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Gothic Horror And Children’s Books

Gothic horror is also known as gothic fiction. This refers to a type of story with a combination of horror, death and romance. The characters generally get caught up in paranormal schemes. The victim of these schemes is normally an innocent and helpless female character. In some instances, supernatural features such as vampires and werewolves are later explained in perfectly natural terms, but in other works they remain completely inexplicable.

A Short History Of Gothic Horror

gothic horror

Its origin is attributed to English author Horace Walpole, with his 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto, subtitled (in its second edition) “A Gothic Story.” It originated in England in the second half of the 18th century. Only in the late 1790s did “Gothic” take on some of the meanings we most frequently associate with it today: Gothic as synonym for grotesque, ghastly and violently superhuman. 

The Gothic continued with much success in the 19th century, with the popularity of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Another well known novel in this genre, dating from the late Victorian era, is Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

The height of the Gothic period is closely aligned with Romanticism (1764-1840).

The word Gothic also refers to the (pseudo)-medieval buildings, emulating Gothic architecture, in which many of these stories take place.

When the Gothic was emerging as an important genre in its own right, medical science was just starting to replace the mystery of the female body with scientific facts. Hysteria was the dominant response to sexual confusion and abuse. Cultural codes were still writing marriage as a loss of power and autonomous identity for women. Pregnancy and childbirth were downright dangerous, messy and awful. Today things are a bit different: We understand (basically) how the body works. We know that hysteria is actually depression. Women are brought up to believe we can have it all (itself a kind of fairytale). But the Gothic ideas are still recognisable to modern readers.

Gothic motifs change rapidly and consistently, both in form and in significance. It all depends on what is feared and valued at any given time. The Gothic genre is especially responsive to historical moment and cultural location.

These days, readers are unwilling to unilaterally assign blame. Even in children’s literature, villains are more complex. They are not inherently evil, but behave badly as a result of their environment. The innocent victims, too, are afforded some dignity in that they are assumed to have some part in their own predicament. In other words, modern victims have a psychological and moral weakness, whereas earlier victims were more ‘victimy’ and more boring as heroes, to be fair.

Modern gothic stories don’t seek to expel the evil completely, but rather to accommodate it and give it its own space. Modern gothic stories are about finding some sort of middle ground.

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Liars In Storytelling

Liars are everywhere in stories. Entire genres are about finding out the truth:

  1. Detective Crime is all about deciding whose version of a story is the truth. Our crime fighting heroes always care deeply about the truth.
  2. Mystery asks “How can we come to know the truth?” (By definition, a mystery is simply something that defies our usual understanding of the world.)
  3. Anti-Westerns critique the story given by classical Westerns and ask us to consider the truth about The Wild West (that it was a brutal, unjust, hellish place)
  4. In magical realism characters—especially the narrator—might not know what is happening any more than the reader, so they are discovering the truth of their reality as they go along.
  5. In a thriller, the perpetrator is known, but his guilt is not absolutely certain—or the hero wishes not to accept the truth of his guilt. (The uncertainty enhances the suspense.)
  6. Superhero stories are wish fulfilment fantasies in which everyone eventually ‘learns the wonderful truth about me’ (I am amazing when you unwrap my everyday clothes and put me in lycra).
  7. In many comedies a hero will be wearing some kind of ‘mask’ but eventually, after some sort of spiritual crisis, this mask will be ripped off and the other characters will learn who this hero really is.
  8. A parable illustrates a simple truth for teaching purposes.
  9. Absurdist stories focus on the experiences of characters in situations where they cannot find any inherent purpose in life, most often represented by ultimately meaningless actions and events that call into question the certainty of existential concepts such as truth or value
  10. Drama is often about the difference between a character’s public persona and what’s really going on underneath. We watch drama to learn about the lives we never find out about in our real-world acquaintances.
  11. Cinema

The cinema cannot show the truth, or reveal it, because the truth is not out there in the real world, waiting to be photographed. What the cinema can do is produce meanings and meanings can only be plotted, not in relation to some abstract yardstick or criterion of truth, but in relation to other meanings.

