Rosamund and the Purple Jar

Rosamund and the Purple Jar exhibited 1900 Henry Tonks 1862-1937

Rosamund and the Purple Jar is a didactic story for children, written by Maria Edgeworth, first published 1796. To remind myself how old this story really is, what else was going on in the world at this time?

In 1796, Horace Walpole died. (He kind of invented the ‘Gothick’ with The Castle of Otranto.) Jane Austen turned 21. Ten Presbyterian missionaries arrived in Tahiti to try and save a population a decade after Captain Cook’s arrival had totally upset the island’s equilibrium. John Adams defeated Thomas Jefferson in the U.S. presidential election. The first two white women to ever visit New Zealand had arrived only the previous year. Australia opened its first theatre in Sydney. Japan was fully isolated.

So this story is very old. Of course it’s overtly didactic by contemporary standards. But what are the messages? And have the messages themselves held fast?



STORY WORLD OF “ROSAMUND AND THE PURPLE JAR”

This story might take place in any number of English speaking areas. Maria Edgeworth was herself an English-Irish writer. She was born in Oxfordshire England but moved to Ireland after her mother died and her father remarried. This story is set in London, where all the best things could be found.

Most of Maria Edgeworth’s stories were domestic, taking place inside the home. This is a rare outing for a little girl character. (Of course she’s bowled over by the experience!)

The family is a nuclear family with a mother, a father, a son and a daughter. The Every Family. They are neither fabulously wealthy nor poor. We learn more about Rosamund’s family life from the other Rosamund stories: They live in a comfortable, cosy home with a fireplace to warm up and a safe garden to play in. She shares her bedroom with her sister Laura.

In this story, Rosamund will only have to wait a month for new shoes. For the standards of the day, this isn’t too bad. Many people had no shoes at all, ever. Many wore hand-me-downs. For the purposes of this story, money is not the issue. Prudence is the issue. So a not-too-rich, not-too-poor circumstance is perfect.

Conspicuously absent from Maria Edgeworth’s Rosamund stories: Toys. We might expect a seven-year-old girl to fall in love with a doll or a teddy bear, but no. She has a thing for glass. I find this adorable. I can totally imagine falling for glass products. It is therefore a massive punishment when she is not allowed to visit the Glass House. It’s almost as if the father has invented this trip and then disinvited her precisely to punish her for making the wrong choice. In this way, the story is similar to Saki’s “The Lumber-Room.” To punish a young boy, the adult caregiver decides to take the other children to the beach just so she can leave him behind. I therefore suspect this was acceptable parenting practice in the Victorian era.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “ROSAMUND AND THE PURPLE JAR”

SHORTCOMING

Rosamund is a naïf who has difficulty moderating her desires. She wants everything but must settle upon one thing. She has trouble accepting this. Later we witness her difficulty accepting the consequences of her choice.

Rosamund stands for all of us, because we all grapple with these cognitive biases:

  • We don’t always know what’s going to make us happy until after we’ve made a decision.
  • It is hard making decisions. (Decision paralysis.)
  • It is hard realising we’ve made the wrong decision. (Post buyer’s regret.)
  • We want everything but can only ever enjoy a portion of it in our lifetimes.

Rosamund is also given a shortcoming specifically punished in girl characters: She is taken-in by the prettiness of something (guided by emotion) rather than looking at its function (guided by supposed logic).

She is so enchanted by the jar that she’ll underestimate the amount of pain caused by the hole in her shoe. She also underestimates how quickly the shoes degrade after today. Worst of all, she underestimates the extent to which her father will punish her for failing to choose the shoes.

DESIRE

Rosamund wants all the pretty things. She wants the jar. She wants to admire the jar as it sits on the mantelpiece. I guess she’d like others to admire the beautiful jar as well, otherwise she wouldn’t put it pride of place in the shared living area.

OPPONENT

The mother is the stand-in opponent for an entire moral universe in which no one can have everything. The universe forces us to choose, no matter how much money we have, in fact. Simply by making one choice we cut off the life we could have had by taking the other path. This theme is often conveyed symbolically in stories using crossroads. But not in this story.

The mother is also a fairy godmother or genie-in-the-bottle archetype, granting only one wish.

PLAN

Rosamund’s executive function isn’t well-developed. She’s being dragged around these shops, full of carefully-positioned items, all of them designed to create a Gruen Transfer in the days before that particular set of marketing tactics even had a name.

The mother has a plan. She will let her daughter make her own decision and deal with the consequences.

BIG STRUGGLE

The big struggle scene contains a blood substitute in the form of purple liquid that, when drained from the jar, renders the jar transparent and ordinary.

ANAGNORISIS

For Rosamund this is a complete let-down. She realises she hasn’t examined the jar properly. If she had, she might have realised the colour belongs to the liquid, not to the glass. She realises she has made the wrong decision when Maria Edgeworth includes another painful step in the story: She has been looking forward to an outing with her father and brother, but now he refuses to take her because she is ‘slip-shod’.

Rosamund is punished for two main reasons: For making the impractical choice and also for not standing by her decision. “You made your bed, now lie in it,” she is basically told.

