My daughter is not a wide reader. But she will read the same illustrated series over and over again, and also anything tiny. She loves Sylvanian Families, bugs and tiny books. In an effort to get her reading more widely I asked for recommendations from people who know kids’ books.
Here’s what they suggested:
THE BEATRIX POTTER BOX SET
It’s easy to forget about this one. Because they’re out of copyright, these books are relatively cheap, per book, if you buy them all at once. I found the cheapest place to get them here in Australia is at Big W (for $50). I’ve also seen them at Costco.
Definitely avoid buying the big anthology of the Beatrix Potter stories. Beatrix would be horrified to know they’d ever been printed like that. Those little books were only meant to be read as little books.
Each book is about 166.9 x 231.9 x 28.2mm.
Annick Press published an imprint of tiny books featuring authors such as Robert Munsch. In fact, it was one of these which got my daughter hooked on tiny books. I bought it online thinking it was a regular sized picture book, mainly because it was the cost of a regular sized picture book. I was disappointed to see how tiny it was when it turned up, but perked up when my daughter loved the tiny size of it. The Paper Bag Princess is the most famous book in this series. (We already have the regular size.)
If you’re in America you’ll be able to buy these second hand for a buck each, but in Australia we’d be paying an extra ten dollars per book to get it sent over.
204 x 204mm, with stiff but paperback covers
THE NUTSHELL LIBRARY: MAURICE SENDAK
Four Maurice Sendak books in tiny version, in their own little box. Aww. (And ‘aww’ isn’t normally a word I’d use with Sendak’s dark work.)
It includes Alligators All Around, Chicken Soup With Rice, One Was Johnny and Pierre.
71.12 x 101.6 x 43.18mm | 249.47g
FANCY NANCY PETITE LIBRARY
HarperChildren’s have realised that there are girls (especially?) who love small books, so they’ve published a few of their girly series as tiny versions, including Fancy Nancy and also Pinkalicious.
Fancy Nancy is 76.2 x 109.22 x 38.1mm in its box.
POCKET GENIUS BOOKS FROM DK
Dogs, bugs, horses, Ancient Rome… If you’re after tiny non-fiction, this is your series.
Each book in the series is 97 x 127 x 10mm.
ELSIE PIDDICK SKIPS IN HER SLEEP BY ELEANOR FARJON
Though not published specifically as part of a tiny edition of anything, the 1997 edition of this book is in itself unusually small, though not quite as small as ‘nutshell editions’ of things.
123 x 180 x 10mm
GUESS HOW MUCH I LOVE YOU: LITTLE LIBRARY
“The adorable hares from the classic Guess How Much I Love You are back in a gorgeous miniature slipcase gift collection containing four short stories.Big and Little Nutbrown Hare, from the multi-million-selling picture book Guess How Much I Love You, return in these four seasonal picture books: Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. Each captivating story is seasonally themed and beautifully illustrated, and the four books are collected in a covetable miniature slipcase”
92 x 94 x 52mm
LITTLE CHICK: THREE STORIES
These are board books, so obviously designed for the book-chewing toddler market, but the stories work for an older audience.
91.44 x 96.52 x 38.1mm
LITTLE FUR FAMILY
These small board books have fur on the front, great for sensory seekers. They’re by Margaret Wise Brown.
There was a little fur family warm as toast smaller than most in little fur coats and they lived in a warm wooden tree.
Published 1946, the layout is similar to Beatrix Potter.
BRAMBLY HEDGE BOX SET
The set of A Year In Brambly Hedge are reasonably small, which makes sense because the main characters are mice.
154 x 178 x 52mm
Small editions of books tend to come out before Christmas, because they’re considered ‘stocking stuffers’.
Though they are hard to find if you’re looking for them, I’ve also noticed a disproportionate number of tiny books in secondhand stores. I have a theory about why this is: They’re a pain to keep on a shelf. Mainly because you can’t shelve them. You need a little box for them. I think parents get sick of them lying around and send them to the thrift store. Also, if little books are considered stocking stuffers, it’s easy come, easy go.
Anyhow, keep your eye out in thrift stores if you have a little lover of tiny books! One day you may stumble upon a collector’s item. Four Frogs In A Box by Mercer Meyer is out of print and goes for about $50 second hand.
Which makes me think small, limited editions of books may be especially valuable. It’s far cheaper for publishers to produce regular sized books, and they don’t put them out that often.
I haven’t added the Mr Men books here because I think they are terrible. But I am sure their nice, small size contributed to their wide appeal.
Matilda is a classic, best-selling children’s book first published in 1988. This story draws from a history of children’s literature such as classic fairytales and Anne of Green Gables.
Matilda was written by Roald Dahl, but significantly improved by a talented editor and publisher, Steven Roxburgh. For half of his writing career, Dahl wrote for adults. When Dahl found publishing success in the children’s book market he stuck with that, but his editors were constantly having to make them more suitable for kids. The happy place where the stories ended up — creepy and scary but in a childlike kind of way, filled a real hole in children’s literature at the time. Children needed scary stories which spoke to our revenge fantasies, our hatred for certain adults in our lives and our trickster instincts.
Charactersiation In Matilda — Pre-edited and Post-edited Comparison
Matildaregularlymakesitontolistsof ‘StrongFemaleCharacters‘. This is vexing because I’ve read almost all of Dahl’s books, as well as the biography by Jeremy Treglown, and Dahl was no feminist. He was sexist, at best. But of course he was. Look at the era and milieu into which he was born. I stop short at calling him ‘misogynist’, but only because ‘misanthropist’ feels like a better descriptor. Does this come through in Matilda, even after heavy editing?
Dahl’s pre-edited Matilda is no role model, at least not in the sense most adults would hope for. As explained by Jeremy Treglown:
As Dahl would sometimes relate, the original version was not at all like [the published book]. He didn’t say that the main changes were prompted by his editor, or that after the work was done, Dahl picked a fight with him, took the book away from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and left them for good.
In the first draft of Matilda, a copy of which is still in the Dahl files at FSG, the heroine, not unlike Hilaire Belloc’s Matilda, was “born wicked”. She spends the first part of the book inflicting various tortures on her harmless and baffled parents.Only later does she turn out to be clever.
