The following are some resources I used with New Zealand high school English students some years ago during a novel study of Tomorrow When The War Began by John Marsden. Posted here in case anyone still finds this useful.
How many wars has New Zealand been involved in during the last 50 years?
The Cold War (1950 to 1953)
Korean War (1949)
Malayan Emergency (1960)
Vietnam War (1965 and 1971)
September 11 Attacks (2001)
Was there any warning before the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre Towers in New York? (September 2001)
Are there any civil defence guidelines for what to do if New Zealand was attacked by another country?
Where is East Timor, who invaded it in 1975, and what was New Zealand’s response to this invasion?
TIME LINE FOR TOMORROW WHEN THE WAR BEGAN
(CUT THE PIECES UP THEN STICK THEM ONTO A PIECE OF PAPER IN THE CORRECT ORDER.)
The narrator says that Robyn told her to write everything down.
Ellie decides to go camping up in Hell.
The narrator introduces us to the members of the group.
The group drives to Tailor’s Stitch in the Landrover.
The group set up camp in Hell.
They find a snake in a sleeping-bag.
Ellie sees waves of jets flying overhead.
The group heads back to Ellie’s house in Wirrawee
The group goes to Homer’s and Corrie’s houses
They decide to go into town later that night to see what is happening
Ellie, Corrie and Kevin see people being held in tents at the showgrounds.
They get trapped in Mrs Alexander’s back yard.
Ellie blows up three soldiers with a ride-on lawn mower.
Robyn and Lee don’t return from town.
The group makes plans to load up the vehicles and head to the shearer’s quarters.
A helicopter circles the house, sees Flip and signals a jet to blow up Corrie’s house.
They find Robyn in her own house, although she was meant to wait on the hill.
They return to rescue Lee from the restaurant and destroy several vehicles on the way out.
They find Chris (in his pyjamas) after rolling the car into the dam.
They carry Lee back to Hell.
Ellie finds the Hermit’s hut.
The group reads some documents they found in the Hermit’s hut.
The group decides to do something to slow the enemy down.
Fi and Ellie steal a petrol tanker and Ellie drives it to a secure location.
Homer drives the cattle over the bridge using a camera flash to scare the cattle.
The tanker blows up the bridge.
We learn that Corrie has been shot.
Kevin and Corrie leave the group for good.
Author’s note: John Marsden tells us that the story is based, in part, on real events
AN EXTREMELY SCAFFOLDED ESSAY WRITING EXERCISE
Describe an important idea dealt with in the text.
Explain why this idea is important.
An important idea in the novel by John Marsden, Tomorrow When the War Began, concerns growing up despite adversity. All the main characters in the novel change over the course of events in the story, especially Ellie, who starts off as an ordinary rural Australian teenager and ends up a more mature, introspective adult. Ellie’s growth as a character is important because Marsden hopes she will be an important role model for the novel’s teenage audience.
Describe Ellie at the start of the novel
Find evidence from the text to show she is an ordinary teenager (a mimetic hero if you want to use Northrop Frye’s terminology)
Make reference also to the teenagers’ comments about the Hermit, and how they think he must be terrible because he killed his own family.
Finally in this paragraph, explain how this is related to the fact that at this stage of the novel the teenagers see things in black in white. They don’t see shades of grey, for example how it might be considered right to kill others in some circumstances. Explain that this part of the book is important because the teenagers seem familiar to the audience, and can identify with them.
Compare this to an incident part way through the novel when they are way out of their comfort zones, doing things they never thought they could do. (You choose the incident, perhaps the lawnmower one.)
Explain that the setting is important here because if it weren’t an isolated, rural area, help would be readily available and they wouldn’t have the opportunity to show what they are capable of.
Explain that one of the reasons Marsden wrote the series was to show that under difficult circumstances, teenagers can shine. And that this incident demonstrated the teenagers doing exactly that. This idea is important because it helps the teenage audience feel strong and capable. Teenagers in this book are capable and valued.
Now pick an incident near the end of the book (eg. the bridge incident)
Include a quote to show that Ellie is now a much more introspective character.
Explain that through the narrator of Ellie comes Marsden’s voice, and he is inviting us to think about things that we may not have thought of before (eg equality between Australia and the invaders), whether it is right to kill in some circumstances and not in others. By having Ellie as a reflective character, and seeing her change, Marsden is triggering change in the readers, too.
The idea of personal development through adversity is linked to other, thought-provoking ideas in Tomorrow When the War Began. Marsden’s point is that it is not until teenagers go through tough times that we fully understand the shades of gray surrounding some issues. He hopes that his narrator Ellie will be a model for teenagers reading the book, who reflect on issues carefully, and perhaps become more open-minded for doing so.
ANALYSIS OF AN ‘EXCELLENCE’ ESSAY (NCEA level one)
(This was an example of excellence when NCEA had just started. Standards may have changed in the past 15 years.)
TASK: Describe an important character in the text. Explain why he/she is important.
Tomorrow When the War Began – John Marsden
An important character in this novel is Ellie. She is important because she shows how human beings can adapt to their circumstances. She was drawn into a war situation and faced adversity. This required her to adapt and mature.
Ellie began life as a rural teenager. She lived on a farm and her life consisted of school, friends and family. She was sheltered: “Our lives had always been so unaffected by the outside world.” She loved “being a rural” and had little pressure other than to milk cows. Despite this gentle lifestyle I gained an impression early on in the novel that Ellie is an intelligent leader, confident in herself and showing strength of character. This is further shown when Ellie and her friends are thrust into a volatile war. Ellie was forced to kill three soldiers in order to save herself and her two friends: “This is war now and normal rules don’t apply.”
We see Ellie being reflective and realising that she has special qualities. “It was hard for me to believe that I, plain old Ellie; nothing about me, middle of the road in every way; had probably just killed three people.” She questions her own motives and eventually accepts her situation. The reader sees her able to make adult decisions. “I stopped being a normal teenager and began to become someone else.”
Ellie is important because she shows that within us all are qualities that emerge only when circumstances change. Human beings can adapt to almost all situations, showing a courage and an ability to cope with adverse circumstances. Ellie is important because she shows the complexity of human nature and our ability to reflect on our lives.
What exact words did the student use to answer the question in the first paragraph?
What is the reason given for the character’s importance?
What is said about Ellie’s character early in the novel?
What example from the novel backs it up?
What change has the student noticed in Ellie over the course of the novel?
What evidence is given for this change?
How is the essay concluded?
TOMORROW WHEN THE WAR BEGAN QUIZ
(The following are simple know-it-or-not type questions and can be used competitively between groups and with a time limit attached.)
What is the narrator’s name?
Who lived in Hell before the group did?
What game did Homer invent in Year 8?
How did the group get to hell?
Who had to stay at home and work on the farm?
What is the name of the town they live in?
What public holiday was the country celebrating?
Who has Thai and Vietnamese parents?
Who does Homer develop a liking for?
What was in the sleeping bag?
What happened when Ellie went to the toilet at night?
What was the first indication that something was wrong at the farm?
What is Homer’s surname?
Whose parents write a note to the kids?
Where was everyone being held?
What is Ellie’s ex-boyfriend’s name?
What had been happening at the show grounds before the kids left?
How does Corrie hurt her leg when they are chased from the showgrounds?
Where did they get trapped?
How did they get away?
Who gets separated from Ellie and the others?
Where do they meet after going into the showgrounds?
What is Homer’s ethnicity?
After coming back from town the first time, where do they initially plan to hide?
Where do they keep a lookout?
Where did Homer and Fi hide?
What do Ellie Corrie and Homer see while on look-out?
What happens to the family photos?
What makes the soldiers in the helicopter suspicious?
What happened to Corrie’s house?
Where do they find Lee and Robyn?
Who did Robyn and Lee meet in the town?
What had happened to Lee?
Where was Lee hidden?
How do they get Lee out?
Where do they get it from?
What kind of car does Homer pick them up in?
What do they eventually do to it?
What happens immediately after this?
How did Lee get back to Hell?
What ritual did Corrie have in Hell?
When listening to the radio, which country do the children hear refusing to help?
Who can butcher the feral animals they catch?
Where do the pairs plan to have their base when they go back into Wirrawee?
What was the title of the half a book they found in the Hermit’s hut?
The Cider Duck (1969) is an Australian picture book written by Joan Woodberry and illustrated by Molly Stephens.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR AND ILLUSTRATOR
Joan Woodberry (1921-2010) was an influential, widely-travelled Tasmanian feminist whose efforts made women’s lives palpably better in Tasmania.
Finding information on Molly Stephens is a little more difficult partly because she was also known as Molly Pascall, her birth name. The Cider Duck is perhaps the only published book she illustrated. It seems she was a fine artist and teacher the rest of the time. She may have liked cats? If it’s the same Molly Stephens, she left some of her estate to The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Like Joan, Molly was a teacher. She was born in 1920 and educated in England, as an artist, then after the war spent a while in Egypt. She then emigrated to Australia. She lived in Tasmania until her death in 1970, first in Smithton, then in Hobart. She specialised in portraits.
In short, both writer and illustrator were well-travelled women who lived through the 20th century wars. They both worked with children and settled in Tasmania. I’m guessing — though it’s just a guess — they knew each other and collaborated, unlike most writer/illustrator combos today, who are set up by the publisher and rarely meet until the job is done, if at all.
STORYWORLD OF THE CIDER DUCK
The reader is left in no doubt about the setting:
When? 1832, conveyed as intratext across the bridge. Night time.
Where? The Eider Duck Inn, Richmond, Van Diemen’s Land (now called Tasmania), Australia. Richmond is not far from Hobart, to the NNE. I’m not sure if The Eider Duck Inn was a real place — let me know if you have the answer.
Weather: windy, rainy, with lightning.
Pictured above is The Richmond Bridge.
The Richmond Bridge is a heritage listed arch bridge located on the B31 (“Convict Trail”) in Richmond, 25 kilometres (15.5 mi) north of Hobart in Tasmania, Australia. It is the oldest stone span bridge in Australia.
Well, the duck gets drunk. Drunk on fermented apples, to be specific. This isn’t on the page, but deduced after she wanders into the kitchen and ‘falls asleep’ so soundly that she doesn’t notice all of her feathers being plucked out. Because she is drunk she is powerless to stop it.
