Welcome To Camp Nightmare Storytelling Study

Goosebumps book Welcome To Camp Nightmare

R.L. Stine has written a huge number of horror books for middle grade and young adult readers. I was a bit old for them when they first came out, though I recollect reading one or two. Now I’ll read some of his works to see how, exactly, Stine took the horror genre and bowdlerized it into something adults would happily buy for their kids, when many of the same gatekeepers wouldn’t let them watch an actual horror movie.

The Goosebumps books are about 23,000 words long, which is only slightly longer than your average Wimpy Kid novel. Goosebumps books are not illustrated, making the books much slimmer (and quicker to pump out). This is broken into 22 chapters, so that averages about 1000 words a chapter.

Reading them as an adult, these aren’t straight horrors. It’s so easy when writing horror to inadvertently tip into comedy territory that you’re actually safer to just write horror comedy. While these books may be genuinely scary for kids (I guess?) they read as horror comedy for an adult. They’re not laugh-a-minute or anywhere near it, but anyone who has seen a lot of horror will recognise the tropes to the point where the whole story feels like a genre parody. Stine has said, “I was very disappointed with The Girl on the Train. I thought it was humorless,” which conveys something of his attitude toward non-comedy genre fiction needing a bit of comedy regardless. (I feel the same way about The Girl On The Train.)

Welcome To Camp Nightmare is Classic Goosebumps #14. It is also part of the Campfire and Fright Light collections. My daughter is about to go on her first ever school camp, so I thought this was a good one to start with.

Voice in Welcome To Camp Nightmare

There’s nothing embellished about this voice. The writing isn’t good (though perhaps a little better than Christopher Pike). Stine does things in his Goosebumps stories that anyone who’s attended any kind of writing class will have been warned against.

The narrator is a first person 12-year-old boy recounting his story to an unseen audience. Some people hate first person for the following reason: At times he steps out and describes himself speaking in a ‘shrill’ voice, or something like that, suggesting that actually third person would probably have been better. (A ‘shrill’ voice is one of Stine’s pet adjectives, at least in this book.) On the other hand, it’s easier to achieve an original voice writing in first person. This voice reminds me of many books I was reading as a kid — Paul Jennings uses a very similar voice — that of the generic 12-year-old white boy, slightly baffled by people around him and also by the crazy world he’s stepped into — an ordinary kid in extraordinary circumstances.

The similes aren’t all that amazing: ‘His eyes were as calm and cold as marbles.’ There’s no particular metaphorical significance to these similes, which you’d expect from more literary fiction. It’s all about surface-level similarities.

The sky is ‘charcoal grey’, birds chirp in the trees, and readers don’t get hung up on the beauty of any descriptions, because there is none.

Thoughts are often italicised, which adds to the melodrama. This technique has fallen out of fashion lately but works perfectly well for Stine.

Stine doesn’t shy away from rhetorical questions to telegraph a scary bit, either.

I mention these things to prove a point — though writers are told not to do them, we can also utilise them to our benefit. Those rhetorical questions telegraph scary bits which actually makes them less scary when they do come. This achieves the optimum level of scariness. Writing rules sometimes assume the writer has only one goal in mind (e.g. to make something MORE scary), and don’t take into account that sometimes a writer might want to pull back on the emotional impact.

Diversity

In 2017, lack of diversity sticks out, finally. The boys in this book have ordinary white boy names like  Jay and Colin and Roger — names which even in the early 1990s sounded old-fashioned. The girls are Dawn and Dori.

Published in 1992, these kids are 12 years old, which makes them my contemporaries. I should recognise this culture, and I do. I recognise the four girls almost cowering at the front of the bus, as the boys completely dominate the space with their loudness and exuberance. I’m immediately disappointed that this is yet another story where boys completely outnumber the girls. Perhaps there will be a reason for this in the plot? This is a very male perspective — as female reader I’m reminded of how just a few girls in a space attracts boys’ attention and leads to show-off behaviour. I suspect this is something boy readers really relate to, even now.

The girls are written in typical 1990s style. In other words, they’re not the pathetic crybabies of the 1950s, but they’re still written in a very male gazey way. When the two girls daringly and dangerously swim across the lake to tell the boys girls have been going missing, we’re told one of them is wearing a ‘blue, one piece bathing suit’ and that she has damp, blonde hair hanging onto her shoulders. For the boys we are never told what they are wearing. Why are young readers told that the girl is wearing a ‘one piece’ bathing suit? Well, ‘one piece’ sounds more wholesome than ‘bikini’ (more common attire for the pretty female victim in an adult horror film), but  in fact mentioning it at all makes it gazey.  In short, Stine retains some of the stereotypical, woman as victim tropes found throughout adult horror.

Lampshading of Parental Absence

A storytelling challenge for Stine is getting adults out of the way so that the kids can be legitimately scared and make their own way out of trouble. Even in horror stories for adults, writers will often surround the main character with apathetic/useless/evil/disbelieving police officers and officials, who might otherwise be able to help. In a supernatural story this feels quite natural, because why would a police officer believe someone ranting and raving about monsters? This is writers breaking the fourth wall… sort of.

The bus driver wears a prank mask, and when he rips it off it seems like a joke, but then his face changes suddenly and we realise he’s ‘two-faced’ and isn’t the caring adult we might expect from a bus driver hauling kids to camp, so he’s no use. Next we have Larry, the man who is meant to be looking after them at camp. He is equally uncaring — a guy mechanically doing his job. Uncle Al is just as bad. The boys learn there’s no nurse and no infirmary — if they get hurt they’re on their own. We have the trope of the terrible, terrible camp, where kids have to write home to tell their parents what fun they’re having when in fact they’re held captive and terrified.

When people start disappearing, our first person narrator (Billy) gets desperate and he considers calling his parents. If Stine doesn’t lampshade this option, it’ll stick out to young readers who would surely involve caring adults at this point:

I was so eager to hear my parents’ voices, so eager to tell them the strange things that were happening here.

Would they believe me?

Of course they would. My parents always believed me. Because they trusted me.

But when  he gets to the pay phone it’s not a real phone — just a prop. Here at Camp Nightmare, nothing is what it seems. Also, that takes care of the parent problem. A few chapters later the boys find a mailbag of unposted letters. So they can’t even write home.  Finally, visitors day is cancelled. Many boys have been going missing by this point, so Billy’s last option for parental involvement is scuppered.

The huge benefit to storytelling in 1992 was that people didn’t have mobile phones. The existence of technology would completely ruin this plot in 2017, unless they were so far out in the wilderness that there was no reception. Once that ‘no reception’ problem is solved everywhere on Earth, writers will have to come up with something more inventive.

Billy ends up saving Larry’s life in the river by dragging him to the bank.

Tropes In Welcome To Camp Nightmare

Stine has probably used every horror trope several times over by now. He’s even said of Stephen King’s work that some of King’s ideas were so good he just had to steal them — sometimes five times over. The greatest form of flattery? I’m sure King wouldn’t mind — R. L. Stine is creating an entirely new generation of Stephen King readers.

In this particular story, one of the boys goes missing and the camp adults say he never existed at all. This gaslighting trope is also used in stories like Flightplan, starring Jody Foster, in which flight crew try to persuade her there never was a daughter to begin with. The removal of all traces of someone’s existence is called damnatio memoriae (Condemnation of Memory). Apparently the Romans and Greeks used to consider erasing a person from all records a fate worse than death. (I think we should go back to this when reporting (or rather, not reporting) on mass murderers.)

Sure enough, boys keep disappearing. They’re being picked off one by one. This is the Dwindling Party trope.

The ending is what’s sometimes known among writers as Jar Of Tang.

“For you see, we are all living in a jar of Tang!” or “For you see, I am a dog!” Mainstay of the old Twilight Zone TV show. An entire pointless story contrived so the author can cry “Fooled you!” This is a classic case of the difference between a conceit and an idea. “What if we all lived in a jar of Tang?” is an example of the former; “What if the revolutionaries from the sixties had been allowed to set up their own society?” is an example of the latter. Good SF requires ideas, not [bad] conceits.

Critters.org

Then again, plenty of people love Twilight Zone and don’t mind the Jar of Tang endings.

Cliffhangers

Melodrama? No problem! Here’s how Stine ends a chapter:

As we goggled in silent horror, the driver tilted back his monstrous head and uttered an animal roar.

Very close. And getting closer.

I can’t get away.

I was halfway up the ladder when I heard Mike scream.

Larry tossed back his head and started to laugh. “Nurse?” he cried, laughing hard. “What nurse!?”

“Those cries,” he whispered. “They’re coming from… the Forbidden Bunk!”

“Leave me a note with your address so I’ll know where to send your stuff.” (This made me laugh out loud.)

How was I to know that the horrors were just beginning?

Walking backward in front of us, Jay locked his eyes on mine. “How about you, Billy? You coming?”

“Here it comes!” he shrieked. “Now it’s coming after us!”

“Here it comes! It’s coming through the window!”

Not a first name or a middle name. No Roger. No Roger at all. (A possible reversal — the damnatio memoriae trope.)

But my attacker quickly clamped a hand over my mouth to silence me.

My heart thudding, my head spinning in bitter disappointment, I turned away from the wall — and bumped right into Uncle Al.

What is going on here? I wondered. What is going on?

Visitors Day has been canceled!

I…plunged into the  murky swirling waters to save him.

I had no way of knowing that the scariest part of my summer was yet to come.

To my horror, Uncle Al was staring directly at me. And he was holding a rifle in his hands.

“They won’t get away from us!”

I took a step backward with the rifle aimed at Uncle Al — and pulled the trigger.

Violence

Is it okay in a MG novel for an adult to tell a child to shoot other children with a rifle? Well, for a few sentences it appears this is the case, but Stine reins it in a bit and it turns out the rifles shoot tranquilliser darts. Then, when Billy shoots Uncle Al, it turns out the gun doesn’t shoot — the whole thing has been set up as a test of strength and violence, and Billy has passed.

Despite the fact that in real life Billy would be left with PTSD, it turns out this whole thing has been a government testing lab.

Story Structure Of Welcome To Camp Nightmare

SHORTCOMING

Billy is imprisoned at a dangerous camp where boys are being picked off one by one.

DESIRE

Billy wants to go home as soon as possible.

OPPONENT

This story follows the formula of ‘nearby opponents’ as well as ‘outside, monster opponents’. The adults running the camp are apathetic at best, murderers at worst. But there are also non-human monsters just outside the camp, waiting to pounce. This combination of human/monster opposition is seen in many popular series. Courage the Cowardly Dog utilises it, as does Spongebob Squarepants.

PLAN

Right up until p105 (08t of 136), Billy is still hoping his parents will come to save him, marking this out as firmly middle grade fiction. It is only when visitors’ day is cancelled that he realises he must rely on himself.

BIG STRUGGLE

The big struggle scene takes place on a choppy river with swirling water and tall rocks on either side. (See more on river symbolism here.) A storm is brewing and of course they encounter rapids. Horror fans will know there’s going to be a storm at exactly the right moment because Billy awoke to a grey, overcast morning with the air heavy and cold. Larry the instructor has thrown them in the deep end, so to speak — it’s as if he’s trying to kill them by making them canoe down these rapids. Then the boys seem to enter a portal:

We rowed past tangles of yellow- and grey- trunked trees. The river suddenly divided in two, and we shifted our paddles to take the left branch.

Crossroads (or forked roads/rivers) are also symbolic. They very often symbolise an important decision, and on a river (which flows in one direction) there is absolutely no turning back.

ANAGNORISIS

There are two reversals in the final chapter — comically over the top. First, Billy learns he has passed three tests and that he’s brave and moral. The audience has it revealed that this story hasn’t taken place on Earth at all and, like Billy, we learn that the stakes were actually pretty low.

C.S. Lewis famously said that “a children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” I respectfully disagree. It seems to me that the children’s books that struck me the most as a kid were precisely those I don’t get as an adult.

On The Hidden Wisdom Of Goosebump Books

NEW SITUATION

Billy will be accompanying his scientist parents on a trip to Earth. This turns the story into a never-ending, circular structure, similar to many picture books.

