Dinner Time In Picture Books

What does dinner time look like in your house? Do you see your own family tradition reflected in children’s books?

I remember hearing once — perhaps on the yak track of Downton Abbey — that, for film makers, table scenes are the most difficult to shoot and edit. Unlike in any other scene, the characters sit close together, side-by-side, talking in what’s basically a huddle. More than that, camerawork has to create the illusion that characters are speaking to the right characters, so they have to be looking in the right direction.

Illustrators of static table scenes have it a bit easier — there’s no need to fit a massive camera into tight spaces, for one thing. But illustrators still have the problem of staging. And tables say so much.

The long table, with one character at each end, is often used to depict a cold, stand-offish, antogonistic character web. You can see this in films such as American Beauty. Fighting parents at one end, child stuck in the middle as reluctant piggy-in-the-middle.

In picture books, with their bustling, happier atmospheres, illustrators want to avoid anything like the asparagus scene of American Beauty.

Joyce Lankester Brisley’s hygge, happy scenes also feature a long table with Mother at one end, Father at the other, but there’s no coldness whatsoever. There’s the expanded cast, for one thing, but there’s also Milly Molly Mandy in action, about to get out of her chair, and the pets in the foreground, also looked after. The house itself is cosy, with its patterned curtains and view to the hint of nature outside.

Milly Molly Mandy table scene

FICTIONAL FAMILIES WHO DON’T EAT AT THE TABLE

This is still rare, from my own observations. In broader pop culture, the fictional family who eats with the TV on, or in front of the TV, is portrayed in that way because they are dysfunctional. Picture books teach a clear lesson: Good families eat together, sitting on Western chairs, at a Western table.

  • Mog’s family sits at the table, though Judith Kerr wrote those in an era where more families did sit at the table. In fact, the formality of eating came in handy for Kerr when writing The Tiger Who Came To Tea, in which a carnivalesque visitor upturns social conventions. The more formal that convention, the more fun it is to subvert it. Admittedly, this is part of the reason why table dinners are so popular with picture book creators.
  • Another reason animals might sit around a table: To make them more human. This explains why Olivia the Pig has to sit at a table. Olivia the Pig sits at a round table, which admittedly is less formal than a long, rectangle.

PHOTOGRAPHS OF FAMILIES EATING DINNER

This photo series shows how many cultures around the world sit on the floor to eat dinner. This could be reflected in picture books, but largely is not.

Here’s a photo series of Americans eating dinner — a significant proportion are in the sitting room rather than at a table, though does skew towards table when people eat as a family rather than as a couple or alone. (Kids are messy, which is one good reason to eat in the kitchen, or on a hard floor.)

And here’s a series of Brits eating dinner, which includes a tea trolley. I did actually see that in use when I worked at a high school in England. Each morning the principal ordered breakfast which was delivered to him on a trolley. Coming from New Zealand, this struck me as foreign.

In Australia, Annabel Crabb made a series about the history of Australian life, with emphasis on food. The images look more staged than you’d want in a typical picture book, but a lot of thought has gone into the colour palette, which can be inspiring for illustrators.

What The World Eats is a photo series in the same vein, and sobering. I doubt I could personally survive on some of those weekly rations.

DADS COOKING IN PICTURE BOOKS

There is a tendency across all fiction to idealise the 1950s and 1960s middle class of America, in which mothers stayed in the home, happily raising the children and preparing elaborate meals. There remains a tendency in picture books to replicate that hygge imagery.

Here’s what we need to see more of in picture books:

  • Dads doing the cooking
  • Dads actively involved in helping children eat their food (rather than, say, reading the newspaper)
  • Happy, active families who aren’t necessarily eating dinner at the dinner table. There’s nothing especially magical about the dinner table. Families can eat happily outside around a BBQ, on the floor, and even as they watch TV together, especially if they’re talking about it as they eat.

RELATED AND INTERESTING

SNACKS HAVEN’T ALWAYS BEEN A THING

Search and destroy, kids!...The mad rush for an after-school snack. ~ 1955
Search and destroy, kids!…The mad rush for an after-school snack. ~ 1955

How Snacking Became Respectable: Before they became standard fare in American life, snacks drew suspicion and even scorn from WSJ

What is a fractured fairytale?

Maleficent film poster fractured fairy tale

A fractured fairy tale is a story which makes use of a traditional fairy tale but restructures and reimagines, with the aim of greater nuance and with a contemporary sensibility in mind. The writer might be offering a critique of the ideas in an earlier version. This makes some of them subversive. Fractured fairy tales are often aimed at an adult audience.

