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Tag: terminology

Types Of Literary Shadowing

These literary devices are all ways of displacing the idea of temporal linearity in fiction. In other words: Authors don’t always want readers to assume that in stories time moves forward in a straight/simplistic way, or that everything ties up nicely.



A literary device in which an author drops subtle hints about plot developments to come later in the story.

Compare with ‘telegraphing’, which is basically foreshadowing done in an overly heavy-handed way. In this case, the readers are able to predict what is about to happen, even though the author doesn’t want them to.

We find instances of foreshadowing in literature where we would not suspect it in real life, because nothing in a story lacks a purpose, or it wouldn’t be there. (See Chekov’s Gun.) Events in real life cannot be foreshadowed. This makes foreshadowing a specifically literary construction.

Foreshadowing is visible only to the reader, not the characters.

In picture books, foreshadowing can happen in the illustrations. For example, the drawing of the Wild Thing at the bottom of the stairs in Where The Wild Things Are. Upon second reading, the reader knows that Max has been creating these wild things in his imagination.

max dog


What is foreshadowing used for?

Foreshadowing gives the feeling that everything in a story is ‘tied-together’, and provides a sense of closure and satisfaction at the end of a story or scene. This technique helps avoid the feeling of deus ex machina, which is the feeling that something has suddenly swooped in to save the day (originally God, and in children’s literature, notoriously, an adult).

Foreshadowing provides the re-reader with extra insight.

Foreshadowing can add dramatic tension by building anticipation about future events. It can also help build a creepy/suspenseful atmosphere.

When added up, the details of foreshadowing can help the reader with verisimilitude, which is ironic, since foreshadowing doesn’t really happen in real life.



What is backshadowing?

Backshadowing is the technique of inserting commentary into the present narrative that refers to earlier narrative events. For example, a child living in present-day Germany discovers that she is a descendent of a war criminal. In order for such a story to make sense, the reader has to know something about Germany and the world wars.

Backshadowing is visible to readers as well as to characters — everyone knows what happened, and the story rests upon this shared schema.


What is backshadowing used for?

Many historians and writers of historical fiction employ backshadowing of real-world historical events because the reader already has a schema. For example, the holocaust might be used as a setting in a romance novel to allow the writer to spend time on the characters and plot.  This can be problematic.

In his book Foregone Conclusions: Against Apocalyptic History, author Michael Bernstein criticises authors who use their own and their audience’s knowledge of an apocalyptic event which occurs after the epoch about which they are writing to interpret the actions of their real or imaginary characters. Bernstein’s problem with backshadowing is that it encourages a reader to believe in determinism — that whatever happened in the past lead inevitably to the present we know.


Foregone Conclusions

The term backshadowing was coined by Bernstein

Another use of the term backshadowing: When describing the technique of starting a story with its ending, then shifting back to the beginning with the reader in full knowledge of the outcome but no idea how it all happened. This allows the writer to use a climactic event as a hook, drawing the reader in immediately with the promise that something big and interesting happens. It’s a subcategory of a flashback. In this case, the character is likely to interpret his/her own current (fictional) reality according to whatever happened in the past. In first person narratives where the character is the storyteller, the very act of storytelling becomes the main focus rather than the events themselves — the narrator’s main role is ‘artist’. (See The Role Of Storytellers in Fiction).

Related to ‘backshadowing’ is the bias ‘chronocentrism’, which is the natural human tendency to see one’s own time/era/generation as more special than others.



What is sideshadowing?

A character or narrator posits a series of possible events which never have any consequences in the story.

What is sideshadowing used for?

Sideshadowing draws attention to the possibility that other paths could have been taken. Sideshadowing suggests to a reader that one must grasp what else might have happened in order to fully understand an event. The technique suggests to readers that time is not a line but a shifting set of possibilities. Sideshadowing suggests that nothing can be wrapped up neatly, if at all.

In other words, sideshadowing is used to give a contrasting illumination to the ‘real’ event.

While foreshadowing makes the present and future seem inevitable, sideshadowing emphasises the contingency of the present.

Sideshadowing points outside the narrative, deliberately suggesting to the reader that more things might be going on than what’s expressed in the narrative.

See a longer definition at The Literary Lab.

In children’s literature, an example of sideshadowing can be found in Johnny, My Friend:

Let’s turn the clock back, Johnny! […] We’ll take the Alternative where […] you can have a home, Johnny, not just a bit of a smelly monster’s den, and a name, Johnny, you can have an English mum and a Swedish dad and a French sister, and me as a brother, and regular pocket money […]

This is a character visualising a series of alternative events that never happened in the story. (See Maria Nikolajeva’s From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature.)

Lionel Shriver constructs an entire plot around sideshadowing in several of her novels.

Big Brother Shriver


Post Birthday World cover

Chekov was a fan of sideshadowing in his short stories.

In Russia, Dostoyevsky was no stranger to sideshadowing, either. Might be a Russian thing, because Tolstoy does it too.