This is a lesson quite often doled out to girls and young women in stories. Take “The Frog Princess” as the O.G. fairytale example. The Frog Princess also chose a pretty thing (her golden ball returned to her) in exchange for her body and her life. Yet the message in almost all the versions of this disturbing fairytale is the same as presented in this one: “You made your decision, girl. Now deal with the consequences. You may never change your mind, even if you realise the entirety of the consequences of your decision become apparent only after you have made it.”

Notice the link between this message and rape culture. “You went to his flat/to the alleyway/to the pub with him. What did you think would happen next?”

The idea that one decision leads fatally into an entire raft of unintended consequences requires intense scrutiny.

The Kovacs song is a contemporary Just Desserts story, complete with the gender flip. This time a woman dishes out punishment. With Angela Carter-esque feminism, the female victim is ‘hairy on the inside’ (turns into a wolf) and murders the man who tries to harm her. Where do these violent woman revenge stories come from? This anger?

Well, there’s a very long history of “Rosamund and the Purple Jar” brand of ideology, of course. There’s a lot to make up for.

NEW SITUATION

Using Rosamund as proxy, the reader is supposed to have learned to examine goods properly before buying them, to make a practical decision over an emotional one, and to listen to your mother’s guidance when offered obliquely.

Here’s what I also took away from this story:

Girls should be roundly punished for wanting more beauty in their lives. But fathers who refuse to take their daughters out on a trip to a wonderful ‘glass house’ (perhaps this one?) because she’ll embarrass him due to her poor-condition footwear receive no such judgement. People will think poorly of the father, for failing to provide his daughter with good shoes. An image-based decision if ever there was one.

In other words, men can make decisions based on appearance and their decision is considered reasonable. When girls use the same metrics to make their decisions they are regarded shallow and silly and deserve punishment. In this case, Rosamund’s punishment comes both from ‘the universe’, with the consequence of a sore foot, but it also comes from the father, who shuns her.

TAKEAWAY MESSAGES

Here are the parenting ideologies Maria Edgeworth was known for:

  • Let children use their own reasoning to govern themselves.
  • Let children make their own decisions.
  • Open children up to experiences so they learn wisdom.
  • Let children suffer the consequences of their actions. It may be painful, but the long-term rewards will be worth it.
  • Offer children freedom by holding back with our own adult opinions. (Ironic, given the overt didacticism of Edgeworth’s actual stories.)
  • She didn’t like toys for kids. Highly coloured miniature versions of real things were all bells and whistles so far as Edgeworth was concerned. Children should learn to appreciate the ‘real’ world around them.

I don’t know about you, but these child-rearing tactics sound pretty modern to me. In fact, that last one, about the toys, could be switched out for ‘electronic devices’.

What about the messages of “Rosamund and the Purple Jar”? There’s a nasty flip-side to all of this ‘let her make her bed and lie in it’, but it’s not limited to didactic tales from the 1700s. Many contemporary girl characters in middle grade fiction are punished for their choice of pretty accoutrements. The sexism of this is offset somewhat by the fact that the main, viewpoint character is generally a feisty girl these days. But I have already written extensively about that.

Some commentators have read “Rosamund and the Purple Jar” as a tale about menstruation (even before the widespread use of menstrual cups). I feel this is a stretch. Rosamund is only seven years old. But if this is about menstruation, what is said, exactly? I can only guess it’s this: Don’t be too quick to grow into pretty ladies, little girls, because the reality of womanhood will disappoint. Womanhood is all about wearing a mask. Underneath, we’re all just ordinary. We are all debased, leaky vessels who make meaty humans, underneath those pretty clothes, those jewels, those cosmetics.

“Rosamund and the Purple Jar” as a parable about capitalist consumerism is perhaps more obvious.

Header painting: Rosamund and the Purple Jar exhibited 1900, by Henry Tonks

Emotions In Children’s Literature

There are many things that date a children’s book — racism, sexism and other -isms are widely discussed and relatively easy to pick. I know that when I re-read Enid Blyton or almost anything from The First Golden Age of Children’s Literature these things stick in my craw.



Other aspects are a little more subtle. Take the expression of emotions. Until recently, children in the West (especially boys) were uniformly required to keep their emotions in check — the younger the better. If you’re my age or older, you probably remember being told to stop crying. You were told, ‘It’s not worth crying over,’ or ‘Don’t cry over spilt milk.’

Psychologists now know it is unhelpful to persuade a child not to feel an emotion which they are very much feeling. If we want to teach emotional literacy we must name emotions when they occur. We can’t be afraid of them.

Yet picture books are still not fully reflecting this change, especially if we’re still reading books more than 10 or 15 years old to our kids. In this case, we may want to edit them ourselves.

The following photos are plucked from Generation Mindful’s social media stream — a small organisation whose mission is to improve emotional literacy and mental health, especially in children.

EXAMPLE ONE

When emotions are denied in picture books, edit in favour of acknowledgement.

EXAMPLE TWO

It’s important children learn it’s possible to feel more than one emotion at the same time. When child characters in picture books are rewarded for not crying, edit to allow for crying. This is especially important for boy characters.

