These symbolic archetypes are very old. The earliest written record we have is often in fairy tales.
Light vs. Darkness
Light usually suggests hope, renewal, or intellectual illumination. Darkness implies the unknown, ignorance, or despair.
Pure black is rare in children’s illustration but Jon Klassen makes use of matte black in The Dark, which is about a young boy’s fear of the symbolic house at night.
In general, Jon Klassen makes much use of shadows to subtly frame the focal points of his illustrations. This is a technique reminiscent of 1960s illustration, found in animation such as 101 Dalmatians. Below, a scene from 101 Dalmatians contrasts blues (darks) against pinks (warm and light), and the flame from a fireplace casts a frame within a frame as our villain creeps towards the door. Continue reading “Symbolic Archetypes In Children’s Stories”
The concept of theme means different things in different settings. In high school literature class we are told that ‘theme’ is a word — a sort of abstract noun like ‘love’ or ‘independence’. This is okay — this gets most students passing year 11 English, but if you go on to study literature, or if you’re a writer, the single word example of theme isn’t enough.
THEME AS USED IN EVERYDAY ENGLISH
“Well, the theme of today’s meeting was definitely muffins.”
In everyday usage, ‘theme’ can refer to any collection of ideas which are somehow connected.
DEFINITION FOR WRITERS
A theme is a sentence, not a single word.
Theme is a coherent sentence that expresses a story’s irreducible meaning.
WAR is not a theme. War is a setting.
LOVE is not a theme. Love is a genre (Romance, love story)
TEEN DRUG ABUSE is not a theme. Teen drug abuse is subject matter.
THEME AND SCREENWRITING
Screenwriters are tasked with the job of coming up with a great hook and logline — even more so than novel writers because of the big budgets involved and because the traditional movie-going audience are looking for high concept stories. Accordingly, screenwriters think of ‘theme’ a little differently. They like to attach their own words to the concept. (The skeptic in me thinks that’s partly so they can package their own brands… But in the end we should pick the version that makes sense to us.)
Well-known screenwriting guru Robert McKee prefers the phrase ‘Controlling Idea’, because ‘theme’ is now used widely in colloquial language and doesn’t mean what he wants it to mean. McKee says the theme (controlling idea) exists to tell the emotional lesson of a story. This sounds a little like math class but if your brain works like this:
The Controlling Idea = Value changed by Cause
Value means the primary value in its positive or negative charge that comes into the world or life of your character as a result of the final action of the story.
Cause refers to the primary reason that the life or world of the protagonist has tuned to its positive or negative value.
e.g. Justice (VALUE) triumphs (the change) because the hero is smarter than the villain (CAUSE).
Another screenwriting guru, John Truby, thinks in terms of ‘moral argument’ and ‘symbol web’. According to Truby, theme exists to show “The writer’s view of the proper way to act in the world.”
THEME IN YOUR OWN STORIES
The best way to get a handle on the concept of theme is to write sentences summing up your own stories. Then do the same for your favourite stories by other writers. I used McKee’s formula to write the controlling ideas (after the fact).
The theme of The Artifacts: Hope (VALUE) is restored(CHANGE) because a boy realises the value of knowledge and abstract joys over the amassing of material wealth (CAUSE).
The theme of Midnight Feast: Adult-like awareness of poverty (VALUE) is gained (CHANGE) when a girl stays up late one night and sees the poverty right outside her home (CAUSE).
The theme of Hilda Bewildered: A young princess learns to deal with performance anxiety (CHANGE) when she learns the power of visualisation (VALUE) on the night of her first speech (CAUSE).
The theme of Diary of a Goth Girl: It is only after the grim reaper comes for a pessimistic try-hard goth (CAUSE) that she learns(CHANGE) the value of human kindness (VALUE).
Theme might also be expressed like this, embracing the didactic (moralistic) aspect of the story. This is often done for children’s stories.
The Artifacts: It’s better to collect knowledge and experiences than material wealth.
Midnight Feast: It’s fairly easy to ignore poverty even when it’s right outside your own window.
