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Fabulism In Children’s Literature

FABULISM: WHAT IS IT?

In fabulism, fantastical elements are placed in an everyday setting.

It’s called ‘fabulism’ because authors are playing with realism by making use of elements of fable.

For the definition of a fable, see here.

COMMON FEATURES OF FABULIST FICTION

  • ornate
  • Gothic
  • subjective
  • dream-like
  • surreal
  • emphasis on idea or theme
  • settings in other times, places, but not necessarily “historical”
  • exoticism: the extraordinary over the ordinary, the unusual over the usual.

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter is a collection of fabulist stories.

COMMON FEATURES OF CHILDREN’S FABULIST FICTION

Looking at the marketing copy and reader descriptions of these books a few tropes are common to this category of books often called ‘magical realism’ or ‘fabulist’:

  • The protagonist often has a super power, which as often as not is the flipside of a weakness. Sometimes it’s an original kind of superpower which hasn’t been used by Marvel and you haven’t seen it in fairytales. For example the ability to see words shining above people’s heads.
  • It’s often the sort of magic that lives next door. Or in the kitchen.
  • Moving house is a common introduction to this kind of story. The child used to live in the ordinary world but now the parents have moved them to this island, this rickety house, this dilapidated mansion.
  • Witches/trolls/mermaids etc. exist alongside humans, perhaps living secretly. Their secret lives can be an allegory for some kind of exclusion which happens to groups of people in the real world.
  • Fortune-telling is often a thing.
  • Luck can be a reliable, real thing, influenced by charms and whatnot.
  • Fate is also a thing, but can be thrown off-course by a savvy young protagonist. Related to fate, the moon features large in many fabulist stories.
  • Some stories have a fable/folklore/legend quality to them, taking modern people back to a time when humans really did believe the world was made of magic. There might be some direct link to the ancient past emphasised in the story e.g. finding something ancient or learning something about history in school or perhaps it’s simply working out some family history.
  • Wish fulfilment in these stories is often about getting a bully back using magical powers. Hence, the school or neighbourhood bully is often the villain of the story (rather than say, dragons, in a work of high fantasy). This is the wish-fulfilment of a typical superhero story.
  • Time travel which affects individuals at the personal (friendship/family) level. These kids aren’t out to save the world — they’re trying to subvert personal tragedies and relationship breakups.
  • Serious issues such as drug-use and bullying can be made heartwarming by the injection of fabulism.
  • They’re quite often set in a real-world big city such as L.A., London or New York City, but can also be set in a realistic little town which mimics a real place. Or they might be set in a deliberately magical sounding place with a poetic name.
  • A character may need to keep their magical powers secret, or magic might be a widely accepted part of the natural storyworld. Sometimes only the children know about the magic because the adults are too busy to notice it.
  • The fabulism in children’s books often creates an atmosphere which feels cosy and snug and whimsical.
  • There is often a ‘wise woman’ or a ‘wise man’ or sometimes the child character is wise beyond their years. Other fairytale archetypes can be mapped onto contemporary characters.
  • Fabulism can be a part of any genre — sometimes it’s a mystery, sometimes it’s used to solve a crime, sometimes it’s a story about human relationships.
  • Flying is pretty common.
  • There’s quite a bit of sickness. Recently dead parents, cancer, rashes, and other horrible life journeys which is made a little easier with magic.
  • Fog is popular, too. You never know what lies inside the fog. Could  be anything.
  • Orphans are common too, though orphans are common right throughout children’s literature.
  • In a smalltown setting, fabulist stories are probably full of eccentric characters with strange powers, habits and hobbies. In a children’s book, these adults are probably quite childlike themselves, whereas ‘regular’ adults have forgotten how to be playful and observant.
  • Perhaps the storyworld used to be far more magical than it is now, but something happened and now it’s up to the child character to break the curse or to bring full magic back.

 

fabulism shaun tan

A SHORT LIST OF FABULIST CHILDREN’S BOOKS

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Picturebook Study: The Enormous Crocodile by Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake (1978)

THE PAIRING OF QUENTIN BLAKE AND ROALD DAHL

For those of us who grew up reading Roald Dahl in the 1980s, it’s impossible to separate the author from his enduring illustrator, Quentin Blake. It’s easy to forget that at first Dahl was paired with a few different illustrators before Quentin Blake. (Rosemary Fawcett is one illustrator whose career may have been ruined by Dahl’s dislike of her macabre illustrations, which is a bit rich.) Continue reading