A clarification: ‘strong female character’ should not be conflated with ‘morally upright’. Lists of ‘strong female characters’ should include all kinds of strength, whether a girl uses her strength for good or for evil. If a female character is terrible, she might still be strong. There should be just as many female villains as male villains, in feminism’s next stride towards equal narrative representation. In that case, Dahl’s original Matilda made for a wonderful female villain. Some of the original Matilda character remains, as she uses her high intelligence to play tricks on her stupider parents, and mostly for the fun of it, and for plain and simple revenge. Matilda, like her father, is a trickster character, and the most interesting trickster stories involve trickster opponents to outwit the original tricksters.
If ‘revenge’ is a writer’s main desireline for their main character, it’s very hard to write. The benefit is that it’s very emotional. Everyone can relate to it. But it’s hard to write because it’s a ‘low level’ emotion which doesn’t build. Dahl got around this by creating an episodic plot, in which the child/ren exact revenge, completing that ‘episode’, but then something even more terrible happens to them.
Miss Trunchbull is another female villain from this story. Unlike Matilda, The Trunchbull remains villanous. Take a closer look at and it’s clear Dahl does not believe true villainy can co-exist with genuine femininity:
The headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, is characterized much as in the final version of the book, although some details, such as her “shadow of a jet-black moustache” and her dressing in men’s clothes of a military type, were eventually dropped. (Dahl was to base her new appearance on that of the principal of a horticultural school near Thame, where he and his sisters bought plants.)
Dahl’s original vision of The Trunchbull is nevertheless used in other more modern stories, such as in ParaNorman. I’m thankful Steven Roxburgh edited out the masculine descriptors. I wish he had also edited out the description of Mrs Wormwood being ‘unfortunately’ fat. Fat phobia in Dahl’s book comes through loud and clear. Readers are encouraged to despise fat characters simply for being fat.
It was the editors who made the Miss Honey character a complete goodie. Dahl’s Miss Honey was more nuanced; she had a gambling habit:
In the second half, nothing in the draft corresponds with the final story as Roxburgh suggested it to Dahl, except that both versions are in the style of Victorian sentimental melodrama and, in both, Matilda is brought face to face with her teacher’s poverty. In the original version, when Matilda’s teacher — called Miss Hayes — learns of her pupil’s secret powers, she makes a confession of her own. A bookie’s daughter, Miss Hayes is a compulsive gambler and has run up debts of 20,000 pounds on the horses. Keen to help, the fascinated Matilda has the idea of using her powerful eyes to fix a race. She practises energetically by knocking over nearby cows and ponies. Meanwhile, Miss Hayes pawns an old ring of her mother’s for 2,000 pounds. The two go off to Newmarket and put the money on a 50:1 outsider. It wins Miss Hayes pockets 100,000 pounds, takes them both home in a taxi, and renounces gambling forever. By now the beginning of the book has been forgotten. Matilda has long ago stopped being naughty, and Miss Trunchbull has disappeared from view altogether.
The Importance Of Contrasting Character Values
The structural problems with this enjoyable nonsense must have been easier to identify than their solutions, but Roxburgh saw various new possibilities, both in Matilda’s cleverness and in the clash between Miss Trunchbull and Miss Hayes over educational methods. He realised, too, that the book would have more shape, and Matilda more identity, if Miss Hayes’s values (nature, poetry, etc.) were contrasted with those of her pupil’s parents. It was clear that in some way the young teacher’s predicament should arise out of the situation already established in the early chapters. Within what was usable, there would need to be some cuts, particularly in the Trunchbull scenes and in the duplication between Matilda’s naughtiness and that of her friends Hortensia and Lavender.
Roxburgh put all these points to Dahl. If they proceeded as before, Dahl would incorporate his suggestions into a new draft, on which the editor would offer further comments, having polished and cut as much as his author would tolerate.
Characters’ Moral Ambiguity Wiped Out In Favour Of Good vs Bad
The first stage went fine. Dahl saw the advantages of emphasizing Matilda’s intelligence and enthusiasm for books. Following Roxburgh’s suggestions, he developed a contrastingly boorish home background for her and reduced the episodes of her bad behaviour, turning them into acts of revenge on her illiterate, sexist, and semi-criminal father. The aptly renamed Miss Honey was built up, meanwhile, into an attractive, sweet-natured, and liberally inclined teacher, a much stronger foil to Miss Trunchbull.
We Might Need To Change Emphasis In The Climax
All of this took up considerably more of the book—almost a hundred pages of typescript, to the first draft’s fifty—allowing Miss Honey’s new revelations about the financial and domestic villainy of Miss Trunchbull to come closer to the climax. Here, Matilda’s powers now play a positive, much briefer, and more dramatic role: the exposure of Miss Trunchbull through magical writing on the blackboard.
Avoid Too Much About The Adults — It’s About The Child Hero
All this was Dahl’s next draft. Inevitably there were still roughnesses. There was too much both of Miss Trunchbull and, now, of Matilda’s parents.
Do Your Research On How Modern Schools Operate
The antique school-story idiom (“New scum,” “We’ve seen her at prayers,” “‘Steady on,’ the boy said. ‘I mean, dash it all, Headmistress'”), however reassuring to middle-class British parents, was incongruous in the setting of a contemporary day school and wouldn’t make much sense to American kids. But Roxburgh could put all this to Dahl in person at Gipsy House when they discussed what was needed in the final draft.
The Rest Is History
Except that, as it turned out, this was the final draft. Perhaps because he was increasingly busy at FSG, perhaps (as Dahl complained) because of complications in his private life, but perhaps also because he had been irked to hear that Dahl had been complaining about him at dinner parties with other publishers, Roxburgh’s letter about the new manuscript was not fulsome. “The story holds together and moves along briskly,” he wrote early in October 1987. “I had hoped to read the manuscript one more time before returning it, but Frankfurt [the Book Fair] looms.” He suggested that he might come to Great Missenden on his return, in two weeks’ time, to review the draft, “or whatever”.
Dahl was tired of being put to so much work. And when financial negotiations began, it became clear that there was a way out. In all the editorial discussions about Matilda, Roxburgh had omitted to make sure that Farrar, Straus and Giroux had a contract with Dahl for the book. They didn’t, and Dahl was now quick to demand, through his agent, a full 15 per cent royalty over and above whatever was paid to Quentin Blake. Roxburgh was left with little choice except to agree, but instead of capitulating graciously, he made the mistake of warning Pollinger that he wouldn’t be able to offer such good terms if Farrar Straus were the originating publishers of any future Dahl book.