I figure this duck had a brush with death by alcohol poisoning. The child audience believes the little duck is gloriously happy frolicking about in the utopian world of wind-fallen fruit, finally getting so tired she simply nods off.
The duck is more duck-like than human-like, though we are to believe the duck has human emotions (such as pride, in the end). Therefore, the plot revelation is had by the human main character — the ‘kind hostess’ realises the duck wasn’t dead at all. It was simply asleep.
So the duck’s opponent also functions as the human proxy after this harrowing near-death experience.
To make amends, the hostess knits jumpers for the duck — one for every day of the week. Here I am reminded that the creators of this book had pedagogical interests — this sequence feels like an overt exercise in teaching young children the days of the week.
We see the teaching of the days of the week in a Little Golden Book from around the same era — The Tawny Scrawny Lion. This was also the era of ‘animals who aren’t quite animals but aren’t quite human, either’.
By the time The Cider Duck was published, half a century had passed since Beatrix Potter, but Potter’s influence remained strong. Reading these stories today, they seem horrific. Sure, the animals seem to live in utopias with beautiful forests full of food, but death lurks behind every corner. There may be food on the ground just waiting for you to enjoy it, but you yourself are food for someone else.
The modern reader may find the plucking scene disturbing in itself.
Live plucking causes birds considerable pain and distress. Once their feathers are ripped out, many of the birds, paralyzed with fear, are left with gaping wounds—some even die as a result of the procedure.
The Anagnorisis phase gives way to the utopian world of the apple orchard. The duck is basically famous now, for her ability to escape death. She becomes a local celebrity.
The anagnorisis in this story is implicit — after admiring herself in jumpers, the duck seems to realise her value. The humans will not eat her, because they have welcomed her into the human world, removing her from the menu. She must realise at some point that she is safe.
“Blackberries” is a short story by Thomas Keneally, included in an anthology I got free when buying another book at Dymocks back in 2009. Allen and Unwin have since released a number of short stories from big name Australian authors as eBooks, including “Blackberries”, available for a couple of bucks each.
The marketing copy of “Blackberries” is telling:
Austin North sees himself as a fine English teacher in his local high school. His students respect him, and he finds personal fulfillment in teaching them the power of poetry to move and inspire. However, Austin’s self-perceptions are upset by his infatuation with a young Sudanese girl, a recent immigrant to Australia. When Austin realises that he is just another predator in her difficult journey, he is forced to re-examine his own values and relationships.
When composing cover copy, log lines and premises, writers are encouraged to convey ‘some sense of the outcome’. Here, the publisher reveals the main character’s arc: Don’t worry, this isn’t just another story about a middle-aged man’s hard on for a teenage girl! He does experience a character arc! He learns he’s actually a shit!
Because surely we’ve reached a cultural moment in which a mainstream thinking audience is sick and tired of profiles of ephebophilia, especially those which simply expose rather than critique, as if this phenomenon is new to any reader. As if stories which centre, and therefore prioritise, a man’s erotic desires over a woman’s are new to any reader. The title itself makes me squirm — what might “Blackberries” refer to? Or rather, to whom? Women of colour sexualised as food items is another old-ass trope. So let’s hope it’s not that.
But that final sentence of the marketing copy offers hope. Perhaps Thomas Keneally offers an interesting take in “Blackberries”? Annie Proulx is another short story writer who made use of the double-edged symbolism of blackberries in “Heart Songs”. Blackberries are sweet and delicious but also an invasive weed. Proulx’s short story offers a good contrasting text for another reason — Snipe in “Heart Songs” doesn’t change at all.
How does a person realise that his erotic desires are problematic, and impacting others badly? Austin’s character arc interests me, because how often do Anagnorisiss like this occur in reality? And if it does happen, how might we kick it off?
STORYWORLD OF “BLACKBERRIES”
Somewhere in the Australian ‘bush’, which means rural area — oftentimes there’s little in the way of shrubbery. (This perplexed me when I first arrived here.)
In this particular part of the New South Wales ‘bush’ there are a number of refugees, notably from Southern Sudan.
In small towns in New South Wales (I live in one myself), sport is important. To be good at sport gives you lots of prestige.
Refugees and immigrants have together formed the local Sudanese committee which helps new Australians settle. This has been started by an engineer (highly skilled immigrant not refugee) from Sudan. His name is David Malwai.
Most of the Sudanese immigrants are Coptic Christians.
Some of the teenage Sudanese boys are starting to form gangs but are still ‘better behaved than some of the Aboriginal young’. (The unseen narrator is therefore white.)
Austin North sees himself as a fine English teacher in his local high school.
This is a character who doesn’t see anything wrong with himself, morally, ethically. The world’s reaction to him generally props up this self-image. Keneally shows Austin as king of his arena — enjoying the repartee with the boys (while ignoring the girls, assuming they will simply leave school and get pregnant).
— Because they are soft, poor things, said Angela Yankovich, a bright kid who was a member of some evangelical church group, at least for now. Austin had a feeling that it wouldn’t last. In six months time she would forget all that and be the girlfriend of some town hoon whom she’d think the smartest thing she’d ever met and who might steal her future from her. — Exactly right, said Austin, more to reinforce her than because she had got the point of the poem
To cut it short, Austin North is an old school sexist, misogynist. “Blackberries” is not a comfortable read and isn’t meant to be. But the narrator, pulling away from Austin’s point of view, assures us that he’s good at his job:
Austin had a reputation as an excellent English teacher. Even the kids who pretended to get nothing out of his classes often got plenty. It was a game they played, him and them, arguing the usefulness of poetry year by year. He enjoyed the tussle — it was better than having a class full of obedient automatons who took notes frantically. And in every class, you saw a girl here, a boy there, suddenly becoming intoxicated with words. Softly and humbly…
But is it possible to be a good teacher and also a teacher who sexually objectifies female students? Isn’t ‘respecting every student as a child without assuming for them a dismal future’ a necessary element of ‘good teacher’, without which you are a ‘shit teacher’?
The opening scene sets up a classroom in which Austin’s bright year tens are his opponents, but with the arrival of Miriam Salong, Austin has a new type of opposition — and he’s very uncomfortable with this one.
So far, so good. Austin proves himself a Good Guy, right?
Except if you’re a teacher you’ll know to suspect a teacher who detains a student after class for no good reason — alone, no less. Austin goes no further than that, but if the story were told from Miriam’s point of view we might learn of her fear.
Even with a narrator who sympathises with Austin, it’s clear that Miriam can see who he is, and has disturbing hints of what he is feeling. This is not a young, naive teenager, but a girl who has seen all kinds of things. I expect she is expert at reading body language, especially when she can’t understand all of the English.
In short, Austin has no plan of action, other to find opportunities to catch time with the object of his affection and to pretend to everyone else that he feels no way at all about Miriam.
In stories like this, other characters must come up with the plan. In this case it’s the school principal, who tasks Austin with the task of persuading Miriam’s parents, via David, to let her wear PE gear.
Austin is in constant fear of his infatuation being found out. There is no big Battle preceding his Anagnorisis but there is the proxy big struggle in which he is scalded by the very hot chai. In lieu of a big struggle wound, you see.
This is one of those short stories — more rare in reality than by reputation — in which the main character sees something small and has a major epiphany:
Miriam walked back into the room in that long school tunic, passed her father and mother, and then turned and sat at her mother’s side. The mother reached out her arm, and Miriam lifted her feet from the floor, tucked them beneath her, and lowered her head in a gesture of utter acceptance onto her mother’s breast, as if it were the source of a beloved authority.
Turning the page, the narrator explains what Austin has realised:
And watching that gesture, that obeisance, Austin saw Miriam’s childhood laid bare to him and found himself in a second humiliated and cured. The heart to which Miriam now listened was the constant clock in the world of flux which had brought her at last here, to this bare suburb, and into his classroom. And seeing Miriam resort this way, with such bodily grace, to the one given of her universe he saw himself with acute pain as simply another predator, as one with the soldiers and militias who came storming in, maiming and demeaning, carrying off cattle and burning the grain. His obsession had reduced him to the role of just another plunderer.
Though instantly reborn, he could tell at once that he was somehow a diminished man, frightened, cured but suffering the most bitter doubt about what he had not doubted before — his effectuality on earth, his equilibrium as a friend to humankind, a friend of poetry, an acquaintance of history.
Austin is sick of teaching. He asks his wife if the council (where she works) has any openings for gardeners and groundsmen, and he is serious.
He was all right while he was actually in class. It was between classes that shame and self-knowledge corroded him. He was aware he was not the sociable man he once was, and his colleagues, he could see, were bemused by this.
Meanwhile, Miriam wears modest PE clothes and breaks the NSW record.
So, what do you think? Do you buy that character arc? Might a man be cured of his inappropriate erotic thoughts by suddenly seeing a child as… a child?
I remain uncomfortable with this story. I’m uncomfortable with the title, with the unspoken whiteness as unchallenged default, and with the unseen narrator who makes value judgements about Austin which, in an excellent story, would be left to the reader.
For that reason, I may have appreciated “Blackberries” a little more if it had been written with first person narration, with the possibly unreliable Austin as narrator, rather than Keneally’s ambiguously-reliable unseen narrator, positioned as moral authority owing to his omniscient scope.
Ultimately, of course, we already have a massive corpus of stories about grown-ass men who get the hots for nubile young women and learn something valuable about life and themselves. That in itself is the story. Keneally uses Lolita as an intertextual example — he knows what he’s done here — but why bother?
Is there really a single new thing to be said on that topic? And no matter how well it is written, how poetic the epiphany, can a modern story like that ever be really great?
“Singing My Sister Down” is a horror short story by Australian author Margo Lanagan. Find it in Lanagan’s collection Black Juice, published by Allen and Unwin. Black Juice was published in 2004, but “Singing My Sister Down” has proven especially resonant with readers, anthologised numerous times since. “Singing My Sister Down” is now a modern Australian short story classic.
Reading it again today, I stop halfway through and watch a Cookie Monster skit which has blessedly come through my Twitter feed. It’s just too much. I can’t think of many short stories this intense, though “Brokeback Mountain” is another (more so than the film).