Narrative and Freedom

Morson created the term sideshadowing.

Paralepsis in Children’s Literature

Paralepsis*: (Faux) Omission.

Paralepsis refers to the rhetorical 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.

Donald Trump Bette Midler

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

The main feature of time fantasy is time distortion. Most often this is expressed narratively by primary time standing still (one kind of paralepsis).


  • 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




E Nesbit Trilogy

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

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.


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



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


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 is also spelt paralipsis.


The Carnivalesque in Children’s Literature

Pippi Longstocking, Swedish favourite, is the ultimate carnivalesque character.

Pippi Longstocking, Swedish favourite, is the ultimate carnivalesque character.

In a carnivalesque story, the lowest in societal hierarchy — in the medieval carnival a fool, in children’s books a child — is allowed to change places with the highest: a king, or an adult, and to become strong, rich, and brave, to perform heroic deeds, to have power.


The necessary condition of carnival is the reestablishment of the original order, that is, return to normal life. Carnival is always a temporary, transitional phenomenon–so is childhood. Like the carnivalesque fool, the child can temporarily, by means of magic or his own imagination, become strong, beautiful, wise, learn to fly, trick the adults, and win over enemies. The end of carnival means return to the everyday, but the purpose of carnival is not only entertainment, but a rehearsal of a future moral and psychological transformation.

– Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time In Children’s Literature

A ‘carnivalesque’ text is a kind of book form children in which the child characters interrogate the normal subject positions created for children within socially dominant ideological frames.

Carnival in children’s literature:

  • is playful
  • is non-conforming
  • opposes authoritarianism and seriousness
  • is often manifested as a parody of prevailing literary forms and genres
  • often has idiomatic discourse
  • is often rich in language which mocks authority, even though swearing is taboo in children’s literature (for example Dahl’s use of ‘pulled a pistol from her knickers’)
  • often stars a hero who is a bit of a clown or a fool

Carnivalesque texts for children can be divided into 3 types:

1. Those which offer the characters ‘time out’ from the habitual constraints of society but incorporate a safe return to social normality (of which Where The Wild Things Are is one such example). Adults tend to be not present to intervene.

2. Those which strive through simple mockery to dismantle socially received ideas and replace them with their opposite, privileging weakness over strength (Babette Cole’s Prince Cinders, Anthony Browne’s Willy The Wimp)

3. Those which are more recent, and perhaps British in origin, consist of books which are endemically subversive of such things as social authority, received paradigms of behaviour and morality, and major literary genres associated with children’s literature (Out Of The Oven by Jan Mark and Anthony Maitland, Wagstaffe the Wind-up Boy by Jan Needle).




Where The Wild Things Are is [the first kind of carnivalesque text in three important ways: Max’s behaviour is oppositional to normal socializing expectations; the ‘wild things’ in the illustrations are grotesques, and thus in essence parodies of the natural creatures usually encountered during a wilderness adventure; and the book clearly belongs to the ‘time out’ group, in that Max’s adventure is formally a parenthesis in his relationship with his mother. Roger H. Ford (1979) has suggested that the main characters in several of Sendak’s books are modelled on the folk-tale Trickster figure, dominated by selfish appetites and emotions, given to practical jokes, capable of heroism and generally unselfconscious. Max’s entry into the land of the wild things, whether we regard it as a dream or an act of the imagination, enables him to enjoy a time of unconcerned spontaneity free of the social constraints which define his behaviours in the world as ‘mischief’. Max’s attempt to construct a site for fantasy play in the opening illustration involves causing damage to property, as is foregrounded by the grossly oversized hammer with which he attempts to drive a huge nail into the wall. His second act of mischief is to attack the family dog with a kitchen fork, an actual breach of proper conduct going beyond the quasi-‘hanging’ of his teddy bear included in the first illustration. Max, then, still deeply immersed in the solipsism of childhood, has not yet learnt the first principle of freedom–that freedom of action is bounded by the rights of others. Carnivalesque texts, by breaching those boundaries, explore where they properly lie and the ideological bases for their determination, but without always necessarily redrawing those boundaries…The grotesque in this book is comic and droll rather than frightening, though this was not always perceived when the book was first published. …By giving comically grotesque forms to inner fears, the illustrations image the defeat of that fear. Moreover, Max is always in control. Swanton (1971) offers this as one reason why children do not find the book frightening.

Language and Ideology in Children’s Fiction by John Stephens

Stephens explains that the carnivalesque story is used not to question the values of the official world (that children being rude to their mothers needs to go punished before they are allowed to eat dinner), but to ‘define the values which may be at most implicit in some of the puzzling actions performed by those in power. In this respect, it is important to see that Max’s return and his mother’s gift of ‘supper’ are not causally linked but contiguous, since each is unconditional.’ Other authors of the era were writing quite different stories re parent/child power. For example, Nesbit. Stephens points out that modern books are not necessarily any better than Nesbits were, in that regard.


