The Tricksters by Margaret Mahy

The Tricksters Margaret Mahy dark cover

The Tricksters is a young adult novel by New Zealand author Margaret Mahy, first published in 1986. Mahy wrote many stories for children, but The Tricksters seems to be one frequently talked about in scholarship circles, alongside The Changeover and The Haunting, which both won The Carnegie Medal. The Tricksters is a rare example of the new female mythic form, in which a main character (often femme, sometimes not) thinks and feels their way through a problem rather than leaving home to go on a journey and fight a bunch of opponents.

A large number of stories deal with the concept of ‘many selves’, often by creating some kind of mask (a false way of presenting to the world) and then having it ripped off (happily) at the end. Only once we live our authentic selves can we be happy… That’s the general message in such stories. The tricksters in this book are three corporeal representations of a single person — they all share the same memories, for instance. This is another way of dealing in fiction with the concept of the many selves.

These three iterations of the tricksters line up with Matt Bird’s head/heart/gut theory:

Ovid: head, a master of metamorphoses. (The mind usually believes he is the leader of the group, and he usually isn’t.)
Felix: heart, submerged in life but striving toward dominance in the course of the story. Felix and Harry fall in love.
Hadfield: gut/instinct—at one point he tries to rape Harry.

American MIT philosopher Irving Singer (1925-2015) divided sex into three separate aspects:

  1. Eros: The aesthetic joy we take in others. ‘The affective glue that binds us to other persons, things or ideals and to ourselves’. Humans are visual creatures but it’s not necessarily about the visual. In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf writes at length about all the different forms of eros. We can be attracted to someone’s intelligence. The eros aspect of sex best equates to the ‘head’. As philosopher Damon Young says in his book Getting Off, “Eros need not be libidinal”. Referring to Shulamith Firestone’s book The Dialectic of Sex, Young writes “we can respond erotically to various and varied others — from lovers to friends. It is not just a genital swelling, but a ‘spark’, as she puts it, which fires over ‘the spectrum of our lives’. Because of this, we can have a broadly erotic response to objects other than human beings.”
  2. Romance: The ‘heart’. Romance is notoriously difficult to describe as it differs across time and across culture.
  3. Libido: ‘a somewhat automatic trigger for generating behavioral and physiological processes related to reproduction’. This is about biological urges (though is rarely about making babies, in fact). Libido is to humans as rutting is to animals. This is all about instinct and equates to ‘gut’.

The Tricksters is a coming-of-age novel about a young woman who is coming to terms with the various aspects of sex. Some aspects are thrilling; other aspects terrifying. When she conjures up three different manifestations of the same lover, she is imaginatively exploring and codifying these conflicting aspects. Unlike many young adult authors of the 1980s, Mahy does not punish her young women for exploring sex. She celebrates it. Though we are used to celebrations of sexuality in contemporary young adult literature, Mahy was ahead of her time.

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The Shawl by Cynthia Ozick

Jessie MacGregor - In the Reign of Terror 1891 baby cradle

The Shawl (1980) is a short story by American writer Cynthia Ozick, born 1928. In 2014, Joyce Carol Oates joined Deborah Treisman at The New Yorker to read and discuss Ozick’s story.

This horrific short story reminds me most of a narrative from another side of the same war: Grave of the Fireflies. Both are about starving, desperate war victims on a journey to nowhere. Both result in death from starvation. The Road by Cormac McCarthy has its similarities, including another horrific baby scene. (If you’ve watched the film adaptation and not read McCarthy’s novel, you have escaped it. The scene was clearly considered too harrowing for a film-going audience.)

Grave of the Fireflies utilises an empty box of sweets (replaced with stones) in the way Ozick utilises the corner of a shawl — the young starving character sucks on a non-food item as a way to quell their hunger. Both are grim motifs. The shawl in Ozicks’ narrative adds an extra layer, functioning metonymically for comfort spread thin.

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You’re Ugly, Too by Lorrie Moore

You’re Ugly, Too” is a short story by American writer Lorrie Moore, first published in a 1989 edition of The New Yorker — Moore’s first for the New Yorker. Find it also in her short story collection Like Life (1990).

New Yorker editors pointed out to Moore several “vulgarities” of the writing process she had committed in the story. “All through the editing process, they said, ‘Oooh, we’re breaking so many rules with this.’

Encyclopedia.com

Why did the crew at The New Yorker feel Lorrie Moore’s short story — the first of hers they’d seen/discussed seriously — broke the ‘rules’ of writing? What rules were they talking about.

I wasn’t there and can’t tell you for sure, but I’d like to consider this question.

  • Zoë is a woman, but she’s not “likeable”. She’s not even likeably unlikeable. (At least, she’s not written that way, panding to readers’ desire to like their main characters).
  • Zoë’s actions never fully make sense to the reader, even after re-reading. Her actions at the party, like her sense of humour, are absurd.
  • Zoë is nihilist and therefore passive. A difficult character to write.
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The Story Of The Kind Wolf by Wilkon and Nickl

“The Story Of The Kind Wolf” is a 1982 picture book by Jozef Wilkon, illustrated by Peter Nickl and translated into English by Marion Koenig. The story is now out of print and hard to find.

