Teachers In Children’s Literature

THE EARLIEST TEACHERS IN STORIES

The teacher archetype is related to the traditional ‘wise old man’ and ‘wise old woman’ archetype seen in many older stories. The teacher is the modern equivalent of these people, dishing out advice to help the protagonist get through the story. Teachers can be mentors, opponents, fake opponents, or very much background characters. In YA, teachers can also be love opponents. Continue reading “Teachers In Children’s Literature”

The Three Little Pigs Illustrated by Leonard Leslie Brooke

The Three Little Pigs is one of the handful of classic tales audiences are expected to know. Pigs are handy characters: They can be adorable or they can be evil. You can strip them  butt naked and let the reader revel in their uncanny resemblance to humans. Or, you can dress them in jumpers and they’re as cute as kittens.

 

Brooke’s version of The Three Little Pigs, published January 1st 1905 by Frederick Warne and Company,  is freely available at Project Gutenberg.

No one knows who wrote it, but we do know it’s from England.

The Story Of The Three Little Pigs

This version is also part of the Mother Goose collection.

(Did you know that children’s books in general originally emerged from nursery rhymes and folk tale? And that William Godwin, husband of Mary Wollstonecraft and father of Mary Shelley, published the first Mother Goose Tales?) Continue reading “The Three Little Pigs Illustrated by Leonard Leslie Brooke”

A Squash And A Squeeze by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler

There have been various editions of A Squash And A Squeeze in its 20+ year history of reprints.

a squash and a squeeze light blue cover

Here is a slightly more ominous sky:

a squash and a squeeze dark sky

CHARACTER

Note that Donaldson is working with tropes here, as she almost always does. Witches, chimeras, rats, mice, and here: a mentor archetype, and a trope most often found in fairytales and in picture books: an old woman who lives alone on a simple small plot of land in the country. This woman will probably have a close relationship with her animals (and if she doesn’t, she’ll be forced to, here!)

STORY STRUCTURE OF A SQUASH AND A SQUEEZE

WEAKNESS/NEED

The old woman feels her little house is too small for her. The four walls make her feel ‘squashed and squeezed’.

DESIRE

She wants a bigger house, we guess.

OPPONENT

The Wise Old Man is a secret-ally opponent. He at first seems to be making her situation worse, but there’s method in his madness.

PLAN

She asks the local Wise Old Man what to do.

The word 'plan' is even used in the text. A SQUASH AND A SQUEEZE
The word ‘plan’ is even used in the text.

BATTLE

The battle scenes are slap stick set pieces as the Wise Old Man tells her to bring her farm animals into the house. He starts her off on the smallest farm animals and ends with the cow.

SQUASH AND A SQUEEZE BATTLE

SELF-REVELATION

Compared to having a house full of farm animals, a cottage with just her in it no longer seems so small.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

The animals live happily in the yard and the old woman lives happily in her cottage, no longer feeling it’s too small.

ANNIVERSARY EDITION

This book was first published in 1993 and the publishers released a red edition to make the 20 Years edition. I don’t know. The blood red sky makes it look a bit ominous, though it fits the brief of seeming quite different:

A SQUASH AND A SQUEEZE 20 YEAR ANNIVERSARY EDITION

School And Children’s Literature

storybook school

School itself must be so different these days than it was when you were in school. Certainly, having kids helps, but is that ever an issue for you when you’re writing?

I was reading about this phenomenon in television and film writing, which is that the references to school are always at least 20 to 30 years old, because writers are really writing about their own experiences, so these movies are hopelessly outdated. What I’ve been surprised with is that school seems a lot safer and more benign than it was when I was in junior high. You know, for me, junior high was like the Wild West. There must have been one teacher for 35 kids, and we were completely unprotected from the bullies, so the experiences I’m writing about in my book are actually very watered-down from real life experiences.

Jeff Kinney at Mental Floss

Dead_poets_society

My high school English teacher hated Dead Poet’s Society. He never said why, and we never asked. Then I became an English teacher myself.

Stories set in schools haven’t been the same for me since my teachers’ college year. Dead Poet’s Society ceased to be a story about an inspirational, enthusiastic English teacher and more a demonstration of an egotistical lover of attention who would have served his students better if he had tried a bit of group work. (Jumping around on desks is also considered uncouth in a country where even sitting on desks is a no-no. This was New Zealand.)

As and aside, Dead Poet’s Society hasn’t aged well, either. There is a sexual assault scene which is not treated as such. For more on that I’d recommend listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast rather than watching the entire movie again.