A Long Way From Chicago By Richard Peck

A Long Way From Chicago by Richard Peck is a Newbery Honor book from 1998, set in the era of The Great Depression. An adult narrator looks back and remembers his wily trickster grandmother. This book is one of the most moving and well-written children’s books I’ve read, at once comical and resonant.

THE COVER OF A LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO

A Long Way From Chicago

On all the various covers of A Long Way From Chicago the image of Joey in the plane features strongly. In one of the chapters Grandma finagles Joey a ride on a plane at the country fair but the plane ride itself is very much secondary to the chapter, in which we and the child characters learn the extent of Grandma’s cunning — as well as how tricks can somehow backfire.

So what’s with the centrality of the plane illustration?

Rumours are things with wings, too.

A Long Way From Chicago, p 118

Later in the story, a few years after Joey has ridden in that plane at the circus, Grandma shows him the power of rumour and gossip. It can be used for good, or it can be used for evil. Most often, it’s somewhere in the middle.

The car Joey loves to drive, not coincidentally, is called a ‘terraplane’ (a vehicle that ‘flies’ across terrain). The terraplane was a type of automobile produced by the Hudson Motor Company, previously called Essex. This particular type of car was designed to be more affordable, for families.

The Terraplane automobile A Long Way From Chicago
The Terraplane automobile

The Terraplane and I were becoming as one.

Historically literate readers will be keenly aware that Joey will come of age just as WW2 breaks out. I read this story without really acknowledging that fact, but in the final chapter we realise it is so, and of course he wants to fly planes. The experiences of his childhood summers with Grandma have lead to his wish to be a fighter pilot.

For more see The Symbolism Of Flight In Children’s Literature.

NARRATION AND TRUTH

The boy narrator is Joey Dowdel, a first person storyteller. His sister is Mary Alice Dowdel, two years younger. 

Because there is a full year elapsing between each story, the children change a lot. While each summer with Grandma teaches Joe something elemental about life, a lot of the change happens off the page, in the way that kids of that age change a lot year by year, regardless of what they’re doing.

The ageing of the children is the thread propelling the story forward in a linear direction. This line gives shape to the separate incidents taking place each summer. Without this narrative thrust the incidents would suffer the same problem as any journey story — the various characters and incidents would seem disconnected and the story as a whole would seem scattered.

Is this a coming-of-age story, then? Yes, but only insofar as any story about kids this age is a coming-of-age story. But this story isn’t about Joey and it’s not much about Mary Alice, either. Like The Great Gatsby, this is a bystander narrator entering a community and the star of this story is the grandmother he spends summers with. Eventually, the grandchildren learn all the tricks of their grandmother, picking people’s shortcomings to do what they feel is good in the community.

Truth is a popular topic when it comes to middle grade literature, and the same applies here. When you were little you were told to never lie. But now you’re in middle childhood you’re starting to realise that good people lie for good reasons. Look and learn. That’s what’s happening in this book.

The choice of narration is an excellent vehicle for this kind of theme:

“Are all my memories true? Every word, and growing truer with the years.”

This is a twisted spin on unreliable narration — Joey is old enough now to have a deeper understanding of the things he experienced as a child. Whereas we might expect old Joe’s memory for exact details to have faded somewhat, we are to trust his general interpretation of events, and the wisdom he brings to this long-ago story.

“We knew kids lie all the time, but Grandma was no kid, and she could tell some whoppers. Of course the reporter had been lied to big time up at the cafe, but Grandma’s lies were more interesting, even historical. […] What little we knew about grown-ups didn’t seem to cover Grandma.”

“[The ghost — actually cat — in the coffin] was a story that grew in the telling in one of those little towns where there’s always time to ponder all the different kinds of truth.”

STORYWORLD OF A LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO

When these scenes take place it is always August — the hottest time of the year.

That first summer it is 1929.

THE WIDER WORLD

This is the America of:

  • Al Capone, Bugs Moran
  • The St Valentine’s Massacre
  • Prohibition — alcohol is banned, which achieves little but serve to make bootleggers rich.
  • Joey and Mary Alice’s family in Chicago has no car telling us they don’t need one due to living in a city but also that they’re from an ordinary middle class family.  By 1931 the Great Depression hasn’t yet ‘bottomed out’ but is heading that way.

THE COUNTRY/CITY DIVIDE

In Chicago there are characters such as the real life John Dillinger, who robbed banks with two female accomplices. Richard Peck makes reference to these in part to contrast Chicago with this small town.

John Dilinger as mentioned in A Long Way From Chicago

Once in the country, Joey is the ingenue narrator, describing the town as an outsider. (This is a useful trick because readers are also outsiders.) Joey tells us that back then, Chicago has an ‘evil’ reputation.

  • Prairie chickens can still be seen waddling about
  • Horses are still common in the rural towns, though the rich family in town drives a Hupmobile.  
  • Fireworks — baby-wakers, torpedoes, bigger one is called a Cherry bomb
  • Snowball bushes grow in Grandma’s yard, which later come in handy for breaking a fall. I doubt they’re all that soft to land on, but they certainly have that image.
  • Grandmother lives in a small town ‘the railway tracks cut in two’. We know how sleepy and unexciting it is because we are told that people stand out under their verandahs to see the train pass by. This town is somewhere between Chicago and St. Louis.
  • “The Coffee Pot was where people went to loaf, talk tall, and swap gossip.” Story arenas need some local meeting place for the community. Gilmore girls also has a coffee house, as does Twin Peaks, Friends, 13 Reasons Why and many other stories about a community of people. Especially cosy stories. 
  • There is a local Holy Rollers church — ragtime and tambourines in the church at night. A Holy Rollers church refers colloquially to Christian churches of the Pentecostal or Holiness type — the kind where there is a lot of singing, standing up, moving about and falling down. It can be used derisively but has also been reclaimed by members of these churches themselves. There’s also the more staid United Brethen Church, where they have the rummage sale.
CHARACTERS IN THIS STORYWORLD

Fictional small towns where nothing much usually happens almost always have a town gossip. Effie Wilcox is the town gossip in A Long Way From Chicago, “whose tongue is attached at the middle and flaps at both ends.” Cosy mysteries need town gossips because the (usually old ladies) who solve the mysteries don’t have easy ins at the local police station (though they’re often related somehow to a copper.) Likewise, kids benefit hugely from a town gossip — being kids, their main insight into the adult world comes from hearing adults talk. A variety of mysteries happen in each of these chapters and I initially expected Effie Wilcox to feature more prominently, but as it happens, Grandma herself somehow has her own ear to the ground.

Wolf Hollow also has a town gossip, as does Anne of Green Gables, in Rachel Lynde.

Also like Anne of Green Gables, A Long Way From Chicago features  a mouse in the food (milk, though planted). This must have been a reasonably common occurrence in rural areas before fridges and modern housing. The grandmother is a trickster archetype — a common character archetype beloved by audiences. She’s getting up to tricks like a character out of a Roald Dahl novel, putting the mouse in the milk. I’m reminded of The Twits.

FOOD

They eat things like green beans and fatback for dinner followed by layer cake. For breakfast: pancakes and corn syrup, fried ham and potatoes and onions. See also: The Evolution Of Fictional Breakfasts.

Nehi is a type of orange pop sold for a nickel a bottle. There are also grapettes, Dr Peppers. 

nehi orange soda

Lack of refrigeration affects what they can eat. Food is home cooked and homegrown, especially at Grandma’s house, as she abhors spending money.

ENTERTAINMENT
  • Mary Alice is reading The Hidden Staircase by Carolyn Keene (a Nancy Drew mystery novel). The Nancy Drew stories are themselves mysteries, and Mary Alice’s interest in helping people out may have influenced her decision to harbour a runaway.
  • Tom Mix movies — an American actor well-known for his cowboy movies. Westerns were popular at this time — it wasn’t until after the world wars that Westerns turned into anti-Westerns.
  • Skipping ropes, skipping chants about presidents, puzzles of famous people. 
  • Tap dancing is popular with girls due to Shirley Temple.
DIALECT

Some of it is regional, some owing to the era.

  • Working like bird dogs
  • You’uns instead of y’all.
  • Throwed instead of thrown
  • Lit running means ‘started running’
  • Chilrun
  • Pecks of potatoes
  • Dagnab it
  • Stir yer stumps
  • ‘Specialty house’ equals a privy equals an outside toilet
  • Skin to the church and get their maw and paw.
  • One of the characters is called ‘Miz’, which at first looks like an unnecessary call to attention of the woman’s unmarriageability, but it’s no such thing — at that time in that part of America women were called ‘Miz’ So-and-so, and it was simply a respectful generic used traditionally. This applied to the American South and places like St Louis.

Family means what you need it to, here. Though Aunt Puss is no blood relation of Grandma’s, the grandchildren are, yet Grandma does not acknowledge to Aunt Puss that they are her own.

TIME

Peck’s treatment of time in this novel borrows from the Gothic tradition.

There are still people alive in this story who fought in the Civil War. It is clear from The River Between Us that Richard Peck’s reason for writing for children (or at least part of it), is to connect young readers to generations they’ve just missed out on knowing. As an older writer, this is something he can do for us. 

In A Long Way From Chicago, Aunt Puss exists as a link to this earlier era. Aunt Puss has dementia and hasn’t noticed the passing of time. She thinks Grandma, Joey and Mary Alice are all the same age.

This does something for the reader’s appreciation of time. A Long Way From Chicago was first published in 1998, so the young reader is about 3 generations younger than Joey, 5 younger than Grandma and 6 younger than Aunt Puss.

But here we all are, each of us a child at some point, each of us connected by this story. Scholars would use the word ‘chronotope’ to describe the treatment of time in literature. Below we have a good explanation of why the Gothic chronotope is particularly well suited to coming-of-age stories like Peck’s:

The Gothic chronotope is often a place, very often a house, haunted by a past that remains present. As a child grows, more and more experiences, good and bad, displace into memory, forming the intricate passages where bits of his or her past get lost, only to re-emerge at unexpected times. The child’s mind becomes a crowded, sometimes frustratingly inaccessible place at the same time as his or her body morphs in uncomfortable ways. […] Gothic motifs of the uncanny are particularly apt for the metaphorical exploration of the vicissitudes of adolescent identity. The uncanny emerges in the adolescent novels they explore to both highlight change and trigger it. It becomes a complex metaphor for the transition the characters undergo with respect to their place in their families and their family history. […] the Gothic also offers fertile ground to explore beyond the conventions of the family to the adolescent’s place in larger social and cultural constellations of identity The results can affirm psychological models of development of they can open those models of development up to scrutiny and critique.

The Gothic In Children’s Literature: Haunting The Borders

The expedition into the past is further extended in the Centennial Summer chapter, when the town lives in the past for a week and dresses in old-fashioned clothes. This is when Joey meets the very old man who apparently fought in the Mexican War. Joey can hardly believe it — the Mexican War was so long ago. Joey himself will be fighting in a war when he gets older. These experiences, where he meets people who have lived through similar events before him, will contribute to his understanding of why he is fighting.

STORY STRUCTURE OF A LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO

This novel could be considered a series of interconnected short stories. I wasn’t surprised to read that the first chapter began as a short story, but Richard Peck realised he could get a lot more mileage out of Grandma Dowdel, so continued writing. Because each chapter is a short story in its own right, it’s possible to break down the structure of each one separately — each has its own desire/plan/big struggle/self revelation sequence. Instead I’ll make some general observations.

SHORTCOMING

Grandma Dowdel comes across — at first — as a misanthropist. She keeps to herself, doesn’t seem to have any friends in town and is so good at lying and tricking that she seems to be on the sociopathic spectrum. Her mistrust of people seems her main shortcoming, shown in the first chapter by the Cowgill boys picking on her as a target, first shooting her letterbox, next hoping to steal her gun.

DESIRE

Grandma Dowdel is gradually revealed to be not a misanthropist but a kind-hearted person who fights for the little guy. She is probably something like INTJ on the Myers-Briggs.

