The Headless Bust by Edward Gorey

“The Headless Bust” is the sequel to “The Haunted Tea-Cosy”, which I tried to decipher the other day (with limited success). This one is actually a little easier to understand and we are basically given a pass for not understanding it anyway:

‘Who were these people? Why did they
Appear to us along the way?’
‘But then again, why should we care?’
It’s quelque chose d’un grand mystère.’ (something of a bit mystery)

Gorey taps into the absurd to save us from it.

— Jane Langton

WHY LANCELOT BROWN?

The book is dedicated to Lancelot Brown, a landscape designer who lived in the 1700s. He was paid royal figures for his landscaping work (while the actual gardeners were paid very little, I expect).

This is him. He does have a mischievous, interesting face. I can see why Gorey may have been taken by him. Because otherwise, honestly, why?

Lancelot “Capability” Brown

This makes me want to write a picture book and dedicate it to some random historical figure for absurdist reasons. This feels like a joke on literary analysts, who like to decipher reasons behind everything that appears in a book. Well, I’m not falling for that.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE HEADLESS BUST

Once again, the story opens and closes with fruit cake. The standout feature of the fruit cake is that it is rock solid. The main character is a scrooge (we know from the previous story) and has been hoarding it for ten years.

The story opens like this:

‘Twas hours and hours after dawn
Ere (before) the last guest was fin’lly gone.
ça va, hélas (alas), from bad to worse;
Adieu to prose, allô to verse.

This opening doesn’t mention the fruit cake but I assume that is what Edmund Gravel holds in his hand. The Bahhumbug ‘calls attention to’ some ‘fact’ — the fact that the story has now switched from prose to verse? And this is apparently the cause of Gravel’s ‘unraveling’, in which he goes with the insect creature into a parallel universe and meets all kinds of different people.

From here on in, each page is a bit like a limerick — different rhyme scheme, but a series of short, humorous character sketches in rhyme. My interpretation is that Gravel has just hosted a party which went on far too long and now he’s dreaming of people, perhaps remembering awkward interactions  he’s had with them, being a natural hermit.

He is dozing off when a fly turns up, to complement his imaginary Bahhumbug, then a cloud (perhaps a shroud) and whisks them away to some ‘provincial town’ (showing that Edward prides himself on being urban and sophisticated). I’m reminded of The Wizard of Oz, but anything including a fly and dream sequences is going to remind us of Kafka. The French words make it at once sound a little erudite (beau monde, meaning fashionable society, and so on) while also distancing English speakers from the text — this is exotic stuff.

So that’s the fantasy portal by which Gravel lands on foreign turf: a shroud which might be just a woolly cloud.

REAL VERSUS TRUE

‘Initial, dash cannot conceal
The fact that everything is real,
But whether it is also true
Is left entirely up to you.’

What’s the difference between ‘real’ and ‘true’? This is the sort of question philosophers get caught up in. The question requires a definition of ‘truth’, most often described as that which is both empirical and logical. People on Quora have attempted to define a difference; but it comes down mostly to context.

I think Gorey is asking this question to make us think the story is deep. He knew darn well this is not a philosophical piece so much as a humorous one. Surely?

Then again, let’s go to the subtitle of this story: A Melancholy Meditation on the False Millennium.

It’s easy to forget now — I was a young adult — everyone was talking about the new millennium back in 1999. It was a period of great reflection, and also trepidation. Which millennium did Gorey believe to be ‘False’? Was it the one just ending or the one just beginning? Sadly, he didn’t stick around for much of it. He died in April 2000.

Perhaps the ticking over of an entire 1000 years was a solemn reminder of the fact that we can never go back. Once a millennium is over, it’s almost as if it never existed. It remains true, but it is no longer real. Only the here and now can ever be really ‘real’. Everything exists in memory or in imagination.

Turns out I fell for it after all.

At midpoint, the main pair find themselves wandering around in the fog, not knowing what’s happening or what they’re doing there, which makes them our viewpoint characters since we have no idea, either.

Then they are standing on a miniature island, barely big enough for the two of them. The background is negative space. Except for the legs of the fly, hovering above, almost completely out of range of the ‘camera’. Or maybe it’s not the fly at all? It almost looks like the sun’s rays.

But after this emotional journey to the inner soul, the trio meet a few more characters.

What does QRV stand for? I Googled it. In amateur radio it means ‘Are you ready?’ This could make sense. Gorey could be asking, ‘Are you ready for the new millennium?’ But honestly, that’s a stretch. What on earth does it mean?

My favourite character sketch is the following:

In Wiggly Blog a certain X–,
Who looked to be of  neither sex,
Was charged with gross indecency
Which everyone could plainly see.

The picture is of a person wearing a kerchief on their head, knotted at the side to perhaps form pigtails (feminine), or perhaps it’s just a kerchief.

I like this page because I have wondered how Edward Gorey might have identified had he been born 80 years later than he was. As it is, he goes on record as saying he identified with neither gender himself; these days kids are exposed to a much broader range of categories and a gender spectrum rather than a gender binary. I suspect this figure is Edward himself.

Which leads me to think every single one of these characters functions as a facet of Gorey himself.

The following morning, Gravel and the Bahhumbug are back at Gravel’s house (it seems the Bahhumbug is living there with him now) and they’re faced with the task of cleaning up after last night’s party.

They discuss their adventure and conclude it’s not something one can explain. A complete cheese dream. The final page suggests this party was an End of Year Party and now they realise they’re in a new century, and there’s nothing they can do about it. They’ve been thrown there whether they like it or not, as if into a scary, absurdist dream.

Is the fruit cake meant to represent something? That gets sent off to ‘Havens for the Indigent’ where they use it to scrub floors and keep doors open. Perhaps, if anything, it stands for bad feelings in general. Gravel and his Bahhumbug have let go of something and will start afresh.

ILLUSTRATIONS IN THE HEADLESS BUST

Here’s an example:

Reversing at a tango tea
In Snogg’s Casino-not-on-Sea
L– tripped and cried, ‘I am afraid
They tampered with the marmalade.’

In each illustration of each character sketch, Gravel, the fly and the Bahhumbug appear alongside the new person (with the exception of Miss M, who has disappeared after requesting from them a pineapple ice cream.

COSTUMES

When is this story set? The first story seemed to be set in the time of A Christmas Carol but then again, Gorey did funny things with time even in that book (exemplified by the ten-year-old fruit cake).

The bewildered men appear in long fur coats and top hats, or plus-fours and golfing shoes, the clueless women in hobble skirts and turbans with aigrettes, or flapper ensembles with fluttering veils.

— Jane Langton

An aigrette is a headdress consisting of a white egret’s feather or other decoration such as a spray of gems. I never knew what they were called, thanks, Edward. When I see these I think of the 1920s, but fashion of the 1920s was a new take on fashion from around 1900. So I don’t think these characters are flappers.

 

 

Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus! by Mo Willems

A comparison between Mo Willems’ Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive the Bus! and another from the same series, The Pigeon Wants A Puppy, highlights certain shared comedy writing techniques found in both.

TECHNIQUES OF NOTE

  1. Directly addressing the young reader
  2. A main character who eventually tries to trick the reader
  3. A battle scene featuring a tantrum
  4. A circular ending

STORY STRUCTURE OF DON’T LET THE PIGEON DRIVE THE BUS!

WEAKNESS/NEED/PROBLEM

Pigeon is only a pigeon and is not to be trusted doing human things (even though he or she speaks English).

DESIRE

This weakness is connected to pigeon’s Desire, which is to drive a bus.

OPPONENT

The adult Opponent within the world of the story is the bus driver who, before the title page, has told the reader that he’s just popping out for a few moments — could the reader please not let the pigeon drive the bus while he’s away?