In the United Staes, its publisher was Viking, the hardcover wing of Peter Mayer’s Penguin. Their confidence in the story as it stood was amply justified. No book of Dahl’s ever sold so fast. In Britain alone, half a million paperback copies went across the counter within six months. Stephen Roxburgh’s role, of course, was never acknowledged.
Adults who buy children’s books about libraries and a love of reading tend to do well. Of the story apps we’ve published, the one that does the best is the one in which a child develops a love for reading after spending a lot of time in a library. This is a conservative, non-threatening message and no one who reads books really disagrees with it. Roald Dahl went a step further and incorporated a strong anti-TV message, by associating TV viewing with the most despicable characters in the story. Dahl also slipped this message into Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with Mike Teevee and his obsessive pop cultural attitude. I wonder if Dahl watched any TV himself. In any case it was a hypocritical position given that his wife was a film actress and Dahl wrote film scripts.
Steven Roxburgh must have understood — even if Roald Dahl himself did not — that Matilda is functioning as an almost superhero. Superhero stories have certain conventions, and that’s why the other characters needed to be unambiguously good and evil, not yin-yang as Dahl created them. Matilda works because of the stark good-bad distinction. This is the same distinction used in The Witches and The BFG.
Yet she is not a Mary-Sue goody-two-shoes character. We like her. Part of this must be to do with the fact that she enacts our revenge fantasies. Wouldn’t all of us like to play tricks on the adults who treat us with derision? Even as an adult reader, that feeling is there.
Matilda’s small size is brought up time and again. Mice are often anthropomorphised in children’s stories and it works the same way — children identify heavily with small characters. Being small is a shortcoming, but one which can always be overcome by wits.
The superpower of telekinesis also serves to propel Matilda Wormwood into the realm of a romantic/superhero character and away from the Mary-Sue archetype.
On re-reading this as an adult I am actually pretty surprised at how much of the novel is taken up by the back-and-forth oneupmanship which defines one of Dahl’s other MG novels — The Twits. First Matilda gets the better of her parents, then when she starts school she and the other children get the better of The Trunchbull in a similar series of pranks and punks.
Dahl is also a big fan of The Audience Effect to make scenes seem bigger than they would otherwise be. First we have Miss Honey interrogating Matilda, which happens in front of the class. The kindergarten students sit improbably still for this lengthy testing of abilities. A few chapters later we have the forced cake eating scene, which happens on the school stage. Dahl also uses a stage to give The Grand High Witch a platform, and Sophie from The BFG ends up at Buckingham Papers and in the papers.
The scene with the cake is disturbing rather than funny, possibly because I’ve seen Se7en, in which the fat man forced to eat dies. Dahl might easily have written a screenplay such as Se7en were he writing in slightly more modern times. When writing for children, this scene has to end in the boy’s favour. Anything else would be far too horrific. See also: How Scary Is Too Scary?
When it’s Lavender’s turn to play a trick on The Trunchbull, Dahl is very careful to be explicit about her motivation — she admires the others who’ve played tricks and wants her own turn as hero. We love Lavender’s daring, her inventiveness, and we even get a Save The Cat moment as she provides the newt with extra weed to eat. The first chapter in this sequence starts with a chapter that sets up the trick, and ends with the cliffhanger of class about to start.
The Trunchbull is the extreme hyperbolic version of a terrible headmistress — she loathes children. Not only that, she tells them so. But even her raison d’etre is explained: She feels it’s her life’s work to counterbalance the positive feedback children get from their doting parents. She really thinks she’s doing some good in the world.
Comedy comes from watching little Eric spell ‘what’ wrong three times, each time getting it more wrong than before. Comedy also comes from The Trunchbull refusing to admit she was ever small or ever a baby. This character humour is relatable because children find it hard to imagine the adults in their lives as children themselves. When I first started school my father told me m teacher didn’t have a home, that she slept in the cupboard, and I half believed him. Eric gets his ears stretched — slapstick comedy. The final gag in the chapter is a reveal that Miss Trunchbull has worked our Matilda’s father is a crook and has sold her a lemon. The reader was in audience superior position on that one, so feels satisfying. This also ups the stakes for Matilda, because not only does Miss Trunchbull hate children, she especially hates Matilda’s father. This is the cliffhanger of “The Weekly Test”.
In “The First Miracle” the reader is still in audience superior position — we know there’s a newt and guess that Miss Trunchbull is about to swallow it. Now the pleasure comes from waiting for the other shoe to drop.
As you might have guessed, the newt incident spans three chapters, making use of the Rules of Threes in storytelling. Importantly, the newt is saved. And Miss Trunchbull doesn’t swallow the newt — Dahl makes use of the telekinesis he has already set up. Matilda simply knocks the glass of water over so that the scary-looking creature tips out. Miss Trunchbull ends defeated, sending the children out into the yard, which she thinks is a punishment but is absolutely no punishment at all. The children are clear winners.
As Matilda walks down the path towards Miss Honey’s cottage and they recite the poem, I realise Miss Honey and Matilda are a Miss Stacey and Anne Shirley pair of kindred spirits. Anne of Green Gables has been hugely influential, and has influenced Matilda.
Dahl uses allusions to fairytales when describing Miss Honey’s home — as in a classic fairytale such as Hansel and Gretel, the path starts off looking cosy and inviting but the atmosphere changes as they enter ‘the forest‘. Miss Honey herself is a fairytale figure — a rags to riches, put-upon figure. Basically a Cinderella trope who has gone from upper middle class to outwardly middle class but living in poverty.
Miss Honey’s story is a chapter of hypodiegetic narration — “Miss Honey’s Story” makes it no surprise that we’re going to hear all about Miss Honey’s backstory. The big reveal at the end (though I’m sure a few young readers will have guessed) is that Miss Trunchbull is the name of the abusive aunt who killed her father and rewrote his will in her own favour, keeping Miss Honey as an indentured worker. Right out of a fairytale. We also see indentured slavery in tales such as Rumpelstiltskin.
