Slapping On Filters And Other Things Digital Artists Get Tired Of Hearing

The Horn Book has published a balanced and interesting article about digital and traditional artwork found in modern picturebooks, in which case some reviewers and enthusiasts are keen to know exactly how a piece of art has been created. The article wisely advises in its title: Just Enjoy The Pictures.

However, something from the following paragraph pulls me up short:

While many people embrace the notion that the computer is merely another tool in an artist’s toolbox, there also exists a disdain for art that tries to be something it isn’t, such as digitally created artwork that attempts to look like it was rendered in oils. Why go through the trouble to fake it when you can do the real thing? Why slap a filter on it to make it look like oils instead of taking the messy risk of working with actual paint?

I can’t work out from the article whether the writer realises that no (published) digital artist is simply ‘slapping on filters’.

So I’d like to make it clear here: Filters are about as useful as tits on a bull. There’s no ‘slapping one on’ to achieve any artwork with soul. Indeed, I don’t even know why Photoshop ships with filters. I haven’t yet noticed a picturebook artist who has found a use for a single one.

However, some artists may be making judicious use of filters. Judiciously. Maybe. With lots of mods.

Which leads me to my next point, a response to the clip from a new (niche) documentary called Making It, in which illustrators talk about their work. I haven’t seen the film. There’s a clip on video in which an illustrator called Anthony Francis Moorman talks about various things illustration related — how he enjoys drawing boobs and skulls and not buildings — then he goes on to  say that he takes great pride in the fact that his drawings are done by hand. He says that because of all the art software out there now, a lot of young illustrators are doing their work entirely on computer, and ‘it has no soul’.

As usual, I tend to question cause and effect.

1. ‘Soul’ and ‘spirit’ etc. are religious terms, which are trying to describe something else. ‘Soul’ is such a nebulous term that I wonder what it really refers to in relation to art. Does it mean, perhaps, that the slightly shaky lines, imperfectly coloured, are more attractive than the dead-straight lines which have been auto-filled in a program such as Adobe Illustrator? Does the ability to make perfect perspective with the guides in the latest versions of Adobe Photoshop take something away from the slightly skewed, morphed, unnatural perspective achieved by hand-illustrators?

2. Assuming that this is what is meant by ‘no soul’, is there no soul because the drawings have been done on a computer, or are the drawings soulless because they are being done by people who’ve had no real training in the art of perspective, shading and colour theory? In this case, the computer is not the problem; rather, computers may be standing in the way of a broad art education.

3. ‘By hand’ is an interesting term to those of us who paint digitally using a Wacom tablet. Because when I’m drawing on paper I’m using a pen-like tool. Similarly, when I’m drawing via computer, I’m using a pen-like tool. The degree to which I am able to replicate the experience of drawing on paper is determined by the amount of practice I’ve had: It takes several years to become really comfortable working with a Wacom pen, looking at the screen while drawing onto the desk. But I am still using my ‘hand’.

Moorman’s excerpt is interesting because his thoughts are representative of many attitudes towards the inferiority of digital art and the superiority of non-computer based art. It will be interesting to see if and how these attitudes evolve as illustrators move even further into an era in which it’s impossible to make a living without involving computers at some stage of the development process.

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What Is Transmedia?

Transmedia Storytelling references the process of using various parts and elements of a topic that are shared periodically via multiple means of delivery (transmedia) for the explicit purpose of drawing in, intriguing and entertaining those who are targeted to receive the transmedia.

Cat Flippen

And gives an example using The Matrix:

Parts of the entire story were spread out and portrayed through a variety of media: three films, two comic books, many video games, and animated short films. In order to grasp the entire story, you had to partake of the entire “universe” of The Matrix. The mix of the old media (the television show, the movie) with the new media (split story experience, fan-driven participation) is seen often.

Stereotypes, Tropes and Archetypes

WHAT IS A STEREOTYPE?

The archetypal story unearths a universally human experience, then wraps itself inside a unique, culture-specific expression. A stereotypical story reverses this pattern: It suffers a poverty of both content and form. It confines itself to the narrow, culture-specific experience and dresses in stale, non-specific generalities. […] Stereotypical stories stay at home, archetypal stories travel.

Story, Robert McKee

It’s hard if you confirm a stereotype and it’s hard if you violate a stereotype and it’s hard if you think you’re violating the stereotype only because you hate it so much.

Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex by Angela Chen
COMEDY TRICK MAKING USE OF STEREOTYPES

Like many comic writers, Jeff Kinney, author of the Wimpy Kid books, makes use of our stereotypes by giving us just a few details then leaving us to fill in the rest. There’s no getting around it a lot of comic writers rely on stereotypical views of their audience.

Greg’s older brother Rodrick is set up as a fool. Like lots of stereotypes we hold about dimwits, he can’t spell and is a member of a rock band. Of course, being unable to spell and having an interest in rock music has zero correlation to overall intelligence. But we find this combination of traits funny because it reinforces everything we believe (sort of) about someone who can’t spell ‘loaded diaper’, or who thinks they’re going to become famous via their garage band. Every now and then, however, Rodrick does something amazing. His strokes of genius defy our expectations (based on stereotype) and are ironically funny for that reason.

comic by Poorly Drawn Lines

WHAT IS A TROPE?

