The proliferation of princesses in stories for children is partly explained by Maria Nikolajeva in Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature:
A structural approach to formulaic fiction, presented by John G. Cawelti (1976, 91), singles out four roles in a detective story: the victim, the criminal, the detective, and those threatened by the crime but incapable of solving it. These roles correspond to Propp’s characters of princess, villain, hero and false hero. … Traditional children’s fiction is unmistakably plot oriented. It is commonly believed that young readers are more interested in plot than in characters, as compared with adult readers. Since myths and folktales are conditioned by plot, operating with flat and static characters, early children’s books, imitating folk narratives, also concentrated on the plot, mainly exploring characters to clarify the morals of the story.
So the princess trope is as useful as any other kind of trope.
PRINCESSES AND GIRLHOOD
The princess has become a symbol of naive girlhood. Ian McEwan uses the concept to illustrate a point about Briony, who is 12 or 13, on the point of adolescence when she can slip between childishness and adult precociousness in a moment. McEwan describes a defining moment in her transition to adulthood:
No more princesses! The scene by the fountain, its air of ugly threat, and at the end, when both had gone their separate ways, the luminous absence shimmering above the wetness on the gravel — all this would have to be reconsidered. With the letter, something elemental, brutal, perhaps even criminal had been introduced, some principle of darkness, and even in her excitement over the possibilities, she did not doubt that her sister was in some way threatened and would need her help.
So ‘princess’ forms the opposite of the elemental, the brutal, the criminal and the dark.
There is definitely a princess backlash going on, and in modern books for children, princesses are likely to be the subversive kind: They may well wear a crown and live in a castle, but they’ll be autonomous, “tom-boyish”, cheeky, irreverent. Some of these princess stories have a definite moral of their own: Little girls don’t have to be submissive and like pink. Or more universally: You don’t have to be behave in the way society expects you to behave.
Here is Mighty Girl’s collection of strong, independent fictional princesses.
Other picturebook authors employ the princess trope for reasons which are not entirely clear to me — perhaps based on the idea that little girls are drawn to princess culture and will therefore be drawn to their book.
BOYS AND PRINCESSES
Princess books tend to fall into several categories:
pink and sparkly
fairytale and traditional
subversive and ‘tomboyish’ and ‘feisty’
as flawed and real
These books are purchased for and I daresay read mainly by — in public — by girls. But boys seem to like princesses, too. Or, they get princesses whether they really wanted them or not.
Nerdy guys aren’t guaranteed to get laid by the hot chick as long as we work hard. There isn’t a team of writers or a studio audience pulling for us to triumph by getting the girl.
We all need to understand this, and the consequences of teaching boys that if they’re good, then their prize is a big-breasted, scantily clad young woman.
Of course, feminists have been saying this for a long time. But it takes a man to write it before it gets published at a mainstream non-feminist site such as The Daily Beast.
NOT ALL PRINCESSES DRESS IN PINK BY JANE YOLEN & HEIDI E.Y. STEMPLE ILLUSTRATED BY ANN-SOPHIE LANGUETIN
This is the first picture book I’ve seen in a while which has been worked on by three people — two authors as well as an illustrator. I guess a lot of women and girls would relate to this story; I do too, as I remember hating pink when I was about six through adolescence. This was nothing to do with pink itself, which did nothing wrong, and everything to do with going against what society thought I should be wearing/playing with/interested in.
There now exists a type of children’s book which is a backlash against the pinkification of girlhood. This book is one such example. Although pink is the symbol of all that it means to be a ‘proper girl’, it goes further than that. Of course I want my daughter to get the message that she doesn’t have to conform to any special to any stereotype of feminine roles. As depicted in this book, girls can get dirty playing football, look badass pitching a baseball, wear practical rather than pretty shoes and fix things with power drills.
I don’t see any shortage of these sorts of stories, important as they are for the tomboys of this world. But girls, at least in this culture, are usually highly rewarded for doing traditionally male things such as science, mathematics and engineering. Girls are also applauded for playing rough-and-tumble games, at least until they become women, because although society is comfortable with watching ‘girls’ play sport, we’re not all that happy about watching ‘women’ play rough. Even in early childhood, few parents would chastise their daughters for playing with ‘boys’ toys’. This reflects the fact that male is still the default and the dominant, and so a girl who acts like a boy isn’t giving away any of her power by playing male roles.
What I do see a shortage of are picture books which celebrate dabbling in the feminine for little boys. That’s not to say that such books don’t exist; they may do. I just haven’t seen any. It’s time more parents accepted gender blurring activities for their little boys as well as for their little girls.
The cover shows a picture of an ordinary girl (albeit with long blond hair) wearing a riding helmet and petting the mane of a horse. So far so good. She looks ready for some sort of activity, and it looks like she’s going to be doing something useful or fun involving horses and not sitting around preening herself, waiting for her prince.
The aim of this story is to foster care of others, and especially care of animals, because Princess Poppy ends up taking care of a pony which has been found wild in the hills. Feminine attributes are celebrated, without any overt Tomboyish ironic statement about princesses and how pathetic they are. That said, I find the dialogue saccharine: ‘”Aw, that pony is soooooo sweet!” cried Poppy.’
Except this is a My Little Pony kind of horse obsession, in which the pony is groomed, gently, and although some riding takes place, we have the usual heavy emphasis on what the female characters look like. ‘As the girls entered the stable block, they spotted two sets of beautiful riding clothes that Daisy had grown out of. They changed into jodhpurs, riding jackets with velvet collars, and shiny black boots. “And choose a hat!” said Daisy, pointing to rows of little wooden shelves, each containing hard hats in black, brown and navy blue.’ (Would a horse story for boys list all the different colours of hat?) ‘When they arrived back at the paddock, Mum and Granny Bumble were there too and everyone told Poppy and Honey how smart they looked.’
Note this use of ‘smart’ is in reference to their clothing, not to their riding smarts. This is hardly a story about girl power. ‘David helped Poppy into the saddle.’ On the final page: ‘”You are a perfect little princess — you didn’t give up.” said Mum. This is a good message, giving up. Except I don’t feel as if enough time has passed in the story for it to be a story about perseverance. In order for that one to work, we’d have to see the perfect little princess a year later, diligently grooming and feeding her new pony without being reminded by her mother.
EMILY AND THE EAST OAK TREE BY AMANDA BRIGGS AND JAN WADE
I’m increasingly suspicious of books with glitter stuck to the pages. I’ve yet to meet a good one.
I have no idea when this book was created because it entirely lacks a colophon. I only notice this because I had the task of cataloguing it for preschool over summer. This job alerted me to another big problem with underfunding of preschools: a lot of the books they’ve gathered over the years seem to have been donated by former students, with no curation whatsoever. Our preschool is private (there is no public alternative), and as a non-profit instutition fees are kept as low as possible. There are no decent funds for books. A lot of the books are from the 1970s. The teachers buy their own books if they want modern and enlightened. This isn’t good enough.
The opening sentence alienates me somewhat: ‘It was Christmas Eve and Emily was all alone. She had no brothers or sisters to play with, and her parents had been made to work.’ I’m a parent of an only child (by choice) and the author seems to have an agenda, reinforced overleaf:
‘Haven’t you got any brothers or sisters to play with?’
Emily shook her head miserably.
‘How dreadful,’ said the fairy. ‘Everyone should have someone to play with.’
This reminds me of comments I’ve had such as, ‘Don’t you feel sorry for her?’ and ‘Children need brothers and sisters for playmates’ and ‘What about after you’re dead and gone?’ and ‘But if — god forbid — something happens to your only child you won’t be a mum anymore.’ Yes, people actually say these things.
Likewise, children’s authors should be wary of expressing their personal views on lifestyle choices. Even if it’s purely accidental, it’s still not good enough to get all judgey on parents who have to work Christmas Eve (a class issue) and parents who choose to have fewer than two children.
Moving on, this isn’t a good story in other ways. First, it doesn’t need to be a Christmas story at all. It’s not about Christmas, and there is nothing Christmassy about it. The only reason I can think of for the author to have set the story on a Christmas Eve is to engender more sympathy for Emily All Alone. But the problem with introducing Christmas in the first sentence and then not coming back to it until the very last is that this confuses genres in an ad hoc sort of way. This is a fairy story reminiscent of the Enid Blyton era.
The problem with re-creating 1940s style fairy stories is that it’s all too easy to reproduce outdated gender stereotypes. When Emily first encounters the fairy, the fairy speaks harshly (for no good reason other to drum up some conflict, I suspect — the same thing that annoys me in films and novels ). Emily starts to cry. It is only after Emily starts to cry that the fairy softens and takes Emily under her wing. I’m not sure about all the other parents of preschoolers out there, but teaching children not to burst out crying whenever they don’t get what they want takes some years of concerted effort, so I don’t need this modelled in picturebooks.