OTHER creepy short stories TO COMPARE AND CONTRAST
The collection Black Juice is sold as young adult fiction, but I suspect that’s a decision especially relevant to small book markets like Australia, in which publishers convince high school English teachers all over the country to buy class sets. Another Australian author marketed as young adult is Sonya Hartnett, but I can’t pinpoint what, in the stories themselves, makes Hartnett’s work YA.
Anyhow, the marketing strategy works, because Black Juice has since become a set text for many Australian high school students.
I went to school in New Zealand. Our resonant horror short story in senior English class was “King Bait” by Keri Hulme — a similarly pessimistic commentary on what can happen when a small community comes together for an event.
But this is the most harrowing of them all. What makes “Singing My Sister Down” so damn memorable and scary? (And what makes it attractive to English teachers?)
THE HORRIFIC PLOT OF “SINGING MY SISTER DOWN”
The story is narrated from the point of view of a brother, who is charged with the task of playing music at his sister’s murder. We don’t know how much time has elapsed between the event and his retelling of it. He could be recounting the story many years into the future, or it might have just happened. He appears to be retelling the story as a way of understanding it. This is generally the case for storyteller narrators. All through the ‘ceremony’ he knew something was off, but was powerless to stop any of it.
This is where “Singing My Sister Down” stands out over many other types of horror stories, some of which I don’t find scary at all.
There is no Desire to rescue this girl from the tar pit. (Not from the characters within the setting, that is.)
This defies our expectation of narrative in general. The vast majority of stories with a similar setting would take a different path. The twentieth century taught us to expect men rushing in to save a girl from sinking into quicksand.
But here, that hero trope is subverted. NO ONE is coming to rescue this girl. As reader, I feel this really frustrating glass wall between myself and the setting. There’s no way I can dive into the book and do something. Please, won’t somebody do something?
The desire of the family is to see Ikky accept her punishment of slow and sadistic death, and to make this murder (coded by the characters as fair and just punishment) follow the community’s customs around death, because they only get one chance to say goodbye.
The Opposition that exists in “Singing My Sister Down” is not so much between the characters themselves. Technically, there is an opposition between Ikky and the rest of her community, because presumably she’d rather not be killed in this fashion. She has spent the recent days ‘sulking’ — understatement of the story.
Yet Ikky is grimly accepting of her punishment, indoctrinated by a culture which says this is the way things go. There is some mild opposition between Ikky and the aunt, who cannot face the tar-pit ceremony, but because the aunt remains off the page, this is a soft oppositional web.
There has been a big Battle which took place off the page — the axe fight in which Ikky killed someone. Off-the-page opponents can be scary too.
Regarding the hints about how Ikky got here: She was a newlywed. She killed someone with an axe. I extrapolate that she killed her new husband with an axe. Based on statistics around women who murder men, there was very likely a self-defence element at the base of Ikky’s crime.
In the 20 per cent of murders committed by women, over two-thirds were women killing men who had been abusing them.
This is a horrifically soft Opposition in this story, given the life-and-death situation. This in itself is a subversion. We expect people (and characters) to fight tooth and nail to save their own lives.
I’ve watched enough true crime shows to know that people usually do fight to the death, and will injure themselves severely in the hope of saving their own lives. Survival instinct kicks in. Another thing I’ve learned from a true crime show: Prisoners on death row don’t eat their last meals. Prison guards ask what they’d like and do an excellent job of preparing the meals. They know the prisoners won’t touch it, then they’ll eat it themselves. This was mentioned in a documentary about a serial killer — presumed psychopathic. This guy stood out from all the other (probably psychopathic) prisoners facing imminent execution in America because he indeed ate his last meal, and seemed to enjoy it. Evidence of his lack of humanity. (I figure this is why baddies so often eat apples and sandwiches after committing horrific crimes in stories. Normal people couldn’t eat a thing at a time like that. In fact we’d do the opposite of eat — we’d throw up.)
Ikky in “Singing My Sister Down” eats her last meal of crab meat as she sinks into the tar pit. I don’t believe this is realistic, but it is horrific. And mimesis is over-rated — I believe there is a symbolic reason for the crab meat, and also for her eating it.
THE SYMBOLISM OF CRUSTACEANS
What’s with the crabs, I wonder? I just read another short story with crabs by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings“, in which the magical realist setting opens with an invasion of crabs coming in from the sea to inhabit the human habitat. In that story, land meets the sea as earth meets heaven (an angel falls to earth and is not as ‘angelic’ as everyone expected).
But in “Singing My Sister Down”, is there any symbolic significance regarding the crab meat? I personally find crabs creepy. They’re like the huntsman spiders of the sea. They have too many legs. They walk sideways. Their eyes are entirely black and stick up on stalks. There is nothing cute about a crab. Worst of all are the pinchers. Even a cooked crab gives me the willies.
Actually there is one thing worse than crabs on the beach. And that’s live crabs dropped alive into boiling water. I have no empathy for a crab walking along the beach, but as soon as a chef throws a crustacean into water, suddenly I’m horrified.
Time and again, throughout history, the same pattern happens: Studies eventually show that animals apart from humans feel far more than we thought they did. Same with crabs.
Normally this discussion is around lobsters.
Robert Elwood once boiled a lobster alive – lobsters being one of the few creatures we eat that we are allowed to slaughter at home. It is the usual way to kill, and cook, them. “Would I boil a lobster now?” asks Elwood, emeritus professor at the school of biological sciences at Queen’s University Belfast, referring to the work he has done for more than a decade on crustaceans and pain. “I wouldn’t. I would kill it before boiling.” […]
The argument is: we know the areas involved in pain experienced in humans; if you don’t have those areas, you can’t feel pain. But it’s quite clear that, in evolution, completely different structures have arisen to have exactly the same function – crustaceans don’t have a visual cortex anything like that of a human, but they can see. Given the evolutionary advantage of experiencing pain, there is no reason to assume they should not have this protection against tissue damage.”
Why should this even be surprising to us at this point?
It’s illegal to boil crustaceans alive in my home country of New Zealand; Australia is progressing more slowly, state by state. When “Singing My Sister Down” was published, this worldwide trend had yet to begin.
Do I think that’s the main message of “Singing My Sister Down?” That we shouldn’t cook crustaceans alive because we wouldn’t cook a human alive in a tar-pit? Nope. Don’t think that. But that’s where the crab thing took me.
Crustaceans aside, the most disturbing opposition in “Singing My Sister Down” exists not between the characters themselves, but between the story and the audience. We desperately want someone to step in and stop this from happening. Nobody does.
We might say the opposition = the setting. There is a freaky robo-fate to how this ceremony plays out, akin to the ‘mechanical behaviour’ trope found so often in horror.
Weirdly, the ‘mechanical behaviour’ trope is found also in comedy. A comedy example is Roy asking “Have you turned it off and on again?” on The I.T. Crowd. At one point the ‘mechanical-ness’ of this act is exploited in full, when Roy hooks up an actual tape recorder to do his entire job. Most commonly, the character with mechanical behaviour has an element of the fussbudget about them.
In horror the mechanical behaviour of the villain exposes his lack of humanity. You can’t reason with such a character. Worst of all, you can’t kill something mechanical — horror monsters keep coming back and back and back.
But here, the setting itself — the culture of this messed up little community — is the force which propels this girl’s family to go ahead with her murder. This, in my view, is the most horrific form of mechanical behaviour there is.
There is no plan to rescue Ikky. The Plan is to carry out the tar-pit sinking in customary fashion. The bulk of the detail in “Singing My Sister Down” is around the rituals, and a blow-by-blow description of the sinking.
The narrator might easily be describing a wedding, which also involves music and flower wreaths. Indeed, there has recently been a wedding.
‘Well, this party’s going to be almost as good, ’cause it’s got children. And look what else!’ And she reached for the next ice-basket.
This juxtaposition evokes unease in the reader. Births, deaths, marriages… all completely different things… all involve similar ritual.
We know what the climax is going to be, which is why it’s so horrible. It’s one thing to be almost ‘cuddled’ warmly by the tar. It’s another thing to suffocate in the damn stuff.
It is nightfall before this happens. Because the story is narrated by the brother onlooker, his memory of the exact moment is clouded. ‘… and they tell me I made an awful noise…’ The setting seems to come alive — setting becomes a character in its own right with the flowers ‘nodding in the lamplight’. The setting itself has already been established as the main opposition (the cultural milieu rather than, say, weather elements a la a disaster story). So an ‘aliveness’ is entirely appropriate at this point.
If we were expecting an ending with a sense of hope, this story lets us down. No one steps in to save this young woman.
The narrator says finally that he ‘will never understand’. He experiences no Anagnorisis, at least not the kind we hope he will have — that this was a terrible thing that happened. What if he did realise that? What if he realised the injustice of it? It’s not in his best interests to think too hard about this ritual, otherwise he might spend the rest of his life berating himself for failing to step in and save Ikky.
By dashing our expectations, the reader may instead experience the revelation — that when communities come together, humans are capable of the most heinous acts. But we know that already, perhaps.
There is nothing in this story that hasn’t happened somewhere at some point in human history. The details may be different, but during the European witch craze, women (and across Europe, plenty of men) were burned alive with the consent of entire communities. We have far more recent examples, most notably from WW2, but into the present.
Characters in stories die frequently. Sometimes it’s no more than a plot feature. In other stories, death becomes thematically significant. This is one of those stories.
The sinking itself takes place over a day, thereabouts. Symbolically, stories which take place over 24 hours tend to be a compressed insight into a single human lifespan. This is how Ikky can eat. We all eat to stay alive, all the while knowing we’re still going to die.
More on that, then. At the beginning of this story, Ikky, her family and her entire community knows she is going to die. Slowly. Horrifyingly slowly. But isn’t that the case for all of us? We all know that we ourselves are going to die. Not today, probably, but someday. Life itself is a horrifyingly slow death.
We don’t know this as children. Even after learning everybody dies, children have difficulty with the concept that they themselves will one day be dead. We can’t imagine not existing. We have equal difficulty imagining not being born. If you have kids, they’ve probably asked you: “Where was I when I wasn’t born?”