Modern writers have trouble getting parents out of the picture. In real life, caregivers always know where their children are these days, unless there’s some dark abuse and neglect. So writers need children who are orphans or foster children or who disobediently abscond on some important mission. Even in the 1980s the freedom of childhood was starting to disappear. Dahl doesn’t have this issue with Matilda because her parents don’t care where she is. Yet he lampshades her absence anyhow. She’s been at Miss Honey’s house all afternoon but Matilda tells Miss Honey that they won’t care.
The final trick on Miss Trunchbull uses that feeling you get when you’re a kid and you learn your teacher’s first name. You feel you have something on them.
Why does Dahl take Matilda’s power of telekinesis away from her at the end? Probably because it has done its work for the story and leaving it there might suggest more in the series to come. Or, there’s a risk Matilda might continue to use it but for bad reasons. When your life is perfect you don’t need superpowers. Also, readers conservatively value hard work. She’s already been blessed with genius, now she’ll have to use her brains to make her way in life, just like the rest of us plebs. Taking away her powers puts her on the same level as the reader (in a way).
Dahl makes use of a ticking clock technique in the final chapter as Miss Honey and Matilda rush to ask if Matilda can live with Miss Honey rather than escape the police in Spain.
The final sentence of the book must be quite disturbing for a child reader — the image of your family zooming away forever. But the wonderful flip side is that Matilda will be much better off.
Letter to Momo is a 2011 Japanese feature anime directed by Hiroyuki Okiura, also known for Ghost In The Shell. After the oceanographer father drowns in a disaster at sea, mother and daughter move from Tokyo to the small island village where the mother spent holidays once per year with her aunt and uncle to recuperate from her asthma as a child. Creatures from Japanese folklore appear to guide young Momo through the grieving process, in this story intimately connected to Japanese Buddhist and Shinto traditions.
SETTING OF LETTER TO MOMO
Japan is an archipelago of about 3000 islands — five main ones, of course. The director himself grew up on the coast of Hiroshima, which means the edge of the Seto Inland Sea.
Letter To Momo is set on a small island in the Seto Inland Sea of Japan — the body of water separating the islands of Shikoku, Honshu and Kyushu. The real island is called Osaki-Shimojima, whereas the fictional island is shortened and changed slightly to Shiojima.
Though the island is fictional, the landmarks and art are closely based on the real island. For example, Historical Nomieruoka Park is depicted in several scenes. The real island has an area of about 18 square kilometres and a population of about 3,000 people as of 2012. There is a Buddhist temple at its highest point (Mount Ippooji).
The Name Of Shiojima
The name of this island is Shiojima. The first character of Shiojima (汐島) means both ‘tide’ and ‘opportunity’. This is the sort of symbolism which doesn’t translate easily into Western narrative and is part of what makes Chinese characters so hard (and fascinating) to study. In Eastern Asia, the fact that the tide is connected to opportunity maps onto this story starring two characters who return to the sea for a second chance at a full life, even after great loss. And even after the great loss was due to the sea. The history of this connection is to do with Japan’s close historical connection to the sea, and their heavy reliance upon fishing. The difference between having enough to eat or not was all about judging the ebb and flow of the tides.
If you look up a Japanese-Japanese dictionary you’ll learn that 汐 refers specifically to the ebb of evening tide, and is associated with a beautiful view. This makes sense, since the character is made up of the radical for ‘water’ next to the character for ‘evening’. If you write some Japanese you can probably guess the character for morning tide. Yep, it’s 潮. Both words for tide are pronounced the same way — either ushio or shio. In everyday Japanese both are used and no mind is ordinarily given to whether the tide is an evening or a morning one. The character for morning tide seems to be more the default.
汐 is often used in girls’ names, which makes it worth knowing. The character conveys ‘softness’ and has relatively few strokes, making it convenient to write. The character itself, when written in calligraphy, is of a curved shape, which makes it feminine. You’ll find it in names such as Shiori (汐里、汐璃、汐莉), or in combinations pronounced Shiomi and Shione. In names, confusingly for foreigners, this character might alternatively be pronounced ‘Kiyo’. So you’ll find it in names like Kiyomi, Kiyora. When found in boys’ names it will always be pronounced Kiyo, occurring in names like Kiyoharu and Kiyohiro. When used in a boys’ name, ‘evening tide’ will be paired with a character with traditionally masculine virtues, presumably to offset the feminine associations with ocean tide.
Why has the character for evening tide been chosen for the name of this village, instead of the character for morning tide? It could have gone either way because Momo is young and is starting a new life, but if you stayed for the roll of credits you’ll have noticed the pillow shots of the slow, elderly nature of the island. This is a village which is dying, devoid of young people. It’s likely those children jumping off the bridge are the only children in the village. Will Momo build an entire life here? I doubt it. I imagine Momo returns to the mainland for her upper education. In fact, I just checked my watch and it’s already 2018, so she’s probably there now.
If you ask young Japanese people on the street about religion, you get something like this:
In Japan you can consider yourself Buddhist without any of the mystical beliefs of yore, just so long as you have a ‘butsudan’ (a Buddhist altar) in your house (or in your parents’ house, probably), and participate in the Bon Festival. You can see a Buddhist altar in this movie. Mother and daughter stand in front of it and think about the dead father. There’s a photo of him hanging there. My host father was the most interested in my host family’s altar — he’d take a small portion of food in there each night for his dead ancestors. The following night he’d bring out the crusty old rice and replace with new. The altar is basically a place where you go to think about loved ones — a convenient little grave right inside your own home. (It’s not where the actual dead bodies are kept.)
At the height of summer, Japanese people have Obon.
Obon (お盆) or just Bon (盆) is a Japanese Buddhist custom to honour the spirits of one’s ancestors. This Buddhist-Confucian custom has evolved into a family reunion holiday during which people return to ancestral family places and visit and clean their ancestors’ graves, and when the spirits of ancestors are supposed to revisit the household altars. It has been celebrated in Japan for more than 500 years and traditionally includes a dance, known as Bon-Odori.
The lantern tradition is a great spectacle, and the only part of Obon depicted in Letter To Momo:
Tōrō nagashi (灯籠流し) is a Japanese ceremony in which participants float paper lanterns down a river; tōrō is a word for “lantern,” while nagashi means “cruise” or “flow.” This activity is traditionally performed on the final evening of the Bon Festival in the belief that it will help to guide the souls of the departed to the spirit world.