Sometimes called parodies or transformed tales, fractured tales are humorous or exaggerated imitations of an author, a particular traditional tale, or a style. Fractured tales are currently popular in picture book format. Beginning with The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs (1989). Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith began a trend that shows no sign of abating. Traditional tales from “Little Red Riding Hood” to the “Three Little Pigs” to “The House That Jack Built” have been retold in a humorous vein in picture book format. Picture book examples are The Dinosaur’s New Clothes (1999), illustrated by Diane Goode; Little Red Riding Hood: A New Fangled Prairie Tale (1995), illustrated by Lisa Campbell Ernst; The Little Red Hen Makes a Pizza (1999), illustrated by Amy Walrod: and Beauty and the Beaks: A Turkey’s Cautionary Tale (2007), illustrated by Mary Jane Auch. — A Picture Book Primer: Understanding and Using Picture Books By Denise I. Matulka
Bear in mind that classic tales are always, forever undergoing evolution, even when the re-teller doesn’t intend any changes:
Retelling stories is about as old as storytelling itself. Each generation’s storytellers takes elements from stories they heard as children. They’ll mash those elements with their own ideas and suddenly the story becomes something completely new. No story has survived untouched throughout the ages – even the so-called “classic” fairy tales do this. If you’re familiar with the Greek story of Cupid and Psyche there are an awful lot of similar elements from that tale in the French story “Beauty and the Beast” as well as in “Cinderella.” And elements of “Beauty and the Beast” also turn up in the Norse tale “East of the Sun, West of the Moon.” Storytellers love to take familiar plots and give them a twist. When you take an existing story and adapt it for your own you are making a connection – a connection with every storyteller who told their own version of that story, and a connection with every audience that has loved some variation of that story. It allows the writer to create a kind of shorthand with the audience – if you like “x,” then you’ll find familiar things in this new version of the story. We take comfort in the familiar and relish the new that’s mixed in, and something fresh and original is created from that mixture. — Christina Henry
Fractured fairy tales can be of any genre, written for any demographic:
  • Fantasy — Most recently we’ve had a lot of dark fantasy
  • Horror — Horror has gone hand-in-hand with the dark fantasy. In horrors, villains such as witches don’t tend to have a back story — they serve as the evil force.
  • Dramatic musical
  • Thriller
  • Comedy
Fractured fairy tales are very popular at the moment, for YA and adults. In film and television there was a proliferation between 2010 and 2016, and many of these are available on Netflix, for example.
  • Into The Woods — a stage play running for two years from 2002 by Steven Sondheim which weaves Grimm and Perrault tales together; produced for screen during the ‘proliferation’ period.
  • Once Upon A Time
  • Grimm
  • Shrek — This franchise takes a classic monster from a fairytale (the ugly ogre) and turns him into a sympathetic character.
  • Descendents
  • Beastly — a retelling of the fairytale Beauty and the Beast and is set in modern-day New York City.
  • Maleficent —  a retelling of Sleeping Beauty from the evil fairy’s point of view.
  • Hansel and Gretel — horror
  • Witch Hunters — horror
  • Snow White and the Huntsmen — horror
  • Half Baked — horror

Three Types Of Fractured Fairytale

The Cross-over Narrative

Cross-over fractured fairytales intersect various fairy tales to create one big story. Examples are Into the Woods, Once Upon a Time and Grimm.

The Subversive

Subversive fractured fairy tales force the viewer to look at a familiar story from a unique perspective. Examples are Beastly and Maleficent. Often these subversive tales take on the narrative point of view from a different angle — perhaps the viewpoint character is the villain, recast as a sympathetic character. It’s rare for witches to have backstories in the traditional tales, but modern fractured retellings often give us the witch’s perspective. Many tales which aim to be subversive nevertheless uphold traditional ideas:
  • Youth is beauty
  • Age is ugly and to be avoided
  • It’s not so bad being ugly, but your ugliness still prevents you from marrying someone beautiful (Shrek)
Moral relativism is the view that moral judgments are true or false only relative to some particular standpoint (for instance, that of a culture or a historical period) and that no standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others. Subversive fractured fairy tales tend to take this view. Sure, Maleficent is evil, but once we know her back story, the morality changes. A common technique in retelling old tales from different perspectives is to name previously unnamed characters.
Naming has primary importance as a way of determining a being’s subjectivity. [A character’s namelessness] reinforces his lack of an existence, his lack of agency. — Roberta Seelinger Trites, Waking Sleeping Beauty
So wicked witches are named, Cinderella is known to us by her more familiar name, Ella and so on. Subversive tales can be juxtaposed against another type of ‘re-visioning’, described by Jack Zipes:
There are literally hundreds of publishers who produce and market cheap versions of the Grimms’ tales as pretexts to conceal their profit-making motives. These duplications merely reinforce static nations of the nineteenth-century fairy tales and leave anachronistic values and tastes unquestioned. Whatever changes are made in these duplications–and changes are always made–they tend to be in the name of an ignorant conservatism that upholds arbitrary notions of propriety, for many people believe that there is such a thing as a “proper” Grimms’ fairy tale. In contrast, the reversions of the Grimms’ pre-texts, to use the terms coined by Stephens and McCallum, adulterate the Grimms’ tales by adding ingredients, taking away some elements, and reconstructing them to speak to contemporary audiences in different sociocultural contexts. – Jack Zipes, Sticks and Stones

The Inspired

Inspired fractured fairy tales are only loosely based on traditional stories. Examples are Hansel and Gretel (the film), Witch Hunters, Snow White and the Huntsman. 

About A Boy Film Study

About a Boy

About A Boy is a 2002 British transgression comedy based on a Nick Hornby novel of the same name. In its own way, About A Boy is also a kind of buddy comedy, though the buddies are vastly different in age.

