Paul Jennings has been an influential children’s author in Australia and New Zealand since the 1980s. Continue reading “How To Write Like Paul Jennings”
Uncanny is a hi-lo short story collection by Australian author Paul Jennings, first published 1988.
The original ‘uncanny’ stories were by British writer May Sinclair (1863 – 1946). I read a collection of Sinclair’s uncanny short stories (1923) a few years ago and wasn’t really moved by them. This is because so many writers have emulated Sinclair’s work that hers no longer feel all that original! Sinclair was a heavy influence on H.P. Lovecraft. Now, I wager you’ve heard of him, even if you haven’t heard of her.
Unfortunately, the influence of May Sinclair remains little known. Plus, her writing career was cut short with the onset of Parkinson’s disease in the late 1920s.
The Uncanny May Sinclair stories have plots like this:
- Two lovers are doomed to repeat their empty affair for the rest of eternity.
- A female telepath is forced to face the consequences of her actions.
- The victim of a violent murder has the last laugh on his assailant.
- An amateur philosopher discovers that there is more to Heaven than meets the eye.
Likewise, Jennings writes ‘circular’ stories in which stories end on the note that this weird thing will continue on forever. Characters in Paul Jennings stories are forced to face the consequences of their actions. Underdogs (victims) get the last laugh against their opponents. The stories are set in apparent utopias, where there is more to ordinary life than meets the eye.
Whether directly or indirectly, May Sinclair had an impact on Paul Jennings, across all of his short fiction, and not just in this particular title. Continue reading “Uncanny by Paul Jennings Hi-Lo Short Stories”
Unmentionable (1991) is a collection of 9 hi-lo short stories by iconic Australian author Paul Jennings.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “ICE MAIDEN”
In “Ice Maiden”, a boy falls in love with an ice statue, but he gets over his love for the ice once he meets a real girl.
I have some sympathy for the phenomenon whereby adolescents lust after (hopefully) safe targets — celebrities, cartoon characters, teachers, coaches. These objects feel safe because they will never reciprocate our nascent lust.
“Ice Maiden” is about the humiliation sometimes felt when lusting after someone — or something — utterly unattainable.
There are strong echoes of Pygmalion in any story with a plot like this. Jennings has rewritten Pygmalion knowingly, with mention of a Greek statue. I’ve written about Pygmalion previously. The Greek myth is inherently sexist. When writing this humorous retelling for kids, Paul Jennings didn’t manage to subvert that aspect at all. I don’t believe he manages any subversion in “Ice Maiden”.
Unbelievable is a short story collection by Australian author Paul Jennings, copyrighted 1986. These are tall tales for eight-year-olds. Australia has a long history of tall tales, and Jennings very successfully adapted the techniques for a child audience. The 1980s was the decade of the irreverent male children’s author. Roald Dahl was the stand-out giant in this field, after starting out writing stories for adults. These days we have David Walliams and various other male authors. This genre of story continues to be a masculine domain, even though children’s literature is an industry full of women. This is carried over in Jennings’ stories for children. Continue reading “Unbelievable by Paul Jennings Hi-lo Short Fiction”
Unreal is a collection of 8 short stories, first published 1985. This was the book that really kicked-off Jennings’ career as a children’s author. Though it wasn’t called that at the time, these books are excellent examples of hi-lo literature.
I am revisiting the work of Paul Jennings with the benefit of 2019 hindsight. I’d like to clarify what writing lessons I can learn from Paul Jennings, against what to throw out. Continue reading “Unreal by Paul Jennings Hi-lo Short Fiction”
When telling a story, the following is non-negotiable: Your character must have some kind of plan. There really are no exceptions to this rule.
There are some caveats, such as when your main character is a passive sort of character, in which case another character will make the plan which kicks them out of passivity. (Often it’s the opponent.)
But a story with no plan is not a story.
