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
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.
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.)
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.
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.
The Storybook Policeman is also white. This trope is yet another way in which picture books serve white people and their children. A Black parent cannot afford to teach their children that police are the benevolent patriarchs to call in any emergency.
I’m reminded of the episode of British TV cartoon Peppa Pig about spiders. The message: Don’t be scared of spiders. Spiders won’t hurt you. This reassurance served its purpose for children who wouldn’t leave Britain, but did not serve Australian kids at all. Australian kids need to be scared of spiders. The episode was not aired on Australian television. Likewise, the Storybook Police Archetype only works for some kids and remains actively detrimental to others.
When the Storybook Police is made into an animal, we see the identifying features: The hat and the baton.
White parents have been heavily invested in protecting the image of the Storybook Police Archetype. At times, in America, it has reached ridiculous levels. Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Stieg depicts police as pigs. For this reason the picture book has been banned intermittently.
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.
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.
“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’ 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.
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
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.
Here again we have no Jack, no wife, simply two children imagining the rhyme as they prepare to eat.
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.
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.
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’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.
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.
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
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.
Originates in the late 17th century (as a mystical word engraved and 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.
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.
This is relatively new, dating only from the 1940s, and a guy called Gomer Pyle, who popularised the Marvel Comics word.
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.
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).
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.”’
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.
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
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.
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).
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
The word ‘wink’ is sometimes used in relation to children’s literature. Below I take a look at how authors ‘wink’ at their audiences, and also compare the 20th century paternal wink to a more modern version, which includes the youngest readers rather than going over their heads.
You may notice that each of the examples I’ve collected below are written by men. I’m not sure if this is a coincidence, but the Mark Twain Wink has a distinctly avuncular feel to it. I’ll be on the look out for examples of the Mark Twain Wink written by women, but they’re not as easy to find.
This doesn’t mean women have not ever written this exact humour. Take Jane Austen, and the famous first line of Pride and Prejudice:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
This is the narrator winking at the audience. As we read on, it might easily be the sort of witty observation that comes out of Mr Bennett, but it’s coming out of an unseen narrator with a character of their own. When these observations come out of a character rather than a narrator, the technique has been called The Mark Twain Wink, but we might also call it the Jane Austen Wink. Look for it especially in (male) avuncular characters, however. The gendering is still there. It’s no coincidence that Mr Bennett’s voice is the winky one — he is male, white, middle class, formally educated and the 18th century version of the ironic hipster.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C-Gyl_Gf0Xo
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.
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.
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
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.
When emotions are denied in picture books, edit in favour of acknowledgement.
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.
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.
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?
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.