Teachers In Children’s Literature

THE EARLIEST TEACHERS IN STORIES

The teacher archetype is related to the traditional ‘wise old man’ and ‘wise old woman’ archetype seen in many older stories. The teacher is the modern equivalent of these people, dishing out advice to help the protagonist get through the story. Teachers can be mentors, opponents, fake opponents, or very much background characters. In YA, teachers can also be love opponents. Continue reading

Film Study: Carrie (2013)

This is a remake of a 1976 movie based on Stephen King’s 1974 (breakout) novel. Critics don’t like this new one much. The criticism is mostly that it was unnecessary because the first adaptation was so good. The original has a slower, more sinister pace and the main thing the reboot did was to add the social media dimension and some modern SFX. However, this is — unfortunately — a timeless story of high school exclusion and bullying.

PREMISE

A shy girl, outcasted by her peers and sheltered by her religious mother, unleashes telekinetic terror on her small town after being pushed too far at her senior prom. (In the book it’s called the Spring Ball — a lot of the slang/words have been updated.)

DESIGNING PRINCIPLE

Your own powers can be the end of you. Continue reading

Storytelling Notes On A Series Of Unfortunate Events (2017)

The 2017 TV adaptation is a newly darkened version, similar to how Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was darkened with the 2005 film. Count Olaf is the Willy Wonka, of course, surrounded by quirky unpleasant characters plus the odd angelic child and sweet helper adults.

Daniel Handler wrote the teleplay (as well as the books) and his voice and politics come through loud and clear. Handler loves wordplay, and is not shy of delivering a ‘moral lesson’ on the difference between ‘literally’ and ‘figuratively’. Words and their meanings are consistently explained, but because Klaus, at least, already knows what the words mean, the young viewer does not feel condescended to. The joke is almost always on Count Olaf. Handler also has a keen handle on the most common storytelling tropes in children’s literature, and makes fun of them whenever he can. Lemony Snicket is on the side of the child.

In the books the storyteller is hidden from view, but for the television series Lemony Snicket is portrayed in the form of Patrick Warburton, whose formal dress juxtaposes with the humorous positions he is placed in: sitting on a lifesaver’s chair, coming out of a sewerage hole in the middle of the street and so on. See: The Role Of Storytellers In Fiction.

This is the fist scene in which Lemony Snicket tells us to look away. We are put in mind of film noir (which is not a genre by the way, more a stylistic descriptor invented by critics).

The storyteller addresses the camera directly while, quite often, funny things happen in the background. While the characters cannot see him, sort of like a ghost, he is also in mortal danger, narrowly escaping death for instance.

Storyteller as ghostly lifeguard

A Series Of Unfortunate Events is famously metafictive, in which a character called Lemony Snicket warns children that this is going to be a terrible, horrible tale and they’d best turn away. Tongue-in-cheek reverse psychology. This advice is taken to its metaphorical limit in the TV series, in which the theme song advises us to ‘look away, look away!’ Then we have all the eye imagery — the viewfinder views, Count Olaf’s gaze through the peep hole (the first the Baudelaire children see of him), his eye tattoo and so on.

The cinematography of the Netflix TV series seems influenced by the films of Wes Anderson, both in symmetry and in colour. An audience knows to expect quirky from this style, and dark humour. (It was filmed in British Colombia, Canada, and you may recognise an actor or two from Orphan Black.)

Two point perspective as a train rolls past a static camera

The reflection of the old mansion allows the viewer to see both the children’s expressions as well as what they are saying goodbye to.

I’m guessing the clouds have been digitally manufactured in this distinctively storybook scene.

The brother and sister Baudelaire children stand in for ‘The Everychild’. They do not have all that much in the way of personality, aside from being inherently good and kind and well-behaved. There are differences between them — while I read Klaus as an autist, Violet is a comically Pollyanna character, determined to make the most of the situation when she asks Klaus to come across the worst predicament he’s ever encountered in his reading, then concludes they are not so badly off. Again, this is Daniel Handler making fun of the character trope that girls and boys in popular children’s stories are expected to be ‘nice’ and ‘good’. This doesn’t matter — we have Count Olaf for the laughs. In fact, all of the surrounding characters have more quirks and personality than Violet and Klaus, who, like the child audience, are newcomers to the situation and are to be read as ‘normal’.

The baby has magic super powers — she can chew things to pieces, and even create entirely new objects simply by using her four teeth. Her baby language is treated as if it’s an entirely different language, which only her siblings and surprising other characters are able to understand to the exclusion of everyone else. The baby’s words are subtitled in a font from the silent film era.