Then we hit the teen years, or perhaps the 20s, and the concept of death really sinks in. (Heh.) Heidegger called this part of human development Being-toward-death: The ‘moment’ (more likely an extended period) in which we come to understand that we ourselves will die — that from the point of conception we’ve all begun the journey towards death.
Marketing reasons aside, this aspect, even more than the age of the characters, is perhaps what makes “Singing My Sister Down” a genuinely young adult story.
Since the narrator has learned nothing, this tradition of tar-pit murders will continue inside the setting.
But I believe this narrator is wilfully avoiding his Anagnorisis — that he could’ve done something to stop it.
Wilful ignorance is another fascinating aspect of being human, and “Singing My Sister Down” could be used as a deep-dive into that.
Instead, let’s go nitty-gritty.
THE CREEPY NARRATIVE VOICE OF “SINGING MY SISTER DOWN”
“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson shocked and angered many American readers when first published because the opening seemed to promise a cosy depiction of a bucolic community coming together for an annual event, then did the old switcheroo and turned into a horror. Part of this was to do with the narrative voice — conversational and cosy.
I doubt the reader would be fooled by Lanagan’s story, which is creepy from the get-go. I suspect the diction feels creepy partly because of the uncanny valley effect — English, but not quite English. The voice feels almost translated from an unknown language, and because we don’t know where this is set, or which language is spoken, it could be anywhere.
It could happen where you are, right now.
How does Lanagan create this creepy narrative voice?
LEAVING OUT WORDS – JUST LEAVING THEM OUT
‘Yes, Bard Jo.’ Dot sat himself to listen.
I would most naturally say ‘Dot sat himself DOWN to listen.’ But this is an idiomatic expression and we don’t really need the ‘down’ of ‘sit down’, do we? I wonder if she crossed it out during a revision or if she never wrote the word in the first place.
We don’t know how she fits all that into her days, but she does, and all the time she’s humming and thrumming.
The onomatopoeic word ‘thrumming’ creates a nice rhyme, and lends the voice a poetic feel. The word seems to vibrate right through you, in a mimetic way.
Also: ‘tea-tent’, ‘a mystery child’, ‘his house’s smoke hole’ (obviously in lieu of a chimney), middlehood (instead of ‘middle age’), and so on and so forth, right the way through the story.
INSERTING PREPOSITIONS AND ARTICLES IN UNEXPECTED PLACES
he wears the comfortable robes
Note use of ‘the’. I might have written ‘he wears comfortable robes’, but by making use of ‘the’, it is taken for granted that there is a division of robes – some are comfortable and others are probably worn on formal occasions. ‘The’ adds to the verisimilitude of the story by suggesting everyone is already in possession of this fact.
OLD WORDS IN NEW COMBINATIONS
Dot saw the women bent to the vegetable fields.
In my dialect of English, I have never used the phrase ‘bent to’. I would probably make use of some phrase more wordy, like ‘Dot saw the women bending down to tend the vegetable fields.’ But I like Lanagan’s phrase much better. Not only does she manage to convey an idea succinctly, she creates a new ‘idiomatic expression’ – one that’s not idiomatic in OUR world, but one which the reader can easily take as idiomatic in this fantasy world of the story. Since the phrase is slightly out of whack in English, it’s like this story has been translated from another language. This adds to the fantastic mood.
Also: ‘talking wisdom with the Bard’, ‘made a bitter laugh in his throat’ (not ‘laughed bitterly in his throat’, which would be hackneyed), ‘weaves song stuff’, ‘grilled bean pats’ for breakfast.
And when that’s quieted, we can hear Anneh and Robbreh again, steady in their song.
Sure, ‘quiet’ is both an adjective and a verb in English, but when it’s a verb it’s usually used as a transitive verb (i.e. it takes an object) as in, ‘The teacher quieted the students’. When ‘quiet’ is used as an intransitive verb (i.e. without an object), as it is here, it’s usually used in the phrase ‘quiet down‘, e.g. ‘The students quieted down.’ So Lanagan has used a transitive verb as an intransitive verb and dropped the bit which makes it a phrasal verb.
“A View Of Mount Warning” is an Australian short story by Robert Drewe, and can be found in his collection The True Colour Of The Sea (2018).
Honestly, I’m pretty much done with reading about middle-aged men who develop crushes on younger women, especially when the point of view centers so firmly on the man, inevitably objectifying the woman and underscoring the idea that men’s sexual desire is paramount.
This is exactly that kind of narrative, so if I’m writing about it here, you can bet it’s well done, at least.
CAST OF CHARACTERS
Russell Garrett — about to turn fifty. A horse vet in Rock Forest near Bathurst. His marriage to Estelle has recently ended. They have two grown children together, Daniel and Lily.
Max Hodder — Russell’s longtime friend since childhood. Dropped out of engineering at the University of New South Wales, entered real estate, made a lot of money during the housing boom. Married twice. Has been married for ten years to Sophie.
Sophie Howson — Max’s second wife, described as ‘striking’ via Russell’s lens. Russell has been in love with Sophie since Max married her. She is significantly younger than them both.
STORY WORLD OF “A VIEW OF MOUNT WARNING”
The two friends live 900km apart but meet every New Year at Max’s house at Wategos Beach in Byron Bay.
Robert Drewe is a famously ‘littoral’ writer — meaning his stories take place along the sea shore, in that ‘liminal’ space where land meets sea. (There’s another ten dollar ‘L’ word for you.)
Time wise, this story takes place in the wake of the 2007 Australian equine influenza outbreak. The ‘themes’ of this news story overlap with the themes of this fictional short story: both involve quarantines and breaches. In Drewe’s story there’s the unspoken quarantine around a good friend’s marriage.
The main character here, for my purposes, is Russell.
His was a melancholy and insurmountable jealousy, compounded by guilt. Of course his feelings for Sophie were unrequited, but even if she’d been aware of them and magically, enthusiastically, reciprocated, she was the wife of his boyhood friend — Max’s second and twelve-years-younger wife — and therefore out of bounds, now and forever.
Whenever [Russell] saw [Sophie] she had him in a flurry of confusion. In her presence, aching for her trailing hostessy fingers, the accidentally brushed knees, the casual touch, he always felt like a teenager. As she passed by his chair he’d clench his stomach muscles and surreptitiously flex his biceps. Willing her, touch me. Then he felt like a fool.
Psychologists call this intense desire for human touch ‘skin hunger‘. It’s a powerful force and it’s driving Russell’s life at the moment.
Sophie is Russell’s romantic opponent. Max is Russell’s best friend, but an opponent in that he stands in the way (as Russell perceives it) of Russell giving things a go with the object of his affection.
At first the love appears unrequited. Soon it is revealed that Sophie feels similarly. This is in fact more difficult for Russell to bear.
What’s the significance of the mountains in this story? To me they symbolise the enduring nature of the men’s friendship — it would appear, now that the men are both nearing fifty, that nothing can shake their ‘rock solid’ friendship.
At first Russell’s Plan of action is Nothing. This is often a character’s first ‘plan’ — rather, the author shows the reader that the character has a pattern of doing nothing, but in this story, of course, that is about to change. First, a paragraph about the pattern of doing nothing:
Such was the nature of his infatuation, however, that even as he tussled with guilt one moment, deliberately avoiding her presence, the next minute he’d be torturing himself with the smallest hints and snatched glances. She’d bustle and bend and flip her hair from her forehead and he’d have to tear his eyes from the thrilling sight of her rinsing dishes at the kitchen sink, arranging flowers, making coffee.
This isn’t limited to short stories, by the way. In Dan Santat’s award winning children’s picture book The Adventures of Beekle: The unimaginary friend, Beekle desperately wants a human friend but first Santat writes of his pattern of waiting around passively.
Then the story switches from the iterative (constant pining for what he can’t have) to the singulative:
Then, quite abruptly, these overlapping quandaries produced some new dilemmas to both confuse him and rekindle his hopes.
Because this is a story told via the lens of a middle-aged man fresh out of divorce, I don’t entirely trust his narration as reliable.
For the purposes of the story, the Battle scene occurs the morning after, with Russell witnessing Max and his red eyes — possibly from crying — wondering if his best friend is about to confront him about the previous evening with his wife.
This short story exemplifies a classic plot closure without the psychological closure — the reader, like Russell, never finds out if Max saw he and his wife kiss.
The Anagnorisis is that he crossed a boundary — penetrated an invisibly quarantined arena. This is how the setting (and political news) of this story interconnects with the character arc.
When Drewe uses the metaphor of the avalanche to describe the way ice tumbles into Max’s drink as he maybe, maybe did not see Russell betray his trust, Max is compared to the mountain. An avalanche is about the only thing that damages a mountain.
Then there’s the colour symbolism of the purple. A purple haze covers the mountains. When Max gets that ice he happens to be wearing purple boxers. Yep, there is a reason for that. The purple connects Max to those mountains. The ice he pours into his glass connects Max to the avalanche. Symbolically, the reader has our psychological closure, though we may not realise it without reflection — the symbolism tells us that Max did indeed witness the intimacy, if not the kiss itself.
Pig The Winner, written and illustrated by Aaron Blabey, is another picture book in the widely-loved Pig The Pug series. I suspect these will become Australian classics in the same way the Hairy Maclary books became New Zealand classics.
I pick and choose when it comes to Aaron Blabey books. Pig The Fibber, which felt rushed out after the success of Pig the Pug, seemed a voracious grab for publishing dollars. Pig The Star, which I flipped through in the shop, contains a running gag similar to the first Bad Guys book, in which a male character dresses in feminine accoutrements for laughs, but with serious ideological issues bubbling under the surface. I’ve written about this issue elsewhere.
Some might argue that Pig in Pig The Star has been guised specifically as Marilyn Monroe rather than as a generic woman. I don’t buy this as defence for several reasons: The target age group won’t get the reference to Monroe, and being ‘an attention whore’ (I’m using that term deliberately) is not in reality a specifically feminine shortcoming even though the dominant culture codes it as such. And when we code attention-seeking behaviours as specifically feminine, this narrative turns back on women when women attempt to step up into their fair share of limelight. Most sinister of all, women are regularly accused of making up stories for attention after reporting genuine crimes.
However, Pig The Winner is an excellent example of a funny, engaging picture book, probably because it contains no femininity to speak of.