A trope is a pattern which can be seen time and again in various stories. The site TV Tropes is a good place to start for many, many examples of tropes (not just seen on TV). However, the ‘tropes’ on that site get a little too specific. Some of the most specific examples can’t really be considered tropes at all, except to the most discriminating of story consumers. In order to work, the trope has to be recognised by the audience.

WHAT IS AN ARCHETYPE?

Archetypes are fundamental psychological patterns within a person. They are roles a person may play in society, essential ways of interacting with others.

e.g.

Archetype is a five-dollar word for ‘pattern’, or for the mythic original on which a pattern is based. It’s like this: somewhere back in myth, something — a story, let’s call it — comes into being. It works so well, for one reason or another, that it catches on, hangs around, and keeps popping up in subsequent stories. That component could be anything: a quest, a form of sacrifice, flight, a plunge into water, whatever resonates and catches our imaginations, setting off vibrations deep in our collective consciousness, calling to us, alarming us, inspiring us to dream or nightmare, making us want to hear it again and again. You’d think that these components, these archetypes, would wear out with use the way cliche wears out, but they actually work the other way: they take on power with repetition, finding strength in numbers. … When we hear or see or read one of these instances of archetype, we feel a little frisson of recognition and utter a little satisfied ‘aha!’. And we get that chance with fair frequency, because writers keep employing them.

Thomas C. Foster, How To Read Literature Like A Professor

Because they are basic to all human beings, archetypes cross cultural boundaries and have universal appeal.

The idea of an archetype comes from Jung’s psychoanalytical writings. Jung wrote about our heads, but the Canadian critic Northrop Frye took these ideas and applied them to books. Some academics use the word archetype and then make sure to distance themselves from the specifically Jungian definition. This is from a footnote I happened across:

The concept of “archetype” is used here to denote a widely-known story characterised by a repetition in its characteristics (the setting and resolution are predetermined) and a slight variation in its details; the concept of the “archetype” as used in this paper is devoid of the Jungian overtones commonly associated with the concept.

See: Fairytale Archetypes

RELATED LINKS ABOUT STEREOTYPES

  1. World map of useless stereotypes.
  2. Your Scene Sucks. Why you are just like everybody else.
  3. Stereotypes, stereotypes, everywhere from Teen Skepchick
  4. Automotive stereotypes look a bit different in Australia, so this American summary was interesting.

Portal Fantasy and the Symbolism of Doors

Portal fantasy or portal speculative fiction is a story which transports the characters into a magical world via a gate/wardrobe/magical tree or anything else the author might imagine. As a child, this was my favourite kind of story, alongside the everyday humorous category of middle grade fiction written so well by Beverly Cleary.

A PORTAL CAN BE ALMOST ANYTHING

  • Rabbit holes (Alice In Wonderland)
  • Keyholes
  • Mirrors (Through The Looking Glass). Mirrors are commonly thought to be a doorway to other worlds. It is traditionally considered unlucky to look in a mirror from Good Friday through Holy Saturday until the early hours of Easter Sunday. You might bring forth lurking bad spirits.
  • Cyclones (Wizard of Oz)
  • A wardrobe (The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, The Aunt and Amabel by E. Nesbit)
  • A Chimney (Mary Poppins)
  • A painting (in The Witches by Roald Dahl)
  • A tunnel (The Cabin In The Woods)
  • A wall at the train station (Harry Potter)
  • A computer screen
  • Television set (Pleasantville, Poltergeist)
  • Rope swing across a river (Bridge To Terabithia)
  • A tall tree in the middle of the woods (The Magic Faraway Tree)
  • A science lab (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Back To The Future)
  • A maze of back alleys in your own neighbourhood (The Cat Returns)
  • Under water (Ponyo, Begone The Raggedy Witches)
  • In various religious practices the vesica piscis (which looks like two intersecting circles) represents a doorway where the spirit world enters the material world.
  • In various religions, the doorway marks the portal between the real world, and the world of either Heaven or Hell.
"The Gates of FairyLand" (1922) by Margaret W. Tarrant (1888-1959)
“The Gates of FairyLand” (1922) by Margaret W. Tarrant (1888-1959)

When Iris’s elevator button-pushing is disrupted by a new member of the family, she’s pretty put out.

That is, until the sudden appearance of a mysterious new button opens up entire realms of possibility, places where she can escape and explore on her own. But when it becomes a question between going it alone or letting someone else tag along, Iris finds that sharing a discovery with the people you love can be the most wonderful experience of all.

The West-Door of Moria from Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien -illustration by  Darrell K Sweet, 1975 portal
The West-Door of Moria from Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien -illustration by Darrell K Sweet, 1975
Tom Lovell Panama Threat, illustration for story in Woman's Home Companion 1941 blue door
Tom Lovell Panama Threat, illustration for story in Woman’s Home Companion, 1941.

Like anything which is basically a hole or a recess, the door is considered a feminine symbol. The door stands in opposition to the wall.