Movies and Methods: An Anthology Vol. 2

Of course we can say this about truth as explored in any kind of story, be it film, novel, narrative poetry or television commercial.

THE DIFFERENCE IN TRUTH BETWEEN FICTION AND REALITY

Fictional stories are make believe on the surface but true underneath. Real life, on the other hand, may be believable on the surface but is often unbelievable underneath. … In movies, screenplays and novels, we need to know the inner truths of the characters. Your characters’ actions in response to whatever incredible situation you’ve created must be reasonable, justified and believable.

— Michael Hauge, Story Mastery website

The most dangerous untruths are truths slightly distorted.
~ G.C. Lightenberg

TRUTH AND STORY STRUCTURE

Within a story structure, the truth will be revealed at the ‘self-revelation’ stage. (After the Battle, before New Equilibrium.)

Sometimes the audience is let in on the truth of the situation at the beginning of a story. For instance, in some crime stories the reader knows who the villain is from the get-go. This type of detective story is no longer a whodunnit but a whydunnit.

TRUTH TROPES IN STORYTELLING

LIAR TROPE 1: NOBODY BELIEVES THE HERO

COMMON CHARACTER ARC: The underdog hero must take matters into their own hands, saving the day somehow. Only by proving themselves truthful will be finally be accepted by their community.

This is basically the plot of every episode of Courage The Cowardly Dog. It works. Frankly, how quick would you be to trust someone who said there was a flying saucer in the field next door? This initial disbelief is almost mandatory — a type of lampshading for the audience who would otherwise think, “Now who would believe that?”

Nobody believes Lucy when she walks through the back of the wardrobe. Honestly, wouldn’t you believe Edmond?

Edmund’s lie of omission, failing to tell his siblings about his encounter with the White Witch, drives much of the drama in the first Narnia story. Interestingly, though, he is probably judged more harshly by contemporary readers than Lewis intended. It is almost impossible, now, to imagine the feelings a child – used to the privations of wartime Britain – might experience on being offered some Turkish Delight. This is one of those occasions where some of the context is lost in the passage of history. If you had grown up with rationing, been shipped out to the country for protection, and found yourself in a magical land where you were offered extraordinary, rarefied sweet things, wouldn’t you lie too?

The Guardian

In 1965, Susan Sontag wrote five steps in one kind of typical science fiction story. Her first two steps demonstrate this lampshading:

  1. The arrival of the thing. (Emergence of the monsters, landing of the alien space-ship, etc.) This is usually witnessed, or suspected, by just one person, who is a young scientist on a field trip. Nobody, neither his neighbors nor his colleagues, will believe him for some time. The hero is not married, but has a sympathetic though also incredulous girlfriend.
  2. Confirmation of the hero’s report by a host of witnesses to a great act of destruction. (If the invaders are beings from another planet, a fruitless attempt to parley with them and get them to leave peacefully.) The local police are summoned to deal with the situation and massacred.

When it comes to heroines, however, writers often add a little extra. Like mental instability. The 2012 film Gone, stars Amanda Seyfried as a damaged young woman who takes on the role of a vigilante cop after the actual cops think she’s fabricated a former abduction from which she managed to escape. Even the movie poster announces that ‘no one believes her’.

teenage girls in narrative are often portrayed as liars

LIAR TROPE 2: HERO LIES TO THEMSELVES

COMMON CHARACTER ARC: Over the course of events the character is liberated by accepting the truth of their circumstances.

In Strays Like Us by Richard Peck, the main character has been abandoned by her mother — a drug addict criminal who will never step up to the plate for her adolescent daughter. Over the course of one year in a settled environment with a new female role model, Molly Moberly must come to terms with this. Finally she gives away the notebook she has been using to create a fictional narrative about her mother.

Jacqueline Wilson also writes of a girl lying to herself about her mother in Starring Tracy Beaker.

The mother of these orphan girls with imaginative narratives about their hopeless mothers is perhaps The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson.

In Big Little Lies, Celeste (Nicole Kidman) lies to herself about the nature of her relationship with her husband. All of the supporting characters are keeping their own secrets.