Hilda Bewildered: Difficult real life situations become surmountable once harnessing the power of visualisation.
Children’s literature seems to have a higher tolerance for didacticism (though the trend is against it), so you’ll often find themes written like that somewhere in the advertising copy.
This image is from the 1986 version retold by Anne Carter, illustrated by Binette Schroeder. Beauty and the Beast has a strong Christian message for young women: Do as you’re told and you’ll wind up in Heaven. Here we see her going up the stairs into the Beast’s castle, sure that she’s about to end up dead.
There are three main types of modern adventure stories, and they all make use of mythic structure. (For more on children’s adventure stories and their evolution, see The Centrality of the Adventure Story.)
1. THE MYTHIC JOURNEY
The ur-Myth is The Odyssey, first recorded by Homer 800 BC.
Also known as the (Mythic) Quest. These stories all have the same basic structure. The technical definition of myth:
The story of the transformation of the soul and the stages of its illumination.
It’s different from other genres — birth to death to rebirth, a story of recycling that never ends. It has the broadest story structure of any genre. Instead of a love story, typically tracking the courtship between a man and a woman, this is a story form that has massive scope. Myth stories are almost always epics. An interesting thing to do is to make a combination between myth and love, which aren’t normally put together, but if you did do this, your work would be separated from almost everyone else writing love stories so it’s an excellent technique.
There are four major story areas where myth is distinguished from other genres: character, story world, plot and theme.
The Monomyth comes from Joseph Campbell — the idea that there’s a single story that all writers tap into. But this is a faulty idea. If you look at the beats Joseph talks about, they tend to be warrior male myth stories, so don’t really work when you’re trying to talk about female myth. Well, maybe there’s a single female myth story? You get into a lot of problems because if you try to reduce all female stories to a single story — you end up reducing her to the single biological function of a woman. Better to think rather that the character can grow past the basic biological capacity to give birth.
There’s a new knight story, with knight stories being one of the most enduring stories at the moment, especially in the West. This story form will continue to be in its more modern version very popular for the next 10-20 years.
The rejuvenation myth is a story form about how do you rejuvenate the city and make it liveable, a place that’s freeing and promotes growth? This is probably the central challenge for story tellers if they’re trying to tell a modern day story. In the past writers have written that the city gets so technological and overbearing that it collapses and starts all over again. That’s no longer a good solution. Look at Avatar to see how popular these stories can be — it’s basically based on ecological story beats, so we have a new story form: ecological.
In this kind of adventure there are often two journeys, closely linked and mutually dependent, one physical and the other spiritual. The protagonist, by means of a physical journey, experiences a growth in self-knowledge or subtle character development. An observant reader will respond to both journeys and be aware of the spiritual growth that has taken place.
— Give Them Wings, edited by Saxby and Winch
Or, as John Truby says, in a mythic journey, the hero goes on a journey, finds himself, then comes back home a slightly (or vastly) changed individual.
The ur-Static Journey is the Robinsonnade, a word that appeared to describe two similar novels which happened to both have ‘Robinson’ in the title: Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Swiss Family Robinson.
What made Robinson Crusoe so popular?
A wonderful narrative voice — exciting, unhurried and conversational. Quasi-journalistic.
It’s actually a very old story pattern, also seen in the Bible: transgression, retribution, repentance, redemption. (Youthful rebellion, successive shipwrecks, the painful lessons of isolation, Crusoe’s return home.)
Memorably concrete images, like Friday’s footprints in the sand, Crusoe with his parrot and umbrella.
One reason for the island myth is pure escapism, of course. But this sort of myth is often not an escape from work. Once you’re on the island, you need to work hard to live. Like ultra-camping, or the feeling you get watching reality TV of the Doomsday Preppers variety. In Robinson Crusoe, our hero has to build shelters, fence off territories, hunt and farm.
Another island story is The Tempest, by William Shakespeare. Prospero has to procure the island’s secrets from Caliban, make the wretch his slave, learn to master the elements and protect his daughter.