LINGER IN THE PORTAL

Spending time in the portal itself is key.

One obvious reason to linger in a portal is to give an audience the enjoyment of being transported to another world. Another reason is to make sure the audience doesn’t zone out for a moment and lose track of where they are.

In Interstellarwe spend quite some time in the wormhole thing that allows our hero to push books off the bookshelf in her bedroom in an earlier era. (Interstellar is an example of Science Fantasy.)

COMMON PROBLEMS WITH PORTAL FANTASIES

Are we no longer willing to go Through The Looking Glass? from io9 asks why publishers have decided not to publish any more portal fantasy. There are several reasons I’ve heard, regarding why agents aren’t interested in representing authors of portal fantasy:

  1. A lot of first time authors write portal fantasy and first time authors don’t tend to be ready for publication.
  2. The reason a lot of first time authors write portal fantasy may also be to do with the fact they grew up on portal fantasy, when it was big. This may be a bad sign that they haven’t read anything since their own childhood.
  3. Even if agents do request a full for a portal fantasy they tend to get sick of the whole rigmarole of going into the new world from the real one and being told everything that’s new about the world. This gets same-old, same-old and is rarely as interesting as the author thinks it is.
  4. Also, once you stop the action to describe the new world, the narrative drive flags.

As someone says in the comments: “Who cares what the publishing industry wants? If you want to write a portal fantasy, write it. Share it with people, polish it as best you can, and put it up on Amazon.”

NOTES FROM A WRITER/EDITOR

As an editor specialising in YA and MG, I tend to see a lot of portal fantasies (stories where the protagonist finds themselves in another world, where most of the conflict then takes place). And I’ve found that sub-genre to have some very common problems.

The most common problem I see with portal fantasies is that the conflict is impersonal. The protagonist is transported to another world, one they usually didn’t know existed, then required to save and/or escape it. My question: why should they (and therefore we) care?

Questions to ask to avoid your portal fantasy having an impersonal conflict:

Why does this world matter to the protagonist in a deeply personal and unique way? What does it mean to them that it doesn’t to anyone else? Why/how will it continue to matter after they save/escape it?

Another common problem with portal fantasies: negative goals. By that I mean, the MC typically wants only to get home or to avoid being captured/killed on this new world. Without a positive goal to back this up, it ends up making the conflict feel stagnant and, again, impersonal.

As you write your portal fantasy, ask yourself what your character wants beyond escape or survival or to save this other world just because that’s the right thing to do (or because “fate”). Could saving this world lead to him/her getting something they want, maybe in their own world?

Another way to make a portal fantasy personal if the character’s central goal is to simply survive or save a world they have no reason to care about: work that growth arc! How can they change while hiding from the evil alien monkeys on Earth-2? How does that impact their future?

Another common flaw in portal fantasies is poor world building. Don’t be afraid to dig deep, get wild, think about how the differences between that world and your character’s world would stand out and affect things at a level your readers might not have realised.

A well-done portal fantasy: Ready Player One (the movie specifically). The Oasis (the “other world”) MATTERED to Wade, and the stakes, though Oasis-focused, were grounded in the real world. The Oasis’s salvation was deeply entwined with Wade’s growth arc. Great world-building too!

@NaomiHughesYA

Query Shark has said about portals: “Stumbling through a portal is one of those devices you use cause you haven’t figured out how to get them to a different world in a more interesting way.”

EXAMPLES OF PORTAL FANTASY IN CHILDREN’S FICTION

  • Bridge To Terabithia a swing rope across a river
  • In The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis has Lucy (and Edmond) go to the wardrobe multiple times. We know exactly what it’s like in there.
  • Alice In Wonderland a rabbit hole
  • The Magic Faraway Tree a magical tree in The Enchanted Wood where a different land swings round at random times
PORTALS IN PICTURE BOOKS

Many picture books are of the structure Home-Away-Home, in which the child starts the journey at home, leaves for an adventure then returns safely. In these books, there is often an image of the front door, or perhaps of a window. This behaves in a similar way to a portal (door or otherwise) in a fantasy novel.

There are a lot of images of the front door and the boy's bedroom window in The Snowman by Raymond Briggs.
There are a lot of images of the front door and the boy’s bedroom window in The Snowman by Raymond Briggs.

Is it still a ‘portal fantasy’ if the doorway takes you back into the mundane world but with extra powers? If so we’ll add:

“The doors to the world of the wild Self are few but precious. If you have a deep scar, that is a door, if you have an old, old story, that is a door. If you love the sky and the water so much you almost cannot bear it, that is a door. If you yearn for a deeper life, a full life, a sane life, that is a door.”

Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype

In a sprawling mansion filled with peculiar treasures, January Scaller is a curiosity herself. As the ward of the wealthy Mr. Locke, she feels little different from the artifacts that decorate the halls: carefully maintained, largely ignored, and utterly out of place.

Then she finds a strange book. A book that carries the scent of other worlds, and tells a tale of secret doors, of love, adventure and danger. Each page turn reveals impossible truths about the world and January discovers a story increasingly entwined with her own.

