Writing for a young audience has always been fraught, because children are thought to be more highly impressionable than adults. Tobacco, junk food, bad behaviour that goes without punishment… any and all of these things in children’s literature can be enough to stop the story finding a wide audience.
But would a contemporary children’s book opening that way ever get published today?
I broadly agree with Philip Womack in his recent article defending the latest Julia Donaldson picture book, in which a scarecrow lights a cigar. I’m not among the picture book enthusiasts who believes that smoking should be banned in children’s literature, or that it would even make a difference. Womack summarises this week’s furore:
In Julia Donaldson’s new picture book, The Scarecrows’ Wedding, Reginald Rake, a scarecrow, lights a cigar, and is immediately admonished; he then manages to set on fire the female scarecrow that he’s courting. Cause and effect are clear: smoking harms you and those around you (although Rake gets off with only a cough). What could be more obvious, and less controversial?
Sure enough, I’ve been considering the possibility of having a character smoke in the picture book app (for older readers) which we’re planning to release later this year. The art has already been done. One of the characters seems like the sort of person who you’d see with one of those lady cigarettes, the kind with the holder, like you’d see on a noir film of yesteryear. In completing the artwork I pussied out a bit, and instead I have a small stream of smoke coming out of an ashtray, which may or may not be noticed by a reader, and wouldn’t be interpreted as cigarette smoke by any young readers who are lucky enough to have been sheltered from the practice of smoking over the course of their entire life:
1. FANTASY OR REALISM: WHEN IT COMES TO CAUSE AND INFLUENCE, THE DISTINCTION IS IRRELEVANT
This [furore] misunderstands something fundamental about picture books. They are, first and foremost, fantasies. I don’t see anyone complaining about the fact that the scarecrows can talk; nor that they are brought a necklace of shells by a handy crab when they are nowhere near the sea. A fantasy can be used to make a moral point, as Donaldson does, patently; and since children respond much more easily to ordered, made-up worlds than they do to the baffling real world, it is often the best way to get something across.
And so Womack contradicts himself. He seems to be saying that fantasies are disconnected from the real world of the child while at the same time admitting that fantasies are actually the best way to influence young children. I am very wary about using the ‘it’s only make-believe’ as an argument either for or against anything in the world of literature and other media. But here’s something I’m not seeing come out of this debate. In fact, it’s taken as a given, and is instead being used in the book’s defence:
2. SMOKING IS NOT ACTUALLY A SHORTCUT TO SIGNAL VILLAINY
My main issue with tobacco use in story is when the reader is encouraged to make some moral judgement about their (bad) character.
One of the most important things I hope to teach my daughter is that you can’t tell much about a person by looking at them. Goodies and baddies cannot be identified on the street simply by their clothing, physical appearance and accoutrements. If they could, the ‘Keeping Ourselves Safe’ unit they’re learning at school right now might take a different tone altogether. In fact, by conflating smoking with evil, we’re possibly creating two unintended lessons for young readers:
1. People who smoke are evil; ergo discrimination of people who are addicted to tobacco (often disenfranchised) are not deserving of help, or of Champax subsidies, come to think of it.
2. People who smoke cool because they have a touch of evil, or subversive, or against the grain; ergo, if you want to identify as alternative in your post-adolescent years, taking up smoking is one way to do it. More ominously, perhaps, children may absorb the message via common tropes that people with bad intentions can be identified by their appearance, in which case, real world people who look ‘normal’ may get away with things they should not. My decision to avoid the more overt smoking scene in Hilda Bewildered and instead have the character pick up a pair of knitting needles was actually down to my reluctance to promote tropes which, unexamined, may be doing more harm than good. If children’s book writers and illustrators are going to avoid depictions of tobacco use in their picture books, then I’d prefer it were for this reason.
This week in Western Australia a man managed to get stuck in the gap. There was a happy ending — he was freed after about 15 minutes, without injury. If you’re anything like me, you probably don’t really think about all those echoey announcements warning us to mind the gap, and you may have even peered at the gap at one point, wondering how anyone could possibly get their foot stuck down there, except for maybe a toddler.
Public Transport Authority spokesman David Hynes … it was an impressive feat because the gap between the train and platform was less than five centimetres.
Warnings to ‘Mind The Gap’ are so well-known that the phrase is used metaphorically to refer to other things.
This week I have been illustrating the underground scenes of Hilda Bewildered. In this case, the signs warning ‘Mind The Gap’ refer equally to income inequalities.
This is not an original metaphor. Scientific American has used it, for instance, as have many others.
I doubt Sliding Doors (1998) was the first well-known story to use this structure, though it is perhaps one of the best known, since more people watch popular movies than read books. This is a plotline in which a character has a difficult decision to make. Instead of having the character choose one path, then carry on the story until a good point to stop, this kind of story decides to explore the consequences of each decision by having the character follow both paths, perhaps with alternating chapters or something quite complicated plotwise.