Why are these stories so popular? Well, we love a story in which characters work for what they have. This is a dominant ideology in children’s literature too. When characters get what they desire we like to see evidence that they deserve it. Robinson Crusoe has achieved longevity due in part to its consonance with this modern ideology that work is one of most important things humans can do. Indeed, Defoe presents work as a kind of therapy — working on mind, body and spirit. When Crusoe bakes his own bread he’s proud of his achievement. This is in line with the tale of The Little Red Hen: If you want to enjoy your bread you had better have baked it yourself.
For more on Robinson Crusoe see The Guardian, in which they count Robinson Crusoe as the second most important book in English literature.
A more recent evolution is Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, written in the mid- to late-1800s in which the hero doesn’t actually need to go anywhere; all the action takes place at home.
In the 20th century we read school stories and holiday stories, which are also static in that the action takes place at a (boarding) school or at a holiday destination. See: School Stories.
Around the 1960s and 70s adventure stories started to focus less on plot and more on character. Romanticism gave way to realism. As in the best adventure stories, setting is still important.
Ivan Southall — the Simon Black series — the Australian Biggles
A more direct modern retelling of the Robinson Crusoe story is of course Castaway starring Tom Hanks. But don’t forget that any adventure story which takes place in one place is a descendent of Robinson Crusoe.
Julie of the Wolves is a YA novel in the Robinsonnade tradition.
3. THE FEMALE MYTH
It could be that we’re all sick of the three act structure and that actually there is a way of telling a story that is different. And it’s just not about the big orgasm [Battle] at the end. We have multiple orgasms, that’s God’s gift to us. […] There is a theory around women’s storytelling, that it isn’t just the three act structure to get to the big bang at the end. That isn’t our biology. We like a slow burn. And it’s very rewarding. What’s wrong with 10 endings?
Odyssean stories and Robinsonades are of the ‘male’ type. (The first involves leaving home and going on a journey to find oneself; the second focuses a bit more on character development.) The Male Myth form is well-known to everyone because it is so common and so ancient.
Then there is the female myth form which is much newer.
This new female myth form is a blend of the two minus a few things.
There are few modern examples of the female myth form, but some notable examples are:
For the last 3000 years (since The Odyssey) adventure stories have been about men and typically masculine pursuits. Frozen is one of the most popular animated films of all time. This shows the absurdity of the old Hollywood conventional wisdom that says you can’t have a blockbuster hit with a female lead character. There is a tremendous thirst for new female myth forms.
…fundamentally change our collective vision of who the hero is and what she will accomplish on her life and story paths.[…] Of course both Joy and Riley are female. But that alone does not make this a female myth. Joy is not a warrior like the Diana goddess, as depicted by the Katniss Everdeen character in The Hunger Games. She is an emotion, and a way of seeing and interacting with the world without fighting. Riley isn’t the typical Disney princess. She’s a normal, eleven-year-old girl facing a traumatic life event where she’s been forced to move to a new home.
Like the Male Warrior Myth laid out by Joseph Campbell, Joy goes on a long, difficult journey.But she doesn’t fight her way through one opponent after another, ending with a big bloody battle. She thinks and feels her way through the labyrinth that is Riley’s mind. Nor is there a Minotaur at the center that Joy must slay. There are references to some of the old Greek myths, such as the Cyclops in the form of a giant, scary clown and a mountain which Joy, as Sisyphus, must climb only to tumble back down and try again. But it’s the way she handles the opposition, and ultimately succeeds, that makes this a new Female Myth story.
In other words, the Female Myth:
Doesn’t technically have to star female heroes — ‘female myth’ describes the story type rather than the gender of the main character. The inverse is also true: Just because a myth stars a female doesn’t mean the story is a ‘female myth form’. (Likewise, a feminist story doesn’t have to star a female character — feminist stories let characters of all genders transcend limitations of their sex.)
Doesn’t have all the fighting
Or the big battle at the climax
Doesn’t necessarily involve a journey away from home, but there is some sort of long, difficult journey
There doesn’t have to be a ‘minotaur’ (a powerful outside opponent)
Plots are not based on conflict
It draws heavily from Jungian theory.