Grandma wants to make the world a better place. At least, her little town. She does not want glory for doing so — she wants to be left alone to do her good deeds. These deeds in themselves give her purpose. Her reasons for doing these things come from within. Unlike the vast majority of rural Americans at that time, Grandma Dowdel is wholly unconnected to the local (Holy Roller) church.

Although Grandma is the main character of interest in this story, Joey himself undergoes the classic ‘doubling down of desire’ that you often see in stories when the main character is required to do something against their will. Joey does not want to spend summers with his grandmother in hillbilly county.

Is Illinois really hillbilly country?
‘Hillbilly’ towns are found in Appalachia (Upstate New York, Western Pennsylvania, East Central and Southeastern Ohio, Western Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama).
However, another hillbilly region could be considered people residing in the Shawnee Forest region of Southern Illinois, or the Illinois Ozarks as they are called, and also South Central Missouri. This area starts around Rolla then heads southwest to Springfield and south into the Northern 2/3 of Arkansas.
The Ozarks and Appalachia are what make up the primary region of “hillbilly” country. Note that hillbillies are therefore not exclusive to the South, as they reside in a good chunk of Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Upstate New York.

But sure enough, when we get to almost the middle of the book, both he and his sister have changed their mind. They now both actively want in on these adventures with Grandma:

I don’t think Grandma’s a very good influence on us,” Mary Alice said. It had taken her a while to come to that conclusion, and I had to agree. It reconciled us some to our trips to visit her. Mary Alice was ten now. I believe this was the first year she didn’t bring her jump rope with her. And she no longer pitched a fit because she couldn’t take her best friends, Beverly and Audrey, to meet Grandma. “They wouldn’t understand,” Mary Alice said.

We weren’t so sure Mother and Dad would either. Since we still dragged our heels about going, they didn’t noticed we looked forward to the trip.

— A Long Way From Chicago, Page 61 (out of 148 pages total).

This change in desire is marked with the odd snippet of dialogue in which Joey accidentally comes out with regional dialect.

In each chapter Richard Peck sets up the desire without telling us that’s what he’s doing. For instance, in The Phantom Brakeman the story opens with Joe and Mary Alice at The Coffee Pot enjoying a Nehi soda. We’re told these drinks cost exactly a nickel. We’re also told how hot it is, and that there’s no air-conditioning, and just plunging one arm into a barrel of water provides relief. Later, when Joe is asked to do something for a nickel, it’s very clear to us just how much Joe wants that drink. We didn’t know that the heat of summer and the price of the drink were going to be significant — at the time it seems like Peck is simply setting the scene.

OPPONENT

Everyone in town is against Grandma Dowdel.

There is the town gossip, the Cowgill boys in the second chapter, the policemen who want to keep drifters out of town, whereas Grandma wants to provide them with a good feed. Then there’s the comical opponent Rupert Pennypacker, who has made an excellent gooseberry pie.

“The Day Of Judgement” chapter also has Joey wanting something badly for the first time — to go for a ride in the plane at the Country Fair. He really wants his grandmother to win the pie competition because then he’ll have the opportunity.

PLAN

Each chapter is a new summer and a new vignette in which Grandma comes up against someone and wins the big struggle by hard work and wits.

Grandma is described as ‘a little grey shape, mouselike’. Mice are smart tricksters themselves. They may be depicted in children’s books as weak and helpless — most often as child stand-ins — but Richard Peck takes the reality of the mouse here when he compares the grandmother to one. Mice are small but they are very brave, and extremely resourceful. They’ve learnt to thrive around people, living on the edge of civilisation. The mouse is an extended metaphor for the grandmother.

As well as mice, Grandma is also associated with gooseberries. Being a sour fruit, the gooseberry is a motif for Grandma’s general demeanour. When Grandma dresses up for the fair, this is the human equivalent of adding sugar to a gooseberry pie to make it palatable.

This is Hillbilly county and from what I learnt reading Hillbilly Elegy, Grandma works by ‘Hillbilly justice’. She’ll lie, thieve, threaten, trick and practise hard to get what she wants. Since the law has their own selfish agenda, she’ll happily take things into her own hands.

BIG STRUGGLE

While each chapter has its own big struggle, the big struggles do not ascend in any approximation to a dramatic arc. Peck has used a variety of big struggle scenes, including slapstick falling from a window to threats with actual guns, but often it takes a less deadly tone.

ANAGNORISIS

Joey realises that he wants to become a fighter pilot, that his sister is growing into a woman, that things change even though children don’t want them to.

NEW SITUATION

Joey sees his grandmother (perhaps for the last time?) as his army train zooms past her house in the middle of the night. She has lit up her house like a Jack-o-lantern even though she is normally really stingy with lighting.

The full meaning of the title now becomes clear. “A Long Way From Chicago” refers to all the international places Joe will visit via plane during the war.

 

Teaching Emotional Literacy Via Children’s Books

Throughout the history of children’s literature, children’s books have existed in large part to teach lessons. Not only do they teach children to be compliant, grateful, pious, and to work hard, children’s books socialise children. Today we might say they teach ’emotional literacy’.

emotional literacy is taught via the Ramona books

“Everybody else on the block rides two-wheelers. Only babies ride tricycles.” She made this remark because she knew Howie still rode his tricycle, and she was so angry about the ribbon she wanted to hurt his feelings.

Ramona the Pest, Beverly Cleary

Adult readers are left to work out motivations, ironies and desires for ourselves — we read between the lines. And this is true for young adult novels, too. But when children are learning to read they are also learning to recognise and name their feelings. Chapter books such as the Ramona series are good at doing that because they add that little extra bit of explanation.

This little bit of extra explanation can be found in children’s books for older readers, too:

“So you should have told me before, that’s what. You shouldn’t hide things like that from people, because they feel stupid when they find out, and that’s cruel.

Northern Lights, Philip Pullman (Lyra to her father)

When an adult is unable to identify their own feelings it’s called alexithymia.

Alexithymia is defined by:

  1. difficulty identifying feelings and distinguishing between feelings and the bodily sensations of emotional arousal
  2. difficulty describing feelings to other people
  3. constricted imaginal processes, as evidenced by a scarcity of fantasies
  4. a stimulus-bound, externally oriented cognitive style.

Alexithymia is found more commonly in the autistic population, but not all autistic people have trouble understanding and identifying emotions. In fact, only about one in two autistic people have trouble with this.

Likewise, a surprisingly high 10 percent of non-autistic individuals are alexithymic.

Reading and understanding complex and difficult emotions are skills that need to be learned by all of us. Another reason not to skip the chapter books!

While Beverly Cleary does it beautifully, it’s easy to name emotions badly.

I’ve noticed a tendency in children’s books to describe the feeling of an emotion without using the word commonly associated with that emotion. A classic example is repeated like a chorus through the picture book Hannah and the Seven Dresses.

Hannah, with her closet full of dresses handmade by her mother, breaks out in a sweat when she has to decide which to wear: “”Her face got hot. She shivered all over. Her knees went jiggly and her toes curled under.”

from the Publishers Weekly review

These physiological reactions are described but not named.

The reason I advocate for naming as well as describing emotions in children’s stories is because attaching feelings to descriptive words is a learned skill, a difficult skill, alexithymia or no, and children’s writers needn’t shy away from it.

FURTHER READING

Dark feelings will haunt us until they are expressed in words from Psyche

The teaching of emotion differs across cultures, and this difference can be seen in children’s books. In the West, we tend to conceptualise emotions as happening in the heart. The picture book In My Heart: A Book of Feelings by by Jo Witek and Christine Roussey is a classic Western example.

In other parts of the world, such as Japan, emotions are thought to happen in the stomach. A Japanese picture book, then, will be different.

Storytelling Tips From Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce (1958)

Tom's Midnight Garden cover with moon and boy silhouette

A descendent of The Secret Garden, sibling of The Chronicles of Narnia and ancestor to The BFG, Tom’s Midnight Garden is an influential and much-loved book which won the Carnegie Medal.

In Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce the moon is heavily symbolic. Night = day as the fantasy world = the real world. This middle grade novel is an example of low fantasy.

SETTING OF TOM’S MIDNIGHT GARDEN

This painting by Charles Robinson shows how a garden can seem more alive at night.
This painting by Charles Robinson shows how a garden can seem more alive at night.

Real World Connection

The author grew up in Cambridgeshire but calls it Castleford here. This allows her to deviate from reality, placing objects where she likes them. It’s a convenient trick.

For the purpose of some of her fiction, including Tom, Pearce put a creative spin on the Cambridgeshire countryside. Thus, the villages of Great Shelford and Little Shelford became Great Barley and Little Barley. And the major city of Cambridge became Castleford minus the famous university. Oddly, the cathedral city of Ely, which figures prominently in Tom, retained its real name. And running throughout, the omnipresent River Cam became the River Say. Although not specifically mentioned in the book, all indications are that, since the real house and garden were located in Great Shelford, Pearce placed Tom and Hatty’s garden in, or very close to, the renamed Great Barley.

Fred Guida, SLJ blog

The story has been criticised for romanticising aristocratic England. We are lead to believe it’s a huge shame that the beautiful old mansion has been broken down into flats, but what is the alternative? For plebs to continue to live in servitude, while the aristocratic class live like kings?

The Mysterious Mansion

The aunt and uncle’s house is a large house surrounded by many little ones. We know immediately that this house is ‘different’. Mysterious. We can expect mysteries. It is also old — linked to the past — and was once a mansion but has since been divided into smaller flats. The aunt and uncle’s house lies north of Cambridgeshire, where the author herself grew up and where she set her stories.

Ghosts

Compared to Australians, at least, English readers are quite likely to believe in ghosts. It is therefore no surprise that Tom jumps to this conclusion after going through the portal.

Secondary World

This is a portal fantasy. The fantasy has similar workings to The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe in that a child stumbles upon a door to another world inside the house where they have been sent to escape something going on at home. When they go back to prove their discovery the world has disappeared — this world is meant only for Tom.

Measles

The story starts with a case of measles.

Measles have been a problem for humans for centuries. While white people developed some immunity over the centuries, they carried the measles virus to native people around the world and put severe, irreparable dents in their populations. In the 1950s, around 500,000 children a year caught the disease, and about 100 died as a result. It was therefore taken seriously. Tom’s Midnight Garden was published in 1958, and although breakthroughs were already being made at around this time it took another 10 years for children to start being vaccinated in Britain.  However, people still weren’t vaccinating their children. As recently as 1988 there were still 80,000 cases of measles a year among children in England, including 16 deaths. This changed when the vaccination was combined into the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine. The number of measles cases dropped significantly after that. But in 1998 there was another hit to the program after some false news emerged that vaccines cause autism. There has been some recovery from this scare, with around 95% of children receiving the vaccination, but there is still a large proportion of children of the 1990s who missed the vaccine and may never have it.

STORY STRUCTURE OF TOM’S MIDNIGHT GARDEN

SHORTCOMING

Tom Long is the main character.

His moral shortcoming is introduced first, though I may be having a different reaction to Tom as an adult reader who is now a mother — Tom doesn’t understand the reason for his being sent away and is in a strop about it. Instead of thinking about how much his brother must be suffering with measles he is completely inward-focussed and laments the loss of the summer he imagined, having fun with his brother climbing the apple tree in the backyard and so on. He fails to say a genuine farewell to his mother, though this is somewhat mutual.

The paragraph about the apple tree in the description of his own backyard tells us Tom’s need: He needs to be close to nature in order to be happy.

DESIRE

Tom’s desire is to stay in his own house and enjoy the freedom of typical summer holidays. Like many stories about children of this age, this is about one boy’s quest for freedom — spiritual if not actual.

OPPONENT

Tom’s mother is his first opponent, for wanting something different — she doesn’t want him to catch measles, and I’m sure she doesn’t want to have to look after more than one sick son at a time.

Uncle Alan and Aunt Gwen are opponents simply by virtue of conspiring with his mother to host him at their house.

Once at his aunt and uncle’s house a mysterious character is introduced, though adult readers will recognise The Woman In The Attic trope — “Mrs Barthlomew upstairs” who is the owner of the mysterious grandfather clock which strikes 13 o’clock. She dresses all in black and other adult characters give the impression she’s not to be messed with.

