In A Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories written by Alvin Schwartz was first published in 1971 for emergent readers ready for scary… but not too scary. I recently looked closely at a modern picture book called Creepy Carrots, another excellent example of a ‘scary’ story perfectly pitched at 4-6 year olds. This collection is for emergent readers and is a bit more creepy than that. The adult reader is unlikely to be scared by any of these, but many adults today have wonderful memories of A Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories.Continue reading “In A Dark, Dark Room And Other Scary Stories”
As an English speaking child of the 80s I grew up on a heavy diet of Roald Dahl. Danny The Champion Of The World (1975) stands out in my adult memory my favourite Dahl story, perhaps only bested by the frisson of horror left by The Witches (in which I actually examined my J2 teacher, thinking she might be a witch. Fortunately she didn’t wear gloves, which absolved her.)
I have now, finally, revisited Danny The Champion Of The World as an adult, despite this being one of my favourite childhood reads. Why ‘finally’? I’m loathe to further promote Dahl’s work on the Internet, partly because an entire cottage industry has popped up around the man and the mythology, with teacher resources available, schools full of class sets of his books. My own child’s primary teachers are still teaching Roald Dahl, despite there being many, many better options for a class study.Continue reading “Danny The Champion Of The World by Roald Dahl”
At almost 32,000 words, Charlotte’s Web (1952, 1963) is a middle grade novel rather than a chapter book. This is a story with many hidden depths, which appeals to middle grade kids as well as their adult co-readers.
Below I’ll be getting into how this story appeals to both children and adults, the themes of death, the narration, characterisation and the overall story structure.Continue reading “Charlotte’s Web Novel Study”
The other day someone in a book recommendation group wanted suggestions for a 10 year old who loves Hayao Miyazaki movies.
This basically describes my own kid, who’s been a Miyazaki fan since the age of three, before she even knew transmogrification wasn’t a thing. My kid enjoys Yotsuba&! (among other things, so I recommended that.
Yotsuba&! is a manga series which has been translated into English to capture an international market. We can deduce: Yotsuba&! is actually one of the least ‘weird-to-Westeners’ stories produced by Japan.
Someone else said, “Oh I love Yotsuba! She’s so cute.” Another person mentioned the general weirdness of Japanese media for kids. (It’s worth mentioning at this point, our kids generally love this stuff. Adults find it weird.) In any case, I should probably have recommended the series ‘with reservations.’
Because of my interest in storytelling, I wondered if I could attempt a theory on why, so often, adult English speakers find Japanese stories so… inexplicably weird.
- What do we mean when we call something ‘weird’?
- Why does a culture find some story elements ‘plausible’, but elements from another culture ‘weird’?
- What are the different expectations of ‘a story suitable for children’?
Any insight I have on this subject comes from 10 years of Japanese study, including a couple of years living in Japan — first as a high school exchange student living with a host family, next at a Japanese university living in a dorm Then I taught Japanese at high school level, though I’ve had little to do with Japan since the 2000s. I can only guess at the general trajectory, as more and more young Japanese people spend part of their youth abroad, many learning English to a high level which no doubt leads to a more internationalised Japan.
Conversely, is the West becoming a bit more accepting of Asian entertainment? I know white people who listen to nothing but K-Pop, and others who spend a lot of time playing Nintendo games from the 80s and 90s. Western fans of Japanese entertainment tend to be uber fans.
Japanese Weirdness and the Western Media
My general thoughts on Japanese ‘weirdness’ is this: Our Western media loves to paint Japanese people as downright quirky. We’ll pick up any out-there news article and disseminate it with glee, to bolster our view that these people are somehow ‘Other’. Oftentimes, our media’s ‘proof’ of Japanese weirdness is a complete misunderstanding of intent — Japanese people love to poke fun at themselves. Where they’re poking fun, we’re imagining they are taking themselves completely seriously. Either that or we can’t possibly see the joke because jokes are so culturally specific.
Yotsuba&! is a great introduction to Japanese ‘weirdness’.
YOTSUBA&!: A CASE STUDY IN WEIRD
Yotsuba&! is centered on Yotsuba Koiwai, a five-year-old adopted girl who is energetic, cheerful, curious, odd, and quirky — so much so that even her own father calls her strange. She is also initially ignorant about many things a child her age would be expected to know, among them doorbells, escalators, air conditioners, and even playground swings.This naïveté is the premise of humorous stories where she learns about, and frequently misunderstands, everyday things.Wikipedia overview
Yotsuba means ‘four leaf clover’ in Japanese, which explains the green hair and four pigtails.
Well, the first weird thing is the title. An English speaker would not shove an ampersand into that title unless it meant ‘and’. What’s it doing there?
Well, that symbol means ‘and’ in Japanese, too. It’s just used a little differently here. Japanese orthography doesn’t put spaces between words (because there are three different ‘alphabets’ and it doesn’t need to).
The phrase Yotsuba to means “Yotsuba and,” a fact reflected in the chapter titles, most of which take the form “Yotsuba and [something].Wikipedia
First of all, Yotsuba&! is full of onomatopoeia and mimesis, which is amazingly rich in Japanese. The English version keeps the Japanese (written in Japanese) and adds its English transcription in small letters. For an English speaker, this still won’t be enough. We do fine with the echomimesis, but need further translation for ideophones such as ‘kuru’ to represent the turning of something. (This comes from the Japanese verb form of ‘to turn’, thus making perfect sense to Japanese readers.)
LOST IN TRANSLATION
Japanese is so different from English that wordplay never translates. Yotsuba is young and gets words wrong, which presents a problem for the translator to the point where jokes simply do not work. Sometimes the translator gets around this by describing the problem in marginalia. In Yotsuba&! number one, Yotsuba mistakes her father’s job ‘translator’ for ‘jelly maker’. This works in Japanese because the words sound very similar. (Even the translation of ‘jelly’ doesn’t work — konnyaku is not what Westerners think of when we hear the word ‘jelly’ — it’s a grey, black flecked substance made from potato starch.) On a meta-level, it’s ironic that the character of the father is a translator, yet the joke about his job simply doesn’t translate.
THE CHARACTER WEB
The fictional child orphan is a very American trope. Yotsuba as a character doesn’t fit this trope at all, though. This backstory (such as there is) feels foreign. The father just kinda picked her up from someplace.
Yotsuba is not really a… real child? She’s more like Ponyo of the Hayao Miyazaki film — someone who just turns up and joins the family. She seems to have come from a different planet. In the world of the story, she’s understood to simply be ‘foreign’:
She is also initially ignorant about many things a child her age would be expected to know, among them doorbells, escalators, air conditioners, and even playground swings. This naïveté is the premise of humorous stories where she learns about, and frequently misunderstands, everyday things.
This particular character trope isn’t entirely foreign to a Western audience. We’re seeing a lot more comedy about characters who don’t seem to know what on earth is going on around them. Some of these characters are coded as autistic, which I go into more thoroughly here.
Because Yotsuba has no mother, and because her adopted father is so useless, the girls next door step in and they perform much of the emotional (and housework) labour a mother would otherwise provide. I don’t believe this is a specifically Japanese phenomenon at all, but it is an unusual family set up to see in contemporary Western children’s literature. Hopeless Dads are dime a dozen, but Dads who kind of fall in lust with their children’s informal babysitters next door? Not so much. (See below.)
SPECIFICALLY JAPANESE SYMBOLISM
In Yotsuba&! volume one, the story takes place over summer. Summer in Japan has its own specific atmosphere — after the rainy season of June comes a very hot and humid time, and unless you live in a very built-up area, summer sounds like cicadas. (Cicadas and frogs.) A ‘typical’ Japanese summer includes eating watermelons with family, wind chimes and festivals. This summer experience is depicted clearly in Yotsuba&!, though may not be coded as specifically ‘summer’ by readers who haven’t experienced the specifically Japanese summer. My Australian summer includes many of those things, too, but an Australian ‘vision of’ summer is different: the beach, swimming, surfing, shorts, sunscreen, icy-poles, thongs, beer. Each culture has its own Symbolism of Seasons, and Japanese symbolism is a little different even when summer itself is basically the same.
SPECIFICALLY JAPANESE CULTURE
As a high school exchange student, I was surprised to see teachers thwack students across the head. Touching the head is taboo in my own culture, especially when it’s a teacher to a student. Yet I saw it done mostly in jest.
Likewise, in Japanese entertainment, when one character hits another over the head, this is coded by the audience as funny. It’s one character ‘owning’ the other, usually as the conclusion (or as the main part) of a joke.
This joke is used numerous times in Yotsuba&!, first with one sister hitting the other on the head in the chapter where Yotsuba thinks she’s being abducted by the girl next door. (She doesn’t know that yet.) Later, Yotsuba insists everyone goes cicada catching. She jokingly ‘Catches an Ena’, which involves capturing her neighbour’s head in a net.
In another gag, Yotsuba’s father ends up with underpants on his head and pretends he’s some kind of underpants monster. This version of the joke translates the best out of all of these ‘head’ gags — probably because a young Western audience is also laughing at the inversion of a clothing article meant for the butt ending up on the head. For a Japanese audience there’s an added layer of embarrassment around showing your underwear to someone in your out-group — for girls and women especially, this is taboo. While modern attitudes are various, some Japanese women will never, ever show anyone their underwear, to the point where they won’t hang underwear on the line. (Therefore, a joke about the father’s underwear exposed to a non-family member works as a joke, but I doubt it would work if the underwear belonged to a girl.)