 

LIAR TROPE 3: HERO LEARNS WHEN NOT TO LIE

COMMON CHARACTER ARC: The hero has learned not to lie as a child but as she enters adolescence she realises the world is not black and white, so she learns when to keep quiet in order to protect someone else.

Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk is an excellent example of this storyline in a children’s book.

 

LIAR TROPE 4: FAKE ALLY LIES TO HERO

COMMON CHARACTER ARC: In children’s books it is often the adult lying to the child ‘in order to protect’ them.

In Strays Like Us even sympathetic adult Aunt Fay lies to Molly by omitting the fact that her mother has checked herself out of rehab and has gone AWOL. Because Peck wants to keep Aunt Fay as a sympathetic character, he has Aunt Fay apologise to Molly for not telling her earlier.

Also in school stories there will often be a ‘bitchy teen girl’ trope who is ‘nasty nice’. Tina Fey’s Mean Girls is well-known for introducing this dynamic to the public consciousness.

Eventually the hero works out what the truth of the situation is, and this contributes to their character arc. Or, like Lindsay Lohan’s character on Mean Girls, she might be a trickster archetype who lies back to her opponent in order to exact revenge.

 

LIAR TROPE 5: THE FAKE OPPONENT BENEFACTOR

It comes from Jane Austen:

The obvious liar in Pride and Prejudice is Wickham, but the more interesting from a plot perspective is Darcy. Because Darcy does something immensely noble, which if she knew about it would make Elizabeth deeply grateful to him, but doesn’t tell her. Lies about it. She only finds out indirectly. It’s a heart-stirring and deeply effective device, so much so that it has spread, meme-style, through countless other stories ever since. There’s a legend in Bookworld that when Helen Fielding was considering turning her Bridget Jones columns into a book, she saw the Colin Firth-starring TV adaptation and decided to lift the plot from Pride and Prejudice. Virtually every romantic novel ever since has done the same, including Twilight.

The Guardian

 

FURTHER READING ON LIARS AND LYING

1. The Tech of TV News Might Make It Easier for Pundits to Lie

2. Valuing Those Who Tell You The Bitter Truth

3. Amanda Knox: What’s in a face? from The Guardian

4. How To Be More Paranoid from The Hairpin, in which Pamela Meyer tells you how to spot liars.

5. Twelve Completely Foolproof And Not-At-All-Crazy Ways To Make Sure He’s Not Lying from Jezebel: Relationships

6. On Bullshit by Henry Frankfurt

7. How And Why Do We Deceive Ourselves from Freethought Blogs

8. Do People Really Want You To Be Honest? from HBR

9. Why We Don’t Always Tell The Truth, also from HBR

10. 12 Lies To Stop Telling Yourself from Marc And Angel Hack Life

11. Trust Me I’m Lying, interview with Ryan Holiday, who wrote a book about the media and ‘faux-troversies’.

12. Anatomy Of Lying, a book by Sam Harris

13. The ‘Pinnochio Effect’ Confirmed from Science Daily

14. Lying Is Common Age 2, Becomes Norm By 3, from BPS Research Digest

15. How Money Makes You Lie And Cheat from Time

16. Suppression of Incriminating Memories Can Beat Lie-Detector Tests. (I’ve always wondered that.) from Psych Central

17. The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves from Farnam Street

18. 10 Lies You Were Tricked Into Believing from Marc and Angel

19. The Lie Detector Paradox from Mindhacks

20. Dan Ariely on the Truth About Dishonesty, Animated from Brainpickings

21. Jeff Hancock and the Future of Lying from GMP

22. How can we make people more honest? a video.

23. How we teach our kids that women are liars, from Role Reboot. (And then I read this unrelated passage in a popular science book: Human females, unlike most of their primate relatives, do not tell the truth about when they are fertile. Female chimpanzees flaunt swollen backsides and genitals for the several days in each cycle when an egg is ready to be fertilised… Women, unlike chimpanzees, advertise their potential for copulation at all times, fertile or otherwise. Perhaps a false statement of fecundity means that a male will choose to stick with a particular mate in order to keep others at bay, rather than tomake a switch to a third party while his partner is unable to conceive.’ -page 151-152 of The Serpent’s Promise by Steve Jones. #CasualSexism

24. Intricacies of Lying: False Descriptions Easier to Remember Than False Denials from Science Daily

She stabbed the butter lightly before spreading it on a scrap of French bread — ‘why, when I first met you and you told me about yourself, did your story end when you left your wife and went and lived in a flat somewhere? Why was that the end of the story when it wasn’t the end at all?’

