Books About Boys Who Dance

Some of the books below are specifically about boys and men who dance. Others are more generally about celebrating boys who break free of expected masculine roles.

Unfortunately there’s still a way to go before book publishing breaks away from the strict gender binary. That’s why we’re still getting books which say, “Boys can do girly things” and “Girls can do boyish things”, with the overt encouragement to “Be Yourself”, and also the covert reinforcement that gender is binary, with no room in between.

Aside from the examples offered below, there are a large proportion of stories specifically about characters who ‘can’t dance’. The animals are clearly serving as a metaphor for anyone who has been told that their interest (of any kind) is socially unacceptable, and I find it interesting that dancing is disproportionately picked as something anyone should be able to do, and is regularly shamed for. Children’s stories such as Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae and Guy Parker-Rees and Josephine Wants To Dance by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley, Brontorina by James Hove and Randy Cecil and Olga the Brolga by Rod Clement are specifically useful for boys (dancers or not) who may internalise the hegemonic messaging that dancing is girly, and that dancing is unacceptable because women (and gay men) are lower in the social hierarchy.

If you’re looking more generally for stories which encourage readers to ‘be themselves’ I have previously written about that particular ideology.

Continue reading “Books About Boys Who Dance”

Children’s Books About Atoms, Elements and the Periodic Table

The elements : a visual exploration of every known atom in the universe by Theodore Gray and Nick Mann (2009)

This book has garnered a cult following with adults as much as with kids. This may partly be to do with the fact that they released an impressive app for iPad back when the iPad was very new, allowing users to see elements in 3D.

Based on seven years of research and photography by Theodore Gray and Nick Mann, The Elements presents the most complete and visually arresting representation available to the naked eye of every atom in the universe. Organized sequentially by atomic number, every element is represented by a big beautiful photograph that most closely represents it in its purest form. Several additional photographs show each element in slightly altered forms or as used in various practical ways. Also included are fascinating stories of the elements, as well as data on the properties of each, including atomic number, atomic symbol, atomic weight, density, atomic radius, as well as scales for electron filling order, state of matter, and an atomic emission spectrum.

The Element in the Room: Investigating the Atomic Ingredients that Make Up Your Home by Mike Barfield and Lauren Humphrey (2018)

My kid loves this one.

Did you know that without the “lead” in your pencil, there would be no life on Earth? Just about everything in the universe is made from only 92 elements – and from aluminum to zinc, many of them are hiding in your very own home!

This funny and fascinating guide is bursting with brilliant facts about the atomic ingredients that make up everything around us. Join scientific sleuth Sherlock Ohms as he investigates the elements, and help his enquiries with explosive experiments.

Wonderful Life With The Elements: The Periodic Table Personified (2009) by Bunpei Yorifuji and Fredrik Lindh (Translator)

From the brilliant mind of Japanese artist Bunpei Yorifuji comes Wonderful Life with the Elements, an illustrated guide to the periodic table that gives chemistry a friendly face.

In this super periodic table, every element is a unique character whose properties are represented visually: heavy elements are fat, man-made elements are robots, and noble gases sport impressive afros. Every detail is significant, from the length of an element’s beard to the clothes on its back. You’ll also learn about each element’s discovery, its common uses, and other vital stats like whether it floats—or explodes—in water.

Why bother trudging through a traditional periodic table? In this periodic paradise, the elements are people too. And once you’ve met them, you’ll never forget them.

Includes pull-out poster!

Exploring The Elements by Isabel Thomas and Sara Gillingham (2020)

– A comprehensive introduction explaining what elements are and the design and purpose of the periodic table
– Each of the 118 elements is visually presented with its respective letter symbol and atomic number, as well as a map of where it’s located in the periodic table
– Additional details showing where each element is found in the universe (from food on our plates to the center of a star), its unique properties, atomic diagram, secret chemistry, and working examples of how it’s used or changing the world
– An index, glossary and suggested reading and additional references and Resources

The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean (2019)

A young readers adaptation of the New York Times bestselling book, THE DISAPPEARING SPOON , chronicling the extraordinary human history of the periodic table.