What must it be like, to really believe that your dead ancestors are visiting Earth again each year? In A Letter To Momo, the idea that the world is inhabited by a parallel realm of live creatures harks back to an earlier time where people really did believe in the supernatural. Dead souls were (are?) thought to hang about for a bit before going to ‘up there’, a belief which helps the grieving process.
Japanese Culture In Letter To Momo
You’ll notice some specifically Japanese body language in this anime. Here’s Momo in the middle of a big, exaggerated march. This is a girl on a mission. This is a particularly juvenile kind of walk, emphasising youth. I wonder if it comes from the fact that Japanese school children used to do a lot of marching. (There’s still ‘marching music’ played in many Japanese schools at cleaning time.)
Something the animators of this film do extremely well is the body language of Momo (and Mame). Momo doesn’t just sit on the tatami mats — she pushes herself around on them while lying down, propelled forward by her feet.
There are numerous other examples of a girl behaving how kids really behave when they’re not confined to a chair, and it’s not something I’ve seen a studio like Pixar do particularly well. The kids in Pixar films — compared to this one — behave like little adults. Is that because our Western way of making kids sit on chairs and sleep on raised beds prevents them from being kids? In any case, the childlike body language of Momo when she is bored and at home in her Japanese-style house is especially realistic. I believe any child would behave like this in the same setting.
Momo’s mother beckons to her in a typically Japanese way, calling her over to meet the elderly relatives. When I first got to Japan I thought my host-mother was shooing me away when she did this.
You’ll see Koichi the postman point at his face to mean ‘me’, whereas Westerners tend to point to our chests, as if our ‘selves’ reside in our hearts rather than in our heads.
Shoes are removed in the entrance nooks (genkan), and although it’s polite and ‘correct’ to turn your shoes around to face the door when you step out of them, most kids don’t. We see Yota step into his shoes backwards, shuffling backwards out the front door in a comic-realistic fashion. These are kids being kids, without the parental intervention.
Bicycles and mopeds are a great way of getting around narrow and winding roads such as these, because utility vehicles and cars would need to back up when meeting an oncoming vehicle.
Is there a rule that umbrellas make an appearance in every Japanese anime? I shouldn’t be surprised really, since umbrella culture is strong in Japan. With a heavy and predictable rainy season, in which rain is usually unaccompanied by wind, making them genuinely useful, there is usually a point in a Japanese film when rain is utilised as pathetic fallacy. Here, too, a rainstorm not only functions as an impediment to the characters getting what they want (a doctor for the mother), but also stands in for Momo’s emotions. Rain = tears, thunder and lightning = uncontrollable and strong feelings.
Japanese Folklore In A Letter To Momo
The ‘goblins’ who appear to Momo are known as ‘yookai’ (with the long ‘o’ sound) in Japanese. The class of yokai is much wider than the subtitles translation of ‘goblin’.
Yōkai (妖怪, ghost, phantom, strange apparition) are a class of supernatural monsters, spirits and demons in Japanese folklore. The word yōkai is made up of the kanji for “bewitching; attractive; calamity”; and “spectre; apparition; mystery; suspicious”.
Though historically yokai didn’t look like anything in particular, their forms started to solidify in the collective Japanese imagination once artists started sketching their own imaginings onto emaki (horizontal, illustrated narratives created during the 11th to 16th centuries).
The yokai featuring in A Letter To Momo:
Iwa no ke — Spirit of Rocks. This guy looks scary at first because he can’t close his massive mouth. But when he is revealed to be harmless, his permanently open maw makes him look easily duped and comical. Rocks are associated with masculinity in Japanese culture. Therefore he is depicted as big and strong. An evil version of this guy can bite your head off, as Kawa points out. Like Grizz of the We Bare Bears, Iwa is the guy who takes the lead, even when his ideas are terrible.
Kawa no ke — Spirit of Rivers. This guy is particularly grotesque, with stinky big farts being one of his superpowers. An evil version of Kawa can suck your soul out through your mouth, as he comically demonstrates on Kawa. Evil river spirts can also cause drowning. But in other traditional stories they just fart, for some reason. (You’d think this would be more heavily associated with wind, wouldn’t you?) Kawa hates anything that requires effort, and speaks with the dialect favoured by hoodlums who’d like to fancy themselves Yakuza.
Mame no ke — Spirit of Beans. This little guy is harmless and innocent, like a toddler. He is shown to be friendly with all the spirits on the island, which comes in handy later. Beans are associated with smallness in Japanese language, and ‘mame’ is also a homophone for honest, devoted, hardworking and active. Of the three yokai here, Mame is the airhead who does things at his own pace. He doesn’t always hang around with the other two, having his own friendly friends.
The idea that there’s a spirit in everything is a Shinto idea rather than a Buddhist one. (Is Shintoism a ‘religion’? A Japanese lecturer at university was a stickler about this — I got marked down in an essay for Shintoism a religion. I’m still bitter.)
Another film — one from Hayao Miyazaki — Princess Mononoke, is all about the spirit of things. In fact, that’s what mononoke means: the spirit of things. If you’ve already seen that anime you’ll recognise the nymphs of the forest. (Kodama)
STORY STRUCTURE OF A LETTER TO MOMO
This story spans the time between learning of the father’s death at sea and his final departure to the world of the dead, though the plot begins with Momo arriving at her new home, and flashes back to fill in the parts when they lived in Tokyo, including the two main parts relevant to her recovery:
The argument she had with her father
The phone call she overheard when her mother learned of his death
The argument is presented twice, once with a medium angle camera, the other view from further away. The first time we don’t know what the argument is about, so the exact details of it are used later as a reveal.
Whenever a plot begins with a child starting in a new place, there will be flashbacks. The story usually starts a bit earlier. There’s a reason why people move and in stories it’s often pretty grim.
When I really started to notice, I wasn’t alone. (Used in the poster below)
Dear Momo; An unfinished letter from her father is left behind.
A wonderful encounter.
They had a “mission”.
Are you telling your loved ones what truly matters?
Words that were never said.To save those you love.
Eleven-year-old Momo is the viewpoint character, the main part of the story, and also the character who undergoes the main character arc, making Momo unambiguously the main character. You’ve probably noticed that Japanese directors aren’t afraid to make feature films for everyone starring girls. There’s a reason for this which isn’t feminist in origin — these girl characters have flaws but are ultimately a version of the Female Maturity Formula. While Momo has her faults, the little mother in her makes her the voice of reason, persuading the male-gendered yokai characters to behave themselves, going to great lengths to stop them from stealing vegetables from the villagers. Upholding the moral fabric of a community is more often considered a feminine job. The yokai make stereotyped reference to ‘women’ numerous times in the dialogue, which is what genders them male in a more-than-symbolic way.