ABOUT A BOY SYMBOLIC TITLE

The boy in this title refers to not one but two boys — one is young but the other is 38 years old and still behaving like a child. The title tells us there’s a boy, singular, and at first tricks us into thinking it’s about the young boy. We will soon realise that the young boy is mature beyond his years and that the boy in the title refers to the grown man. Continue reading “About A Boy Film Study”

Tiny Books For Kids Who Love Cute Things

tiny books

My daughter is not a wide reader. But she will read the same illustrated series over and over again, and also anything tiny. She loves Sylvanian Families, bugs and tiny books. In an effort to get her reading more widely I asked for recommendations from people who know kids’ books.

Here’s what they suggested:

THE BEATRIX POTTER BOX SET

It’s easy to forget about this one. Because they’re out of copyright, these books are relatively cheap, per book, if you buy them all at once. I found the cheapest place to get them here in Australia is at Big W (for $50). I’ve also seen them at Costco.

Definitely avoid buying the big anthology of the Beatrix Potter stories. Beatrix would be horrified to know they’d ever been printed like that. Those little books were only meant to be read as little books.

Each book is about 166.9 x 231.9 x 28.2mm.

ANNIKIN EDITIONS

Annick Press published an imprint of tiny books featuring authors such as Robert Munsch. In fact, it was one of these which got my daughter hooked on tiny books. I bought it online thinking it was a regular sized picture book, mainly because it was the cost of a regular sized picture book. I was disappointed to see how tiny it was when it turned up, but perked up when my daughter loved the tiny size of it. The Paper Bag Princess is the most famous book in this series. (We already have the regular size.)

If you’re in America you’ll be able to buy these second hand for a buck each, but in Australia we’d be paying an extra ten dollars per book to get it sent over.

204 x 204mm, with stiff but paperback covers

THE NUTSHELL LIBRARY: MAURICE SENDAK

Four Maurice Sendak books in tiny version, in their own little box. Aww. (And ‘aww’ isn’t normally a word I’d use with Sendak’s dark work.)

It includes Alligators All Around, Chicken Soup With Rice, One Was Johnny and Pierre.

71.12 x 101.6 x 43.18mm | 249.47g

 

FANCY NANCY PETITE LIBRARY

HarperChildren’s have realised that there are girls (especially?) who love small books, so they’ve published a few of their girly series as tiny versions, including Fancy Nancy and also Pinkalicious.

Fancy Nancy is 76.2 x 109.22 x 38.1mm in its box.

 

POCKET GENIUS BOOKS FROM DK

Dogs, bugs, horses, Ancient Rome… If you’re after tiny non-fiction, this is your series.

Each book in the series is 97 x 127 x 10mm.

 

ELSIE PIDDICK SKIPS IN HER SLEEP BY ELEANOR FARJON

Though not published specifically as part of a tiny edition of anything, the 1997 edition of this book is in itself unusually small, though not quite as small as ‘nutshell editions’ of things.

123 x 180 x 10mm

 

GUESS HOW MUCH I LOVE YOU: LITTLE LIBRARY

“The adorable hares from the classic Guess How Much I Love You are back in a gorgeous miniature slipcase gift collection containing four short stories.Big and Little Nutbrown Hare, from the multi-million-selling picture book Guess How Much I Love You, return in these four seasonal picture books: Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. Each captivating story is seasonally themed and beautifully illustrated, and the four books are collected in a covetable miniature slipcase”

92 x 94 x 52mm

 

LITTLE CHICK: THREE STORIES

These are board books, so obviously designed for the book-chewing toddler market, but the stories work for an older audience.

91.44 x 96.52 x 38.1mm

LITTLE FUR FAMILY

These small board books have fur on the front, great for sensory seekers. They’re by Margaret Wise Brown.

There was a little fur family
warm as toast
smaller than most
in little fur coats
and they lived in a warm wooden tree.

Published 1946, the layout is similar to Beatrix Potter.

BRAMBLY HEDGE BOX SET

The set of A Year In Brambly Hedge are reasonably small, which makes sense because the main characters are mice.

154 x 178 x 52mm

 

Small editions of books tend to come out before Christmas, because they’re considered ‘stocking stuffers’.

Though they are hard to find if you’re looking for them, I’ve also noticed a disproportionate number of tiny books in secondhand stores. I have a theory about why this is: They’re a pain to keep on a shelf. Mainly because you can’t shelve them. You need a little box for them. I think parents get sick of them lying around and send them to the thrift store. Also, if little books are considered stocking stuffers, it’s easy come, easy go.

Anyhow, keep your eye out in thrift stores if you have a little lover of tiny books! One day you may stumble upon a collector’s item. Four Frogs In A Box by Mercer Meyer is out of print and goes for about $50 second hand.

Which makes me think small, limited editions of books may be especially valuable. It’s far cheaper for publishers to produce regular sized books, and they don’t put them out that often.

I haven’t added the Mr Men books here because I think they are terrible. But I am sure their nice, small size contributed to their wide appeal.

Narration and Storytelling: Diegetic Terminology

NARRATOLOGY INTRODUCTION

Writers  think in terms of point of view: omniscient, third person, first person, second person. Close third person, universal first person and so on. For most purposes, point of view as a concept does fine. But it’s worth taking a brief look at terminology used by narratologists. Diegesis is one such term.