Why did Gandhi hate iodine (I, 53)? Why did the Japanese kill Godzilla with missiles made of cadmium (Cd, 48)? How did radium (Ra, 88) nearly ruin Marie Curie’s reputation? And why did tellurium (Te, 52) lead to the most bizarre gold rush in history?

The periodic table is a crowning scientific achievement, but it’s also a treasure trove of adventure, greed, betrayal, and obsession. The fascinating tales in The Disappearing Spoon follow elements on the table as they play out their parts in human history, finance, mythology, conflict, the arts, medicine, and the lives of the (frequently) mad scientists who discovered them.

Adapted for a middle grade audience, the young readers edition of THE DISAPPEARING SPOON offers the material in a simple, easy-to-follow format, with approximately 20 line drawings and sidebars throughout. Students, teachers, and burgeoning science buffs will love learning about the history behind the chemistry.

See Inside Atoms and Molecules: An Usborne Flap Book by Rosie Dickens and Shaw Nielsen (2020)

Marvel at the mind-boggling world of atoms and molecules – the building blocks of EVERYTHING everywhere (including you).

Lift over 90 flaps to learn about atoms, molecules, compounds and electrons, and chemical reactions and explore the Periodic Table.

With links to specially selected websites for activities and videos.

Eyewitness Periodic Table (2018)

This fact-filled book is the perfect guide to all 118 elements in the periodic table, the ingredients that make up our world.

Includes stunning new photography, Eyewitness Periodic Table begins with a concise history of chemistry, scientific pioneers, and the creation of the first periodic table, then launches into a visual tour of each individual element. Along the way, you’ll find out where each element comes from and what it is used for, explained clearly and simply for young readers.

Explore elements such as carbon and oxygen and learn why they are essential to our survival. See how precious gold protects astronauts in space, and why the metal mercury can be both a solid and a liquid. Find out about man-made elements, which the smartest chemists are still busy figuring out how to use.

This detailed, accessible book will inspire young, inquisitive minds – the scientists of tomorrow who will shape our future.

Scholastic’s The Periodic Table by Sean Callery and Miranda Smith (2017)

Looking at the periodic table can be a bit daunting… how can you possibly remember what 118 different elements do?

The Periodic Table takes a new approach to this important science topic by offering a fully visual guide to the elements.

Featuring eye-popping photography and an enormous wealth of cool facts, this is the only book you’ll need to help you learn about the basic building blocks that make up everything in our world.

Lemon girl young adult novella

READ AT MY OTHER BLOG

Subscribe to occasional bookish newsletter.

Home » Children’s Literature

Movements In Children’s Literature

When looking at the development of children’s literature over the past two and a half centuries (which is about all you get, because children’s literature is a distinct and recent entity) two major movements have been influential:

  • Romanticism and Modernism in the 18th and 19th centuries
  • Postmodernism, Surrealism and a bunch of other -isms came later (post-colonialism, feminism, modernism…)

When we give serious attention to children’s literature, we find children’s literature (especially young adult literature) often anticipates movements in adult literature. As one example, The Lovely Bones is YAL started the huge dead narrator trend which eventually found its way into literary adult fiction. Certainly, literature reflects what is happening in broader society as well.

CHILDREN’S LITERATURE IS IMPORTANT LITERATURE

Children’s literature offers valuable insights into how culture changes.

In 1894 Helen Bannerman wrote a book called Little Black Sambo. This is now seen as offensive. At Bannerman’s time it was not [offensive to white people, that is]. The main character outwits the tigers and becomes a hero, so was seen as a positive representation of people of colour.

The Famous Five also reflects outdated views. In a dualistic view of humanity, good people catch ‘bad people’ and send them to prison, because that is what good people do. An interesting feminist subtext runs through the character of George, who is annoyed that the boys are allowed to do things she is not. George became one of the first pin-ups of the feminist movement. In contrast, Anne is confined to the home domain, making cakes, cleaning etc.