PLAN

Tom is fighting against his imprisonment. He plans to get around his measles quarantine in any way he can, even if it means never actually leaving the house. For starters he’ll find out the yard is like, even though it’s apparently nothing to write home about.

When he finds the magical garden he confronts his aunt and uncle, who lied to him about their poky little backyard. He realises only he can see it.

Now he needs to find out as much about it as he can.

The mystery deepens as characters emerge on the scene:

  • Are they ghosts?
  • Is Tom, perhaps, a ghost in the style of Sixth Sense or The Others? These Dead All Along films are much more recent than this children’s book of course, but they were based on older stories such as “An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge” from 1890 (also an episode of The Twilight Zone). I’m thinking maybe Tom died of the measles and though he thinks he was waving to his brother Peter he was actually waving to the live version of himself? The thing about the Dead All Along trope, once you realise the character is dead all along, everything prior in the story makes more sense. That’s not what happens in this case. The explanation is a bit different.

BIG STRUGGLE

The big struggle scene is Tom rushing downstairs trying to get through the gate and failing, realising he can never go back.

I’m sure this book is a Rorschach test, with the reader imposing individual meanings onto the text. For me this story is about the end of childhood. You can never go back. But what if you could? You can, of course, but only in your mind.

ANAGNORISIS

There is a ‘Scooby Doo’ chapter at the end in which all is explained. Mrs Bartholomew heard Tom screaming her name and summons him up to ‘apologise’, but really she wants to tell him that she is Hatty and Tom was sharing her memories.

NEW SITUATION

Tom has closure on the Midnight Garden and will return home satisfied. His uncle and auntie will remain a bit mystified about this slightly odd nephew of theirs.

FURTHER NOTES

Food

Food is important in children’s literature. In utopian stories there is never any concern about where the next meal is coming from — it just appears. See for example The Wind In The Willows or Winnie The Pooh.

In this story, however, the abundant and delicious food is used to show how Tom is stifled. He lies in a ‘snail under the leaf setting’ — safe from harm in the suburbs with people who care for him and his every need met — but for a boy who needs to spread his wings this is a prison.

Aunt Gwen’s cooking was the cause of Tom’s sleeplessness — that and lack of exercise. Tom had to stay indoors and do crossword puzzles and jigsaw puzzles, and never even answered the door when the milkman came, in case he gave the poor man measles. The only exercise he took was in the kitchen when he was helping his aunt to cook those large, rich meals — large and richer than Tom had ever known before.

The Technique of Side Shadowing

For a breakdown of the 3 main types of literary shadowing see here.

Side shadowing lets the reader know how else the story might have panned out. One reason for using this is to offer alternative endings, to ask the reader to consider some sort of theme, like justice, or if the character made the right choice in the end.

But in the case of Tom’s Midnight Garden, Philippa Pearce uses side shadowing mainly to reassure us that ‘This is not just your run-of-the-mill ghost story. I know you think you know how this is going to pan out because you’ve read plenty of ghost stories, no doubt. But I’m telling you you’re in for a surprise!”

She achieves that message with the following passage, written using ‘would’. Notice too the metafictive reference to “Tom’s” reading lots of children’s books — when Tom is a stand-in for the child reader:

Tom resolved that, as soon as he was better, he would call on Mrs Bartholomew. True, she was an unsociable old woman of whom people were afraid, but Tom could not let that stand in his way. He would boldly ring her front door bell; she would open her front door just a crack and peer crossly out at him. Then she would see him, and at the sight of his face her heart would melt (Tom had read of such occurrences in the more old-fashioned children’s books; he had never before thought them very probable, but now it suited him to believe): Mrs Bartholomew, who did not like children, would love Tom as soon as she saw his face. She would draw him inside at once, then and there; and later, over a tea-table laden with delicacies for him alone, she would tell Tom the stories of long ago. Sometimes Tom would ask questions, and she would answer them. ‘A little girl called Harriet, or Hatty?’ she would say, musingly. ‘Why, yes, my late husband told me once of such a child — oh! long ago! An only child she was, and an orphan. When her parents died her aunt took her into this house to live. Her aunt was a disagreeable woman…’

So the story, in Tom’s imagination, rolled on. It became confused and halting where Tom himself did not already know the facts; but after all, he would only have to wait to pay his call upon Mrs Bartholomew, to hear it all from her own lips. She would perhaps end her story, he thought, with a dropped of her voice: [old fashioned melodrama based on the oral tradition] ‘And since then, Tom, they say that she and her garden and all the rest haunt this house. They say that those who are lucky may go down, about when the clock strikes for midnight, and open what was once the garden door and see the ghost of that garden and of the little girl.’

Tom’s mind ran on the subject. His cold was getting so much better […]

For me the side shadowing happens at exactly the right moment, as my attention is starting to flag and I’m wondering if I can already predict the ending of this story.

Pearce also makes use of foreshadowing and also backshadowing in this story — an example of backshadowing is the reference to Hatty’s sons dying in The Great War, which she explains is now known as the First World War. This sort of real world detail is knowledge shared between audience and characters.

How Children’s Books Teach Kids To Despise Hillary Clinton

Lately I’ve been reading chapter books with my 8-year-old daughter. We’ve been reading realistic comedy dramas from various American eras, from Ramona Quimby to Junie B. Jones to Judy Moody to Clementine. We’re just starting to (re)delve into the work of Judy Blume.

We’ve also read similar books produced locally such as Philomena Wonderpen by Ian Bone, Billy B. Brown by Sally Rippin and the Violet Mackerel series by Anna Branford.

Many of these stories are great. All of these stories have things to recommend them.

But there is a formula running throughout most chapter books aimed at girls which isn’t doing women any good at all. In fact, in this week heading into the American election, I’m getting pretty cranky about it, because this narrative is having a real world effect.

The chapter book formula concerns the character web, which looks like this:

chapter-book-character-web_1000x696

There are variations on this basic plan, of course.

For instance, the girly-girl might actually be the fake opponent.

Considered together as a corpus, this kind of character in middle grade fiction is saying something quite damaging about a certain kind of girl — the young Hillary Clinton archetype. A non-sympathetic character.

The Mixed Message of Ivy + Bean

ivy-and-bean

An example of that is the relationship between Ivy + Bean. In their case, ‘tomboyish’ viewpoint character Bean mistakes the girly-girl across the road for someone completely uninteresting. But when she takes the time to know her, Bean realises that Ivy is just as scheming as she is, and because of her good-girl appearance they are actually better equipped to carry out their often quite nasty — but always fun — plans. Various parent reviewers criticise this series for its unpunished bad behaviour, but one good thing about the Ivy + Bean series is that the girls learn in the very first book to look behind appearances.

A possibly quite damaging unintended message is that girly-girls are basically presenting a fake image. And unless a girly-girl reveals a more masculine side, she remains unsympathetic. Ergo, true girly-girls are still horrible. This is femme phobic.

Philomena Wonderpen

Readers are encouraged to despise the girly-girl pinkness of the opponent but the book covers are largely pink.
Readers are encouraged to despise the girly-girl pinkness of the main opponent but the book covers are largely… pink.

The girly-girl opponent of the Philomena Wonderpen series is a girl called Sarah Sullivan, who the reader knows to hate due to her overtly feminine accoutrements. Her matching pink accessories and her pink bag. Then there’s the way she competes against our imperfect hero and ends up winning the literal ‘gold star’ at the end of camp, dished out by an unsympathetic Trunchbull-esque school principal.

Even though Philomena has all the advantages of a magic wand (her father’s Wonderpen), Sarah Sullivan still wins the gold star — mostly through her own hard work, I might add, though she is also a rich girl and dishes out store-bought sweets.

The more successful a woman is, the more pleasure we take in demolishing her and turning her into a two-dimensional villain. Hillary Clinton’s extraordinary success may only be tempting the God of Trainwrecks to make her our biggest and best catastrophe yet.

Sady Doyle

To dwell upon the ‘fakeness’ of girly-girl opponents, Sarah Sullivan’s ‘store bought’ sweets are depicted by the author in opposition to Philomena’s home-baked treats, and once again, Sarah Sullivan is deemed a ‘fake’, in a way any modern mother should understand implicitly as coming straight from the ad-men trying to persuade us to buy this cookie over that, because it tastes just like a home-baked one, and women are therefore allowed to serve it up. (Because ideally, women are in the kitchen baking genuine cookies, but if we can’t manage that, we must at least make a good attempt at faking it.)

Fakeness as an attribute of hyper-feminine characters is very much related to the ‘women are basically liars’ trope, which has a long and damaging history.

Clementine

Even in the Clementine series, which I do love, overt markings of femininity are punished. This dynamic is set up in the very first paragraph of the first in the series:

I have had not so good of a week. Well, Monday was a pretty good day, if you don’t count Hamburger Surprise at lunch and Margaret’s mother coming to get her. Or the stuff that happened in the principal’s office when I got sent there to explain that Margaret’s hair was not my fault and besides she looks okay without it, but I couldn’t because Principal Rice was gone, trying to calm down Margaret’s mother.

Clementine, Sara Pennypacker 

Since hair (and handbags and high-heels) are strong markers of femininity, Margaret the girly-girl opponent is immediately brought down to size, and the reader is encouraged to despise the hysterical mother who is upset about something so frivolous. Putting aside the fact that actually, cutting someone’s hair is a violation of personhood that women have been talking about for decades and which, from boys and men, is actually really unacceptable.

In the seventh book we see the girly-girl character cut down to size by breaking her ankle after insisting on wearing high heels. And so on and so forth. Not so subtle subtext: Clementine is adorable because she is not like one of those girly-girls. She is basically everything we are encouraged to love in a boyish trickster.

Judy Moody

jessica-finch

Judy’s girly-girl enemy is Jessica Finch who at least breaks the mould of blonde bitches by having dark hair. (I suspect the dark hair is a symbolic representation of her dark moods.)

Judy Moody marched into third grade on a plain old Thursday, in a plain old ordinary mood. That was before Judy got stung by the Queen Bee. Judy sat down at her desk, in the front row next to Frank Pearl.”Hey, did you see Jessica Finch?” asked Frank in a low voice.”Yeah. So? I see her every day. She sits catty-cornered behind me.”

Judy Moody Gets Famous! by Megan McDonald

‘Cater-cornered’ means to sit diagonally behind someone, but the common pronunciation gives me the feeling that ‘catty’ is supposed to be a sexist pun. (When women are compared to cats it’s because cats don’t ‘fight fair’. They hiss and spit and posture, and will scratch you with their long ‘nails’.)

We are encouraged to hate Jessica Finch because she is the Queen (Spelling) Bee. We are encouraged to root for Judy’s defeating her mostly because Judy is the viewpoint character but also because Jessica’s presentation is ‘perfect’ — she sits up straight in class and doesn’t have a single hair loose from her high ponytail.

We are also encouraged to hate Jessica Finch because she tries hard, much as Donald Trump criticised Hillary for preparing for the second 2016 presidential debate:

“I have spelling posters in my room at home,” said Jessica. “With all the rules. I even have a glow-in-the-dark one.”

“That would give me spelling nightmares. I’ll take my glow-in-the-dark skeleton poster any day. It shows all two hundred and six bones in the body!”

“Judy,” said Mr. Todd. “The back of your head is not nearly as interesting as the front. And so far I’ve seen more o fit today than I’d like.”

Judy Moody Gets Famous! by Megan McDonald

Obviously, our siding with Judy is helped by the fact that both girls were talking but only Judy gets reprimanded by the teacher authority figure.

A positive aspect of the Judy Moody series is that Judy is allowed to express a wider range of emotions, including anger. But mostly she displays spite, and actually ‘moody’ itself is a highly gendered word. Boys are not called moody for displaying the exact same range of emotions. (And yes, I acknowledge there is also a — completely different but still sexist — problem, concerning the narrow range of allowable emotions in boys and men.)

the-many-moods-of-judy-moody

Junie B. Jones

junie-b-jones-by-barbara-park

Like Clementine, Junie B. Jones has a loving relationship with her school principal, owing to her pranks being adorable and the principal being a caring type. (In this post I make the case that Junie B. is a fictional representation of an ADHD phenotype child.)