Curious George Show Me The Monkey

cat in the hat


Bugs Bunny

Plot is not ‘what happens next’. It makes sense that writers would think this, because that’s really how we describe ‘story’ but if you think that way you won’t create a good plot. […] Plot is an intricate choreography of actions by the hero and the opponents designed to surprise the audience.

– From The Anatomy of Story by John Truby


Story is the chronological series of incidents that make up a narrative. Story is much larger than plot. Story is all of the subsystems of the story body working together: premise, character, moral argument, world, symbol, plot, scene and dialogue. Story is a “many-faceted complex of form and meaning in which the line of narrative [plot] is only one amongst many aspects.”


Plot is the under-the-surface weaving of various lines of action or sets of events so that the story builds steadily from the beginning through the middle to the end. More particularly, plot tracks the intricate dance between the hero and all of his opponents as they fight for the same goal. It is a combination of what happens and how those events are revealed to the audience.

The ordered narration of those events, but that order isn’t necessarily chronological. The plot controls the way ini which the questions readers ask about the story are answered, what information is given immediately and what information is deferred. As well as altering  the order of the events in the story, a plot can manipulate the story by the duration of events–the amount of attention it gives to particular events–and by the frequency of events–the number of times it tells about them. Plots are made up of summaries and scenes. A summary might condense five months into a paragraph. A scene might cover five pages.

In other words, story is the chronological order readers discover when they ask “what happened next”?  And plot is the order readers experience when they pay attention to what happens next as they read.

Suspense is what you call the tension between discovering the story and experiencing the plot?

Not all stories have plots. Plots are highly encouraged if you’re writing for a wide audience, but as Michael Foley writes in his book The Age of Absurdity, stories with plots have a downside:

Plots are effective–everyone wants to know what happens next–but the denouement of plot-driven novels is often implausible and disappointing. Is that all it was? This is because there are no plots in real life — only a complex web of continuum and connexity — so the reader has the unpleasant sensation of having been conned. And plots are instantly forgettable. Try explaining the plot of the thriller you read only last week. The pleasure of plot is all expectation and sensation, illusory and short-lived, so plot-driven novels leave no residue of beauty. Whereas a novel that reproduces the texture and feeling of life will be harder to read, but provide richer satisfactions and live longer in the memory. The bad news is that such novels are rare. Proust and Joyce showed how to succeed triumphantly without plot but this lesson has been forgotten by the age of potential. It is common now for reviewers to rate novels as ‘well-plotted’ or ‘poorly plotted’, as though plot is an essential feature, and to express astonishment and consternation at the absence of plot.


Words Academics Are Using To Describe Book Apps

Mostly from the papers:

Engineering stories? A narratological approach to children’s book apps

Multimedia book apps in a contemporary culture: commerce and innovation, continuity and rupture



Short for application software: Software designed to accomplish specific user tasks (in contrast to “system software”).


While e-books are single files that require specific software (e-reader software), apps (being software) run by themselves.

Multimodal Narrative

A digital story is defined as a ‘multimodal narrative’ text comprising  pictures, music, speech, sound and script.


Whereas books are ‘adapted’ for screen, books are ‘remediated’ as apps.

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Differences Between Writing For Children and Adults

“I do not believe that I have ever written a children’s book,” the great Maurice Sendak once said in an interview“I don’t write for children,” he told Colbert“I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’” This sentiment — the idea that designating certain types of literature as “children’s” is a choice entirely arbitrary and entirely made by adults — has since been eloquently echoed by Neil Gaiman, but isn’t, in fact, a new idea.

J.R.R. Tolkien On Fairy Tales, Language and a bunch of other things


It’s like a runner who’s used to doing sprints and then decides to do a marathon. When I write for kids it has to be kind of believable, but they also have to know it’s a fantasy. But when you write horror for adults, every detail has to be real. I actually had to do research on things like vegetation on the Outer Banks.

– R.L. Stine, from an interview with Businessweek


There are some themes, some subjects, too large for adult fiction: they can only be dealt with adequately in a children’s book.

Philip Pullman


When you are writing for children, there are no cultural modifiers. No icons that you can quickly draw on for reference. You can only deal with the core emotions as that is what they recognise.

Mo Willems


I don’t see a clear difference between writing for children and writing for adults. It’s just that when I write for children, I’m writing for everyone; when I write for adults, I’m only writing for some people. In everything I write, I try to be ‘brief, clear, and rich’, to quote Andersen. The question ‘What is true?’ is fundamental to my life…I think of world literature as both shared and indivisible. Children’s literature is also world literature. All literature involves sharing and reciprocity, giving and receiving gifts. All works, whether they are written for children or adults, in whatever language and country, form one and same world literature, in which all works exist in relation to each other. Completely autonomous works don’t exist, and every book has many authors, both dead and alive. Literature is intellectual capital that is not used up or diminished through distribution.