As for the plot, the dilemma in the story is that Princess Ruber (the colour red) can’t marry Prince Caeruleus (the colour blue) because if they do, they’ll each lose their colour. I’m not sure if this is meant to be saying something about intermarriage — I’m sure I’d be well advised to stay well clear of reading any subtext into it. In the end, the two do get married and become the colour purple. So children learn, if they haven’t already, that blue plus red equals purple and it turns into a mini art lesson.
Someone takes photos of women dressed as Disney princesses and posts them to Flickr. In fact 2012 was a big year for princess memes and Internet trends. Can We Please Stop With The Hipster Disney Princesses came from Mommyish.
Turns out there’s a rule. Nothing surprising. Turns out Princesses kinda have to be white, even Latina ones.
I’m going on an adventure And who knows, what will be Or, what will become of me But one thing is for sure An adventure it shall be
Edgar Rice Burroughs is probably the most influential writer in the entire history of the world. By giving romance and adventure to a whole generation of boys, Burroughs caused them to go out and decide to become special. That’s what we have to do for everyone, give the gift of life with our books. Say to a girl or boy at age ten, Hey, life is fun! Grow tall! I’ve talked to more biochemists and more astronomers and technologists in various fields, who, when they were ten years old, fell in love with John Carter and Tarzan and decided to become something romantic. Burroughs put us on the moon. All the technologists read Burroughs. I was once at Caltech with a whole bunch of scientists and they all admitted it. Two leading astronomers—one from Cornell, the other from Caltech—came out and said, Yeah, that’s why we became astronomers. We wanted to see Mars more closely.
Robinson Crusoe (by Daniel Defoe, though not written specifically for children, filtered through to the classroom). Gave rise to the term ‘Robinsonnades’.
Swiss Family Robinson (by J.D. Wyss, introduced into England in 1814)
Masterman Ready, Settlers in Canada, Children of the New Forest, The Little Savage(written by a Captain Marryat, who didn’t think much of Wyss’s geography or seamanship. His stories were the first to be written specifically for children. He’d had a vivid career at sea. His books are heavily didactic.)
English Family Robinson (by Mayne Reid)
Mark’s Reef (by Fenimore Cooper)
The Coral Island(by R.M. Ballantyne. Ballantyne the brave was born Edinburgh 1825 and spent his 20s working in Canada for the Hudson’s Bay Company. He wrote his first adult book while stationed at one of the loneliest outposts there, while in charge of one Indian and a horse. The mail came twice per year. He published The Young Fur-Traders age 31. He then wrote Ungava and The Coral Island, his best known story, and a lot of other stories besides.)
Canadian Crusoes (the first Canadian children’s book of any importance, written by Catharine Parr Traill — similar to early Australian children’s stories)
Ivanhoe and other books by Sir Walter Scott were very popular in their day though have fallen out of fashion. But Scott’s work has been as much of an influence as Defoe’s.
The works of W.H.G. Kingston, a prolific English writer of boys’ adventure novels.
Treasure Island (by Robert Louis Stevenson — inspired by Kingston, and Ballantyne the brave. )
King’s Solomon’s Mines (by Rider Haggard is borderline adult fiction — a triumph of the exotic)
Conan Doyle, John Buchan, Anthony Hope, H.G. Wells all wrote for adults but were widely enjoyed by boys.
The American Adventure Story
Harry Castlemon (prolific but untalented)
Oliver Optic (even more prolific and also untalented)
Mark Twain (Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn were the first good, true American adventure stories — like Stevenson when writing Treasure Island, Twain didn’t have the slightest interest in reinforcing conventional morality. Twain denied morality but his stories have a lot of moral irony.)
Horatio Alger wrote books around the time of the civil war about individuals starting off poor then becoming rich. (Ragged Dick etc.) The “Horatio Alger myth” is the “classic” American success story and character arc, the trajectory from “rags to riches”. An ‘Alger’ story is now a rags-to-riches American story.
Thomas L. Janvier wrote The Aztec Tereausre-House. There are strong similarities to King Solomon’s Mines. He then wrote In the Sargasso Sea, which is considered outstanding though neglected by some. His descriptions of setting are magnificent and exotic.
The Australian Adventure Story
Many writers setting their adventure stories in Australia had seem to never have been here, and often got the details wrong.
William Howitt lived in Australia for a couple years and wrote A Boy’s Adventures in the Wilds of Australia, which has accurate descriptions of landscape and fauna.
Richard Rowe wrote The Boy in the Bush, a set of episodes introducing subjects such as snakes, drought, an old convict, a gold rush. These have been popular subjects in Australian literature.
J.H. Hodgetts wrote Tom’s Nugget: a Story of the Australian Goldfields
Gordon Stables wrote From Squire to Squatter
W.H.G. Kingston wrote stories set in Australia but got the details badly wrong.
Notes On The Adventure Story from Written For Children by John Rowe Townsend
The Victorian English speaking world was very much a man’s world. Men dreamt of building a nation or empire, winning wars. (At least those who were the reading classes.)
Meanwhile, feminine virtues were: piety, domesticity, sexual submission, repression.
Books for boys and girls reflected these attitudes. For boys: life of action on land and at sea. For girls: domestic stories
Adventure stories overlapped with historical fiction. No clear division.
Threesomes are popular in the classic adventure story, each providing a three-cornered contrast to each other. This ensemble remains popular in children’s stories: Harry Potter/Ron Weasley/Hermione Granger; the threesome of Monster House and so on. These days it’s often two boys plus a girl.
In the Crusoe tradition, there’s a lot of detail about how the main characters manage to stay alive (what they eat and where they sleep etc.)
There’s quite a bit of writing about Christian missionaries, and the civilizing effect they have on the local savages.
Treasure Island is one of the best written of these stories, and is still good because of its fast pacing (a modern pacing).
Long John Silver was a new kind of villain: a villain with something heroic about him. This blurred the black and white good and evil that had been an unwritten rule of children’s literature.
American adventure stories have dated even slightly worse than the British ones. Heroes were morally uplifting, unrealistically brave and priggish.
These American books tended to reflect a conventional idea of adventure rather than the real thing. Adventure for the Americans was not the same as for the British. To the Victorian British, adventure was something you found overseas, and to do with building an empire.
But the great American adventure story was about building America. However, despite the expanding of the Western frontier, there were no excellent adventure children’s books about this published at the time. See more about Westerns, anti-Westerns and neo-Westerns.
Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn changed that.
In the second half of the 19th C there came a new kind of adventure story: individuals making their own way in life, making good.
In these books, the poorest of the poor made their way to the top, becoming rich through hard work. A Cinderella story for boys.
Like the historical novel, the ‘good gripping yarn’ of high adventure has had a hard time in the post WW2 years. The wide, wide world has shrunk, so trips to the other side of the world are commonplace. The adventure story has suffered more than any other fictional genre from the competition of films and television. (Adventure is visual, and very well suited to the screen.) The downsides of the screen is that the hero is clearly not you — but the main drawcard of the traditional adventure novel was that a young reader could imagine himself (because the protagonists were always boys) as the hero.
There wasn’t much in the way of wartime adventure stories right after the wars. The wars offered plenty of real-life adventure of the unwelcome kind. But as the years passed, views on what children could and couldn’t read became less restrictive. Writers now write in an unflinching manner about all sorts of horrible things.
Header illustration: Boy Reading Adventure Story, 1923, Norman Rockwell; 1894-1978
When talk of diversity expands beyond race it still ends up looking very much like a checklist of compartmentalized identities. Can we get a child in a wheelchair? Check. Can the doctor be African American, and a woman? Check and check. … For adults I often describe the difference between diversity and inclusion as the difference between entering a room and seeing folks who look like you, and entering a room and feeling like you belong. … For children, it’s the difference between opening a book and seeing someone who looks like you – understanding that this is the character your meant to feel connected to because of that one visually represented thing you have in common – and falling into a story as you are.
Latina Lista, Checking Boxes and Filling Blanks: Diversity and Inclusion in Children’s Literature
Putting marginalized people in the very background of a movie so that they’re only visible for three seconds and never speak, isn’t progress. It’s par for the course, it’s taking crumbs and accepting it as feast.
If you’re buying a book for children and the characters are four boys plus one girl, you can almost guarantee the story will be sexist. A story with four boys and one girl is a version of the Smurfette Principle, in which the girl exists to be The Girl, rather than a human first and foremost.