Interiority. The Female Myth is an inner journey. It seems to have been around since the Second Wave feminist movement (though there may well be excellent earlier examples I don’t know about.) Either the character goes into their own heads or, as in Inside Out, there’s a whole other world in there. Imagination and fantasy are great combos for the female myth form, as without the big battles and strong outside villain we do require a rich story world.
In children’s literature, it’s possible to track the development from ‘male myths only’ to where we are today, with Inside Out.
In Waking Sleeping Beauty, Roberta Seelinger Trites names two books in particular: The Blue Sword by Robyn McKinley and On Fortune’s Wheel by Cynthia Voight.
THE BLUE SWORD (1982)
This novel has a lot of feminist problems, to be sure.
Harry is silenced because of how it’s plotted — she can’t speak the local fantasy language and has to rely on a dude to translate everything for her. This means he dominates conversations.
Only four of the fifteen knights are women and they remain unnamed, so McKinley doesn’t achieve gender balance in her minor characters.
This is ultimately a marriage plot. At the end she gets married and this is a happy ending for her.
But The Blue Sword is an important work because it was one of the first books to allow a female character a traditionally masculine mythic quest.
Seelinger Trites points out that imagery of cycles and wheels inform both texts to emphasize how Birle and Orien’s journeys are process- rather than goal-oriented. This lines up with what Maria Nikolajeva has said about how seasons dominate in children’s books written for girls, since seasons are cyclical.
The journeys themselves are circular as well. In male myth forms, the hero often (though not always) ends in a different part of the world.
ON FORTUNE’S WHEEL (1990)
Published 8 years later, Cynthia Voight’s novel is similar to The Blue Sword but avoids some of the traps of subversion.
Birle goes on a quest, like Harry, though she’s not after an object in particular.
She doesn’t give up her voice, identity or her culture when she marries.
She starts her journey voluntarily, trying to rescue her family. (This is similar to the much later Katniss Everdeen ‘call’ to adventure.) She’s not kidnapped or anything.
She serves as the male character’s guide for a while then makes her own decision to join him on his journey in the hopes of escaping an unwise betrothal (that she made herself).
She falls in love with her male companion and chooses to be with him.
Birle is not setting out to destroy a foe. This is what makes it different from the male quest/myth.
Instead, it is the process of the journey, which allows the characters’ love for each other to grow, and not the end of the journey that matters. This is the main narrative choice that separates Voight’s quest from others.
The differences between the ‘male’ and ‘female’ myth forms are described by Elizabeth Lyon in her book Manuscript Makeover, in which she picks the highlights from an earlier feminist book The Heroine’s Journey by Maureen Murdock.
MALE MYTH: THE OUTER QUEST
FEMALE MYTH: THE INNER QUEST
The Hero is in his familiar Ordinary World when a serious event introduces a problem that is his Call To Adventure.
A life changing event compels a woman to go on a quest to find her own identity, separate from the one she assimilated from the male culture that was modelled by her mother.
He refuses the Call because it will mean change, challenge, Separation from the known and familiar, and Departure from home. It may even mean risking his life. He also doesn’t know if he is capable of the task.
At first she adopts so-called male behaviours, thinking that she has denied aggressiveness in the past and that is what she needs.
A Mentor assures him that he can do it, must do it, and is the only one who can succeed.
This belief leads her into the world of men, often also growing closer to her father.
Emboldened and committed, the Hero departs. He Crosses the Threshold into the Special World, which is alien compared to his Ordinary World.
She often achieves success in the work world as she perfects her Animus, the assertive competitive, perfectionist, and male-identified side of her personality.
He quickly learns the rules, encounters Allies and Enemies, and begins his Descent deep into the Special World, the territory of those who oppose him and where he’ll find the solution to the problem.
At the same time, she challenges, rejects and even rebukes the beliefs in inferiority, dependency, and romantic love that she now sees as cultural indoctrination of women.