There’s a huge irony in this, which I’ve never been able to reconcile: Whereas the underwear of a post-pubescent Japanese female is absolutely taboo, the white, voluminous underpants of a little girl is considered cute, whereas in the West, adult women get to show their bodies as a form of empowerment, but when it comes to little girls, we are very protective of them. Pixar would never show the underpants of a little girl flying on a broomstick or falling comically from a height, but Hayao Miyazaki has no such qualms.
In Yotsuba&! we see examples of butt shots used comically:
But my Western sensibilities come to the fore in the relationship between Yotsuba’s ‘father’ (according to the story he simply found her and decided to keep her), and his reaction to the triad of adolescent/teenage sisters who live next door.
In the first, minor example, the comically inappropriate Yotsuba refers to one of the sisters next door as the pretty one, the other as the ‘not pretty’ one. The father says, “You’re right, but you shouldn’t say it that way…”
My Western sensibility wants a Good Dad to tell Yotsuba that all the sisters next door are beautiful in their own way, but this father is more pragmatic, instead acknowledging that yes, he has noticed and yes, some girls are pretty, others not so much. I’ve noticed in the West, a general lack of willingness to accept that some people fit the Beauty Cultural Norm better than others. The problem with that: Unless we accept Beauty as a concept, we can’t acknowledge Beauty Privilege. If we can’t acknowledge Beauty Privilege, we can’t go out of our way to move past it.
Besides, this father is not your typical father. He’s more of a young guy who isn’t quite up to the task of taking care of a kid. This kid regularly finds herself in perilous situations, because the father is asleep or busy working or whatever. A permissive, indulgent parent is useful to a writer of children’s literature, because it’s really hard to realistically get adult caregivers out of the way. Modern kids, in real life, are rarely afforded the opportunity to head off on their own adventures. Not so Yotsuba, who goes off on her own around the neighbourhood. “Don’t worry, she eventually comes back,” says Father to the concerned girl next door. While he’s sleeping, Yotsuba’s getting herself locked in the toilet, then escapes by tottering precariously along the rail of the balcony. Instead of fixing the lock on the door, the father leaves it be, paving the way for further embarrassing window-escape adventures. An adult Western reader may well look at this father-daughter relationship and have grave concerns. Has the creator removed the father from Yotsuba’s life in a way that doesn’t set us on edge? What is he even doing with this little girl? Does her origin story need to be explained a little more? Readers will vary on this point.
More salient: Is Yotsuba&! even for kids? At first glance, of course it is. Japanese publishers have definitely aimed it at a young child market: We know this because they include the ‘kana’ readings over the Chinese characters, which is a sure sign a book is aimed at emergent readers. (Around 5-8.)
The main character, Yotsuba is also five. But Yotsuba is five in the way Junie B. Jones is five — her particular quirks appeal to older readers.
Here’s a scene Junie B. Jones would never include: The father’s friend comes round to the house, sees the girl next door with the father and makes a comment about ‘jail bait’.
This is icky to me, especially after the way in which this girl is introduced to Yotsuba’s father — and to the reader:
I’m no manga apologist, but it’s possible that within manga culture this is such a normalised objectification of a teenage girl that it doesn’t really even strike the manga-enthusiast as a sexualised pose. I recall my year as an exchange student, in which I wore the school skirt a lot lower than any of my Japanese classmates. I wore it just below the knee, whereas they rolled theirs up. Some concerned classmates offered fashion advice, and tried rolling it up at the waist to achieve a more acceptable look. The girls themselves have internalised the idea that women’s legs are to be looked at.
To me, this pose is very gazey and, depending partly on the viewer, absolutely sexual. I was prepared to look past it until the ‘jail bait’ section, but considering the story as a whole, the creators are well-aware of their intent: To depict these teenage girls in a sexual manner to appease the male gaze. Although we do see examples of the male gaze in Western children’s literature, it’s been a long time since I saw something this blatant. This is manga culture pulled down into children’s entertainment.
THE STORY STRUCTURE OF YOTSUBA&!
Yotsuba&! is the perfect example of an ‘episodic’ story, found quite often in middle grade fiction, especially that aimed at (and starring) girls. Boys more often go off on linear adventures, but in Yotsuba&!, each chapter is its own self-contained story. Apart from the first chapter, in which Yotsuba moves house and meets new people, any of the others could easily be switched around.
‘Episodic’ is often used as a negative descriptor when it comes to fiction — as a synonym for ‘boring’ or ‘goes nowhere’. Modern middle grade novels in English tend to have a single driving thread even if it includes subplots which seem to take the reader off on self-contained tangents. Diary of a Wimpy Kid is a good example of a Western counterpart. I’m also thinking of Clementine — also about the quotidian life of a girl. The difference is, each of the Clementine books has a single plot thread with means the chapters could not be switched up.
In general, Japanese audiences accept a slower pace. There’s a long history of very long Noh and Kabuki plays, in which the audience happily leaves part way through, goes to eat a meal, then comes back to see the end.
But partly this is because of the huge crossover appeal of its anime, manga and also pop music, which tends to be enjoyed by adults and children alike. To generalise, even children’s media ends up with a more adult pacing:
Toy Story – 76 mins
Brave – 84 mins
Monsters Inc. – 85 mins, 8 secs
Toy Story 2 – 85 mins, 32 secs
Inside Out – 87 mins
A Bug’s Life – 88 mins
Up -89 mins
Wall·E – 90 mins
Finding Nemo – 93 mins
Toy Story 3 – 94 mins
Monsters University – 94 mins
Cars 2 – 98 mins
Ratatouille – 103 mins
The Incredibles – 107 mins
Cars – 108 mins
My comparisons aren’t perfect, because ‘animated’ doesn’t mean ‘for kids’ in Japan. Summer Wars is more for an adult audience despite being anime, in line with Miyazaki’s From Up On Poppy Hill, whereas all of the Pixar films are made solidly for kids despite humour that only their adult co-viewers would get. Totoro is Japanese anime made solidly for kids, making for a better Pixar comparison, and Totor’s runtime lines up nicely with the films of Pixar. My wider point is: A more diverse story structure is accepted by audiences in Japan, with younger audiences enjoying films of ‘adult length’. (Spirited Away is enjoyed by children, but you won’t see a Pixar film of 125 minutes.)
Why are some Japanese films much longer? Because they are ‘slower’. By ‘slower’ I mean there tends to be more emphasis on scene-setting. Hayao Miyazaki is well-known for his emphasis on food scenes. Food is important across all children’s literature from any part of the world, but the emphasis on food preparation and the sharing and consumption of food is not something you’ll find easily in the West.
However, emphasis on food culture is not specific to Miyazaki. Keep looking and you’ll find it holds true across all aspects of Japanese entertainment. It’s true of Yotsuba&!, too.
The word ‘pillow shot’ was first used to describe the films of Yasujiro Ozu:
A “pillow shot” is a cutaway, for no obvious narrative reason, to a visual element, often a landscape or an empty room, that is held for a significant time (five or six seconds). It can be at the start of a scene or during a scene.Dangerous Minds
Although it describes film, I like to apply the word equally to stories comprising static images (e.g. manga) because all the Yotsuba&! shots of first waking up, slurping on food, announcing one’s intention to visit the toilet… these are the quotidian aspects of life more commonly omitted from Western stories, even in stories for children:
My Japanese teacher in Japan also taught English to Japanese students (that was her main job). She always found it uniquely Japanese that when asked to write an essay about their daily, her Japanese students would include details English speaking students would not: “I got up, went to the toilet, brushed my teeth…”
I have concluded over time that Japanese natives do a better, more thorough job of noticing the details of everyday life, and this is reflected in entertainment coming out of Japan.
As you can probably gather, I have mixed feelings about the Yotsuba&! series as a middle grade text. Yotsuba as a character is a satisfying character for girls in particular — she’s irreverent (especially by Japanese standards of politeness), she’s energetic and her family situation means she’s often out on interesting hi jinx. Yotsuba herself is not sexualised — in fact she’s dressed in hardy shorts and is wholly unlimited by cultural gender expectations.
All of these wonderful things about Yotsuba are undermined by the dynamic between Yotsuba’s young, adoptive father, the father’s creepy best friend and the triad of teenaged sisters next door. I believe the creator has been influenced by manga culture to the point where he perhaps doesn’t even realise this dynamic could be read as anything other than innocent.
I suspect a proportion of Japanese parents would share this view in common with me, and to finish off, I’d like to emphasise that ‘manga’ culture is not synonymous with ‘Japanese culture’.
Rejection sensitive dysphoria is an unpleasant emotion which should be more widely known. Not many people know how it feels, and even fewer know what it’s called. But Barbara Park’s Junie B. Jones is an excellent fictional example of a character who lives with these hard emotions.
Today I’ll take a close look at Junie B Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus, the first in the Junie B series, first published 1992.
Junie B. Jones books are infamous for being some of the most highly challenged and banned in libraries across America because:
- Junie B is considered a bad role model for children. She is self-centred, doesn’t do as she’s told and rather than learn to be a better person at the end of this particular story, she learns to join in with the exclusionary behaviour if she’s to get on in life, or first of all, on the bus.