This kind of plot can be quite didactic. Usually this sort of story has the following message:
However you imagine your life might have been had you made X decision instead of Y, your imagined other life isn’t as romantic/glamorous as the imagined life in your imagination.
Here are some examples of books which use this plot. They come in all moods, all genres, all lengths.
THE POST-BIRTHDAY WORLD BY LIONEL SHRIVER (AMERICAN AUTHOR, SET IN ENGLAND, DARK)
Anyone who has read Shriver’s later (and better known) We Need To Talk About Kevin will already be expecting something quite dark. It’s what Shriver is good at. I thoroughly enjoyed this story. Shriver is an expert at plotting, as evidenced by her adept execution of this device, which is used for the end purpose of exploring long-term, stable relationships such as in marriage. The end message, for me, was that
…the story breaks into two narratives with alternating chapters: In one, Irena pursues an affair with Ramsey and leaves Lawrence; in the other, she restrains herself and stays loyal. Each choice has its downside.
I consider this book as masterful as We Need To Talk About Kevin. Don’t be fooled by the cover; the bright colours may suggest something quite different.
JUST LIKE FATE (Young Adult)
I have not read this one myself, but here’s what Kirkus had to say:
In an ambitious narrative device, the book juggles two alternating plots, following a prefatory “Before” section. Chapters titled “Stay” are based on the premise that Caroline chooses to remain with her grandmother in the hospital and hears her dying words of love for her granddaughter; in those titled “Go,” Caroline succumbs to her friends’ pressure to go to a party, thus missing the moment when Gram dies.
ME MYSELF I BY PIP KARMEL (Australian ‘chick-lit’)
This is a book from 2000 which has been adapted into a film starring Rachel Griffiths. This is much more light-hearted than Shriver’s, and makes use of a structure oft-utilised by writers of picturebooks. When the protagonist comes back from the fantasy world (or in this case, wakes from a vivid dream), they are lead to believe it wasn’t really a dream because they have brought something back with them from the ‘dream world’. Or things have been moved slightly, and their world view is significantly changed (in almost all cases, for the better).
LIFE AFTER LIFE BY KATE ATKINSON (Contemporary Fiction)
Atkinson’s (Started Early, Took My Dog, 2011, etc.) latest opens with that conceit, a hoary what-if of college dorm discussions and, for that matter, of other published yarns (including one, mutatis mutandis, by no less an eminence than George Steiner). But Atkinson isn’t being lazy, not in the least: Her protagonist’s encounter with der Führer is just one of several possible futures. Call it a more learned version of Groundhog Day, but that character can die at birth, or she can flourish and blossom; she can be wealthy, or she can be a fugitive; she can be the victim of rape, or she can choose her sexual destiny. All these possibilities arise, and all take the story in different directions, as if to say: We scarcely know ourselves, so what do we know of the lives of those who came before us, including our own parents and—in this instance—our unconventional grandmother? And all these possibilities sometimes entwine, near to the point of confusion.
– from Kirkus
THE PARALLEL LIFE AS A MINOR PLOT DEVICE
In this post I talk about the writing technique of ‘side-shadowing’. This is basically a parallel life, but it may only be a sentence, a throw-away comment or a paragraph. Quite often we get a side-shadow scene at the end of a story, to suggest to the reader there may be other endings, or may have been, had things not turned out differently.
Twins fascinate us. In stories, they may exist for this reason alone, but there are other reasons why twins feature prominently in stories, especially in stories for children.
1. VILLAINOUS TWINS
A New Zealand young adult novel from 1992 may be a rather obscure example, but Underrunners by Margaret Mahy includes a scene with twins Guy and Brian Morley, who seem twice as dangerous and mean to our hero precisely because there are two of them.
In his book for adults, Atonement (2001), Ian McEwan includes among his cast of characters some nine-year-old twins who are not villainous, but at times perceived to be so by their elder sister Lola. “Everyone thinks they’re little angels just because they look alike,” Lola says after her brothers have given her scratches and Chinese burns, “but they’re little brutes.” When Jackson and Pierrot run off into the night, this changes the course of the plot. Lola’s dialogue highlights something about fictional twins, though: The disconnect that can happen with duality. Since the twins look alike, they have had a certain cuteness bestowed upon them. When it turns out they’re not cute at all, the fact that there are two of them make the shock at learning so double.