Junie’s girly-girl enemy is Richie Lucille. The reader knows immediately that Lucille is horrible and unsympathetic because she has long blonde hair tied up in a perfect ponytail, whereas Junie B. looks rough and tumble and doesn’t care about neatness. She is also unlikeable because she is rich. (She has unearned power.)

richie-lucille

Billy B. Brown

the-bad-butterfly

By now it should be clear that messy hair is prerequisite for empathetic girl heroes.

Billie B. Brown has two messy pigtails, two pink ballet slippers and one new tutu.

The Bad Butterfly by Sally Rippin, opening sentence

It’s almost as if the girliness of the ballet outfit has to be neutralised by the messy hair. The messy hair says, “I’m wearing ballet clothes because I’m doing ballet, but don’t let that fool you into thinking I care about what you think of me.”

Billie’s best friend is Jack. Billie and Jack live next door to each other. They do everything together. If Billie decides to play soccer, then Jack will play soccer too.

The Bad Butterfly by Sally Rippin

Rippin avoids much of the ‘girl drama’ by making Billie a ‘guy’s gal’, basically. Billie’s close friendship with a boy elevates her social status.

The only real gender subversion here is that Jack learns ballet just as Billie plays soccer. This is pretty radical and modern, and it’s easy to overlook the other side.

Because once again we have the horrible girly-girl enemy. This girl is called Lola. Once again she is drawn (by illustrator Aki Fukuoka) with her blonde hair in a perfect bun. She closes her eyes and holds her nose in the air, as if no one else matters.

The message for young readers is that being a girl is fine and girls can do anything they want … so long as they are not too much of a girl. This femme phobic message works in silent opposition to the feminist ‘girls (and boys) can do anything’ intent.

Frenemies: A feature of girl fiction but not in books for and about boys

I have also read the Wimpy Kid books and others like it, and it seems the very concept of ‘frenemy’ is specific to books aimed at girls. There is no frenemy in Wimpy Kid — Rowley is a genuine WYSIWYG friend. Fregley is an out-and-out comedic archetype and the girls are somewhat complicated but one-dimensional opponents. These heterosexual boys don’t like the girls as people but they’re starting to feel inevitable adolescent attraction. The most popular books among boy readers are both reflecting and reinforcing a completely different but equally problematic dynamic — a discussion you can find elsewhere.

In fiction aimed specifically at girls, however, we often see frenemy dynamics. This is an outworking of a culture in which the allowable emotional spectrum for girls spans between friendly and neutral. Anger, distaste, disgust is not generally not allowed from girls.

So we have these girls who trick the adults into thinking they’re perfect but actually they are horrible: a  sexist variation on the trickster archetype. The reason this is sexist is because the prevalence of these girls suggests, to widely-read kids that:

  1. Only girls are able to pull this particular trick off
  2. Boys are all surface and no depth — boys speak their minds and you always know exactly what you’re going to get.
  3. Girls are basically liars.
  4. The worst girls are the prettiest ones. And by ‘pretty’ I mean the girls with the most feminine accoutrements. The more feminine a girl is, the more likely she is to be fake underneath, in a direct correlation.

Hillary Clinton has a unique talent to make people viscerally angry. Just look at the footage from Trump rallies: supporters carry “Lyin Hillary” dolls hung from miniature nooses, cry “Lock her up” and “Hang her in the streets”, and wear Trump That Bitch T-shirts.

Sady Doyle

Boy Tricksters, Girly-girl Tricksters

There are plenty of boy tricksters but they are presented in a completely different way.

Boy opponents, for example, arrange to beat someone up, after school, behind the bike sheds, but we aren’t inclined to call him ‘scheming’ for arranging the fight outside the range of adult supervision.

Boys take girls’ dolls, attach them to kite tails and send them sailing into the air, but boys aren’t schemers — they are simply having fun.

The bully-boy characters in children’s stories are not raking in all the academic awards. The fact that girly-girls also know all the answers is one more reason for the readers to despise them. We don’t like women who have all the answers.

The lesson is clear, and has been reiterated in countless hacky comedies about cold, loveless career women ever since. Success and love are incompatible for women. For a woman, taking pride in her own talents – especially talents seen as “masculine” – is a sin that will perpetually cut her off from human relationships and social acceptance. She can be good, or liked, not both. The only answer is to let a man beat her, thereby accepting her proper feminine role.

Sady Doyle

Feminine Girl Opponents Are Always Brought Down A Peg

When the girly-girl gets water dumped all over her (accidentally on purpose), or her pretty dress covered in ink, the reader is encouraged to revel in schadenfreude. It’s not just that the girl hero manages to come out on top — punishment usually focuses on ruining the very thing that stands for femininity.

Don’t forget that punishing female characters in children’s stories has a long history. Below, the Wicked Witch melts. The Wicked Witch is truly wicked, not just an annoying perfectionist classmate with frilly dresses and bows in her hair:

the W. W. Denslow illustration of the first edition (1900) of The Wizard Of Oz

I would argue that Hilary Clinton irritates people not just because of her gender, but because we simply can’t process her narrative. There are no stories that prepare us for her trajectory through life and, therefore, we react to her as if she’s a disruption in our reality, rather than a person.

We love public women best when they are losers, when they’re humiliated, defeated, or (in some instances) just plain killed.

Sady Doyle

It Didn’t Start With Ramona Quimby And Susan Kushner

You can probably tell which girl is the enemy in this adaptation of a Beverly Cleary classic. At least we get to see the girl behind Susan eventually.
You can probably tell which girl is the enemy in this adaptation of a Beverly Cleary classic. At least we get to see the girl behind Susan eventually.

As Doyle explains, this view of femininity goes back as far as Greek mythology and perhaps even back into the Paleolithic era:  

Aversion to successful or ambitious women is nothing new. It’s baked into our cultural DNA. Consider the myth of Atalanta. She was the fastest runner in her kingdom, forced men to race her for her hand, and defeated every one of them. She would have gotten away with it, too, if some man hadn’t booby-trapped the course with apples to slow her down, which is presented as a happy ending. By taking away her ability to excel, he also takes away her loneliness. Then, there’s the story of Artemis and Orion: He’s the most handsome hunter in all Greece, and she’s the Virgin Goddess of the Hunt, who’s ready to get rid of the “virgin” portion for him. Until, that is, her jealous brother Apollo tricks her into an archery contest – she’s so proud of her aim that she lets Apollo taunt her into shooting at a barely visible speck on the horizon and, therefore, winds up shooting her lover in the head.

Sady Doyle

You see it again in the Bible and actually my high school classics teacher had this quote from Pericles on the wall as if it were a maxim to live by:  

[I]njunctions against female self-expression or fame are everywhere in ancient history. The Christian New Testament “[suffers] not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man;”Pericles wrote that the greatest womanly virtue was “not to be talked of for good or evil among men”. In the colonial United States and Britain, women who talked too much and started fights were labelled“common scolds” – recommended punishments included making them wear gags or repeatedly dunking them in water to simulate drowning.

Sady Doyle

Boyish Tricksters Are Heroes; Girlish Tricksters Are Punished

[T]hough Clinton activates the darkest parts of her critics’ sexual imagination, our yearning for her downfall goes beyond even that. It’s not just that her success makes her unattractive or “unlikable”, it’s that, on some level, we cannot believe her success even exists. You hear that disbelief in the frantic insistence of certain Sanders supporters that the primary was “rigged”, simply because Clinton won it. You hear it when Trump sputters that Clinton “should never have been allowed to run”, making her very presence in the race a violation of the accepted order. You can hear it when pundits such as Jonathan Walczak argue that even if Clinton is elected, she should voluntarily resign after one term “for her own good”. (Also, presumably, good for George Clooney, whom Walczak offers up as a plausible replacement.) Even when we imagine her winning, we can’t imagine her really winning. Unadulterated female success and power, on the level Clinton has experienced, is simply not in our shared playbook. So, even when a Clinton victory is right in front of our eyes, we react, not as if it’s undesirable, but as if it is simply not real. And the thing is, it might not be. Or at least, it might only be temporary: the rise before the big, spectacular, sexism-affirming fall.

Sady Doyle

The caveat in chapter books is that ‘tomboyish’ girls, like boys, can also get away with anything. It’s the particularly feminine way of being that is not acceptable.  

#NotAllChapterBooks

Violet Mackerel

 
This is where I give a shout out to the Violet Mackerel series by Anna Branford.
 

violet-mackerel

Violet is kind, inquisitive, creative, understanding, thoughtful and loyal. The author avoids the girly-girl frenemy dynamics and instead focuses on Violet’s relationship with her hippie family and to the natural world around her. Her ‘opponent’ might be her mother, who meets a friend at the mall and bores Violet talking about the price of petrol, for instance. The conflict is not contrived. We do still have, though, a teenage girl snarker in Nicola, the older sister.

Admittedly, this makes for quieter plots with less Bestseller appeal.

Illustrator Elanna Allen dresses Violet in  practical clothing and Violet sometimes has quite neat hair, other times quite messy. The covers of this series are not heavily pink, which I find ironic given the pinkness of all the other books implicitly criticising pinkness.

Fancy Nancy

fancynancy

Fancy Nancy is another interesting case because this is a character who embraces all of those feminine accoutrements vilified in most chapter books.

For pedagogical reasons, I’m sure, these books also teach young readers ‘fancy words’, which Nancy uses with full explanations for the young readers. In other words, there are many ways of being fancy, and one of those ways is to be smart.

There are also lots of standalone books about different kind of girls, but it’s the bestselling series which are the most widely read and therefore the most influential.

Real World Consequences of the Female Maturity Formula In Storytelling

Salma from Paranorman
Salma from Paranorman

I have previously written about the way in which girls and women in popular stories are consistently portrayed as ‘the only sensible’ one in the room. Typically, the girl is more of a swot, more organised, more witty than the ‘everyday boy’. We see it all sorts of narrative for both adults and children:

  • Everybody Loves Raymond (the long-suffering wife)
  • Harry Potter (Hermione)
  • Calvin and Hobbes (Suzie)
  • Big Nate series (Gina, and also the female teacher Mrs Godfrey, who is far more studious about doing her actual job as teacher than the laid back Mr Rosa.)
  • Toy Story
  • Black Books (Fran, when it suits the plot)
  • The I.T. Crowd (Jen, when it suits the plot)
  • The Simpsons (Marge and Lisa)
  • Futurama (Leela)
  • etc.

At first glance, to the uninitiated, this might seem like sexism indeed… but against men. After all, isn’t it good for women’s rights that women are consistently smarter than the men?

No.

  • These women are the sidekicks, not the heroes. They start and end the story as sensible; the character arcs happen to the men. You can’t be the hero of a story unless you undergo some sort of character arc. This makes men the main characters of the stories.
  • These women are motherly. When the only role for the girl is the motherly type, we end up thinking that’s the only role she’s good for.
  • While these motherly types are allowed smart comebacks (a la Suzie from Calvin and Hobbes), they are are often limited to sarcasm. As often as not they are in fact completely humourless, adding to the cultural stereotype that ‘women just aren’t funny’.  This sensible, parental role suits the straight ‘man’ more than it suits the funny ‘guy’.

But more disturbing than any of these points are the very real political consequences, as described below at a feminism and linguistics blog, in a discussion about the recent English election:

Powerful women are resented in a way their male equivalents are not; the more authoritative a woman sounds, the less likeable a lot of people (both men and women) will find her. But you might think the current situation calls that analysis into question. If we’re so uncomfortable with women taking charge, how have we ended up in a situation where women are the most credible challengers for the top jobs in British politics?

One answer to that question invokes the concept of the ‘glass cliff’. In politics as in business, women are more likely to be chosen as leaders when an organisation is in serious trouble and the risk of failure is high. In that connection it’s interesting to recall one of the phrases used about Nicola Sturgeon last week—‘the only grown-up in the room’. Since then, other women, including Theresa May and, in the wider European context, Angela Merkel, have also been described as ‘grown-up(s)’. Though the term itself isn’t gendered, I’m beginning to think the metaphor is: it’s a reference to the most culturally familiar and acceptable form of female authority, that of adult women over children. When the men are responding to a crisis by throwing their toys out of the pram, it’s time for Mummy to sweep in and clean up their mess.

language: a feminist guide

For more on this topic but from an American perspective, listen to Slate’s Double X Podcasts: The Powerfrause Edition, in which Angela Merkel, like Theresa May, also swooped in to power after a German political crisis.