- The language used is deliberately incorrect, to mimic the voice of an almost six-year-old. Instead of using the proper word for something, Junie B will describe it in her own language. She also uses grammar in an original way. (I find Junie B. very fun to read aloud, even so.)
Her adverbs lack the suffix “ly”; subject and object pronouns give her problems, as do possessives; she usually isn’t able to conjugate irregular past tense verbs; and words like funnest and beautifuller are the mainstays of her vocabulary.
I have noticed a very similar discussion going on with the contemporary, super popular Dogman series by Dav Pilkey. A lot of adults don’t like the bad grammar, because they feel children learn literacy from these books, and if they read incorrectly spelt words, they’re going to subconsciously mimic the spelling.
I can’t cite linguistic research around this, but the conclusion feels intuitively wrong. If children were really that impressionable, puns would also be banned, for promoting the ‘incorrect’ reading of a word. Yet children’s literature is full of wordplay, and I’m yet to hear a gatekeeper complain about that.
As a character, Junie B. Jones is the daughter of Ramona Quimby, along with Judy Moody, Clementine (by Sara Pennypacker) and other highly spirited girls.
MY PERSONAL RESPONSE TO JUNIE B.
The Junie B. series are early readers, but have found an unlikely audience with older kids, as have the Dogman and Wimpy Kid books appeal across the spectrum of middle grade readers (helping to turn them into best sellers.) Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus is especially resonant with my ten year old daughter because on her very first day of kindergarten, she decided to get on a different bus to visit a boy’s house for a playdate, and the teacher didn’t realise she’d switched lines. It was a 39 degree (>102F) day here in Australia, and my five year old was lost in a dangerously hot world for over an hour. Though we got her back safe and sound (an hour and a half later!), that afternoon remains one of the most stressful parenting experiences I’ve had to date. I’ve since realised our daughter is the real world personification of Junie B. She even LOOKS a lot like Junie B., especially now she’s growing out her fringe and wears a headband. She even got glasses since.
Though the gatekeepers of children’s literature don’t like these highly imperfect fictional girls, Junie B. is a realistic child. Imperfect children do exist. Junie’s emotions are real emotions — her motivations are based on real anxieties and desires. If we keep books about imperfect kids out of real kids’ hands, we are diminishing the emotional scope for children. And the ‘bad’ emotions are the ones we need to see shared by others, to help us feel less alone. Not only that — uncomfortable emotions are the most interesting emotions. They make for great storytelling.
Seeing Junie B in my own child does affect my reading of Junie’s personality — she strikes me as ADHD phenotype, as all the most interesting fictional girls seem to be. All of these girls are descended from a much earlier ADHD phenotype girl — Anne Shirley. Put Anne Shirley in a 1992 American kindergarten and I’m pretty sure you get Junie B. Jones.
A further note on ADHD: These fictional girls would be hyperactive type. The inattentive type is more common in girls, but not as interesting on the page. ADHD is not a good name for what the condition really is. We focus on the ‘hyperactivity’ but there’s far more to being ADHD than most people know, including myself, before I realised I had given birth to one such creature. ADHD kids are inquisitive, notice small details, hyper focus on their interests for hours at a time (but fail to focus on things they find boring), and they have more trouble than most people controlling their emotions.
An emotion that many ‘neurotypical’ people (I’m not sure there’s any such thing as neurotypical) have trouble understanding — rejection sensitive dysphoria. That is, the feeling that you don’t measure up and that everybody hates you deep down. When I say that Junie B. and her fictional ilk seem to be the ADHD phenotype, authors use the most fun parts of ADHD in their middle grade fiction. The less fun parts are not well-explored in children’s literature, and I believe there is room for that still.
Then again, Barbara Park does understand this phenotype really well. Partly because I read Junie B. through the ADHD lens, I code Junie B. as a hugely unreliable narrator. In Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus, Junie B. feels she is rejected as soon as she sits down. She is indeed rejected by the girl with the white handbag, but then she extends that out and spots kids as ‘meanies’, but for all we know, they’re doing nothing to give her that impression. She simply imagines they’ll be mean to her. Her irrepressible curiosity and unhelpful imagination leads her to explore another boy’s school bag, but when he shifts seats, she sees that as a rejection of her. He is therefore set up as her long term opponent. This personality trait is set up for laughs as part of the long-running character humour, but a more accurate reading of Junie’s personality does require a reader old enough to code Junie B. as an unreliable narrator. Younger readers — readers who are themselves in kindergarten — are likely to understand Junie’s experiences as the ‘truth’ of the situation.
POLITICAL PROBLEMS WITH JUNIE B.
I have my own political issues with the Junie B. Jones series, completely unrelated to the ‘poor role mode’ and ‘bad language’ arguments.
It all started with Anne of Green Gables (and probably even earlier), but I have grown tired of the opponent web in these middle grade books about highly spirited girls. Almost always, without fail, the opponent is a ‘girly-girl’. I’ve written much more extensively about that phenomenon here, and argue that there are real world consequences for such stories. I stop short at saying such books should be banned however; I would simply like to see a wider variety of character webs in middle grade fiction.
Barbara Park was a white woman, and most people who work in publishing are also white. Turkeys We Have Loved and Eaten is notorious among Native American peoples for its poor portrayal of Native American culture. (I haven’t read it myself.) The #OwnVoices movement is going some way toward making this situation better. Let’s hope stories such as that would fail to get through all the checks and balances in 2018.
STORY STRUCTURE OF JUNIE B. JONES
While I’m here, I’ll take a good look at the structure of this book. (This is mainly for writers.) Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus is 6570 words and can be read by a proficient reader in about an hour. For a ten year old, it’s a bedtime read.
I consider Junie B.’s rejection sensitive dysphoria her biggest shortcoming, but I don’t believe this is the child reader’s interpretation.
Junie B., like all the other little kids out there, have one overarching shortcoming: They have to do what adults tell them to do, even if that thing is big and scary and terrible. An adult might choose not to get on the bus. Indeed, many adults get also hate buses, but they get to drive their own cars. But kids are basically prisoners. All kids can identify with that.
Junie is driven by the desire not to do something (ride the school bus) which, in narrative terms, works equally well as a strong desire to do something. Her morning bus experience wasn’t great, but when a girl in her class mentions that you get milk poured over your head on the afternoon school buses, Junie understands that to mean ‘everyone, all the time’, and now she is highly motivated to avoid the bus home.
Junie sees everyone as her opponent, even though she lives in a very cosy world and is completely looked after.
Her mother is her first opponent, for making her do something she doesn’t want to do.
Next, every single one of the kids at school are potential opponents. She initially thinks maybe she can be friends with the girl on the bus, but when that doesn’t pan out, she expands her generally negative feeling out and by the end of the day, everyone is an opponent.
Although Junie B. pits everyone against her, Barbara Park includes in every book a ‘cutaway shot’ to a smiling, benevolent adult, to show that the adults are really on Junie’s side, that they find her funny and adorable. I find this cloying when I read a lot of Junie B. books back-to-back — it’s a consistent feature of this series. But at the same time, it’s necessary, because without the adults on her side, Junie B. really has no one. (Mostly of her own doing.)
We don’t see Junie’s plan until she does it, which is pretty much how Junie herself works. I’m sure she didn’t plan to hide at home time, but she thought of it, saw an opportunity and did it.
Now the story enters carnivalesque mode, in which Junie enjoys the fun of being at school all alone. She gets into the teacher’s desk, pretends to be the teacher, sniffs out some clay, gets into band-aids in the nurse’s office, and wears her jumper in a form of dress-up play.
The Battle scene begins in the nurse’s room, where Junie B. is surrounded by the accoutrements of injury and death, in the most cosy way possible.
The big big struggle scene itself (the climax) is on the childhood equivalent of a Thelma and Louise film, with emergency services all turning up for Junie’s ’emergency’.
We don’t see her parents’ side, because that would not be fun at all. I’m sure they were worried out of their minds. (We don’t hear about the AMBER alert that went out.)
Although Junie B. is irreverent and although this series is not exactly famous for its didacticism, the lecture she gets first from the police officer, next from her mother in the car is the part where Junie (and the reader) learn that running off as she likes is not okay.
But Junie has her own anagnorisis, which almost cancels out the ‘good message’ dished out by the parents. She realises she can cope with riding the school bus if she behaves how the other kids behave. She will find herself her own bus buddy, and use her own purse to reserve their seat.
Of course, adults like to think that the kid world is far more inclusive than that. We like to think that children can sit where they like on the bus, that there is no meaningful pecking order, that our child would be receptive to another child expressing interest in an adjacent seat. But there is always a huge disconnect between The Rules and The Reality of childhood. A great number of middle grade authors fail to get a handle on the reality of childhood tribalism, and instead stick to a kind of utopia, or more likely, they go some way towards addressing bullying culture, but present a black and white dichotomy of ‘goodies’ and ‘bullies’, without depicting the huge in-between that is most of us — joining in with the system as best we can.
Junie B. is now happy to ride the bus to and from school. We know her adventures at school will continue.