This is funny in its own right because it suggests the pigeon has previously done just this. And the thought bubble coming out of pigeon’s head on the front papers suggests memory, not just wishes, in light of this fact.

But with the bus driver gone, Willems turns the reader into Pigeon’s Opposition, as is the case in Pigeon Wants A Puppy. In this story, the pigeon pleads with the reader and the reader (hopefully) is on side with the authority figure and knows not to say yes.

PLAN

Pigeon’s plan is to make a case with the reader:

  1. They will be careful.
  2. They have a cousin who drives a bus. We extrapolate that Pigeon would therefore be excellent at it.
  3. A sob story: “I never get to do anything!”
  4. Next, Pigeon tries to trick the reader into playing a ‘game’ which is presumably driving the bus for real.
  5. Finally, ending this sequence, four ‘pages’ per page, each with a new reason for letting Pigeon drive the bus speeds up the pace and suggests Pigeon goes on and on about this for ages.

BATTLE

Pigeon throws a tantrum. Pigeon also threw a tantrum in The Pigeon Wants A Puppy. Big letters are scrawled across the page. Feathers float off (which kind of look like droplets of sweat — because I have anthropomorphised Pigeon).

SELF-REVELATION

We never know exactly what Pigeon is thinking after that because the ‘speech bubble’ is an angry scribble. But Pigeon looks resigned and downcast. Pigeon has the revelation that this is not going to happen.

This is confirmed when the bus driver returns and Pigeon has still not had a go at the wheel.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

But this is another circular plot and once the bus drives off, a big, red truck comes along. Pigeon decides they would like to drive that. No words are used for this — just another thought bubble. This time, Pigeon stands on the other side of the page (the right side). This creates a visual ending to THIS particular story.

The Haunted Tea-Cosy by Edward Gorey

Edward Gorey was an American writer and illustrator who died in the year 2000. The Haunted Tea-Cosy: A Dispirited and Distasteful Diversion for Christmas is a picture book for adults, based on the cartoons first published in the December issue of the New York Times Magazine, 1997. Bloomsbury picked it up in an early-Internet era to introduce Gorey to British readers. This was therefore Gorey’s second-to-last book. Continue reading “The Haunted Tea-Cosy by Edward Gorey”

The Pigeon Wants A Puppy by Mo Willems

pigeon wants a puppy cover

The Pigeon Wants A Puppy by Mo Willems is one of my daughter’s favourite books. The Pigeon books are similar to the Elephant and Piggie books in graphic design and in humour.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE PIGEON WANTS A PUPPY

WEAKNESS/NEED/PROBLEM

When I read this quote from the author/illustrator I knew that Willems thinks of story in the same way I do:

I don’t know if I can explain him — I can describe him. Pigeon has wants and needs and desires, and he has very few filters. He wants what he wants, he thinks he needs what he needs. He is railing at the injustice of it all. And the irony is that the kids who are usually suffering the injustice of it all, the kids who are being told when to go to bed, or what to do, or to eat, or how to eat, or how to dress — the second they get to stick it to the pigeon, they do.

I try to think that the Pigeon is a core, fundamental, philosophical being. He is asking the fundamental, deep questions: What is love? Why are things the way they are? Why can’t I get what I want? Why can’t I drive a bus? I mean, you know, Sophocles.

Mo Willems, NPR

DESIRE

The desire is right there in the title. Perhaps not much more needs saying.

Oh, except note how masterfully Willems has connected Desire to Weakness. This is always the best form of Desire in a story, returning the best results: Pigeon desires a puppy because he fails to do his research and understand consequences. He acts on his whims.

Note also: Willems is really ramming home the Desire line. There’s much humour in this because of pigeon’s complete lack of self-awareness. Of course he hasn’t wanted a puppy ‘for ages’. He’s decided right then and there. (If we didn’t already suspect that, we learn it by the end.)

By the way, the image on the colophon page perfectly illustrates how Willems may have brainstormed this series. We see list unwinding, headed “Things I Want”:

  1. Drive a bus!
  2. Eat a hot dog all by myself!
  3. Stay up late!
  4. Real estate!
  5. A big, red truck!
  6. Turtleneck sweaters!
  7. A driver’s license!

This list encapsulates pigeon’s whimsical  desires at the centre of other books in the series — a comedic mixture of childlike (big, red truck) and mature (real estate).

OPPONENT

The main opposition is the puppy, who stands in direct opposition to Pigeon’s desire because she doesn’t live up to Pigeon’s idealised conception of what a puppy would be.

In this way, the Opponent of The Pigeon Wants A Puppy is similar to the opponent in a crime story because the audience doesn’t see the villain until the big reveal near the end. There’s no crime here, of course. But the storytelling problem is the same: The storyteller must really build up the opposition

  1. to create payoff at the end
  2. to give the main part of the story its narrative drive

What crime writers do: Create other opponents along the way, much like mythic structure. Opponents apart from the main one, that is. (Family, colleagues, uncooperative politicians who won’t hand over the information you need etc.)

How has Willems created extra opposition, apart from the unseen ironic ‘villain’ of the puppy? Yep, he makes THE READER part of the pigeon’s web of opposition. It’s masterful. Willems achieves this by using the narrative technique of direct address.

PLAN

Pigeon has a Plan which demonstrates to the reader, in audience superior position, that Pigeon has NO idea what a puppy even is. Pigeon plans to:

  1. water it once a month
  2. go for piggyback rides on its back
  3. play tennis with it

Notice how Willems made use of the Rule of Three — three specific things Pigeon plans to do with a new puppy.

BATTLE

In picture books the Battle tends to comprise a large proportion of the total story. It tends to be a Battle Sequence.

Picture book author Katrina Moore thinks of picture book structure like this:

  • Set up (how much Pigeon wants the puppy and how he is wrong about puppies)
  • Escalation (Woof! What’s that? Woof! Woof!)
  • Climax/Low Point (Pigeon gets scared half to death by a massive puppy head coming onto the page — by the way, notice how Pigeon is now facing backwards, opposite to the turn of the page? He has had a shock — this is common picture book convention.)
  • Resolution (what I’d call the Self-revelation, though this may be a better word for it, since so often there is no Self-revelation)
  • Wink (the reader knows this exact scenario will play out twice)

(For more on the Battle sequence and the forms it tends to take in picture books, see my post on Battles in Storytelling.)

SELF-REVELATION

“Really, I had no idea!”

The comedic thing about this particular Self-revelation: Pigeon is unable to generalise learning to new situations. He (or she) learns that PUPPIES are not as expected but fails to learn that maybe WALRUSES won’t be, either.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

I recently read We Learn Nothing — essays by Tim Kreider and I believe it’s more common we learn nothing than learn something, in fact. No life lesson is learned. Just a very specific one. In this respect, Pigeon is identical to Aaron Blabey’s Pig The Pug, who learns a very specific aspect of Not Being An Asshole in every book, but there are so many different ways of being an asshole an entire series has been generated from Pig’s assholery.

At the end — ‘the wink’ —  Pigeon wants another wholly unsuitable pet. This makes the story a circular plot, ending where it began with slightly different variables, w swapped out for p.

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATIONS

The front cover says ‘pictures’. Is this simply because toddlers will understand ‘pictures’ but may not understand ‘illustrations’? I suspect there’s more to it than that — these are perhaps better described as pictures.

Every single thing in these minimalist picture books is there because it carries meaning. There is no background detail. These are stories about plot (centred on character) — they are not the sort of books in which the reader is invited to linger, enjoying the environment e.g. Blackdog by Levi Pinfold or anything by Shaun Tan.