There’s a specific kind of plan which, as screenwriting guru John Truby has pointed out, audiences really go for. The scam. In her Watching email, NYT writer Margaret Lyons shares her own passion for the scam:
|My passion for scams and hoaxes continues unabated, and I’m not alone. I finally had a chance to watch both Fyre Festival docs last week — both flawed; both interesting — and I was also delighted to see that ABC News has a new podcast about Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos. And now, perhaps the best of all scams: A literary scam. This New Yorker piece about the novelist Dan Mallory’s “trail of deceptions” is going to power my whole week.|
|If you would like to sing “oh my scammy, whammy mammy,” now is the time to rewatch “Mr. Show.”|
We hate scammers in real life, but we love to read about scamming plans in our fiction. Perhaps this is wish-fulfilment. We like to fantasise about getting our own back on the those who have wronged us.
The scam is closely related to two other storytelling terms/techniques:
Here’s what Truby says about scams.
Audiences love to be fooled, so make use of plans and scams to extend your plot.
- The average writer doesn’t realise one of the first keys to plot is your hero’s plan.
- Plan is a set of guidelines the hero is going to use to beat the opponent and reach the goal.
- In really good [stories], this plan is often a scam. A scam is simply a plan that involves deception.
A scam isn’t just a single trick that the hero plays on the opponent. A scam is actually a campaign of trickery. It’s a complex sequence of tricks that surprises not only the opposition, it surprises the audience.
When you use a scam, it gives you more plot. A scam involves deception. The scam ties in with the trickster character, in turn tying in with the surprises you get from your opponent. All of these provide a substantial plot. Plot is the area where most writers are weakest.
Films that make use of the scam are varied. Some are serious films:
- The Dark Knight
- The Godfather
- The Bourne Ultimatum
- Die Hard
- The Usual Suspects
- But scam is even more important in comedy genres:
- Wedding Crashers
- Beverly Hills Cop
The main characters in Orphan Black and The Killing regularly use scams to achieve their goals, by dressing up, telling lies — but the audience knows that it’s all to a worthy end.
WILL ANY SCAM DO?
An audience accepts scams from some characters more than others, and your typical, conservative audience has little tolerance for certain kinds of scams.
In Breaking Bad, Skylar uses a scam to get Ted out of trouble, which many (sexist?) viewers interpret as an ‘unworthy cause’, since she’s married to Walt, and therefore should be loyal only to Walt.’
Children tend to have a higher tolerance for scammer heroes than gatekeeper adults, many of whom believe storybook heroes need to model good behaviour.
SCAMS AND PLANS IN CHILDREN’S STORIES
In children’s literature, baddies who plot evil are often foiled by a child or a childlike creature who saves the day. As in films for adults, some of these plots are serious and some are comical.
Almost every children’s story involves a scam scene, regardless of what we call it:
- The entire Famous Five and Secret Seven series, and all of the child sleuth grandchild books, in which groups of children outwit smalltime crooks.
- Matilda — Roald Dahl absoluetely loved scams. Scams form the entire plot points of Matilda and the Twits. But every one of his books involves a scam of some kind, in which the young hero gets back at the opponent. David Walliams writes in the same tradition.
- Ramona Quimby hides her report card in the freezer because her older sister Beezus’s is always perfect, showing her own school achievements up.
- Jesse Aarons in The Bridge To Terabithia really wants to go with his music teacher to the museum, so when his mother is half asleep when he asks permission to go, he isn’t really concerned that she may not have even heard him.
- Mildred Hubble from The Worst Witch series is constantly foiled in the second book in the series by a newcomer (Enid) who Mildred is supposed to be in charge of. This newcomer is full of mischief, which is interesting because she doesn’t really mean to cause trouble for Mildred, she is simply blundering her way through the strict rules of the boarding school for witches, breaking lots of rules.
- The Pokey Little Puppy — Like Peter Rabbit, this is the character children fall in love with, even though he is doing exactly as his mother tells him not to. Perhaps we like these animals so much because they are justly punished.
- Room On The Broom — through their own creativity, all of the passengers of the broom display great team work and fool the baddie to save the benevolent witch.
- The Wee Wishy Woman of Nickety Nackety Noo-noo-noo by Joy Cowley saves her own bacon by fooling her captor into eating a stew made of glue. This is a classic fairytale ending — the clever trickster character gets away, similar to tales such as Hansel and Gretel, who fool the wicked witch by sticking out a chicken bone instead of a finger, and then by feigning ignorance about how to climb into an oven.