This storyworld is an example of Magic Realism. It also has steampunk elements, not so different from the Spy Kids series, in which our child heroes are expert at building contraptions. These expertise are first shown as a means of them having fun (retrieving the perfect skimming stone from the ocean), but of course these skills come in handy later, to get themselves out of dire trouble.

“It’s only scary because of the mist,” Klaus says metafictively, as Mr Poe (surely named after the horror writer?) approaches them on the beach to deliver terrible news. See: Fog Symbolism.

“It’s only scary because of the mist.”

A lot of the humour comes from the juxtaposition between the fairytale storyworld and very modern problems. For instance, when Hook-Handed Man ruins an old-fashioned typewriter (because he has hooks for hands) he asks for IT support. When Count Olaf says Violet will be marrying him ‘in an hour’ he upends a giant hourglass which he can’t remember the name of. This is making use of the classic ‘ticking clock’ storytelling device, often used to heighten suspense, but when the timer runs out nothing happens, except for Count Olaf losing face by returning through the trapdoor of the attic to explain that, actually, he bought the thing online and he didn’t know the sand went through so quickly so the children will have to turn it over a few times.

Handler is a master of irony, and there is irony in every scene and in a large proportion of the dialogue. For example, the Baudelaire children are at first taken to Mr Poe’s family — an archetypal cosy house with both parents, full of children and a well-coiffed mother in an apron who at first appears to be the epitome of a caring 1950s housewife.

We soon learn, however, that not all is well in the suburbs and she is in fact unwelcoming, taking obvious and great pleasure in the publicity she is able to garner for her own family via this tragic event.

Later that night, her children ask the Baudelaires how they managed to kill their parents, presumably because they’re hoping to do the same. The following morning we see just how small and ‘cosy’ the Poes’ house really is. Small-minded people live in very small houses — ‘cramped’, more than ‘cosy’, as first suggested by the dining table scene.

 

“I know he’s very eager to meet you and he’s employed as an actor so you know his excitement is genuine.”

This ironic tone pairs very nicely — like a great pair of serif/sans serif fonts — with the fact that much of the dialogue is in fact ‘on the nose’. The plot itself is signposted. While we are busy enjoying the storyworld and humour, we are not expected to work too hard to understand what is going on.

“Chop chop, Baudelaires. Now that I’ve found you a suitable guardian I’m going to take you to your new home before banking hours begin.”

Daniel Handler is firmly on the side of the child audience.

Mr Poe: “I know you must be nervous about living with a guardian. I know how I was when I was your age.”
Klaus: “We’re all different ages.”

The joke is repeated again later when another clueless adult — Count Olaf — talks about how much he loved cupcakes when he was ‘their age’. Again, Klaus repeats, “But we’re all different ages.” As is the child audience. More proof that in Daniel Handler’s writer’s mind, the Baudelaire children stand for The Audience In General. Also, we are not to believe adults who use the annoying phrase, “When I was your age”.

When Klaus expresses dismay at Count Olaf’s having a tattoo of an eye on his ankle (not to mention all the obvious eyeball paraphernalia about the house), the very reasonable and politically correct Violet advises her brother, as well as the audience, that tattoos are simply a decorative pigmentation of the skin and do not mean the person wearing them is bad. This stands in stark contrast with much characterisation from The First Golden Age Of Children’s Literature in particular, in which we were actively encouraged to judge baddies based on what they look like.

A mystery is introduced when the children find a strange object hidden in the rubble of their family home.

Cinderella is the ur-tale behind A Series Of Unfortunate Events. We have poor orphans who have lost their caring and excellent real parents and who are sent to live in a big house which is emotionally bereft. They are forced to endure terrible hardships, though not of the realworld kind — that would be too cruel and not at all for children — cleaning and scrubbing and cooking and always failing to win approval. Basically an exaggerated form of how generally-cared-for children feel when they’re feeling a bit sorry for themselves.

The parents are not actually dead. We are reassured of this at the end of the first episode.

Why is it not more tragic that the parents (apparently) die in a terrible fire right at the beginning of the story? Because we don’t know the parents. The history of children’s literature (particularly American children’s literature) is chock full of orphans. If we don’t get to know them, their deaths are not sad per se, rather the plight of the children is the sad thing. See: Why So Many Orphans In Children’s Literature?

The dark, empty mansion belonging to Count Olaf is contrasted with the inverse living right across the road — Justice Strauss who is not the slightest bit evil, has a garden full of blossoms, a beautiful big library and is a very caring person. Extreme evil against extreme nice. Comic characters are often 2D and that’s just fine. These are dream houses, to use the terminology of Gaston Bachelard, so of course they have stairs, basements and attics. See: Symbolism Of The Dream House.