A contemporary book such as Sonya Hartnett’s Sleeping Dogs looks at incest and issues which were not covered in children’s literature of earlier golden ages. Children’s literature is immensely powerful because it gets to readers first. Children’s literature shapes who we are.

Peter Hunt is one of the leading commentators on children’s literature today. He is one scholar saying consistently that children’s books are immensely powerful.

Precisely because children’s books are so powerful, they are likely to be very specifically ‘directive’. They might be encouraging a certain behaviour in young readers. Generally speaking, children’s literature is less open to interpretation than adult literature. To balance the vulnerability of children, children’s literature can become didactic.

What does didactic mean?

Teaching in an open and direct way. Moralistic.

While a few dual audience texts do make their way into lists of great literature (e.g. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland), little else ever does. Children’s literature is not traditionally studied in university English courses.

People seen as The Major Writers — William Makepeace Thackeray, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Thomas Hardy, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde — all wrote children’s books as well as books for adults. But those books are largely ignored. Their serious adult books are the ones considered great.

Even today, children’s literature has been seen as the less than. This is where women writers were at in the 18th and 19th centuries — not yet considered worthy of our full attention. [No coincidence that children’s literature has until recently been considered women’s work, alongside anything to do with children.]

The comparison works for volume of output as well. Even in the 18th and 19th centuries, women were writing just as many if not more books than the men. Today, children’s literature is a booming industry but doesn’t enjoy proportional coverage by professional reviewers in major news outlets. The dead white male who writes books for adults is who you’ll mostly be studying.

Peter Hunt concludes that if we can shake free of the idea that children’s literature is intrinsically inferior, we can start looking at the literature properly.

The History Of Thought Which Influences Literature

18th Century thought

The basis of modern science rests on the idea that humans can observe and understand. (Humanism and individualism.)

19th Century thought

A slight change occurred. People realised that amidst this mechanical theory of the world there was no place for emotion in all of this (beauty, hate, horror). So romanticism came about and gave us wonderful music — Mozart, Beethoven etc. — human experience and human emotion provided a balance.

20th Century thought

A couple of things happened. People realised that actually we don’t have all the answers. (The Titanic was a great example of thought prior to this — people actually thought it was unsinkable.) We realised that humanity wasn’t as all-powerful and all-knowing as we thought. Millions of people were killed in WW1, which shattered a lot of views. Then came the Great Depression, followed by the second World War, even worse. And so all the certainties about what the human could do were shattered.

Throw in nuclear weapons and we realised we could destroy the entire planet. We craved a complete change in how we view our world. This led to movements which questioned ‘certainty’.

Surrealism is a good example of such a movement.

By the 1960s, various 20th century movements came together to form what we now call ‘postmodernism’. After the certainty and hubris of modernism, we now have postmodern literature.

Lemon girl young adult novella

READ AT MY OTHER BLOG

Subscribe to occasional bookish newsletter.

Home » Children’s Literature

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

The Secret Garden cover by Graham Rust Mary looking in through the gate

The Secret Garden is a novel by British-American Frances Hodgson Burnett, originally published in serialised form in America between 1910-11, the end of the Edwardian era in England. We now consider this a story for children, probably because the main characters are children. Surprising to me: this story was originally aimed at an adult readership.

When I think a little harder though, it makes sense that The Secret Garden was aimed at adult readers. If there’s a moral in this story, it’s aimed at parents. At times it sounds like a parenting manual:

Two worst things as can happen to a child is never to have his own way – or always to have it.

The Secret Garden

If we’re going to call it children’s literature,The Secret Garden is an example from the First Golden Age of Children’s Literature, which lasted from 1850 until the first World War. In some ways it’s typical of its time, in other ways ahead of its time.

The Secret Garden utilises a madwoman in the attic trope, though the prisoner is a boy, not a madwoman. The haunted house and grounds are also straight out of a Gothic horror. The Secret Garden is a very clear example of the Gothic in literature. It is also clearly Christian.

I’m reading an abridged version, which is still plenty long. Though some child readers absolutely stan this novel, I don’t personally consider it children’s literature. In fact, I didn’t plan on ever digging deep into this novel because it gave me the absolute creeps when I was a kid myself.