Chekhov’s gun is a storytelling technique to do with foreshadowing. The author places a gun in the story/picture and one of the characters uses it later. This is the general rule: If the gun has been placed, the author must make use of it. Otherwise the reader will wonder what on earth it was doing there. The reader will feel cheated. In this way, stories are very different from real life.
Obviously, when it comes to children’s literature, guns are a bit of a no-go. However, the Chekhov’s Gun technique is super useful for increasing tension and narrative drive. Children’s writers must be inventive when it comes to avoiding actual gun violence in stories for young readers, but do make use of this same technique.
I’m not sure if someone has already done this, but for children’s literature I’m inventing my own related terminology. The kidlit equivalent of Chekhov’s gun is…
CHEKHOV’S TOY GUN
Chekhov’s TOY Gun refers to an on-the-page gun which turns out to be a toy gun, not a gun at all, or something else similarly benign.
Here’s the difference between the Chekhov’s Gun vs Chekhov’s TOY Gun: The toy gun is never going to be used to inflict harm, even when we see it on the page as a threat. We know this because this is a rule of junior fiction. In Young Adult literature, anything can happen — I’m talking about middle grade and below. In MG stories, characters don’t shoot heroes. However, the reader won’t know that until after the Battle sequence of the story. Part of the Revelation part of the plot (coinciding with the Anagnorisis) part, will be, Oh! It wasn’t any threat at all! Just seemed totally threatening!
EXAMPLES OF CHEKHOV’S TOY GUN
R.L. Stine will often give his adult baddies a gun but these guns are never used to shoot our child heroes. In How I Got My Shrunken Head,the gun turns out to be a water pistol. Thanks to R.L. Stine, for inspiring me with a name for this concept.
In Pax, Sara Pennypacker suggests a character may be carrying a rifle by describing it through a naive animal’s point of view. The reader guesses a ‘long pole’ may be a rifle because the setting is a war situation. We soon learn that the ‘pole’ is actually the hero’s crutch (he has a broken leg), and this crutch is used as a weapon to scare off the attacking coyotes during the final big big struggle scene.
The examples I give are very literal examples, because the child character thinks there is an actual gun. Also very common in children’s literature: A character who looks very scary proves completely benign. For example, the gigantic man next door proves to be kind of heart when the child hero actually meets him in person. Or a rumour about a perceived opponent turns out not to be true.
To offer an extremely tangential example, in Monster House, McCracken is revealed to be a victim of the scary, enlivened, haunted house, despite being very scary to the children himself. The real opponent goes a long way back in history, with a version of intergenerational trauma being the real issue, requiring nothing more than understanding (symbolised by a massive, elongated Battle sequence) on the part of the adolescent heroes.
Apart from the big reveal that something is not so terrible after all, these stories by their nature tend to convey the following ideologies:
- Things (and people) are not what they seem on the surface.
- Don’t believe everything you hear.
- Look closely and pay attention or you’ll perceive danger in the exact wrong places.
- People who look like baddies are sometimes the goodies (and vice versa).
- And even if they are bad, there’s probably a reason for that and we should extend understanding. Worse bad lurks behind bad.
- Understanding to true nature of things, events and people will help us cope with the bad stuff we encounter in life.
Have you noticed examples of Chekhov’s Toy Gun in stories you’ve read lately?
Coraline is a 2002 novel by Neil Gaiman. Strangely, it is called a novella, despite being the typical length of a middle grade novel (30,640 words). This is one of those ‘children’s books’ for a universal audience, drawing on fears we all had as children. Neil Gaiman has said that adults find Coraline more terrifying than children do.
In 2009 Coraline was adapted for film, rendering the character Coraline slightly more passive with the addition of a male sidekick.
Coraline is an example of the battle-free myth form, and in order to adapt to a feature length film it was necessary for the director to add quite a bit of material. This is in line with my theory that the big struggle-free myth form is naturally shorter than the traditional, masculine mythic form. (I think Inside Out would have been better a bit shorter, too.)
INFLUENCES ON CORALINE
Coraline is a changeling story, but instead of the child being swapped, it’s the mother. There is a long history of changeling stories, which feeds upon a fear that our loved-ones are not who we think they are, or perhaps we are not who we think we are.
Coraline is a great example of an uncanny story. It is also a great example of contemporary gothic children’s literature. Gothic literature is often all about surfaces — tropes and trappings rather than psychic depths. For more on that specific thing, see Eve Sedgwick. You can read that paper for free if you register with JStor. See also the work of Catherine Spooner.
The influence of Fairy Tale: Hansel and Gretel as ur-Story
In general, male villains are WYSIWG. Even when they’re tricksters, we know they’re tricksters. But the villainous trickster who infiltrates the family home, pretending to be nurturer when she is no such thing, is a gendered archetype. In fairytales we see this woman played out as the step-mother, which is something the Grimm brothers changed (from plain old evil mother) to make the tales more palatable for a child audience. (Evil mums are more scary than evil step-mums.)
In Coraline, The Other Mother is sneaky, cunning, clever, intimidating, and seeks power. Just like many of the maternal figures in Disney movies or in fables (including Hansel and Gretel), the Other Mother is ugly (underneath) and craves power. These are two traits which are apparently bad for any women to have, and so she must be destroyed.
Alice’s adventures In Wonderland and Other Classic Tales
When an author wants to write their first fantasy novel for children, they’ll sometimes fall back on the books they themselves loved as kids. If they were Alice in Wonderland fans they might go the route of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. If they were partial to The Wizard of Oz they could do as Salman Rushdie did when he wrote Haroun and the Sea of Stories.Betsy Bird
In a discussion about another book entirely, Betsy Bird happens to point out that Coraline has been influenced by Alice In Wonderland, which has a mythic structure underneath but weird things happen which seem random and disconnected. A girl goes ‘down a rabbit hole’ (or through a small door) into a parallel universe, not so far from home at all. The story is populated by eccentrics who follow their own logic. For critics, it is very difficult to analyse Coraline as a real child. Coraline eludes the adult critic – like Freud’s “Dora” and Carroll’s Alice. She’s often quite opaque.
Thomas Byrne offers a much wider list of influences on Neil Gaiman’s work, noting that Gaiman is one of the contemporary authors who creates more nuanced characters than usual:
If we were to take a brief look at a collection of popular children’s books from the past featuring similar themes to Gaiman’s work – supernatural creatures, magic, witches, or other unexplainable phenomenon, we might be drawn to such classics as L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through The Looking-Glass, Lloyd Alexander’s The Black Cauldron, or C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. All of these books are widely considered to be classic tales from previous generations, and all have elements of the supernatural, from explicit witches and wizardry to the unseen resurrection of characters. All of these books have villains or evil characters, and Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West is one of the most prototypical of the entire genre. Yet, despite the proliferation of such ‘bad guys’ in these books, they do not seem to have the depth and realism of fright of contemporary works. These classic stories have clear designations to show that what is happening is make believe, which diminishes the realism and impact on their readers. Children who read these books can more easily convince themselves that what is happening is fictional, as the parallels to the main characters as they are going through such adventures are difficult to draw. In essence, most of these books are examples of mild escapist fiction, where the author provides a magical world for children to live in, but from which they can easily escape. This view is supported by fairy tale expert Jack Zipes in his essay “Are fairy tales still useful to Children?”: “…the very act of reading a fairy tale is an uncanny experience in that it separates the reader from the restrictions of reality from the onset…”.Thomas Byrne
The Specific Influence Of Mrs Clifford
Neil Gaiman has said that he was influenced directly by a tale written by Mrs. (Lucy) Clifford in a collection called Anyhow Stories (1882). This creepy tale is called “The New Mother”. The protagonists are called by Mrs. Clifford’s own children’s nicknames, Turkey and Blue-Eyes.
Alison Lurie writes of “The New Mother”:
In “The New Mother” … the frightening thing is that inanimate matter has become real. This tale draws on the primitive fear of objects that survives just below the surface in most of us — the suspicion that our new tennis racket or our old Toyota is secretly hostile, that the politician speaking on television is really a plastic replica. It is also, of course, a classic tale of separation anxiety, made more terrifying because it does not take place “in a faraway land, but [in] England with typical village, post office, house-hold furnishings etc.”
The “strange wild-looking girl” whom the children in “The New Mother” find sitting by the wayside claims that she lives in their villages, but they have never seen her there before. She is sitting on a musical instrument called a peardrum, which, she tells them, she will play only for naughty children. This peardrum, in the accompanying illustration, is shaped very like a womb; so it is not surprising to hear the girl claim that when she plays it a little man and woman come out and dance together. “The little woman has heard a secret — she tells it while she dances.”
Naturally the children long to see this dance and learn this secret, so they go home and try hard to be naughty. Their mother, distressed, tells them that if they do not stop she will have to go away and leave them “and send home a new mother, with glass eyes and a wooden tail.” But the children keep on trying to be naughty, encouraged by the girl with the peardrum, who remarks to them that “the pleasure of goodness centres in itself; the pleasures of naughtiness are many and varied.”
Day after day the children become naughtier — but never quite naughty enough for a strange girl. They break furniture and crockery, throw the clock on the floor, and put out the fire. Finally they behave so badly that their mother leaves them — but even then they do not get their wish. The strange girl dances past their cottage, accompanied by an old man playing in a peculiar way on a flute and two dogs waltzing on their hind legs. “Oh, stop!” the children cry, “and show us the little man and woman now.”