The three to one ratio is typical across all of children’s literature, in case you are thinking Geronimo Stilton is a standout example.This podcast from The Book Show on ABC, features Janice McCabe, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Florida, talking about her study on Gender in Twentieth-Century Children’s Books. McCabe found that Little Golden Books, for which new stories were published between 1942 and 1993, depict an especially small proportion of female characters: 3.2 males for every 1 female.
…the vast majority of picturebooks are created for children. If we wish to be clearer about the nature of the picturebook should we attend to what children make of them or will our own close reading of individual texts be sufficient? And how relevant is it to our attempts to understand picturebooks that they are often used for teaching children to read?
from the introduction to Reading Contemporary Picturebooks: Picturing Text by David Lewis
As children we relate to our picture books in a holistic fashion, merging sensations of the eye and the ear (for first we are read to), which marries the image and the sound of the words, and later, as we learn to read, the look of the words.
How Picturebooks Work, by Maria Nikolajeva and Carole Scott
It’s not surprising that research on a new medium happens only after the new medium comes into existence and gains a foothold in culture. Since interactive storybook apps are so new, there is still relatively little research that has been done, and when making development decisions, developers are instead reliant upon our own commonsense, and inevitably, our own experience of literature and reading.
One of the assumptions to have arisen about the nature of ‘good’ storybook apps is that they include word or phrase highlighting synchronous with narration. The assumption: that word highlighting is beneficial for emergent readers.
At this point, the beneficial nature of text highlighting is an assumption. It may be of benefit. It may not be. And it is also possible that word highlighting actually does more harm than good to an emergent reader.
Why this assumption in the first place? I think word highlighting is often considered the digital equivalent to pointing at words with a finger, and many are under the impression (rightly or wrongly) that when a caring adult co-reader points to words as they read, that the child will pick up reading — as part of a much wider program to teach reading skills, of course.
So before focusing on the topic of word highlighting, I would first like to look a little harder at the finger-pointing assumption.
Researchers claim this is the first time a study has shown a link between referencing during reading and literary achievement in later life.
So, if there have been many good studies on the effect of pointing to words on emergent readers, they haven’t been widely published.
Let’s go with that and trust our parental instincts: that occasionally pointing to words in books, and drawing children’s attention to various technical aspects of reading does improve literacy. I’m not going to argue with that because I intuit this is the case.
I don’t think I’m alone in this, because there seem to be many app developers who intuit that pointing to words by a trained or careful adult can be emulated electronically in a storybook app.
This, I’m not so confident about. Pointing to words may be really quite different from animating individual words in digital stories:
When pointing, the finger does not obscure the actual word. Instead, effective pointers would surely place their fingers BELOW the word in question, not over it.
Also when pointing, the fingers are not making those jerky movements reminiscent of colours flashing on a screen. The hand glides across the page unobtrusively. Emergent readers may well be less distracted by a hand than by digital animation of words.
Fluent readers do not read by looking at one word at a time. We take in three words at once. While it’s clear that early readers need to learn words one by one, when it comes to training the eyes to move across the page, is it really that helpful to highlight words individually, especially when the narrator is reading fluently themselves? I wonder about what we are modelling when app developers choose to individually highlight words.
It’s possible that some ways of highlighting words are better than others. We need more research into this. It’s not enough to simply assume that ‘apps with word highlighting are good’ while ‘apps without word highlighting are lacking’.
Here are some various ways of word highlighting that you’ll see in some popular storybook apps right now.
1. JUMPING WORDS
Sir Charly Stinkysocks and the really BIG Adventure
This is a storybook app produced by a large publishing house. The words ‘jump’ off the page as they are read. But when a word is jumping, it’s moving, and therefore not able to be read. All the emergent reader can see is where in the paragraph the narrator is up to; they can’t see the word itself. Not unless their own reading is actually out of sync with the highlighting.
Here is another app which makes use of the same technique:
Logan and the upside-down sea
2. FLOWING TEXT HIGHLIGHTING
Perhaps to avoid the choppiness which results from highlighting words individually, this app developer decided to make the word highlighting last slightly longer than the narration itself. The colour that appears around the words fades out slowly, so you end up with an ‘approximate’ highlighting of words. It certainly works to avoid that choppy feeling that happens when words jump.
But if the highlighting isn’t 100% accurate, leaving the reader perhaps one word behind the ballgame, might this be worse than no highlighting at all? We don’t know this yet.
3. HIGHLIGHTING OF PHRASES
Cozmo’s Day Off
I prefer this method of word highlighting, where phrases are highlighted rather than individual words. This emulates the way we read as fluent readers – not just by taking in a single word at a time, but by encouraging us to take in several. This may aid reading fluency, and fluency aids comprehension.
I suspect this book has it right. If words are to be highlighted, this is how I’d like to see it done. I like that the words themselves don’t move. Instead, a blue outline appears around the words. This doesn’t prevent the reader from actually reading them.
I suspect that the highlighting of individual words is useful in word games in which emergent literacy skills are the target.
I suspect story app developers should stay away from individual word highlighting, and consumers should be wary of expecting it by default.
Just because something is possible with the digital format doesn’t mean it’s an improvement on non-digital versions of a story.
For now, app developers who use word highlighting as a selling point are making money based on something which doesn’t have good research behind it.
The option to turn off word highlighting should be an option, just as it’s an option to turn off narration.
I’m prepared to change my mind on this. The issue of word highlighting in storybook apps desperately needs research. But we can’t assume that highlighting equals finger pointing. It may not.
Novels which adequately explore the nuances of female friendships are disproportionately few. Historically, stories about friendship between women have waxed and waned. For instance, there were plenty of poems about female friendship between women in the late 1600s but by the 1700s there were very few. Who knows why — I suspect homophobia, and increasing awareness of female homosexuality (which was not at this time a crime in England, though it was in various countries on the continent). In other words, people were happy with close female friendships before they realised there might be something more to them — something which would exclude men.
Narratives about ambitious women (in real life as well as fiction) often pit those women against each other: one woman who seems to have it all vs. another who will do anything to take it from her. Sure, it would be great if the women in these novels could all just get along, lift each other up instead of climbing over one another to get to the top—but then there wouldn’t be much of a story, would there?
Kate De Goldi heard about this book from librarians in Wellington. Also she has met the author Elizabeth Wein, and the author pronounces her own last name /wi:n/ to rhyme with ‘teen’. Wein has a very interesting backlist of books which she wrote before this breakthrough novel.
Wein is a self-confessed Arthurian nerd and has transferred the King Arthur stories into 6th century Ethiopia.
Wein is a pilot herself because her husband was a pilot and she thought she’d better learn in case he had a heart attack mid-flight. She also has a doctorate in folklore from Penn University, so an accordingly well-stocked mind. Code Name Verity has been very well researched. The companion novel is Rose Under Fire.
It’s hard to say a lot about Code Name Verity’s plot because a lot of its impact rests on a couple of surprises. It’s about women pilots working during the war. But the basic conceit is that there are two women (in their early 20s?) as main characters. Wein wanted to write a book which puts female friendship at the fore. This is an important point to make because although male/male friendships, male/female friendships, male/female romantic friendships are often at the heart of a story, stories in which female friendships form the main story (rather than the subplot) are few and far between.
Female friendships in stories tend to fall into several categories:
Frenemies – Groups of girls, girls that you have to ‘negotiate’ and also ones which are likely to stab you in the back
Sidekicks – The confidante while you’re pursuing your romance or whatever adventure a girl happens to be on (which may be a political act rather than an ‘adventure’, especially in SFF).
One of the few examples of a female friendship in literature is the relationship between Anne of Green Gables and Diana. But in fact Diana isn’t Anne’s equal in that story.
However, in Code Name Verity the female friendship is equal. This is part of what makes this book special.
De Goldi doesn’t quite believe the narrative voice, which is true for both CNV and the sequel. The narrative voice changes, but the carapace for this book doesn’t allow for this change. The reader doesn’t have sufficient legitimacy for that voice. A problem with this kind of narrative technique: as readers we have to ask ourselves where does the story really come from? What holds the two stories together? Narrative focus gets confused. Rose Under Fire feels a bit like two stories that have been cobbled together, but are nonetheless quite powerful. Every now and then they’re a little bit hectic, with a lot of italicising and exclamation marks to convey rage/frustration/horror/terror, but there are more subtle ways of conveying these emotions.
But the story is undeniably good, and the research impeccable.
Kim Hill doesn’t like the way she made Maddy and Julia a bit flaky while at the same time making them amazing. They have flappy comedy moments and Kim thought, ‘Oh gimme a break.’