‘How do you mean?’ He had stopped eating, though, she noticed that. ‘I did go and live in a flat when I left my wife.’

‘Indeed you did. But there was more to it, wasn’t there? You left your wife and you went and lived in a flat. Then you met someone else and got married again and went and lived in a large house somewhere else entirely.’

‘Oh that,’ he said. ‘Well, perhaps we got interrupted at that point. Perhaps I just forgot to tell you the rest and you never asked.’

– from The Lonely Margins Of The Sea by Shonagh Koea

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

Father Tropes In Fiction

Turn Out Like His Father – A character has charge of a child (usually her son) and is desperate to keep this child from imitating another relative (usually his father). This is a fear of history’s repeating itself for his fate, which may be turning evil and usually ends with being dead. Harry Potter isn’t allowed to find out about his parents in case he turns out like them.

Like Father Like Son – this one is called a ‘supertrope’ because of all its subcategories.

Like Father, Unlike Son – In How to Train Your Dragon, Stoick the Vast is a big bearded man who is every bit a typical Viking warrior whose main defining feature is his strength.

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The Three Little Pigs Illustrated by Leonard Leslie Brooke

The Three Little Pigs is one of the handful of classic tales audiences are expected to know. Pigs are handy characters: They can be adorable or they can be evil. You can strip them  butt naked and let the reader revel in their uncanny resemblance to humans. Or, you can dress them in jumpers and they’re as cute as kittens.

 

Brooke’s version of The Three Little Pigs, published January 1st 1905 by Frederick Warne and Company,  is freely available at Project Gutenberg.

No one knows who wrote it, but we do know it’s from England.

The Story Of The Three Little Pigs

This version is also part of the Mother Goose collection.

(Did you know that children’s books in general originally emerged from nursery rhymes and folk tale? And that William Godwin, husband of Mary Wollstonecraft and father of Mary Shelley, published the first Mother Goose Tales?) Continue reading

Rats In Children’s Literature

rat-attacks-cat

That’s a gif from Reddit.

I’m reminded of modern children’s literature, in which an underdog, much maligned character has his/her own back.

It’s pretty funny until you read the top commenter, pointing out that the rat probably has toxoplasmosis, a disorder of the brain. On the other hand, mice and rats alike aren’t timid at all when you consider how small and vulnerable they are compared to us, and how they hang around humans anyway.

Compared to mice, rats are relatively uncommon in children’s literature.

There are a number of reasons for this:

First, mice are cute, and serve as stand-in children owing to their small, vulnerable size. Rats have long, worm-like tails and look at you as if they’re about to murder you. Their paws are large enough for us to notice they are uncannily like human hands.

Mice are widely represented in folktales, both as protagonists and as helpers. Apparently, there is a subconscious identification on the part of children’s writers of a small and helpless child with one of the smallest animals, also know–maybe without reason–for its lack of courage. While rats are in many children’s stories presented as ruthless enemies, mice–in reality similarly harmful–are portrayed as harmless and sympathetic. The emblematic meaning of animals in art and literature deserves special attention there is an enormous diversity between cultures. However, in most ancient mythologies, mice are chthonic animals, worshipped as powerful and benevolent towards humans.

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

Second, there’s a long history of tropes depicting rats as baddies, and the antihero isn’t very well explored (yet) in literature for young children.

See also: A list of rodent tropes at TV Tropes

Third, there’s no Aesopian precedent for personified rats. Aesop has a much bigger influence on modern children’s literature than we might think. Take a look at the following word cloud, from a site which catalogue’s Aesop’s fables and you’ll notice that rats are entirely absent. Even mice aren’t all that common.

aesops-characters

 

Rats As Cockney Rag And Bone Types

The rats from Chicken Run speak Cockney, are underworld petty criminal scavenger types and are used to deliver funny one-liners.

rats chicken run

If these guys were characters in a children’s story they would be rats.