ILLUSTRATIONS IN PIG THE WINNER
There’s a great trick used when illustrating stories about characters who chuck tantrums. Here it’s evident from the cover — Pig the Pug has scribbled over the ‘real’ text and replaced it with his own version of truth. This same technique was used to great effect in Z is for Moose.
What is it about pugs? They are inherently funny to look at. Sausage dogs, ditto. Blabey has picked two of the funniest dog breeds for this series.
There’s a lot of white space in these books, which means only the Chekhov’s guns make it onto the page. For instance, pay attention to when the rubbish bin is introduced. At first I wondered what the bin is doing there. Perhaps it is only meant to illustrate that Pig eats a whole lot of stinking rubbish? But turn the page and you’ll realise the plot reason: The bin is a vital part of the Battle sequence.
In the lead up to the Battle, the reader is asked to predict the story. Young readers who have read previous Pig the Pug books may even get it right.
But something went wrong.
Do you know? Can you guess?
Pig’s shortcoming is so bad that the shortcoming is in itself enough to bring him down. In this particular story, Pig is so greedy that he gets his bowl stuck in his mouth and needs help from Trevor to get it out.
Trevor performs something like the Heimlich manoeuvre, which we’re now told not to do, apparently:
[T]he risks of the HM appear to outweigh the benefit- especially when there is a more effective way of dislodging the object with less risk of causing harm in the process. Reported injuries sustained as a direct result of the HM include gastric rupture, lacerated liver, fractured Xiphoid process/sternum, aspiration of stomach contents and other serious complications.
Accredited First Aid, Australia
The reader is highly encouraged to enjoy whatever mischief befalls Pig. We are treated to a number of close up shots of his face: stuffing it with (beautifully rendered) kibble, stuffing it some more, then the bowl:
It is funny when he gets the bowl stuck in Pig’s mouth; it would not be funny if he had the bowl stuck in his throat. (One is uncomfortable; the other would kill him dead.)
Blabey knows to take this revenge arc to its extreme end. It’s not enough for Pig to simply get the bowl stuck in his mouth for a few seconds: This despicably comic character deserves despicably comic punishment. For readers in need of mimesis, this may not work:
I’m confused. After the Pig falls in the bin, “These days it’s different . . .” Choking didn’t phase him, but falling in a trash can gave him a change of heart? Did he suffer memory loss from the fall and suddenly “plays to have fun.” Yet, at the end, he is still a cheater. This is one horrible dog.
— a reviewer on Goodreads
Ok, now according to the story, that one action— the bin, not the choking, has now caused Pig to relax and have fun and not have to always be the winner. If that’s not crazy enough, the last page shows Pig the pug cheating.
— from another reviewer on Goodreads
In comedy, an unlikely incident leading to Anagnorisis is a fairly common trope. It is used in Office Space, for instance, which is far more realism than the Pig the Pug books. In this case, Peter goes to see a hypnotist, but while he is under the hypnotist’s control, the hypnotist keels over and dies, which means Peter permanently doesn’t give a crap about anything anymore.
This is honestly where I may have come unstuck if I was trying to write this book, or something like it. If you’re writing a revenge plot with slapstick gags, take every opportunity afforded to you. Here, the bowl bounces into the rubbish bin and hits Pig. He gets hurt a little bit (indicated by the bandage on his head), which leads him to think twice…
Since this is now an established series, the ‘Anagnorisis’ in this book is different from the genuine lesson learned in the first: Here, Pig ostensibly learns not to be greedy and not to cheat. However, the final illustration shows the reader that he is secretly cheating at a card game against Trevor.
If Pig has had any revelation at all, he has learned that he should be a more sneaky kind of cheat.
The Ignored Epiphany is a moment where the Villain or morally gray character has a moment of clarity or revelation about themselves and their actions, seeing it in perspective for perhaps the first time and realizing exactly how useless and off base their various self-delusions and justifications were. It’s often a low moment for these characters, and may provoke sympathy from the audience. The character may acknowledge it various ways, with a sigh, a bitter laugh, muttering “What Have I Become?” or possibly saying to someone or themselves “I’ve really messed this one up”.
We extrapolate: Pig will continue to cheat but he’s a bit more subtle about it now. (Not really true for comedy series — Pig will start the next book just as greedy and self-centred as he began this one.)
Well, that’s my interpretation, anyway. But some readers believe Pig really has learned a lesson:
Aaron Blabey’s books bring a smile to this librarian’s face as well as to the faces of my teachers and students. Pig the pug is learning another lesson in this one and along the way will hopefully teach young readers/listeners to be good winners as well as gracious losers.
Paul Jennings has been an influential children’s author in Australia and New Zealand since the 1980s.
A PUBLISHING SUCCESS STORY
The Un-series took off internationally, became a TV series, the rest is history. Many people my age grew up with Paul Jennings. Schools across Australia and New Zealand all have (or had) multiple copies, sometimes class sets for study in class. I have taught Paul Jennings stories myself. These are considered texts to draw the reluctant reader in.
After revisiting the tales this year, I realised something else. Jennings’ stories serve to uphold a system of misogyny and sexism typical of the 1980s. Paul Jennings stories served a specific purpose in a specific era, but it’s now time to retire these books from the classroom. Childhood is very short, in comparison to the sheer volume of reading material available. We desperately need contemporary, woke, diverse, feminist hi-lo readers with fun, twisty endings to fill the Paul Jennings space.
Jennings has recently written a memoir. He has this to say about his own work:
[T]he themes of his own childhood have crept into his work, even against his own will at times.
Bullies often get their comeuppance, for example.
Grifters, narcissists and conmen also cop it.
Perhaps more tellingly, parenting crops up a lot.
“There’s a theme which comes up all the time, which is the separation of the parent and the child,” Jennings says.
“And it’s an incredibly powerful thing, because the loss of a child is enormous to a parent. And the loss of a parent is enormous to a child.
“That theme, I realised after a couple of years, it was poking its nose up quite a bit. And I kept saying to myself, ‘I’m never doing that theme again’.”
There is also a story Jennings wishes he hadn’t written. “No Is Yes”.
The fact is, culture changes, authors change. This is not the only story I personally wish Jennings hadn’t written.
All that said, Paul Jennings is a master storyteller who cracked the difficult knack of genuinely writing for children, not for a dual audience, nor for advanced middle grade readers only. There’s a lot to learn from Paul Jennings in that regard.
FEATURES OF PAUL JENNINGS SHORT STORIES
STORY STRUCTURE AND NARRATION
Titles often have a pun element, not obvious until after the twist.
Opening sentences often introduce intriguing high concepts.
Or, the story will open with a character in a scary/impossible situation e.g. perched high on a ladder (“Eyes Knows”). In other words, Jennings is making use of ‘in medias res’. We continue reading to find out how they got there.
Or, there will be a weird scenario (a character has a huge nose) and the backstory that follows will explain how this happened.
Or, the story will begin with a boy having just got himself into trouble with an authority figure (“UFD”).
Many of these stories are tall tales, and use the techniques of that genre.
Some are retellings of classic stories or a new spin on an old yarn. “Ice Maiden” = the Greek myth of Pygmalion. “Greensleeves” is a spin on “Jonah and the Whale”. “Know All” is a new spin on Pandora’s Box.
A lot of Jennings’ stories are bookended. He loves the story-within-a-story structure. To use the terms of narratology, Jennings makes use of two diegetic levels —diegetic and metadiegetic. This conjures the ambience of a ‘storyteller around a campfire‘. Either an interesting adult tells a tall story to a child viewpoint character, or the child viewpoint character themselves launches into some wild backstory to explain the situation at hand. The stand-out example is the standalone story illustrated by Terry Denton, called Sucked In. The story’s title comes from the fact that a group of kids have been taken in by a tall tale… or have they?
The bookend story has a story structure all of its own. (Its own opponent, plan, big struggle etc.) Because we have two of everything, this packs a lot into a short story and creates a fast-paced reading experience.
The Battle sequences are especially fun for the audience of these stories, with massive high-octane, ridiculous hilarity and plenty of revenge against authority and outright villainy.
Stories are written in first person, unless there’s some reason to write in third. For instance, the story will be written in third person if the first person viewpoint character isn’t going to be sticking around for the entire story. (“One-shot Toothpaste”) Stories are also written in third person if there are two main characters instead of one (e.g. “Birdscrap”), or perhaps if the story is about an adult rather than a child (“The Velvet Throne”).
Jennings doesn’t care that his Chekhov’s Guns are wholly unsubtle. If a character mentions a valuable painting, you can be sure that valuable painting will be found at the end of the story (“Skeleton On The Dunny”). A young reader is in the moment. Unlike a more sophisticated audience, they are not picking up the Chekhov’s Guns and making predictions.
It’s interesting to see which dots are joined for the young reader. Paul Jennings likes the reader to piece together their own endings. But everything else is handed to them on a plate. For instance, if there is a ghost, the reader is told there is a ghost. There’s no doubt about it (to my mind) because Jennings is using all the ghost tropes. But Jennings never forgets: He’s writing for eight year olds. Eight year olds haven’t got a long history of hearing ghost stories. Eight year olds don’t have a long history of anything. They’re eight. This is why, in a story like “Lighthouse Blues” we have sentences like ‘It had to be ghosts. The ghosts of Captain Rickard and Alan Rickard’. Any adult reader has already worked this out by section five. And so have the young readers, probably. But young readers like this confirmed. They were right! They feel smart. In a story for older readers, this sort of explanation might be considered ‘overexplanation’, and edited out.
Don’t play it too cool. Don’t trust us to figure it out if you can’t trust us to figure it out. Always try to think of any other interpretation that your reader may have. When in doubt, spell it out.
Paul Jennings doesn’t lampshade coincidence. He makes the most of it. That is a feature of the tall tale. Almost all of his stories contain an element of unbelievable coincidence. Or, to be kind, we could call it ‘non-mimetic’ coincidence. (Events in a story don’t even try to emulate how the real world works.) The events of “Greensleeves” rely heavily on comical levels of coincidence, reminiscent of a fairytale.
Jennings is using “fairytale logic” and also fairytale archetypes. Mothers are often dead. The boy main character is most often reminiscent of the underdog third son. Virtue is richly rewarded by some unseen force.