So whenever the girl character swoops in to save the boys with her book learning and smart ideas (a la Monster House, Paranorman, Harry Potter), what we’re really seeing is the Glass Cliff effect.

We might also call it the Happy Housewife view of female politicians:

I have heard many women (and some men) say that they want to see more women in power because women would make the world a better place, lift the tone of parliaments and be all-round kinder to the planet. Some go all quasi-spiritual on me, wittering on about female energy and our goddess-given nurturing nature. This has always struck me as the happy housewife model of leadership, where female leaders whiz around cleaning up the men’s mess, leaving the world all sparkly, clean and sweet smelling. It sounds like it’s a compliment but, in fact, it is a burden.

Jane Caro, after the first 2016 Trump-Clinton debate

RELATED CONTENT

This view dictates that women must be better than men before they can aspire to leadership, that they must offer something special and different or they have no right to take the top job. Frankly, it sets us up for failure because it sets a higher standard for female leaders than for their male counterparts.

Please don’t mistake this for ‘girl power’. And definitely look out for it in your own country’s politics.

EDIT: Fast forward to 2019 and see Elizabeth Warren become the new Hillary Clinton.

A New Vision For Chapter Book Series Aimed At Girls

Could we change the character web template and still engage young readers? Here’s what I’d love to see:

  1. More imagination when it comes to dreaming up opponents. Perhaps this is where fantasy shines. Fantasy, unlike realistic drama, is open to all sorts of monsters, ghosts and ghouls and does not need the girly-girl frenemy/enemy. However, as number 2 in the Ivy + Bean series shows (The Ghost That Had To Go), fantastic imaginings can be included even in realistic fiction.
  2. More complex boy characters. I’d like to kill the stereotype that girls are fake and wily while boys are shallow and simple and unencumbered by complex social difficulties. If writers think they’re reflecting realities, by exaggerating them for comedic effect they are also reinforcing them. Is it possible to model good relationships while still including sufficient tension between characters? (Don’t tell me that these stories shouldn’t be didactic, because they already are.)
  3. In real life, girly girls are not usually the enemy. The girl with the neat hair is probably sitting quietly in the corner doing her work. I know it’s tempting to write only about the Clementine/Ramona/Junie B. wreckers of this world because these girls are propelled into action by their very nature, but there is an invisible majority of girl readers out there whose compliance and hard work are not only invisible, but actively punished throughout children’s literature. Let’s change that. Because it’s affecting how the actual world is being run.
A soap advertisement from recent history. This is what middle grade authors are trying to work against, collectively hoping to subvert the message that beauty trumps brains. However, inversion does not equal subversion.

Babysitter’s Club Novel Study

It would be easy to dismiss The Babysitter’s Club as an outdated storyline aimed at channeling girls into careers in childcare, turning them into good little obedient baby-machines and not much else. However, never judge a book by its title, right? (Because a lot of the time authors don’t choose their own titles anyhow.) And I’d never actually read a copy.

After hearing The Babysitters Club series is was recently reissued as ebooks I decided to actually read one, for the first time in my life. You’d think I’d have read a number of the series already because I was nine years old when the first book, Kristy’s Great Idea was published, and therefore in exactly the right demographic.

My Own Backstory With Babysitter’s Club

In year six a school friend invited me to her house for a playdate and I was impressed to see that she owned the entire series. Her parents had bought her a weekly subscription and they had arrived in the mail. My Trixie Beldens and Famous Fives and Secret Sevens remained incomplete on my bookshelf — not only that, some were hardbacks, some were paperbacks — my books just didn’t look as neat as these super attractive pastel-coloured spines lined up in all their complete numerical order. In hindsight I don’t know if it was the stories I coveted but the books as works of art.

And those covers! Now that Photoshopped images are ubiquitous, those photo-realistic depictions of happy-looking American adolescents were an unusual sight in graphic design back then. It’s easy to forget that. I have memories of gazing at those covers marveling at how the pictures fit somewhere between photo and paintings. What skill, I thought, to be able to paint like that!

Ann M. Martin

Unlike the authors of other series of the 80s, such as Sweet Valley High and the never-die Nancy Drew, the author of The Babysitter’s Club is a real woman and that is her real name. Given Martin’s high work output, and the generic sounding everyname, I had wondered if she were a group of authors contracted to write a few books each. But no, Ann M. Martin obviously cares very much about her work — as much as any other authors writing under their own name.

As for the books themselves, I’m pleased to report that yes, they have dated (in a good way) and no, they are not the least bit sexist. In fact, they’re a damn sight better than a lot of the series being published now. If you can pick up a series of Babysitter’s Club cheap second hand and give them to your middle school daughter, you’ll be doing good.

*I have since handed my second-hand Babysitter’s Club books to a friend whose son loves them. Yes, son. He read them all voraciously at age 8.

BABYSITTER’S CLUB #1: KRISTY’S GREAT IDEA

Kristy is responsible for looking after her little brother David Michael, but so are her two older brothers. Likewise, we learn that while Kristy refuses (initially) to babysit for her mother’s man-friend, one of her older brothers has already volunteered. So right from the outset, babysitting is not portrayed as a task for girls. Kristy knows her own mind, and will not be railroaded into doing something she doesn’t want to. The brothers are possibly more pliable than she is.

Kristy’s mom (who is divorced) “likes the fact that she can support us so well.” The mother has a ‘very good job at a big company in Stamford’… ‘but she still feels guilty‘. This reminds me of feminist conversations that would have been happening back then, before the 90s kicked in, and everyone assumed women had achieved equality now, so most people stopped writing things like this ‘out loud’. In the mid-eighties, divorced families were more of an oddity too. This sort of family situation is a lot more common today, and more young readers will identify with antagonistic feelings towards a parent’s new partner. I would add that this book is looking a bit too Brady Bunch at this point, because Kristy seemed to bond with her step-father-to-be quite easily in the end. I hope there will continue to be real-life blended-family issues in following stories.

The girls are inventive. First, there’s the Babysitter’s Club itself, which is spurred by Kristy herself. Their inventiveness is an historic kind; the girls have already worked out a way of communicating between the houses at night using torches. This is the sort of detail which dates the book, but not in a bad way.

There are other cultural references which set these stories firmly in the 80s, with references to G.I. Joe and Sesame Street, but I’m pretty sure a lot of these childhood icons are still about. At any rate, the cultural shock for a modern kid reading a story from the 1980s would be no more stark than that of a little New Zealand kid reading these same stories back when they were new. I still have no idea what a fudgesicle or a jawbreaker is. (Hello, Internet. Turns out a jawbreaker is a gobstopper. A fudgesicle is a chocolate icecream popsicle.)

“Mary-Ann and I ran home together.” For me this was a lovely scene of two adolescent girls enjoying the last of their childhood. Very soon I expect they will stop running, and become more aware of the expectations of ladyhood. I had a flashback of running along under the covered-way at my own very large high-school when a group of boys older than me yelled something disparaging about the fact that I was running instead of walking. I stopped running after that, having learnt that very day that high school girls do not run. (Also, cool people in general do not run. They don’t even walk. Cool people swagger, and make space on the footpath for no one.)

These 12 year old girls are never late for a job. This is spelled out, and is one example of how Kristy is a good role model for adolescent readers. Via the running of the Babysitters’ Club, readers learn the basics of  business management: how to run meetings, members of a board, dealing with interpersonal issues, in-coming and outgoing expenses… This series would be a good introduction for any kid with aspirations of starting her own small company. A criticism might justifiably be: The teaches our kids to be little capitalists. But then, isn’t that what they’re expected to be? Economically self-sufficient?

Fashion has changed a lot and the descriptions of clothing is entertaining. Claudia is held up as the goddess of fashion with her ‘short, very baggy lavender plaid overalls, a white lacy blouse, a black fedora, and a red high-top sneakers without socks… I felt extremely blah compared to her.’

Claudia’s older sister Janine has an IQ of 196, and is quite an annoying character. I can’t think of many examples in school stories in which the nerdy genius character is female — it’s more often a male trope: ‘Her second best friend is her computer.’

So I only read one, but if the stories continue in that fashion, I would be perfectly happy for my daughter to take a liking to them when she’s older.

RELATED LINKS

The Babysitter’s Club: Idea And Phantom from Beauty And The Armageddon

Graphic Novels Aren’t Just Comic

12 Facts About The Babysitter’s Club from BuzzFeed

The Baby-Sitters Club: The Things You Notice Reading as an Adult from Beauty and the Armageddon

The Babysitter’s Club at TV Tropes

Ann M. Martin is still writing books. (Not Babysitter’s Club books.)

I need to insert an apostrophe. Does that missing apostrophe bother you, too? (It bothers me in the same way that the title Gilmore girls does not capitalise Girls.) Anyhow, there are internet discussions on this.

If you’re into 80s fashion and derive pleasure from learning what the members of the Babysitter’s Club were wearing during their suburban adventures then you might check out Buzzfeed’s Definitive Ranking Of Babysitters Club Cover Outfits (and they even put in an apostrophe for you).

The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban

The Mouse and His Child

This middle grade novel features talking animals, especially mice, toys and doll’s houses. The Mouse and His Child is no Velveteen Rabbit, however.

As Margaret Blount says, The Mouse and His Child defies classification, and is therefore of interest to critics and children’s literature enthusiasts:

Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and His Child (1969) is such a strange, haunting and distinguished book that it is very difficult to classify. It is about toy mice, yet the clockwork father and son move through a world in which small animals act out human dramas.

Animal Land, Margaret Blount
Hoban, Lillian, The Mouse and his Child by Russell Hoban, 1967

In some ways it can be compared to Charlotte’s Web, but Charlotte’s Web continues to be more widely known.

The story shares commonalities with E.B. White‘s Charlotte’s Web by contrasting with a large part of children’s literature in the sense of occasional use of advanced vocabulary, a willingness to include adult themes, and talking animals.

Wikipedia

Why is The Mouse and His Child not more widely read today? Townsend explains that The Mouse And His Child is clearly North American but has, for some reason, been far more popular in Britain, where it is regarded a classic.  Some people speculate it’s due to ‘hygiene’ — that picking toys out of the dump isn’t clean.

That said, the book has been reprinted and re-illustrated

The Mouse And His Child faber cover

And made into a film back in 1977

220px-Mouse_and_his_child1977

And the Japanese are well-known for a love of cleanliness, and it’s not unknown there:

Japanese The Mouse And His Child

The original edition was illustrated by Russell Hoban’s wife, Lillian. There is a distinctly Disney feel about it. Lillian Hoban is perhaps best known for her I-Can-Read illustrations for the Arthur series.

The Mouse And His Child Lilian Hoban

Arthur Levine commissioned illustrator David Small to do the artwork for their updated edition in 2001. These illustrations remind me more of Sir Quentin Blake, but with close attention to shade and tone which adds a slightly noir feel.

David Small The Mouse and His Child

What is the story about?

The mice are searching for the things that people want: happiness, a family, a home, self-winding freedom, from their bright morning in the toy shop at Christmas to their ending on a birdhouse platform by a railway line, near the town dump. There is a glimpse of shining perfection as the toys — the mice, elephant, seal and doll’s house that come so largely to the story — wait on the shop counter to be sold. The mice dance in a circle when wound.

To be bought is to be born. For four years the mouse father and son dance under the Christmas tree, always put away in their box until, pounced on and broken by a cat, they are thrown away. Repaired by a tramp who can only make them walk straight, they follow an endless road, tramps themselves, finding their way into a place like Cannery Row only far more sinister — the town dump ruled by the exploiting bandit Manny Rat, the underworld king who wears a greasy dressing-gown and lives in an old TV set.