As he continues on the Road of Tests and Trials, the obstacles grow more formidable. He reaches the Approach to the Inner Cave, knowing that at its heart will be the Supreme Ordeal. In the innermost cave, he encounters the biggest obstacles and threats to success. If he overcomes these final challenges, he will have claim to the Reward: He’ll achieve the goal that resolves the problem that set him on his journey.
She may blame her mother and distance herself from her.
After he succeeds (or fails), he Refuses the Call to return home, instead emerging from the cave to regale in his glory or to lick his wounds.
But when success in the male world also leaves her feeling hollow she no longer feels close to her father or male mentors. She feels betrayed by everyone and everything she has known and believes, including God as a male-defined creation of the culture.
Believing his quest is over and he can at last begin his Return home, he is confronted with one last obstacle, the Ultimate Test. Whether or not he reaches his story goal, if he summons all that he has learned, and releases or heals a wound he was afflicted with in his past, he will let his old self die to be reborn into a new, freer self.
Alone, “spiritually arid”, the woman begins her turn inward in search of her unique self. She examines her unique experiences and searches for memories that seem to reflect pieces of a lost but authentic self. However long this period lasts, it often involves shedding any accoutrements of what the patriarchal culture deems appropriate and desirable: female dress, manners and friends. Yet she yearns for an end to the grief and emptiness. She fears she may die without finding her true self and a chance to pursue dreams that she discovers within her.
This is his emotional passage, his Initiation. Death and Rebirth allow him to overcome this final confrontation (unless the story is a tragedy, and then he clings to his old ways, weaknesses, and the emotional wound.)
Little by little, or all at once, she finds that connection, and the courage to receive the archetypal power of the Feminine. She integrates it in her own way. She begins to express her unique and now known self. Now she can also express, as needed, nurturing, relatedness and receptivity. These are the positive qualities of the Feminine.
She reconnects with her mother or with the archetype of the Mother. If the relationship with her earthly mother permits it, she seeks to heal the former breach.
Instead of rejecting all the Masculine qualities, she integrates the side of herself that also holds the power of the positive Masculine archetype.
At last he can Return with the Elixir, perhaps a treasure, but the true reward is being a new, transformed individual, a Master of Two Worlds, an integrated person with wisdom to share, in the form of the theme reflected by his journey.
Finally, she ends her duality, the split of her self and cultural beliefs about the Feminine and Masculine. She ends the misery of beliefs and behaviours not in harmony with her discovered self. She emerges into her new world and selects her new life as an integrated, renewed and healed person.
In order to work out whether a mythic story is ‘male’ or ‘female’, don’t look at the gender of the hero. Men and boys can star in female myths while women and girls can star in the traditional male myth.
Oprah’s book club picks were usually good examples of the female myth. Since the reader of this kind of female myth form is asked to identify with a character battling what is essentially the patriarchy, it’s not surprising that some men (one of whom even refused to appear on Oprah’s book club…) will be turned off by a Oprah’s book club sticker. It is true of many things in life as it is in reading — women are expected to understand and sympathise with the male experience but not vice versa. Many men simply cannot understand what such a struggle would feel like, or what it even entails.
The most recent Female Myths have branched out. The woman/girl hero no longer has to battle against the patriarchy, or wrestle with the binary gender norm. We are moving into a political period where, in enlightened communities, the gender binary is put aside in favour of individual expression.
We’re even starting to see the female myth in film — traditionally later than novels in picking up the latest trends. (Hollywood is notoriously conservative.)
The Male Warrior Myth, indeed all of Western storytelling in the last 3000 years, is based on maximum conflict. The hero goes on a journey and fights one opponent after another. There is always a big bloody battle near the end.
Female Myths solve problems in a different way. The hero goes on a journey, but instead of battling with others, she might think and feel her way through her problem.
[Echoing Maureen Murdock and Elizabeth Lyon:] Females as main characters are not what make a ‘female myth form’. It’s all about how the hero deals with the problem.
— John Truby, Anatomy of Story
As John Truby points out, Pixar’s film Inside Out is an excellent example of a Female Myth. While Riley is a girl, she could just as easily have been a boy.