My childhood copies and they’re still on the shelf. I started reading a few times and never finished. Then, in the year of our Lord 2020, when my own kid was in Year 6 and refused to study White Fang along with everyone else due to the animal cruelty contained within, their teacher handed them a copy of The Secret Garden instead (because child cruelty is more palatable than animal cruelty…) Hodgson Burnett’s classic has clearly found resonance if you can still find class sets hanging around in Australian schools.

Notably, my own kid also despised The Secret Garden and, like me, couldn’t get past the first few chapters. Without whole class guidance from the teacher (who had actually prepped for a unit on White Fang), it was impossible to understand.

As an adult, I have since read a completely different kind of book with a similar name: Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden, which puts a whole different spin on things.

Continue reading “The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett”

Foxes In Children’s Literature

Ebenezer Newman Downard - Winter Landscape with Fox and Hares

A fox is a wolf who sends flowers.

Ruth Weston

Arthur Applebee asked a group of pre-school children to tell him the characters of a list of animals. They were more certain of the stereotypical personalities of animals they could only have met in stories, such as brave lions or sly foxes, than of the characters of dogs or cats, where experience of specific dogs and cats came in to complicate the picture. Story characteristics are prepared for reception, so to speak; they’re consistent, they don’t contradict themselves, and they’re dispensed at the pace that understanding demands.

The Child That Books Built, Frances Spufford
Reynard the Fox by Wilhelm Von Kaulbach
Reynard the Fox by Wilhelm Von Kaulbach
Continue reading “Foxes In Children’s Literature”

Tree Houses, Forts and Huts in Children’s Illustration

No Girls Allowed by Stevan Dohanos

One major task for the children’s storyteller: Getting parents out of the story. Children need to be the drivers of their own narratives. Storytellers have come up with many ways of getting adult helpers and caregivers out of the way.

Here’s another: Give the child a home of their own. Within the world of the story, this play home may function as the permanent home. Or it may be a temporary construction with the safety of real home nearby. Doesn’t matter.

Sometimes barns are used for this purpose. Fern Arable’s ‘other’ home was the barn, and her ‘other family’ comprised the animals who lived in the barn. (Charlotte’s Web)

Ships and boats are also useful as second homes. They often end up on islands, where the child is free to do exactly as they wish for a little while before returning home. See Where The Wild Things Are.

Or perhaps the children go camping and pitch a tent. This might be in the back yard.

Scene from Bluey, made in Australia, a series all about having fun at home, dealing with emotions, suffering through rifts and making up.

Then there are forts.

Kids begin to build forts indoors around age 4, Sobel found, then start venturing outside around age 6 or 7 to construct dens, treehouses and other fort-like structures more independently, a practice that continues into their tweens. Metaphorically and physically, building forts reflects children’s growth as individuals, Sobel says; they create a “home away from home,” free from parental control. Forts also foster creativity.

Why Kids Love Building Forts

But I do love a good tree house.

Continue reading “Tree Houses, Forts and Huts in Children’s Illustration”

Ideology In Children’s Literature: Against The Cult Of Busyness

In general, laziness in child heroes is a big no-no. But there is definitely a happy medium so far as children’s book creators are concerned. Once you become so busy that you neglect your loved ones, you’re working too hard.

Many children’s books are about grandparents and grandchildren. In many stories, only the grandparent has time to spend with the grandchild because the parents are too busy working. Perhaps, off-stage, the sandwich generation also busy looking after the grandparents themselves.

English writer William Mayne demonstrated this ideology, explained by Alison Lurie:

Several of Mayne’s books are marked by an alliance between the very young and the very old, who have clear if idiosyncratic memories of the past and speak to children as equals. Middle-aged people, such as parents and teachers, are often preoccupied and uncomprehending. Their interaction with the child characters is practical: they make rules, set tasks and pack lunches. When children and parents (or teachers) speak to each other, the tone is detached and cool — sometimes, indeed, [Harold] Pinteresque.