Animal Land, Margaret Blount

Influences And Intended Audience

Hans Andersen with the clockwork nightingale and lead soldier, Kingsley with the fate of the lost doll, Collodi with the strange quest of the puppet who wanted to be a boy — all tell of the strange quest of the puppet who wanted to be a boy — all tell of the human sadness of toys, which is something that adults see, and one wonders if children really enjoy The Mouse and His Child. As an adult it is impossible to read it unmoved.

Animal Land, Margaret Blount

Multiple Layers

Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and His Child (1967), about the quest of a pair of linked toys to find a home and be self-winding, is a multi-layered book, accessible at more than one level. It can be read by children quite simply as a story of the adventures of clockwork toys, and by adults as a haunting human progress. The pathos of a toy’s life — the decline from freshness, beauty and efficiency toward the rubbish dump, the rusting of bright metal, the rotting of firm plush — is the pathos of human life transposed. The mouse and his child are loving people, totally interdependent. There are clear allegorical meanings — any child can understand the longing to be self-winding — and strong, often funny, sometimes savage satire, though some of this may be beyond the grasp of children. Manny Rat, who rules the rubbish dump and deals with recalcitrant toys by consigning their innards to the spare parts can, is a splendid villain.

John Rowe Townsend, Written For Children

Motifs, Symbols, Satire

Likeness to the human world is both satiric and symbolic. The mice are sent to rob a bank by the rat; the chipmunk behind the counter pushes ‘the alarm twig’ and a badger guard eats the rat. The mice get involved in a territorial war between shrew armies with big struggle cries of ‘ours’ and ‘onwards’; weasels casually eat the shrews; owls catch the weasels. A recurrent motif is an old empty dogfood tin with a picture of a dog in a chef’s cap carrying on a tray another dog in a chef’s cap. The mouse father’s heart is his clockwork centre. He has patience, courage, sad endurance. The child, with less clockwork, has room for dreams of family and home — ‘I want the elephant to be my mama and the seal to be my sister and I want to live in the beautiful house.’ In their hopeless quest, the mice somnambulate through impossible tasks, like Tess in the potato field. They pace the Crows’ stage in an incomprehensible play…they are harnessed by the muskrat to a saw device for felling a tree, which takes all the winter, they fall to the bottom of a pond. Their physical disintegration is a persistent theme. When they do at last find the doll’s house its fate has been that of many real ones. It has been ravaged by fire and ‘become in its romantic ruined state a trysting place for young rat lovers, then a social and athletic club.’

Animal Land, Margaret Blount

The Significance of ‘Wind-up’ In Wind-up Toys

Maria Nikolajeva writes, ‘The very idea of a windup toy is repetition, predestination, things going on forever. Another aspect is absence of change and free will.’ If the mice were to dance Christmas after Christmas, however, there would be no story. So although the adults have an idea of what children might enjoy, the children (or child characters) are wrong. When the mouse child breaks the rules, this is a step away from circularity (and from the iterative language). Everything that happens after the mouse child is expelled from paradise is tragic but necessary. The message seems to be that linearity is preferable to circularity:

“There is no going back,” said the father…we cannot dance in circles anymore.

The Mouse and His Child

The Doll’s-house Symbolism

The doll’s house is inhabited by wonderful papier-mâché models talking in scraps of newsprint, and is an enviable mansion with every detail exact, one of those American country houses whose adjectival accompaniment is always ‘decaying’ and ‘Southern’ as if they have to end up in Tennessee Williams land. And indeed, this one decays and suffers as doll’s houses, and some real ones, often do.

Animal Land, Margaret Blount

Manny Rat

Manny Rat is your archetypal rag-and-bone man, which rats often are in children’s books with personified animals:

The rat is hideously real, always foraging, exploiting everything it meets, using old clockwork toys to fetch and carry, mending them just enough to keep them going like abused and broken-down horses, running sordid sideshows that offer and give nothing, and taking his profit from their wretched owners, miserable beetles and crickets.

Margaret Blount, Animal Land

Jungian critics have fun with this novel. There is an obvious erotic subtext, ‘especially in the rivalry between the mouse father and Manny rat, and the elephant’s open aversion for Manny, who has, we might say, raped her.’

Maria Nikolajeva uses this book as an example of a book which breaks away from the idyll established in the beginning. Take note of what Nikolajeva refers to as ‘iterative’ time:

The Mouse and His Child is most often referred to as toy fantasy. However, I would like to show that […] it depicts an attempted, successful or not, to break away from idyll, which is often expressed by the change in temporal pattern of the novel from circular to linear. The Mouse and His Child starts with a perfect image of childhood, a doll house, a self-sufficient world existing wholly in the cyclical time:

…the dolls never set foot outside it. They had no need to; everything they could possibly want was there … Interminable-weekend-guest dolls lay in all the guest room beds, sporting dolls played billiards in the billiard room, and a scholar doll in the library never ceased perusal of the book he held … In the dining room, beneath a glittering chandelier, a party of lady and gentleman dolls sat perpetually around a table…

It was the elephant’s constant delight to watch that tea party through the window…

The Frog

The chief supporting characters in this strange nightmare are ‘Frog’, a figure of destiny who inhabits an old glove and makes his way with herbal remedies and fortune telling, a philosophic muskrat, a terrapin who is a thinker, scholar and playwright, two crows who run an experimental theatre company, a kingfisher and a bittern, both helpful characters represented as do-it-yourself expert and a solitary bachelor fond of fishing.

Animal Land, Margaret Blount

Food

Other interesting things about this book are that it’s very much about eating and being eaten up, even though the toys themselves can’t and don’t need to eat (nor do they wish to become human, unlike in The Velveteen Rabbit, for instance).

Death

The Velveteen Rabbit makes a good counterpoint here:

Because these characters are toys, death is treated differently, too.They cannot die, which means the story takes place over many more years than your typical children’s story. ‘…all these violent deaths do not affect the toys, just as “adult” deaths most often do not affect children. […] The author introduces a special kind of death for the toys, which they go through, as ritual prescribes, three times. Since death, for toys, unlike all other deaths in the story, is reversible, they are reborn like the returning gods.‘ Notice that after each destruction and resurrection the mice reemerge with new qualities.

[…]

The happy ending does not dispel the lingering sadness of the clockwork pair, the father doomed to travel forward through the world and the son (who is joined to him) backwards. Helpless when they are not wound up, unable to stop when they are, they are fated like all mechanical things to breakage, rust and disintegration as humans are to death.

[…]

The path of every toy is always downwards. Though they share with humans apparent death (by smashing) and strange resurrections (by mending), they do not, like humans, have a high noon. The Velveteen Rabbit (Marjery Williams, 1912) has once again the them of the toy made real and immortal by love. The Rabbit is quite new. Bright and plushy he comes to the Boy at the top of a Christmas stocking, at the peak of his physical perfection, and ‘for at least two hours the Boy loved him.’

Animal Land, Margaret Blount

The Mouse and His Child As An Influential Mouse Book

Margaret Blount compares the mouse of this book to others that have followed since:

Mice who do stand out for their individuality and sheer strength of character sometimes appear in other settings; The Mouse and His Child of the unforgettable endurance are really toys and not mice at all; the great Reepicheap is a Talking Beast, one of many; Stuart Little is notable for being a social misfit and Tucker, of The Cricket In Times Square, outstanding for his untidy antique collection and his hidden riches.

Animal Land, Margaret Blount

Mothers In Children’s Literature

Mothers are either held up as paragons of selflessness, or they’re discounted and parodied. We often don’t see them in all their complexity.

Novelist Edan Lepucki contemplates motherhood

The only time you truly become an adult is when you finally forgive your parents for being just as flawed as everyone else.

Douglas Kennedy

It is partly a children’s book convention that you write from the kids’ point of view, so you cannot be entirely fair to the parents as well. If you are going to write about children of twelve and thirteen who have totally understanding and marvellous parents, there’ll be nothing to write about.

Gillian Rubenstein
Early Peter Pan cover. Peter Pan considers mothers very overrated.

The subject of mothers is apparently very sensitive for Peter [Pan]: “Not only had he no mother, but he had not the slightest desire to have one. He thought them very over-rated persons”. This is rather a puzzling statement, since Peter’s desire is to have Wendy as his mother. But the desire is extremely ambivalent, and the Lost Boys can only speak of mothers in Peter’s absence, “the subject being forbidden by him as silly”. “Now, if Peter had ever quite had a mother, he no longer missed her. He could do very well without one. He had thought them out, and remembered only their bad points.” We know that Peter ran away the day he was born, because he heard his parents talk about what he was to be when he became a man, which was not his intention: “I don’t want ever to be a man…I want always to be a little boy and have fun”.

From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature by Maria Nikolajeva

Frances Spufford writes that characters in fairytales are symbols.

A character in a story exists in particular before it exists in general. A wicked stepmother is a woman before she is a symbol of what a child might fear in motherhood. The story of Snow White therefore says things about gender, and the encounters of daughter, stepmother, father and lover, before it can become a picture of a psychological process.

The Child That Books Built

The following notes draw heavily from the Kid You Not Podcast, Episode 11

The mother in children’s literature is generally ambivalent and ambiguous.

Mothers are all slightly insane.

J.D. Salinger

SANCTIFIED MOTHERS AND EVIL STEP-MOTHERS

The idea of motherhood in Harry Potter and the Other Mother of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline represent two very different but very typical representations of the mother in kidlit. In HP, the concept of the mother is sanctified; the mother died to save Harry’s life. She leaves lingering protection in his veins so that evil characters cannot touch him.

Gaiman’s mother in Coraline is a reworking of a fairytale mother: Stepmothers are used to displace the child’s anxieties and unpleasant feelings for the mother. It’s less threatening for a child to be crossed or abandoned by a step-mother than by a birth mother. Bad mothers tend not to be biological mothers, at least on a surface reading of them.

John Gannam Thayer Stroller advertisement, 1951
John Gannam Thayer Stroller advertisement, 1951

In young adult literature in the 1940s and 1950s through to the 1960s, parents were assumed to be always right. John Rowe Townsend writes in Written For Children:

In The World of Ellen March, by Jeanette Eyerly (1964) […] a teenage girl, knocked off balance by her parents’ impending divorce, concocts a childish plan to reunite them by kidnapping her little sister. The plan misfires, of course; Ellen is reprimanded by Father for foolish, irresponsible behaviour and realizes that she must “grow wiser, or wise enough to order her own life properly rather than try to make over the lives of her parents.” In other words, the burden of adjustment is on her, and she is at fault for not having the maturity and stability to deal with the situation her parents have placed her in.

John Rowe Townsend
ellen march

But by the end of the 1960s it was no longer assumed in children’s literature that parents are always right.

In John Donovan’s I’ll Get There, It Better Be Worth The Trip (1969), the hero’s mother is a heavy drinker; his father has remarried, and “when we see each other everything has to be arranged.” Davy’s love goes to his dog and the male friend he’s made at school. In The Dream Watcher, by Barbara Wersba (1968), the hero’s parents are living together, but the father is a pathetic death-of-a-salesman figure and the mother is a dissatisfied, self-indulgent woman who has destroyed her husband and could easily destroy her son.

Written For Children, John Rowe Townsend

But Rowe Townsend writes that the most despicable parents of all in YA are the parents in the books by Paul Zindel. Zindel’s characters tend to be all the same across his work — the teenagers were similar and the parents were all awful.

In the eighties, parental iniquity was no longer a major theme. None the less, parents had been toppled from their former pedestal, and there was no way of putting them back.

Written For Children, John Rowe Townsend
Illustration by Martha Sawyers, for the book "Eighth Moon" mother daughter
Illustration by Martha Sawyers, for the book “Eighth Moon” mother daughter

What Makes For A Good Mother?

The bar for good mothers — in fiction as in life — is high. At least, for human ones.

That cat had six letters, and each litter had five kittens, and she killed the first-born kitten in each litter, because she had such pain with it. Apart from this, she was a good mother.

Doris Lessing, Particularly Cats

This observation is far from new, but we’re far more forgiving of animal mothers than of human mothers. What has only recently begun to be talked about is that we are also far more forgiving of human fathers, in part because the job of fathering is so new — it was not so very long ago that ‘to father’ meant to provide the sperm and to provide, offering mentorship as sons grew older. I’m sure there have always been outstandingly paternal examples, but it’s the cultural idea of Fatherhood that I’m talking about.