Like the Male Warrior Myth laid out by Joseph Campbell, Joy goes on a long, difficult journey. But she doesn’t fight her way through one opponent after another, ending with a big bloody battle. She thinks and feels her way through the labyrinth that is Riley’s mind. Nor is there a Minotaur at the center that Joy must slay. There are references to some of the old Greek myths, such as the Cyclops in the form of a giant, scary clown and a mountain which Joy, as Sisyphus, must climb only to tumble back down and try again. But it’s the way she handles the opposition, and ultimately succeeds, that makes this a new Female Myth story.
Her primary ally in this journey, and the key to its final success, is another woman, Sadness. As in any Buddy Picture Comedy, the buddy is the first opponent. In the mind of Joy and the audience, Sadness is her polar opposite and best avoided whenever possible. But the key to the self-revelation, for Joy and thus Riley as well, is that experiencing loss and Sadness is part of growing up.
Other examples of the Female Myth form:
Coraline — A girl retreats into her imagination where her ideal home life is found. She realises she doesn’t want what she thought she wanted after all, and battles the demons before returning to reality more grateful and satisfied.
Arrival — A woman’s ability to see holistically instead of divisively is matched by the story’s structure, and results in a personal and global revolution.
Where are all the female creation myths?
The female body follows the lunar cycle, which is closely associated with the idea of death and rebirth (waning and waxing moon). The cardinal function of the female body is reproduction. The female myths, describing female initiation, are aimed at repetition, rebirth, the eternal life cycle. Actually, very few genuine female myths exist in written–male, civilised, “symbolic” (Lacan)–form, due to many reasons. Connected with essential life mysteries such as menstruation and birth (both involving bloody), female myths are more secret and sacred than male myths. They have mostly existed in oral form, as esoteric rituals. In Western civilisation, they have been suppressed and muted by the dominant male culture. We can only discover traces and remnants of them, in the figures of the *Progenitrix, the witch, the **chthonic goddess.
— Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature
*Progenitrix = A female progenitor, a foremother, any of a person’s direct female ancestors (ancestresses).
**Chthonic = relating to or inhabiting the underworld
There are still few female myths around, which is why I wrote one myself, in the form of Hilda Bewildered. Though I didn’t realise it at the time, this story is similar to Inside Out in that it’s about a girl facing a hard situation, learning to overcome a difficult fear by going inside herself. There is no minotaur; there is no big battle scene. These stories are certainly difficult to write, for exactly that reason.
The Artifacts is also a female myth form even though it stars a boy.
Midnight Feast may also fit the female myth form — I’m not quite sure myself. But I did aim to write something different, and I think I succeeded in that, for sure.
I would love to see more female myth forms in the world, so if you have an idea for one, please write it!
Symmetry matters more to writers of fiction than readers consciously perceive.
— David Lodge
Next time you’re reading (or writing) something, you might think of character change in the form of a mirror.
Change is the root of all drama.
Some characters have a deficiency of knowledge rather than a ‘flaw’ or a ‘moral weakness’. This is particularly true of child characters, whose main ‘flaw’ is being young and inexperienced. It is also true of a character such as Inspector Morse who knows nothing of a killer at the beginning of his journey but everything by the end. Child characters are quite similar to genre fiction characters.
At the midpoint protagonists start to really understand the nature of forces against them. This is when the identities of baddies are revealed, usually, if they’ve been hidden at the beginning.
At the midpoint the protagonist holds the solution to the mission in their hands. If it’s a detective film, this information changes the story completely. If it’s a thriller the midpoint marks the end of the ‘outward’ journey to achieve the goal and marks the beginning of the journey back.
The midpoint of each story is the moment when each protagonist embraces for the first time the quality they will need to become complete and finish their story. It’s when they discover a truth about themselves. In an archetypal (three dimensional/memorable) story, that truth will be an embodiment of everything that’s the direct opposite of the person they were. The protagonist will embrace that truth and attempt to assimilate and understand it in the second half of the tale. The character learns what they themselves are capable of.
In what John Yorke calls a ‘two dimensional story’ (that would include ongoing series such as Courage the Cowardly Dog or Seinfeld), the main character learns the truth about the adversary.