This is all we see of the Baudelaire children’s house before it is razed to the ground — a wonderful, warm library (and no parents in sight).

When the camera pans from Justice Strauss’s house to Count Olaf’s gothic mansion the camera follows a blue bird flying happily. Unfortunately, in the middle of the street, a raven swoops down and kills it. A raven in storytelling probably puts you in mind of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, among many others. The raven is a metaphor for death, understood by young audiences and jaded ones alike.

Blue bird, and blue sky on the sunny side of the street.

Raven swoops in front of Count Olaf’s mansion

Count Olaf himself is birdlike, watching the children from his bird’s eye view in the belfry.

Count Olaf ‘welcomes’ the children to his home.

It’s such a shame the Baudelaire children can’t live with Justice Strauss, and we are made to feel it keenly. This regret is underscored by her declaration that she’s just bought a new food processor, but who does she think she’s kidding because “I have no mechanical skills whatsoever”. Since we already know the children are expert mechanics, they would obviously be a great fit. Moreover, she has no way of cutting up the baguette, which the baby is excellent at doing with her teeth.

meeting Justice Strauss

RELATED

Performative Metafiction: Lemony Snicket, Daniel Handler and The End of A Series of Unfortunate Events

Symbolism Of The River In Storytelling

The Power Of Nature

The flow of a river is a force outside human control (at least, before the days of civil engineering). Crossing a river is unexpectedly treacherous. It’s a common way for trampers (hikers) to die in my home country of New Zealand. Rivers rise suddenly and without warning.

Roald Dahl created Wonka’s factory as a symbolic forest. Sitting mysteriously just outside Charlie’s town, nobody is able to penetrate this forest and get past the mighty beast. This metaphorical forest, we discover, is full of all the perils of a fairytale forest — poisonous berries, tests to see if you’re good or bad, dangerous creatures and a treacherous (chocolate) river.

Augustus is at the mercy of his own natural greed and is killed by the river.

charlie-chocolate-factory-river

Scene from the 1970s film adaptation of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory

An opponent can be defeated by throwing him/her into the river.

wolf-falls-into-river

 

In a comedic journey the danger of a river can be inverted. In The Big Honey Hunt a father and son hide in safety from a swarm of angry bees whose honey they are trying to plunder.

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Symbol Of Fertility

In ‘hygge‘ picturebooks there will probably be a gentle river nearby.

Note the grassy roof. Illustration from Martha B. Rabbit and the Unexpected Guests by Shirley Barber, an expert in hygge

Note the grassy roof and the background river. Illustration from Martha B. Rabbit and the Unexpected Guests by Shirley Barber, an expert in hygge

In cosy stories, even winter rivers are for having fun

In cosy stories, even winter rivers are for having fun

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Iced-over rivers still provide sustenance.

Here we have an Australian picnic scene. Even in the dry landscape of Australia, a river is necessary for a truly cosy outdoors scene.

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A Metaphor For Time

 There comes a time in every comedic adventure when the picturebook writer must indicate that a whole heap of other things happened/a whole heap of time passed and EVENTUALLY… Here we have a scene from The Big Honey Hunt by Stanley and Janice Berenstain in which father and son go on a fruitless honey-collecting mission. The river symbolises time, as reinforced by the text.
the-big-honey-hunt-river-symbolism_1000x724

Life Itself

In literature as in life, cities and towns often spring up on riverbanks, seemingly brought to life by the river’s movement. The source of the river, typically small mountain streams, depicts the beginnings of life and its meeting with the ocean symbolises the end of life.

The river is one of my favourite metaphors, the symbol of the great flow of Life itself. The river begins at Source, and returns to Source, unerringly. This happens every single time, without exception. We are no different.
– Jeffrey R. Anderson, from The Nature of Things: Navigating Everyday Life with Grace (Balboa Press, 2012)
the-hobbit-river

River as ‘journey of life/character arc’ in The Hobbit

In The Story About Ping the river has various meanings but most of all this is the story of one duck’s mythic journey towards death and back again. The river as character arc.

the-story-about-ping

River As Boundary

The river is a sign of boundaries and of roadways.

the-river-between-us

During the early days of the Civil War, the Pruitt family takes in two mysterious young ladies who have fled New Orleans to come north to Illinois.

(Roads snaking through a landscape work in the same way.)