2. THE FASCINATION FACTOR
Enid Blyton make use of twins for no obvious reason other that she found them fascinating, and expected the reader to get equal pleasure out of her using them as a gimmick. Take The Famous Five novel, Five On Finniston Farm (published 1960), in which the part about the twins is summarised by a user of EnidBlyton.net:
I’m sooooo bored with twins by now, especially as they’re named “the Harries”—the boy is named Henry which “naturally” became Harry (I never understood that logic), and the girl is named Harriet, which “naturally” became Harry too. And because Henry “can’t grow his hair like a girl,” it’s down to Harriet to crop hers so that the two look like peas in a pod. Except for a scar on Henry’s hand, apparently the only way to tell them apart. They have a dog called Snippet, a small black poodle. The twins are characterized as quiet and sullen, perhaps resentful at first, because they see visitors to the farm as more work for their poor hard-working mother, Mrs. Philpot. And while the twins are in this stand-offish mode, they speak in unison. Literally every piece of dialogue is spoken by “the twins,” no matter how much is said.
– Keith Robinson
Some characters in children’s literature really don’t need to be twins. So what’s the point? Well, a twin does allow a conversational partner. Dialogue is easier to write, and also easier to read for young readers, at least compared to internal thoughts, or an omniscient narrator who may or may not be reliable. Blyton’s Harry Twins are an extreme example of this, but other authors of the time would use characters interchangeably, with no discernible difference between them. Take P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins as an example. The eldest boy and girl might as well be the same person. Two genders exist presumably to appeal to the widest possible audience.
3. THE SHADOW AND THE HERO
This is the biblical Cain and Abel story. One twin is evil, the other good.
4. THE IMAGINARY OTHER SELF
She left the cafe, and as she walked along the Common she felt the distance widen between her and another self, no less eral, who was walking back towards the hospital. Perhaps the Briony who was walking in the direction of Belham was the imagined or ghostly persona. This unreal feeling was heightened when, after half an hour, she reached another High Street, more or less the same as the one she had left behind.
– Atonement by Ian McEwan
In this case the main character wonders what her life might be like if only a few, though significant, things had been different. An imaginary other self is a way of exploring possibilities.
Like most excessively beautiful persons, [Moody] had studied his own reflection minutely and, in some way, knew himself from the outside best; he was always in some chamber of his mind perceiving himself from the exterior. He had passed a great many hours in the alcove of his private dressing room, where the mirror tripled his image into profile, half-profile, and square: Van Dyck’s Charles, though a good deal more striking. It was a private practice, and one he would likely have denied–for how roundly self-examination is condemned, by the moral prophets of our age! As if the self had no relation to the self, and one only looked in mirrors to have one’s arrogance confirmed; as if the act of self-regarding was not as subtle, fraught and ever-changing as any bond between twin souls.
– The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
The sentence which follows soon after: ‘He could see his own self now, poised in the doorway of the smoking room’ shows that this mirror-self is a form of narcissism, but also of self-consciousness: ‘He was near trembling with fatigue; he was carrying a leaden weight of terror in his gut; he felt shadowed, even dogged; he was filled with dread.’ The very clever thing about this character and his twin of a reflection which dogs him is that the room he is about to enter houses ‘studded couches’ which ‘gleamed with a fatness that reflected the girth of the gentlemen upon them.’ In this way, the man is of his environment.
5. TWO HALF PEOPLE; ONE COMPLETE PERSON
Berner and Dell Parsons are the twins of Richard Ford’s 2012 novel Canada. Told from Dell Parson’s first-person point of view, this is the story of a bank robbery, committed by the twins’ parents. After the parents are taken away by the police, Berner runs away and Dell is taken to Canada by a motherly friend where he becomes something of a hunting guide.
At first glance, the fraternal twins of this story have a bond which is not particularly stronger than any sibling bond, and it is mentioned time and again how much smarter and older-seeming Berner is than Dell. Yet as the story progresses it becomes apparent that the twins don’t really consider themselves as separate beings, which makes their separation even more significant.
I’d begun to believe it would be nice to be around girls. Berner, of course, was a girl. But most of our lives we had treated each other as being the same thing because we were twins. That same thing was neither male nor female, but something in between that included us both.
To reinforce the idea that Dell and Berner are two halves rather than one whole, Berner is left-handed while (it is assumed) Dell is right.
As Dell continues to tell the story of his family, his twinness becomes increasingly significant, because his relationship with his sister reflects the relationship he has with his twin sister:
Nothing that had happened had been in any way normal. Whatever changes had occurred in them and to them defied any idea I had of familiar. They looked like two people I knew, who I was again seeing across a distance, some unspannable divide, much greater than the border that separated us by then. I could say that their intimate familiarity as my parents, and their ordinary, generalised humanness had become joined, and one quality had neutralised the other and rendered the two of them neither completely familiar nor completely haphazard and indifferent to me.
Overall, with the twins’ fortunes significantly different, the fact of them being twins shows how trauma during youth can pan out in vastly different ways.
Twins Used To Illustrate The Moral Dilemma
Jon Klassen’s We Found A Hat features identical tortoises. This is played for gags. One tortoise briefly goes rogue, clearly showing a moral dilemma. Each tortoise represents two options.