All stories at some level are about a search for the truth of the subject they are exploring. Just as the act of perception involves seeking out the ‘truth’ of the thing perceived, so storytelling mimics that process. The ‘truth’ of the story, then, lies at the midpoint. The protagonist’s action at this point will be to overcome that obstacle, assimilate that truth and begin the journey back — the journey to understand the implications of what that ‘truth’ really means.
If the main character in a story doesn’t change, there’s no story.
Here are some stories you might like to read/study if you are interested in themes touched upon in The Artifacts.
These next three books are similar to The Artifacts in that they share a counterpoint in genre: The words are realistic while the pictures are fantasy. This creates tension between the “objective” and the “subjective”. (See ‘How Picturebooks Work’, by Maria Nikolajeva and Carole Scott.)
WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE BY MAURICE SENDAK
Both stories are about a boy who experiences a rift between himself and his parents, and who then retreats to his own bedroom only to retreat further into his imagination. In both cases, what happens in the boys’ imagination reflects what happens — or what they wish would happen — in their real lives.
Like Asaf in The Artifacts, Max starts from the security of his bedroom, explores the wider world in his mind, then returns to the safety of his bedroom. See Room With A View: Bedroom Scenes In Picturebooks by William Moebius, Children’s Literature,Volume 19, 1991.
THE COAT-HANGER HORSE BY KYM LARDNER
This is another story in which a boy is confined to his bedroom — not because he is in trouble or because he is sulking but because he is ill. I suppose his imagination could be interpreted as delirium, but he may simply be biding his time by using his imagination to amuse himself. His quilt becomes a landscape for instance, and his bed becomes a sea in the ocean. I think most of us have imagined that our bed is floating in an ocean (no?) and the patchwork quilt analogy must be fairly common too. I’m reminded of a Gonsalves painting.
THE DANGEROUS JOURNEY BY TOVE JANSSON
CLANCY & MILLIE AND THE VERY FINE HOUSE BY LIBBY GLEESON ILLUSTRATED BY FREYA BLACKWOOD (2009)
This story is similar to The Artifacts in that a pre-adolescent boy is forced to move house, from a small, cosy house in the suburbs to a large apartment in an urban area. Clancy (who like Asaf appears to be an only child) is not happy about this move, and cannot identify with either of his parents, who think the new abode is marvellous.
Some close reading questions for this picture book might go something like this:
How has the illustrator made Clancy’s old house seem much more cosy than the new one? (Colour, perspective)
On the first page, and again towards the end, the clouds look like three pigs. If we assume that Clancy sees the clouds like this, what does it say about Clancy’s personality? What else in the pictures supports your interpretation of Clancy’s personality?
Where has the illustrator made Clancy’s parents seem united, with Clancy emotionally ‘on his own’?
Talk about the role of cardboard boxes in this story, from their most literal part in the plot to the most metaphorical interpretation you can think of.
What does the fat snail symbolise? (Hiding from the world. Almost agoraphobia. The fat snail also marks a turning point, from realism to magic realism. Now, the illustrations will be a little over the top. For example, the boxes will now tower above in a way that defies real-world gravity.)
Is Millie real? Give evidence for or against. (Her clothes are very similar to Clancy’s — similar in an unlikely way — so she may not be. In fact, she looks like the girl version of Clancy, even down to the two-syllable name. The background of these illustrations is a kind of textured cloud, in which case Millie could have appeared from ‘nowhere’. But Millie does talk to him, and on the final page the stuffed dog has been discarded, suggesting that a real-world friend has displaced an inanimate stand-in. The reader never knows for sure.)
Why does this story rely on allusions to the classic fairy tale The Three Little Pigs? ()In which housing is a part of the plot. Apart from the plot point of moving houses, there exists anxiety in both stories. Perhaps The Three Little Pigs is really about the anxiety of moving house, in which we worry that our new abode will not protect us adequately. The Big Bad Wolf would in that case stand in for all the worries associated with intrusion but also loneliness and other fears. At a more literal level, Clancy builds a stronger and stronger cardboard house, using his imagination to reassure himself that he is living ‘in a house of bricks’ and is thereby fortified and confident in his new environs.)