RELATED LINKS

Doors — the world of possibility, a Talk for Writing Home-school Booklet by Jamie Thomas (Years 7-9), and the equivalent unit for Year 6.

The Portal Fantasy entry at Wikipedia

Portal tropes are heavily utilised in video games, of course. A part of me wonders if this is what has turned good children’s writers away from the device.

What If I Told You John Wick Was A Portal Fantasy? at Tor

In film, especially in the Action genre, a whip shot is often used when a character goes through a portal.

FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION

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Notes On The Hero From Vogler

If you’re reading something and you’re not sure who the hero is, it’s the character who changes the most. [But this is a little complicated.]

The hero is usually the most active one in the story.

A hero springs into action with the arrival of some outside force — that includes the reluctant heroes.

Heroes aren’t necessarily strong and brave — heroes make some sort of sacrifice. Sacrifice is the true  mark of a hero, especially when it’s on behalf of a group.

There will be a confrontation with death at some point in the story — either actual death or death in a metaphorical sense. [This is called the Battle sequence, even if it’s not actually a fight.]

The dramatic movement that audiences enjoy more than any other is death and rebirth. In some way in every story, heroes face death or something like it: their greatest fears, the failure of an enterprise, the end of a relationship, the death of an old personality.

Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey

Other characters in a story can act heroically — not just the designated hero. Even villains and baddies can very effectively portray heroic qualities. Every rounded character should manifest a touch of each archetype (The Shadow In The Hero).

Heroes have character flaws so that human readers can identify with them.

Flaws also allow room for the character arc, and should be based on that.

Heroes in fairy tales often start out with some sort of death in the family, or human loss.

With modern heroes it’s often the hero’s personality that is being restored to wholeness.  (The ability to love/trust etc.) [This is known as the redemption arc, which has its problems.]

There are willing and unwilling (reluctant) heroes.

reluctant hero

There are anti-heroes. [The anti-hero has replaced the redemption arc in ‘quality TV’ since the turn of the millennium.] Tony Soprano and Walter White are good examples.

There are group-oriented heroes. When we first meet them they’re part of a clan. They have to go away from the clan to achieve something heroic, then at the end they rejoin the clan. The group-oriented hero often has to make a choice between returning to the ordinary world of the first act, or staying in the special world of the second act. (In the West, hardly any heroes stay in the special world, but this is more common in Asian and Indian stories).

Loner Heroes belong naturally in the wilderness. In the beginning they are estranged from society. Their journey is one of re-entry to the group. Common in Westerns, but also in any other kind of story in which the loner/hermit/retired person is called back into society or when an emotionally isolated person is challenged to re-enter the world of relationships. Some go back to being alone (Hud) and some remain as part of a group (or in a relationship, after a Manic-Pixie Dream Girl comes to rescue them).

Catalyst Heroes is Vogler’s word to describe the character who acts heroically but don’t change much. They exist to bring about change in others. Catalyst Heroes are useful in ongoing TV shows, in which characters can’t change much without altering the entire show as it goes through an unknown number of seasons. (Superman and The Lone Ranger)

For more on particularly female heroes, see The Heroine’s Journey: Woman’s Quest for Wholeness by Maureen Murdock.

– from The Writer’s Journey by Christopher VoglerHaving a hero isn’t always positive. It has the reputation of being a good thing, but it can actually backfire and become pretty limiting. Here’s how:

When we have heroes, we look up to them. This is all well and good, but the problem is — in a subtle, sneaky way — simultaneous to looking up, we’re putting ourselves down. We become the subordinate one. The hero is the one who’s supposed to remain on the pedestal and take care of his or her holy business, while we remain down on the ground, consumed in worship.

The Problem With Heroes from The Good Men Project

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Diversity Of Authors In Writing and Illustration for Children

From what I’ve gleaned from attending conferences, it feels like a large percentage of the people writing children’s books are white women in their forties, fifties, and sixties with at least some college education. This probably has been the case for decades. The children’s book authors I’ve met often share a few characteristics: They grew up with books, they’ve read a lot, they have some sort of connection to children, either through teaching, parenting, or a job that puts them in contact with kids, and they’ve had the time and money to develop their writing skills and attend conferences. So I think there is definitely a socio-economic factor in becoming a children’s book author.

– Literary Agents Discuss the Diversity Gap in Publishing

For a very good list of reading about diversity and children’s literature see this post at Philip Nel’s blog.

Children’s Books For Grown-ups

Go The Fuck To Sleep

The stories in my book deal with adult themes like death, growing old, and raising children. It is not a children’s book, but in many aspects it reminded me of a children’s book. So what was it? The thought crept into my mind that what I had written was a “children’s book for adults.” So I looked this up and I found books such as Adam Mansbach’s Go the **** to Sleep. This book was funny but it contained swearing, and I did not mean my book to be for adults that way. I wanted to convey that my book is family-friendly even if it is directed to adults. So I came up with the term “children’s book for grownups”. But Amazon has no such category so grudgingly I published my book under “short stories” and “contemporary fiction”.

