The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

The Secret Garden cover Graham Rust

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 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 persoanally 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. I was gifted a few 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, they were handed 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 copies 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.

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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
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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.

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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.

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

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.)

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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.

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.

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.

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.

“The trial of the shrike”, illustrations by Maginel Wright Enright 1877-1966. From the book Policeman Bluejay or Babes in Birdland, a children’s novel written by L. Frank Baum. Pub. 1907
“The trial of the shrike”, illustrations by Maginel Wright Enright 1877-1966. From the book Policeman Bluejay or Babes in Birdland, a children’s novel written by L. Frank Baum. Pub. 1907

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
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
Illustration from James Stephens’s The Crock of Gold (Macmillan, 1912), a comic novel concerning a philosopher’s quest to find the most beautiful woman in the world and deliver her from the gods Pan and Aengus Óg. It was illustrated by Thomas Mackenzie (English, 1887–1944)
Illustration from James Stephens’s The Crock of Gold (Macmillan, 1912), a comic novel concerning a philosopher’s quest to find the most beautiful woman in the world and deliver her from the gods Pan and Aengus Óg. It was illustrated by Thomas Mackenzie (English, 1887–1944).

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.

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

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?

Jack Sprat

On its surface, Jack Sprat is a nursery rhyme about a married couple with complementary tastes in food. In the 1500s, Jack Sprat was the nick name given to small men. Today you can buy sprats in cans from the supermarket. They taste like salty sardines. ‘Sprat’ describes a variety of small forage fish. The defining features of a sprats: highly active, small and — ironically — oily. Jack Sprat may eat no fat, but his namesake is full of it.

This is in line with modern dietary science, at odds with the rhyme as depicted by almost every single illustrator of Jack Sprat ever — that eating fat makes us fat. It is now thought that a high carbohydrate diet more efficiently lays down adipose tissue.

One exception to the fat wife and skinny Jack is the illustration by Kate Greenaway, in which the couple’s preferences for macronutrients is not reflected in their body mass index. This is because they’re children playing the parts.

Jack Sprat and his wife by Kate Greenaway, British illustrator (1846 – 1901).

Here again we have no Jack, no wife, simply two children imagining the rhyme as they prepare to eat.

Mr. and Mrs. Jack Sprat from “Favorite Nursery Rhymes”, the third of 3 over-sized books (with 9.5 x 13 inch pages) by Merrill Publishing Co., 1953-1958 in Chicago, Illinois

WHAT IS THE JACK SPRAT NURSERY RHYME ABOUT?

Importantly the lines began as a proverb and became known as a rhyme after its inclusion in Mother Goose collections published for children. The proverb went like this:

Jack will eat not fat, and Jull doth love no leane,
Yet betwixt them both they lick the dishes cleane

There are many theories about the meaning of this rhyme and no one knows for sure:

  • Jack Sprat could refer to King Charles I, this story being about a conflict between the King and the Parliament during his reign.  King Charles I was left financially “lean” when parliament denied him taxation. But with his wife, Queen Henrietta Maria, Charles was free to “lick the platter clean” after he dissolved parliament.
  • Jack Sprat could also be related to the Robin Hood Legend about King John and his brother Richard I (Richard The Lionheart).
  • The proverb might be about Prince John and his marriage with Joan, which was ultimately called off.

JACK SPRAT’S SCRAWNY CAT

A fuller version of the rhyme includes a cat.

Jack Sprat could eat no fat.
His wife could eat no lean.
And so between them both, you see,
They licked the platter clean
Jack ate all the lean,
Joan ate all the fat.
The bone they picked it clean,
Then gave it to the cat

Below is the most wretched picture book cat I’ve ever seen. Historically, cats were kept as ratters and ate scraps, but in this particular household, there are clearly no scraps. The cat’s tail seems to be suffering from the mange.

Illustration by Frederick Richardson, American, 1862 – 1937.

On brand as ever, Arthur Rackham’s illustration is creepy and ominous. The cat does not exist. Perhaps it has died of starvation. Shadows cast ominous doubles against the wall. Light comes from an off-the-page source, evoking the mood of art noir.