Dead Poet’s Society is just one example of an unrealistic, annoying but romantically idealised teacher. While teaching high school myself, I had zero patience for stories in which fictional teachers keep individual students behind after class to speak to them about various misdemeanours — mostly, these teachers were young men in fake horn-rims who, had they been of truly innocent intent, as we were meant to believe as the audience, would have made sure never, ever to be in a room alone with any student. Don’t keep students behind after class. If you do, keep them back in a small group. Keep the door open. Teaching 101.

It was the large classes of eerily silent student, in which the actor posing as teacher makes zero use of body language, has no slightly embarrassing strategies for gaining everyone’s attention.

In fictional classrooms, the teacher walks around the classroom and everyone watches in rapt attention, even though the students at the front of the classroom can no longer see, nor hear. The teacher with magical magnetism approaches a single student’s desk to engage more closely with them when, in reality, as soon as the teacher moves from the front of the room, the class is likely to break out into little groups chattering. “Don’t do what actors always do on TV,” our teachers’ college lecturer warned us. “Stay at the front of the classroom until you’ve finished talking to the entire class.” The ‘rules’ of body language, standing position and classroom management are not something that has been picked up by film-makers, who are in love with the ‘camera moves around the classroom’ technique.

Also: “Don’t confiscate passed notes and read them aloud to the class. Crumple them up and throw them into the bin without looking at them” Anything else is a shaming technique, which went out of vogue decades back.

In sum, teachers’ college is a year in which naiive student-teachers’ hopes and dreams about what the Role of Teacher might be like are moulded into something more closely aligned to reality. Still, it amazes me how, even though all of us have known a lot of teachers over our 13-odd years of schooling, we nevertheless accept quite a chasm between the reality of teaching and the fictional portrayals. We accept these fictional teachers partly because narrative has its own rules; likewise, police officers are not usually damaged alcoholics who can’t maintain a healthy family life and eat nothing but donuts, but we see this character all the time in the crime genre.

On movies, the bell rings and everyone gets up to leave. No fictional teacher says, ever, what I said weekly: “The bell is a signal for me, not for you.”

 

Continue reading “School And Children’s Literature”

Fairytale Archetypes

Marina Warner has a great way of thinking about fairytale archetypes: Imagine them as pieces on a chessboard. We know all we need to know about them just from their appearance. Moreover, their position on the board limits the number of possible moves they’re able to make.

Even modern stories make use of the stock characterisation of fairy tales, otherwise known as ‘fairytale archetypes’. There is no need to shy away from using these. Audiences love them. The trick is to expand upon them, or, according to your purposes, to subvert expectations and challenge the reader’s prejudices.

Fairytale Character Archetypes

 

In fairy tales, famously, character is destiny. Who the personages are, and what happens to them, are completely inseparable. You can predict what will happen to a good princess, just from the fact that she is a good princess. Her identity in the story maps out her future. Conversely, her goodness has no other aspects except those that are revealed by her marrying a handsome prince. That’s all her goodness really means; though we will of course have seen it in action  in acts of kindness or victimhood at the beginning of the story, so we know that it is there. In true fairy tales, as opposed to literary hybrids smuggling in the techniques of the novel, there are no individual characters, only types.

Good princess; bad princess.

Witches.

Fairy godmothers.

Genies.

Kings who set tasks for suitors.

Ogres and giants.

These beings do not exist in the environment of the child who, at the same time as hearing about Snow White, is also thrilled by stories of door-opening. But the vocabulary of types is actually easier to acquire, in some ways, than knowledge about the child’s own world, because the fairy-tale world is so perfectly self-explanatory. Every appearance by a witch is a complete, sufficient demonstration of what a witch is. In life, knowledge of other people’s natures is both important and relatively hard to come by; it depends on a long loop of inferences moving gradually from the things people do and say, to conclusions about what they’re like. Children can afford to be much less cautious about the information in stories — much quicker to decide. Arthur Applebee asked a group of pre-school children to tell him the characters of a list of animals. They were more certain of the stereotypical personalities of animals they could only have met in stories, such as brave lions or sly foxes, than of the characters of dogs or cats, where experience of specific dogs and cats came in to complicate the picture. Story characteristics are prepared for reception, so to speak; they’re consistent, they don’t contradict themselves, and they’re dispensed at the pace that understanding demands.

The Child That Books Built, Frances Spufford

Vintage Paper Toys

CHARACTERS ARE ‘NOT ACTUALLY CONSCIOUS’

“Conventional stock figures”: there is no psychology in a fairy tale. The characters have little interior life; their motives are clear and obvious. If people are good, they are good, and if bad, they’re bad. Even when the princess in “The Three Snake Leaves” inexplicably and ungratefully turns against her husband, we know about it from the moment it happens. Nothing of that sort is concealed. The tremors and mysteries of human awareness, the whispers of memory, the promptings of half-understood regret or doubt or desire that are so much part of the subject matter of the modern novel are absent entirely. One might almost say that the characters in a fairy tale are not actually conscious.