- Holden Caulfield from Catcher In The Rye might be called the father of Ferris Bueller, taking off from school and doing his own thing.
- Eleanor and Park each deceive themselves about how much they like each other, and then when they realise this, they must deceive certain adults in their lives. Is this the romance equivalent of a scam? I consider it as such.
- The Fish in This Is Not My Hat has already stolen the hat at the beginning of the picture book, which shows initiative. In We Found A Hat, one tortoise fantasises about scamming his friend, but ultimately realises that this would ruin the friendship.
- The Story Of The Little Mole Who Knew It Was None Of His Business is basically a revenge story in which a mole gets his own back by shitting on someone else.
- Wolf Comes To Town is all about a wicked wolf who dresses up as respectable people in order to do very bad things. (Truby calls these plots ‘switch stories’.) This particular form of deception fails to go unpunished, though, which may explain why this children’s picture book went out of print.
- Artemis Fowl behaves badly, stealing fairy gold, but is undeniably attractive as a character because he goes after what he wants even if it’s illegal. He’s also very proud of himself.
But children’s authors aren’t usually encouraged to make use of ‘scams’, as such. I haven’t seen the word used. But I have heard advice to make use of ‘secrets’, the close cousin of the scam.
In children’s literature, think in terms of ‘secrets’ rather than ‘scams’.
Children’s book editor Cheryl Klein advises that child protagonists should have secrets:
Let the reader know there’s a secret, and then don’t tell them what it is until it absolutely serves your purpose to do so. …It could be a secret the narrator knows and is keeping from the reader…Or it could be a secret the characters have to find out.
Klein points out that the genre of mystery novels require secrets and offers the example of Lemony Snicket, an example of a narrator who has a secret but refuses to tell the reader what it is.
Other child(like) characters with secrets:
- Claude the dog goes off on his adventures when his owners are at work, so they never know what he’s been up to.
- The Secret Seven were called ‘secret’ because they never told their parents (or other children outside the club) exactly what went down in their crime-busting world.
- The storyteller character of Looking For Alaska by John Green keeps a secret from the reader and the structure of the book lets the reader know that we are counting down to a big reveal.
- Billy in Where The Red Fern Grows has a secret — he sneaks off to buy a puppy after saving up a lot of pocket money, even though his family needs it
Are secrets more common in chapter books (and up) than in picture books? It seems so, since it’s harder to find examples of picture book characters who keep secrets. Since toddlers and young children are completely reliant upon their caregivers, the degree to which child protagonists keep secrets will depend on the age of the ideal reader, with the deepest darkest secrets being kept by YA protagonists.
Klein offers a caution about secrets when crafting the plot:
The answer to the secret has to have a significance equal to the effort the reader has invested in it.
Someone in a children’s writing forum crowdsourced recently: What does a waterfall sound like?
They were after an onomatopoeic sound. Some replied ‘trickle’. Others said ‘trickle’ is no good at all for a waterfall, as ‘trickle’ suggests a piddling amount of water.
I don’t know what they decided, but I thought of my years learning Japanese. Japanese most definitely has the perfect word to describe the sound of a waterfall: “goh-goh”.
That explains the wonderful and also one of the lesser-known, extremely challenging aspects of learning Japanese non-natively: Everyday Japanese language bursts forth with onomatopoeia, and not just onomatopoeia, either: mimesis in general.
ONOMATOPOEIA AND MIMESIS: THE DIFFERENCE
The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin (1903) is the second picture book written and illustrated by Beatrix Potter. Squirrel Nutkin is an example of a story from the First Age of Children’s Literature, though Beatrix Potter herself did much to usher in the more modern style of children’s story.
Though the page turns and small size of the book are a vital component of the reading experience, you can read The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin at Project Gutenberg, as Beatrix Potter’s work is now in the public domain.
When you think of Beatrix Potter, you probably think of ‘talking animal’ stories. A while back I quoted a taxonomy of animal-ness in (mostly) children’s literature. We have humans in animal-shaped bodies at the top and outright ordinary animals at the bottom. (Or inversed, if you like.)