I envision children’s books for grownups to be about helping adults see the world through the eyes of a child and learn from children. These books are inspirational and motivational without necessarily being religious. Because they deal with adult themes they are therefore anchored in reality, but they contain elements of the magical, the unexpected or the unusual commonly found in children’s books. My intended target population for these books is adults who have had or have children, although I have received very enthusiastic comments about my book from people in other age groups.

from Rolando Garcia

Is there any such thing as a children’s book for grown-ups? Many books for children achieve dual-audience, and I’d count winners of The Newbery Medal as belonging to that sub-group. But is there a distinct group of books which at first glance look as if they’re made for kids, while being completely unsuitable for them?

It’s an interesting idea.

Related: A question to a literary agent — If my book features a teenage character does it mean my book is YA? (Short answer, no.)

Content We Crave

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema - Ninety-Four Degrees in the Shade boy reading haystack

The following chart is from a website called the Content Marketing Institute. I saw this and thought of children’s literature and what we know about narrative for all audiences. I think it’s pretty spot on.

Can you think of a picturebook which fills each of the following categories of ‘craved content’?

Is some kinds of ‘craved content’ more commonly explored in picturebooks than other kinds?

Content that reminds us life is short.

Every complete narrative contains a near death experience, though often-times this is highly metaphorical. In stories for children, this near death experience can be replaced with peak fun, but without adult supervision, which is key.

Content that reminds us that dreams can come true.

Happy endings do this. Bear in mind, happy endings aren’t as common as you might think.

Content that gives us faith to believe in bigger things.

The Overview Effect is often utilised by storytellers, not just in spatial horror but also in an attempt to create a sublime experience for audiences.

We do tend to use the language of religion when talking about narrative, but we might equally say religion utilises the language of narrative. (Not to mention all of the techniques of storytelling.)

Content that reminds us that we matter.

It’s said that fiction functions as both a window and a mirror, meaning we need to see people like us in our stories, and we also need to see people who are different from us.

Content that reminds us of the overlooked or forgotten basics.

There is a subgenre of picture book which teaches children not to stop noticing the small things in life. The Lost Thing is a great example. Sidewalk Flowers is another. These stories are a reflection of the reality of child development: As we become more famliar with the world around us, we do stop noticing every flower growing between cracks in the pavement.

Content that has unexpected twists.

This is another way of saying that good storytelling relies on surprise. Storytellers can surprise the audience in a number of ways. Some of those ways have labels.

Every story will contain some kind of revelation at the end, and the Anagnorisis stage of a story is all about that. The character may learn something about themselves, or they may learn the answer to a mystery (tying up the plot), or both. The audience may learn something while the character remains a blathering fool (in sit-com).

Content that tells us a story.

This is is a list for marketers. Storytellers will find it obvious. Audiences love a complete narrative. Here are the steps you need. Leave out any one of them and the audience will feel something’s missing, but unless they’ve studied this stuff they won’t know what’s missing.

Stories for very young children are often utilising the carnivalesque story structure, which is a bit different, but they, too, follow a pattern and the youngest children will understand when a story isn’t finished.

Content that takes us along on a journey.

In children’s literature world this is called the Home-away-home structure. More broadly, there are three main types of modern myths.

The Road Trip is a subcategory of the Odyssean journey, and came out of America after the highways were created, leaving ghost towns behind in their wake.

Content that inspires us to action.

Content that makes us laugh or smile.

Funny stories are always a hit with young audiences. I believe all stories teach something, and funny stories are in fact the most effective way of passing on a particular ideology. Be wary of discourse which talks about ‘didactic’ and ‘funny’ as if they are two completely separate groups.

Likewise, cartoons for adults have long been utilised as effective vehicles for propaganda.

Content that makes us cry (tears of joy or sadness)

Emotion in Storytelling:

Content that reveals secrets.

This is another take on ‘all good stories contain surprise’.

Content that surprises us.

See above.

Content that encourages us to never give up.

Freakonomics did a podcast called “The Upside of Quitting” on why it is actually sometimes a good thing to give up. But this isn’t reflected in children’s story. This is probably because children tend to give up more easily, due to a natural and developmentally necessary craving for novelty.

Content that reminds us that we are one-of-a-kind and encourages us to live that way.

There are many picture books which tell children it’s okay to be different. Adults like this message, too. See: Individuality and Social Norms In Children’s Stories.

In stories for adults, especially Western stories, the Elmer the patchwork elephant who finds friends despite not being grey story is replaced with a slightly more subtle story: An adult who has learned to mask their true self eventually learns to be happy by taking off the mask (of falseness).

Content that reminds us there is more.

Endings rarely tie everything up neatly. There is usually some hope offered at the end. In children’s stories, this is pretty much mandatory.

Content that confirms our assumptions.

This one can be problematic. But Hollywood is notoriously conservative. The blockbusters appeal to the dominant views held by society.

Content that challenges our assumptions.

It’s not easy to subvert the audience’s current assumptions. First, you need to understand what they are. Here are some tricks and tips.

Content that educations while entertaining us.

Content where David defeats Goliath.

Another way of saying this: We like underdog stories with happy endings for the underdog.

Content that gives us a fresh point of view even about common things.

Academics use the word defamiliarisation to describe the techniques storytellers use in coaxing audiences to see things afresh.