At the risk of sounding like a ‘don’t cry’ apologist, I believe earlier generations were in part attempting something akin to the ‘opposite action‘ technique when they advised their children not to cry. It wasn’t called that then, but you can observe the grandmother in Katherine Mansfield’s “At The Bay” practising something similar. Katherine Mansfield was interested in the vitalists and had done a lot of reading on popular psychology of the time. According to this line of reasoning, you privately acknowledge what you feel, but then you behave in the way you want to be feeling. So, if you’re feeling really down and are inclined to spend the day in bed, you really need to get out of bed and do something you normally love. This can help you to feel better. We might assume that smiling when you feel like crying really can make you feel better.

Crucially, opposite action only works when the emotion doesn’t fit the situation. And the very first step in the opposite action technique is identifying the uncomfortable emotion.

Part of the problem with telling children not to cry is that we may also be telling them they have no reason or right to feel that uncomfortable emotion. Boys who are not allowed to feel sad can learn after some years to turn any negative emotion into anger — the only ‘acceptable’ masculine emotion. This has devastating consequences for everyone.

EXAMPLE THREE

The following text is all round unhelpful. Sometimes the very premise of a story is unhelpful. The following edit works for the page, but I suspect it changes the entire dynamics:

“Are you frightened?” asked Fuzzy and Scratchy.
“The cricket does look a little bit scary. We’re frightened, too.”

THE MIDDLE CLASS ASSUMPTION ABOUT BOYS AND CRYING

As you may have noticed, children’s books cater most adequately to the book-buying middle class. This has been the case since the end of oral narrative, as soon as stories started being printed out and sold, to people with money to spare.

To quote feminist philosopher Kate Manne on Twitter:

It is an unquestionable trope of white middle-class parenting that boys must be prevailed upon to feel & show their emotions. But what if this isn’t much of a—or isn’t quite the—problem? What if girls need to be similarly encouraged? What if white boys need to show less anger?

Dr. Manne also shared a study called Gender differences in emotion expression in children: a meta-analytic review. Yes, people are studying this stuff.

And here’s Manne’s response to that:

It’s often taken for granted that boys/men don’t—or aren’t permitted to—cry. What is the evidence for this, exactly? This recent meta-analysis suggests differences in the emotional expressions of boys vs. girls are small and subtle.

In children’s books as in everything else, we may need to examine our himpathy.

MEN AND CRYING BEFORE THE 20TH CENTURY

Someone else on the same thread made the following observation:

I can’t say it’s very scientific but I’m always struck when reading 18th/19th Century novels (men and women authors) by how much the men cry to express extremes of emotion. It’s not really made a meal of – just something the authors feel is relatively normal for them to do.

I can’t say I’ve noticed this myself, but I may not have read enough 18th and 19th century novels. If true, this suggests that the phenomenon of repressed emotion was a temporary blip lasting the length of the 20th century, and not a long-standing feature of humanity. We are perhaps now returning to a cultural norm in which it is acceptable to express certain emotions, for all genders.

We can expect to see this trend in children’s books.

Header photo by Kat J

The Ideology Of Social Norms In Children’s Stories

Academics who study different cultures have come up with various ways of taxonomising those cultures. Some of those grand theories are pretty well-known among laypeople. I’m familiar with the axes of individuality, collectivism, e.g. family oriented vs individualistic. You also get hierarchical vs egalitarian societies.

Recently I listened to cultural psychologist Michele Gelfand talk about her theory of ‘loose’ vs ‘tight’ societies on Sean Carroll’s Mindscape podcast.

This spectrum refers specifically to the extent to which social norms are automatically respected. We don’t often recognise the rules that are all around us until someone breaks them.



LOOSE AND TIGHT SOCIETIES AND PEOPLE

Are you living in a tight or in a loose society?

  • Would you avoid crossing the street when the little flashing man remains red, even if there are no cars coming?
  • Are you fined for littering, chewing gum or for leaving dog poo on the street?
  • Are you currently dressed in almost identical clothing to the people around you?
  • Do the city clocks each display the same time?

If so, you’re probably in a tight culture.

Gelfand tells us that the most successful societies tend to sit somewhere between loose and tight.

It’s not just societies we can describe as loose or tight, but each of us living within our society sits at a slightly different point along the spectrum. Situations also vary in tightness — a job interview is a ‘tighter’ situation whereas a party with friends is a ‘looser’ situation.

This metric is independent from other variables like economics and political leaning. Tightness tends to be positively correlated with collectivism but there are many tight, individualistic societies e.g. Switzerland. Brazil is the inverse — they value family but have looser norms.

Looser cultures have more tolerance for difference. This includes tolerance for people of different races and religions. Looser cultures are more open to change, more creative and also have more crime.

Tight cultures are more ethnocentric,  have more cultural inertia and less creativity.