Narratology is especially worth a look if:

  • You are almost ready to start writing but can’t decide which point of view would be best for this particular story, and no amount of POV articles are helping out.
  • Or maybe you’re self-editing and you suspect your narration is patchy, e.g. too intrusive in places
  • Or if you would like to parody novels from an earlier era, in which narration was handled quite differently
  • Or if you’re writing experimental fiction
  • Or someone in your writing group keeps pointing out head-hopping, but you know t’s not head-hopping at all, but you don’t know how to explain it’s not (tl;dr: it’s probably psycho narration by an overt narrator).

 

THE MEANING OF DIEGESIS

Continue reading “Narration and Storytelling: Diegetic Terminology”

The Mud Below by Annie Proulx

“The Mud Below” was first published in the 1998 summer issue of The New Yorker and is the second short story in Proulx’s Close Range collection, retitled Close Range: Brokeback Mountain And Other Stories after the movie adaptation.

Wyoming is central to a story such as The Mud Below
The cowboy is so central to Wyoming identity that a bucking bronco features on its licence plate.

It was the super popular S-Town podcast that made me return to this collection of Wyoming stories by Annie Proulx. I read Close Range about 10 years ago and had forgotten all but the most brutal scenes. But I was moved to revisit after learning our real-life tragic hero of S-Town, John McLemore, calls this collection “the grief manual” and was in the habit of reading the entire collection over and over.

As evidenced by John McLemore’s identification with Proulx’s characters, these stories pack a powerful punch with men. They are written in a specifically masculine voice. Not only that, they’re about male culture. “The Mud Below” is a case in point — our tragic hero Diamond Felts is a rodeo performer. Women exist only peripherally in that scene. We all know a good writer has to be “genderless”. That’s often said. But can you think of any iconic male writers who have so successfully portrayed specifically female arenas, over and over? What Annie Proulx has done here is truly amazing. She is able to cross gender boundaries better than anyone else I can think of, and it’s a skill that’s almost expected of female writers rather than admired as something extra. Historically, men write about men; women write about men and women.

Does Annie Proulx write about women, though? These stories are all about men, with women on the periphery. What Proulx does so well is she manages to write about masculine culture while at the same time setting that against femininity. Here we might read the landscape as ‘feminine’. Animals, too, are associated with femininity. According to these try-hard cowboys, animals, the landscape, and also women themselves are there to be tamed and conquered.

 

The Mud Below as it appeared in The New Yorker

STORYWORLD

Continue reading “The Mud Below by Annie Proulx”

The Secret To Russian Fudge

How to make Russian Fudge — a step-by-step guide for cooks with no sweet thermometer and no Edmonds Cookbook (which is only of limited help anyway).

Googling has so far not helped me out on this one, so while Mum was staying at our place this week I had an extended lesson in how to make it set every time, and now I feel obliged to put this up on the internet, because I can’t find anybody else who has adequately described what a ‘soft ball’ is, nor explain all the secrets to getting it right, though this description is a very good start. It really is all in the beating. Some of us noobs need a little more help, so for my own future reference as much as anything, I have taken some (relevant!) progress pictures. I’ve since made five successful batches without help, so I think I’ve got it now.

FROM THE EDMONDS COOKERY BOOK

  • 3 cups sugar
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup condensed milk
  • 125g butter
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 1 tbsp golden syrup

Put sugar and milk into a saucepan. Heat gently, stirring constantly until sugar dissolves. Add condensed milk, butter, salt and golden syrup. Stir until butter has melted. Bring to the boil and continue boiling to the soft ball stage, stirring occasionally to prevent burning. Remove from heat. Cool slightly. Beat until thick. Pour into a buttered tin. Mark into squares. Cut when cold. Vanilla essence or chopped buts may be added to fudge before beating if desired.

EXTRA NOTES ON HOW TO MAKE RUSSIAN FUDGE

This is from a New Zealand cookbook (though I’m to assume it comes originally from Russia?) so be sure to use Australian/NZ/British sized measuring cups, which are larger than American. I don’t know if this works if you use American sizes — I guess it’s all relative, but what I had been doing is using the Pyrex jug to measure the liquids (American) and a local measurements for the dry ingredients. Don’t do that.

It takes a longish time to dissolve the sugar and milk properly over a gentle heat. When bubbles start to rise, that generally means it’s dissolved enough. This part can be made faster by using castor sugar, in which case it dissolves pretty much instantly, and you can start adding the rest of the ingredients.

BOILING IT UP

The colour in this photo isn’t true to life (too yellow) but this is basically what the mixture will look like once you’ve got it to the ‘soft ball’ stage.

Russian Fudge bringing to the boil

WHAT ON DOG’S GREEN EARTH IS A ‘SOFT BALL’?

To check whether the mixture is at the ‘soft ball’ stage, drop a bit of it into a glass of cold water.

 Russian Fudge soft ball test

This is what a ‘soft ball’ looks like when dribbled off a spatula into a glass of cold water. Next, tip out the water and scoop out the fudge mixture. It should look like this once you’ve rolled it between your fingers:

 Russian fudge soft ball

 

It’s hard to describe the feel of a soft ball in pictures, but you should be able to hold it briefly between your fingers like this:

 Russian fudge soft ball squish

A MOTHER OF A BEATING

The secret to good fudge lies partly in the length of time beating, but then again, at other times I have made this fudge successfully without much beating at all.