Header painting: Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. “Ninety-Four Degrees in the Shade”.

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Dystopia, Apocalypse and Climate Fiction

Thomas Benjamin Kennington - Homeless

According to a large portion of the world’s population, humankind is already living in a dystopia.

The fun part about living right now is we get to see how it ends.

@meganamram

A great civilisation is not conquered from until it has destroyed itself from within.

APOCALYPTO (Mel Gibson, 2006)
APOCALYPTO (Mel Gibson, 2006)
APOCALYPTO (Mel Gibson, 2006)

Dystopia and The Bible

Ever since God punished Adam, Eve and the serpent for eating from that tree we have been banished from Paradise. Compared to Paradise, this toiling, this painful childbirth, these thistles and weeds growing up through our crops are considered part of this Earthly dystopia — a temporary punishment before taking up residence in Paradise once more in the after life.

If not taken literally by so many today, Earth as a dystopian setting was certainly literal for earlier peoples from the major religious traditions (and I’m guessing we’ll get there again).

Although dystopia seems to be the opposite of idyll, it has in fact the same purpose: to conserve the childrenas well as adultsin an innocent, unchanging state, comfortably freed from memories, emotions, affections, responsibilities—and from natural death. Breaking away from a safe and secluded dystopian society, children break out into linearity.

Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature

Nikolajeva goes on to explain that quite a few authors depict a reverse process, and offers A Cry from the Jungle by Norwegian author Tormod Haugen as an example of an ‘extremely complicated and equivocal novel.’

Joan González Landscape Known As ‘The Iron Gate’ 1904
Joan González Landscape Known As ‘The Iron Gate’ 1904

Take it. Live it. F*** it.

A new drug is out. Everyone is talking about it. The Hit. Take it, and you have one amazing week to live. It’s the ultimate high. At the ultimate price.

Adam is tempted. Life is rubbish, his girlfriend’s over him, his brother’s gone. So what’s he got to lose? Everything, as it turns out. It’s up to his girlfriend, Lizzie, to show him…

The Hit is an irresistible celebration of teenage kicks. It describes a group of teenagers indulging their wildest desires, going all out to do the things they’ve always dreamed of, because, in a joyless, repressive, recession-hit society of the future, they’ve taken Death, a new drug that will kill you in exactly seven days, but make sure that those seven days are the best you could ever experience.

It’s a brilliant idea, and you wonder if anyone but Burgess could have done it justice. His hero, Adam, draws up a bucket list that includes ‘loads of sex with loads of girls’ as well as ‘do something so that humanity will remember me for ever’.

Melvin Burgess Interview at Books For Keeps

Features Of Dystopian Fiction

Characters in a dystopian plot start from a position of entrapment.

In dystopian novels, the main character usually rebels against the status quo by exposing its flaws, escaping the world entirely, attempting to take it over, or initiating a new set of rules.

Dystopian stories often take place after a large societal restructuring, usually because of a global event. In this way they might seem post-apocalyptic, but when the conflict of a story focuses on the oppression of a government or set of ideas, rather than on the direct consequences of a wide-spread tragedy, it is dystopian.

Dystopian novels often focus on societies and cultures that appear stable and well established, whereas post-apocalyptic cultures are more imbalanced or volatile.

Pablo Audadell, illustration for Paradise Lost
Pablo Audadell, illustration for Paradise Lost

A Brief History Of Dystopia

The first public usage of the word ‘dystopia’ goes all the way back to John Stuart Mill in 1868. In a speech to the House of Commons, Mill said, “It is, perhaps, too complimentary to call them Utopians, they ought rather to be called dys-topians, or caco-topians” (‘cacotopia’ was relegated to the Wastepaper Basket of History). But it wasn’t until about 50 years afterward, when authors made the word their own, that the idea of dystopia began to actually take root in the public consciousness.

Electric Literature
Arcadia and Apocalypse by Giuseppe Barbanti, undated
Arcadia and Apocalypse by Giuseppe Barbanti, undated

The Dystopia and Young Readers

According to a new report, Australian kids are feeling pessimistic about their own futures, and this goes against all evidence. Australian kids should be feeling pretty good about the future, according to one expert.

Key points from the radio interview:

  • Youth unemployment has been higher in the past, and is reflecting that it takes time to find their way into the job market, as unemployment goes down as job seekers get older. This is reflected in other countries. Southern European unemployment rates for youth (especially Southern Italy and Spain) is much more bleak.
  • Why are young Australian people pessimistic? It is thought that young Australians have unrealistic expectations about what to expect from a first job. In Brazil, China and countries like that have youth with lower expectations and are therefore more optimistic.
  • Older people need to tell young people what their own paths to success have been.
  • The media also has a part to play. We’ve seen processing plants closing down, but we don’t see the steady flow of new job opportunities coming through the news. The small trickle more than offsets the big closures. (Audiences are after bad news, and the media cater to that.)
  • The number of law graduates each year far exceeds the number of places available. Law is ‘the new arts degree’. It’s true that law graduates are still useful in the workplace even if they are not practising law, but are young law students given a realistic idea about what percentage of graduates will find jobs as lawyers? Law graduates are not expensive to produce for universities. It’s book learning so they are cheap to train. Universities are following a good economic pattern, but at what cost for the 18 year olds enrolling in these degrees, which are quite expensive for them? (Or perhaps law students are more expensive to train than we assume.)
  • IT students are equally pessimistic as law students. Private providers are competing with the universities in IT, moving into computer science, which is quite distinct from being able to program. The ability to successfully adapt different technologies in work environments, they are the crucial skills. Just being able to code in a particular language isn’t much use. Australia is good at having the bright idea and being able to adapt the bright idea in a business context.
  • Where is the pessimism coming from? The negativity from politicians doesn’t help. Universities haven’t been very good at making their graduates work-ready.
  • We need to change the nature of internships and cadetships, which currently accept large numbers of graduates but at the end of that period only one in sixty (for example in finance) will be offered a job at the end of it. This turns the whole thing into a bit of a waste of time for the other 59. Internships need to go hand-in-hand with study. Companies need to work more closely with degree programs to prepare students for the workforce.

Where else might youth pessimism be coming from? Is it limited to ‘pessimism about work’ or pessimism about the environment, politics and society in general? Could youth pessimism also be to do with the stories that are popular for young people? Today’s young people have grown up in the Third Golden Age of Children’s Literature, and this is an age rife with dystopias. There have been so many dystopias in fiction that if you listen to what agents and publishers are looking for in the kidlit-o-sphere you’ll hear a lot of publishing professionals say they are sick to death of them and are looking for something completely different.

Here in Australia, parallel importing and the Hollywood trend of adapting best-selling YA books to film has changed the Australian reading landscape over the past 15 years to point where the top-selling books are mainly from America.

Insofar as best-selling books corresponds to library lending rates (which are very easy to find), here are Australia’s library lending stats for YA last year:

The most borrowed young adult fiction titles were:

  1. Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins (American/science fiction adventure)
  2. Divergent series by Veronica Roth (American/science fiction adventure)
  3. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (American/romance)
  4. The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak (Australian/Holocaust)
  5. Looking for Alaska by John Green (American/romance)
  6. Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan (American/fantasy adventure)
  7. The Maze Runner by James Dashner (American/science fiction)
  8. Every Breath by Ellie Marney (Australian/thriller)
  9. An Abundance of Katherines by John Green (American/romance)
  10. Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare (American/fantasy adventure)

Teen borrowers from Australian libraries [are] looking for a blend of escapism and realism. Gritty romances, fantasy and adventure were the main themes, with all but two of the list coming from American writers.

Australia’s Favourite Library Books

American Apocalyptic Fiction

Lee Quinby wrote an essay called “Demurring to Doom: The Geopolitics of Prevailing” about a particularly American view of end-of-times, dividing evil broadly into:

  1. Human e.g. Dr Octopus in Spider-man. These stories tend to be about one man’s evil. This story is entrenched in American narrative.
  2. Social — Evil exists within a human-made framework of social injustice. Far less explored.
  3. Cosmic/apocalyptic e.g. Terminator. Entrenched.

Revenge and doom loom large in categories one and three.

Quinby advocates for a shift in how American stories present evil, hoping to shift audiences towards a vision of themselves as global citizens, ‘interconnected with all of humanity and interdependent in the world we live in together.’

Apocalyptic Fiction

An apocalyptic novel tells the story of the end of the world, which occurs during the timeline of the story. The novels Outbreak and World War Z, or the movie Contagion, are good examples. In almost all apocalyptic stories life is threatened on a global scale: disease, natural disaster, war, or alien invasion, for example. The characters facing an apocalypse must try to outlive, outlast, or outsmart the hazards of a crumbling world, which is made increasingly unlikely when the majority of the population has fallen victim. It is common for apocalyptic novels to classify as “genre,” because the survival conflict is at the forefront of the story, making apocalyptic stories more plot driven than character based.

Apocalypse stories tend to coincide with the perceived endings of eras.

Centuries were an early modern invention, and it was only the end of the 19th that had attracted any special attention. Undeterred by his findings (or lack of them) he nevertheless concluded that there is ‘a widespread demotic sense that the end of a calendric term somehow coincides with the end of an era, a culture, a civilisation’. Believing that ‘apocalypse is about the world’s progress to an appointed end,’ he fell back on the idea of talking about apocalypse instead. The result is an engaging and fast-moving survey, but the easy slide from fin de siècle to apocalypse is one that deserves closer examination.

Malcolm Bull, The Guardian
Post-Apocalyptic

After the zombies or super flu or nuclear war, the characters left to deal with the consequences are in a post-apocalyptic story. There are numerous examples: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, I Am Legend, and the recent Station Eleven, The Dog Stars, and The Dead Lands all tell stories about people navigating a new and hostile world. The central conflict for characters in a post-apocalyptic story is managing the new physical, social, and cultural landscape left behind by a recent disaster. There are often fewer people and less established societies in post-apocalyptic novels, so the central conflict in these stories surrounds characters who are often fighting for resources or searching for other survivors.

What Is Cli-fi?