Leena Krohn


Literature for children and young people finds itself wrestling with the pressures of conflicting expectations: adults think a book is a good one if they themselves genuinely enjoy it, although children often have a much more uncomplicated, hands-on relationship to reading.

Books From Finland


I myself would hope that in my books there is no separation between comedy for children and comedy for adults. There’s just good comedy, humour in fact, because that’s a language that can speak to people of many different ages at the same time. I don’t fret over whether children can understand everything in my books. Perhaps the best situation is when they end up asking their parents and each other questions now and then – and hey presto, a literary discussion ensues.

– Timo Parvela


To be honest, I don’t think I change style, genre, concepts, no matter what audiences I’m writing for. There are some subjects children probably aren’t going to be interested in: The complexities of adult relationships. There are things like farts that probably very few adults want to read about. But by and large, all my books can be read from anyone from three to adult, and I suspect they are. Just about all my work is really not age specific. I do get annoyed when people advocate limiting language for children. That’s how children learn. Language. If a book is good enough a child needs only understand four words in six and they will keep on reading. And when they come across those words another three or four times they’ll know what they mean. That is how we acquire language and concepts and so often we totally underestimate kids. Kids are often more interested in the big questions: The good and the evil and how can we change the world. Adults will often read a book because it [conforms to] their image of being intellectual. They will be more preoccupied with how you pay the mortgage and is there going to be a train strike tomorrow. But the job of a kid is to understand the world. They are deeply, desperately interested in how the world works, why, and what is good and what is evil far more often than adults. For a writer writing about good and evil, you’ve probably got a very small readership. If you are doing that for kids you have got probably everyone out there, who is passionately in what is good, what is evil and where they meet. Don’t be cute. Don’t underestimate [kids]. Don’t write down. Forget about the books that you loved as a child; always remember though who you are writing for. Don’t think of a child as being a different species. Don’t equate the words that a child is able to read with what the child is able to understand. No adult ever says to a kid ‘Don’t watch that TV show because you won’t understand it’. We say ‘No, don’t watch that TV show’ because we know they are going to understand it!

Jackie French, Australian Writers’ Centre Podcast (episode 25/10/2013)


The craft is the same whether I’m writing children’s books or crime novels. Maybe if writing a book in the Harry Hole series, a crime novel, it may feel like conducting a symphony orchestra. Writing a children’s book is like jamming with your band. It’s more direct, but it doesn’t mean it’s easier, or less demanding. It is more enjoyable.

– Jo Nesbø


Children … have the same emotions … They may be not as complex … but as primary colours, fear is fear, happiness is happiness, and love is the same sense for a child as it is for any other.

Lloyd Alexander

As already discussed, there aren’t as many differences between children’s books and adults’ books as you might think. Take a book such as Wonder, by R.J. Palacio:

Fans of “Wonder” say it defies categorization. “To look at ‘Wonder’ and say that’s a book for young readers is a complete disservice,” said Mr. Meltzer, who recommended the title to his 35,000-plus Twitter followers. “To me, a good book is a good book.”

Middle-grade books have become a booming publishing category, fueled in part by adult fans who read “Harry Potter” and fell in love with the genre. J.K. Rowling’s books, which sold more than 450 million copies, reintroduced millions of adults to the addictive pleasures of children’s literature and created a new class of genre-agnostic reader who will pick up anything that’s buzzy and compelling, even if it’s written for 8 year olds.

– from See Grownups Read at WSJ

That said, not all books enjoyed and loved by children are equal hits with adults. There must be some very general differences, and it may be worth trying to put our finger on such differences, without resorting to an argument of worth.



Children’s literature, as intended for an audience of children, is meant to relate to the interests of children. Not surprisingly, then, its central characters are children– or at least, childlike creatures. Although many of the versions of the generic story…are about humanized objects or animals, their main characters are often described as being young and, in that way, equivalent to the children who read about them.

The Pleasures Of Children’s Literature, Nodelman and Reimer

Nodelman and Reimer explain that, often, ‘these children or childlike characters confirm adult assumptions about children. They are limited’. Authors are fond of telling children that they’re too limited to cope with the big wide world on their own. Tales for children often praise innocence and ignorance (the youngest of three brothers wins out, the Cinderellas end up married to princes), everything Winnie the Poo does is funny and adorable. Olivia the pig is the same.

Olivia the pig


Generally, children’s books featuring innocent characters fall into one of two categories: Either the innocence is adorable, or puts the character in danger. The climax of the second kind of innocent character happens when the character realises the extent of their own innocence and gains sufficient knowledge to get out of the storyline problem. The message is therefore: All children must lose their innocence at some point.



This seems to be an unwritten rule of children’s literature, since you’ll be hard-pressed to find a popular children’s book with an entirely hopeless ending for the main character.

Many characters in children’s novels who flee from broken or disrupted homes…encounter bitter experience but sitll manage to avoid cynicism by finding new homes where they can preserve their innocence and optimism.