Jack Sprat and His Wife by Arthur Rackham
Jack Sprat and His Wife by Arthur Rackham

The illustration below features the brighter colours and comic tone required for inclusion in Nursery Rhymes for young children. There is no cat here, but there is a parrot in a very small cage, which is probably dropping dander and poop into those receptacles below. Many classic paintings from this era feature a bird in a cage inside the house, and I’m yet to learn whether this is a purely symbolic feature of narrative art, or whether people really did keep birds hanging in their kitchens like this.

“Jack Sprat and his wife”, early 1900s, from The Nursery Rhyme Book
Jack Sprat illustrated by L. Leslie Brooke, in which the characters are clearly royalty.

JACK SPRAT’S PIG

Turns out Jack has a pig, as well. I guess there were scraps and they went into the pig’s swill, because the pig seems to be doing just dandy. Or perhaps ‘Little Jack Sprat’ is a prequel to the more famous poem, showing Jack Sprat as a child (rather than as a small-build man). This poem seems to have originated in the 1800s. Someone clearly liked the name. It does have a ring to it, appealing like Dwight Schrute.

Is the Jack Sprat of the later poem even the same person? Sometimes the Sprat of this later poem is spelled with a double ‘t’, for example in The Little Mother Goose.

Jack Sprat had a pig, who was not very little,
Nor yet very big;
He was not very lean, he was not very fat;
He’ll do well for a grunt,
Says little Jack Sprat.

from The Big Book of Nursery Rhymes, published 1903.

Whoever created the illustration below decided to go with an adult Jack who with his voracious wife is about to eat the pig, served whole on a platter. Even more confronting, this is a piglet, not a pig.

Magic Words and Spells

The Magic Circle 1886 by John William Waterhouse 1849-1917

In children’s fantasy, enchanted realism and magical realism, there is often an arc word (leitwort) which enters popular lexicon, or sticks in the mind long after the reader leaves the story. These magic words sometimes become a part of the child’s own imaginative play, an improvised version of early childhood fan fiction.

Where Do Magic Words Come From?

Imagine a baby on the verge of learning to speak. For all of her life she has been inarticulate — she wants something, but all she can do is cry or say “Uh, uh, uh!” Then, somehow, the purpose of speech is revealed to her, and after what must be a tremendous struggle, the power of speech. Though we all once experienced it, it is hard now to picture the immense thrill of power we must have felt the first time we cried “Mommy!” or “Cookie!” and saw what we desired appear. From this experience, surely, comes the power of magic words and spells in fairytales.

Small children like simple, repetitive rhymes and games, just as they like repetitive or cumulative folktales such as The Gingerbread Man. As they grow older and more competent linguistically they become impatient with such tales; they learn that the magic spell doesn’t always work and that words don’t always mean what they seem to mean.

Alison Lurie, Don’t Tell The Grownups: The subversive power of children’s literature
1920s Magic poster 'Brush The Mystic The Hindu Basket'
1920s Magic poster ‘Brush The Mystic The Hindu Basket’

Examples of Magic Words and Spells

  • Nickety Nacketty Noo Noo Noo by Joy Cowley, in which the spell is in the title
  • Harry Potter is full of them: Riddikulus, Obliviat, Alohomora etc.
  • The Magic Faraway Tree series by Enid Blyton features trees which whisper ‘wisha wisha’, which as a child reader sent a tingle down my spine. While this onomatopoeia doesn’t directly function as a magic word, it signals that the children have entered an enchanted realm.
AbracadabraIn the late 17th century this word was used as a charm to ward off illness. The word comes from Latin and was first recorded in a 2nd-century poem by Q. Serenus Sammonicus. . It comes from the Hebrew phrase abreq ad hâbra, meaning ‘hurl your thunderbolt even unto death’. It was usually inscribed inside an inverted triangle.
Presto!From Italian ‘quick, quickly’, from late Latin praestus ‘ready’. In modern English, it’s usually ‘Hey, presto!” This is because magicians started using ‘Hey presto!’ in the late 18th century. English speakers first borrowed presto from Italian as a musical term.
ShazamThis is relatively new, dating only from the 1940s, and a guy called Gomer Pyle, who popularised the Marvel Comics word.
Ta-da!This is from the art deco era, and is simply mimetic, meaning it’s the sound we imagine is made when a magician makes a flourish and presents something magical to the audience.
Voila!French (voilà) from the 1700s, basically means ‘Look!’