EXAMPLES OF LOOSER SOCIETIES/contexts

  • Oregon, USA
  • New York, USA
  • New Zealand
  • Italy
  • Brazil
  • Greece
  • Public parks (tighter in Pakistan than in the USA)
  • University
  • Rural areas in China

EXAMPLES OF TIGHTER SOCIETIES/contexts

  • Alabama, USA
  • North Carolina, USA (honour cultures tend to be pretty tight)
  • Japan
  • Singapore (known as the ‘fine country’ — you can get fined for chewing gum)
  • Germany
  • Austria
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Libraries
  • Funerals
  • Job interviews
  • The military
  • Airlines
  • Urban areas in China

Why do some countries evolve tighter? It depends on how much threat that culture has endured historically, whether from chronic natural disasters (Japan) or from war, or from population density. Singapore is so tight to allow so many people to live together. You need strong rules to coordinate to survive. However, diversity can override population density when it comes to settling at a point on this continuum. New York is also densely populated but unlike Singapore is loose. Mobility is another lever towards looseness.

Freedom to break rules is not just a geographical thing — it’s also a socio-economic thing. Within the same societies, richer people tend to value individuality while poorer people tend to value conforming to social rules. This is because when rich people break rules, the rule breaking itself is interpreted differently, with far more leniency.

NEW ZEALAND VS JAPAN

I love Gelfand’s theory of culture — it makes a lot of sense. I grew up in New Zealand, rarely leaving New Zealand until the age of 17 when I spent a year as an exchange student in Japan. The hardest thing to adapt to was the tightness of Japanese society. I found the differences fascinating:

  • In New Zealand no one cared if we walked down the street eating a sandwich. In Japan however we were given strict instructions not to eat in public. An exchange student had the previous year got into big trouble for eating bread at the school train station.
  • In New Zealand I had worn mufti (free choice) clothing in senior high school. In Japan, my host mother requested I avoid wearing my very comfortable, bright red corduroy trousers because ‘people would talk’. In New Zealand, if you’re feeling a bit chilly you put on long sleeves and long pants. In Japan, there are set days when you are supposed to switch from summer to winter clothing and vice versa.
  • In New Zealand, small talk has no particular script. There are certain safe topics, such as the weather, but there is not the stock of ‘set phrases’ that has evolved in Japanese. When you write a letter in Japanese, it is mandatory to open with a poetic phrase about the weather. It is also mandatory to include two pieces of paper in the envelope even if you’ve only written on one.

I could list many, many more examples of the differences between New Zealand and Japan’s social norms. Overall, I think the extremely circumscribed lifestyle required of Japanese people is what ultimately sent me back to live the rest of my adult life in the West. Fascinating as these differences are, I prefer living in a looser society long term. These days I live in Australia, which I imagine is similar to New Zealand, leaning loose.

Tight and loose are dynamic constructs. It’s possible that after the  mass shooting incident in Christchurch recently that my hometown has veered a little tighter than before.

Tight/looseness is a concept Gelfand prefers to reserve for describing societies rather than individuals because the terminology can get confusing once we start using the same word to describe both. (That’s what happened to the word ‘collectivist’, which is applied to both societies and to individuals.) When describing individuals, be mindful of an important distinction — we’re referring to mindsets rather than ‘personalities’.

Psychologists can do experiments that make people tighten up — all we need is a perceived threat and we tighten up. However, it takes a lot longer for tight mindsets to loosen up. Psychologists are currently trying to work out a way of loosening up a society that has become too tight to allow for adaptability.

SOCIAL NORMS IN CHILDREN’S STORIES

“The word “indie” is meaningless now. It’s so over-used that people think it simply means green hair.”

Morrissey

During her interview with Carroll, Gelfand mentions picture books, which got me thinking about whether picture books, as a corpus, swing loose or swing tight.

Elmer is the story of a patchwork coloured elephant. Do you remember how Elmer ends? Hint: The story does not end with Elmer painting himself grey in order to fit in.

Elmer the Elephant has proven so popular that there is a whole series of picture books featuring his adventures. Basically, it’s an elephant who is patchwork instead of grey, which could symbolise any way in which a child happens to be different from other children. The storyline and message is similar to Freckleface Strawberry by Julieanne Moore, which is specifically about the difference of having red hair and freckles.

(Elmer’s Special Day has since been turned into an app, if you happen to own an Apple touch device.)

Other examples of picture books in which the reader is encouraged to break the mould:

  • Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae
  • Red: A Crayon’s Story by Michael Hall
  • Stephanie’s Ponytail by Robert Munsch
  • Exclamation Mark by Amy Krouse Rosenthal
  • Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon by Patty Lovell
  • Thelma the Unicorn by Aaron Blabey
  • Happy Dreamer by Peter H. Reynolds
  • A Bad Case of Stripes by David Shannon

Gelfand uses American muppet characters to illustrate various loose vs. tight personalities, with Bert (or Ernie and Bert) at the tight end, Animal at the loose end.

Bert doesn’t even want to play a simple guessing game. Animal, on the other hand, performs Bohemian Rhapsody on stage and doesn’t bother getting the words right.

In 1990s Japan, it’s telling of the tightness that there was a TV game show in which the contestants had to perform a pop song from memory without getting a single word wrong.

