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’.
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?