It’s ultimately reductive, but my sort of cheat sheet is: If you were to look at all of my drawings [for a book] without any words and understand it, then there are too many drawings. The drawings are too detailed. And if you were to read the entire manuscript and it made sense, then there are too many words.

So it’s that marriage, that very delicate marriage between words and pictures, and then that marriage between author and audience where the audience is creating so much of the meaning. So my job is to create incomprehensible books for illiterates.

Mo Willems, NPR

How do picture book illustrators handle the delicate issue of swearing in children’s literature? Well, Pigeon clearly utters expletives here.

Other techniques derive from comic book convention, for instance the love hearts all around the speech bubble.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST WITH BABYMOUSE: PUPPY LOVE

The Puppy Love book of the Babymouse series by Jennier and Matthew Holm has a similar plot structure but expanded into a middle grade graphic novel length. Babymouse goes through a series of pets but proves an unreliable owner. Each of her pets escapes. Eventually a stray dog turns up. Owning a dog is not what she hoped it would be. The dog gets up to mischief, first chewing her shoes and clothes, then chewing her entire room.

The story ends when the dog’s owner comes to get it. (Behind the scenes the mother must have put out the word about finding a lost dog.) The plot reveal is that the dog is a girl, not a boy as Babymouse had assumed.

In an ideal world this would not be a reveal, but studies have shown that animal characters are automatically coded male unless given an obvious feminine marker, such as the bow Babymouse herself wears on her forehead. So this ending asks readers to perhaps not assume, next time, that an animal who gets up to mischief MUST be male.

The other interesting thing about Babymouse is how every character in the story is an animal. Babymouse, her family and classmates are all animals, but in shape only. They are otherwise completely human. But animals who behave like regular animals also exist in the story. Of course, no explanation is given for this, and I doubt the typical reader would even think about it.

Deals With The Devil In Storytelling

young man standing at crossroads in the woods

Humans have been making transactions with money for about 5000 years. Before that, our ancestors traded goods; before that, favours. We are a species highly attuned to swapping, making deals, owing favours and keeping stock.

 

So it’s not surprising that we personify ‘fate’ or ‘life itself’ or God or whatever, and feel, deep down, that if one good thing happens to us we must make a sacrifice later. Sacrifice as a cultural practice has largely disappeared around the world but has it really gone away?

This post is about Faustian stories. I’ve previously written about a related concept known as the ‘tragic dilemma‘. Also related is the pyrrhic victory. We could plot these outcomes on a continuum — all would be clustered at the tragic end.

You may hear the term ‘inflection points’ to describe the metaphorical crossroads we encounter in life. Psychologists use this term and investors use it as well.

WHAT IS A FAUSTIAN STORY?

The Faustian story is an ur-story, which means it’s the ancestor of many modern tales. TV Tropes calls Faustian plots Deal With The Devil plots.

Many stories, Faustian or not, include a stark ‘moral dilemma’ scene. The Faustian story is one in which the moral dilemma is taken to its extreme: Great riches and the hero’s very life. Alternatively, if the main character chooses ‘no deal’, no riches at all and nothing good, ever. Faustian stories are a thought experiment regarding sacrifice: Everyone has a price. What would yours be?

“Faust” and the adjective “Faustian” now imply, more widely, a situation in which an ambitious person surrenders moral integrity in order to achieve power and success for a delimited term.

But the story of Dr Faustus wasn’t the only ‘Faustian’ tale in the first 1000 years after Christ. Medieval audiences really liked the tale of the guy who sold his soul to the devil.

We also have the similar tale of Theophilus, who started to bitterly regret denouncing Christ and the Virgin in favour of Satan, so he repented. After that he was known as Theophilus the Penitent. The contract with Satan got burnt up. This was a Faustian tale but it was also a redemption tale. (Audiences love those, even today. Especially in America.)

The story of Faustus became the most enduring because it coincided with a time in the medieval era — the 1500s — when certain privileged men were starting to become really schooled up in certain esoteric areas. We take it for granted these days that every professional has their speciality, and no one outside that profession will ever understand what goes on in that specialty area, but in Medieval times, if you had a specialised job, people thought you a sorcerer. Ironically, it was in the age of Newton that these ideas were in the air. Turns out we have always been suspicious of science:

It was medieval philosophers who argued that revelation was to be found hidden in nature, and uncovered by experiment. This was the true scientific revolution. And it was Newton’s age that was the great age of superstition. It was in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that people started to believe that human beings could make a pact with the Devil, and thereby gain supernatural powers.

— Medieval Lives by Terry Jones

WHO IS FAUST?

Faust is the main character of a classic German legend. Fictional Faust is a scholar who is highly successful yet dissatisfied with his life. This leads him to make a pact with the Devil, exchanging his soul for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures.

But the fictional character of Faust is based on a real man. Johann Georg Faust, born around 1480. He was well-known as an astrologer (an academic in those days) and a necromancer (talking to the dead). He used a magic lantern to conjure up shadows of the dead, which, yes, I can see how people thought that a bit creepy.

The real life Faust was born in Kundlingen but settled longest in Witternberg. He died around age 40 because his chemicals exploded during an accident. If that’s not an interestingly tragic life, I don’t know what is. People at the time thought so, too.

The story of Faust’s life was first published in Frankfurt but had been translated into English by 1592. The title is wonderful: The History of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Doctor John Faustus. Whoever translated the German story into English (known only by the initials PF), added many embellishments of their own. This was common back then. I suppose it enlivened the job of translator.

Playwright Christopher Marlowe turned the story into a play which proved very popular with audiences. (Marlowe was born the same year as Shakespeare, to put it in context.) Marlowe called the play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. Don’t know about you, but that sounds to me like something Anne Shirley might have come up with.

The story of playwright Christopher Marlowe is as interesting as the story of Dr Faustus. Marlowe was a gay blaspheming atheist at a time when all three of those things were not permitted, but he was actually killed in a tavern brawl over the payment of a bill. Gory as it would’ve been to watch, I wonder how that evening played out exactly.

In any case, we might suspect Marlowe himself had made a pact with the devil. After an illustrious career as a playwright, he was executed at the tender age of 29.

Christopher Marlowe wrote his play, but Goethe also had a go at the Faustian story. Goethe was a German writer born in the mid 1700s. Goethe wrote his Faust story as a ‘closet drama’, which looks like a play on the page, but which is never intended to be performed, but read by a solitary reader ‘in their closet’. It is Goethe’s version which is now known as the Ur-story of Faust.

PLOT SUMMARY OF THE GERMAN LEGEND

The Pact

  • Faust is bored and depressed with his life as a scholar. Desperately looking for a purpose in life.
  • Faust tries to kill himself but botches the job. Starts with a suicide. Suicide is considered sinful by the Christian church of this time.
  • Faust calls on the Devil. He wants further knowledge and magical powers which will let him indulge in all the pleasures of the world.
  • In response, the Devil’s representative, Mephistopheles, appears.
  • Mephistopheles makes a bargain with Faust: Mephistopheles will serve Faust with his magic powers for a set number of years, but at the end of the term, the Devil will claim Faust’s soul and Faust will be eternally damned. (In the early tales it is usually for 24 years, one year for each of the hours in a day.)