But the strange girl passes on, calling back to them: “Your new mother is coming. She is already on her way; but she only walks slowly, for her tail is rather long… but she is coming, she is coming — coming — coming.” The procession disappears down the road, becoming “a dark misty object”.
The children return to their disordered and deserted cottage to wait for night, and for the arrival of the new mother: “Suddenly, while they were sitting by the fire, they heard a sound as of something heavy being dragged along the ground outside, and then there was a loud and terrible knocking.” Turkey and Blue-Eyes bolt the door, but the new mother breaks it open with her tail. The children escape into the cold, dark forest, where they wander about like the famous Babes in the Wood, lonely and miserable. At the end of the story they are still living there, longing to go home and see their real mother once again.
The figure of the new mother and the elemental terror aroused by her coming seem to belong to a more primitive world than that of the usual English folktale. They suggest the carved wooden images and superstitions of the voodoo cult, which Mrs. Clifford may have seen or heard of during her childhood in Barbados and recalled, perhaps not even consciously, many years later.
Readers of Henry James may feel a particular shiver of recognition as they read this story. Like “The Turn Of The Screw”, written sixteen years later, it is the tale of two innocent children in late Victorian England who encounter a strange, attractive young woman who may be either a devil or a damned soul.She tempts them to disobedience, promising to reveal ambiguously sexual secrets, gradually leads them further and further into evil, and then disappears abruptly. It would be interesting to know whether James, when he wrote his famous ghost story, remembered his friend Lucy Clifford’s strange and haunting tale for children.Alison Lurie, Don’t Tell The Grown-ups: The power of subversive children’s literature
TV Tropes lists the story building-blocks which Gaiman makes use of in Coraline.
SETTING OF CORALINE
This is a moving house story and begins the way many ghost stories begin — a child moves into a new house where everything is scary. This is the archetypal scary mansion, broken into parts where eccentric characters share the building. You get the sense this is a labyrinthine setting, with the house several storeys high, and the well leading far, far into the ground. This makes full use of the symbolism of altitude. Coraline finds the well before she finds the little door. The well therefore functions like Chekhov’s gun. If there’s one secret place in this arena, we expect others.
See also: Symbolism Of The Dream House
This seems to be a mild English summer, with a torrential downpour more reminiscent of the tropics than of England. The rain outside, followed by the fog, gives the sense that this is a world separate from the real world, with the weather functioning as a kind of veil. We could probably say all sorts of Freudian things about that veil, too — something like ‘the rain and fog is the membrane between Freud’s conscious and unconscious states. Whatever happens inside the house is connected to the unconscious, where all sorts of weird and wacky things are allowed to come to the fore. This reading is probably a bridge too far, but this is an example of what gives Coraline its Gothic feel.
STORY STRUCTURE OF CORALINE
The day after they moved in, Coraline went exploring….
In Coraline’s family’s new flat are twenty-one windows and fourteen doors. Thirteen of the doors open and close.
The fourteenth is locked, and on the other side is only a brick wall, until the day Coraline unlocks the door to find a passage to another flat in another house just like her own.
Only it’s different.
At first, things seem marvelous in the other flat. The food is better. The toy box is filled with wind-up angels that flutter around the bedroom, books whose pictures writhe and crawl and shimmer, little dinosaur skulls that chatter their teeth. But there’s another mother, and another father, and they want Coraline to stay with them and be their little girl. They want to change her and never let her go.
Other children are trapped there as well, lost souls behind the mirrors. Coraline is their only hope of rescue. She will have to fight with all her wits and all the tools she can find if she is to save the lost children, her ordinary life, and herself.Coraline marketing copy
This story is an example of how an adult response might be different from a child’s response.
I see Coraline’s biggest shortcoming as her inability to amuse herself while her parents are busy working. Sure, kids do need attention and quite a lot of it, but kids also need to learn how to read a damn book if their work-from-home parents are on deadline. I doubt the child reader sees both sides. I expect the typical child reader will empathise fully with Coraline’s loneliness and judge her parents harshly for dismissing her like that. We are not shown all the times when Coraline’s parents do spend time with her. I assume there are many — a child reader is only shown the time when the parents are busy.
Coraline’s biggest problem is boredom, but this is the state of mind that makes her start noticing things she wouldn’t have, had she found some way to occupy her mind. The film adaptation emphasises Coraline’s boredom, whereas the book emphasises her natural curiosity, making her less of a passive character.
At a surface level, Coraline wants fun. She wants to eat dinners that are not too fancy and not too bland. She thinks other kids have better families. These hypothetical other families are all in her head, later symbolised by The Other Parents through the portal.
Under the surface, Coraline wants company, specifically her parents’ attention. It is the end of the summer holidays and she has just moved to a new house, so she is naturally starved of company.
Coraline’s parents are her opponent. Coraline wants to spend time with them, they want (need) to spend time on their work.
The Other Parents are an example of false-ally opponents. At this point I feel this category of character should be broken into two groups:
- The audience knows right away that these false-ally opponents are false
- This fact is revealed later — a surprise to the audience as much as to the main character
In this case, the reader knows right away that the Other Parents are not on her side. They are too good to be true. The film adaptation has the benefit of visuals to underscore this point, but how does Gaiman do it in the book? Coraline’s Other Bedroom is painted in Coraline’s favourite colours, but the colours look garish somehow.
The cat is a creepy character partly because he is ambiguous in his alliances. In fact, he’s out for himself. He sometimes helps Coraline, sometimes thwarts her plans, such as by killing the rat who is helping her. Yet he does lead her to the mirror and shows her what happened to her parents.
Motivated by curiosity, and by the singing mice, Coraline keeps looking behind the tiny door. Eventually it opens up into a corridor and she goes through the portal.
When she realises her parents have left her, possibly to never come back, she goes to Miss Spink and Miss Forcilble, because isn’t that what sensible children always do, unless there’s some good reason not to tell adults? The problem with telling adults is, the adults often have the power to either fix the big problem or to provide emotional comfort, but these old theatre ladies are completely self-absorbed. They do not even hear Coraline, wrapped up entirely in their own obsessions. Gaiman made sure to establish this earlier. These characters talk past each other, as if they are living in their own world — which is interesting, because Coraline, too, is living in her own world. Glamorising the past at the expense of living in the moment is another way to avoid reality.
Coraline takes a while to work out what’s going on. She goes along with her imprisonment in The Other House, but when she has her revelation, that getting what she wants won’t lead to happiness, then she realises she needs to chase the rat, who will help release the ghost children from the mirror, along with her real parents.
Typically for a story starring a girl, the big struggle of this book takes place (literally) inside Coraline’s own mind, beginning with the sequence where the cat murders the rat. Coraline defeats the Other Mother by throwing the black cat at her. Coraline is an example of a big struggle-free myth form, using wits instead of brute strength to win.
When Coraline is given everything she ostensibly wants, she knows that this doesn’t mean much:
I don’t want whatever I want. Nobody does. Not really. What kind of fun would it be if I just got everything I ever wanted? Just like that, and it didn’t mean anything. What then?
But these things aren’t what she really wanted at all. Coraline’s under-the-conscious desire still hasn’t been met.
Chapter thirteen (the final chapter) explains that the parents never realised they had been trapped inside the snow globe. But like many horrors, this creature opponent is robotic — defeat it though you try, it only comes back. (The trope of the disembodied hand is also used The Iron Giant.) The indestructible villain is common to adult thrillers and horrors as well. Australian classic horror Dead Calm springs to mind.
The Film Adaptation Of Coraline
As much as I love the style and spookiness of the film, it is absolutely depressing to see what the screenwriters did in order to make it acceptable for the wider, ‘more universal’ audience required of high budget film productions.
Wybie is such an annoying, useless character you could equally make the case that the existence of Wybie does nothing for boys. He does nothing for girls, either:
- One major difference between the novel and the movie is Selick’s addition of Wybie Lovat to the screenplay.
- With the introduction of Wybie, all of a sudden Coraline has a rescuer. She doesn’t need to be the brave, solitary heroine. She is no longer the independently motivated, fearless adventurer Gaiman depicted her as, because she has a companion.
- The novel’s Coraline is independently motivated and curious. She does a lot of solitary exploring and doesn’t have any recognizable fears. However, in the film she is portrayed differently. It seems she simply wanders from her house out of boredom, not out of genuine curiosity. Outside she is alarmed by noises and runs down the hill, terrified, and is nearly run over by a boy on a bike. The boy looms over her. Immediately in that situation she is made to be the lesser, submissive character. The boy on the bike is Wybie. This first encounter presents Coraline as easily frightened and places Wybie in a more dominant position.
- The trend of Wybie as a figure of masculine authority continues. For example, in the movie there is an old well that part of the plot. Coraline does not discover it on her own as she does in the book, Wybie is the one to tell her about it.
In other ways, Neil Gaiman’s feminism is retained in the movie adaptation, which leads most people to conclude that the film is ultimately a feminist work:
- The main character is a girl.
- Initially, Coraline tries to enforce gender roles in her family. She wants a “perfect” family. She doesn’t like that her father is the one to do the cooking, and asks her mother why she doesn’t ever cook. (Is it really because her father’s ‘recipes’ are horrible? Either way, the man as hopeless cook is an overdone trope in its own right.) But she learns that ‘perfect’ family does not mean a mother who cooks wonderful food a la 1950s White suburban America/England. (Is the father really a hopeless cook, or is he a fantastic cook, while Coraline is simply a fussy eater? That’s up for interpretation.)