THE WILD BABY GOES TO SEA BY BARBRO LINDGREN AND EVA ERIKSSON
SEASON OF DISBELIEF BY RAY BRADBURY
You’ll find this story in Ray Bradbury Stories Volume 2.
Once time has passed, it has passed. We only have the present. That’s the message I took away from this lovely short story by a master of the form.
Mrs Bentley was a saver. She saved tickets, old theater programs, bits of lace, scarves, rail transfers; all the tags and tokens of existence.
Her collecting tendencies are magnified by the fact that she has lost her husband, John. She wants to save everything that reminds her of him. One summer’s day Helen Bentley sees three ten-year-old children (Jane, Tom and Alice) sitting on her lawn. At that moment the ice-cream van comes past, so she buys them an ice-cream. The children are not very polite, and when Mrs Bentley tells them she’s 72 years old, they hardly believe it. They certainly don’t believe that Mrs Bentley was once a child too. This is too horrific to imagine. Perhaps they’ve never considered before that one day, if they’re lucky, they’ll be old too. The girls leave after a distasteful exchange. Tom follows slowly behind and is the only one of the three children to thank Mrs Bentley for the ice-cream. (I suspect the girls are more terrified of looking like Mrs Bentley because of the shared gender.)
Mrs Bentley can’t get the children out of her mind, so in the evening she stands on her porch for half an hour. When they come past again she invites them inside and shows them some of her special possessions, hoping to prove that she was young once too. Among the trinkets is a photograph of herself when she was a girl, but the two girls still won’t believe that it’s her. They accuse her of falsifying information, of taking off with a picture of another little girl. As the girls leave, they steal a comb, a ring and the photo.
Lying awake in bed, later that night, Mrs Bentley imagines what her husband would have to say about it:
They stole nothing from you, my dear. These things don’t belong to you here, you now. They belonged to her, that other you, so long ago.
She recalls an earlier conversation with him:
Why did you save those ticket stubs and theater progams? They’ll only hurt you later. Throw them away, my dear…It won’t work…No matter how hard you try to be what you once were you can only be what you are here and now. Time hypnotizes. When you’re nine, you think you’ve always been nine years old and will always be. When you’re thirty, it seems you’ve always been balanced there on that bright rim of middle life. And then when you turn seventy, you are always and forever seventy. You’re in the present, you’re trapped in a young now or an old now, but there is no other now to be seen.
The following day the children return, and Mrs Bentley has made up her mind to let them take whatever they like. In return, they help her build a bonfire of items she need no longer keep. Now, whenever they ask her questions, she doesn’t try to persuade them that she was young and pretty once. She insists that she’s always been seventy-two, that she doesn’t have a first name, that she’s just called ‘Mrs Bentley’.
THE FISHERMAN AND THE THEEFYSPRAY BY PAUL JENNINGS ILLUSTRATED BY JANE TANNER
This is a story for younger readers — even preschoolers would appreciate the tale of a fisherman who catches a very rare fish and decides to throw her back into the sea. That night he goes home with no fish, but he does have his memories, which he values more than the physical object. In this respect, the fisherman has learnt the same lesson that Asaf reluctantly learned as a boy.
STORIES THAT CELEBRATE IMAGINATION (CURATED WITH BOYS IN MIND)
A character’s room can contribute to characterization… Setting is frequently used to symbolize the character’s moods as well as power position. The bright sunny morning in the beginning of Anne of Green Gables corresponds to her hopeful expectations. A change of setting can parallel the change in the character’s frame of mind. A storm can symbolize the turmoil in the character’s psyche.
– The Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature, Maria Nikolajeva
1. How is Asaf’s new bedroom different from his old one?
2. Describe the colour symbolism.
Teenage Bedroom is a Tumblr with photos of … well, it’s pretty self-explanatory. What vibe do you get from each of these bedrooms? Can you associate any with characters from novels you have read?