The Term Of The Bargain

  • Faust makes use of Mephistopheles in various ways.
  • In many versions, Mephistopheles helps Faust seduce a beautiful and innocent girl, usually named Gretchen, whose life is ultimately destroyed. However, Gretchen’s innocence saves her in the end, and she enters Heaven. [Misogynistic bullshit, typical of the era. Perhaps an early take on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.]
  • In Goethe’s rendition, Faust is saved by God’s grace via his constant striving—in combination with Gretchen’s pleadings with God in the form of the Eternal Feminine. [Happy Ending]
  • However, in the early tales, Faust is irrevocably corrupted and believes his sins cannot be forgiven. When the term ends, the Devil carries Faust off to Hell. [Tragic Ending]

THE ENDURING APPEAL OF THE FAUSTIAN PLOT

WE ARE BLOODTHIRSTY

First, audiences really seem to like it when bad acts are justly punished. This remains true in Hollywood today and speaks to an inherent conservatism. Adult audiences (at least) also seem to appreciate when bad children are punished in children’s stories. The Faustian punishment is the ultimate punishment. It appeals to something dark within us as humans — we get some sort of thrill out of revenge, or from knowing that no bad act goes unpunished.

IT RINGS TRUE

A proportion of us really seem to think of the world in Faustian terms, even today. Why does it seem like deals with the devil really do exist? When I think of people who live big lives — often they have a special skill, take lots of drugs and die age 27 — I can imagine they made a deal with the devil for 24 good years in return for the great sacrifice of a hasty death.

Of course, I know no such deal took place. But when it comes to risk-taking behaviour, the very behaviours that were initially rewarded also led to the individual’s downfall. We don’t see all the risk takers who took a risk without the great rewards. But the individuals who do lead Faustian lives stand out.

STAKES ARE HUGE

We find Faustian stories terrifying and alluring in equal measure. These stories are designed to help us understand ourselves, and our own motivations. They also help us to solidify our values.

WE TEND TO THINK WE CAN CHEAT DEATH

One of our most persistent collective wishes is to postpone death. There are always longevity clickbait articles popping up in newsfeeds. Folktales describe many such attempts. Characters rarely succeed, not even in the fantasy world of the fairytale. “Godfather Death,” retold below from a Swedish version, is typical. Although death can’t be cheated longterm, many folktales that describe temporary respites. Is it the temporary respite that we crave?

A poor man with a large family could find no one to be godfather for his latest son. Finally Death appeared, and the poor man chose him, saying: “You make no distinction between high and low.”

Years later, on the godson’s wedding night, Death called him from his bed and took him to a cave where countless candles were burning.

“Whose light is that?” asked the godson, pointing to a candle that was flickering out.

“Your own,” answered the godfather. The godson pleaded with Death to put a new candle in his holder, but the godfather did not answer. The light flickered and went out and the godson fell down dead.

We find from this that you can neither persuade nor cheat Death.

— from Thompson, 100 Favorite Folktales, no. 18, type 332.

The story of the blacksmith who tricked death (sometimes identified as “the devil”) is one of the most popular folktales in Europe:

The Lord granted a smith three wishes, and the latter chose a pear tree that would detain anyone who climbed into it, an easy chair that would hold anyone who sat in it, and a bag that would imprison anyone who climbed into it. The devil came to get the smith, and the smith invited him to help himself to some fruit from his pear tree. The devil climbed into the tree and was stuck there. The smith would not release him until he promised to give the smith four more years of life. When the time was up the devil returned, but he made the mistake of sitting in the smith’s magic chair, and he had to promise four more years before the smith would release him. On the devil’s third visit, the smith tricked him into his bag, and then beat the bag with his hammer until the devil promised to leave him alone.

Later the smith got to thinking that he had perhaps acted unwisely, and he knocked on the gate of hell to make amends. However the devil would have nothing to do with him, so the smith found his way to heaven. He got there just as St. Peter was letting someone in, and the gate was still ajar. The smith made a rush, and if he didn’t get in, then I don’t know what became of him.

— from “The Master-Smith,” type 330 (Asbjørnsen and Moe, East o’ the Sun, p. 105.) For additional variations on this very popular theme see Ashliman, A Guide to Folktales, pp. 73-75

Note how the devil in these tales is not very similar to how we see the Devil depicted in stories today. The devil of traditional religion is cunning, sinister, wicked, and almost as omnipotent as God. But in these folktales he is a fool, and he can be outwitted by a clever, trickster mortal.

This is not an unusual set-up in folktales. In those older stories, even St. Peter is frequently portrayed as a fool. His stupidity also makes Jesus look a lot smarter. (See Godfather Death: Tales of Aarne-Thompson Type 332.) The idea that we can outsmart evil is reassuring, and I imagine this is why audiences enjoyed these folktales so much.

EXAMPLES OF MODERN FAUSTIAN STORIES

You can take my body
You can take my bones
You can take my blood
But not my soul

The story of this song by Rhiannon Giddens centers anyone who has ever had to use their body for someone else’s gain. In this case it is a story of slavery. Slavery itself contains Faustian similarities.

Sometimes the entire plot deviates little from the early Faustian ones. In other stories it’s less obvious.

  • The Book of Job — “And Satan answered the Lord, and said, Skin for skin, yea, all that a man hath will he give for his life. But put forth thine hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse thee to thy face. And the Lord said unto Satan, Behold, he is in thine hand; but save his life” (Job 2: 4-6). Job is antithesis to Faust — saintly and completely dedicated to the Lord. Faust is not dedicated to the Lord. He’s all about knowledge rather than faith.
  • There are various Grimm tales about deals with the devil. Contained in the first of the Grimm collections is “The Blacksmith and the Devil”. A blacksmith almost hangs himself after losing all his money but a man with a long white beard appears from behind a tree and promises ten years of good life, after which the blacksmith belongs to him. Similar tales include “The Godfather” (Grimm, no. 42) and “Godfather Death” (Grimm, no. 44). 
  • The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen
  • Faust was made for film in 1994 by Jan Svankjajer. Faust is portrayed by actors, puppets and animation in a storyworld cast in darkness and shadow. Darkness and shadow tend to be common to cinematic Faustian stories.
  • The Firm — in exchange for a well-paid job in law, a young law graduate gives his life. Now he’s part of the firm, he’ll never be allowed to leave.
  • Silence of the Lambs (1991) —Hannibal Lecter is Faust’s Mephistopheles. He tempts Clarice Starling with greater knowledge in exchange for his participation in evil. Clarice is Faust. She confronts and deals with evil so she can contain it (to stop her private ‘lambs’, from screaming). She learns the lambs will never stop screaming because evil will always be there. Clarice isn’t interested in Hannibal Lecter so much as she’s interested in evil itself, and the evil within all of us, inclining in herself. (For more on this read Film as Religion by John Lyden.)
  • Damn Yankees
  • Rosemary’s Baby
  • The Picture Of Dorian Gray
  • Devil’s Advocate
  • Paradise Lost of the Justice League (2002) — a children’s cartoon starring caped crusaders. They are able to defeat all them them, until an ancient magician puts all the League under a spell. The only one who can win against Faust is Mephistopheles, who betrays him in the final scene. They all escape with lives intact.
  • Thelma & Louise sees main characterThelma finally achieving emotional independence and true freedom, but she must pay the price of death.
  • Batman Begins (2005) — Batman is Faust in a cape.
  • “The Devil and Daniel Webster” is an American short story by Stephen Vincent Benet, in which a man trades his soul with the devil. In ‘selling soul story’ tradition, this one takes place at a crossroads. Crossroads are highly symbolic. They represent moral dilemmas and major life decisions in general. Sometimes there is no literal crossroads. As a new spin on old tropes, “The Devil and Daniel Webster” contains no cross road in the traditional sense — rather, the story takes place at the meeting of three American state borders: It’s a story they tell in the border country, where Massachusetts joins Vermont and New Hampshire.
  • Breaking Bad is a Faustian story. Walter White earns ridiculous amounts of money, but he won’t have enough time on earth to spend it. He’s going to die now.