What makes a good magic word?

For the answer to this, I turn to the work of scholars who have studied nursery rhymes. Nursery rhymes have a proven track record for memorability and infiltration into the real lives of children (and caregivers).

In her paper “From nursery rhymes to childlore: orality and ideology“, Catalina Millán Scheiding writes about the enduring popularity of nursery rhymes under the following headings:

  1. Rhythm rhythm is an especially important aspect of the prosody of nursery rhyme (along with  intonation, stress and tempo of speech). Then there’s isochrony (e.g. whether a language is stress-timed or syllable timed). Children’s rhymes tend to have a ‘binary structure’ e.g. quatrains, or four-beat lines (Baa Baa Black Sheep). Some have proposed that this is because they mimic heartbeats, which we remember from our time in the womb. Nursery rhymes often offer a sense of closure in their rhythm. This is known as a ‘closed circular structure’. Scheiding offers Baa Baa Black Sheep as an example of this. John Prine’s Prine’s rhythmic delivery of “Illegal Smile” is likewise phrased ‘like a children’s sing-along, emphasizing the final two syllables of each line: “I chased a rainbow down a one-way street — dead end/And all my friends turned out to be insurance — sales men.”’
  2. Musicality refers to metrical pattern and how rhythm is marked. English is an example of a ‘stress timed language’, which means native English speakers in most dialects around the world leave the same length of time between stressed syllables. (Māori background speakers in New Zealand often speak native English without the stress timing, borrowing Māori syllable timing unrelated of whether they also speak Te Reo Māori.) ‘Musicality’ of an utterance will partly depend on who is uttering it.
  3. Repetition Binary structures lend themselves to repetition. Rhyme is another form of repetition and the following observation is especially interesting:

Rhymes are generally rooted in the sensory world and make reference to people, objects, and actions, but not ideas, although ideas can and are inferred and assumed from the short actions found in the rhymes. This situational nature makes rhymes more recognizable, as the objects and actions they depict are related to the culture they belong to, and can be found in daily actions. A rhyme could then be recalled and ‘activated’ when in contact with any of these domestic activities which it mentions.

Debbie Pullinger, From Tongue to Text: A New Reading of Children’s Poetry
  1. Formulaicity babies initially learn language as ‘units’ and later as linked strings of words, initially unaware of divisions. Much adult language is also formulaic, and these shared phrases are an important part of a community’s identity.
  2. Language as Play Memorable phrases are phrases which form the basis of play. Audiences incorporate them into play and build on them, using the original as a model. Where magic words and rhymes accompany movement (e.g. clapping, skipping, jumping) they become more memorable. Memorable phrases are performative (contrasting with descriptive).
Charles Geer 1965 Danger Is The Password
Charles Geer 1965 Danger Is The Password

Magic Words Revisited

  • Nickety nacketty noo noo noo appeals because of its repetition, its musicality and its rhythm.
  • J.K. Rowling’s magical words and spells work a bit differently from the nursery rhymes. They appeal to the older reader’s interest in wordplay and etymology. For instance, “Riddikulus” is an adaptation of “ridiculous” as well as of ridiculum (Latin, “joke”) and ridere (Latin, “to laugh”). The reader doesn’t necessarily know all that in order to appreciate it, but by uttering it in an everyday context, bonds with other Harry Potter superfans.
  • Wisha wisha is beautifully onomatopoeic, and whenever I hear wind blowing through trees, I think they are saying ‘wisha wisha’. This is in line with Pullinger’s theory that the best nursery rhymes (and also the best magic words) are situational, found in daily actions (or natural phenomena).

Header painting: The Magic Circle 1886 by John William Waterhouse 1849-1917