De Goldi guesses that the author did this to show what an insane world this was. Nothing felt normal. They got silly and frenetic because they were under such stress. (De Goldi agrees it didn’t always come off.) De Goldi is intrigued by the friendship. The whole plot turns on their friendship, which is love.
People read this book in different ways, and Wein has been asked about the nature of it — is this a romantic friendship between the girls? Wein doesn’t see this as an erotic relationship herself, but doesn’t care how other people interpret it. De Goldi didn’t read it like that. This is a fluid area.
This book highlights how absent such stories are absent from modern publishing, and it’s perhaps significant that this one is set in the past, during a time of great stress and tumult, in a way the perfect setting for transformative, powerful love and heroic acts that display the act of love.
De Goldi recommends this book to readers 15 and up. There are some quite horrifying parts in it, but it’s a great primer on a significant part of the second world war.
De Goldi recalls another author who has written well about female friendships: Paula Boock. (Name to rhyme with ‘stock’.)
Paula Boock is a New Zealand writer and editor.
Born in Dunedin, Boock is a member of a sporting family. She is the sister of four brothers, among them former New Zealand cricket representative Stephen Boock and sports journalist Richard Boock, and has herself represented her province of Otago at cricket. She studied at the University of Otago, after which she began working as an editor and publisher, co-founding Longacre Press in the city in 1994.
Also Sasscat To Win (possibly the hardest to source out of all three).
Boock is remarkable because she writes both group friendship among girls and one-on-one friendship between girls really beautifully. She also wrote about a young lesbian relationship in Dare, Truth or Promise. So she looked at that continuum implicitly.
Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells
Feeling Sorry for Celia by Jaclyn Moriarty
The First Bad Man by Miranda July
Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman
Have A Little Faith by Candy Harper
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Invincible Summer by Alice Adams
Let’s Take The Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell (a memoir)
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Living The Dream by Lauren Berry
The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill
The Lying Game by Ruth Ware
Marlena by Julie Buntin
Miss Sherlock, HBO Asia
Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, as well as her other Neapolitan novels
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Radio Silence by Alice Oseman
The Rest Of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness
Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
Swing Time by Zadie Smith
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
You’re The Only One I Can Tell by Deborah Tannen (non-fiction, linguistics)
Every now and again you’ll find a list of curated books by people who really know books, and this one is a list of stories for children about friendship. A quick glance at the protagonists will demonstrate how few books exist about friendship between girls.
For a long time, especially in TV shows and movies, the major focus was always on romantic relationships. The ‘best friend’ character was an afterthought – a comedic foil or subplot, often just there to facilitate the progress of the main romantic relationship. The friendships shown on our screens were often somehow still centred around men. This approach never seemed realistic to me, because it failed to show how important female friendships can be, and how central those relationships are to women’s lives.
NOREEN: Are male friendships inherently richer (or easier) comedic terrain than female friendships in some way? The guys on “New Girl,” for instance, have a much funnier dynamic than the women. Same with “Happy Endings,” I think, and “Friends” back in the day.
LAURA BENNETT: I do feel like it can be tough to make female friendships funny when a lot of sitcoms resort to having their female characters talk almost exclusively about men. I find this to be a particularly irksome feature of “The Mindy Project”
Romanian director Cristian Mungiu made two films focused on friendship between women, “4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days“, which won Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and “Beyond the Hills“, which won Best Screenplay in Cannes, as well as being on the shortlist for the Best Foreign Film Oscar nominations (and both were praised quite enthusiastically by US critics, too)
You say “I’m a guys girl!” I hear “I’m gonna be mean to your wife.”
I know quite a few women who describe themselves as guys’ girls, meaning that they prefer male over female company. “No offence, by the way.”
Except I kind of do take offence.
Because first of all, if you’re a woman and you say this to another woman, what is that other woman supposed to think?
Second, I wonder why a woman might feel like this about her own kind. There are a variety of reasons why, depending on the individual.
A few spring to mind:
1. Some women, by habit, employ the power of their sexuality in social interactions. They enjoy the effect they can have over heterosexual men. If they come to rely on that, then it seems pretty hard to deal with women by comparison, where they have nothing but their other charms to get by.
Consuela shared a flat with a friend who ‘has self-esteem issues. I’ve never seen her without makeup, not going to the gym, not even for a shower.’ This girl actively encourages strangers to catcall at her. ‘When we’re out as a group she’ll deliberately walk behind so they pick her out, excited to get the attention, it doesn’t matter who it is. I’ll say, “We’re supposed not to want to get harassed, remember?” She’ll say, “Oh yeah, that’s right.” Actually, all my friends are only happy if they’ve got men. It’s basically to validate them, tell them how pretty and great they are. They can’t get it anywhere else, they must have it from men, constant reassurance. I’ve no idea why.’
a case study in Affluenza, by Oliver James
2. Women who say they don’t have many female friends usually don’t have many male friends either. It just seems that they do, because they’re including the men they have sex with. That’s one way to get close to someone, but if that’s the only way you ever get close to someone, of course you’re going to flounder when that’s off the table.
When I was a teen, most of my friends were guys. Thought of myself as a cool “guy’s girl” but was actually just needy attention whore.
3. Women who say they prefer the company of males usually cite the competitiveness of other women as a reason to avoid their company. But I have noticed the women most cognizant of this competition notice it acutely because they’re a big part of it themselves. They’re usually the worst offenders, in fact.
I sometimes wonder how many heterosexual men go around declaring to other men their allegiance to women, that they much prefer the company of girls over guys. Is that a thing?
I wonder if men know how many women feel this way about themselves. To me, anecdotally, it feels like way too many. I’m not going to pretend there’s such a thing as ‘sisterhood’ and that women should spend more time together in the exclusive company of other women as a form of group bonding, but I do feel instinctively that there’s something a little wrong with the world when women feel the need to declare their allegiance to one sex over the other, and when they obviously see this self-professed trait as something of which to be proud.
I was born into a world in which, given my particular set of personal circumstances and privileges, I was told that I was equal to men from the day I was born—and it was a real shock to me to find out that not everyone agreed. In theory, I was equal. In practice, I was decidedly not.
And the way I first learned to navigate that ego-rattling disparity was to assert myself as an Exceptional Woman. Not like those other women. Certainly not like those radical feminists. I wasn’t like them. I laughed at dirty jokes and didn’t take three hours to get ready and liked baseball. I was practically one of the boys.
A visual motif is a subcategory of the motif. First, what is a motif?
A motif is a recurring pattern.
When related images repeat to enhance or bring attention to an idea, you know you’ve identified the story’s motif. It’s not a motif unless there is symbolic or thematic significance in the story. Simple repetition does not equal ‘motif’. A motif is like a symbol, but symbols are widely understood by the culture, whereas a motif might be specific/unique to the work at hand. We’re learning what the motif means within the story as the story progresses. That’s why repetition is necessary.
A motif might be:
a literary device
A visual motif is a repeating pattern in the visual arts.
In film noir, an example of a visual motif would be the use of shadow to obscure part of a character’s face.
In our storybook app Midnight Feast, lights are used as a visual motif throughout. As lights dance around Roya, she fails to ‘see the light’ — she fails to see what’s right outside her own window.
The following video explains the strong visual motif running through Silence of the Lambs (which is so strong I personally needed it pointing out).
A leitmotif is a repeating pattern in the musical arts.
In music, a leitmotif is a recurrent theme throughout a musical or literary composition, associated with a particular person, idea, or situation.
In films and plays a leitmotif is a specific melody is associated to character or a given situation or a given setting. For example, a triangle which accompanies repeated actions to cumulative effect.
But how is this any different from ‘repetition’, right? As in choruses or any sort of repeated musical sequence?
First, the answer in relation to music:
When repetition in music becomes identified with a character, it is called a “leitmotif”.
Next, the answer in relation to literature:
In literature leitmotifs often present as sound devices such as alliteration, rhyme and onomatopoeia:
Examples of leitmotif from Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce:
“wasching the walters of, the weltering walters off. Whyte.” “and watch her waters of her sillying waters of” “And his dithering dathering waltzers of. Stright!” “arride the winnerful wonders off, the winnerful wonnerful wanders off” “baffling with the walters of, hoompsydoompsy walters of. High!” “Amingst the living waters of, the living in giving waters of. Tight!”
Leitmotifs are also notable in the works of Samuel Beckett, Virginia Woolf, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Thomas Mann, Chuck Palahniuk, and Julian Barnes, among several other writers.