Don’t Tell The Grownups: The subversive power of children’s literature
Heidi and Grandpapa by Gustav Tenggren
Heidi and Grandpapa by Gustav Tenggren

Sometimes it’s the animal who is the stand-in for the child, and the child is too busy for the animal.

In Mog’s Christmas by Judith Kerr it is implied Mog’s family is too busy, because they don’t have time to pay Mog any attention. This is seen as motivation for Mog leaving the house and going to sit on the roof in the snow. (I’m going down to the garden to eat worms…)

Sometimes the characters are too busy to ‘stop and smell the roses’ and enjoy nature. They may be punished for their lack of noticing when something they should have seen jumps out to bite them. After that they learn to pay attention to their surrounds. In children’s literature, children are thought to be better noticers than adults. This ideology can be seen in Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing, for instance, and also in the character development of Fern in Charlotte’s Web.

FURTHER READING

There are many apparent reasons why people engage in activity, such as to earn money, to become famous, or to advance science. In this report, however, we suggest a potentially deeper reason: People dread idleness, yet they need a reason to be busy. Accordingly, we show in two experiments that without a justification, people choose to be idle; that even a specious justification can motivate people to be busy; and that people who are busy are happier than people who are idle. Curiously, this last effect is true even if people are forced to be busy. Our research suggests that many purported goals that people pursue may be merely justifications to keep themselves busy.

Idleness aversion and the need for justifiable busyness byChristopher K Hsee 1Adelle X YangLiangyan Wang.
Lemon girl young adult novella

READ AT MY OTHER BLOG

Subscribe to occasional bookish newsletter.

Home » Children’s Literature

Edwardo The Horriblest Boy In The Whole Wide World by John Burningham and Fabulously Naughty Children

Edwardo The Horriblest Boy in the Whole Wide World John Burningham cover

Edwardo, The Horriblest Boy In The Whole Wide World, written and illustrated by John Burningham (2006), is an excellent example of this modern ideology of ‘good’ vs ‘bad’ children, specifically how there is no such thing as good vs bad, but we’re all a little yin yang and can go either way depending on how we are treated.

By the way, how modern is this ‘modern ideology’, really? Despite being reflected in picture books, it is not reflected in the policies of the Australian government. If it were, we wouldn’t be locking up 10-year-olds for crimes, and until last year, that place was in prison.) Australia would not be deporting ‘New Zealand’ criminals who were brought to Australia as toddlers by parents who never got their citizenship paperwork sorted, if we really did believe that environment shapes the child. We would consider those people, for all intents and purposes, Australian. We would let them stay.

In any case, child audiences love to see child characters behaving badly. Watching children get into mischief is a bit like watching robbers carry out a heist: as audience we never know what they’re going to do until they’ve done it. These characters are intrinsically motivated. They’re the opposite of passive. Interest derives from seeing them get out of their predicaments, or suffering in comedic fashion from their own stupid decisions. (Stupid characters who never learn a thing make great comedic stock.)

Continue reading “Edwardo The Horriblest Boy In The Whole Wide World by John Burningham and Fabulously Naughty Children”

The Storybook Police Archetype

Mary Petty (1899-1976) 1943

Australia has a uniquely trusting relationship with its police force. We might say the image of police here in Australia is based on a storybook image, one which is cultivated in white kids from the time we start reading children’s books.

The only feelings mankind has inspired in policemen are indifference and scorn.

UN FLIC (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1972)

Today I’ll look at some of the main ways writers and gatekeepers protect the image of the police officer as a patriarchal protector above reproach. This archetype is common in utopian stories for very young children and was especially prevalent in earlier Golden Ages of children’s literature.

The Storybook Policeman is just that — he is a man. Female officers are rarely seen in children’s stories. The trend towards avoiding police officers as saviours coincided with the reality of more female officers, which probably accounts for that. The number of female police officers in Australia has doubled over the last 20 years, but in America remains where Australia, New Zealand and England were back in the 1990s.