A stick mixer won’t do the job.

Then again, if you’re a pioneer, you’ll get by with a wooden spoon and a sweaty brow. As for me, I have to use an electric hand beater, and it usually takes longer than I think it should, on a medium speed.

This is what it looks like before any beating, and just cooled enough for it to stop bubbling. I’ve transferred the mixture into a plastic bowl so I don’t damage the non-stick saucepan with the beaters.

 Russian fudge pre beating

It takes about as long to whip fudge as to whip cream. Something I’ve never measured. The process is similar. Soon you’ll start to see it ripple a little bit.

 Russian fudge beating

 

Continue to beat. A few minutes later, the ripples will be more pronounced and the texture will have changed to something lighter in colour and heavier:

 Russian fudge thickening

What you really want to see is the Russian fudge starting to set around the edges:

 Russian fudge enough beating
As you can see from the electric beaters, the Russian fudge has set into stalactites.
 Russian fudge beaters

You know you’ve beaten enough when the mixture really starts to feel heavy on the beaters. (A good reason to use the medium setting on the beater — it’s easier to feel the texture changing.)

Here is the mixture poured into the pan ready for setting. As you can see, the mixture keeps its shape. The folds and peaks remain, unless I smooth them down with a wooden spoon. Be sure to grease the pan really well so that you can tip the whole thing out as a block later ready for cutting into squares, maybe on a chopping board.

 Russian fudge setting
Mark it into lots of small squares with a knife once it’s cooled a bit. Then put it in the fridge. When it comes time to cut it, use a hot, wet knife to avoid making so many tiny crumbs.
Post Script

I cut up the fudge and put it into Glad bags, ready for the freezer. I’ve never frozen fudge before, but apparently it’s fine, as long as you seal the container properly. My husband came into the kitchen and said, ‘What are you doing?’

‘Freezing fudge,’ I replied.

After a short pause he said, ‘You can say it, you know.’

‘What?’

‘You’re packing fudge.’
And in case you think I planned on eating all of these batches of fudge myself, I gave a large portion to my husband, with strict instructions to share it around at work. According to his Indian workmates, this fudge is almost exactly the same as barfi. I’ve seen better phonetic correspondences. (Here’s Breaking Barfi, a Breaking Bad parody. Hell, why not.)

There can’t have been much work on at the office either, because it was agreed that Russian fudge is actually Scottish.

Enjoy!

The Librarian Stereotype

This is an interesting article about librarians and stereotyping, in which the stereotype of librarians being ‘cold’ rather than ‘warm’ puts them at a disadvantage in their post 1970s role as teachers. Because the librarian workforce is overwhelmingly female, the expectation of warmth — and as carers/nurturers is higher.

monsters-university-movie-trailer-screenshot-librarian
The librarian from Monsters University, Pixar film

SEE ALSO

Librarians in Children’s and Teens’ Literature

Librarians in Popular Culture

The Magic Librarian at TV Tropes

The Scary Librarian at TV Tropes

The Hot Librarian at TV Tropes

 

The Hunger Games

 

It’s safe to say this post contains spoilers about The Hunger Games.

volunteering-as-tribute

Plenty has been said about The Hunger Games and I doubt I can add another single thing, but I have been collecting links on this for ages as they raced through my feed, refusing to read them until I’d seen the movie and read the book.

BOOK VERSUS FILM

Here is one overview of the differences from Lit Reactor.

Love the books, liked the movie, don’t think the film would have nearly as much value for those who hadn’t read the books. – The Beheld

It seems to make a difference whether you watch the film first or read the book first. I fit into neither category because I watched the film as I was partway through the book. I’d already seen trailers and screenshots of the film, which would have informed my vision of District 12 and the world of the story, but I can empathise with those who say that the film did not live up to the expectations of the world they’d built inside their heads. It’s true: a film set, no matter how lavish, can never live up to a good imagination.

If I noticed one area in which the film fell down, it was in the dialogue. Dialogue could have so easily been taken straight out of the book, but it hadn’t been. (Noticeable mainly because my viewing and reading of this story happened simultaneously — probably not noticeable otherwise unless you’re a megafan.)

For instance, there’s a scene in the film where Haymitch Abernathy says to Katniss, ‘Nice dress, sweetheart.’ He then turns to Effie Trinkett, who is about to get into an elevator with them (I think), and Haymitch adds, nastily, ‘Not yours.’

I remember this scene because the rest of the audience in the theatre laughed, and I don’t find that kind of humour funny. I mean the kind of humour in which one woman is complimented on her looks while at the same time another woman is dished out a backhanded compliment. You’ve probably seen this meme: When Did This Become Hotter Than This? I hate that meme, because in its attempt to embrace a healthier body image for women, all it does is try and shift our views about ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ body types. Women are still being judged primarily on their looks. This is why we should remain a little skeptical when evaluating The Hunger Games (the movie, especially) as some sort of feminist triumph. Is it really? (See below.)

While Effie Trinket is not a character to empathise with, she does exhibit a lot of the virtues which are expected of women in her position: enthusiasm, an outward appearance of politeness and a level of personal grooming which makes her look almost scary (AKA ‘Emotional Labor’). On the scale of disagreeable characters in The Hunger Games cast, Effie Trinket is one of the more harmless.