Momo’s ‘ghost‘ is that she has lost her father. We are not told this right away. As is usual, this ghost is withheld as a reveal.
Momo needs to move on from her father’s death and forgive herself.
The problem is, her father is dead, and the last time she saw him she told him to go away and never come back. Now she can’t take those words back.
Her shortcoming is that she can be ‘wagamama’, as Japanese people might put it. Selfish, inward looking. The mother is presented non-empathetically to the audience, but this is because we are seeing her through Momo’s eyes. Momo does not see her mother cry, and nor do we. We only see the mother leave each day for her nursing seminars, leaving her daughter with the basics but alone nonetheless, told to amuse herself with homework. Japanese children do get a lot of homework over summer, but Momo is between schools. She has little motivation to do it.
Momo’s main opponent is ultimately herself — her own conscience — she can’t forgive herself for those careless words she threw at her father. But in a narrative ‘oneself’ makes for a really boring story. Therefore, we have fully embodied opponents which represent the very things Momo doesn’t like about herself. In this supernatural tale them come to her in the form of the yokai.
These yokai are initially very scary, especially for young children. But as soon as Momo works out the nature of them they morph into comedic characters more reminiscent of ribald Japanese humour, resplendent with farts and nose-picking and hairy butt cheeks. They are quite grotesque. Momo, too, thinks of herself as grotesque after yelling at her dad. These yokai are self-absorbed, shown by their never-ending appetites and inability to give a damn about whose food they are stealing.
Momo’s human opponent is also her mother, standing in the way of just packing up and moving back to Tokyo.
At first the twelve-year-old boy looks like he may turn into a romantic opponent, and other directors would have made the most of this possibility but as it happens these kids are allowed to be kids. At eleven years old Momo is pre-adolescent, which is a less usual age for main characters. Main characters tend to be twelve. Twelve-year-olds are on the cusp of adulthood, but also in English language they are about to hit the ‘teen’ years. This makes me wonder for the first time — is there something about the Japanese way of counting which makes twelve-years-of-age not so special? When counting beyond ten in Japanese it goes ‘ten-one, ten-two, ten-three, ten-four…’. There’s no phonological change after twelve. The concept of ‘teenager’ comes from English, as does the Japanese loanword, ‘tiineejaa’. Is our Western concept of twelve as ‘the end of childhood’ down to the words we use for numbers?
Momo’s plan that sustains the middle part of the film is ‘To prevent the yokai from stealing the village vegetables’. This all changes when Ikuko has her asthma attack — now the plan is dire and simple — Momo must get medical help during a terrible storm in order to save her mother’s life, otherwise she’ll be left an orphan.
The big struggle phase of A Letter To Momo reminds me of the one in Hud, but only in one sense: A physical tousle is followed by a war of words. These lead into a ‘life or death’ struggle. In Hud, Hud tries to rape Alma. In A Letter To Momo, Momo’s mother almost dies of asthma.
By the way, my asthmatic husband says the depiction of asthma in this film is better than in most, though asthma attacks don’t tend to be accompanied by coughing. This massive asthma attack is foreshadowed by two events:
The old man is told not to smoke by his wife, because the old woman knows it sets off Ikuko’s asthma.
Ikuko is drinking tea and it goes down the wrong way. This coughing and spluttering fit is probably why the animators thought it necessary to make Ikuko cough during the asthma attack.
Here’s what’s left off the screen: Ikuko’s getting the doctor. Instead there is a cut from the stormy scene with all the supernatural creatures banding together to save Momo’s mother, right to the next morning, with the mother lying in bed. From that high angle, at first it’s a possibility that she is dead. So that’s one good reason to cut. The other is that there would be no ironic potential in a doctor’s scene, and every scene needs some level of irony. At the doctor’s, Ikuko would be treated for her asthma. We don’t need to see that because it goes exactly as we expect it would.
As mentioned above, one of the taglines transliterated from ‘catch copy’ in Japanese is:
気がつけば、私、ひとりじゃなかった。 When I really started to notice, I wasn’t alone.
Momo’s big anagnorisis happens in between big struggle scenes. Before rushing out to cross the bridge Momo realises that her mother has been badly affected by her father’s death. This is prompted by the old woman saying that Ikuko’s suppression of emotion has contributed to her failing health. All this time Momo has been wallowing in her own pity. She is lonely all day and doesn’t want to be here where she has no friends, her mother won’t believe they’re surrounded by supernatural creatures that only she can see… Yet Ikuko has her own inner world that Momo cannot see — Ikuko has lost a husband just as much as Momo has lost a father.
At first the film makes us think that by ‘not alone’ Momo means the yokai. Which also works. But really, more deeply and more symbolically, Momo is not alone because she and her mother are going through the same grief. Hence, the deeper meaning of the catch copy.
The second part of the anagnorisis happens when Momo reads the letter from her dead father, sent back on the lantern boat. This is the mother’s anagnorisis, too. She’s had nothing to do with the yokai, but this time she allows herself to believe that her dead husband has a kind message from beyond the grave.
By the way, the English version of the catch copy asks us, “Are you telling your loved ones what really matters?” Which speaks to an interesting cultural difference. Westerners value “I love yous” and other grand gestures of love expressed towards those closest to us, but Japanese families are traditionally laconic in this regard, preferring to let gestures of love speak for themselves. This may be changing with globalisation.
Momo plucks up the courage to jump into the sea from the bridge — all so symbolic it almost hurts.
Mother and daughter will always have each other. As they stand together on the beach we know that their relationship will improve from now on. The yokai are no longer needed, so they have departed with the rest of the dead souls at Obon.
CHARACTERISATION OF MOMO
A number of reviewers have something like this to say about the character of Momo:
Momo’s displays of emotion belie an otherwise flat characterisation. Despite the amount of time spent with her, both in and out of flashbacks, she never becomes a truly compelling or inspiring protagonist, as nearly all of the Miyazaki heroines do. Considering that she is in some serious psychological pain, it’s not totally surprising that Momo spends at least half of the film with her shoulders slumped and head down; it’s just a bit disappointing that she rarely reveals herself to be more than what she appears on the surface, exhibiting a plot arc more than a full-fledged personality.