The Pleasures Of Children’s Literature, Nodelman and Reimer



Adult fiction that deals with young people who leave home usually ends with them choosing to stay away. As the adult novelist Thomas Wolfe suggested in the title of one of his books, “You can’t go home again.” But[…]characters in texts of children’s fiction tend to learn the value of home by losing it and then finding it again. This home/away/home pattern is the most common storyline in children’s literature. As Christopher Clausen says, “When home is a privileged place, exempt from the most serious problems of life and civilization–when home is where we ought, on the whole, to stay–we are probably dealing with a story for children. When home is the chief place from which we must escape, either to grow up or…to remain innocent, then we are involved in a story for adolescents or adults.”

The Pleasures Of Children’s Literature, Nodelman and Reimer

Nodelman and Reimer add that:

1. Stories in which escape from home leads to growing up are usually for adults.

2. Stories for which escape allows for the preservation of some form of innocence tend to be for adolescents. 

They also break down the binary differences that tend to crop up in home-away-home stories for children:

Home-Away-Home binaries


Many people are hoping for a different kind of story than the home-away-home structure and its variations, wishing for a new emphasis on:

  • Wholeness
  • Interdependence
  • Relationship

So if you’d like to write a children’s story that hasn’t been done many times before, it might be worth examining those words and trying to work out exactly what it would mean to create such a story.

Maria Nikolajeva says that the main influence on children’s literature are all the children’s stories that have come before — because the home-away-home pattern is so dominant, for instance, this makes the reader expect a certain thing from a book, and so authors who write stories to fit this pattern are rewarded in sales. Once a type of story gets established, it tends to stay there, perhaps even more so in children’s literature than in adults’ literature, in which the adult reader is given the credit of knowing what they like regardless of its unconventionality.



An image system refers to all the symbols, motifs and imagery that occur throughout a work. An image system must be subliminal for the audience, or else it doesn’t work because it calls attention to itself. When Sixth Sense made use of the colour red as a recurring motif throughout the film it felt new and a bit edgy to lots of the audience, but this has been used many times since, so that by the time We Need To Talk About Kevin was adapted for the screen, adult audiences were used to seeing the colour red used in this way, and therefore it wasn’t quite as effective for sophisticated viewers.

Sixth Sense

more from Hollywood Jesus


We Need To Talk About Kevin

from, appropriately, a website called Watch A Lot

The Omen (2006)

By the time this film came out, a lot of avid adult cinephiles were sick to death of all the heavyhanded red:

And can someone PLEASE issue a public memo to every working director that the use of the color red to “convey danger” is the most overdone, tired cliché in the universe? Ever since Spielberg spoke about removing red from Jaws until the second attack (to make the red seem redder, not to “mean” anything), uncreative filmmakers think that using red to “signify” (read: insult your audience’s intelligence) is the height of intellectual filmmaking. Please. In this case, it’s so heavy-handed that it’s laughable – the staggering number of red balloons that were used in the film is more frightening than the movie itself. This John Moore and M. Night Shyamalan need to go off and give each other massages and then scream with their arms spread open to the sky or something.

Camp Blood

Robert McKee, in his book Story, is scathing of adult films which ‘name’ their symbolism. He mentions The Piano, the remake of Cape Fear and Bram Stoker’s Dracula as particularly bad offenders, then goes on to explain the heavy symbolism in films for adults:

First, to flatter the elite audience of self-perceived intellectuals that watches at a safe, unemotional distance while collecting ammunition for the postfilm ritual of cafe criticism. Second, to influence, if not control, critics and the reviews they writes. Declamatory symbolism requires no genius, just egotism ignited by misreadings of Jung and Derrida. It is a vanity that demeans and corrupts the art.

In a review of an episode of Mad Men — in which the sex scenes alone designate this a TV series only for adults — Slate’s TV critic Willa Paskin writes:

As for that scene with Neve Campbell: I’m afraid that my bullshit meter started ringing right about the time she confessed that her husband “died of thirst,” one of those Please, take out your highlighter and identify the big theme in the text bits of dialogue Matthew Weiner sometimes can’t stop himself from writing. 

But remember that a TV critic with ink in Slate is the among the most sophisticated of viewers. Not all adults want to put in the work necessary to decoding imagery in a story.

Children, on the other hand, have simply not had the experience of story, and will not be affected by slightly heavy-handed image systems — or ‘declamatory symbolism’, as McKee calls it, because they simply have had not many years in which to become weary of the same sorts of literary techniques. That said, with heavy media exposure they quickly learn the tricks, and it’s better to over-estimate their sophistication if in doubt.


