Ideology In Children’s Literature: Against The Cult Of Busyness

In general, laziness in child heroes is a big no-no. But there is definitely a happy medium so far as children’s book creators are concerned. Once you become so busy that you neglect your loved ones, you’re working too hard.

Many children’s books are about grandparents and grandchildren. In many stories, only the grandparent has time to spend with the grandchild because the parents are too busy working. Perhaps, off-stage, the sandwich generation also busy looking after the grandparents themselves.

English writer William Mayne demonstrated this ideology, explained by Alison Lurie:

Several of Mayne’s books are marked by an alliance between the very young and the very old, who have clear if idiosyncratic memories of the past and speak to children as equals. Middle-aged people, such as parents and teachers, are often preoccupied and uncomprehending. Their interaction with the child characters is practical: they make rules, set tasks and pack lunches. When children and parents (or teachers) speak to each other, the tone is detached and cool — sometimes, indeed, [Harold] Pinteresque.

Don’t Tell The Grownups: The subversive power of children’s literature
Heidi and Grandpapa by Gustav Tenggren
Heidi and Grandpapa by Gustav Tenggren

Sometimes it’s the animal who is the stand-in for the child, and the child is too busy for the animal.

In Mog’s Christmas by Judith Kerr it is implied Mog’s family is too busy, because they don’t have time to pay Mog any attention. This is seen as motivation for Mog leaving the house and going to sit on the roof in the snow. (I’m going down to the garden to eat worms…)

Sometimes the characters are too busy to ‘stop and smell the roses’ and enjoy nature. They may be punished for their lack of noticing when something they should have seen jumps out to bite them. After that they learn to pay attention to their surrounds. In children’s literature, children are thought to be better noticers than adults. This ideology can be seen in Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing, for instance.

The Grim Reaper In Art And Storytelling

The Man with the Scythe exhibited 1896 Henry Herbert La Thangue 1859-1929
The Man with the Scythe exhibited 1896 Henry Herbert La Thangue 1859-1929

SLEEP AS A MINI DEATH

Adventures In Sleep from All In The Mind podcast

Scientists still don’t know why we need to sleep. Contrast that lack of full understanding with nutrition science, in which we fully understand why animals need to eat, how nutrition enters the blood stream, how it is metabolised and so on. Sleep remains far more mysterious.

But we do know more and more about sleep, partly thanks to people with disordered sleeping. Some people sleepwalk, drive cars and cook meals in their sleep. Because of this, we have come to understand that parts of the brain can be asleep while other parts remain fully awake. This also applies to the sleep deprived, who won’t notice that part of their brain is asleep while they are technically still ‘awake’, but they will know they’re not on top of their game.

The inverse of sleepwalking is sleep paralysis — a terrifying experience. This is where your brain is awake, but your body remains asleep. To make matters worse, this experience often goes hand in hand with the nightmarish visions in which dark figures seem to be creeping into the room.

In many ways, symbolically and experientially, sleep can feel like a form of death. Also, a common time to die is in the early hours, when metabolism plummets. People near death are at their most vulnerable at about four in the morning.

Visions of death near the bed are therefore commonly found in stories and art.

Death Listened to the Nightingale – The Nightingale, Edmund Dulac
illustration by the 19th century legend of illustration, Gustave Doré
illustration by the 19th century legend of illustration, Gustave Doré

La Thangue was well-known for his realist rustic scenes. Here, uncharacteristically, he introduces a symbolic dimension to his work. A mother discovers that her young daughter has died, presumably after an illness. At the same moment, a man arrives at the gate carrying a scythe, the traditional symbol of death, the ‘grim reaper’.This rather melodramatic treatment can be compared with the more grimly realistic picture of child death Hushed, by Frank Holl, also shown in this room.

Gallery label at The Tate, July 2007
Ingrid von Dardel (Swedish, daughter of painter Nils von Dardel, 1922-1962), Figure med hjärta (Character with heart), 1948, gouache on paper, 44,5 x 36,5 cm. Special collection
Eugene Grasset December calendar

The modern Grim Reaper is more often a man, but the Black Death was seen as an old woman walking the land, with a broom and a rake. Where she raked, some survived. Where she used the broom, everybody died. Old women are more common than old men, which probably accounts for much of the opprobrium directed at old women.

The Pest passing the Mountains 1901 Theodor Kittelsen
The Pest passing the Mountains 1901 Theodor Kittelsen
Sidney H. Sime, The Shadow on the House. Illustration from Pall Mall Magazine; 1906
Sidney H. Sime, The Shadow on the House. Illustration from Pall Mall Magazine; 1906
Charles Robinson
Charles Robinson
Death on a Pale Horse, Gustave Dore, 1865
Death on a Pale Horse, Gustave Dore, 1865

Whenever folklore contains a scary old woman, later artists will always, always subvert the idea of witch-like power by depicting her as an alluring young woman.

Death and the Gravedigger by Carlos Schwabe (1866–1926)

Skeletons As Death

Not surprising, of course, that skeletons are associated with death.

The Symbolic Inverse of the Grim Reaper

In contemporary lore, death more often looks like a man. The painting below is a useful portrayal of symbolic opposites. Death is a malnourished male figure holding a scythe, whereas the inverse of death is a pregnant woman decorated in flowers and pears. The painter Ivar Arosenius did this painting three years before his own death. Perhaps he was contemplating his own demise.

Death & Life (1905) by Ivar Arosenius (1878 – 1909)
Illustration of Prince Prospero confronting the Red Death by Arthur Rackham, 1935
Illustration of Prince Prospero confronting the Red Death by Arthur Rackham, 1935

STORIES WHICH PERSONIFY DEATH

Header illustration: René Bull (1872-1942) 1913 illustration for Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

Edwardo The Horriblest Boy In The Whole Wide World by John Burningham and Fabulously Naughty Children

Edwardo The Horriblest Boy in the Whole Wide World John Burningham cover

Child audiences love to see child characters behaving badly. Watching children get into mischief is a bit like watching robbers carry out a heist: as audience we never know what they’re going to do until they’ve done it. These characters are intrinsically motivated. They’re the opposite of passive. Interest derives from seeing them get out of their predicaments, or suffering in comedic fashion from their own stupid decisions. (Stupid characters who never learn a thing make great comedic stock.)

Continue reading “Edwardo The Horriblest Boy In The Whole Wide World by John Burningham and Fabulously Naughty Children”

Wave Symbolism

1917 creepy dude with swimmer

Storytellers have long utilised the symbolism of dreams, which apply equally when we’re awake. Around the world, we all have a similar visceral reaction to forests, the colour red, skulls… In fiction these universal symbols indeed say something deeper about our collective anxieties and fixations.

What is the universal symbol of climate change? I can tell you already. It’s waves. I listened to an interview with an Australian climate change scientist who has recently decided to open up about her climate crisis anxiety. Other climate change scientists have thanked her for her honesty. Sounds like they’re all having these dreams. Dreams about massive waves crashing onto shore. In some dreams this particular scientist is sucked in by the wave; in others she’s trying to run away. 

This imagery is echoed in a British cartoon that came through my feed last month: three waves in increasing order of magnitude, the smallest labeled ‘Pandemic’, the next labeled ‘Brexit’, the biggest labeled ‘Climate Change’.

If you haven’t joined us already, when you start having nightmares about waves, then you’ll know you’re viscerally feeling our climate crisis.

William Bouguereau - The Wave 1896
William Bouguereau – The Wave 1896

SEE ALSO

Ocean symbolism

Header illustration: 1917, illustrator unknown to me