Path as river in I Had Trouble Getting To Solla Sollew

Path as river in I Had Trouble Getting To Solla Sollew

As a boundary, the river is sometimes used to show the difference between civilisation and those outside it.

i-had-trouble-in-getting-to-solla-sollew-river

The river  has also been used as a symbolic passageway into the heart of the jungle and as a descent into the primitive nature of humanity. (Especially The Amazon and The Congo.)

Sent in 1910 to live with distant relatives who own a rubber plantation along the Amazon River, English orphan Maia is excited.

Sent in 1910 to live with distant relatives who own a rubber plantation along the Amazon River, English orphan Maia is excited.

Tintin In The Congo

Tintin In The Congo

Slut Shaming In The Fantastic Mr Fox Film

The dialogue is fast paced and I suppose an audience too young to get the jokes are also too young to follow fast dialogue.

But there’s a big question  mark hanging over that assumption.

It somehow looks more disturbing written down:

fantastic-mr-fox-movie-slut-shaming

Roald Dahl: The Man Behind The Books

I remember the day Roald Dahl died. I was in Year 7. I remember sitting at my desk, and where that desk was positioned in the classroom, thinking about how Roald Dahl had died.

Lots more important historical figures died during the 80s and 90s but I don’t remember many of those days. But everyone of a certain age remembers where they were when they heard Roald Dahl had died. Amirite?

Politically correct parents can try force feeding their kids with sugary tales but as Roald Dahl knew – what really excites a child’s appetite is the grotesque, the subversive, and the sinister.

– Christopher  Hitchens

Here, Hitchens uses the term ‘politically correct’ as an insult. I have found as I head into middle age that the people who use this term as an insult often wish for an earlier time where they didn’t have to watch what they said. These people are disproportionately heterosexual, able-bodied white men.

Something tells me Roald Dahl would have also found the term ‘politically correct’ quite revolting. What would he have been like to sit next to at a dinner party, I have wondered.

Now that The BFG has had a remake, Roald Dahl is having a bit of a comeback moment, though he never really went away. This is also the year Jeremy Treglown published a biography about Roald Dahl, which you might consider skipping if you’ve read Boy and Going Solo, but I don’t recommend that. At least, I don’t recommend skipping the ‘real story’ of Dahl unless you don’t want your childhood favourites cast in a new light. As for me, I’ve already grown a little world weary and more than a little suss about some of the messages in Dahl’s books, and I say that even as a childhood fan.

Roald Dahl Jeremy Treglown

NOTES FROM ‘ROALD DAHL’ BY JEREMY TREGLOWN

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What Happened To Rosemary Fawcett?

Dirty Beasts cover Rosemary Fawcett

Roald Dahl’s work wasn’t always illustrated by Quentin Blake.

Dirty Beasts, for example, was originally illustrated by a young woman new to the field, Rosemary Fawcett. The edition she illustrated is now out of print. Jeremy Treglown explains the story in his biography of Roald Dahl:

To one British critic, Russell Davies, “the buzz of misanthropy from Roald Dahl grows stronger.” Candida Lycett Green [another British children’s author] rightly said there was nothing new about this mood: she saw the first poem, in which a pig forestalls its destiny by turning on the farmer and eating him, as a version of the macabre, much earlier story “Pig”, in which a boy brought up as a vegetarian ends up in an abattoir. She thought that Dahl’s imagination was well illustrated by Rosemary Fawcett: “The nastiness of her pictures is exceptional.” This was meant as a compliment, but not everyone saw things this way. There couldn’t be a bigger contrast than between Quentin Blake’s benignly funny sketches and the giddying, lurid, surrealistic images Rosemary Fawcett produced. Her cover picture sets the tone: a child in bed with a teddy bear, both of them bug-eyed with terror at the sight of something positioned above and behind the viewer’s head. It is the perspective that is often most violent in these images–that, and the colors. For “The Tummy Beast,” Fawcett threw the greedy child over so that he is somehow flying, upside down, all chubby knees and protruding eyeballs, beneath a gaudy tableful of purple and mauve blacmanges and ice creams. And in “The Porcupine” the reader is made to peer, as if through a keyhole, onto a murky scene, lit by a single lamp, in which a goggling dentist waves his gigantic pointed pincers over the little girl’s much spiked rump.