This is a Tawny Scrawny Lion plot, and very much of its time. This was the era of the vegetarian wild animal in picture books. Ecologists have long understood the importance of meat in the diet of a carnivore, and now understand how a single pack of wolves are vital to keeping an ecosystem in balance. But according to these Tawny-Scrawny-Lion plots, an ideal wilderness is one in which carnivorous animals become vegetarian. If this happened in reality, rabbits would ruin the landscape for everyone. Rabbits have ruined Australia, a topic covered metaphorically by Shaun Tan and John Marsden in The Rabbits.

Like John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat, this story definitely has a subtextual layer to it. Unlike John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat, I’m not sure it’s intended? For me, this is a subtexually a Jekyll and Hyde story, in which the fox functions symbolically as the wolf’s extreme hunger.

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Avocado Baby by John Burningham (1982)

Avocado Baby (1982) is a picture book written and illustrated by John Burningham. This was my first introduction to John Burningham. Our teacher read it in class. I was about six.

I don’t think I’d ever eaten an avocado at age six, so it functioned as a magical fruit, and didn’t strike me as odd that Burningham refers to them as ‘avocado pears’. I just checked: avocado is not related to the pear. Avocados were sometimes called avocado pears (in England) because of their pear-like shape.

Fruit is prone to changing its name between generations. Where I grew up, in New Zealand, my grandmother always called kiwifruit ‘Chinese gooseberries’. That’s what kiwifruit were called until the fruit marketing board got a hold of them and rebranded the ‘Chinese gooseberry’ for mass export, conveniently linking the furry brown skins with New Zealand’s most famous endangered bird. (Kiwifruit are not related to gooseberries.)

Then, when I left New Zealand, I realised only New Zealanders call kiwifruit ‘kiwifruit’ — the rest of the world shortens to ‘kiwi’, which is unsettling for a New Zealander self-identifying as ‘kiwi’. I am not a fruit!

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Gila Monsters Meet You at the Airport by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat and Byron Barton

Gila Monsters Meet You at the Airport (1980) is an American picture book written by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat and illustrated by Byron Barton. This story teaches the young reader to recognise a regional stereotype, and to question its veracity. This story was chosen for the first season of Reading Rainbow.

I had to look up the meaning of gila monster:

A heavy, typically slow-moving lizard, up to 60 cm (2.0 ft) long, the Gila monster is the only venomous lizard native to the United States and one of only two known species of venomous lizards in North America, the other being its close relative, the Mexican beaded lizard (H. horridum).

Wikipedia
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Tight Times by Shook Hazen and Schart Hyman

Tight Times (1979) is an American picture book written by Barbara Shook Hazen and illustrated in graphite pencil by Trina Schart Hyman. Tight Times also happens to be the first ever picture book read by LeVar Burton on America’s Reading Rainbow series back in 1983.

I can see why they chose it. This short picture book elicits some strong emotions, and unfortunately, this story about economic deprivation is just as necessary today as it was at the turn of the 1980s. Today in America, one in six children are living in poverty.

From a storytelling point of view, this picture book is interesting because it does a fantasic job of helping the reader empathise with the boy and his parents. Below I go into how write and illustrator work together to achieve that.

Also, as the child character heads towards the story’s climax, the storytellers make use of plot points straight out of fairytale, even though this is a story baked in realism. These plot points are so old and so embedded in our collective wisdom that other storytellers can make use of them to create a vivid and affecting story, full of pathos like this one.

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Ty’s One-Man Band by Pitts Walter and Tomes

Ty's One Man Band back cover

Ty’s One-Man Band (1980) is a picture book written by Mildred Pitts Walter and illustrated by Margot Tomes. This is a good mentor text if you’re writing a picture book with plenty of rhythmic onomatopoeia. If reading to modern kids, they might find this slow, quiet picture book a bit more exciting if encouraged to bang away with wooden spoons or blow into comb and tissue instruments.

This picture book was popularised after featuring in Season One of Reading Rainbow, though hadn’t managed to enjoy the longevity of some of those other picture books from the early 1980s.

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The Day Jimmy’s Boa Ate the Wash by Hakes Noble and Kellogg

The Day Jimmy’s Boa Ate the Wash (1980) is a carnivalesque, cumulative picture book written by Trinka Hakes Noble and illustrated by Steven Kellogg. This picture book is a great mentor text for the way it handles dialogue visually, and also for the way the ironic distance between text and image expands at the end, leading to a satisfying climax.

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Arthur’s Eyes by Marc Brown

Marc Brown Arthur's Eyes

Arthur’s Eyes (1979) by Marc Brown is an early story of the popular Arthur series, about an ambiguously animal creature (only after looking it up do I understand he’s a brown aardvark) who lives with his nuclear family in an American suburb. This is a well-crafted story and really speaks to its young audience. The book is now over 40 years old. Reading Arthur’s Eyes in 2020, I notice some ideological issues with the plot and characterisation that date the story badly.

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