FAUST AND LITERARY MONSTERS

Thomas C. Foster considers Frankenstein a take on the Faustian tale:

We keep getting versions of Faust, from Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus to Goethe’s Faust to Stephen Vincent Benet’s The Devil and Daniel Webster to Damned Yankees to movie versions of Bedazzled (and, of course, Darth Vader’s turn to the Dark Side) to bluesman Robert Johnson’s stories of how he acquired his musical skill in a meeting with a mysterious stranger at a crossroads. The enduring appeal of this cautionary tale suggests how deeply embedded it is in our collective consciousness. Unlike other versions, however, Frankenstein involves no demonic personage offering the damning margin, so the cautionary being is the product (the monster) rather than the source (the devil) of the unholy act. In his deformity he projects the perils of man seeking to play God, perils that, as in other (non comic) versions, consume the power seeker.

— How To Read Literature Like A Professor, Thomas C. Foster

THE STORY OF ROBERT JOHNSON

On Netflix right you can find a number of stories about characters making deals, with something unseen and unknown (maybe the devil). Documentary Devil At The Crossroads is about the myth surrounding real life, hugely influential musician called Robert Johnson, who learned guitar so quickly and so well that nobody believed he could have.

In reality, Johnson  had large hands, which allowed him to to do things others could not. (This was not the full story, but part of it.)

My own interpretation of the Robert Johnson story goes like this: If you happen to know any musical savants, you won’t be all that surprised about Johnson — someone whose brain is wired for music can learn it quickly. Robert Johnson was denied musical opportunities as a child, partly because he was poor, partly because he was Black. When he was finally given a guitar and a bit of tuition in early adulthood, he was at first ‘not very good’ but then he disappeared. When he returned a year and a half later, his skills had exceeded that of his mentors.

There is a documentary series on Australian TV about child geniuses called Making Child Prodigies. One of the boys featured is a modern Robert Johnson on the electric guitar. What if Callum had been denied access to a guitar until early adulthood? I believe he would’ve picked it up within a year and a half, because that’s how his brain is wired. On YouTube, Callum McPhie’s channel is called The Heavy Metal Kid.

What really strikes me as eerie: Similarities between Robert Johnson and Christopher Marlowe’s experiences in pubs.  Marlowe was actually killed in a tavern brawl age 29. No one knows for sure how Robert Johnson died, but he was dead at age 27. He was a well-known troublemaker in pubs.

According to one theory, Johnson was murdered by the jealous husband of a woman with whom he had flirted. In an account by the blues musician Sonny Boy Williamson, Johnson had been flirting with a married woman at a dance, and she gave him a bottle of whiskey poisoned by her husband. When Johnson took the bottle, Williamson knocked it out of his hand, admonishing him to never drink from a bottle that he had not personally seen opened. Johnson replied, “Don’t ever knock a bottle out of my hand.” Soon after, he was offered another (poisoned) bottle and accepted it. Johnson is reported to have begun feeling ill the evening after and had to be helped back to his room in the early morning hours. Over the next three days his condition steadily worsened. Witnesses reported that he died in a convulsive state of severe pain. The musicologist Robert “Mack” McCormick claimed to have tracked down the man who murdered Johnson and to have obtained a confession from him in a personal interview, but he declined to reveal the man’s name.

— Wikipedia

SMALL DEALS WITH THE DEVIL IN OTHERWISE NON-FAUSTIAN STORIES

In her short story “Tableau Vivant”, Robin Black deftly depicts a common thought-pattern: that happiness must be repaid by misfortune. The story is  about an older woman who has had a stroke. The story goes into Jean’s backstory:

She could remember [her daughter’s] very first few months, how she had been so little trouble, so docile really, that Jean had endured regular bouts of fear, not only that the baby wasn’t normal–byw hich she then still meant exceptional–but also that so easy an infancy would be paid for one day, fear that it all evens out somehow, suspicious even then of the deals life might make on our behalf.

— Robin Black, “Tableau Vivant”, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This

How many of us recognise this thought-pattern? Something good happens… but it can never last. Something bad will happen, and that will be a kind of payment for enjoying happiness and good fortune. We are inclined to make cause and effect connections when none are present.

This particular cognitive bias can lead to unhappiness. Problematically, we may be loathe to shuck it off, because it can also provide us with consolation during the lowest times. “Something terrible just happened to me; I’m owed something good.”

Hmm, life hasn’t been very kind to me lately (Well)
But I suppose it’s a push for moving on (Oh yeah)
In time the sun’s gonna shine on me nicely (One day yeah )
Something tells me good things are coming
And I ain’t gonna not believe

Freedom lyrics, from Django Unchained, in which ‘something’ refers to the cognitive bias of subjective validation.

Header photo by Caitlyn Wilson on Unsplash

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

WHEN YOU REACH ME REBECCA STEAD

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead is ten years old now, published 2009. I’ve seen this middle grade novel described as magical realism, though for knotty political reasons we might prefer to call it fabulism. It is also science fiction and grounded in the real world. It packs a lot into 40k words.

There are many things to admire about When You Reach Me. But I’m not a fan of the title. I keep getting it wrong. (I keep thinking it’s When I Reach You.) It was originally called You Are Here, which I like better. (That would match the cover better, too.)

NARRATION

First, I admire the 12-year-old-ness of it. Take the following passage, which demonstrates the narrator is right there in a 12-year-old’s headspace.

“It’s okay.” I was so grateful that she had something to apologize for that it didn’t really occur to me to think about how it had actually made me feel. But I have thought about it since then. It didn’t make me feel good.

I’ve heard this style of narration was sort of invented by Katherine Paterson. I’ve seen it described as ‘third-person limited omniscient narrative’, which basically means the narrator is looking back on fairly recent incidents. A little time has passed, but not much. They’re still a kid telling the story. We know it’s not an adult looking back telling the story because ‘it didn’t make me feel good’ is a kind of emotionally naive thing to say. An adult would be more articulate about it.

Yet at the same time, the narrator is saying something universal and true.

REBECCA STEAD AND KATHERINE PATERSON

Speaking of Katherine Paterson, Bridge To Terabithia has The Chronicles of Narnia as a possible intertext and When You Reach Me has the very clear intertext of A Wrinkle In Time. Are young readers expected to be familiar with A Wrinkle In Time? A children’s story with a strong intertext must exist as complete in its own right. No knowledge of Madeleine L’Engle’s work is needed here, but those who’ve read it will get more out of this one.

I do think readers who haven’t read and enjoyed Madeleine L’Engle‘s A Wrinkle in Time can enjoy this book, but I would suggest reading L’Engle’s book before picking up this one; it will mean so much more.

Goodreads reviewer who also loved A Wrinkle In Time as a kid

Stead was inspired by Madeline L’Engle’s classic and initially only mentioned it briefly but her editor advised her to make more of it if she wanted to keep it in at all.

Stead was aware that she did not want A Wrinkle in Time to have too big an influence on When You Reach Me. Keeping this in mind, she reread A Wrinkle in Time through the perspective of different characters, which enabled her to develop new connections and ideas in her own work.

Wikipedia

TIME TRAVEL

Even better than reading A Wrinkle In Time, I’d say it’s helpful for young readers to have considered the possibility of time travel. That is the most complex part of this novel. Time is presented as like a book with all the pages filled in. (Actually, the analogy used  in the story is a ring with diamond chips around it.)

Butchering it badly, the idea is this: we simply move through time, but we exist on each page forever. This is a mind-bending concept to consider. Brian Greene, Marcus Chown and other popular science writers are fascinating on this topic.

(I see the potential for fascinating classroom discussions. linked to the science curriculum.)