The following is a topic for someone’s PhD, but I put it to you that people who write for children and who are drawn to children’s publishing tend to swing loose, compared to their surrounding culture. The big publishing houses in America cluster in New York, which swings loose. If they were clustered in Alabama, we’d probably see children’s books swing slightly tighter.

Instead of looking at the geographical spread of publishing houses, safer to look at the stories themselves. What is the dominant ideology regarding following the rules? Gelfand has noticed many picture books place emphasis on Being Yourself. But who, exactly, has the luxury of being themselves?

In tight cultures such as Japan, children are taught to be keen self-monitors, to look at their own actions and be aware of how they are fitting in. Structure and conformity is prioritised in these societies.

In loose cultures, children (and adults alike) need to develop a high tolerance for ambiguity. In loose cultures we are going to encounter a lot of unexpected behaviours and weird situations. Picture books such as those listed above seem to have a message which teaches children to be comfortable with ‘weird situations’. To encounter a patchwork elephant is the ultimate weird situation, picked as metaphor for looseness by David McKee.

MIGHT SOCIO-ECONOMIC STATUS AFFECT A CHILD’S RESPONSE TO A PICTURE BOOK?

Socio-economic difference in regards to social norms can be seen in children by age three. Working class parents teach their children that rules are important. Upper class kids are more likely to laugh when puppets in a lab break the rules.

I refer you now to the great corpus of carnivalesque children’s books. With Gelfand’s research in mind, might carnivalesque stories be decidedly middle class?

SOCIAL NORMS AND YOUNG ADULT LITERATURE

The ideology of looseness = good persists right through the age-range of children’s books, intensifying in young adult literature. Below is a rare critique of this ideology, by someone who lives in New York (a loose city), but whose biography shows was educated at a private girls’ college in Pennsylvania (possibly tight):

“Not like the other kids” is a dangerous ideology, and it’s one that constantly gets peddled, especially to the kinds of teens who are choosing to spend their free time reading YA novels. Out of all the toxic ideas I believed as a teenager, this is probably the one that I’m still struggling the most to get away from. And it’s not one I’m happy to see repeated in literature, or in the communities discussing literature.

But the protagonist wouldn’t be the protagonist if they were just like all the other kids. Would they?

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On the Mindscape podcast interview, Sean Carroll quips that ‘all those stories about Hollywood rich kids who refuse to follow the rules are just the truth’.

original cast of Beverly Hills 90210

Gelfand responds that the socioeconomic-looseness relationship is, like many things, curvilinear.

FURTHER READING ON SOCIAL NORMS

More on some of the books listed above…

PEARL BARLEY AND CHARLIE PARSLEY BY AARON BLABEY

Pearl is an extrovert, Charlie an introvert (as described by what each of them likes to do), but they are great friends regardless and help each other out. This teaches children that people are all different but can be friends regardless.

SUNDAY CHUTNEY BY AARON BLABEY

This is another book which celebrates individuality. Sunday Chutney is a little eccentric, and the story reminds me of the opening sequence of the movie Amelie, in which Amelie gives us a snapshot of her strange life, including a rundown of the things she does and does not like.

Sunday Chutney sometimes feels lonely because she is always the new kid at school. (Her dad’s job means they move a lot.) There would be a lot of kids in this position – I was one of them all through primary school – and this book might help them to feel as if being new or different (or both) isn’t so bad.

Sunday Chutney is a well-chosen name for a children’s book, and I think it was the name which grabbed my attention – especially since I had already read the Pearl Barley and Charlie Parsley book, so assumed (without knowing the author’s name) that the book had been created by the same person. (Did you know that one of Diana Ross’s daughters is called Chudney? With a ‘D’? Happy days.)

Here is a great interview with Aaron Blabey.

MILO ARMADILLO BY JAN FEARNLEY

A little girl wants a pink fluffy rabbit because all the other kids have got one and she doesn’t want to be different. No one can find a pink fluffy rabbit, so grandma decides to knit one, but it ends up looking more like an armadillo. The girl gets laughed at. The toy seems to come to life, and they play together. But whatever the armadillo does, the girl is critical, thinking a rabbit would do it better.

I’m not sure why, but this book did manage to pull on my heart strings a little – I think it’s the expression on the armadillo’s face when he decides to go back to grandmother for an unravel and reknit.

Fortunately, the girl realises how special her armadillo is, and no one gets unravelled.

The knitting theme is prominent in the illustrations and page design, with textures made of photographs of knitting, and occasional fancy font reminiscent of looped wool.

WHAT COLOUR IS YOUR WORLD? BY BOB GILL

This was first published in 1962 and was still in print in 2008. It teaches colours, but in an original way, because different people see that the objects in their lives are not necessarily viewed in the same hue.

I thought this was going to be a book which teaches a basic concept of art (that the sky isn’t always blue, for instance) but the milk is brown and the cabbages are blue, so I think it’s simply about indulging in your eccentricities.

(Still, I wouldn’t drink brown milk.)

NAKED MOLE RAT GETS DRESSED BY MO WILLEMS

I love books by Mo Willems, which appeal to the humour of adults equally. Besides, there’s something inherently funny about naked mole rats.