They seldom have names of their own. More often than not they’re known by their occupation or their social position, or by a quirk of their dress: the miller, the princess, the captain, Bearskin, Little Red Riding Hood. When they do have a name it’s usually Hans, just as Jack is the hero of every British fairy tale.

The most fitting pictorial representation of fairy-tale characters seems to me to be found not in any of the beautifully illustrated editions of Grimm that have been published over the years, but in the little cardboard cut-out figures that come with a toy theatre. They are flat, not round. Only one side of them is visible to the audience, but that is the only side we need: the other side is blank. They are depicted in poses of intense activity or passion, so that their part in the drama can be easily read from a distance.

Philip Pullman, The Guardian

BOYS AND BROTHERS

Brothers in a fairy tale will often manifest a different aspect of personality. This provides a moralistic tale about which traits will get you far in life and which will lead to your downfall. For example, the lazy brother, the haughty brother and the smart brother. The youngest is usually the best. This is because the youngest brother was the least privileged — in a culture of primogeniture it was the eldest son who inherited everything. These tales teach younger brothers that they can still do okay on merit — we’re still telling ourselves this today.

GIRLS AND SISTERS

When it comes to fairytale sisters, good and evil are connected to how they look. Pretty girls are good girls. This is an obvious case of physical discrimination but is in line with other fairytale archetypes in which What You See Is What You Get, and if that’s not the case, it’s because you’ve been deliberately deceived.

In the best-known folktales there are several possible roles for the adult male protagonist. He may be a prince, a poor but ambitious boy, a fortunate fool a traveling vagabond, or a clever trickster. But if you are the female protagonist of one of the fairy tales most popular today, there are only two possibilities: either you are a princess or you are an underprivileged but basically worthy girl who is going to become a princess if she is brave and good and lucky.

If you are already a princess when the story starts, you usually have a problem. Very likely you need rescuing from some danger or enchantment. Maybe you have been promised to a dragon or promised yourself to a dragon; or you might have been kidnapped by a witch or enchanter, who asks impossible riddles or sets impossible tasks for your would-be rescuers. Possibly it is your father, the king, who has set these tasks. Or perhaps you are just very difficult to please, like the princess in “King Thrushbeard,” and set the tasks or riddles yourself, to drive away possible suitors.

— Alison Lurie: Don’t Tell The Grown-ups: The subversive power of children’s literature

Before fairy tales were written down by men, the heroines of fairy tales were very often courageous heroines who retained her wits during times of adversity. A look into the history of Little Red Riding Hood is a good example of a heroine who was weakened, in this case mostly by The Grimms.

witch

VILLIANS

Villains often have seductive powers, as in the witch who is an ugly old crone underneath, but can shapeshift and trick men into thinking she’s attractive to them.

The rise of the fairytale created a tectonic shift in children’s literature and revealed that something had long been off kilter. Fairytales—sometimes referred to as “wondertales” because they traffic in magic—opened the door to new theatres of action, with casts of characters very different from the scolding schoolmarm, the aggravated bailiff, or the disapproving cleric found in manuals for moral and spiritual improvement. Books were suddenly invaded by fabulous monsters—bloodthirsty giants, red eyed witches, savage blue beards, and sinister child snatchers— and they produced a giddy sense of disorientation that roused the curiosity of the child reader.

— Maria Tatar, Enchanted Hunters

Villains are also very often cannibalistic, especially ogres.

WISE WOMEN

The wise women of modern fiction come from all classes of society. Some, like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Ramsy and E.M. Forster’s Mrs Wilcox, are upper-class or upper middle-class. Others, such as William Faulkner’s Dilsey and the cook Berenice Brown in Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding, are servants. Many of them are also in a sense nature goddesses whos epower is related to a semimagical connection with the earth, the seasons, and the processes of growth and creation. They can be recognized by their knowledge of plants, their instinctive sympathy with children and animals, and their intution, which sometimes operations at the level of ESP.

— Alison Lurie: Don’t Tell The Grown-ups: The power of subversive children’s literature

The wise woman archetype can also be found in:

  • Of The Farm by John Updike
  • Wise Child by Monica Furlong

FOOLS

From Tibet to Africa, and places in between, many cultures have set aside a special place for fools. We may be most familiar with this from Shakespeare’s plays where court jesters appear, like the wise one who has a role in King Lear. And to all appearances, court fools had an enviable job since they could say what they liked with impunity and be pranksters without fear of reprisal. Protected by their special status, given room to act up, making acute but silly comments from the side of the stage, not taken very seriously–the fool, in many ways, resembles the child. Hence, the appeal of this figure to children: the fool is their cousin. Hence, too, the childhood business of “playing the fool.”