The work of Annie Proulx, too, has been described in terms of the leitmotif, notably in relation to an opera adaptation of Brokeback Mountain, in which leitmotif describes actual music:
[In adapting the short story for stage] Wuorinen says that he wanted to do something that the film didn’t: instead of the beautifying effects of the cinematography on the mountainous landscape of the North American West, the opera returns to the sense of threat, of danger, of hard-fought existence that the Wyoming mountains are really about, something that’s there in the story but less apparent in Ang Lee’s film. You can hear that even in the brief excerpts from the opera that underscore this interview: the mountain looms in that ominous orchestral chord, which becomes a kind of leitmotif for the multiple threats to Jack and Ennis’ love as the opera develops.
But below, the word ‘leitmotif’ is used to describe not a musical but the musicality of Proulx’s prose — a voice she uses for her darkly comic stories:
One of the clues that Annie Proulx’s short stories cannot be taken too literally lies in the leitmotif of the Devil, which reappears as a character in several marvelous stories as well as in the character’s quotidian imagery and sociolect. These more comical, satirical stories casting the Devil and his demons as protagonists seem to have been born from fantasies set free by folklore, by postmodern lifestyle, and by the hellish living and natural conditions in Wyoming.
In this case Meillon could probably have simply used the word ‘motif’, but wanted to emphasise the musicality of the prose.
Then we have the mnemonic leitmotif, though I’m not sure if anyone other than James Wood uses this term. I’m not even sure if the phrase is redundant, since the whole reason for a leitmotif is to impress something upon the audience’s memory.
Tolstoy uses a method of mnemonic leitmotif — a repeated attribute or characteristic — to secure the vitality of his characters.
This is from a book on screenwriting by Robert McKee, but applies also to picturebooks. I’m surprised at how much it sounds like that terrible dating book written for women The Rules. (I saw the authors on Oprah years ago.)
Parse out exposition bit by bit though the entire story.
You can reveal exposition well into the climax of the last ‘act’.
Never include anything the reader can reasonably and easily assume has happened.
Only tell the reader things that would only cause confusion if left out.
You keep a reader’s interest not by offering them information but by withholding it.
Don’t write ‘California Scenes’. California scenes are when two characters who’ve just met each other sit down and talk everything through. If you’re familiar with the stereotypical Californian modern film (e.g. The Kids Are All Right) then you’ll know that Californians are renowned for talking everything through.
Don’t write ‘table dusting’ scenes. In old plays, exposition was often handled by two maids dusting, while one maid told the other about the master of the house. These days, telling without motivation or conflict isn’t accepted by an audience (though we still sometimes see it).
Don’t bring in a flashback until you’ve created in the audience a need and a desire to know.
There’s only one good reason for voice over narration: counterpoint. Woody Allen is the master of counterpoint narration. (And in picturebooks, if the words simply describe the pictures, then you’re in trouble.)
Respect the intelligence and sensitivity of your audience.
Middle grade fiction is not written for middle school kids despite sounding like it ought to be. Middle grade is actually aimed at eight- to twelve-year olds, which sometimes bleeds over into seven to thirteen.
You can include romance, but only a little.
Provide smaller solvable problems and solve them. Fun to include personal dilemmas and little mysteries, confidence builders.
Middle grade word count ranges from 20,000 to 55,000 words, with more allowance given to fantasy novels that require world building. Some publishers specify 20,000 to 40,000. A debut MG author should aim for 35k.
Previous generations of works that have targeted this age range tended merely to be a continuation of the early reader genre – somewhat bland, Disneyfied works that reinforced the ideas of children as lesser beings, needing protection from scary thoughts and ideas and, by extension, who are considered unable or incapable of delving deeper into their text.
Let’s take a look at various kinds of first-person narratives:
Fictional Autobiography — There generally has to be a reason set up for writing this thing in the first place — perhaps a justification (Lolita, written from jail) or as a cathartic exercise. Mostly, when we read a story told to us by a first person, there will be a (vaguely) confessional tone about it. Another common reason to tell a story in first person is to try and explain oneself, either by way of seeking some kind of post hoc understanding of events, or especially in the case of unreliable narrators, to try to change the story to one’s own advantage.
The Epistolary Story
Fictional diaries and letters are similar to diary novels, but there’s supposed to be an addressee. For example, Dear Mr Henshaw (1983) by Beverly Cleary, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky.
The difference between these and ‘autonomous monologues’ is that diaries are fragmented and discontinuous. There’s an illusion of immediacy. The narrator doesn’t know what’s going to happen next, along with the reader. This allows for improbable situations, like keeping a diary during the last days of her life.
Fictional Memoir — Memoirs of a Geisha. It’s fairly common to include a metafictive preamble explaining that ‘What you’re about to read actually happened’, or similar e.g. Don Quixote, The Three Musketeers, The Name of the Rose)
Even when a book is not overtly a memoir, many first person narratives are confessional and reflective, lending them memoir characteristics. The homodiegeticstoryteller is often trying to process some past event by writing it all down e.g. The Little Stranger.
EXAMPLES OF FICTIONAL DIARIES IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE
The fictional diary is a popular narrative technique in children’s fiction. The huge success of Jeff Kinney’s book have led to a boom in the diary format in middle grade literature.
The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole, Ages 13 1/4 (1982) by Sue Townshend
Top Secret by Barbro Lindgren
The Diary of a First-Grader (1979) by Viveca Widerberg
Bert’s Diary (1987) by Anders Jacobsson and Soren Olsson
Stories in diary/journal format for publication still have a narrative arc. Real-life journals don’t necessarily follow classic story arc.
“Some people write in their diaries and are very introspective, and some people are not at all,” says Kate McLean, an associate professor of psychology at Western Washington University. Journal-keeping, though a way of documenting the life story, doesn’t always make for a tightly-wound narrative. A writerI interviewed several months ago—Sarah Manguso—has kept a diary for 25 years, and still told me, “Narrative is not a mode that has ever come easily to me.”
Diaries can have a highly appealing, naive, kid-made look about them and this encourages readers to create their own.
The first person narrator of a diary is quite likely an unreliable narrator, opening room for humour. Diary of a Wimpy Kid appeals to a wide range of ages compared to most children’s book series. This is because older middle grade audiences get the joke that there’s an ironic gap between what Greg says happened and what really happened. Younger readers can enjoy the story at face value.
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is the story of Lara Jean, who has never openly admitted her crushes, but instead wrote each boy a letter about how she felt, sealed it, and hid it in a box under her bed.
But one day Lara Jean discovers that somehow her secret box of letters has been mailed, causing all her crushes from her past to confront her about the letters: her first kiss, the boy from summer camp, even her sister’s ex-boyfriend, Josh.
As she learns to deal with her past loves face to face, Lara Jean discovers that something good may come out of these letters after all.
Header painting: Yes or No, 1873 by Charles West Cope
Food plays an important role in children’s literature, and is one difference between mainstream literature and literature for children. Food means all sorts of things throughout literature — sometimes it symbolizes good, other times evil.
Writers don’t care what they eat. They just care what you think of them.
Sport, Harriet the Spy
Why All The Food in Children’s Literature?
The feasting fantasy in children’s literature is a particularly good vehicle for carrying culture’s socializing messages: it acts to seduce readers; through mimesis it “naturalizes” the lesson being taught; and, through the visceral pleasures (sometimes even jouissance) it produces, it “sweetens” the discourse and encourages unreflexive acceptance of the moral thus delivered. Hence, while ostensibly pandering to hedonism, a feasting fantasy frequently acts didactically.
Voracious Children: Who eats who in children’s literature? by Carolyn Daniel
Several scholars have pointed out the parallel between sexuality in general fiction and food in fiction for children. Glutton and greed are common motifs in traditional children’s literature, inevitably followed by punishment.
Maria Nikolajeva in The Rhetoric of Character in Children’s Literature
Without food everything is less than nothing.
Here are a few things to bear in mind when you come across food in literature:
All food in literature is symbolic, since made up people don’t actually need to eat anything.
In Western philosophical thought (e.g. Freud), everything inside/edible is aligned with the self and is good. Everything outside/inedible is aligned with the other and is bad.
Inside/self = mind/reason, outside/inedible = body/passion. This also leads to a whole nother discussion about phalluses that I’d rather erase from the history of Western thought, thanks. (It pits the masculine against the feminine in a way that supports an unhelpful gender binary. Also, femininity = thinness = mind over matter.)
The ultimate ‘bad eater’ is the cannibal = the antithesis of humanity.
Food is obviously culturally specific. Bear in mind that in the West, our list of acceptable proteins is quite narrow. A lot of this comes from the food rules as described in Leviticus. (Sheep, pigs, cattle, chickens = OK. Pretty much everything else = NOT OK.) In Jewish culture, no pigs either. Hindus, no beef.