I’ll leave it to you to decide. In any case, it is great that Coraline exists in the world.
What a little girl does with her copy of Coraline, and Neil Gaiman’s response.
Pax is a middle grade novel by Sara Pennypacker about a boy and a fox who embark upon a mythic journey to reunite after Pax is abandoned in the woods. Structurally, Pax is the middle grade equivalent of Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. Though this story is classic mythical structure, there are shades of the Female Mythic Form, as the main character Peter (who happens to be male), thinks and feels his way through his journey rather than engaging in battle after swashbuckling battle.
MORE ON THE STORY STRUCTURE OF PAX
Pax was only a kit when his family was killed, and “his boy” Peter rescued him from abandonment and certain death. Now the war front approaches, and when Peter’s father enlists, Peter has to move in with his grandpa. Far worse than being forced to leave home is the fact that Pax can’t go. Peter listens to his stern father—as he usually does—and throws Pax’s favourite toy soldier into the woods. When the fox runs to retrieve it, Peter and his dad get back in the car and leave him there—alone. But before Peter makes it through even one night under his grandfather’s roof, regret and duty spur him to action; he packs for a trek to get his best friend back and sneaks into the night. This is the story of Peter, Pax, and their independent struggles to return to one another against all odds. Told from the alternating viewpoints of Peter and Pax.publisher’s advertising copy
- From the advertising copy we see there are orphan and part-orphan child(like) characters: Pax has no parents and Peter has no mother.The father is soon dispatched with, too.As it happens, Peter has no grandmother, either. Women have been removed from this story altogether, possibly because a feminine presence adds tenderness and care, whereas these characters are extremely vulnerable and must find their own family. However, Peter eventually meets a mother replacement, and Pax eventually meets the fox equivalent of a girlfriend. These female characters add to the character growth of the male characters, and a little vice versa as well.
- A mean grandfather is left as Peter’s caretaker, leaving plenty of room for Peter to go off on his own adventure.
- The toy soldier is symbolic, and features front and centre in chapter one. Toy soldiers juxtapose the innocence of childhood with the awful destruction of war. At the end of the story Peter literally throws the toy away. That’s what he thinks about war.
- The basic setting: pre-war — the author aims for universality and doesn’t name a war, though I default to WW2.
- We also learn from the advertising copy that this story is a classic example of mythic structure, about a boy going on a journey with a goal in mind, returning home (or to a new home) a changed person. (Or animal.) He will encounter a series of trials and opponents along his way, finding himself in greater and greater danger until he reaches his ultimate big struggle. Then he will have an anagnorisis.
Advertising copy stops before the middle of the book, not giving too much away. More of the structure is revealed as we read:
- In the hero’s journey, at about the midpoint the main character really doubles down on their mission (plan + desire). So when Peter overextends himself with exercises at Vola’s, this is that. “It takes a healthy adult four weeks to do what you’re trying to do in one,” Vola tells him. This is evidence of Peter’s extreme determination, almost superhuman.
- The big struggle scene features ‘mythical’ creatures, coyotes, who are not anthropomorphised at all.
- Peter’s anagnorisis is that he is actually separate from his pet fox, but because of the bond they shared in the past, they will always be together. The problems with the ending are discussed below.
My description of this story structure sounds a little dismissive, but The Hero’s Journey is a structure that has worked for 3000 years, and continues to be popular in contemporary stories for adults and children alike.
Peter comes from a town called Hampton.
The grandfather’s village is a fairytale village north of Hampton, but a highway snaking around a long range of foothills. It is surrounded by woods. All fairytale settings need woods (or forest) on the edges of civilisation. There’s also a road, and Peter will be guided by a map. Pax has been abandoned 300 miles away beside the ruins of an old rope mill, which I guess is a factory which makes ropes. An olde worlde type establishment. 300 miles is a decent distance to put between the boy and his dog — an adult reader (at least) knows from the outset that 30 miles per day is an impossible undertaking. Peter’s going to have to be resourceful and hitchhike or something, otherwise he’ll never make it.
When Is This Story Set?
Peter has access to items of the early 20th century era: He carries a jack knife, not just uses but is reliant upon maps, and food is kept in tins rather than plastic containers. He has no access to technology that might help a modern child out. Though this is about no war in particular, it should put us in mind of the Great Wars of the 20th century. The technology lines up (mostly) with this era.
Before I realised this was set in no year in particular, I tried to do a few sums: Perhaps this is a WW2 story, and the old fox was around for the first world war. No, that’s not possible. Grey foxes live longer than red foxes, but WW1 ended 1918 and WW2 started 1939. Grey foxes live a maximum of 8 years.
It becomes clearer as the story progresses that Sara Pennypacker wants to set this this story in a ‘universal’ time and place. Though to me, a non American, it feels very American, it may not feel that way to an American audience. The baseball, the (Californian) talk therapy, the American vernacular, which I occasionally even looked up. If an American audience doesn’t see how American this is, expecting it to sound universal to everyone, that would be troubling. An interview with School Library Journal shows that Pennypacker very much meant this to sound like it was set in America:
Peter and Pax’s story is set in an undefined time and place—it could be the past or modern day or the near future. It might take place in America but not necessarily. Why did you set your story against this type of backdrop?
I didn’t want to allow readers the comfort of seeing the setting as “another”: another place or another time. My goal was to have readers feel that what happens in the book could happen in their town tomorrow. Because, sadly, it could.SLJ
Which is great. I mean, Americans need to hear this particular message about war. But from this outsider’s point of view, this is definitely America.
Whereas ancient mythical journeys often feature real setting magic, the ‘magic’ Pennypacker describes is a feeling rather than a phenomenon:
Peter craned his head to see what [Vola] was making. A handle. She’d brought i a broken hoe, and she was giving it a new handle. A simple thing, and yet it struck him as almost magic. Like his crutches. Before he’d had them, he’d been helpless. Vola had nailed a couple of boards together, and now he could swing over miles of rough country, quick and sure. Magic.
However, Pennypacker does delve into some new age mind-meld stuff, in which Peter feels he can sense how much trouble Pax is in.
“Two but not two. Inseparable. So… a couple of nights ago, I was sure that Pax had eaten. I felt it. Last night, I saw the moon, and I knew Pax was seeing it right then, too.”
CHARACTERS IN PAX
The name Peter has a literary, old-fashioned quality to it e.g. from Peter and the Wolf and many other fables and fairytales throughout history. Peter is also fairly common as a name for contemporary(ish) boys, linking the old with the new.
Also, Peter is The Every Boy. He is basically a good child, exhibiting all of the qualities we hope children to have. He obeys his father, even though the father is asking him to do something terrible. Peter has no real distinguishing features, and his main shortcoming is naivety and vulnerability owing to basically being abandoned.
The book began with character—it was always going to be a sentient animal commenting on human war. In the beginning, though, Peter didn’t have his own narrative—he was merely going to be “the boy” who belonged to my main character. But I saw such richness in inviting him to tell his side that halfway through writing Pax, I opened the book up.SLJ
We are shown Peter’s caring nature from chapter one, when he shows emotion at having to send his beloved pet fox back into the wild. Though he is crying, this is a rare thing for him, showing that although he is emotional, nor is he a ‘crybaby’. He cries softly and silently, which is an acceptable way for children (and especially boys) to cry, especially in the early part of last century. I argue that Peter is a good role model for caring about others and expressing emotion, which makes this male plot structure feel more feminine once you delve into it.
Peter is also an optimist — a naive optimist — thinking that Pax will be waiting right where they left him, and also that he can walk 300 miles in a week. At the other end of the journey, Peter plans to stay in his old home alone, with no one at all to provide food for the duration of the war. This plan is Peter’s psychological shortcoming, which has an adorable flip side.
Poetic Naming Conventions
Because Peter starts with the letter P, it’s fitting that his ‘spirit animal’ also begins with P. This symbolically links the two characters. Katherine Mansfield also does that in her short story The Garden Party, in which a family is divided by personality, and the characters who are similar in name are also similar in temperament. This is one of those literary conventions which doesn’t carry over into real life, but helps us to understand the character web in a story.
Who knew that a kid and his pet should be inseparable. Suddenly the word itself seemed an accusation. He and Pax, what were they then … separable?
They weren’t, though. Sometimes, in fact, Peter Had had the strange sensation that he and Pax merged.
Like the fox, Peter is also in touch with his full range of senses, including smell. He is impacted by the smell of his horrible grandfather’s kitchen, for instance, which ‘reeks strongly of fried onions’ and which Peter ‘figured the smell would outlive his grandfather’. He also makes good use of his ears, knowing what his grandfather is up to on the other side of the closed bedroom door. He is intuitive, knowing to stay out of the grandfather’s way. In all these ways, Peter is the human version of a fox. He thinks of his anxiety like a snake, linking him further to the animal kingdom.