GENUINE SUBVERSIONS

I also love that Rebecca Stead sets up archetype characters and then subverts them. She doesn’t simply invert them — she properly subverts them. The Alpha Bitch turns out to be human and not that different from the main character. A bully character is set up then dismantled as a nerdy type.

Connected to these subversions: By the conclusion of the novel it is clear that sometime there’s no grand fatalistic reason behind certain actions. The inciting incident, in which Sal is punched in the head, had no good reason behind it. It had a stupid reason behind it. The message, therefore, is that violence is senseless. (Sometimes it really is.)

But here’s what most critics have admired the most: The way all the time travel fits together, and how one clue leads directly to the next in this mystery, science fiction plot. There must be something especially gratifying for readers about that flow-on feeling you get from some stories, even if it’s only subconscious.

CHARACTERS OF WHEN YOU REACH ME

Stead doesn’t introduce the main child character’s name right away. In fact, we’re several chapters in before we know it. This has the effect of turning the main character into the Every Child, in which the readers can easily map themselves onto the fictional proxy.

Eventually we learn her name, at the beginning of chapter three:

  • Miranda — so named because it stands for people’s rights. A standout quirk: Miranda reads and re-reads A Wrinkle In Time. She carries around a battered copy.
  • Mother — Uptight, small (suggesting a nervous disposition), with a large social conscience. She wanted to be a lawyer but works in a lawyer’s office. In this era (she had her daughter in the late 1960s) it was very hard for women to become lawyers. Women were infantalised by the dominant culture. This mother now works in a lawyer’s office. They are not super wealthy, because they do lots of legal work pro bono. (A Save the Cat set up.) Miranda having access to legal help comes in handy later. (If you’d like to ruin children’s books for yourself, take notice of the parents’ profession.) The mother has her own character arc. That she only fits children’s clothes is a telling detail — the mother is childlike. Her constant rejection of the perfectly good, very nice Richard is a sign that she is yet to grow up. By the end of the story the mother is wearing business attire. Richard comments how good she looks. This change of clothing is symbolic of the mother’s own coming-of-age. Since both mother and daughter undergo a character arc, this is what John Truby would call a Double Reversal. You see it in the film Lady Bird, in Pixar’s Frozen, Thirteen and Freaky Friday. (Mother and daughter double reversals are common.)
  • Richard — Mother’s boyfriend of two years, so basically Miranda’s step-father. German. A lawyer, also with a strong social conscience. Stead gives him the quirk of one leg shorter than the other, and a constant reference to this which marks him out as not actually perfect. He sits at the table reading the newspaper (like lots of children’s book fathers) and is more laid back than the mother (like most children’s book parents).
  • Robbie B. — kid at school who says Miranda was named after a kidnapper. (I looked it up — he means Ernesto Miranda.)
  • Belle — owns ‘Belle’s Market’ near Miranda’s house. The produce she sells there isn’t great. Belle is an older friend and mentor to Miranda. Rebecca Stead has populated Miranda’s life with a network of people across the age ranges — probably more age variety than would be typical for a twelve-year-old. But this helps to expand the time. Annie Proulx does the exact same trick in many of her short stories, especially the Wyoming ones. She’ll often open a story about one character by giving us backstory about how he’s the fourth generation to own this land, etc. This is very deliberate on Proulx’s part, as she’s said so in interviews. In short, children’s writers can also achieve this time-expansion thing by including a wide age-range of characters. This has been happening for a long time, with the inclusion of older mentors and grandparents, even as social networks in Western children’s real lives have, on average, shrunk.
  • Sal — Sal and his Mom Louisa live in the apartment below. Sal ‘used to be’ Miranda’s best friend.
  • Louisa — Louisa works in a nursing home.
  • Mr Nunzi — another resident in the apartment block. Smokes, is careless with it.
  • Mrs Bindocker — the neighbourhood busybody who talks a lot. (A Rachel Lynde character.) Even her name sounds like someone speaking quickly. (Maybe it also reminds me of the word ‘spin doctor’.)
  • The Laughing Man — QuackerQuack for short. Or ‘Kicker‘. The local scary guy. I listened to a true crime podcast once about a boy who went missing. One resonant observation: Police should always ask the kids for information. If there’s a weirdo hanging around, it’s likely the kids will know about it even if the adults don’t. When this guy is introduced we don’t know whether he’s going to be an opponent or an ally. Because this is middle grade, I’m going for false opponent who turns out to be an ally. As it turns out, The Laughing Man is a Jesus character in the same way that Leslie Burke is a Jesus character in Bridge to Terabithia, adding to the parallels I see between When You Reach Me and Bridge to Terabithia.
  • The boys by the garage — In a flash back, one of them beats Sal up. Clear bully opponents. The one in the green army coat punches Sal. Later we learn his name is Marcus and he goes to the same school as them.
  • Marcus Heilbruner is not your typical storybook bully. He likes to read books about maths. He believes time travel is possible. His bully characterisation is thereby subverted.
  • Julia — a rich classmate who goes on trips to Switzerland etc. The middle-grade equivalent of an alpha bitch trope. Julia describes her own colouring by referring to her skin and eyes in comparison to foods, which by 2019 is something many women of colour are wishing white people wouldn’t do. (Julia is a girl of colour but she’s been written by a white author.) But how woke were any of us back in the dark ages of 2009?
  • Annemarie — Annemarie’s longtime bestie. But in sixth grade Julia decides to punish Annemarie. Annemarie’s bedroom is covered in pictures of Julia, which reminds me of the Eleanor Estes story — The Hundred Dresses.
  • Alice Evans — the girl who gets picked on most. Gullible but book smart.
  • Dick Clark — the host of the gameshow Winner’s Circle. This is based on a real game show called The Pyramid Game.
  • Mr Tompkin — a teacher at school. Described by Miranda’s mother as a ‘frustrated architect’. The mother is herself a frustrated lawyer, so her thumbnail sketch says as much about her.
  • Wheelie — the school secretary. The students consider her the person who runs the school. She is nicknamed Wheelie because she never seems to get off her castor-wheeled office chair, but simply rolls around. Another quirk of Wheelie: She doesn’t take any shit and she’s precious about people using her stationery, and later, her phone. This adds tension after there’s a ticking clock set-up and Miranda really, really needs to use her notepad, then her phone.
  • Colin — a boy at school who follows Annemarie and Miranda around these days. He is the middle grade romantic interest of Miranda. Miranda wonders if Colin likes her. There’s some non-sexualised touching, like pressing foreheads together. Eventually the reader is rewarded when Colin kisses Miranda.
  • Jimmy — the guy who owns the sandwich place. He hires Colin, Annemarie and Miranda to work for him during their early lunch hour. He’s a schlubby guy but he provides the equivalent of a ‘cafe hub’ (seen in many TV series, especially) where the middle grade kids can legitimately, safely hang out. Well, I doubt this would ever happen in real life. Parents and teachers would be all about the child protection, though I don’t know what it’s like to grow up as a 12-year-old in New York City in the late 1970s. Maybe there really was that much freedom? See also: Lampshading Parental Absence In Children’s Literature. Stead herself has said: “[F]rom age nine, my friends and I were on the streets, walking home, going to each other’s houses, going to the store. I really wanted to write about that: the independence that’s a little bit scary but also a really positive thing in a lot of ways. And I’m not sure that most kids have that today”. This is a good reason why so many contemporary children’s books are set in a time before mobile phones and so-called helicopter parents.
  • Jay Stringer — a kid at school who doesn’t notice anything when he’s reading. Characters like this serve to populate the story authentically. This is why they’re given names, despite being part of the scenery.

STORY STRUCTURE OF WHEN YOU REACH ME

Possibly the best-plotted middle-grade book ever written.