We can say “hire decent human beings as police officers” hoping to reduce police brutality, or “Hire decent people for executive roles in business” hoping to reduce brutality at work. The problem is that police recruits & junior execs may walk into the job as decent as anyone. We have to address the system, which is designed in both cases to turn regular people into machines that can’t see other people’s humanity. That’s why the conventional cop-out “My boss is just a jerk, that’s all – a horrible human being” has never helped anyone. The system turned a regular person into a cruel boss, something it does a thousand times a day, in stages. We have to see the systemic nature of both problems (brutality perpetrated on the public by law enforcement and on employees by employers) in order to solve them. Evil bosses are sad, fearful, powerless people. The only power they feel is the power conferred on them by the organization – that is, by the system. Folks are always shocked to meet people who know their evil boss socially and swear the boss is a great person outside of work.

The real-world percentage of female officers is irrelevant to the Storybook Image, just as it was irrelevant in America in the wake of September 11, 2001. Susan Faludi writes about this extensively in her book The Terror Dream, but media outlets exclusively chose images of men saving women, even though a significant proportion of the first responders that day were women.

I don’t think there was any task that was performed down there by men that were not performed by women.

Terri Tobin, Deputy Inspector of the New York Police Department

Another significant proportion of the public does not want to see women saving men, and won’t believe it even if they do see it. Faludi talks about ‘the myth of cowboy bluster and feminine frailty’, which must exist as a duo in order to make sense.

Not surprisingly, we see this dynamic play out in children’s books from earlier ages of children’s literature, in which children seek the help of kindly and trustworthy police men in times of need. These men stand omnisciently over proceedings and the children are free to roam, knowing that a strong man, the huntsman in Red Riding Hood’s woods, is only a scream away.

When we base our security on a mythical male strength that can only increase itself against a mythical female weakness — we should know that we are exhibiting the symptoms of a lethal, albeit curable, cultural affliction

Susan Faludi, The Terror Dream

In books for children, the policeman is never far away. Roald Dahl deals with this fact knowingly in Danny The Champion Of The World, while at the same time fully utilising the trope:

At this point, pedalling grandly towards us on his bicycle, came the arm of the law in the shape of Sergeant Enoch Samways, resplendent in his blue uniform and his shiny silver buttons. It was always a mystery to me how Sergeant Samways could sniff out trouble wherever it was.

Roald Dahl, Danny The Champion Of The World

The police car always at the ready is not limited to literature for the youngest audience. It’s a trope we see across all forms of storytelling. There are many police related tropes, and you can find them beautifully catalogued over at TV Tropes. In adult story we more often see the inversion — the useless or very human cop. Yet elements of the effective police force are there nonetheless — the willingness for cops to put rape tests forward for testing, the rapidity at which paperwork gets processed, calls returned. Though evil is rife in fictional adult policing, sheer ineptitude is vanishingly rare. Audiences do not enjoy watching ineptitude. We like our heroes and our villains to be agentic, to be motivated, to have a plan. We like to see them carry plans out.

It’s often said that the best cops would make the best criminals — by chance they’re working on the right side of the law. Crime drama makes the most of this. In The Wire, Jimmy McNulty is a good cop because he has an intuitive understanding of what motivates the criminals he’s working with. The audience sees Jimmy himself go against the rules and resisting the hierarchy that exists within the police force.

Carl Barks c.1948-1954.
Walter Crane 1845 - 1915 London Town The Night Watch 1883
Walter Crane 1845 – 1915 London Town The Night Watch 1883

The Storybook Policeman is also white. This trope is yet another way in which picture books serve white people and their children. A Black parent cannot afford to teach their children that police are the benevolent patriarchs to call in any emergency.

I’m reminded of the episode of British TV cartoon Peppa Pig about spiders. The message: Don’t be scared of spiders. Spiders won’t hurt you. This reassurance served its purpose for children who wouldn’t leave Britain, but did not serve Australian kids at all. Australian kids need to be scared of spiders. The episode was not aired on Australian television. Likewise, the Storybook Police Archetype only works for some kids and remains actively detrimental to others.