And I’m not sure why. Could it be that English-speaking reviewers can’t connect to an eleven-year-old Japanese girl? Now that I’ve analysed the structure it’s nothing to do with that. Momo’s inability to express her feelings may make her a little distant to a Western audience, but I suspect a native Japanese audience intuitively grasps what she would be feeling inside, and identify with her civic-mindedness regarding saving the community vegetables.
To The Manor Born is a British romantic comedy series written by Peter Spence which aired from 1979 to 1981. The actors reunited for a Christmas special in 2007. The writer is also known for Rosemary & Thyme and Not The Nine O’Clock News. Spence is educated in politics and American studies, which come across in his one-liners — these English characters have a contempt for all things American and there is a stark division between the blue bloods and the Labour government. He married into the family that runs this estate, so I can’t imagine anyone better positioned to write from an outsider’s perspective about a small English community set around a parish than Peter Spence.
SETTING OF TO THE MANOR BORN
Characters Who Stand In For Subcultures
Oftentimes when two characters clash in fiction, those individuals stand in for the clash between groups of people irl. This elevates an otherwise simple comedy or domestic drama. In Hud we have a clash between old values and new (1960s) values of the American South. In 2017 we saw a similar clash in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, in which certain characters exemplified racist, insular attitudes. Others struggle to deal with the new, kinder culture. Still others display progressive values. In To The Manor Born we have a very British clash between aristocracy and the nouveau riche — two very different kinds of rich, but both rich all the same, and therefore foreign to the vast majority of the audience.
TO THE MANOR BORN STORY STRUCTURE
Structure Of A Transgression Comedy
Each episode of To The Manor Born conforms to the transgression comedy. This is a perfect structure for two characters whose modus operandi — and main character attribute — is to pretend they are something they are not.
Discontent: someone is unhappy about something
Transgression with a mask: peculiar to comedy (and, incidentally, to noir thrillers)
Transgression without a mask: midpoint disaster when the mask is ripped off
Dealing with consequences
Spiritual Crisis: happens in almost every story
Growth Without a Mask
The stand-out example of this comedy structure is Tootsie, but can be seen all over comedy, including many episodes of The I.T. Crowd.
Returning to To The Manor Born after a long time (it was a series I grew up with), I was slightly surprised to see that Richard DeVere is set up as an equal insofar as screentime and empathy goes. My memory is that this is a story about Audrey. We actually meet Richard first, as he pulls into the village, setting him up as the viewpoint character. Like Richard, we are amused as outsiders by the eccentricities of the vicar. Richard comes across as very reasonable — we sympathise with him.
We soon see that Richard wants what he wants and stops at nothing to get it. He’ll even crash a funeral gathering to get his dream house. Richard reveals himself to be a trickster, though we don’t know the extent of this until episode two, when we learn that he is part Czechoslovakian, part Polish. (This is the perfect example of transgression comedy in which ‘the mask’ comes off. Richard DeVere is revealed to have a Czech birth name. )
Richard’s shortcoming is that he uses people to advance himself socially, and this makes him blind to whatever else is going on peripherally. He demands to be treated with respect, and in the business world he no doubt gets it, but here in blue blood territory he is starting from the bottom and must earn respect in a foreign environment.
Audrey fforbes-Hamilton is presented immediately as a trickster. The trickster is a very popular archetype with audiences, and we needn’t sympathise with them at all because they are so interesting. Tricksters make plans and follow them through. All we need in order to sympathise with a character is right there. We don’t even have to agree with their morality, and we wouldn’t agree with Audrey’s if we knew her in person — Audrey is a pragmatic, gold-digging schemer who will happily use people to get what she wants.
Audrey is also part of a long British tradition of comedic, socially aspiring women, which were very popular sit-com fodder in the 1970s and 80s, and which may be making a comeback.
These women care about no one but themselves and Audrey is probably on the sociopathic spectrum, treating all people as tools, failing to even recognise the emotion of sadness after her blue blood husband dies of double pneumonia and good living. An older, American analogue would be Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind, in that Peter Spencer uses the same trick — he surrounds Audrey with people who do like her. This tells the audience that bad characters can’t be all bad.
Audrey and Marjory are among the second-to-last generation of toff women who were never expected to work, trained only in social manners and managing domestic staff. The very last of that class included women such as Princess Diana, born 1961. Audrey and Marjory would have been born around 1940, same as Penelope Keith. Audrey’s other shortcoming is that she’s just not fit for integration into regular life, even though that is exactly what is demanded of her now that England changed markedly after the war. Audrey has no marketable skills. Unless she marries rich again there is no place for someone like Audrey, and this is a very real problem for her. We could dig more deeply and it says something serious about upper-class women, and how a sexist dichotomy imprisoned them, in its own way.
Richard wants the dream house to impress his business pals, and also to pass himself off as old money. Audrey and Marjory’s xenophobia shows us that Richard has been up against racism his entire life, and we can see why he might want to offload his continental heritage to make life easier for himself.
Audrey wants to continue living in Grantleigh Manor, which has been in the family (her former husband’s family?) for 400 years. I doubt this heritage factor is important to her in the least — Richard pulls her up when she claims certain traditions are ancient when they’re really only new. Audrey wants to stay in the house to maintain her prestige in her community. It is a huge comedown for an aristocratic woman to be ousted from the family manor.
In episode one we are shown Audrey’s history — she had an ‘arranged’ first marriage (arranged by herself), and we’ve not surprised to learn in episode two that she has designs on Richard DeVere, not for him but for the manor. It’s also no surprise because it’s right there in the title. The title is so good because there is irony in it. Audrey is no more deserving of that manor than anyone else. I feel like this show gave modern culture the phrase ‘to the manor born’ but it goes back much further — To The Manner Born is a play on the phrase “to the manner born,” from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
The desire-line ‘to marry Richard and move back into Grantleigh Manor’ will sustain the entire series. And because this is a romantic comedy we know the two will get together eventually.
What keeps them apart over the course of three seasons are mini-desires that are either fulfilled or stymied in the course of one half-hour episode.