In this story, one naked mole rat bucks trends by deciding to wear clothes. This causes a stir, but catches on. By the end of the story, some naked mole rats are wearing clothes and some aren’t, but they’re all having a lovely time regardless. So this story is about going your own way, while pointing out the inherent ridiculousness in some of the social conventions we take for granted as normal.

LUKE’S WAY OF LOOKING BY NADIA WHEATLEY ILLUSTRATED BY MATT OTTLEY

Misunderstood by his teacher, the boy in this story sees the world differently from other people. This is reflected in his art assignments, which are meant to be realistic but which he depicts in an abstract way.

One day he escapes school and spends the day at the art gallery. This only spurs his imagination. When he arrives back at school the teacher doesn’t know what to say, so doesn’t say anything at all.

Suspension of disbelief is needed here, because a kid absconding from school these days is very much on the radar of the truancy admin team, or should be, but perhaps the world has changed even since this picturebook was published, in 1999.

Despite that plot hole, the story is a good one, with fantastic artwork, and will strike a chord with any kid who has ever been misunderstood by his or her teacher for failing to follow instructions to the letter.

GIRAFFES CAN’T DANCE BY GILES ANDREAE ILLUSTRATED BY GUY PARKER-REES

The author wrote this book after noticing while in Africa that giraffes are far more graceful than one would expect given their ungainly looking neck and limbs. When he returned home he wrote this story, in which the giraffe surprises all the jungle creatures at a dance by his unexpected graceful moves.

This is a story about having a go even if you don’t think you’re going to be any good at it, and secondary to that it’s about doing things your own way, because while all the other animals are doing a ‘type of dance’ (cha cha, Scottish dancing etc.) the giraffe simply dances.

SORT OF RELATED:

The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes

The Hundred Dresses

The Hundred Dresses is a middle grade American novel by Eleanor Estes, first published 1944. I consider this story a children’s literature sister of Katherine Mansfield’s short story “The Doll’s House“. The Hundred Dresses remains resonant with young readers today, and is happily still in print after winning a Newbery Honor. (The medal was awarded to Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson that year.)

The Hundred Dresses is illustrated by Louis Slobodkin in his usual loose watercolour and sketchy style. Slobodkin was a good choice, since he shared in common with fictional Wanda Petronski a non-Anglo last name in a more overtly racist era — a rare #OwnVoices before #OwnVoices was a thing.

THE HUNDRED DRESSES AND ME

I was 10 years old when my Year 6 teacher read us The Hundred Dresses. He said, “I normally read this book when I suspect bullying problems. I don’t think there are problems like this going on in this class, but I’m going to read it anyway.” I immediately wondered if he knew what was going on.

After he’d read The Hundred Dresses, I knew he had seen what was going on. He’d seen at least some of it. I knew it was a little about me.

This was the eighties. The ‘Mean Girl’ group started up in full force that year. The Mean Girls themselves were victims in a system which requires women and girls to look a certain way. They wore tan coloured pantyhose under their short skirts, even on hot days, because suntans were in fashion. There was a hierarchy regarding who had the most ear piercings. Some of the piercings extended right up into the painful cartilage area of their ten-year-old ears. They tied their hair in a whale spout fountain.

Debbie Gibson. Our Mean Girl looked a lot like this but ten or eleven years old with freckles.

I wasn’t one of those girls. Unlike in Estes’ book, this wasn’t about socioeconomic status. Our hierarchy was a kind of rich-poor inversion. These girls with the piercings and the whale spouts had the most permissive parents. They rode their bikes around the neighbourhood all evening in summer, unsupervised. Their families didn’t seem to have much money. The girls somehow found cash for pantyhose and stud earrings. But when they learned I’d been enrolled in karate (they turned up one evening on their bikes and peered through the dojo — classroom — window), they expressed their envy the following day. “How long have you been doing karate?” they asked, envious, because The Karate Kid was new out. I felt little bad for them then. Extra curricular activities were for ‘rich’ kids, like me. If my parents seemed rich to them it was because my folks were so very careful about money.

Case in point: The school photographer was bad at his job. He took a portrait of me with my eyes closed. I carried it home feeling the utmost shame. You weren’t supposed to blink for photos and I had been bad. Film was expensive. You were supposed to stare at the camera with a smile affixed to your face. If your eyes were closed it was all your fault. My mother was dismissive, borderline disgusted. “I’m not paying five dollars for that,” she said. “You can take it right back.”

Masking my shame, I had to return the stupid photo to school. The worst of it was, I was smiling as directed. Grinning with my eyes closed, I looked like a simpleton. I placed the portrait discreetly upon the teacher’s desk. But I was the only kid in the class whose parents didn’t pay the five bucks for their portrait. The teacher said nothing, thank goodness. But that afternoon, the girl with the most elaborate fountain of ponytail cornered me near my box. (We had boxes, not individualistic desks — our teacher was a Rudolph Steiner type). She said, “I know why your mum didn’t buy your photo. You’re too ugly.”