In general, movie adaptations of books are more open to cliche, whether it be at a story level or at a dialogue level. Perhaps cliches don’t stand out as much when they come in movie form, whereas on a page they never fail to clock us in the head.

One example, true of many book to film adaptations, is that the romantic element is played up in The Hunger Games movie. That’s an example of a storyline cliche.

As for dialogue, when Rue is fatally speared in the movie, I remember Katniss crouching over her. She says something like, ‘It’s going to be okay.’ I remember thinking, although I’d not reached that part in the novel, ‘No, she’s really not. You probably shouldn’t say that.’

Then I got to that same scene in the book:

One look at the wound and I know it’s far beyond my capacity to heal… There’s no point in comforting words, in telling her she’ll be all right. She’s no fool.

I much prefer the honesty of the book scene. Why did they change it for the movie when there was really no need to? I wonder if the dialogue in the film was influenced by the track which plays at Rue’s death, the one by Taylor Swift in which the lyrics go, ‘Just close your eyes /  The sun is going down / You’ll be alright / No one can hurt you now’.

Anna Sarkeesian (Feminist Frequency) has intelligent things to say about the differences between the book and the film in this video, and I find particularly interesting the reaction of the audience inside the theatre where she saw this movie. That, I suppose, is the main benefit of seeing a film with an audience. At home, you don’t get to see other people’s reactions. I also find it disturbing what people find (and don’t) find funny.

THE GENDER GAMES

It’s interesting to read about how the Hunger Games was sparked in the mind of Suzanne Collins, in an article entitled Suzanne Collins: the queen of teen fiction for tomboys by The Guardian.

I find myself irked more and more by the term ‘tomboy’. I always have, even as a kid when I was one.

First, a tomboy is a girl, so why a portmanteau including not only the word ‘boy’, but ‘Tom’ – a boy’s name? Nothing in the word ‘tomboy’ suggests we’re actually describing a girl.

Second, the fact that the concept even exists makes salient the fact that a ‘real’ girl has to be a certain way, not that girls come in all flavours and have a wide variety of interests, clothing styles and sporting aptitude. I can see why the word tomboy may have been useful back in 1900, but I’m disappointed to see it still used un-ironically in the headlines of a major newspaper.

Third, as I have noted before, it is assumed (I think wrongly) that boys will not be interested in a story about a girl unless she is an FFT (see below), so at the very least she must be a girl in a boy’s body. I don’t think this is the case for Katniss, and I don’t even like such black and white gender distinctions because I think they’re unhelpful, but it’s the assumption that continues to bother me. The proliferation (domination?) of ‘tomboys’ as a representation of ‘strong female character’ is almost a form of femme phobia.

It has been said that the gender of Katniss is pretty irrelevant. She’s an every-hero. I find it interesting, though, that she almost seems to have outrightly reject everything that could be associated with femininity. Not only looking pretty — that’s the most obvious one, and I have to admit, a welcome change — but even cooking. Nor does caring come naturally to her. She is making soup for Peeta in the woods. While master cheffing is a masculine pursuit, the day-to-day drudgery of household food preparation is feminine, and I can’t really blame Katniss for wanting to avoid it. Hence:

I’m the first to admit I’m not much of a cook. But since soup mainly involves tossing everything in a pot and waiting, it’s one of my better dishes.

But when a character is the opposite of all things feminine, I start to wonder if it wouldn’t have been better to throw in a few surprises, to show that Katniss has not rejected her gender altogether, but instead embraced the best parts and thrown away others as she sees fit. Where are the heroines who have managed that?

See also: The Gender Games, and another video from Feminist Frequency in which Katniss is evaluated as a strong female character. Conclusion: while the first book stands strong, the next two books in the trilogy see Katniss fail to continue in her growth as a person, and even regress.

Here’s another analysis of Katniss as a strong woman. The proliferation of such musings (this included) tells me something. We’ve been missing this character in her non-existence!

Dr Jennifer Shewmaker is impressed that in the movie Katniss isn’t sexualised at all.

WOMEN AS ACTION-HERO SUPERSTARS

Sociological Images always offers intelligent commentary, and in this article, argues that: “The Hunger Games should serve as a wake-up call to Hollywood that women action-hero movies can be successful if the protagonist is portrayed as a complex subject — instead of a hyper-sexualized fighting fuck toy (FFT)”

I agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment. I may be holding back with a few criticisms of this film for the simple fact that the producers actually took a risk and cast a genuinely strong female character as a lead in a big budget movie. Of course, the cynic in me says it wasn’t all that much of a risk, given the phenomenon which had been created by the author of the trilogy herself.

The Mary Sue references The Hunger Games in an article entitled ‘The Long Arm of the Lore: Female Heroes In Pop Culture‘, and with Katniss Everdeen as evidence, concludes that ‘kick-ass heroines are cool again’. Were they ever really uncool, or is it simply the case that audiences have had no choice?

On this point, Skepchick quite rightly questions the so-called ‘market-drivenness’ of the ghettoisation of female action leads. It comes from Hollywood producers.

Lots of people are saying that the opening weekend of The Hunger Games were good days for women and filmWill The Hunger Games Be The First Real Female Franchise?