Fawcett does more than justice to Dahl’s ferocity, but not to his humor or his underlying traditionalism. Dahl himself hated the drawings. He said he couldn’t face giving the book to any of his relations and offered to incinerate all the unsold copies and dance around the bonfire. Many of the British reviews warned that Fawcett’s pictures would give children nightmares, and this was the general opinion in the States, where the children’s librarians were in full squeamish cry: “Sadistic, predictable and unfunny”; “From stem to stern this is a gross, course [sic] unpleasant book.” The edition didn’t sell badly in Britain, but although, according to Murray Pollinger, Tom Maschler swore by Fawcett’s work, the illustrations were unpopular with Continental publishers. Revolting Rhymes, meanwhile, had sold over 100,000 copies in Britain alone. So Fawcett’s Dirty Beasts was eventually allowed to go out of print, and Quentin Blake was brought back in for the new edition.

 

There’s no doubt about it; they wanted a young woman because she was cheap. Blake was already fetching good money and had a good job as an illustration lecturer. Also in those days — even more than today — men were paid more than women for the same work.

dirtybeasts11

I’m sad to find very little about Rosemary Fawcett on the Internet these days, which may mean, sadly, that when her illustrations were completely replaced by those of Quentin Blake, she may have become too dispirited to pursue in the picturebook industry. (I know that’s how I would have felt, at least for a while.) I can’t find another work illustrated by a Rosemary Fawcett.

Or perhaps she got married and continued an ‘illustrious’ career under another name? This is something I’d love to know. What happened to the talented Rosemary Fawcett, whose wonderful work was ill-suited to Dahl’s creepy rhymes through no fault of her own?

dirtybeastsRosemary Fawcett dirtybeastsRosemary Fawcett02 dirtybeastsRosemary Fawcett03

Dirty_Beasts_Rosemary Fawcett

Gross-out Books

What Are Gross-out Books?

Gross-out books are frequently classed as ‘trash‘ and rarely win the big awards, perhaps partly because they sell so well.

Gross-out books fall into the category of ‘carnivalesque’. In academic terms, these gross-out books might be called ‘carnivalesque-grotesque’.

Carnivalesque-grotesque narratives directly address the personal and sociocultural anxieties induced by knowledge of the vulnerability of both the individual and the social bodies. Vulgar, obscene and taboo-breaking forms of comedy in popular culture are neither a modern nor a culturally specific phenomenon. The presence of groteque humour has been noted in youth culture, in particular, for at least the last few hundred years.

Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

Howard Suber dates such stories from a much earlier time:

[Gross-out humour is] a tradition that goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks. In Greek theatrical celebrations, there would be a cycle of three tragedies, followed by a satyr play or other comedy in which fart jokes, feces-throwing, giant erections, and bosoms were all incorporated in a way that would make any fourteen-year-old male die with laughter. […] While lots of tragedies were preserved, hardly any complete raunchy Greek comedies survive to this day. Even Aristotle’s book on comedy, which was the companion to his work on tragedy, was allowed to disappear from the face of the earth.

— Howard Suber, The Power of Film

Daniel then says that Bakhtin’s work has revealed the use-value of grotesque texts for medieval and Renaissance popular culture and Maria Tatar backed this up. In short, gross-out humour crosses time and culture. Why is it popular today?

The continuing appeal of this type of narrative attests tot he problematic cultural construction of body functions and fluids as abject and disgusting, the importance of the inside/outside dualism in both individual and social psyches, and the psychological and social need to overcome abjection in order that society can function normally.

— Daniel

The Aldi Revolting Rhymes Controversy

revolting rhymes

If you were a child reader in the eighties perhaps you remember this book with this cover — I was also gifted the sequel, Dirty Beasts and derived much enjoyment from both books at about age 8. I have clear memories of reading these poems to me parents, who laughed and laughed, and I felt so much pride at my performance it was as if I’d crafted these poems myself. That said, I was always a little wary of them. In one of the poems one of the young heroines ‘pulls a pistol from her knickers’ and I remember that line perplexed me: What is the obsession with little girls’ knickers? I wondered. Why are girls’ knickers more inherently funny than boys’ underpants, which are never mentioned? I wasn’t able to put it into words, but I was certainly aware of feminist issues even as an eight-year-old girl. The answer of course, to my unasked question: Girls’ knickers are more funny because girls are taught more body shame, so by exposing a female’s under garments you are exposing her basic humanity and opening her up as vulnerable and powerless, despite everything else she has achieved. This is actually the stuff that underpins rape culture.

Much more recently Aldi Australia offered Revolting Rhymes as a weekly special buy and parents about my age flocked to the store and bought this classic for their own children, only to get home and realise that culture has changed a bit since the 80s, and some weren’t too happy about the word ‘slut’, which has changed irreversibly in meaning. (Did people in the 80s still remember its original meaning though — in which slut refers to a slovenly woman who can’t keep the house clean?)