Only Fools and Horses

from Only Fools and Horses

Rats = Masculine, Mice = Feminine

The characters in Froggy Went A-Courtin (here we have the 1955 illustrations) are a good example of rodent gendering in children’s stories. The mice is infantalised in what today seems ridiculously old-fashioned, but which was no doubt representative of its time. No one knows exactly when the original song was first composed, but it was long before 1955.

Uncle Rat froggy went a courtin

Miss mouse will you marry me

That said, it wasn’t unusual for Americans to see pictures of women on men’s knees in popular culture, and it wasn’t always a loving dynamic such as this one.

Chase-Sanborn-Coffee

FAMOUS LITERARY RATS

Here are some of the better-known works.

mrsfrisbyandthe_ratsofnimhcover_huge_500x762

naked-mole-rat-gets-dressed_500x340

walter-the-story-of-a-rat_500x633

the_roly-poly_pudding_first_edition_cover_500x636

the-wind-in-the-willows_500x632

a-rats-tale-cover_500x670

hooway_500x500

i-was-a-rat-pullman_500x704

 

A Squash And A Squeeze by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler

There have been various editions of A Squash And A Squeeze in its 20+ year history of reprints.

a squash and a squeeze light blue cover

Here is a slightly more ominous sky:

a squash and a squeeze dark sky

CHARACTER

Note that Donaldson is working with tropes here, as she almost always does. Witches, chimeras, rats, mice, and here: a mentor archetype, and a trope most often found in fairytales and in picture books: an old woman who lives alone on a simple small plot of land in the country. This woman will probably have a close relationship with her animals (and if she doesn’t, she’ll be forced to, here!)

STORY STRUCTURE OF A SQUASH AND A SQUEEZE

WEAKNESS/NEED

The old woman feels her little house is too small for her. The four walls make her feel ‘squashed and squeezed’.

DESIRE

She wants a bigger house, we guess.

OPPONENT

The Wise Old Man is a secret-ally opponent. He at first seems to be making her situation worse, but there’s method in his madness.

PLAN

She asks the local Wise Old Man what to do.

The word 'plan' is even used in the text. A SQUASH AND A SQUEEZE

The word ‘plan’ is even used in the text.

BATTLE

The battle scenes are slap stick set pieces as the Wise Old Man tells her to bring her farm animals into the house. He starts her off on the smallest farm animals and ends with the cow.

SQUASH AND A SQUEEZE BATTLE

SELF-REVELATION

Compared to having a house full of farm animals, a cottage with just her in it no longer seems so small.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

The animals live happily in the yard and the old woman lives happily in her cottage, no longer feeling it’s too small.

ANNIVERSARY EDITION

This book was first published in 1993 and the publishers released a red edition to make the 20 Years edition. I don’t know. The blood red sky makes it look a bit ominous, though it fits the brief of seeming quite different:

A SQUASH AND A SQUEEZE 20 YEAR ANNIVERSARY EDITION

The Symbolism of Stairs And Attics

STAIRS

Common-sense lives on the ground floor […] on the same level as the others, as the passers-by, who are never dreamers.

— Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

See Symbolism of the Dream House for more on stairs and the places they connect.

Beauty and the Beast

Stairs = Ascent To Heaven

This image is from the 1986 version retold by Anne Carter,  illustrated by Binette Schroeder. Beauty and the Beast has a strong Christian message for young women: Do as you’re told and you’ll wind up in Heaven. Here we see her going up the stairs into the Beast’s castle, sure that she’s about to end up dead.

stairs

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Fathers In Children’s Literature

A case could be made that there are already plenty of flawed parents in young adult literature. Richie, from Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park immediately comes to mind. Is there a more despised character in YA? For me, no.

– Bryan Bliss

 Eleanor and Park cover

We hate richie

from Eleanor & Park

Fathers In Picturebooks

and_to_think_that_i_saw_it_on_mulberry_street

It’s common for a young boy in a picturebook to want to impress his father. This can even drive the plot, forming the ‘Desire’ part of the story structure (Desires to prove himself to his father).