Peter’s motivation to find Pax is influenced by memory of a baby rabbit killed in his yard after a trap was set up. Rabbits were eating his mother’s tulips. This dead rabbit had a huge effect on him, and though the dead mother seems at first glance like the bigger ‘ghost’/’wound‘, sometimes it’s more minor things that have a greater impact. The death of the baby rabbit to save something like tulips had a huge effect on Peter. The mother’s death, too, is obviously significant in causing Peter to fear death, and especially the death of the fox. But by transferring the death scene from the mother to that baby rabbit, Pennypacker avoids hitting child readers over the head with something completely and utterly maudlin. This is transferred grieving. (For more on this see Death In Children’s Literature.)
(Even the minor characters have their own ghosts — Bristle has a dead sister, for instance, briefly mentioned, but an explanation for why she is so cautious in general.)
In the end it is Peter’s wooden crutch that saves Pax from the coyotes. What’s the symbolism there? Perhaps it’s that loving another creature is a shortcoming, but even if love is a shortcoming, it still conquers all. It was a loving act to let Pax go, taking in a creature with greater needs.
When animals feature in children’s books, the author must decide the extent of anthropomorphism. Olivia by Ian Falconer is a little girl in a pig’s body. There’s nothing pig-like about her. At the other end of the continuum you have animals who are literally just animals — donkeys eating grass in fields. Then there’s everything in between.
The huge advantage to using a canine creature as a character is the author has good reason to make heavy use of the sense of smell, in a way not usually explored by authors writing about humans (Patrick Suskind’s Perfume is a notable exception, though the heavy emphasis on smell serves to turn the human character into an animal monster.) In Pax, Sara Pennypacker does an excellent job of describing scent, in a synesthesic kind of way, melding scent with emotions and sights and sounds.
We learn in the first chapter that Pax’s main characteristic is ‘loyal’. This is basically a Boy and His Dog story, even though the dog is actually a fox. Foxes are wild creatures and tend to fear humans, but there are examples of some foxes bonding to humans. If they do bond, they tend to bond to human singular rather than to humans in general, which marks them as different from fully domesticated dogs, who will bond to humans in general so long as they’re properly socialised. Knowing this, it’s clear from the first chapter that Pax has bonded to Peter better than he bonded to the father. This explains why it is easier for the father to let the fox go.
Pax doesn’t talk in words, but he thinks in words. His emotions are every bit as complex as Peter’s emotions. Because Pax is abandoned in the first chapter, the reader immediately feels strong empathy for him. Because Pax doesn’t understand the world, Pennypacker describes objects rather than giving them words. This achieves two things: Pax’s naive voice, and allows the reader to work out a small puzzle What is the blue triangle? A bird. What is the long pole? A rifle (maybe). This puts the reader in reader superior position — a form of dramatic irony. When the reader knows there’s a boy with a rifle we are scared for Pax even though Pax isn’t yet scared for himself.
Pax is (almost literally) an ‘underdog‘. If only he’d been an actual dog, like Peter’s father’s beloved childhood Border Collie, then he’d be allowed to stay with his boy.
It emerges during Peter’s discussion with Vola that Pax as an ironic, symbolic name — Pax means peace (in Latin), yet this is a time of war.
The father is not a nasty character, especially when juxtaposed against his own father, who is more of a fairytale villain who emotionally, if not literally, locks his grandson inside his bedroom and provides zero emotional warmth. The father actually does what any reasonable father would do — with good intentions, he wants to return the fox to the wild, where he belongs. This in itself isn’t a terrible thing to do — modern thinking has it that wild creatures do belong in the wild. But Sara Pennypacker has picked a good moral dilemma — once a wild creature has been tamed, should we then return it to the wild, or are we obliged to keep looking after it?
This is a useful trick for writing parents in children’s literature. Quite often, parents are not ill-intentioned, but they are the opponent nonetheless, because their practical-mindedness abuts the emotional choices of the child character. When the moral dilemma genuinely has two sides to it, like this does, it’s all the more interesting.
Peter isn’t close to his father.
Besides, it wasn’t his father he was missing.
This reminds me of a Leonard Cohen line “like your father or your dog just died“, equating the bond a man can have with a dog on a par with that of his father.
For more on Fathers in Children’s Books, see this post.
Characters Met Along The Journey
Meanwhile, Pax comes across a vixen who eyes him suspiciously. Pennypacker (ostensibly Pax) soon gives her a name — Bristle — descriptive of both her hair and her approach to him. Is this a bicker-bicker-kiss-kiss romantic subplot? I wonder this because Bristle is described as ‘bright-furred’ and ‘exotic’, the animal equivalent of commentary on a woman’s sexual appeal. She lets him stay the night, but only one night. In the morning there is a post-coital scene (MG literary animal equivalent thereof) when Pax squirms ‘in pleasure at the solid, warm weight of another’s body nestled against his’. It is therefore funny when Pax wakes up more fully and realises he’s nestled up with the vixen’s brother. ‘Pax pulled himself up sharply’. He was obviously expecting the female fox.
Then her runty brother appears, contrasting in playfulness with her ice-queen demeanour. The Female Maturity Principle kicks in as Bristle cautions Runt on the correct way of behaving around strangers.
Bristle eventually becomes Pax’s mentor, showing him how to hunt. She mirrors the character of Vola in Peter’s journey. Except this one has a romantic component — cheek to cheek they groom each other. I might interpret this as friendship, except you’d never get two male characters sitting like this in a children’s book.
Locals Suspicious Of This Outsider
The setting is peopled with thumbnail characters who exist to show Peter how much of an outsider he is.
First, Peter meets a shop owner who is suspicious of him for not being in school. A woman stares at him and he realises how unkempt he looks.
Later, Peter gazes through a fence (Jon Klassen’s addition) at a boy playing baseball, which brings back all sorts of memories. Peter has visited a therapist, which surprises me a little because I didn’t know the history of therapy was that long in America. Where I come from (New Zealand) therapy was (unfortunately) unknown during the war era. Pennypacker does what a lot of writers do when depicting therapists — apparently this therapist always has the stock standard response. Is this because writers don’t actually know what therapists would say in any given situation? Or is this how it feels to everyone visiting a therapist? That you’re being nodded at? I can’t answer that, but I’m reminded of the recent Liane Moriarty novel/limited TV series Big Little Lies, in which therapists said, “Finally! A realistic fictional depiction of therapy!”
In any case, Peter has a short interaction with a hostile boy who doesn’t like this outsider.
Pax meets an older male fox whose territory he has inadvertently entered. For all her outward hostility, Bristle has warned Pax about him. Pax calls him Grey. But it turns out this old grey wolf isn’t scary for Pax. (Disturbingly, and off the page, why is Grey scary for Bristle?) Grey turns out to be a false opponent. There’s almost some magical realism — it turns out the crows give messages to this old grey wolf. This is how the author lets us know that war is coming in from the west. This old fox spouts environmentalist messages about the destruction of humankind. It’s mostly an anti-war message.
Peter is confronted by a woman whose barn he is sleeping in. More realistically (not narratively) an adult is far more likely to be kind to a vagrant child they find sleeping in their barn, but this is a mythical journey. This kind of hostile woman plays right into a child’s fears that if they were to go out into the world, every single adult they meet would be the worst examples of human kind. At first meeting, Vola has an inhuman, monstrous quality to her, partly evoked by the wooden leg. However, she does turn into a false opponent-ally, much as the fox has just met. The journeys mirror each other. She helps him with his foot — she happens to have medical knowledge. Like the old grey wolf, this woman has a message about how terrible it is, drafting young people into wars. There are even crows in this scene as there were in Pax’s — their journeys mirror each other’s exactly. Later, Vola turns into a fairy tale witch, offering Peter the tonic with willow bark to act as aspirin. The ‘green paste’ reminds us of witches, too, which is a trope that started with the film adaptation of The Wizard Of Oz. (Before that, they were usually red or orange.)
Eventually, though, Vola is ultimately Peter’s mentor. In a traditional mythic tale, this mentor character is male. Vola is female but apart from plying him with constant food, Vola has masculine traits — her tough attitude, her tool shed. She is a Mr Miyagi character, setting Peter a series of challenges (conditions for staying) to help him grow both spiritually and in skill. Pennypacker isn’t the least subtle about this function for Vola:
“I would have been a good teacher.”
She was right about that. He thought about hwo easily she suggested techniques in his drills without making a bit deal of anything. How she had him watch while she carved, then let him figure out things for himself. How she asked him questions about everything and didn’t answer for him.
In the initial scene with Vola, Pennypacker shows us an interesting trick MG writers do to first amp up the danger of a situation, then defuse it completely. Peter has thought that Vola might kill him. But then Vola explains that the bladed tools are for wood carving. Vola even lampshades the biases the reader shares along with Peter (since we’re seeing her through Peter’s close third person point of view). There needs to be a name for this — kind of like Chekhov’s gun but a gun which turns out to be a toy gun. Let’s call it Chekhov’s Toy Gun.
In narrative it is dangerous to be a hero’s best friend/sidekick. Grey gets attacked in place of Pax, which would be too hard for readers to bear (tragedy layered upon tragedy) and would also break an unwritten rule of mythic storytelling. The hero doesn’t die at the midpoint of the story. Not normally. When G.R.R. Martin wrote The Red Wedding, he shocked the audience because he was breaking some established norms.
Next Runt dies. These deaths signify just how close to death Pax is himself. At this point I am starting to predict the ending: Clues point to a reuniting at the end, but I’m guessing Pax will be injured. That would symbolise how they’ve both been damaged by this experience and will never be the same again.