Oftentimes the Battle sequence is a prearranged competition (“Birdman”, “Wunderpants”, “Little Squirt”) in which boys big struggle for prestige and dominance. The underdog will win after previously stumbling upon some magic. It might be a speech in front of the class rather than a competition (“Without A Shirt”), but the story structure is the same.
Ticking clocks come in various forms, but Jennings likes to make use of a magical piece of equipment which only lasts for a certain number of times or a certain length of time. (Super glue which only sticks for two hours; a lie detector that only works seven times.) This, too, is from fairytales. A genie grants three wishes, etc.
If a ghost is going to appear, often there’s a character who appears first to explain the backstory of the ghost. (The police officer in “A Good Tip For Ghosts”, the annoying girl classmate in “Cracking Up”.) This utilises the trick of having characters talk about an intriguing character before that character appears on the scene.
In a Paul Jennings story the planning step isn’t necessarily an obvious step in the direction of fulfilling the main character’s desire. For instance, a boy wants to prove a flying dog exists. Instead of making a plan to that effect, he goes along with his father to buy ice-cream. A boy wants to get out of trouble for ruining his mother’s precious notebook. The grandfather just happens to turn up so he goes along on a frog-finding mission with him. This goes against how most writers cover the plan phase of a story. But in a way, it’s more mimetic for a child audience. A low mimetic child hero doesn’t have great executive functioning, and neither does the typical reader. Kids like this aren’t up to making plans. Instead, everything fits together as if by fate. The boys in these stories fulfil their desires, but often it’s through no good planning of their own. These white boys get what they want through sheer ‘dumb luck’, as Professor McGonnagal might say. (And I do say ‘white boy’ for a reason. We accept that kind of privilege in white boy characters.)
SETTING OF PAUL JENNINGS SHORT STORIES
Magical items appear without explanation. Magic simply is. In common with fairytales, we are given the very basics, then left to imagine the rest. In “Birdscrap”, Jennings doesn’t bother going into backstory of why a pair of rubies are significant. They just are. We know they are special precisely because the main characters are looking for them. The item with magic attached is common in fairytale and children’s stories but we sometimes see it in stories for adults, such as Annie Proux’s “A Pair of Spurs”.
A magical item will help the main character achieve their goal, but first they need to learn how to use it. The magical item will lead them through a series (probably two) humiliating gag scenes before helping with the goal. (“Birdman”, “The Mouth Organ”, “Spaghetti Pig-out”). This avoids the trap of magical items all writers need to skirt around — the character needs to save the day, not the magic. This magical item might be a machine typical of 1980s technology, like the VCR of “Spaghetti Pig-out”. A modern audience may not have seen the rewind function in action. More to the point, many modern remote controls (e.g. PS4) don’t need to be pointed directly at the machine.
Fantasy creatures appear, special rubies exist, and mundane objects have a fantastical backstory. In this respect, Paul Jennings is the kiddie equivalent of Stephen King. For instance, both Jennings and King made use of a monster inside a drain, around the same time. The everyday world is simply a veneer masking terror below. They both make use of the snail under the leaf setting.
Jennings tends to give a ‘standout detail’ rather than creating a rounded picture. One of the more lengthy examples is the description of the annoying little helper called Snookle, who turns up inside a milk bottle. ‘All I could see was a large pair of gloomy eyes. He must have had a body but it was nowhere to be seen. The eyes simply floated in the air about fifteen centimetres above the bottom of the bottle.’
Overall, there’s a distinctly Australian feel to the settings (of course). This mapped equally well onto my New Zealand childhood, with its strong beach culture and houses which tend to be near the sea. Beaches hide buried treasure. Where the land meets the sea is often used in stories to evoke that liminal sense of where fantasy meets reality.
A form of magic beloved of Paul Jennings is the magic which takes over control of a boy’s body. (“Without A Shirt”, “Birdman”)
A similar form of magic is when a boy feels compelled to do as a magic item tells him. (“On The Bottom”, “Eyes Knows”)
The typical reader is an 8-10 year old, and the typical age of a main character is 14-16. This affords the characters more freedom. Some characters are younger than that. It seems to depend on whether there’s a romantic element. If Jennings needs a romance plot, he’ll age the main character up.
Wish fulfilment in Paul Jennings stories cover a large repeating territory: the wish to be respected (especially by girls), the wish to have money or treasure, to fly, to solve a mystery by your very own detective work, to have super powers, to find a magic item which solves a large problem.
Main characters are overwhelmingly boys. These boys are low-mimetic heroes according to the scale proposed by Northrop Frye. These boys are slightly more hapless, stupid, unobservant than the reader. This creates empathy, and we also laugh at them. We feel smarter than they are for working things out before they do.
Paul Jennings gets the parents out of the way and he doesn’t care how he does it. (The parents in Come Back Gizmo have gone out and haven’t even told their son where they’ve gone.) Jennings can get rid of adults suddenly with a one-sentence explanation. Or, we simply accept that parents aren’t there. In fairytale tradition, parents might have died in a car crash.
Adult opponents are often authority figures (principals, teachers, mean nurses, cranky neighbours). The meanest will receive punishment at the end, with vengeful plot ‘twists’.
Nasty opponents are both nasty and illogical. For instance, a nasty teacher has a precious plant, yet entrusts the care of it to his students each night so it doesn’t get covered in dust while the cleaners are doing their jobs (“Cracking Up”).
Jennings likes the archetype of the “little man” (described thus) who appears out of nowhere to serve whatever purpose Jennings sees fit. The “little man” in Come Back Gizmo appears to say the main character’s dog has been found. The “little man” in “Box Strap Flyer” appears as a trickster to outwit another trickster. Why does Jennings describe these men as “little”? Because they are meant to work mostly invisibly, behind the scenes, popping in occasionally to interfere with the machinations of a mystery.
When girls appear, they are most often girl archetypes (beautiful bitches, blonde sexual objects, wimpy, annoying sisters). They are therefore most often an opponent, romantic or potentially romantic, despite lack of interest on their part. When there are no girls at all in the story (“The Paw Thing”) Jennings doesn’t have the opportunity to muck it up.
Even adult women are a continuation of the female maturity principle, in which men and boys embark on these wacky, dangerous plans while the women tut-tut, oblivious to the fantasy world around them. In “Birdman” the mother is in a strop with the father because she thinks the flying competition is too dangerous. In “Spaghetti Pig-out” the mother gets into a strop because the father has bought a dodgy video down at the pub, but the father is always vindicated, because these machines and tricks always turn out to fix a big problem. Crazy dads are rewarded. Sensible mums are proven wrong to be sensible, every time.
Because this is the 1980s, the mothers are the ones calling their kids in for tea. The dads are the ones going out to work. This is believable for the 1980s, but my own mother went out to work in the 1980s, and so did the mothers of most of my friends. So Jennings was still behind in his parental gender roles.
Characters are often symbolically named e.g. a dog called Ripper who rips holes in your pants, or Chomper, a ghost who (it is revealed) searches the tip each night in search of his false teeth. The big, bad opponent in a story is most likely to be symbolically named in this way. The Every Boy gets more of a classic white boy name.
The son or daughter of the mayor is likely to be corrupt.
Inversions are utilised as gags. For instance, a boy and dog switch bodies (Gizmo Come Back) or a father and dog switch bodies (“Birdman”). (See also: Inversion does not equal subversion.)
Typical of men of his era, Jennings fails to subvert some troubling, misogynistic tropes. Instead, his stories serve to keep girl characters subdued and under control. Yet he is able to subvert other kinds of authority by making the most of the carnivalesque. (“Lucky Lips” is perhaps the worst of the lot, with a carnivalesque, gross-out and also rapey set of scenarios leading to a disturbing climax, not dissimilar to the controversial pilot episode of Black Mirror.)
Paul Jennings uses fat kids as the bully character. This was very common in the 1980s. Fat boys were either enemies or pathetic. In modern stories, the fat boy is still sidekick to the main character Every Boy, though he’s often a nicer person than everyone else. This isn’t really an inversion until fat boys get to be the stars of their own stories, which aren’t about the experience of being fat. In The Cabbage Patch Wars, two dads with beer bellies engage in a weight loss competition, in an era before Biggest Loser was a thing.
There’s a disproportionate number of redheaded kids in Paul Jennings stories. Like most children’s writers, he tends to use red hair as a ‘stand out’ attribute — by giving a kid red hair he is saying ‘keep an eye on this character’. Jennings uses a red headed kid for the bully in “A Good Tip For Ghosts” but the red headed kid is a main character in “Ice Maiden”, and despite hating red hair himself, he ends up falling in love with a red headed girl. Also, his red hair saves his life. So Jennings is trying to tell us that red hair isn’t so bad in one story, yet uses red hair however he sees fit in other stories.
If an evil person is introduced, and that evil person is mistreating others you can bet Paul Jennings will exact punishment on that character, even if it requires a final section of the story to do just that. In other words, he ties off every other strand in the story, and it might end there, but then he goes back in for the punishment. These stories are famous for being about anarchy and fun, but they are conservative in their values.
Look closely at these stories and you’ll find they are basically very conservative, and sometimes clearly didactic. “The Busker” is about how you can’t buy friendship. Yet in “Spaghetti Pig-out”, the main character buys friends with a magical device. So stories contradict each other in their moralism.
The idea that bad people do bad things and also get away with it is not part of the Paul Jennings setting, although it is part of real life.
Stories which revolve around a reordering of hierarchy are so common, not just in the Paul Jennings oeuvre, that we rarely stop to think about how to completely subvert the hierarchy itself. As Matt Bird says about Battle sequences in general, at first the main character is socially challenged (usually via humiliation). This is absolutely true of Paul Jennings stories. We are lately starting to see a pushback on this fundamental idea. Australian feminist philosopher Kate Manne says it best in her critique of Jordan Peterson’s viral “12 Rules For Life”:
Critiquing these hierarchical structures and finding, when possible, a way to live outside of them in more co-operative ways are obvious alternatives for human beings about which Peterson says little.
I have exactly the same thing to say about Paul Jennings, who has nothing to say about how to live outside hierarchies, or about dismantling the hierarchies altogether. Instead, story after story fulfils the wish to move from underdog to king pin, often by dumb luck and with magical help rather than by achieving any special insight.