When the Storybook Police is made into an animal, we see the identifying features: The hat and the baton.

White parents have been heavily invested in protecting the image of the Storybook Police Archetype. At times, in America, it has reached ridiculous levels. Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Stieg depicts police as pigs. For this reason the picture book has been banned intermittently.

HADDON HUBBARD SUNDBLOM (American, 1899-1976) The Man Next Door
HADDON HUBBARD SUNDBLOM (American, 1899-1976) The Man Next Door
The Mystery Of The Haunted Square by John Drummond, cover By Eric Parker, The Amalgamated Press Ltd, London 1950
Marius van Dokkum
Marius van Dokkum
DRURY HILL, NOTTINGHAM, a nostalgic look back to post WWII Britain by Rob Rowland police
DRURY HILL, NOTTINGHAM, a nostalgic look back to post WWII Britain by Rob Rowland police

How Do Contemporary Authors Deal With Police?

Apart from the very real political issues, there are some storytelling pitfalls to avoid when storytellers bring police into a children’s story which, by definition, should be about kids, with the action driven by kids, and problems solved by kids.

“Why don’t they just call the police?” That’s exactly what a children’s writer does not want the reader to think. Police therefore create a problem for writers similar to the problem of parents and caring adults in general: Why don’t these children tell a parent?

It’s easy enough to get parents out of the way, but aren’t police meant to be on call 24/7? Enid Blyton included numerous policemen in her stories and used them where it was convenient. But sometimes she tried to get rid of them.

Barney was previously was in a circus but now he’s traveling Great Britain with his monkey Miranda looking for his father. Roger & Diana, brother and sister, and their cousin Snubby, are sent to a quiet little village called Ring ‘O Bells to recover from the flu. There they discover that something suspicious is going on in the ancient hall there.

Although Blyton tried to get rid of the police, leaving it up to Julian to lead the other children to victory, she didn’t always manage this successfully:

The plot has some small holes, as often happens in these children adventures. For example, once they discover the kidnapped person, the children do not go straight to the police. A reason is given for that, but it did not seem very convincing.

from a consumer review of the Ring o Bells Mystery

Enid Blyton can hardly be called contemporary, so let’s take a look at how Kate DiCamillo deals with police in her Mercy Watson series. The Mercy Watson series is set in 1950s-esque suburbia, functioning as a spoof of domestic bliss. Kate DiCamillo avoids problematic police altogether, but she does it by replacing them with firefighters.

These two firefighters function identically to the policemen duos of Enid Blyton’s era and are called at the end of a story to finish off what has already been set in motion by the child and childlike characters.

To bring rescue teams too early to a children’s story would function unsuccessfully as deus ex machina, and agency removed from the child heroes. For various other examples of how police officers have been used in children’s stories see the following:

  • Walter The Farting Dog in which a dog farts really stinkily and knocks out two Storybook Burglars. The police arrive immediately to deal with the burglars.
  • The Tale of Pigling Bland or The Tale of Ginger and Pickles by Beatrix Potter from the First Golden Age of Children’s Literature. In the first example the police officer is roaming the country roads waiting for crime to happen. In the second example, the police officer is a creepy doll.
  • “A Good Tip For Ghosts” by Paul Jennings uses the police officer as storyteller.
  • Junie B. Jones And The Stupid Smelly Bus, in which Junie gets a lecture from the police officer
  • “Lamb To The Slaughter” by Roald Dahl is regularly studied in high schools. In this story, the trickster murderer fools police officers, who are guided by their bellies. Though there are hints of bumbling policemen in children’s literature, by the time readers have hit the teenage years, their storybook cops are no longer the trustworthy archetypes who always know what’s what. Even in his children’s books, Dahl avoided the Storybook Police Archetype. See Matilda for an example in which police play a peripheral part — they exist to be avoided. Dahl had a mistrust of authority of all kinds, and was a large part of the movement towards subversive, darker middle grade fiction.
Austin Briggs (1908 - 1973) noir illustration. Probably from the 1950s as Briggs had started painting in colour at that time
Austin Briggs (1908 – 1973) noir illustration. Probably from the 1950s as Briggs had started painting in colour at that time
A lot of a policeman's time is taken up with controlling traffic. (1962) art by John Berry for Ladybird
A lot of a policeman’s time is taken up with controlling traffic. (1962) art by John Berry for Ladybird
The Joke Book compiled by Oscar Weigle, illustrated by Bill & Bonnie Rutherford (1963) police
The Joke Book compiled by Oscar Weigle, illustrated by Bill & Bonnie Rutherford (1963) police