A conclusion [of a story] does not necessarily entail…ideological closure, and many contemporary works feature deliberately open conclusions which allow the reader freedom to interpret them while implying uncertainty as a universal principle….While open endings in adult literature are now common it is often argued, on the basis of Piagetian theories of child development, that young children need stories with clear cut distinctions between right and wrong and satisfying conclusions. Some popular contemporary picture books, however, suggest that eve quite young children are able to construct meanings from texts which contain significant gaps and avoid rigid ideological closure. (e.g. John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat by Jenny Wagner, in which readers must construct interpretations on their own.) … The brief texts of picture books are perhaps inevitably more open than longer works but open endings which refuse ideological closure are now also no longer unusual in children’s novels.

– from Deconstructing The Hero, by Marjery Hourihan


Hourihan points out that narrative conclusions are different from ideological conclusions — no matter how much is left to the reader’s interpretation, the story must still ‘feel’ complete to the reader. For examples of strong ideological tales, refer to most hero stories, with their central binary oppositions (goodies and baddies) in which the goodies ‘win’.


In a somewhat ironically written response to Kent University last year suggesting on their website that children’s literature is not real literature, Jonathan Myerson writes:

[The difference between adult fiction and children’s fiction] isn’t about the quality of the prose: the best children’s books are better structured and written than many adult works. Nor is it about imaginary worlds – among the Lit Gang, for instance, Kazuo Ishiguro, Cormac McCarthy and Michael Chabon have all created plenty of those. It’s simpler than that: a novel written for children omits certain adult-world elements which you would expect to find in a novel aimed squarely at grown-up readers.

He then explains that books — whether intended for adults or children — appeal better to children when good and evil is clearcut:

When I was a “young adult”, YA fiction didn’t exist and I filled my hours with Robert Louis Stevenson or Isaac Asimov. These novels held and excited us because they created scenarios where good and evil were clearly defined and rarely muddied.

(Note that Isaac Asimov is not generally considered a writer of children’s fiction. Yet I’m sure plenty of boys — in particular — found Asimov in their teenage years.)

Myserson goes on to explain:

I am so glad that first-rate children’s literature was there for my own children. I would not have wanted them – at 11, 12 or 13 – to confront the complexity and banality of evil. It’s quite right that they wanted to read about worlds where evil was uniformly evil and good people were constantly good. In contrast, adulthood means learning that SS officers or drone pilots do go home and kiss their wives, without a thought of belonging to the “dark side”. Equally, while you come to know how to interpret Portnoy’s self-loathing or Humbert Humbert’s witty detachment, children wouldn’t enjoy these characters or their dilemmas. The best young adult novels do bridge that sticky chasm between the undoubting days of childhood and the hedged decades of adulthood.


Of the three principal preoccupations of adult fiction–sex, money, and death–the first is absent from classic children’s literature and the other two either absent or much muted.

– Alison Lurie

Myseron’s article leads on to the next main difference between fiction for adults and fiction for children:

Great adult literature aims to confront the full range of genuine human experience, a world where individuals do not wear the same black or white hat every day. Life is messy, life is surprising and, most of all, life is full of compromises. One of the great themes of literature – which therefore often makes for great literature – springs from the protagonist who rejects compromise and usually pays the price (Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Pinkie Brown, Rabbit Angstrom). Would we really want our children to cope with the unwinnable dilemmas of JM Coetzee’s Disgrace? …[A novel for children] is simply a novel which leaves something out.

I’d like to add that some of the most sophisticated writing ‘for children’ in fact manages to appeal to an adult audience equally, and this is achieved by layering meaning, hiding difficult subject matter in such a way that a reader won’t find it at all unless already at the stage where it’s able to be dealt with. Kristopher Jansma writes in an article titled ‘Why Children’s Books Matter’ of his experience reading Peter Pan:

After Josh was born, we moved on to Peter Pan, which is delightfully dark and death-obsessed, with complex psychological concerns. Peter cannot form lasting memories because then he might learn from them, and thus, like the rest of us, grow-up. At several points he forgets he has killed someone. He can neither return Wendy’s pre-teen affections nor understand Tiger Lily’s advances after he saves her from drowning. “There is something she wants to be to me, but she says it is not my mother,” he complains to Wendy. Like Peter, younger readers wouldn’t get this; it’s clearly a joke meant just for the adults. Similarly, their little hearts don’t break like mine did when, at the end of the book, Wendy asks Peter about Tinker Bell—the fairy who drank Captain Hook’s poison to save the hero’s life. Peter shrugs. “Who is Tinker Bell?” he asks.

Reading these books each night I cannot get over how grown-up they feel. 

In another response to the same Kent University incident, Phillip Pullman writes:

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.

In the work of such authors, we found stories that were compelling and readable; that had depth, risk and originality; that offered all the imaginative space and possibilities we wanted from literature. Garner and Cooper made connections between ancient myth and contemporary reality; Dickinson dealt with human origins, with politics and war; Le Guin with the interconnectedness of all life. These books were tackling the biggest ideas and questions imaginable.

So rather than ‘leaving certain content out’ it would be more accurate to say that writers of children’s literature are masters hide-and-seek, carefully layering meaning so as not to cause irreparable damage to impressionable young minds, while at the same time not boring adult co-readers to tears.