The writing style is conversational rather than literary.
A strong 1980s, 1990s Australian voice comes through, in emulation of the ‘True, blue Aussie’ which certain politicians like to emulate, even today. This voice is in itself a kind of fictional caricature, which isn’t to say that certain people don’t make full use of it as a character gag. Mick Gould who stars in Australia’s 2019 Married At First Sight also uses this distinctly Australian larrikin persona for enduring comic value and audience empathy, so it hasn’t gone away. This voice is full of idiomatic expressions, mixed metaphors for comic effect, telling it like it is, positioning oneself as hapless and unpretentious, and making use of borderline inappropriate language (insofar as a children’s book will allow, hence “Birdscrap”, which can be explained away as “Bird Scrap” rather than its real meaning of “Birds’ Crap”).
Emotions are described matter-of-factly in a single sentence e.g. ‘I felt embarrassed,’ ‘I felt silly‘.
Physiological reactions are comical — they could easily happen in a Cartoon Network show. Knees knocking, obvious blushing, teeth chattering.
Titles such as “Birdscrap” are word play and also taboo.
Readers take delight in upending authority. This kind of carnivalesque humouris utilised across many picture books, which makes these hi-lo readers a natural progression for young readers. This type of humour is still very popular here in Australian children’s publishing, with the Treehouse creators saying that children crave ‘irreverent’ humour. Irreverent is another way of saying the same thing. Terry Denton and Andy Griffiths also talk about the importance of ‘anarchy‘, and this applies equally to Paul Jennings, who has surely been influential on their work.
Humour has been classified into ‘positive’ and ‘negative’. Men and boys are more likely to use ‘negative’ humour— to belittle, to humiliate etc. Paul Jennings stories are far more likely to belittle and humiliate, with a few exceptions e.g. “The Mouth Organ” (in which, no coincidence, he chooses a girl for his narrator).
Jennings makes use of gross-out elements. (A sea of bird poo, a creature picking a boy’s nose for him, being stuck in a skip full of rubbish, a dug up skeleton etc.)
In tall story tradition Jennings plays around with scale and size. (This is also a feature of myths e.g. Greek myth.) For example, a shack is surrounded by a sea of seagull poo, a tooth grows bigger than the man to whom it belongs. Jennings understands that by playing around with scale, he creates resonant imagery for the reader. Other examples: ‘A pumpkin so big it took four men to lift it’, ‘peas as big as golf balls’, ‘beans were as long as your arm’, so many flies they black out the sun. Extreme stench is utilised in several different stories. In the humour taxonomy, this is gross-out overlaid with hyperbole.
Related to big things as small, small things as big, creatures and things operate in the way we don’t expect. Oftentimes, it’s a simple inversion. For instance, in Sucked In, we are led to expect that a cat is about to eat the escaped appendix. The illustration shows a massive cat (so massive the cat is partly off the page) with the much smaller appendix in a vulnerable position beneath the cat. But turn the page and the appendix eats the cat. This is ‘man bites dog’ humour, funny because it subverts expectations.
Bad smells are a common feature of Paul Jennings stories, especially if they overwhelm an entire town. (“Greensleeves” is one example)
Humiliation of the main character is often a large component of the humour. We empathise with the main character because he is in an underdog embarrassing situation. He comes up trumps at the end, not because of his own superpowers coming to the fore, but because the gods are smiling upon him. He remains a low-mimetic hero (Northrop Frye’s classification).
Disembodied body parts are commonly utilised throughout Paul Jennings stories. False teeth are the star of several different narratives (“A Good Tip For Ghosts, The Cabbage Patch War). In Sucked In, an appendix in a jar is the star. We have a dismembered finger in “On The Bottom”.
Nudity is both funny and humiliating (cringe humour). Bums especially so (“On The Bottom”). Mention of exposed genitalia would be considered inappropriate for this age group, but we do have an entire story about a pissing contest.
HOW DOES JENNINGS TWIST HIS TALES?
The big selling point of a Paul Jennings collection is the twist-in-the-tale. You’ll find this promise on the advertising copy. This seems to be what impresses readers the most.
Some of the stories contain two twists: One in the Level 0 story, another in the Level 1, meta story.
Some of the ‘twists’ only work on a child audience. The sophisticated adult reader sees them a mile out. Paul Jennings does not attempt a dual audience, and that largely explains his success: His stories for kids are really for kids. On the other hand, sometimes the reward is in knowing exactly what’s coming. There’s a visceral delight in that.
Christopher Vogler has pointed out that ‘twist endings’ are most often sardonic, bitter, wry and I would add ‘vengeful’. It is much more difficult to write a twist ending that does not invoke these negative (but satisfying) emotions in us. A rare exception is the famous short story by O. Henry, “The Gift of the Magi”. Paul Jennings doesn’t do ‘kind’ twist endings. (Twist endings which say something lovely about humankind are very hard to pull off.)
Another twist Paul Jennings does NOT do: The scary supernatural creature turns out to be no such thing. Once Jennings creates his scary opposition, that opposition is real within the setting. The ‘and it wasn’t really real’ twist is not satisfying. It’s a close cousin of ‘And then I woke up and it was all a dream‘.
Jennings reveals that an authority figure has the same desires as the kids, proving himself not so high and mighty after all. (“Pink Bow Tie”). This is a carnivalesque trick because it upends the adult-child hierarchy.
A storyteller spins a yarn which the young viewpoint character fully believes. The twist is that the storyteller is full of yarns, and the existence of the second yarn disproves the veracity of the main yarn. (“One Shot Toothpaste”.) This is a tall tale trick.
A character with a certain strong character trait (e.g. fearlessness) goes through an experience which serves to invert that trait (e.g. he is now scared of not scary things) (“Inside Out”). This draws on the mechanism of irony. The reader expects a character arc to be: Child learns to conquer his fears.
A mysterious storyteller who tells his tale in third person is revealed to have been telling the story about himself all along. (“The Busker”)
A fantastic tale is not fantasy at all, then leaves off with a detail or explanation that suggests the fantastic tale might be fantastic, or it might not. (“Souperman”)
A situation is resolved, seemingly forever, but then it is revealed in the final paragraph that this is a repeating story and is likely to happen again. Paul Jennings gets a lot of mileage out of this one. (“One Shot Toothpaste”, “The Gum Leaf War”, “Come Back Gizmo”, Sucked In) Often, the first and main story happens to a boy, then the next (untold) story is about to happen to a girl. DreamWorks did the same in its movie adaptation of Boss Baby. (They probably think this counts as gender diversity.)
A Holy Grail object of desire is revealed to have been right there, staring them in the face all along. (“Birdscrap”)
A villain opponent is revealed to be more of an ally, and ends up helping the young character get with they want. Sometimes this is a ghost, who seems scary at first but is revealed to be kind. (“Birdscrap”, “Skeleton On The Dunny”)
An opponent with a formidable reputation turns out to be much less scary once met face to face (“A Good Tip For Ghosts”).
An opponent for the child viewpoint character turns out to be an ally for another character, because everyone’s needs are different. (“Snookle”)
A weird situation is revealed to be supernatural in origin, and has a classic horror story resolution (“Without a shirt”)
A smart trickster outwits an evil trickster (“Box Strap Flyer”, The Paw Thing)
The reader thinks the worst that could happen has already happened, but then something outrageous and unimaginable is about to happen next. This scene may be so risqué it is left entirely for the reader to imagine. (“Lucky Lips”). This is a popular type of humour shared by many comedians, e.g. by Oliver Jeffers in his picture book Stuck.
An object which is terrible turns out to have a silver lining for the main character. (“Cow Dung Custard”)
A character accomplishes something using a certain trick which is not revealed to the reader until the final sentence. (“Wunderpants”) This is how heist stories work. The character makes plans behind the scenes. The character has a realisation midway through the story and this is not related to the audience.
Rather than a twist, Jennings sometimes uses the inverse: Everything in the story leads to an expected and satisfying payoff… or rather, payback. In “Birdscrap”, the story ends at the point where the highly unempathetic opponent is about to land headfirst in manure. In “Spaghetti Pig-out” we wait for the magic remote to work against the bullies.
After a psychological horror sequence, a character realises what they need to do to get themselves out of a horrible situation, so they do it and it works via off-the-page magic. (“The Velvet Throne”)
To emphasise his twist, Jennings sometimes gives us the ‘twist’, swiftly followed by the answer to a mystery he has set up. This feels extra satisfying, and can make up for a less-than-stellar twist. He does this in The Cabbage Patch War. We learn in quick succession that the person accused of stealing the cabbage is not the real thief. Then we learn that one character won a weightloss competition by removing his false teeth.
A character is killed, then brought back to life with hitherto unseen magic (“Frozen Stiff”).
Sometimes a main character works something out before the reader does, then sets about to fix a situation. (Russell works out his mean teacher’s smile has been stolen before we do in “Cracking Up”, “Know All”.)
Uncanny is a hi-lo short story collection by Australian author Paul Jennings, first published 1988.
The original ‘uncanny’ stories were by British writer May Sinclair (1863 – 1946). I read a collection of Sinclair’s uncanny short stories (1923) a few years ago and wasn’t really moved by them. This is because so many writers have emulated Sinclair’s work that hers no longer feel all that original! Sinclair was a heavy influence on H.P. Lovecraft. Now, I wager you’ve heard of him, even if you haven’t heard of her.
Unfortunately, the influence of May Sinclair remains little known. Plus, her writing career was cut short with the onset of Parkinson’s disease in the late 1920s.
The Uncanny May Sinclair stories have plots like this:
Two lovers are doomed to repeat their empty affair for the rest of eternity.
A female telepath is forced to face the consequences of her actions.
The victim of a violent murder has the last laugh on his assailant.
An amateur philosopher discovers that there is more to Heaven than meets the eye.
Likewise, Jennings writes ‘circular’ stories in which stories end on the note that this weird thing will continue on forever. Characters in Paul Jennings stories are forced to face the consequences of their actions. Underdogs (victims) get the last laugh against their opponents. The stories are set in snail under the leaf settings, where there is more to ordinary life than meets the eye.