My mother did pay for the class photo, though not for the portrait. I don’t look at it much. Then, last year, as most of my class turned 40, someone tagged me in it on Facebook. It struck me how similar my ten-year-old self looked to that nasty girl with the most flamboyant fountain ponytail. Same height, same build, same freckled face. By any measure, our ten-year-old selves are identical on glossy paper. If this were fiction, she’d be my foil character.

Back in 1988, I believed what this identical-looking classmate said about me. To clarify, I knew ugliness had not been the reason my mother sent the photo back. But I suspected this girl was right, in a general way, about ‘ugly’. I had no piercings and a bad haircut, not quite long enough to tie up. I looked kind of like a boy (by design, actually). I was the youngest in my year. I (gladly) hadn’t hit puberty. I wore homemade, practical athletic clothes, sewn with love, if not by fashion, by my auntie who owned an overlocker and sold polar fleece jumpers at the Saturday Morning Market. These clothes were great for running around in, and when I wasn’t reading Ramona Quimby in the school library, I ran around a lot. But elastic is a precious resource, so my track pants featured two stripes instead of the superfluous Adidas triple, which marked the apex of Year 6 status at that time.

I wonder if our teacher overheard that insult by the boxes when he decided to read The Hundred Dresses to our class. He could’ve heard any number of others.

I do wonder what that girl is doing now. I’ll never know, because nobody tagged her in our class photo 30 years later. I left the town after Year Six, because my father was transferred to the city. I didn’t attend high school with that cohort, and had spent only two years with them in total. So I was surprised anyone remembered my name to tag me in a photo. I’d aimed for invisible.

Back in Year Six, Marie was the opposite of invisible. Fast forward three decades, I wonder if anyone else remembers her name at all.

THE HUNDRED DRESSES AND HUMAN PSYCHOLOGY

WOMEN OBSESSED OVER WOMEN

Lately, lots of people are talking about the highly promoted TV series Killing Eve, which features a woman increasingly obsessed with another woman. The BBC’s Woman’s Hour podcast discussed other similar dynamics in fiction (at 31 minutes)and I thought immediately of Hundred Dresses as the children’s book equivalent of:

  • Eve and Villanelle in Killing Eve
  • Mrs Danvers in Rebecca
  • Barbara in Notes On A Scandal
  • Three women all obsessed with each other in The Favourite (2018)
  • The Bostonians by Henry James
  • Many French novels, usually set in school, usually someone younger who becomes obsessed.
  • Sarah Waters does it beautifully in Affinity and The Paying Guests
  • The Woman Upstairs by Clare Messud
  • The Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante
  • Sleep With Me features a character who inspires obsession in others
  • All About Eve (1950)
  • Black Swan

In each of these stories there’s a possessive charge between each of these women and their objects, whether that’s sexual, intellectual or whatever. It’s about owning a piece of another person.

Why do audiences respond so well to this dynamic?

  • Despite all the examples above, we don’t see it all that often. There’s a current trend of writing ‘strong women’ who support each other. These stories are necessary too, but there are also conniving, devious, treacherous women. Audiences want to see all kinds of dynamic, not just the idealised ones.
  • The male gaze is default in narrative, so watching a woman gaze at another woman feels refreshing in a different kind of maybe-feminist way.
  • This kind of relationship is about identity and self-lack and not necessarily about the object in the way the gazer thinks it is. So the nature of the gaze is different. It’s turned inward.
  • In the past, authors have hidden behind the male gaze. Willa Cather is one example. (Cather wrote “Paul’s Case“.)
  • Women’s lust for power is rarely represented. It’s a new take on power dynamics. In the past it was more of a ‘woman catfight’.
  • The woman with the obsession is lacking something in her own life. She watches another woman from the sidelines, fascinated.
  • There’s a freedom that comes from watching another woman have the courage to do all the things you want to do yourself.
  • We rarely see two female leads on screen unless it’s this dynamic.

I have seen literary agents who represent young adult fiction lament the huge number of submissions they get about the viewpoint character best friend looking on at the life of the cool, interesting, sparky best friend. This probably speaks to a common pitfall for writers — both characters must be equally interesting in their own right.

DEHUMANISATION IN THE HUNDRED DRESSES

We view minorities and the vulnerable as less than human. One striking example of this blatant dehumanisation came from a brain-scan study that found a small group of students exhibited less neural activity associated with thinking about people when they looked at pictures of the homeless or of drug addicts, as compared with higher-status individuals. Another study showed that people who are opposed to Arab immigration tended to rate Arabs and Muslims as literally less evolved than average. Among other examples, there’s also evidence that young people dehumanise older people; and that men and women alike dehumanise drunk women. What’s more, the inclination to dehumanise starts early – children as young as five view out-group faces (of people from a different city or a different gender to the child) as less human than in-group faces.

The Bad News On Human Nature, Aeon

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE HUNDRED DRESSES

Many children’s stories (as well as stories for adults) begin in the iterative and switch to the singulative. The Hundred Dresses feels slightly unusual for its time because it begins from the very first word, in the singulative:

Today, Monday, Wanda Petronski was not in her seat.

Then, in small chunks, we get the iterative:

Usually Wanda sat in the next to the last seat in the last row in Room 13…

SHORTCOMING

Wanda is ‘very quiet and rarely said anything at all. And nobody had ever heard her laugh out loud.’