There was of course the usual backlash against Aldi after they made the decision to stop selling the books, with consumers criticising ‘censorship’ from do-gooders.

In truth, the word ‘slut’ is representative of the much wider gender problems in this particular gross-out books, and even modern gross-out books have their issues.

Carolyn Daniel points out in her academic work Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature that gross-out books are written for children, especially boys, and writing about bums is almost licence to print money. I think this is rather overstating the case — if you’ve ever read a really bad example of a gross-out book, written by someone who thinks that all you have to do is write a whole heap of the most disgusting stuff you can imagine, you’ll see that the best-selling gross-out books do still have plots, and plots are never easy no matter the genre, otherwise everyone would be a bestseller.

Since Daniel’s criticism was published (2006) she would not be surprised to see the continuing success of the Andy Griffiths series The Day My Bum Went Psycho, which I have to admit, is surprisingly clever as a spoof given the title. Until I picked it up I wondered how on earth it was possible to write an entire novel that could live up to the cover image:

The Day My Bum Went Psycho

It’s even a TV series now. The book is basically a spoof of a war story, and manages dual audience humour, which only readers familiar with war story tropes would understand. I’m no fan of the book myself, and my daughter lost interest, but I can see the appeal. As  you can see, I’m one of the conflicted.

Have We Made Up Our Minds About These Books? Really?

The Andy Griffiths books are probably found on the shelves of every public Australian school library. So a friend of mine was confused when her then six-year-old daughter, having just finished reading The Day My Bum Went Psycho, get into big trouble — along with a group of friends — when they were taken to the computer lab for research and did a google search for ‘worlds biggest bum’. It seems we’re all a bit confused about what is okay and isn’t okay for kids. “Oh no! They’re googling bums! Butt it’s okay, everyone’s got a bum…Bums are perfectly natural But what if the parents find out about this and we get into serious trouble! Also, Andy Griffiths! And at least the boys are reading something.”

Attitudes To Gross-out Books

One popular argument: As long as my boys (in particular) are reading, I don’t care what they’re reading.

Addendum: If kids are enjoying reading it must be good for them, both for their emotional health and for their decoding skills. Also, reading trash is a gateway to reading good literature when they get round to it.

A counter argument: Funny, light, popular books can still be harmful. Reading bad books is perhaps even worse than watching a lot of high-quality TV.

I’m inclined to go with the latter, not because I think kids are already gross enough and don’t need bad behaviour encouraged (I don’t believe it works like that) but because the messages under the surface are actually more powerful than the top layer of story. This is exactly why all the award winning books are heavy on metaphor.

Are There Good Things To Come Out Of Gross-out Books?

Can the grotesque images in carnivalesque texts contain any subversive potential at all? According to Kristeva they can: such narratives are able to “lay bare, under the cunning, orderly surface of civilizations, the nurturing horror that [socio-cultural systems] attend to pushing aside by purifying, systematizing, and thinking.” In other words, for children, carnivalesque-grotesque material can reveal what adults are trying to suppress and it makes a move toward deconstructing sociocultural systems and laying bare their values.
— Daniel

Problems With Gross-out Books

However:

what these narratives do not reveal is the underlying misogynistic discourse that form the basis for such systems and values and, in fact, I think they may work (perhaps through the jouissance they evoke) to normalize such discourses.

— Daniel

Daniel uses Fungus the Bogeyman as an example, but this is not a book I’d like to delve too deeply into because my adult self is easily repulsed by such stories.

Bakhtin also thinks the problem with subversive humour is that at first glance it’s all ‘Look how subversive and transgressive we are’, but when you look a little more closely it’s all about preserving the social norm.

These stories are actually pretty moralistic:

Laughter itself…arguably stems from a culturally derived sense of humor and grotesque humor is, therefore, a licensed affair. … there are norms that define what is funny, that determine the “domain of the laughable and ridiculous.” These norms…demand that “mockery take such a form that it reveals its limits and thereby pays homage to that which is mocked.” … one of the most important functions of the carnivalesque children’s text is its didacticism, confirming through a dialectic of high and low aesthetics what is considered eternal and transcendent and what is temporal and material. Children’s carnivalesque texts are … transgressive of such things as social authority [and] received paradigms of behaviour and morality but by transgressing them they also confirm them.Carnivalesque texts, by breaking boundaries, explore where they properly lie.”