MASCULINITY

No discussion of gender would be complete without a thought-provoking article on masculinity in The Hunger Games. (From Bitch Media)

THE BOOK ISN’T CHALLENGING OR LITERARY ENOUGH TO BE STUDIED WIDELY AS A HIGH SCHOOL TEXT

It is sometimes said that Modern Children Lack The Attention To Read Dickens, for example.

Literacy Journal’s stand is that The Hunger Games doesn’t deserve a place in the 6-12 ELA canon. I’m guessing that this is a view not unique to literacy advisors and advocates.

I can’t pretend to have made up my mind about the perceived ‘dumbing down’ of literature. That young adults today are reading less challenging works is certain. When I say ‘less challenging’, I mean the sentences are more simple at a syntactic level, the works themselves are shorter, and the plots are action dominated. I would also guess that a narrower variety of words is employed overall, but I can’t be sure about this.

What I am sure of, though, is that when it comes to the formal teaching of literature in schools, the single most important thing is that the students enjoy it, if not from the outset, then certainly by the end. I’m also sure that the literary merit of a book lies only partly in the book itself, and in large part with the way in which it is taught.

(Did you see this week that the Horrible Histories author has requested that his books not be taught in school? He surmises that if kids are made to read something, they won’t like it anymore. I’m not so sure about that. This request shows an enduring mistrust of teachers and the wonderful work so many teachers do in the classroom with regards to turning kids on to reading. As a side note, I have no idea what school inspectors have got to do with inspiring kids to read. Inspectors exist to make sure teachers and administrators are doing their jobs.)

To that end, The Hunger Games offers lots that I could immediately see as exciting and engaging in the classroom. With enthusiastic teaching, this book could lead to discussions about historical and topical issues such as war, the impact of reality TV, the distinction between public and private self (with Facebook as an example), a parable of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the list goes on.

It’s also a cautionary tale about Big Government. And undeniably a Christian allegory about the importance of finding Jesus. Or maybe a call for campaign-finance reform?

– from The LA Times

That’s not to say that I don’t have some sympathy for advocates of the slow reading movement, and the idea that some of the most life-changing books are worth the struggle.

Down here in Australia and New Zealand, many high school students have been reading John Marsden’s Tomorrow When The World Began as part of their English curriculum. I have taught this book myself, and I’d argue that Marsden and Collins are on a par as far as dystopian YA action fiction is concerned. Whether these novels are not challenging enough is hard to say. Certainly, for the top students, more challenging novels might allow them to write more nuanced essays and therefore get higher marks. But it would take an experienced teacher of gifted and talented students to say this for sure.

WHY IS KATNISS’ SKIN NOT DARKER?

A Whitewashed Hunger Games from Ms Blog.

I suspect the producers believed they were already taking a big risk by making a movie with a reluctant, non-sexualised action hero, and that they were absolved any further from doing anything else for equality’s sake. That’s the cynic in me.

You’ll not be surprised to learn that there is to be a Katniss Everdeen Barbie. (I would prefer the term ‘action hero’, but there you have it. For more on that issue, see here.) As pointed out by Jezebel, the doll doesn’t really have that ‘Seam’ darkness to her. She’s white all right.

For more YA whitewashed book covers, see The Yalsa Hub

This sense that movies should feel real started in the fifties and has been slowly evolving ever since. “We used to go to the movies for fantasy, to get take us away from everyday life,” says Turner Classic Movie host Robert Osborne, who also wrote 80 Years of the Oscar: The Official History of the Academy Awards. “The women all looked like Katharine Hepburn or Carole Lombard and the men all looked like Cary Grant or Robert Taylor.” Now, we want people to really look like the taxi driver or the waitress at the corner deli, he says. (This also means that we want our ballerinas to look anorexic and our downtrodden victims in eighteenth-century France to be near death.)

Why Extra-Skinny (or Fat) Actresses Win Oscars

THE WOLVES, THE WOLVES

The Wolf Muttations Could Have Looked Much More Horrifying – some concept art by Ian Joyner at io9. This is probably true, but I found the wolf muttations in the movie perfectly horrifying enough, thanks. I’m just glad the directors didn’t cut to the part where the wolves ate the blond boy. Instead, we saw the look on Katniss and Peeta’s face and heard the chomping licky sounds. That’s good enough for me.

THE HUNGER GAMES = TWILIGHT?

Fortunately not. While there are some similarities, The Hunger Games is better written at a line level (ie. I didn’t want to snap all the adverbs in half and throw them across the room), the main character is not moony.

Still, there is that old love triangle thing. Or is there? Feministe argues that the relationship model in The Hunger Games is not your cliched love triangle at all.

TERRIBLE COSTUMES?

I’m sure there are a number of costume designers who are miffed they didn’t get contracted for the costume design of The Hunger Games, because it would’ve been a great gig. A number of commentators have noted that the costume design was not good. But as a non-costume designer I enjoyed the costumes of this film. I particularly appreciated the pink eyeshadow of Effie Trinket, which made her look as if she had some sort of eye-disease, and the blue ponytail of Caesar Flickerman. The whole atmosphere of this movie reminded me very much of the second episode of Black Mirror, which is probably no good to you at all, since I’m sure more people would’ve seen The Hunger Games than the second episode of Black Mirror. But I highly recommend that series if you enjoyed the atmosphere of The Hunger Games. To be honest, that mood wasn’t what I’d been expecting.