— Sam Eddington

There is, quite frankly, a lot of stuff out there to like. So what I have to do here is convey to you just how this book is, pretty much, one of the best children’s books I have ever read.

Betsy Bird

  • Each chapter is headed something like ‘Things That Smell’ or ‘Things You Keep Secret’, which is the structure of the gameshow Miranda’s mother is preparing for. In this way, the mother’s desire to win money at a gameshow is a subplot and structural guide to Miranda’s story — wanting to solve a mystery of notes which seem to come from the future.
  • The chapters are very short, more like micro chapters. There are advantages and disadvantages to doing this. The advantage is that you feel you’re making progress. Structurally, short chapters fit the theme of time as a series of individuated moments. But here’s what one of my Goodreads friends had to say:

I didn’t hate [When You Reach Me], just found it quite hard to read. The chapters are very short which seriously interrupted the flow of the story for me. I understand that this is probably aimed at keeping the interest and attention spans of the target audience (children) but I think it would have been better to extend the chapters and allow the reader the chance to get drawn into the story more.

  • Miranda herself is more of an observer than someone on a hero mission. People around her each have their own desires and plans and she regards her community as a mystery to be solved. Who is the laughing man? Why isn’t her best friend talking to her anymore? Is time travel possible? Why did the bully punch Sal? What is the Queen Bee mean girl planning for her beta? And so on.
  • For the final quarter of the book, the reader is in audience inferior position. We watch Miranda embark upon a mission. She’s in a 1970s assembly, helping Annemarie get to the toilet before she wets herself (a Save the Cat moment which endears her to us). She’s asking Wheelie for paper (we don’t know what for). Miranda has gone from being a fairly passive viewpoint character to being the hero of her own story. This is a subtle but satisfying switch and increases narrative drive as readers head for the climax.

WEAKNESS/NEED

Miranda is the Every Child so her weakness is that she has limited freedoms. These kids have quite a lot of freedom, to my mind, being New York City kids and living in a socially connected neighbourhood.

She’s a mimetic hero — not especially good at many things. She’s no good at cutting sandwiches, no matter how many times she does it. But she’s surprisingly good at making origami frogs. Like regular kids, she is still working out her strengths.

Because Miranda is narrating her own story from the near future, she has a little bit more emotional maturity than she had before, but not much. She is a typical twelve-year-old in all respects.

Miranda has her own minor moral weaknesses.

[Rebecca Stead] tied in parts of her childhood into the novel. Besides the laughing man, she included her primary school, her apartment and a sandwich store where she used to work. Stead also added memories of herself acting mean without reason.

Wikipedia

DESIRE

Mystery desireline: Miranda wants to know who is sending her the postcards.

Romantic subplot: She wants to remain best friends with Sal, the boy in a neighbouring apartment. Unfortunately, he doesn’t feel the same way. This is therefore a story about learning to let go of your crushes.

OPPONENT

Rebecca Stead wastes no time in setting up the mystery, which functions, structurally, identically to an opponent. (The unseen opponent is the person sending the postcards.)

The mystery element of this story has a strong visual motif — that of the knot. Richard likes to untangle knots when he’s working on a difficult lawyer problem. Miranda learns this trick from him. Knots as motif endure throughout the story, alongside keys. Miranda’s mother refuses to give Richard a key to their apartment. In the end she does — two keys — tied together with a knot. In a parallel plot thread, Miranda has solved ‘the key’ to the mystery of the Laughing Man, and the symbolism is (literally) tied up.

A bully hierarchy is set up by the author but eventually subverted.

Miranda is often at low key odds with her mother, who is still quite childlike. Richard, on the other hand, is her emotionally mature ally.

Jimmy is an opponent as well as an ally — he provides a safe space for the kids to hang out and work though there is the subplot of him thinking they stole his two dollar bills.

PLAN

Here’s the thing about mimetic, childlike heroes. Paul Jennings does this too. Kids aren’t great at planning unless they have excellent executive functioning. Kids like Miranda don’t so much go about formulating a plan to solve a mystery. They tend to function as reactionaries. Others have the plans — they react. They are good observers, though, which makes them good storytellers.

So, Miranda gets a postcard, reacts. Gets another postcard, reacts. The plans she does make are not in service of solving the mystery. That’ll resolve itself eventually. Contrast a kid ‘hero’ like Miranda with a single-minded cop like Sarah Linden from The Killing.

BATTLE

Rebecca Stead uses an interesting technique to dilate the pacing of the death scene. She numbers the events sequentially.

I consider the truck death scene the first part of the Battle.

SELF-REVELATION

The Self-revelation comes quite early, before the Battle sequence. Miranda has a developmental milestone by realising that she is part of something much bigger. This is achieved by use of what is called The Overview Effect:

Then I sat on the couch and closed my eyes. I pictured the world. I pictured the world millions of years ago, with crazy clouds of gas everywhere, and volcanoes, and the continents bumping into each other and then drifting apart. Okay. Now life begins. It starts in the water, with tiny things, microscopic, and then some get bigger. And one day something crawls out of the water onto land. There are animals, then humans, looking almost all alike. There are tiny differences in color, the shape of the face, the tone of the skin. But basically they are the same. They create shelters, grow food, experiment. They talk; they write things down.

Now fast-forward. The earth is still making loops around the sun. There are humans all over the place, driving in cars and flying in airplanes. And then one day one human tells another human that he doesn’t want to walk to school with her anymore.

I’m sure there’s probably a Heideggerian explanation for this particular developmental milestone, in which children realise they are a part of something bigger. I have previously looked at one of Heidegger’s more famous theories in relation to children’s stories — Being-toward-death. That’s what kids realise they are going to die someday. It’s a pretty common character arc in young adult literature. The magical age of 12 is a time for many such revelations, and Miranda is indeed 12. Now, I have a limited upper capacity for reading about Heidegger, but perhaps someone else can confirm, or write a doctoral thesis on how Rebecca Stead’s work is about children realising that they are a part of something bigger, a.k.a., Being-in-the-world. (I just Googled it. It ain’t been done.)

Back to talking about structure. After the Battle sequence in When You Reach Me we have the mystery part of the plot which comes together. We learn that The Laughing Man has been sent to save Sal from being run over by a bus.

The words ‘book bag pocket shoe’ are revealed as the places where Miranda finds the notes.

Then we learn the big reveal: Who The Laughing Man is, and you probably guessed it before it is revealed (or confirmed) and this makes us all feel very smart.

Just as well, because the time travel part of this book confuses the hell out of me.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

There’s a romantic happy ever after, though not for the main character. She gets her friendship happy ever after, plus the budding romance with Colin.

And for anyone who says you can’t get away with epilogues in middle grade novels, I present to you When You Reach Me as example.

If I Loved You by Robin Black

book cover of if i loved you i would tell you this by robin black

“If I Loved You” is a short story from a collection called If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This (2010), written by American author Robin Black.

A woman dying of cancer writes an imaginary letter to her new neighbour, who has uncharitably built a fence along their boundary line. This fence prevents her from getting conveniently out of her car in the driveway.

Here’s the subtext: this woman’s garage has obviously been built stupidly close to the boundary line, by someone who would never have predicted a future in which a new neighbour would want to build a fence. This is a comment on how we sometimes do things with great optimism. The optimism comes back to bite us later. Instead of optimism, this narrator now goes for ‘maybes’. (This explains the style of narration.)

That surface level plot about the fence offers a fairly didactic message about how we never know what’s going on in someone else’s life, symbolised by the fence itself. We put fences around ourselves to avoid considering other people’s pain. Continue reading “If I Loved You by Robin Black”

Avoiding the word ‘crazy’

bananas

We are at a point now where ableist language is considered just that. Children’s book editors are editing it out. Yet some words, for instance ‘crazy’, are so frequent in everyday English it may seem ‘unnatural’ to leave it out.