‘She came all the way from Boggins Heights, and her feet were usually caked with dry mud that she picked up coming down the country roads. […] No one really thought much about Wanda Petronski’.

DESIRE

For everyone, the deep desire is identical — to have as much social capital as possible.

In a story there have to be outworkings. For Wanda, it’s the desire to have everyone believe that she has more than the one worn dress in her closet.

For Peggy and Maddie, it’s the Desire to have friends who are truthful and transparent, and in order to achieve this end they must ostracise those who they feel don’t follow the moral code of their community. They have been taught that lying is wrong; they will therefore punish liars. Since they are girls, they aren’t allowed to be outright mean, so they will do this is in a nasty-nice way.

OPPONENT

Old Man Svenson is set up as the potential Baddie in this story.

People in the town said old man Svenson was no good. He didn’t work and, worse still,  his house and yard were disgracefully dirty, with rusty tin cans strewn about and even an old straw hat. He lived alone with his dog and his cat.

But we’re all used to the classic Girl Opposition, which contains archetypes:

  1. The popular pretty girl (Peggy)
  2. Her sidekick (Maddie) Is the narrator Maddie? The narrator has excellent insight into Maddie’s head — she feels guilty for being a bystander to ostracism.
  3. The unpopular girl (Wanda)
  4. Various other by-standers

Peggy was the most popular girl in school. She was pretty; she had many pretty clothes and her auburn hair was curly. Maddie was her closest friend.

A Hundred Dresses remains a standout book because of its treatment of bullying, as a system rather than a good kid, bad kid dichotomy, which is not how bullying works:

Peggy was not really cruel. She protected small children from bullies. And she cried for hours if she saw an animal mistreated. If anybody had said to her, “Don’t you think that is a cruel way to treat Wanda?” she would have been very surprised. Cruel? What did the girl want to go and say she had a hundred dresses for? Anybody could tell that was a lie. Why did she want to lie? And she wasn’t just an ordinary person, else why would she have a name like that? Anyway, they never made her cry.

Readers will likely sympathise with Peggy a little, or a lot. After all, Wanda appears to be a liar. If Magritte were about, he would say “This is not a dress.” (It is a picture of a dress.) It is a little baffling why Wanda won’t say that her dresses are pictures — this is lampshaded at the beginning with the description that she doesn’t say much. Her laconic way of speaking seems to preclude her from uttering the simple words “I have drawings of pictures.”

ENEMY VS NEMESIS

There is a kind of rivalry, as mentioned above, which is a more like a love-hate relationship. I appreciate what Roxane Gay has to say about the distinction between an ‘enemy’ and a ‘nemesis’. We tend to love our nemeses as much as we hate them:

There are many famous nemeses both real and imagined — Batman and the Joker, Superman and Lex Luthor, Professor X and Magneto, Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, Eve and Villanelle.

The most important thing to remember is that the rivalry must be tended to, nurtured. It is an eternal flame, the heat of which can warm you during dark times.

An enemy is a nuisance but a nemesis is someone for whom you harbor an abiding, relentless dislike. A nemesis must be a worthy adversary. It is far too easy for someone completely odious to be a nemesis. People often ask if, for example, the President is my nemesis but that would absolutely be beneath me. Envy is certainly part of having a nemesis but it is not quite jealousy because generally you and your nemesis are equals in some way, even if you are the only person who believes that to be true. A nemesis can give you purpose, can hone your ambition. What I am saying is that having a nemesis is motivational.

The Pleasure of Clapping Back, Gay Mag

But the way Eleanor Estes structures it: The opposition is kept as the final big reveal.

PLAN

When there is a drawing competition at school Wanda takes this opportunity to reveal that the dresses are drawings of dresses. She enters every image into the competition.

After Wanda leaves the character focus shifts to Peggy and Maddie. Because they feel bad, their plan is to write a letter to Wanda as a friendly gesture. This will assuage their own guilt.

BIG STRUGGLE

Wanda disappears. Her father says she has been bullied. The teacher gives the class a lecture. Wanda is basically the blow-in saviour trope, so now the Battle is internal, focusing on the psychology of Maddie. She feels guilt.

ANAGNORISIS

The first plot revelation is that Wanda was talking about dresses.

The second revelation is that Wanda drew the popular girls as models for her dresses.

What is not revealed is how the poor girl really feels about the rich one. Does Wanda genuinely admire Peggy? We are left thinking that, and as a child I did think that, but how does she feel, really?

I suspect this is a love-hate relationship from her side, and a nothing, you’re-less-than-nothing relationship from the other.

It is the rich girl who has the Anagnorisis — that even when you pay someone no mind, that doesn’t mean they feel the same about you. The moral? Treat everyone with respect, no matter how worthy you deem them. Everyone is worthy of your attention. Attention equals respect.

NEW SITUATION

Peggy and Maddie have learned to be less passive aggressive in future because they have learned that Wanda is a rounded individual with feelings rather than a figure of fun.

RELATED LINKS

Using The Hundred Dresses to teach philosophy to children