TOO UPSETTING?

E.L. James (author of 50 Shades Of Grey) has said that killing children for sport is just a little too upsetting for her. This sentiment was echoed by an avid reader I know – a teenage girl who lives on my street. When I asked her if she’d read The Hunger Games she said, “No, and I don’t intend to”. She, too, had heard enough about the story to know that it would upset her too much.

While I didn’t find the story upsetting, I do find the general theme upsetting. We’ve been sending our young people off to war for generations. Many countries around the world still do. There are young boys in African countries today who have been taken from their parents and trained as nothing but fighters their entire lives. So I would argue that we should be finding The Hunger Games upsetting. Watching this movie, we can at least acknowledge our own privilege.

How did America turn into Panem? Like others, I imagine war broke out as a consequence of over-populationa and global warming. I find this quite upsetting too. The Hunger Games may be an imagining of a post-climate change world.

And all of the above are probably why The Hunger Games finds itself on lists of banned books. Sheesh.

For More On The Hunger Games:

1. The editorial process revealed by an intern (for those interested in writing).

2. A great map of Panem.

3. Collected mentions of The Hunger Games over at Slate, subtitled ‘An Ending A Tea Partier Would Love’, which is fortunately ambiguous enough that I can’t work it out yet, not having read the next two in the trilogy.

4. Here is a description of each song in the soundtrack to the movie. I thought the standout track was the end anthem, which is unfortunate since this is the part where everyone in the theatre walks out.

5. 7 Things You Might Not Have Known About The Hunger Games from Buzzfeed

6. Ideas For A Hunger Games Party from The Daily Meal. [Not much at all, I should think, kind of like our 40 Hour Famine parties we threw as teenagers.]

7. A Hunger Games Wiki for true fans.

8. An excellent summary of themes over at Connect The Pop, a SLJ blog. Here’s part one.

9. Like me, it turns out Jezebel has been curating interesting links on The Hunger Games this week. Check it out if you’re still intrigued. Especially if you’re interested in statistics.

10. Hunger Games influences baby names, but Katniss isn’t so popular.

11. How The Hunger Games Should Have Ended

12. 15 Women Who Could Direct Catching Fire Instead Of The Actual Candidates, from The Marysue

13. Female Authors Are Prominent on the ALA Banned Books List. (The Hunger Games is one of them.)

14. The Hunger Games Gets An Honest Trailer, by some people who didn’t much like the film, via the Mary Sue

15. A Film Review from Ladybusiness

16. The Sunday Salon: The Hunger Games, Merchandise, and Androcentrism from The Literary Omnivore

17. Another bunch of links, this time collected by SLJ

18. If Hunger Games Were 10 Times Shorter And 100 Percent Honest from Cracked

19. Philip Seymour Hoffman explains why bloody Hunger Games Is Good For Kids from WSJ

20. An Exercise In Editing or, Why The Hunger Games Makes My Eyes Bleed from R.L. Brody

21. What’s Wrong With The Hunger Games Is What Nobody Noticed from The Last Psychiatrist

22. A Radical Female Hero From Dystopia from NYT

23. A spot-on sartorial satire: Fashion’s extremity of appearance, values and language makes it a perfect subject of satire as seen in ‘The Hunger Games’ from Financial Times Style

24. Things The Hunger Games Can Teach Us About The War On Women  from Good

25. The Ultimate Hunger Games Victory Feast

26. THERE’S A THE HUNGER GAMES-THEMED SUMMER CAMP IN FLORIDA, which sounds awesome — gotta admit — until I remember the plot of the actual story.

27. Katniss is “A Wreck”: A Conversation with Suzanne Collins and Francis Lawrence: TIME talks to the writer-creator of ‘The Hunger Games’ and the director of ‘Catching Fire’ — the first in an exclusive five-part series

28. Catching Fire in the New Year: The Hunger Games and Pop Culture as Teaching Tools from CtrlAltTeach

What We All Learned From Disney’s Aladdin

Arabs are a desert people.

The peoples, and states, of the Middle East have been more or less at war for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years.

Good guys have light skin and speak English without accents.

Bad guys have beards and large, bulbous noses, sinister eyes and heavy accents, and wield swords constantly.

 

Aladdin movie poster

IN FACT

Most people in the [Arabian] Peninsula are not nomads, but are either agricultural labourers (Yemen, Oman) or inhabitants of the eight or so major maritime and cosmopolitan cities that mark the coast of the Peninsula, from Kuwait City in the northeast via Manama, Dubai, Muscat, Mukalla, Aden and Hodeida to Jeddah in the southeast.

In modern times the Middle East has been no more riven by war than other parts of the world such as Africa and East Asia, and, in the past century, much less than its neighbouring continent to the northeast, Europe. For all the wars between the Ottomans and Safavids (later Qajars), the two empires coexisted reasonably well for four centuries (1500-1914). In the period since 1945 there have been five Arab-Israeli wars but these, while catastrophic for the Palestinians, have been confined in time and space. Only the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-8 escaped external and regional state control and involved, by modern standards, high levels of casualties. Peoples of the Middle East have historically been busy doing things other than warring, like inventing algebra for instance.

Good guys can look like anyone. Bad guys can look like anyone.

 

— above information from World History Connected