6. ANTHROPOMORPHISED TWINNESS
‘Are you a wizard too?’
‘Yes,’ said Marco. ‘But I was never a very good one. I don’t have the twin signs.’
…Then his father had taken him by the shoulders and looked deep into his eyes. ‘My magic is weak,’ he said, ‘it’s untutored and without power—I have never saved anyone. But you, Leo, you will be different. You have the two signs of wizardry, my boy—silver hair and golden eyes. You have the sun and moon within you.’
– from The Witch In The Lake by Anne Fienberg
This from TV Tropes, although twins as metaphor is not limited to the sun and moon, but can be applied to a great number of opposites:
The sun and moon have also been personified by having both of them be a specific sex. For example, the pairing could be a masculine and harsh sun paired with a feminine and soft moon. In historical religions, the sexes associated with the sun and moon vary greatly, and in some cases both a male and female deity may be ascribed to a single celestial body. According to The Other Wiki, it is somewhat more common to view the sun as male and the moon as female due to the prevalence of that portrayal in Greek and Roman religion.
7. TWINS AS PART OF THE STORY AND THEME
I feel this is one of the best uses of twins in fiction. In The Giver by Lois Lowry, twins are used to explain the plot and setting:
“I want to get to sleep tonight,” Father said, “Tomorrow’s a busy day for me. The twins are being born tomorrow, and the test results show that they’re identical.”
“One for here, one for Elsewhere,” Lily chanted. “One for here, one for Else–”
When the twins are born, one is taken away and euthanised. The reader by now should be getting the idea that Jonas lives in a dystopian world, not a utopian one. Identical twins are not allowed to exist because it would be confusing to try and tell them apart. Human life is not valued. Nine-year-old Lily wonders what if we’re all twins, and what if our twins live in an alternative universe, leading different lives. This should encourage the reader to identify with characters who are living in a different but nonetheless recognisable world of fiction. The final sentence of the book ‘But perhaps it was only an echo’ underscores the importance of the duality theme.
8. TWIN TRICKSTERS
9. TWINS TO EXIST AS A MALE-FEMALE INDISTINCT CHARACTER
In order to appeal to both boys and girls, sometimes it seems a writer/illustrator has created twins simply because they couldn’t decide whether the hero should be a boy or a girl. Perhaps they don’t want the nuisance of sibling rivalry in the story. That’s not to say that sibling rivalry can’t happen when the siblings are twins; however, in Bush Picnic, the children enjoy a great day out together and may as well be different sides of the very same kid.
Cryptophasia is what you call a special language developed in early childhood between twins as they tend to communicate only with each other. This is interesting because humans in general have the ability to create language from nothing, or from very little. Look at how creole languages come up — children learning pidgin but incomplete languages from the adults in their lives, then fleshing it out until it becomes as nuanced as any existing full language.
Film School Rejects shared a short film called Gumshoe, which is four minutes shot from a first person point of view. As FSR note:
First person POV can be tricky to pull off because of how limiting the field of view is. It’s the same thing with found footage, but even without the shaky cam (or at least a less shaky cam), it can be disorienting and leave an audience frustrated by the loss of control. When it’s done well, it can be very cool. Still a gimmick, but an entrancing one.
In the noir film, the first person point of view serves several purposes and one of those purposes is to add a comic (as well as comical) tone. The ‘kapow’ type voiceovers add to this humorous tone. A woman’s legs viewed from the top-down quash any real attempt at the familiar ‘sexy pose’.
FIRST PERSON POV IN PICTUREBOOKS
What roles might this POV play in picturebooks?
I have made use of it — though not across an entire work — in Midnight Feast, in which the reader views the hallway from the young protagonist’s point of view. The point of view soon shifts to one of ‘reader’ because a touch on the screen sees the protagonist in front of the reader, pressed against the wall, trying not to be seen.
A shifting point of view adds variety to a picturebook, which is especially necessary in a story like Midnight Feast, in which the action takes place entirely inside one small apartment and stairwell. But even in cases where there are plenty of beautiful settings, an illustration from first person point of view can aid reader identification with the protagonist, and so I’m making use of it again in Hilda Bewildered. Below is a screenshot for page 22:
In this case I included the hand of the main character. The green ring is significant to the plot, and I also needed the speech bubble to be coming from somewhere (even if it is just a hand). Technically, at that angle, a passenger in the back seat of a car would not see the taxi driver’s eyes but rather his head (I only know this because I worked from a reference photo) but I have illustrated the driver’s rather menacing eyes and I’ve made sure they are looking straight at the reader. In conjunction with the first person point of view, I hope that when the reader first turns onto the page, that those eyes will heighten the suspense. Where is Hilda going? Who with? What’s going to happen when they get there? All of this works better if readers can put themselves into the position of the main character.