Some animals are accorded a sort of interim status similar to humans. In kidlit, dogs.
Food fantasies were especially prevalent in England during the Victorian era (due to underfeeding of children) and during the world wars (due to rationing).
Relatively expensive ice cream and chocolate products tend to be marketed at adult women whereas cheap sugary products are marketed at children, but in literature, children get to eat the expensive ones.
Some classic and well-known children’s books are famous for their celebration and proliferation of food and mealtimes:
Many stories of Enid Blyton, such as the Famous Five Adventures and the Faraway Tree trilogy
“Soon they were all sitting on the rocky ledge, which was still warm, watching the sun go down into the lake. It was the most beautiful evening, with the lake as blue as a cornflower and the sky flecked with rosy clouds. They held their hard-boiled eggs in one hand and a piece of bread and butter in the other, munching happily. There was a dish of salt for everyone to dip their eggs into.
‘I don’t know why, but the meals we have on picnics always taste so much nicer than the ones we have indoors,’ said George.”
The symbolic meaning of food which we see in Arcadia children’s books is present in travel instructions too. It has been noted that in no other children’s books do the characters eat as much and with such relish as in Enid Blyton’s adventure novels. In adult formula fiction, this corresponds to excessive drinking and sexual exploits. The reader partakes in behaviour which is not wholly accepted in our society, an initiation into the “other” and the forbidden.
Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature
If you’ve ever read something about how to improve your memory for lists of objects, you may be familiar with the advice to play with size. For instance, if you’re heading to the shops and you need to buy apples, imagine a massive apple on top of the hill behind your house.
Simple in format, with vibrant folk-art inspired paintings of everyday items and a single, large-type word on each page, Picture This . . . is the ideal first word book for the very young. But there is much more to Picture This . . . than first meets the eye! Each turn of the page reveals a new perspective on what has come before and gives a hint of what’s to come. Parents will delight in reading this book with their children, finding visual surprises together and following the gentle story as it progresses through the day and through the seasons.
When it comes to massive food, the story conveys abundance. Examples:
Nikolajeva explains that we need to understand food in mythology before we can understand food in children’s literature:
According to most mythologists, meals in myths and folktales are circumlocutions of sexual intercourse, but we can reconstruct this meaning only partly from the existing texts. When folktales were incorporated into children’s literature, their motifs changed further, to suit pedagogical purposes, so that the original meaning has become still more obscure. It is therefore essential to understand what food represents in myth and folktale, before we can interpret its meaning in children’s fiction.
Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time In Children’s Literature
We are told:
The most important role of food in myths to accentuate the contrast between nature and culture. The origin of food is in nature, but it is used within culture, and it is the result of the transition from nature to culture. Thus food neutralizes this basic contrast.
Cultures are made up of many different kinds of oppositions (own/alien, male/female, home/away, sacred/profane and so on). The opposition between ‘own and alien’ tends to be especially connected to food in ancient cultures. Whatever we eat is natural and genuine; whatever others eat is alien, unnatural and unclean. This can be seen in a the big three religions. In Judaism and Islam followers are not allowed to eat certain foods. Christians have rules about Lent.
So what’s the first step when cultures start to become civilized?
Food and Christianity
Unlike most of the world’s religions, Christians are able to eat anything. Christians are omnivorous. This is reflected in children’s literature.
The imagery of eating pervades the very language of the culture, its beliefs and its rites
It provokes anxiety about impurity — an anxiety that used to be partly contained for Catholics, by minor rules of abstinence, such as no meat on Fridays and fasting before communion, but is no longer.
The taboo on cannibalism — on eating your own kind—offers the apparently unbreakable standard of propriety and hence ethics. Yet it is always being broken though performance and metaphor, thus plunging the system of discrimination between the good and bad eaters into continual disarray.
Eating and being eaten inspires one of the most common games adults play with babies. (Animal noises, gobbling — this is used in Gremlins to comic effect when the Gremlins say ‘yum yum!’)
It’s instinctive to growl and grit your teeth and curl your fingers, as instinctive as kissing or crying.
Faire barbo is a French expression which refers to the ancient game of clenching your teeth and grunting and making as if to claw at a little baby in fun.
Marina Warner’s take on literary cannibalism is related but a little different. Whereas Nikolajeva highlights the link between ‘eating and being eaten’, Warner highlights the link between eating one’s children and giving birth to them as another kind of ‘cycle of life’. In The Juniper Tree, the ‘birthing’ and ‘eating’ symbolism is braided all the way throughout the story. The boy gets to live on through the father. The false mother is expelled and the true father is validated. The result is a patriarchal triumph of a sort not seen in the earlier Kronos version — the female is erased entirely — the father is both birther and nurturer in the end. The family itself is reborn. Biology is negated. The dead mother has no body (and nor does the evil step-mother). The father’s link to his children is solid — and ‘link to one’s own children’ is the one thing men have never been able to take away from women, even in the most repressive and patriarchal of cultures. Instead we see it done in stories.
In short, a tale such as The Juniper Tree is all about a deep-seated question regarding family relationships:
Who do children belong to? To mothers or to fathers? How can they belong to both?
Who has control of the child’s identity?
The culture of primogeniture comes in here, too. This is the custom of leaving all the family wealth to the eldest child. This happened in my own extended family just one generation ago, so it’s hardly dead. It tends to happen in farming families, in which the farm would otherwise be dismantled if the assets were divided among multiple children. The idea behind primogeniture: The boy who inherits the farm provides for his extended family. (In practice this may not happen.)
Aristocracy has never more than one child. The rest are begotten to be devoured.
The link between primogeniture and cannibalism is a fascinating one — metaphorical cannibalism.
Now for eroticism. There’s a fine line between love and hate. For more on that listen to the Real Crime Profile podcast with Laura Richards, a British criminal profiler and feminist activist who does a lot of work around coercive control. For women (more rarely a man), the people most likely to kill us are men who say they love us.
In that vein, Nikolajeva posits that cannibalism in storytelling can function as a sign of extreme love:
when a man (more rarely a woman) eats up his beloved, in order to own her completely. Here is once again a parallel between food and intercourse, oral and sexual satisfaction. In some myths, parents devour their children out of great love.
Nikolajeva isn’t using the term because it’s a recent concept, but she is describing ‘coercive control’.
When Women Eat Children
Think of the folktales in which a witch eats the children, or tries to. Most of the time, the children get away. Marina Warner points out that in Greek myth, there are no examples of women eating their children. Not on purpose. Nor are they duped into it. This seems a bit of an anomaly, because Greek women of myth engage in plenty of infanticide. Ancient Greeks obviously thought of mothers eating children quite separately from other methods of murder. Consider the act of eating one’s child as a kind of inverted birthing. Ownership via incorporation. This idea lingers in modern stories about giants and cannibal fathers.
From the Grimm collection, a good example of child-eating women is Hansel and Gretel. Closely related is Baba Yaga. In these tales, cannibalism symbolises death and resurrection — and a near death experience is a vital part of story structure. It comes at the end of the big struggle stage, right before the anagnorisis.When someone almost eats you, that makes for a pretty good big struggle. Or maybe someone almost eats your children. There’s only one thing worse than someone else eating your children — and that’s being tricked into eating your own children, a la the Juniper Tree tales. Again, though, these women never actually get to eat the children. She is always easily duped. The trickster children get away.
Fairytales are about all the various initiation rites, and these rites include sexual intercourse.
The sacred food [of myth] is developed into a magical agent in folktales: bread, milk, honey, apple, beans etc. As compared to myths, folktales have lost their secret sacred meaning. Folktales collected and retold for children have often acquired the opposite meaning. It is therefore necessary to go back to myth to clarity the function of food in fairy tales, often connected with prohibition against incest. Food as a part of a trial appears in many fairy tales; the hero takes food from home when departing on his quest. Many folktales reflect the dream of Cornucopia, described as a magical mill, tablecloth or bag. Food can also be a means of enchantment, when the hero is transformed by eating or drinking something.
I believe Nikolajeva is talking about food as cycle of life, which is what Marina Warner was talking about vis a vis The Juniper Tree pattern of tale. Warner also says that in these early myths, cannibalism functions as a motif to dramatize the struggle for survival within the family.
Marina Warner sees cannibalism — overall — as a metaphor for the internal states and private knowledge.
Mythic cannibals who started off as sexually indifferent grew more sexual over time. A good example of that is Polyphemus (the Greek guy with the eye in the middle of his forehead).