I was so lost, I needed to find out all the true things about myself. The little things to the biggest of all: what did I believe in at my core?Vola
Pennypacker uses the wisdom of children to even up this relationship a little. Vola doesn’t just teach Peter about resilience — Peter challenges Vola for failing to reintegrate into society after coming back from a harrowing war in which she killed a man (Vola’s big ghost). This is a scene you’ll see in Hollywood movies too: the part where friends have an argument in front of the audience, to let the audience in on each of their motivations.
Vola eventually explains that she is part Haitian, part Italian (though if you’d looked up her favourite curse word already you’ve already worked that one out). Her name Vola is Italian for ‘fly’. The trope of comparing women to birds has a long history in literature, though the adult Vola is somewhat unbirdlike — strong and grounded and therefore an ironic moniker. She also doesn’t know how to ‘fly’ — stuck in her cabin with PTSD. For more on the symbolism of flight in literature, see here.
When they get to town, Pennypacker is very obvious about what their outing means for Vola’s character development:
[Peter] looked behind him at the four crude pine creates the marionettes were packed in, strapped to the back. Peter hoped they didn’t remind Vola of coffins. Her amazing puppets were going to live now. Really live, out in the real world, not just exist to perform as some kind of penance.
This is Pennypacker talking about Vola, using her puppets as proxy.
The coyotes are the mythical monster, not at all anthropomorphised — the evil that descends upon a village threatening friend and foe alike. The coyotes are used for the big big struggle scene in which Peter reunites with Pax.
Other Obstacles Met Along The Journey
Opponents aren’t always human — in a mythical journey a lot of them will be environmental and plain bad luck.
- The fact that Peter forgot to pack a torch and can’t see in the dark
- Blisters on his heels
- Stepping in cold swamp water because he doesn’t want to risk turning on the torch (an obstacle also used by R.L. Stine in How I Got My Shrunken Head)
- A broken bone in his foot
- a thunderstorm (this is beautifully written)
- lack of drinking water
- lack of food
- war — the road where he needs to wait has been blocked by war vehicles
IDEOLOGY OF PAX
In Love, Two Characters Become One
The bond between a boy and his canine pet cannot be broken, under any circumstance. A boy’s dog/fox is like the flipside of himself — like a spirit animal — and this bond can be so strong that they are basically the same being. Pennypacker emphasises this time and again, with a near-magical telepathy between Peter and Pax. When Peter confides this telepathy to Vola she doesn’t laugh at him — she congratulates him, telling him how lucky he is. So one message in this story is that if you love someone a real lot, you meld into the same creature. That is true love. This makes Pax a love story, not much different from love stories for adults between two humans.
(Note that love is different from romance.)
War Is Terrible
This runs throughout the book and is not at all novel as an idea in literature. It is the only idea about war running through modern Western literature.
You’re In Charge Of Your Own Destiny
Pennypacker makes use of the symbolism of miniatures with the scenes about the marionette and other puppetry. This is using Peter as god, putting him in charge of his own destiny, which is the reason Vola made him do this task in the first place — he needs to learn to ‘take control of his own life’ rather than letting things happen to him.
Each Person Has A True Self
And it’s just a matter of finding it. This juxtaposes against another psychological theory in which humans are a product of their environment and rather than there being ‘one true self’, there are multiple versions of the self. We change according to circumstance, and we change a lot more over the course of our lifetimes than we realise, moulded by our particular circumstances. This latter view is the more popular in modern psychology, but literary, classic-sounding children’s books such as this one are more inclined to stick with the older view.
Take a look at any Goosebumps novel and you’ll see each chapter ends in an obvious cliffhanger. In a literary novel like this one, the cliffhangers are not so obvious but they’re there all the same, making the reader anxious for the characters’ safety. For instance, Chapter 31 ends with the non-climactic sounding ‘He turned back for the clearing’. But the reader knows that Pax is in danger of being shot even though Pax doesn’t realise this himself. The cliffhanger is there but more subtle. And it requires a little work on the part of the reader.
I was slightly wrong about the ending — Pax himself is physically well — it’s his replacement, Bristle, who has the big bleeding gash and the missing leg.
Which leads to another ideological concern, as explained by this Goodreads reviewer:
[I WANTED PETER TO GET HIS FREAKING FOX BACK. But no. He decides Pax is better off in the wild and instead Peter takes home Runt to care for him since Runt got his back legs blown off. But I. am. so. mad. It’s like saying that a bond between pet-and-human is replaceable. WHEN IT’S NOT. I would lose a piece of my soul if my precious pup died or got lost or just wasn’t there for me anymore. So all I can think of is losing my dog as Peter lost Pax for the 2nd time at the end of the book. AND IT’S NOT OKAY. It wasn’t one of those “bittersweet” endings. It downright BROKE ME and I’m not okay. Sure Pax didn’t die (small miracles) but he kind of died in my heart and I don’t I don’t I don’t like this. I FEEL LIKE CRYING.Paper Fury
There are many picture books in which a dog dies and the story ends with a kid getting a new one. These are not considered the best of the best of the Dead Dog books. I’m not sure why the same ending is so well accepted in this case. Perhaps because Pennypacker isn’t obvious about what happened. At first I wondered which dog was which. Or perhaps we accept this story because in general it’s very well written.
Here’s Sara Pennypacker talking to School Library Journal about writing the ending. As in many children’s books, mirroring the end with the beginning affords readers a sense of closure. Bear in mind, there are two types of closure.
It does something else, too — it gives some circularity to what is otherwise a very linear story. This boy is going to bond with this other animal and the cycle will continue, over and over, throughout the ages.
The ending was set early on. I was walking in the woods, and it just came to me in a bolt: the ending image needed to be the same as the image that set the plot in motion—although it would have a completely different meaning for both Pax and Peter the second time and would show how each character had grown.SLJ
But because Pax has Bristle, this is a happy ending love story for Pax.
If I’d read this back in the 1990s I wouldn’t have even know the word ‘microcephaly’ but the world has since had an outbreak of Zika, so the humour of the pile of shrunken heads feels a little closer to reality than it did back then, even though microcephaly was first identified in humans in 1952. This is a story that plays with mismatched size. It’s basically a Skull Island story. This describes the fictional island that appeared in King Kong. It’s also a Jurassic Park story, in which the main character/s go to an island where everything is a completely different scale. Actually, let’s go right back and call this a Gulliver’s Travels trope, or further back again, starting with The Odyssey as ur-story.
TV Tropes call this trope Isle of Giant Horrors.
STORY STRUCTURE OF HOW I GOT MY SHRUNKEN HEAD
Stine has said that once he gets his outline done, it takes 8 days to write a Goosebumps book. You don’t pump them out at that speed by mucking around with theme and symbolism and setting the scene. Nope, these books are all about plot.
At the start of the story the main character, Mark, is insulated in his safe and happy home. The closest he has come to adventure in the jungle is playing a computer game. But all that is about to change, because his true worth as a saviour is about to be challenged.
Since this is a chosen one story, all this boy wants at the beginning of his adventure is to live a nice life in the suburbs, playing computer games with his friends. But the arrival of Aunt Benna’s evil workmate changes all of that, because he is whisked away to a jungle on an island where he must save the day. Once he reads his aunt’s diary and realises the gravity of the situation, he doubles down on his desire to save his aunt and the surrounding environment.
When Aunt Benna’s workmate Carolyn shows up at the door holding a shrunken head as a gift, we all know this woman is trouble. (All except the boy’s mother, of course, because mothers are bound by society’s rules to be polite and also oblivious.)
As in Welcome To Camp Nightmare, this web of opponents comprises:
- Benign human conflict (with Mark’s younger sister who is a nuisance)
- Dangerous human conflict with an adult (Carolyn, who basically kidnaps him)
- Monsters in the new environs (first we have the oversized rabbit, then the ants the size of grasshoppers etc.)
- The natural environment (e.g. the jungle, the quick sand)
There is also a fake-ally opponent in Kareen.
Mark realises his made-up magic word works. He call yell “Kah-lee-ah!” and this has an effect on the massive ants. Unfortunately for him, the magic word doesn’t work for everything. (That’s a writing rule — writers can’t rely upon magic to get their main characters out of trouble because that would be boring.)
Mark is still a chosen one, though, so we know there will be a series of things that will help him. Next he manages to get the shrunken head to get him out of the vines which have tightened around his body.
Once captured, the aunt turns out to be pretty useless even though she’s an adult and a well-known scientist, so it’s up to her young nephew to cooperate with her and save them both.
Dr Hawlings carries a ‘large silvery pistol’ in this story as well — will this turn out to be a real gun, with bullets? Actually, Stine only uses the gun as a scare tactic — the real threat is having their heads shrunken in a big vat of boiling water. The rule of Chekhov’s gun doesn’t apply in this case.
Mark learns to be a bit more grateful for his annoying younger sister when the scratch she put on his magical shrunken head turns out to help him find it from a massive pile of shrunken heads.
The aunt takes the magical powers away from the boy but this turns into a ‘never-ending story’ when he realises the little head he took home as a souvenir can talk. So now he’s stuck with a talking head and the reader can imagine a subsequent adventure about that.