Jerry Griswold

Stereotypes, Tropes and Archetypes

Story is about archetypes and tropes. Avoid stereotypes.

WHAT IS A STEREOTYPE?

The archetypal story unearths a universally human experience, then wraps itself inside a unique, culture-specific expression. A stereotypical story reverses this pattern: It suffers a poverty of both content and form. It confines itself to the narrow, culture-specific experience and dresses in stale, non-specific generalities. […] Stereotypical stories stay at home, archetypal stories travel.

Story, Robert McKee

COMEDY TRICK MAKING USE OF STEREOTYPES

Like many comic writers, Jeff Kinney, author of the Wimpy Kid books, makes use of our stereotypes by giving us just a few details then leaving us to fill in the rest. There’s no getting around it — a lot of comic writers rely on stereotypical views of their audience.

Greg’s older brother Rodrick is set up as a fool. Like lots of stereotypes we hold about dimwits, he can’t spell and is a member of a rock band. Of course, being unable to spell and having an interest in rock music has zero correlation to overall intelligence. But we find this combination of traits funny because it reinforces everything we believe (sort of) about someone who can’t spell ‘loaded diaper’, or who thinks they’re going to become famous via their garage band. Every now and then, however, Rodrick does something amazing. His strokes of genius defy our expectations (based on stereotype) and are ironically funny for that reason.

comic by Poorly Drawn Lines

WHAT IS A TROPE?

A trope is a pattern which can be seen time and again in various stories. The site TV Tropes is a good place to start for many, many examples of tropes (not just seen on TV). However, the ‘tropes’ on that site get a little too specific. Some of the most specific examples can’t really be considered tropes at all, except to the most discriminating of story consumers. In order to work, the trope has to be recognised by the audience.

When I first encountered the TV Tropes website I was overcome with a sense of There’s Nothing New I Can Possibly Add To The World of Storytelling. I’ve since calmed down a bit and realised that’s not true at all. Nor should we be afraid of using tropes in our own stories. In fact, if you try to avoid tropes, you’ll probably end up with something no one can connect to.

There are, however, tropes I avoid like the plague. Sexist and racist character tropes are to be avoided.

 

WHAT IS AN ARCHETYPE?

Archetypes are fundamental psychological patterns within a person. They are roles a person may play in society, essential ways of interacting with others.

e.g.

  • King/Father
  • Queen/Mother
  • Warrior
  • Magician/Shaman
  • Trickster
  • Artist/Clown
  • Lover
  • Rebel

Archetype is a five-dollar word for ‘pattern’, or for the mythic original on which a pattern is based. It’s like this: somewhere back in myth, something — a story, let’s call it — comes into being. It works so well, for one reason or another, that it catches on, hangs around, and keeps popping up in subsequent stories. That component could be anything: a quest, a form of sacrifice, flight, a plunge into water, whatever resonates and catches our imaginations, setting off vibrations deep in our collective consciousness, calling to us, alarming us, inspiring us to dream or nightmare, making us want to hear it again and again. You’d think that these components, these archetypes, would wear out with use the way cliche wears out, but they actually work the other way: they take on power with repetition, finding strength in numbers. … When we hear or see or read one of these instances of archetype, we feel a little frisson of recognition and utter a little satisfied ‘aha!’. And we get that chance with fair frequency, because writers keep employing them.

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

Because they are basic to all human beings, archetypes cross cultural boundaries and have universal appeal.

The idea of an archetype comes from Jung’s psychoanalytical writings. Jung wrote about our heads, but the Canadian critic Northrop Frye took these ideas and applied them to books.

Unless you give the archetype detail, it can become a stereotype (or a cliche). A stereotype is a character who behaves in exactly the way he or she is supposed to, according to the prevailing conventions.

Always make the archetype specific and individual to your unique character.

Don’t bother looking for the originals upon which modern archetypes are based — there has probably never been a single, definite version of the archetypes.

Robert McKee says:

Characters are not people. Whereas people constantly change and are difficult to pin down, characters in stories stand for things about human nature that are unchangeable through the ages.

See: Fairytale Archetypes

RELATED LINKS ABOUT STEREOTYPES

  1. World map of useless stereotypes.
  2. Your Scene Sucks. Why you are just like everybody else.
  3. Stereotypes, stereotypes, everywhere from Teen Skepchick
  4. Automotive stereotypes look a bit different in Australia, so this American summary was interesting.