The Hierarchy of Cannibals
In fairytale there’s a distinction between eating someone raw or ‘as carrion’. Even better than that, cooking them is the most genteel kind of cannibalism. Sushi is one step down, followed by eating them as carrion, in which you are the worst kind of beast. (But if you are tricked into eating your own children, you’re absolved, and in fact you’ll get them back and live happily ever after.)
For the word lovers among you:
Anthropophage — someone who eats humans
Omophage — someone who only eats their own kind. (Well, I guess that’s okay then…)
Infantiphage — someone who eats babies
Basically, there’s no sex in traditional children’s literature, so we have lots of food instead.
In The Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature, Maria Nikolajeva describes this function of food in literature by summarising Forster (1985), though numerous others have said similar:
In fiction [food] mainly has a social function; food “draws characters together, but they seldom require it physiologically, seldom enjoy it, and never digest it unless specially asked to do so”. … For all that Forster denies the characters of mainstream fiction the joys of food, they are all the more explicit in children’s fiction. … Food in children’s fiction is the equivalent of sex in the mainstream. Still more important is that for child protagonists, food is the essential link between themselves and the surrounding adults who have the power to provide food or to deny it. Food symbolizes love and care or lack thereof. A number of well-known children’s texts, from Hansel and Gretel to Where The Wild Things Are, rotate around this theme. Last but not least, food in children’s fiction is, much more often than in the mainstream, used for characterisation. James Bond may be characterized through his passion for “shaken, not stirred,” but we are more likely to remember Winnie-the-Pooh through his passion for “hunny”.
Marina Warner has this to say, after describing early childhood games in which the parent pretends to eat the child, or tuck them into bed as if putting them into an oven:
The same impulse can arise in adult love-making, but orality there is not usually accompanied by monster faces or jaw-snapping and munching sounds. In sex, the eating fantasy does not often twist and turn through comic exaggerations and parodic beastliness. As Adam Phillips has commented, ‘If…kissing could be described as aim-inhibited eating, we should also consider the more nonsensical option that eating can also be, as Freud will imply, aim-inhibited kissing.’
The interplay of these two ways of connection sometimes tilts, in the changing representations of poetry, play, images and songs, towards eating, sometimes towards kissing; in today’s climate, the public emphasis falls on food. Food may stand in for sex, the oral gratifications perhaps interchangeable at a psychic level, but in terms of shared, overt expression, the promised satisfactions of food eclipse mutual exchanges of kisses and caresses. And these satisfactions include power over the hungry, control of the consumer.
No Go the Bogeyman
Since sex and death (violence) are intertwined in mainstream stories, it is food and death which are intertwined in stories for children.
In traditional (mythic) stories, food has its own particular symbolic function:
Food is an indispensable part of the initiation rite, since it is closely connected to death and resurrection. Death in a rite of passage is often represented by the novice being eaten up by a monster (Jonah and the Whale is an example), which during the rite itself is staged by the novice entering a cave or a hut (for instance the famous Russian hut on chicken legs, inhabited by Baby Yaga). Resurrection is represented by the novice being invited to participate in a meal in the Otherworld, the realm of death. By accepting food from the Otherworld, the hero gains passage into it (the Holy Communion is a remnant of this archaic rite, as is the Jewish Sabbath meal). The Russian folktale hero Ivan replies to Baba Yaga’s threats of eating him up: “What is the good of eating a tired traveller? Let me first have some food and drink and a bath.” He pronounces himself ready to accept witch food and go through a symbolic purification.
From Mythic to Linear: Time In Children’s Literature by Maria Nikolajeva
I’m reminded of Spirited Away, in which Chihiro must eat a berry in order not to disappear. When her parents eat food from this Otherworld, they turn into pigs, becoming part of this Otherworld.
FOOD AS A LINK BACK TO THE HOME
When the character of a children’s book departs from home (a necessary part of initiation), food can serve as a link back home. Since food emphasizes affinity, “own” food, food from home is especially important. It is also important that the mother packs the food and, as in folktale, supplies it with her blessing. This security of home, represented by food, is to be found in all types of children’s fiction, including adventure books, where home is treated more like a prison.
from Mythic to Linear: Time In Children’s Literature by Maria Nikolajeva
FOOD AS A TRIAL
Since food from home gives security it can also function as a trial. When protagonists meet other characters, they are often invited to a meal or are encouraged to share their food with strangers, who become friends and helpers. In both cases, shared food is a sign of union. Food becomes a token of belonging together in a quest or struggle, or belonging to a particular group, good or evil. It can also be a passkey into the Otherworld, as in Alice In Wonderland. Finally, it can enchant, corrupt and even destroy.
from Mythic to Linear: Time In Children’s Literature by Maria Nikolajeva
…this was enchanted Turkish Delight and…anyone who had once tasted it would want more and more of it, and would even, if they were allowed, go on eating it till they killed themselves.
If that’s not a symbol for the evils of drug addiction, what is? In fact, C.S. Lewis was influenced by The Arabian Nights, in which sherbet and Turkish delight are evil confections. C.S. Lewis himself disliked these foods as a child, which together form his reason for using Turkish delight when painting young Edmond as the Judas of the story.
On the other hand, Lucy has shared food with Mr Tumnus:
During her first stay in Narnia, Lucy is invited to tea with Mr. Tumnus, the faun. He promises her “toast—and sardines—and cake”. Indeed, on the table there is “a nice brown egg, lightly boiled, for each of them” [Nikolajeva explains that during the war, eggs were rationed.] and then buttered toast, and then toast with honey, and then a sugar-topped cake.”
Did C.S. Lewis realise that what he was doing was the children’s literature equivalent of sex? Nikolajeva thinks he probably did know, but propriety prevented him from admitting it in his essay “On three ways of writing for children“.
She replied, “No more do I, it bores me to distraction. But it is what the modern child wants.” My other bit of evidence was this. In my own first story I had described at length what I thought a rather fine high tea given by a hospitable faun to the little girl who was my heroine. A man, who has children of his own, said, Ah, I see how you got to that. If you want to please grown-up readers you give them sex, so you thought to yourself, “That won’t do for children, what shall I give them instead? I know! The little blighters like plenty of good eating.” In reality, however, I myself like eating and drinking. I put in what I would have liked to read when I was a child and what I still like reading now that I am in my fifties.
A shared meal—which we all know in its refined form as the Holy Communion—is the foremost symbol for affinity. Lewis was well-acquainted with mythology. The faun is the first person Lucy meets in Narnia. Our previous experience of stories prompts us that food comes from the good. Thus we immediately assume that the faun is a good creature. As it is, it is not totally true, since the faun is running the White Witch’s errand and tries to deceive Lucy. At the same time, the shared meal prevents the faun from turning in Lucy to his ruler. When you have broken bread with someone, you are committed. A shared meal is a covenant.
Later, the meal with the Beavers continues the affinity, showing the Beavers are friends.
“I must bring you where we can have ea real talk and also dinner”…everyone…was very glad to hear the word ‘dinner’.
In The Child That Books Built, Francis Spufford writes of the religiosity of C.S. Lewis, which obviously had an influence on his work:
Lewis took a completely orthodox but rather marginal point of Christian doctrine, and made it central to his belief. It was axiomatic that no sinful act could bring the sinner any substantial reward. You might be tempted by the idea that the sin would bring you a full, overflowing pleasure, but when you actually succumbed, you’d find out that all you got was flat, empty sensation. The apples of Sodom taste of ashes. This happened because sins were parodies, or perversions, of the legitimate pleasures God had ordained for human beings. In that case, reasoned Lewis, if you resisted sins in this life, every pleasure they held out delusively to you now, would be supplied in reality and in overwhelming abundance in the greater life to come. Every pleasure, though we might no longer recognise them as sexual once they have shed their mortal connections with biology.
Now we’re seeing more diverse characters in children’s literature, food is being used in a different way — to bring different cultures together.
Sixth-graders Sara, a Pakistani American, and Elizabeth, a white, Jewish girl meet when they take a South Asian cooking class taught by Sara’s mom.
Sixth-graders Sara and Elizabeth could not be more different. Sara is at a new school that is huge and completely unlike the small Islamic school she used to attend. Elizabeth has her own problems: her British mum has been struggling with depression. The girls meet in an after-school South Asian cooking class, which Elizabeth takes because her mom has stopped cooking, and which Sara, who hates to cook, is forced to attend because her mother is the teacher. The girls form a shaky alliance that gradually deepens, and they make plans to create the most amazing, mouth-watering cross-cultural dish together and win a spot on a local food show. They make good cooking partners … but can they learn to trust each other enough to become true friends?