01: Richard wants to buy Grantleigh whereas Audrey wants to continue living there as a happy widow. (The sustaining desire-line is established.)
02: Richard wants to find a social secretary to help him integrate into the village without impacting on his role as CEO of his supermarket chain. Audrey is not at all happy about being ousted into the much smaller property across the meadow, but wants to reclaim some dignity of sorts by tricking Richard into embarrassing himself by thinking someone else has moved in instead — someone he can use. In this episode Audrey gets what she wants in a small way, while Richard has already got what he wants in a big way — the manor.
03: Audrey wants to turn Richard into a church-going man. This is one concrete improvement she can make to a man she wants to turn into marriageable material. (Marriageable in her own eyes, that is.) Peter Spence is sure we know that this is part of a larger scheme by having Audrey tell Marjery so.
04: Audrey continues on her Richard improvement strategy. He must learn to protect the nation’s heritage. Instead, he has replaced an ugly but culturally significant mantel with a safe full of cash. Audrey wants him to feel bad about this. (It backfires when she ends up with the ugly mantel in her lodge.)
05: Audrey wants Richard to come to her on “bended knee” to ask for help in organising an annual ball. She wants to maintain her former status in the community and also impress Richard with her organising skills.
06: In episode six, Mrs Poo is the character whose desire sets the story going — she is bored at the Manor and wants a party. But because Mrs Poo is a minor character, her desire is also minor, and can be considered a McGuffin desire. It is only once Audrey attends the party that her own story-worthy desire kicks in — she wants to show the village that she is doing well financially. For that she must go on her usual overseas holiday. But as she explains to Brabinger, it’s appearing to go on holidays that is the main thing, not going on the holiday itself. It makes sense for Audrey’s character that she doesn’t enjoy overseas holidays in the slightest. This is shown via her reading a holiday journal from the previous year, in which she was bored. Outside her own very specific environment, the xenophobic Audrey flounders. This harks back to the wider, enduring desireline of Audrey — regain her former position or die. Audrey is the human equivalent of an insect which can only survive on one single blighted species of grain.
07: At the beginning of the episode it is revealed that Audrey has been having cash flow problems. Ordinarily, a real life person would ‘want money’, but because this is a comedy and because Audrey is a comic archetype, Audrey doesn’t really want money. (For her, such a desire is crass.) She is ironically upbeat about the late bills and wants to bounce a cheque at one of Richard’s supermarkets to get her own back. He took her house, after all. Then she wants to know what’s going on at the Manor, because Richard has a clearer desire in this episode — in an attempt to appear more English he is staring in an advert for Fontleroy’s Old English Tonic. When this is revealed to Audrey she has an about turn and her desire changes — she wants to star in the advert herself, considering herself more genuinely suitable for the job.
Romances are so difficult to write because the main opponents are the lovers, to each other. This series follows the fight-fight-kiss-kiss tradition of romance, where the audience sees from the very beginning that two characters are perfect for each other, and now we must (hopefully) enjoy watching them come to the same realisation, swapping witty banter (and it had better be witty).
A mistake some romance writers make when writing these fight-fight-kiss-kiss stories is simply creating personalities that clash. That’s not enough. Their agendas need to clash. Agenda = desire + plan, so their desires and their plans must clash as well.
The manor provides a very solid goal (desire) for both of them, but they can’t both have it.
Audrey and Marjory have a longterm, sisterly relationship in which Marjory is often the voice of reason, speaking for an audience who would otherwise question Audrey’s motives. A staple of British comedy is the stupid sidekick. In The Vicar of Dibley we have Alice, in Only Fool’s and Horses we have Rodney Trotter, and so on. This dynamic is also utilised frequently in cop and buddy comedies, where one guy is wily and the other dimwitted, getting them into trouble.
What is Audrey’s overall plan? After the wedding she plans to stay in the Manor, living life as before, only without her husband. This plan is soon dashed when she is told she is in debt. She has a plan to raise funds, but has no idea about how hard money is to come by, so these plans fail and she is required to leave her family manor.
Her plan switches and she intends to win over Richard. She’s planned this before the other characters realise — she has purchased the lodge, very nearby. Audrey understands Richard completely and knows that in order to win his heart she has to prove herself as wily and socially aspirational as he is himself. All of these trickster stories are flirtation. And the audience loves to see them fall. These are powerful people we’re laughing at, which makes it satire.
The big struggle scene in each episode of To The Manor Born involves witty back-and-forth dialogue between Richard and Audrey, often with an audience such as Marjory, sometimes alone. Spence started out as a gag writer for radio, but as he explains in the special features, Penelope Keith told him she’s not a gag actor. Also, gags would not be in keeping for a lady of the manor, so that explains why the big struggles happen in dialogue.
The writer kept the winning and losing about even, to show the audience that these two characters are made for each other. Audrey succeeds in getting Richard to church, but in the next episode she succeeds in conveying the importance of historical buildings but fails at the same time — she didn’t want the old mantel in her house. In “The Grapevine” episode, both Audrey and Richard are victims, discovered by the whole village coming out of the woods at night. They’ve been observing badgers.
In “A Touch Of Class”, Audrey attempts to trick Richard into eating a terrible mean, but she has been outfoxed by her drunkard temporary butler, who serves up a delicious meal, cooked by a renowned good cook as a favour.
A look at the structure of a transgression comedy (above) maps the ‘anagnorisis’ phase onto the ‘coming off of the mask’.
Over the course of the first series of To The Manor Born we see Richard realise that he has to learn a new culture and make a big effort to fit in, as custodian of the land he now owns. The whole village now knows that he’s not old money, so he’ll have to try extra hard to fit in. He realises in episode two that when you’re living among blue bloods, they’re not always happy to do what you want them to do, e.g. be your social secretary.
As for Audrey, she starts off resenting Richard, then realises she might be able to marry him and return to her manor, then she realises she’ll have to mould him into the sort of man she would want. Finally by the end of season one it is clear both of these characters are more similar than they are different, and Audrey realises she likes him as a person.
The back-and-forth one-upmanship and the discovery that each of them is duplicitous as the other will culminate at the end of season three in a wedding. The wedding episode drew huge viewer numbers in 1981. It was the only episode not written by Spence, for some reason. Perhaps Spence felt more comfortable writing transgression comedy than in tidying up a romance with a happy ending. These are two different skills, and two different sensibilities.