Marieke Hardy sums it up when describing her own mother:

She was — and remains — a very good mother; open to any and every discussion, and a proponent of creative, generous living at all times. Though she’s never been one of those women described as ‘born to parent’. There’s an expectation that these delightful nurturing instincts set certain females apart from their sisters, draw a line in the sand of compassion that may rarely be crossed. A propensity for tea parties, a ‘way’ with dolls, tending to a scabbed-up knee with concerned frowns: these are the character traits of a very pleasant somebody born to make babies. Those failing to similarly measure up are spoken of in mean-spirited, disparaging terms. ‘She’s not very motherly, is she?’ remains, as a character appraisal, on a par with ‘She takes a while to warm up’ and ‘I just think she really enjoys the music of Jack Johnson.’ Display an iota of awkwardness when playing with a child and you are dismissed, pitied, slotted into the stiff-backed category of Cruella de Vils or wicked stepmother types who would rather skin puppies than do anything so maladroit as nappy changing.

You’ll Miss Me When I’m Dead

THE FAIRY GODMOTHER

This is the ‘white’ side of the mother — the side who is protective, generous, devoted and gentle.

Fairy Godmother

MOTHERS AND PICTUREBOOKS

Desire for the mother is at the heart of much of the literature of childhood, particularly in books for young children. [Picturebooks] evoke the body of the mother and early states of desire.

Roni Natov

The modern world manifests an overwhelming human yearning for wholeness, oneness or integrity, a yearning apparent in oral appetites, sexual desire, religious fervour, physical hunger, “back to the womb” impulses [and] death wishes.

Sarah Sceats

It’s striking to see that the mother in old comics — especially French and Belgian ones — will be a part of the domestic space, but not acknowledged in the language of the text. In these stories the mother is a chattel. In many picture books this is also the case. This normalises traditional motherly roles. The reason she is in the background is because she provides the comfort and security, almost metonymous for the home (much as a kitchen can be), and therefore important in the home-away-home pattern. The more discreet her presence, the more ideological the idea that mothers belong in the home.


THE ABSENT MOTHER AND THE STRANGELY PRESENT MOTHER

This fairytale split is replicated even in very modern stories, including Harry Potter. There is another thing to do with parents: Get rid of them completely. Pippi Longstocking could not have had her adventures with the interference of parents, and neither could most of Enid Blyton’s characters. Pippi does have a father and in one book he features as King of the Cannibals. But she couldn’t have a typical mother. The mother is generally the more anxious, controlling side of the parents, with the father being more distant. Mrs Darling in Peter Pan is far more worried than Mr Darling about what is happening to the children. But adventures can more readily happen with the father present in the background.

Counting by 7s
Twelve-year-old genius and outsider Willow Chance must figure out how to connect with other people and find a surrogate family for herself after her parents are killed in a car accident.

We still view motherhood as mandatory and fatherhood as voluntary.

Levin, co-founder of The Parents Village

Linguists have noticed that when turned into verbs, ‘to mother’ means something very different from ‘to father’.

THE DEAD MOTHER

Death is another kind of absence. This time, the mother is not absent because she’s not worth mentioning but rather the direct opposite: The dead mother is the ultimate absence that is a presence. In most books this is the case, and definitely in the Harry Potter books. The parents may as well be alive.

Jacqueline Wilson provides plenty of examples of absent mothers, e.g. Double Act.

Mimi by John Newman is another example. The mother’s absence is the epicenter of the whole story. The father is there in body but doesn’t step in to fill the domestic gap, until other mothers turn up and force him into the role of parent.

In Neil Gaiman’s Fortunately, The Milk, the working mother is required to leave the family home at the beginning of the story because she needs to attend a conference. She fills the freezer with meals and tells the father to remember to stock up on milk, as that’s the only thing she hasn’t been able to micromanage before she leaves. Once she is gone, the children run out of milk, presumably because the father is useless. However, the father redeems himself because while he is out buying milk he has a remarkable adventure. This story relies on the stereotypes that working mothers are hyper-organised and men with working mothers for wives hide behind their newspapers and let her pick up the slack at home. It is yet another story in which the mother must be disappeared before the father can have some real, carnivalesque fun with his own children.


WHY ALL THE DEAD MUMS?

There’s something inconceivable about losing your mother, yet it’s all over children’s literature. Death of mothers in fairytales made sense; it was prudent to prepare children for death because it happened so frequently, but now the number of dead mothers in children’s stories is disproportionate.

See also: Why all the orphans in children’s literature?


THE RULE THAT MOTHERS MUST LOVE THEIR CHILDREN

Drugs, alcohol, sex: These plots are all plentiful in YA fiction, but mothers who do not love their children? This may be the last taboo. Children often hate their mothers, but not the other way around.

The Illustrated Mum, also by Jacqueline Wilson, is another book about an absent mum but only because she doesn’t come home to sleep at night. This is a source of intense anxiety for the narrator. The mother lives with bipolar disorder. This is one of the most powerful of Wilson’s books. The children take it upon themselves to look after the mother. It plays on so many anxieties you have as a child. The mother doesn’t take care of the children and is unpredictable. She can be compared to the fairytale type of mother in Coraline. But ultimately, the mother in The Illustrated Mum does love her children. This is important: No matter how hopeless/useless/hated the mother in children’s literature, she pretty much always loves her children. The Tracy Beaker series (also by Jacqueline Wilson) also features a mother with mental illness.

In Tallahassee Higgins by Mary Downing Hahn, the mother leaves the little girl in the care of someone, leaves again, comes back and so on. There’s always the presumption that there is something wrong with the mother’s mind, rather than that she is a bad person. She is simply dysfunctional as a person. Tracy Beaker is slightly different in that you never see the mother. Tracy’s mother doesn’t do anything awful; she is simply not there.

A good example of an outright evil person who is also a mother is Mrs Coulter in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. It is revealed quite early in the series that her mother is a distant/cold/unpredictable person. She is evil, a child killer, a bit of a witch. But gradually in the third book there is a Sleeping Beauty type of twist in which she starts taking an interest in her daughter. She does love her child, rescuing Lyra from the guillotine. In the end she does sacrifice her own life to save her child. Again, a very bad person still turns out to be a good mother.

Mrs Coulter has something in common with the Other Mother in Neil Gaiman’s Coraline — both are Stepford wife tropes who have literal robotic elements. In Coraline the mother is gradually revealed as being a metallic, robotic insect on the inside. Lyra kisses Mrs Coulter on the cheek and her lips taste metallic afterwards. Later when Mrs Coulter gets angry at the journalist she emits the smell of burning metal.

Another truly bad mother is the mum in A Solitary Blue by Cynthia Voigt (1983). This is the tale of four children abandoned by their selfish mother in a carpark. But again, the mother does love her children. She simply can’t look after them. The main character Geoff deifies his mother in her absence. The story ends with Geoff accepting that she is who she is and he decides to have nothing to do with her. His relationship with his mother can be read as almost inappropriately sexual. As in The Illustrated Mum and Northern Lights, the mother is considered beautiful and glamorous.

Another rare example of a mother who leaves her son can be found in the film Lean On Pete.


THE TROPE OF WAITING FOR AN ABSENT MOTHER

Bambi is a classic example of this: Bambi waits for his mother but she never comes back. Instead, his father turns up.

See also the Missing Mom trope at TV Tropes


TYPES OF MOTHERLY SACRIFICE

First is the literal sacrifice of the mother’s own life, more common in fantasy than in realistic fiction.

Then there is symbolic sacrifice in which the mother sacrifices her life as an independent woman. There’s an interesting genesis to this. If we consider the young female characters who give birth during their teenage years in the course of YA stories, the young mothers, upon popping out babies, tend to suddenly develop this overwhelming maternal instinct. Twilight is a good example of this. Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman is the same. All the young mothers normalise the maternal instinct. Melvin Burgess’s Junk goes even further in this regard. The baby offers a redemption from the lies she has been living. She realises she has to get out of prostitution and living on the street. Pregnancy is now a salvation. This is a strong statement about the maternal instinct.

See the following papers:

From Basketball To Barney: Teen fatherhood, didacticism, and the literary in YA fiction by Helen Bittel, which is about the popular subgenre of YA — the teen pregnancy and parenting novel.

Stories of Teen Mothers: Fiction and non-fiction by Cynthia Miller-Coffel

The sacrificing mother is related to the ‘smothing mother’, often represented in children’s fiction by children who are overfed/overweight. This mother has no fulfilment of her own — she lives for and through her children.

Augustus Gloop from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Augustus Gloop from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

In the book, Dahl blames the mother for failing to curb Gloop’s appetite: ‘And what I always say is, he wouldn’t go on eating like he does unless he needed nourishment, would he? It’s all vitamins, anyway.’

Dudley Dursley from Harry Potter
Dudley Dursley from Harry Potter

Mrs Dursley’s overbearing, infantalising love is the counterpoint to Harry’s complete lack of motherly love.


TABOO TOPICS EVEN TODAY

Abortion is rarely postulated in young adult literature. But here is a Goodreads list of young adult books in which a character actually goes through with an abortion (rather than simply considers it).

As for breastfeeding, given how it is to be encouraged, and how much of it is presumably going on in homes, there is remarkably little of it going on in Western picturebooks. In films for kids out of Hollywood, it is actually taboo. This is what makes the breastfeeding scene in Wolf Children quite transgressive to a Western audience. At one point we even see the areola. I have not once seen that in a picture book for Western children.

Wolf-Children-Breastfeeding
from Wolf Children, the movie

MOTHERS AND FOOD

Food, especially sweet, rich food, often metaphorically represents the body of the mother in popular culture and that the desire for such food includes a subconscious yearning for the restoration of the primal relationship with her.

Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children

If you read carefully, you’ll notice that a lot of stories feature male protagonists with nurturing mothers who provide food. Note that in Where The Wild Things Are, for instance, Max returns to his room and there is a meal waiting. (Note that it’s still hot.)

You can find an example of a mother giving maternal comfort to a girl in Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights, when Ma Costa folds her great arms around Lyra and presses her to her breast. Generally, though, girls in children’s literature don’t derive quite the same amount of comfort from motherly types as boys. Carolyn Daniel speculates:

  1. Maybe girls aren’t thought to need mothers so much as boys do
  2. Maybe because girls are thought to become mothers themselves one day they’ll again be able to experience the mother-child relationship (albeit from the opposite side).

I’m going to add that there’s probably some weird homophobic stuff going on there, too. And also the female maturity principle.

It probably goes without saying, but the breast stands in metonymically for the mother.

Good mother = food/love/comfort

Bad mother = lack of food/lack of love/lack of comfort

Mothers in stories use food as a means of power exchange. Good mothers provide eaters with sustenance/power/energy. In exchange, good mothers are content with the emotional satisfaction she receives from providing the food. (And never complains about having to cook it all.) But the smothering mother provides food that poisons the eaters. She drains them of vitality/power/subjectivity. Instead of feeding, she absorbs this energy from the child. An example of that is the mother figure (actually the aunt) in Tom’s Midnight Garden, who is a great cook but provides Tom with far too much rich food. He feels imprisoned inside their small house, in quarantine because of measles, and doesn’t appreciate the food.

RELATED

An article about the transformation of the mother in American-Mexican lit by Megan Parry

Roles Of Mothers In Disney Media from Wikipedia

Which Disney Mom Are You Most Like? one of those stupid quizzes, from Poptastic

10 Best Bad Mothers In Literature (for adults) from The Telegraph

A list of Parent Tropes at TV Tropes

It’s Not All about Snow White: The Evil Queen Isn’t that Monstrous After All a paper by Cristina Santos

TOP TEN WORST PARENTS IN TWEEN LIT BY AMY ESTERSOHN

13 Reasons Why Clay’s Mother Is The Fucking Worst from BuzzFeed. I agree, even as a mother myself, that Clay’s mother as depicted by the Netflix show was excruciating.

11 of the Best Moms in Children’s Literature from Brightly

mothers are that way