A lively celebration of food and community from Caldecott Honoree Jillian Tamaki
Tie on your apron! Roll up your sleeves! Pans are out, oven is hot, the kitchen’s all ready! Where do we start?
In this lively, rousing picture book from Caldecott Honoree Jillian Tamaki, a crew of resourceful neighbors comes together to prepare a meal for their community. With a garden full of produce, a joyfully chaotic kitchen, and a friendly meal shared at the table, Our Little Kitchen is a celebration of full bellies and looking out for one another. Bonus materials include recipes and an author’s note about the volunteering experience that inspired the book.
BAKHTIN’S MATERIAL BODILY PRINCIPLE
In the book Language and Ideology In Children’s Literature, John Stephens writes of so-called interrogative texts — texts which question authority, and introduces the concept of the material bodily principle:
The interrogative texts of children’s literature allow a significant space for what Bakhtin termed ‘the material bodily principle’ — the human body and its concerns with food and drink (commonly in hyperbolic forms of gluttony and deprivation), sexuality (usually displaced into questions of undress) and excretion (usually displaced into opportunities for getting dirty).
MEALS AS A MEANS OF CIVILIZATION
Meals and feasts, for example, are an important part of human culture, and have a unique and significant role in children’s literature. Official meals, that is, meals conducted at times and places determined by adult authority, reinforce the existing patterns of things and social hierarchies, and assert certain values as stable, normal and moral. An early reference in Five Children and It to the children being ‘caught and cleaned for tea’ discloses, despite its jokiness, the prevailing attitude that meals are part of the process whereby children are civilized and socialized in order to take their place in adult society. Katz has observed that the practice of using meals as a measure of a child’s adjustment to the social order is especially pronounced in English children’s literature. The carnivalesque children’s feast — whether ‘midnight feast’ or birthday party or food-fight — celebrates a temporary liberation from official control over the time, place and manner in which food is consumed. In Five Children and It, where food is of central concern to the main characters without being carnivalized, the baby is allowed to be revolting at mealtimes but a somewhat arch distance is maintained when the older children, compelled to eat invisible food, regress to primitive methods.
THE CONNECTION BETWEEN ANIMALS AND FOOD IN CHILDREN’S STORIES
The focus on animals and their nature may explain a[nother] common feature of children’s texts, especially those intended for younger readers. Their characters are often centrally concerned with questions about food. In well-known fairy tales, Little Red Riding Hood brings food to her grandmother but is threatened with becoming the meal herself, and Hansel and Gretel become possible meals after they nibble parts of the witch’s house. Meanwhile, Peter Rabbit has his dangerous adventure because he can’t resist Mr. McGregor’s vegetables even though his father was made into a pie by Mrs. McGregor. And In Where The Wild Things Are, Max is sent to his room because he threatens to devour his mother, discovers that the Wild Things want to eat him up because they love him, and is drawn back home by the smell of good things to eat.
Eating is less central in longer works of fiction, but it’s still an important subject. For instance, Charlotte’s Web focuses attention on descriptions of Wilbur’s slop. Charlotte’s methods of killing her food, and Templeton the rat’s pleasure in the feast available at the fair.
In these and many other texts, the fact that human beings eat creatures that once lived but were too weak to protect themselves suggests some ambiguity about the degree to which one is a human eater, like one’s parents, or an animal-like food, like the “little lambs” and “little pigs” adults so often tell children they are. The focus on eating raises the question of children’s’ animality in an especially intense way.
The Pleasures of Children’s Literature by Reimer and Nodelman
The dream about the Land of Plenty—Cocayne or Schlarafflenland—has haunted humanity for many centuries. One of the earliest literary descriptions of this paradise is to be found in the German Hans Sachs’s verse from mid-16th century. 19th-century German picture books especially depicted travels into elaborate lands of sweets and cakes, with the inevitable didactic consequence of stomach ache.
Twentieth century children’s writers are much more liberal in their Schlaraffenland variations. The most famous contemporary tale of Schlaraffenland is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The title itself may be seen as an allusion to early children’s books about gluttony. As in many such books, the story starts with a description of poverty and hunger. […] The big family does not starve, but “every one of them…went about from morning till night with a horrible empty feeling in their tummies.” […] The description of the Schlaraffenland matches the traditional stories: rivers and waterfalls of hot chooclate, trees and flowers of “soft, minty sugar”, a pink boat made of “an enormous boiled sweet” […] It is almost inevitable to assume that Roald Dahl read a good deal of Schlaraffenland tales as a child.
Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature
See also: The Wind On The Moon for another well-known story of gluttony.
Food is everywhere in the Bible. From the Forbidden Fruit to the Last Supper and from the Manna in the Desert to the Feeding of the Five Thousand the Good Book is obsessed with diet. It is set in a land of milk and honey but one also faced with famine; a place of feast and fast, of drunkenness and self-denial, and of marvellous showers of bread from the skies and the transformation of water into wine. Sacrificial banquets, with bread, oil, alcohol and meat are offered to the populace, with slices reserved for the priesthood and the choicest cuts saved for the deity. Women do the cooking. Many are honoured with culinary names; that of Rebecca, mother of Joseph, means ‘cow’ and the title of Rachel, matriarch of the Twelve Tribes, can be translated as ‘ewe’.
From The Serpent’s Promise by Steve Jones
HUNGER IN CHILDREN’S STORIES
Nikolajeva explains that children have a subconscious fear of hunger, which can be used to good effect in stories.
Death as such is an abstract notion for most young readers. Hunger on the other hand is something everyone has experience, at least on a very modest scale. To be hungry, not to get food, is a tangible threat. However, it can also be translated into more symbolic notions. Hunger [can be] hunger for love and warmth.
Children of earlier eras were rarely fully satiated. As an example, this is typical food for children in the 1700s, from the menu of a London foundling hospital (orphanage):
gruell for breakfast
potatoes for lunch
milk and bread for supper on Monday
milk porridge, boiled mutton and bread on Tuesday
broth-rice milk, bread and cheese on Wednesday
gruel, boiled pork and bread on Thursday (And this was in pork season).
milk porridge, dumplins, milk and bread on Friday
Gruell, hasty puddings and bread and cheese on Saturday
Broth, Road pork and bread on Sunday (the climax)
This menu is basic, but far better than many children got.
THE IDEOLOGY OF FAMILY MEALTIMES TOGETHER
The overriding image of a happy family round the table has remained static, fixed in the culture, as something that should happen, something that is essential to the wellbeing of the family and the nation. This is prevalent in all kinds of different media. Many Happy Returns of the Day, for example, an iconic Victorian painting (1856) by William Powell Frith, demonstrates the importance of ritual and celebration in family life, gathered together and marking occasions of private meaning. Such imagery plays a crucial part in naturalising the family meal in the same way as certain types of meals or recipes are handed down the generations and thus create tradition, nostalgia and a sense of belonging.
This particular ideology may influence how things work in your own family. This post from advice columnist Captain Awkward highlights the ways in which a family can construct a narrative about What Tight Families Do, and also the problems this can lead to when adult children develop different diets.
Nothing says ‘nonchalant’ like wolfing down food. There’s no better way to make a baddie look truly psychopathic than to put him in a middle of a gruesome scene then have him pick up an apple and eat it. All the normal characters — and perhaps the audience — have churning stomachs. Yet the psychopath in question doesn’t bat an eyelid.
In this case, the juxtaposition is between the horror and the banality of satisfying a literal hunger, at the bottom of the hierarchy of needs. This most literal belly-filling hunger can also serve as a metaphor for other types of hunger: Perhaps the villain has a hunger for killing sprees or blood.
The insertion of food can also be used in different ways in fiction.
FOR COMEDIC EFFECT
‘And I like your shoes.’
He tilted his foot to examine the craftsmanship. ‘Yes. Ducker’s in The Turl. They make a wooden thingy of your foot and keep it on a shelf for ever. Thousands of them down in a basement room, and most of the people are long dead.’
the writers for whom dishes are essentially interchangeable, mere stops on the ribbon of narrative, signs of life and social transactions rather than specific pleasures
the writers who dish up very particular food to their characters to show who they are. Proust is this kind of writer, and Henry James is, too.
the writers who are so greedy that they go on at length about the things their characters are eating, or are about to eat—serving it in front of us and then snatching it from our mouths
and then there are writers, ever more numerous, who present on the page not just the result but the whole process—not just what people eat but how they make it, exactly how much garlic is chopped, and how, and when it is placed in the pan
Which of these types of food writing is most common in children’s literature? Has this changed over time? Can you think of children’s authors who fit each of the four categories?