Header illustration by Mary Petty (1899-1976), 1943

Lemon girl young adult novella

READ AT MY OTHER BLOG

Subscribe to occasional bookish newsletter.

Home » Children’s Literature

Man Bites Dog Humour

‘Man Bites Dog’ describes inversion humour. I’ve also seen ‘hat on a dog’ describing the same category of joke, in which the audience laughs because the usual way of things is back to front.

MAN BITES DOG IN JOURNALISM

Journalists also use ‘Man Bites Dog’ to describe stories that are popular because they intrigue via (often humorous) inversion. This is partly why news stories about ‘the first female rugby coach’ or ‘8-year-old codes his own traffic app’ are newsworthy in the first place; these stories are only news because a certain element is unexpected.

For some reason we commonly think of dogs when describing this category of joke. In Harald Skogsberg’s illustration below, a hare chases a dog through the woods. This is comical because for one reason only: in the real world, hounds chase hares instead. The Man Bites Dog gag is a single-layer joke.

Harald Skogsberg hare chases hound

In 2002 there was a news story in which a man literally bit a dog. Because the ‘Man Bites Dog’ trope already existed, this was now a double-layer joke.

MAN BITES DOG HUMOUR IN STORIES FOR CHILDREN

Although the hound and hare illustration above includes an audience of adults, children’s picture books are full of man bites dog gags, because preschoolers are yet to understand multi-layered humour such as satire, but will laugh their heads off if they see Dad put on Mum’s hat, for example. In this post I take a close look at the sorts of jokes enjoyed by child audiences at what ages, based on a taxonomy proposed by the co-founder of The Onion.

In order for Man Bites Dog gags to work, the audience needs an internalised schema of ‘expected normality’, and the comedian needs to make use of established norms in order to invert it. By making use of the established norm, the comedian further cements the established norm.

The illustration below is also by Harald Skogsberg, who lived through the 20th century. While a modern audience may not see the humour, it is partly humorous in its intent. A wife scolds a man, who is dressed as a housewife, and is clearly doing the wife expected of a housewife.

There is no better way to cement ideologies than by use of humour. The ideology reinforced within the illustration below: Housework is for wives, not husbands. The image aims to elicit a laugh, but also does the social work of reinforcing the idea that if husbands do their share of housework, they will appear ridiculous to onlookers and lose their status.

This is why Man Bites Dog gags can be so problematic. You might think that contemporary bestselling children’s books are free of the sort of mid-20th century humour depicted in the house husband image above. Unfortunately it hasn’t disappeared.

One of the most quietly problematic examples of gender inversion can be seen in The Day The Crayons Quiet by Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers. If it seems subtle, that’s only because we’re not looking back on our current era with the benefit of enlightened hindsight. Likewise, there are many, many children’s stories in which a man dresses as a woman, reinforcing the gender binary and all the rules around what proper masculinity and femininity should look like. (tl;dr If boys want to wear dresses, they will look ridiculous.)

The huge numbers of people buying The Day The Crayons Quit indicate that most adults are simply not seeing any problems with that book. I’m sure most mid-20th century audiences enjoying the humorous illustrations of Harald Skogsberg weren’t fully cognisant of his ideologies, either.

To tell 20th century audiences that Skogsberg was problematically sexist would’ve been like explaining water to a fish. And to tell

FURTHER READING

Subversion in storytelling: How is it done?

Lemon girl young adult novella

READ AT MY OTHER BLOG

Subscribe to occasional bookish newsletter.

Home » Children’s Literature