things You Notice Reading as an Adult from Beauty and the Armageddon

The Babysitter’s Club at TV Tropes

Ann M. Martin is still writing books. (Not Babysitter’s Club books.)

I need to insert an apostrophe. Does that missing apostrophe bother you, too? (It bothers me in the same way that the title Gilmore girls does not capitalise Girls.) Anyhow, there are internet discussions on this.

If you’re into 80s fashion and derive pleasure from learning what the members of the Babysitter’s Club were wearing during their suburban adventures then you might check out Buzzfeed’s Definitive Ranking Of Babysitters Club Cover Outfits (and they even put in an apostrophe for you).

Upside-down Knitting In Picturebook Illustration

School Library Journal (Betsy Bird) posted an article about knitting as depicted in picture books — so often the knitting needles are coming out the top, whereas if you’ve ever knitted in real life you’ll know that the needles come out below the hands.

This is a wonderful observation, and once you’ve noticed it you’ll see it all over the place.

illustration by Takeo Takei

illustration by Takeo Takei, dating from the 1920s, Japan

 

OTHER INSTANCES IN WHICH REALISM IS MODIFIED

Raindrops

There are instances, however, where a realistic portrayal of nature isn’t necessarily warranted. Raindrops are actually round when falling from the sky, but in the collective imagination a raindrop is, well, ‘tear drop’ shaped. Where does the teardrop shape even come from? Probably from the leg of moisture coming off a droplet as seen when running down a surface such as a cheek.

Raindrop

round droplet from Midnight Feast

round droplet from Midnight Feast

See also: Animating A Droplet Of Water

Big Walking Legs

You don’t see this so much in modern books, but it seems children of yesteryear marched everywhere.

weird walking

Manic-Enthusiasm

I can’t find the credit for this image and it may be a pie advertisement for all I know. But we haven’t really seen these facial expressions since the 1970s Ladybird books.

manic enthusiasm

 

Realism In Fiction For Children

WHAT IS REALISM?

There is a spectrum of how real-world a story feels. At one end we have naturalism, all the way through to about ‘speculative realism’, after which we’re in speculative fiction realm:

  1. NATURALISM — This term is often used interchangeably with realism, but if you want to talk about realism as a group of terms, naturalism is at the MOST realistic of these different types of realisms. Basically, any hint of romanticism is completely stripped away. The subject is neither idealised nor flattered. God is also kept out of it. The tone is generally pessimistic. Realism/naturalism emerged in the 1800s. Sometimes the difference between naturalism and realism depends on the subject matter. In realism the main focus is on the middle class and its problems. Naturalism often focuses on poorly educated or lower-class characters, and on themes involving violence and the taboo.
  2. SOCIAL REALISM — ‘Kitchen sink realism’. Draws attention to the middle class and its problems. Use the term ‘social realism’ when you want to be clear that you’re not talking about naturalism.
  3. SURREALISM — Describes the ‘super real’. See this post for more.
  4. MAGICAL REALISM — Lately there is a movement among Latinx people from South America to keep the term magical realism specifically for South American writers using magical realism to write stories about the South American experience of colonisation. The argument is that another word exists which we can use for every thing else — fabulism. While I have some sympathy for this view, the fact is, magical realism did not begin in South America, and there are many reasons for making use of magical realism in storytelling. I am happy to call it fabulism myself. Here is a list of fabulist children’s books. Fabulism is especially popular in literary middle grade fiction, and I’ve noticed literary agents and editors are constantly on the hunt for it, and keep complaining that true examples of magical realism rarely crosses their desk.
  5. ‘DIRTY’ REALISM — This is a concept coined by the Granta Magazine guy, who is actually an American who moved to England. So the term is used in England, whereas Americans might call it ‘minimalism’. Dirty realism describes a specifically North American way of writing in which the author focuses on the seedier, mundane, nasty bits of everyday life. A lot of these writers are white men — Richard Ford, Cormac McCarthy, Carson McCullers, Raymond Carver. But there are also some women. Take Annie Proulx. When you find dirty realism in a short story, it’s often called KMart Realism.
  6. METAPHYSICAL REALISM — There is a reality independent of humans’ conscious perceptions of it. The world is as it is and what humans think of it is irrelevant. If this describes your worldview, here’s your metaphysical realist card.
  7. SPECULATIVE REALISM — Okay, so are we still talking about realism now? This is a term suggested by a guy called Ramón Saldívar (an American professor and author) to describe work which is a hybrid between speculative genres and any of the different levels of realism. In children’s literature, the book American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang is a contender for speculative realism. American Born Chinese is an experiment in discussing minority racial identity through metaphor made possible through genre blending. The experiment leaves us ultimately with a parallel between a monkey god from folklore and a young adult American-born-Chinese in a realistic context. For more on that, see here.

REALISM IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

Bear in mind, children’s literature is a recent form of literature and emerged with the establishment of realism.

Continue reading

Fantasy vs Reality In Children’s Stories: A hard balancing act

Fantasy is the metaphor through which we discover ourselves.

– Susan Cooper

“I think a lot about the fact that, for most of the history of literature that we know about, most literature was fantasy. Up through Shakespeare, it was not looked askance upon to have witches and magic and spirits in your stuff. The more time I spend reading and writing fantasy, the more perverse it seems to me that fiction has to pretend to act like the real world and obey the laws of thermodynamics.”

– Forget why fantasy matters. Why does realism matter? from io9

See Also: Four Techniques To Mix Fantasy With Realism from The Write Practice


 

In some ways, kids like things to be rightHere is a video of a four-year-old girl complaining that the picture of a toy dinosaur is anatomically incorrect. (I’d like to see her do some work with Barbie.) In other ways, kids love to be drawn into fantastic worlds. Picturebook creators tread a fine line between the two expectations.

 

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