And when I say ’emergent readers’ I’m not just talking about decoding of the words, but of story structure itself. This is why certain types of predictable story structures bridge a gap between not reading and reading books designed for an older, wider audience.


From A Picture Book Primer: Understanding and using picture books

From A Picture Book Primer: Understanding and using picture books

Matulka then categorises the different types of predictable children’s books:

  1. chain or circular stories — Why Mosquitoes Buzz In People’s Ears, Oh, Look!, If You Give A Mouse A Cookie
  2. cumulative stories — Hattie and the Fox, Mr Gumpy’s Outing, One Fine Day
  3. familiar sequences — Today Is Monday, Chicken Soup With Rice
  4. pattern stories — The Doorbell Rang, The Runaway Bunny, The Carrot Seed, Suddenly!
  5. question and answer stories — Brown Bear, Brown Bear, Where Is The Green Sheep?, What Do You Do With A Tail Like This?, Knock! Knock!
  6. repetition of phrase — Bear Snores On, Hug, No, David!, It Looked Like Spilt Milk, Silly Sally
  7. rhyme — Sheep In A Jeep, Barnyard Banter, Is Your Mama A Llama, Hairy Maclary From Donaldson’s Dairy
  8. songbooks — Over In The Meadow, Farmer In The Dell, Old MacDonald Had A Farm

When these structures exist in books aimed at adults, they do so hoping to evoke childhood, either ironically or as part of a childhood-related theme.



There are two opposing views on whether word choice should be limited when writing for children. Some people believe that of course word choice should be somewhat limited in books that are specifically graded for children who are learning to read, but that once children have learnt to read, then the full range of adult vocabulary can be used. The question is: How do we know when the average child of your book’s audience has ‘learnt to read’?

E.B. White did not believe in modifying language for children:

Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time … Some writers deliberately avoid using words they think the child doesn’t know. This emasculates the prose, and, I suspect, bores the reader. Children are game for anything. They love words that give them a hard time, provided they are in a context that absorbs their attention. –

– E.B. White, children’s author and expert on style


A writer … should feel himself no more under the necessity to restrict the complexity of his plotting because of differences in child understanding … than he feels the necessity of restricting his vocabulary.

– Eleanor Cameron, children’s author and critic

Others consider a more limited word choice in children’s stories a kind of high art form:

The children’s book presents a technically more difficult, technically more interesting problem — that of making a fully serious adult statement, as a good novel of any kind does, and making it utterly simple and transparent … The need for comprehensibility imposes an emotional obliqueness, an indirection of approach, which like elision and partial statement in poetry is often a source of aesthetic power.

– Jill Paton Walsh, who writes for both children and adults

Some writers use short staccato sentences believing that such sentences are easier to read, but they’re not necessarily.

Obviously, repetitive prose that builds upon itself is a feature of children’s books rather than adult books, unless the adult books are a parody of something.


In literacy terms, ‘concretizable’ means that the reader is able to see something which is described in words. It is thought that children need to be able to do this in order to understand a text, though adult readers may lose the need, and therefore the ability to do this so vividly.

The ways in which texts written for children describe their characters and settings can be explored by studying two different but connected qualities. One relates to the characteristic kinds of language in the texts and the rhythms that their language creates…The first and most obvious thing to be said is that the description presented is characteristically minimal–at least, in relation to the more complex and more textured descriptions found in many texts written for adults. But the sparseness of descriptive language does not make these texts vague. The information offered tends to be concrete rather than abstract–to give specific details about shape, sound, and color that allow readers to imagine physically specific worlds. In Joey Pigza Loses Control, for instance, Joey provides not just the abstract information that his mother is ‘stressed-out’ but also some easily visualizable details: “Her elbos were shaking and her jaw was so tight her front teeth were denting her lower lip”. The texts of picture books tend to leave out visualizable details of this sort–but do so for the obvious reason that the pictures in them offer equivalently concrete and visualizable information about the way things look. […] It might even be argued that picture books offer readers actual visual information as an apprenticeship in learning how to imagine it for themselves, anticipating the act of concretizing information in the novels they’ll read later that lack actual pictures.

The Pleasures Of Children’s Literature, Nodelman and Reimer



Telling a didactic story when writing for modern adults is a big no-no.

Obvious and Preachy

But in stories for children, though overt didacticism has gone the way of the do-do, it’s still there.

As its focus on new and unfamiliar experiences reveals, children’s literature wouldn’t exist at all if adults didn’t see children as inexperienced and in need of knowledge. Its stories typically show children who are relatively new citizens of the world they inhabit, and in the process of learning about it, so that adults can use the literature as a means of teaching these newcomers about that world. Children’s literature is almost always didactic: its purpose is to instruct.