The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin is interesting in its inclusion of three different levels of animal-ness in the one story:
- The squirrels, who can talk (riddles) and who are basically children in the bodies of squirrels. Unlike Peter Rabbit in his little blue jacket, these squirrels are not wearing clothes, but they do use their bushy tails as sails for their log boats, which elevates them into the human realm.
- Then there’s their opponent, the owl, who never replies to the prancing and taunting. It becomes clearer and clearer to the reader over the course of the story that the owl perhaps can’t talk, even if he wanted to, because he is a plain old owl! He does live in a ‘house’ (a tree) with a door and he cooks his meat (presumably) because smoke comes out of his ‘chimney’. But apart from these human attributes, the possibility that he might eat the squirrels if he’s going to eat a mole is terrifying, because the squirrels have been making meaty offerings, all the while failing to realise that they themselves are meat.
- And the offerings, of course, are the most animalistic of the characters, not the least bit personified. Indeed they are meat rather than animals–the three fat mice, the fine fat mole, seven fat minnows and so on.
THE DANGEROUS STORYWORLD OF SQUIRREL NUTKIN
Unlike Dahl’s Matilda, Nutkin presents outlaw behavior as opposed to promoting outlaw behavior. Unlike Sendak’s Wild Things, Nutkin’s wild revels are no wild rumpus where the border between the fond and the fierce is terrifyingly blurred: “We’ll eat you up—we love you so!” This is not the world of Beatrix Potter, but this is not to say her world is safe. The thing that all three have in common is danger, and it is the thing that makes their stories delightful for children, for childhood is the most dangerous thing in the world. For all of her whimsy, Beatrix Potter never lost sight of reality, even its tensions and terrors. Peter Rabbit’s father was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor. Jemima Puddle-Duck’s eggs were devoured by her canine rescuers. Squirrel Nutkin was mutilated by Old Mr. Brown. The world of Beatrix Potter is the real world: moral, but not moralistic; a world of pursuit and prey, of dangers and delights, of existence and enchantment.
STORY STRUCTURE OF SQUIRREL NUTKIN
Readers want to know early on the age of a main character in a children’s book. In a (non-illustrated) book, we don’t have a visual before us. So character age is one of the most important things we need to know up front.
How and when to convey that bit of information?
I took a look at character age and how this boring but necessary bit of information is introduced in various children’s books I happen to be reading lately. Continue reading “Introducing your character’s age in a children’s novel”
I Kill Giants is an American comic book written by Joe Kelly, illustrated byJ. M. Ken Niimura. The comic series is now ten years old. This post is about the 2017 film adaptation, directed by Anders Walter. The guy who wrote the comic also wrote the screenplay. I watched it on Netflix last night with my ten-year-old daughter and trust me when I say, this is a film for the tween-adolescent crowd — a reality which is always reflected in IMDb scores (which are not graded by ten year olds, and certainly not by ten-year-old girls). That’s why it gets a paltry 6.2.
I’m interested in this film regardless, because last week I happened to be reading Disturbing The Universe by Roberta Seelinger Trites, who takes the philosophy of Heidegger — particularly his concept of ‘Being-toward-death’ — and points out that this view of life/death is perfect to describe pretty much every young adult novel. (Or film, I’ll add.) I updated my Death In Children’s Literature post last week to reflect that lightbulb moment (thanks to Trites) and it just so happens I’ve spent the following Saturday evening watching the perfect example of a Heidegger YA movie. It’s like Joe Kelly read Heidegger (or Trites) before sitting down to compose I Kill Giants.
FTR, I don’t honestly believe that’s how creativity happens — these things are ‘in the air’. Storytellers absorb the ideas, reshuffle, re-vision, and (re-)produce old ideas using original character webs and new settings. I’ve done it myself. I can apply Heidegger’s philosophy to stuff I wrote before I’d even heard of the guy, let alone the concept. We’re all products of some big ur-Culture.
I’m especially interested by these concepts which are ‘in the air’, unnamed until someone names them — a philosopher, a literature professor, a writer in interview. It’s only then that patterns start to reveal themselves. Covert ideologies come to the fore — some of them hugely problematic. I have no major political beef with I Kill Giants; I’m interested in this children’s story because
I am a reformed Goth it makes for an excellent primer in Heidegger and death. Buckle in.