Examples are the Spot books by Eric Hill and some of the Dr Seuss books — notably his first, And To Think I Saw It On Mulberry Street, in which a boy tries to impress his father by concocting an interesting story about what he saw on the way to school:

When I leave home to walk to school,

Dad always says to me,

“Marco, keep your eyelids up

And see what you can see.”

This desire line feels to me like a specifically masculine one; I can’t easily think of picturebooks (or even stories for older children) in which a boy or a girl must prove themselves to their mother. In storybook world, a mother’s unconditional love is taken for granted whereas that of a father must be hard won.

Fathers and Disney Fairytale Adaptations

from The Disney Middle Ages: A Fairy-Tale and Fantasy Past by Tison Pugh, Susan Aronstein

my heart belongs to daddy

Fathers And Domestic Work

Continue reading

Houses Drawn By Children

childhood house

The above picture was drawn by my eight-year-old. According to Gaston Bachelard, who quotes psychologists of his era, door knobs are a good sign.

Asking a child to draw his house is asking him to reveal the deepest dream shelter he has found for his happiness. If he is happy, he will succeed in drawing a snug, protected house which is well built on deeply-rooted foundations. It will have the right shape, and nearly always there will be some indication of its inner strength. In certain drawings, quite obviously, to quote Mme. Balif, “it is warm indoors, and there is a fire burning, such a big fire, in fact, that it can be seen coming out of the chimney.” When the house is happy, soft smoke rises in gay rings above the roof.

Now I interrupt my quote to bring you this:

Misery Kathy Bates bbq indoors

Continuing with Bachelard:

If the child is unhappy, however, the house bears traces of his distress. In this connection, I recall that Francoise Minkowska organized an unusually moving exhibition of drawings by Polish and Jewish children who had suffered the cruelties of the German occupation during the last war. One child, who had been hidden in a closet every time there was an alert, continued to draw narrow, cold, closed houses long after those evil times were over. These are what Mme. Minkowska calls “motionless” houses, houses that have become motionless in their rigidity. “This rigidity and motionlessness are present in the smoke as well as in the window curtains. The surrounding trees are quite straight and give the impression of standing guard over the house.. Mm. Minkowska knows that a live house is not really “motionless,” that, particularly it integrates the movements by means of which one acedes to the door. Thus the path that leads to the house is often a climbing one. At times, even, it is inviting. In any case, it always possesses certain kinesthetic features. If we were making a Rorschach test, we should say that the house has “K”. […] In one house, drawn by an eight-year-old child, she notes that there is “a knob on the door; people go in the house, they live there.” It is not merely a constructed house, it is also a house that is “lived-in”. Quite obviously the door-knob has a functional significance. This is the kinesthetic sign, so frequently forgotten in the drawings of “tense” children.

— The Poetics of Space

This is called the Nightmare Fuelled Coloring Book over at TV Tropes, since drawings used to analyse children are common in horror movies.

The combination of a disturbing image rendered in a crude, childlike style is a powerfully scary one in and of itself, but just as unsettling is the window onto a child’s view of sex/violence/Cthulhu that it gives us. The idea of innocence being exposed to things it finds frightening, or things it can’t understand, is a classic way to play off Adult Fear and at the same time deliver a bucketload of Nightmare Fuel rendered in red crayon.It gets extra points if the suburban mum decides to hang it on the fridge rather than call a child psychologist or an exorcist.If a Creepy Child draws pictures, they will be this trope. If it’s the Monster of the Week the child has been drawing, expect the Nightmare Fuel Coloring Book to come in handy when the heroes come along – after all, now they’ve got a wall full of pictures of their enemy.

Nightmare Fuelled Coloring Book

The assumption underlying this use is that, since emotionally disturbed children are believed to reflect their problems in their drawings. For more on the various drawing tests issued to children undergoing counselling, see here.

tl;dr: There are no empirical data to support interpretations of children’s drawings. Despite their frequent use in child abuse investigations, drawings are subject to the same criticisms as anatomical dolls (ie. prompting and priming).

The Sixth Sense

The Sixth Sense

Perhaps it was this kind of psychometric gazing into pictures that inspired Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in the opening of The Little Prince?

TheLittlePrince Elephant Hat

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