— Davies

And misogynistic:

It is vital to clarify that sociocultural taboos exist because of social and psychological fears concerning the abject/grotesque functions of the body. The fears exist because of misogynist individualistic cultural discourses that define the abject. These discourses define the abject as as an intrinsically maternal/feminized concept. The ability to recognize the abject is … “a condition of individual needs to recognize the abject and to suppress it, to achieve repressed or unspeakable condition. However, while the abject can be recognized and suppressed, it cannot ever be fully obliterated, but always “hovers at the borders of our existence, threatening the apparently settled unity of the subject with disruption and possible dissolution. … Grotesque narratives…work conservatively to justify the taboo status of the abject and to confirm the otherness of the maternal/female body. They are not, therefore, radically transgressive/subversive but, rather, serve patriarchal hegemonic interests.

— Daniel

Obviously, with an abstract passage like that, you need some examples.

Goldilocks Dahl

Returning to Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes, Daniel takes Dahl’s version of Goldilocks (click for full version) as an example:

The language used in grotesque narratives for children is generally not coarse and abusive (unlike their own texts) because it is written and licensed by adults. Stories written for them in these genres often contain language that might be categorized as within the realms of mild taboo, designed to titillate, rather than shock. The language itself reinforces adult authority–children all know plenty of abusive language (as their play-rhymes clearly show) but its very absence from their literature didactically reinforces the taboo. Roald Dahl directly refers to this in his version of “Goldilocks” in which the little girl, he suggests, is a less than pleasant character. She has just sat upon and broken baby bear’s chair:

A nice girl would at once exclaim
“Oh dear! Oh heavens! What a shame.”
Not Goldilocks, she begins to swear
She bellows, “What a lousy chair.”
And used one disgusting word
That luckily you’ve never heard
(I dare not write it, even hint it
Nobody would ever print it)

It is interesting to note Dahl’s judgement upon that “nice girls” say and to see how he frames his protagonist by implying that her abusive language is so foul that it is unprintable. She is therefore definitely not a nice girl and is deemed to be abject. The readers are nice, however, because Dahl tells them that they have “never heard” the offending word. As the word is not mentioned this is a pretty safe bet. The text explicitly and implicitly signals suitable language for children’s use. Carnivalesque texts for children often include playful intrusion by the narrator as Dahl’s does. This draws attention to the social forces which…determine the relationship between signs and things, reinforcing what is socially desirable with regard to cultural and linguistic mores. Furthermore, the reader is thus suddenly and deliberately situated outside the text, by the narrator’s intrusion, and so is discouraged from empathizing with the protagonist. Indeed, the reader is encouraged to disapprove of Goldie’s language, to take the culturally legitimate stance, to be mildly amused but also shocked, to be be ultimately disapproving and condemning. Dahl uses the technique again to condemn Goldilocks, once more reinforcing the condemnation with mention of the abject. Goldilocks has climbed into baby bear’s bed with her shoes on:

Most educated people choose
To rid themselves of socks and shoes
Before they clamber into bed
But Goldie didn’t give a shred
Her filthy shoes were thick with grime
And mud and mush and slush and slime
Worse still, upon the heel of one
Was something that a dog had done

I say once more, what would you think
If all this horrid dirt and stink
Was smeared upon your eiderdown
By this revolting little clown

Here the narrator directly addresses readers and seeks their opinion (“what would you think?”). In employing this tactic, Dahl further distances readers from Goldilocks, refusing to allow identification with and implicitly condemning her activity and power. Dahl’s work is openly didactic, reinforcing his personal notions of appropriate behavior for girls. This is cleverly achieved through his undoubted wit, word play, and by stretching the limits of the taboos he is ultimately reinforcing.

— Daniels

It’s important to add that this is just one example of the misogyny that runs right through the gross-out category of books for children. Think of the short stories of Paul Jennings and count the number of female characters. When you do find female characters in gross-out books, what are they doing? Are they breaking stereotypically female roles or are they transgressing them.

Undone cover 1

R.L. Stine uses visceral descriptions in his books for a middle grade audience. Who does the shrieking and who does the saving in the R.L. Stine books? Are girls punished for becoming powerful and active saviours?

H234_SCH_GB11Haunted_0.tif

H234_SCH_GB11Haunted_0.tif

The One Big Lie Per Story

I have a theory that the more transgressive children’s stories are in the gross-out sense, the more carefully they stick to stereotypically gender roles. I’ve certainly seen this at work in movies, and it applies equally to the most mind-bending sci-fi and fantasy. It’s almost as if there’s a rule of writing: The more the audience is expected to travel on a highly imaginative journey, the more closely authors stick to a 1950s version of society — expecting readers to imagine both a completely different planet and one in which women are not cooking everyone’s breakfast is almost too much to expect.

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