The question arises: What to say instead?

The deeper question: Do we need mental metaphors at all? tl;dr Mostly we don’t.

Continue reading “Avoiding the word ‘crazy’”

Insults and Swearing In Children’s Literature

insults and swearing

A quandary for writers of middle grade fiction in particular: By about age 10, regular kids have heard all the insults out there. They may hear far more insulting language than adults do on a daily basis. (Did you get called a poo head at work today? I didn’t.)

Yet if you want to write for middle grade, realistic swearing will never find its way into the hands of your readers. (By upper YA, anything goes.)

Is there more swearing in children’s books today? A cursory (ha) glance suggests that’s the case:

Swearing in children’s books, and even in books for teenagers, used to be pure anathema.  SE Hinton’s 1967 young adult novel The Outsiders, for instance, an emotionally-charged account of youthful gangs clashing in Tulsa, features no language more colourful than “Glory!”, “Shoot!” or a very occasional “Hell!”

The Guardian

But define swearing. Even Beatrix Potter, famous now for writing about bunnies in coats, made reference to swearing:

But Benjamin was frightened–
“Oh; oh! they are coming back!”
“No they are not.”
“Yes they are!”
“What dreadful lbad language! I think they have falen down the stone quarry.”
— The Tale of Mr. Tod (1912)

Though we don’t see the bad language on the page, the mention of bad language prompts readers to recall what precisely that bad language might be.

By all accounts, Philip Pullman’s Le Belle Sauvage (released 2017) may be something of a watershed moment for children’s literature, as it contains a lot of swearing. Pullman advocates for more naturalistic rendering of child speech, and because he is a superstar, it was up to him to try and get away with it, paving the way for those coming later. He explains his ideology here.

Why is the video below so funny? Partly because what she says is unintelligible, until the the ice bucket gets dumped on her head. Then we know exactly what she’s saying!

Politics of swearing and childhood aside, what do most traditionally published and popular middle grade authors do when they need to depict swearing and insults without using the actual swearing and insults?

THEMATICALLY RELEVENT INSULTS

Newsprints by Ru Xu is a graphic novel in which birds feature heavily. The insults and swears are therefore often bird themed:

  • Listen here, Humpy Dumpty, you stay off the roof! (Birds… eggs… Humpty Dumpty…)
  • Good goosebumps!

For the human characters in Newsprints, the insults draw from cultural references such as nursery rhymes/classic literature and implements of the time. This is a steampunk book, where it’s assumed the children of this Victorian-esque era are reading nursery rhymes and Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland.

  • Get back here, Bugle Brat!
  • Catch me if ya can, Tweedle Dums!
  • Still think you can fly, pal? (‘Pal’ sounds like an insult in this context because it’s ironic.)

NON-ENGLISH SWEARING

  • In Pax, Sara Pennypacker includes a Haitian character whose swear word is dyableman. The child character learns it from the older mentor and starts using it himself.  I can’t speak to the power of the word in Haitian Creole, but it translates as ‘damned, deuced, devilish’ — not at all powerful in translation. I’m wary of taking actual words from other languages, especially in a climate of cultural appropriation, but mainly because unless it’s your native language you don’t know the full power of the word.
  • Fantasy authors can create entirely new languages and therefore entirely new curse words.

CASE STUDIES

YOU MAY ALREADY BE A WINNER BY ANN DEE ELLIS (USA, 2017)

The 13-year-old main character in this novel comes across much younger than she is on the page, and this is no doubt partly down to the author’s choice of language. Olivia Hales has a favourite ‘curse word’ which is ‘dumb bum’. She uses this over and over again — it’s her thing. If the 13-year-olds in your sphere are speaking like this, you’re hanging out in different circles than I am. However, stories are not the real world. We should be prepared to accept some differences. Perhaps the author/publisher decided to youngify (bowderlize?) the voice because the target reading audience is about 10-years-old. An older character uses ‘crap’, but that’s as cussy as it gets.

When Olivia gets really angry, she doesn’t swear. She indirectly threatens violence:

“Did you know a monkey can rip your face off?”

The girl’s eyes got all big and I was like, “Oh yeah. Yours too.” I said to the other secretary.

And then to the other one, “And yours for sure.”

***

Bart sees me.

I want to throw a car in his face.

It’s interesting what we think it’s okay to expose middle grade readers to. Nothing worse than dumb bum? But threats of violence as used in the real world is okay, so long as they’re hyperbolic. (No fear of someone actually throwing  a car in your face.)

At other times the swearing is humorous, in a much-younger-than-13 kind of way:

“I am so sorry my daughter called me a butthead piece of butt face.”

“You scared the earwax out of her is what you did.”

While certain stand-alone taboo curse words are out in this middle grade novel, dismissively sexist language passes the gates. For example, Olivia constantly refers to her father’s love interest as ‘the redhead’, objectifying a woman by metonymically referring to her as a body part. There is also ableist language, but only used indirectly, not by the viewpoint character with whom we are expected to empathise:

There was Carlene and Bonnie and stupid Jared who called me a retard.

I offer this as an argument against publishers and authors removing naturalistic swearing from middle grade fiction. If it’s okay to use sexist and ableist language as used in the real world, why not use stronger yet (counterintuitively) more neutral swear words?

LOVE SUGAR MAGIC BY ANNA MERIANO (2017)

Love Sugar Magic is an own voices novel partly designed to introduce non-Spanish speakers to Mexican culture. The following snippet of dialogue is worded in such a way that the reader learns the Spanish word for cockroach, and also thinks they’ve got new insider knowledge on a good insult:

“Come on cucaracha,” Marisol yelled. She called Leo “cockroach” whenever she wanted to be nasty without getting in trouble for using bad language.

WHEN I REACH YOU BY REBECCA STEAD (2009)

One way to get around swearing, which actually relies on the reader knowing the swear word in the first place:

And as Mom likes to say, that’s a whole different bucket of poop. Except she doesn’t use the word “poop”.

The effect is two-fold:

  1. The author can’t be accused of introducing readers to new language because they won’t know what the mother said unless they already know it.
  2. The young reader feels smart and mature for knowing exactly what the mother really said.

This leads me to my next point, which is why I have a liberal attitude around kids and exposure to swearing: A lot of ‘funny swears’ are very obviously based on real swears. The following chart sounds very American to me — none of these would be used in Australia unless the speaker were making a point of sounding American. A word like ‘bull snot’ is so obviously a ‘safe’ alternative to ‘bull shit’.

But then why is the bodily excretion of snot more acceptable than the bodily excretion of shit?

Tim Hawkins Handbook swears
An image shared in a social media discussion between children’s writers recently, after a writer asked (as someone often asks) for ‘safe’ swears.

When coming up with replacement swears, make sure to find the equivalent number of words. They’re basically half rhymes or like something from the clues of a cryptic crossword e.g. Monday to Friday to replace Mother Fucking (courtesy of Snakes on a Plane).

Interesting though it is, the issue of swearing in children’s literature is sans logic.

An episode of Every Little Thing podcast (F**k yeah, Can Cursing Make You Stronger?) interviews a woman whose job includes replacing profanity in Hollywood blockbusters with tame versions. Children’s writers, I’m sure, would be keen to get their hands on her handbook.

One example from the handbook: Clown flusher to replace Mother fucker, which the podcast conversationalists agree, sounds more offensive — offensive to clowns, at least. And what does flushing mean? The mind is encouraged to think about this, and it doesn’t go to great places.