It wasn’t until I’d got to the end of writing and illustrating Midnight Feast that this article appeared in The Guardian: Global Warming And The Rise Of Cli-Fi. I realised that what I’d written was a picturebook contribution to cli-fi.

  • a sub-genre of sci-fi in which the earth’s systems are ‘off-kilter’
  • sci-fi takes place in a dystopian future, whereas cli-fi is set in a dystopian present
  • Describes works which set out to warn readers of possible environmental nightmares to come
  • The best cli-fi novels allow us to be briefly but intensely frightened: climate chaos is closer, more immediate, hovering over our shoulder like that murderer wielding his knife.
  • Unlike sci-fi, cli-fi writing comes primarily from a place of warning rather than discovery.

See Also: So Hot Right Now: Has climate change created a new literary genre, from NPR

love in the time of global warming

Her life by the sea in ruins, Pen has lost everything in the Earth Shaker that all but destroyed the city of Los Angeles. She sets out into the wasteland to search for her family, her journey guided by a tattered copy of Homer’s Odyssey. Soon she begins to realize her own abilities and strength as she faces false promises of safety, the cloned giants who feast on humans, and a madman who wishes her dead. On her voyage, Pen learns to tell stories that reflect her strange visions, while she and her fellow survivors navigate the dangers that lie in wait. In her signature style, Francesca Lia Block has created a world that is beautiful in its destruction and as frightening as it is lovely. At the helm is Pen, a strong heroine who holds hope and love in her hands and refuses to be defeated.

What do you think would happen in a globally warmed Earth? Do you envision a Cormac McCarthy sort of apocalypse with bands of humans turning evil? In fiction, this is pretty much a given. Could there be a brighter view?

A tornado, a blizzard, a forest fire, and a hurricane are met, in turn, with resilience and awe in this depiction of nature’s power and our own.

In the face of our shifting climate, young children everywhere are finding themselves subject to unfamiliar and often frightening extreme weather. Beloved author Jane Yolen and her daughter Heidi Stemple address four distinct weather emergencies (a tornado, a blizzard, a forest fire, and a hurricane) with warm family stories of finding the joy in preparedness and resilience. Their honest reassurance leaves readers with the message: nature is powerful, but you are powerful, too. Illustrated in rich environmental tones and featuring additional information about storms in the back, this book educates, comforts, and empowers young readers in stormy or sunny weather, and all the weather in between.

Peony lives with her sister and grandfather on a fruit farm outside the city. In a world where real bees are extinct, the quickest, bravest kids climb the fruit trees and pollinate the flowers by hand.
Will Peony’s grit and quick thinking be enough to keep her safe?
A story about family, loyalty, kindness and bravery, set against an all-too possible future where climate change has forever changed the way we live.

Some people think there is still not enough cli-fi.

Red Desert (1964)
Red Desert (1964)

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Lemon girl young adult novella

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Header painting: Thomas Benjamin Kennington – Homeless

Differences Between Writing For Children and Adults

George Goodwin Kilburne - Mother and Daughter reading

1. What can I expect of children whose understanding of language is not yet nearly as well developed as my own adult linguistic skills, without asking too much of them?

2. What ought I to expect of children without contravening educational, psychological, moral and aesthetic requirements, particularly since it is not always easy to bring those four into line with each other?

3. And the third question, unfortunately, is: what does the market allow me, want me or forbid me to do in a rapidly developing media society?

from Comparative Children’s Literature by Emer O’Sullivan (trans. from Boie 1995)

Simply, children make the best audience. Connect with a child and you really connect. Adolescence is the same only more so.

Alan Garner, British children’s author

Writing ‘juveniles’ certainly modified my habits of composition. Thus it (a) imposed a strict limit on vocabulary (b) excluded erotic love (c) cut down reflective and analytical passages (d) led me to produce chapters of nearly equal length, for convenience in reading aloud. All these restrictions did me great good — like writing in strict metre.

C.S. Lewis

There is a place for the cliched, or conventional, plot. Children’s literature is a case in point. Perry Nodelman says,”Young readers of formula books may be learning the basic patterns that less formulaic books diverge from. Perhaps we cannot appreciate the divergences of more unusual books until we first learn these underlying patterns.”

AUTHORS AND CRITICS ON THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WRITING FOR ADULTS AND CHILDREN

Some authors resist the idea that they are writing for the mono-audience of children and say that they instead write for everyone:

“I do not believe that I have ever written a children’s book,” the great Maurice Sendak once said in an interviewI 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

Others prefer the idea that children are different:

Now I know there’s a theory today that we must never write for children and, after all, we’re all just big kids, but I don’t believe that. It’s partly because I refuse to think of myself as a large wrinkled child, but also because, through my children, I have come to see that childhood is a special time, that children are special, that they do not think like adults or talk like adults. And even though we adults sometimes feel that we are exactly the same as when we were ten, I think that’s because we can no longer conceive of what ten was really like, and because what we have lost, we have lost so gradually that we no longer miss it.

Betsy Byars, 1982

Pair with: The Psychology Of Your Future Self, a TED talk by Dan Gilbert

Continue reading “Differences Between Writing For Children and Adults”