The Pleasures Of Children’s Literature, Nodelman and Reimer

But Nodelman and Reimer describe a different kind of children’s story which is not didactic but still quite obviously for children:

On the other hand, some texts are less concerned with telling children what they should be than with giving them what adults assume they already want and like to hear. On TV and in written texts, consequently, much popular storytelling has little to say about the safety of home and much to say about the delightful freedom of being away from home. Goodness consists of the presumably childlike values represented by being away from home.

The big-prize winning modern texts and texts which become classics tend to be ambivalent rather than didactic. Reimer and Nodelman offer Where The Wild Things as an example. I will add picture books by Jon Klassen, in which the morality of the thieving creatures seems (at first glance) to go unpunished.


A noticeable feature of some major ‘classic’ children’s books is that they text and undermine some of the values which they superficially appear to be celebrating.

– Peter Hollindale



There is also the question of the spaces most characteristically described in children’s literature–where they are set. Not illogically, many texts for children take place in settings that children typically occupy: homes and schools, beaches and campgrounds, and so on. Beyond that, however, there is no particularly characteristic group of settings. Well-known texts are set in places as diverse as farmyards and castles, medieval forests and contemporary inner-city slums, and a whole range of imaginary fantasy settings from Narnia to Oz to the infinite alternative worlds of Philip Pullman’s Golden Compass and Subtle Knife. What is characteristic about the places described in children’s literature is the extent to which the texts clearly identify some of them as a central character’s home–or at least as being homelike–and some as not being home or homelike.

The Pleasures Of Children’s Literature, Nodelman and Reimer



This is more to do with the way children’s literature is received than how it actually is, but

Intertexuality is one of the most prominent features of postmodern literature for adults, and critics have proclaimed it both welcome and indispensable. In children’s literature most intertextual links are often approached as imitative and secondary.

– Maria Nikolajeva, Children’s Literature Comes Of Age

Intertexuality makes use of the literature which has come before, often building on it, at the least inspired by it. That Bakhtin fellow prefers the term ‘dialogics’. Whatever it is called, the meaning of a text is revealed for the reader/researcher only against the background of previous texts. Whereas ‘comparative literature’ is concerned with how one text has ‘influenced’ the other, an intertextual study considers the two texts as equal.

In children’s literature, intertexuality is often apparent in the use of:

  • allusions
  • irony
  • parody
  • literary allusions
  • direct quotations
  • indirect references
  • and the fracturing of well-known patterns.



Since it is conventional for children’s books to at least end on a hopeful note — and very often the entire book is far more idealised than any real-world analogue could be — surely this is a form of lying to children about the real world? That’s certainly one argument. But there exists an opposite view:

The reader [of children’s literature] is invited to share a world of imagination with the implicit offer that he or she may thereby come in contact with a potential that lies below the surface nature of each of us.

– Elliott Gose

But the idealised worlds of children’s books are really no different from the ‘pastoral idyll’ of many books for adults. The ‘pastoral idyll’ is a form of poem that celebrates the joys of the unsophisticated rural life, close to nature and in the company of friends. The pastoral idyll may explain the success of The Pioneer Woman cooking shows, or even Downton Abbey and many cosy murder mysteries popular today. In children’s literature we have

  • Wind In The Willows — making potentially disturbing events seem safe by placing them within an innocent pastoral milieu
  • The Secret Garden — an example of an actual garden, along with Tom’s Midnight Garden
  • Anne of Green Gables — a rural backwater where everyone knows everyone’s business
  • Where The Wild Things Are — a forest
  • A River Dream — a peaceful river, along with Swallows and Amazons

The urban equivalent of this pastoral idyll is perhaps a treehouse, a backyard hideaway. We have suburbs of the kind where Ramona Quimby grows up, which provide a safe backdrop for minor dramas.

The pastoral idyll is a nostalgic form of literature, and young adult fiction is currently going through a backlash, with extremely dark plots as a way for young readers to make sense of their own (hopefully more minor) issues.

Children’s books tend to try to persuade children that adult nostalgia is actual current childhood experience–that the world is in fact as idyllic as children’s books suggest. […] Although children’s literature is written from the viewpoint of what adults imagine is innocence…it does not necessarily postulate an innocent or uncomplicated world. In less interesting children’s books, writers create idylls by simply leaving things out…But in more interesting books, the ironies are internal and deliberate, and the result is an ambivalence about the relative values of innocence and experience, the idyllic and the mundane.

– Nodelman and Reimer



Intertextuality in Children’s Books vs Books For Adults

Five Authors Who Inspire With Books for Both Adults and Children

Celebrating Picture Books: Not just for kids, from SLJ



What Is A Visual Motif?

A motif is a recurring pattern. 

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

10 Visual Motifs that American Science Fiction Borrowed from Anime from io9

In film noir, a visual motif is using darkness to obscure part of a character’s face.

A visual motif in a film (or a story app) isn’t necessarily static. Hitchcock repeatedly made use of mirror shots and divided screens, which became a visual motif. He also made much use of light and shadow. There were reasons for this, which is what makes it a motif.

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

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