Whether directly or indirectly, May Sinclair had an impact on Paul Jennings, across all of his short fiction, and not just in this particular title.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “ON THE BOTTOM”
The twist of “On The Bottom” a real groaner. It ends with a dad-joke. It also has an ending typical of picture books, with the main character left with a souvenir from a highly improbable journey.
Lucas has a father who doesn’t treat him like an adult. The father steps in to pull a fish in when Lucas is capable of doing it himself.
His problem is that after he finds the finger, he has a tattoo on his own finger. This means he’s in trouble.
Lucas wants to be a man and catch his own fish. This means preparing them as well.
The mystery in a story is set up at the same time (or instead of) the opposition.
Lucas finds a finger inside the shark.
Following directions from his bear tattoo, Lucas finds a tattooed man lying flat in his dinghy far out to sea, almost dead.
The tattoos transfer to Lucas which means he is ostracised. He is in danger of being taken away from his father. He comes close to a psychological death when he becomes a hikikomori in his own house.
The tattooed guy turns up, reveals he’s from the circus, and with a handshake he can get his tattoos back.
Lucas is now free of tattoos, except for one under his underpants. This is a trope used in plenty of fantasy picture books — the main character is left with a souvenir to prove it all really happened, should the reader ever ask. Chris Van Allsburgh uses this in The Polar Express when the boy comes back to his bedroom with a souvenir from his train journey. Margaret Wild also uses it in There’s A Sea In My Bedroom.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “A GOOD TIP FOR GHOSTS”
The ‘tip’ in “A Good Tip For Ghosts” refers to the local refuse station. I remember tip trips as a kid, and I’m familiar with the sort of person who loves fossicking around in them. There used to be a corner for stuff which other people might want. If it wasn’t entirely useless, you’d put it there. But our local tip has recently put up signs to say no one’s allowed to take anything away. Health and safety. But nobody listens. We live in a semi-rural area, so all sorts of farm castoffs can be found at the tip — trellises, chunks of scrap metal and the like. I know people who have designed their gardens with stuff from the local tip. The father in this story is that kind of guy.
The narrator is embarrassed by his father’s rusty old car and how he fossicks around in the rubbish. He is humiliated by their own poverty, or the appearance thereof. This humiliation is never subverted, unfortunately.
The narrator wants to make a good impression at his new school, because the family has only just moved to this area.
The father, who is embarrassing him in front of a rich kid.
The policeman who pulls them over at first may function as an opponent but he turns out to be friendly. Jennings uses the policeman as a storyteller. This turns him into a false opponent ally, though it does turn out he’s got the story slightly wrong.
Gribble, the archetypal school bully who sets up an initiation challenge.
Old Chompers is the big bad supernatural opposition. We assume he ‘chomps’ children to death.
The twins talk about ways to get out of doing the challenge. I believe this is the main reason Jennings chooses twins. As in “Birdscrap”, the boys talk through all the reasons why they’re going to have to go ahead with this challenge of a midnight trip to the tip.
They meet Old Chompers and give him back the false teeth which Gribble gave them at school.
The twist is that Old Chompers is not searching the tip for his lost grandsons at all. He has been searching all this time for his false teeth.
An epilogue section finishes off the school part of the plot, in which the narrator and his brother get their own back on the school bully and establish themselves as top of the social hierarchy.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “FROZEN STIFF”
“Frozen Stiff” is black humour, which revels in the death of animals, probably as a way of coping with the fact that animals (and people) do die. Animals especially die, and we eat them, or our pets eat them.
The young narrator teams up with Old Jack Thaw, who is eccentric. The narrator therefore functions more as the viewpoint character. He’s helping Jack Thaw who can’t read, but nonetheless has a creepy hobby of freezing dead animals and arranging the bodies in alphabetical order according to species.
If you think about this too hard, why on earth would parents let their son hang out with a guy like this? This is the 1980s. You could ask the same of Marty McFly.
In a separate storyline, Jingle Bells is a cow locked up in inhumane conditions. The narrator feels like he has to save her.
The man who locks up the cow is called Gravel. Because this is a Paul Jennings story, you will already know that Gravel will get his punishment.
The narrator will pull the cow shed apart to let in some sunlight. Gravel appears and Jennings inserts a ticking clock — Jingle Bells is destined for the knackery.
In a lengthy madcap scene, which I find distasteful for the female sexualisation of the cow in the train, the young ‘knight’ escapes with the saved ‘princess’ (my words, but this is a spin on that type of tale). The cow craps all over a lady on the train, because that’s how writers punish unlikeable women and girls in stories — by making them dirty.
The cow runs through central Melbourne and the juxtaposition of ‘country’ in the ‘city’ is the source of the humour. The picture book A Particular Cow by Mem Fox tells me that a cow running amok is an especially funny gag. False teeth, cows and — historically — bananas, these all seem to have inherent comic value.
In this big struggle, Jingle Bells ends up dead. Then there is a confrontation with Gravel, who wants the body to sell for pet food.
But when Jack and the narrator find a peaceful, countryside resting place for Jingle Bells, Paul Jennings reveals that the cow isn’t dead at all. While they slept, the ice melted and she walked off.
Jack also reveals that the water he used to thaw Jingle Bells was ‘different’ (magic). He was saving the magic water to bring someone special back to life.
Honestly, this feels like a bit of a hack.
Finally, it is revealed that Gravel has become frozen. But they won’t bring him back to life. Being part of Old Jack Thaw’s collection is his punishment.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “UFD”
In “UFD”, a play on “UFO”, a trickster boy cracks on he’s seen a flying dog. Then he makes that happen. This is a classic fairytale structure.
A boy narrator is in trouble for calling the police about an ‘unidentified flying dog’.
He wants to prove there really is a flying dog. The stakes are raised when he must prove it (and get $1000) or do the dishes every night for three years.
The father and the air force guy who don’t believe the boy.
Then, the symbolically named dog who rips holes in pants.
In a Paul Jennings story the next step isn’t necessarily an obvious step in the direction of fulfilling the main character’s desire. So it is here. The father suggests they go out and get ice cream. This seems kind of random, but Paul Jennings will turn this outing into an opportunity for the boy to vindicate himself (or whatever).
After getting rear-ended at the railway boom gate, father and son meet Mrs Jensen and her mean bull terrier, Ripper. Mrs Jensen can be the witness to the accident. There is also another (hugely coincidental incident) in which the father rams the back of a mean trucker. So they do need Mrs Jensen as witness testimony.
The boy acts as mediator and approaches Mrs Jensen for this role. She ties her dog to the boom gate.
The set-up leads to a comic payoff in a more classic comedy structure — the boom gate goes up and flings the dog in the air.
The boy now has $1000 dollars because he has proven the existence of a flying dog.
It is never revealed to us why he called the authorities about a UFD in the first place, which I consider a huge hole in the story. I believe Hitchcock would call this a refrigerator moment. I’m not meant to be thinking about this. I’m meant to be just chuckling at the vision of a mean dog flying through the air and ending up in a swimming pool.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “CRACKING UP”
“Cracking Up” is an interesting set of symbols which are related in a Word Association kind of way but which never link in any coherent manner: The maidenhair fern links to the tickling of the ghost which links to the teacher’s wig. This symbol web creates a set of comical connections.
Russell Dimsey is picked by the designated teacher’s pet to take home the mean teacher’s maiden hair plant. He doesn’t want this.
Russell wants to avoid being responsible for Mr Snapper’s precious maiden hair fern.
Mr Snapper. I can’t understand why Mr Snapper would entrust care of his precious plant to students he teaches, but I don’t think Paul Jennings worries about lampshading things like that. The nasty characters in his work are nasty AND illogical.
Lucy Watkins (though it creeps me out that a male teacher has ‘chosen’ a girl in this way). My mind goes off the page.
Lucy waits for Russell outside his new house specifically to tell him that the place is haunted.
The ghost, Samuel. Paul Jennings is smart by writing the following sentences:
I now know that you can only see ghosts if they want you to see them. He wanted me to see him. But not Mum.
That tells us two things: Something Russell has realised and something about the opponent’s desire. (Interesting opponents need their own desire lines.)
Russell has no choice but to go to school and admit to Snapper that Sad Samuel has broken the pot. (Well, I suppose he could have chosen to lie, but Russell chooses truth.)
This story, written in parts, contains a sequence of big struggles rather than a single big one.
The Battle begins when Snapper grabs Russell by the shirt front.
He wags school and ends up laughing a funeral when Sad Samuel starts tickling him.
There’s a showdown between Russell and his mother.
Finally he is reprimanded and shamed in front of a large audience (assembly). Writers often place characters in front of many people if they want to emphasise the significance of a speech or the climax of a big struggle. We see it also in Pixar’s Brave, in Big Love, with the middle wife giving a speech from the rooftop, in Tootsie. Once you start noticing it, you see it everywhere.
This is a story in which the main character has worked something out earlier. Eventually the reader works it out, too.
Russell has discovered that Snapper’s smile has been taken. If he gives it back, he’ll have a nice teacher again.
Snapper is now known as Smiley.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “GREENSLEEVES”
Greensleeves is a popular piece of classical music and I’ve wondered myself why it is called Greensleeves. Nobody knows. Paul Jennings must have wondered, too, and he uses it to gross-out effect in this short story. This is one of the more gross stories of his oeuvre and I had a hard time getting through it.
This story is probably inspired by the real life incident in which a 45-foot sperm whale washed up on the beach in Florence, Oregon on 9 November 1970. The council decided to blow it up. To save you from looking it up, the story ends in disaster.
Father and son are dual main characters, and complete underdogs. They have no money, live in a caravan (what Americans might call a ‘trailer’ or a ‘mobile home’). They therefore need to earn money in any way they can.
The son is more of an underdog than the father because he has to do as his father tells him, without any choice.
Father and son want $5000, which is enough for a deposit for a house. (Oh, those were the days.)
The mayor is the father’s equivalent opponent; the mayor’s son is our main character’s same-age opponent. Mayor and son are power hungry. They go back on their word. They blame others for their own mistakes.
Father and son will remove the dead whale from the nearby beach, which is decomposing and stinking up the entire town of Port Niranda. Nobody has been able to remove it, but the father has a plan and it involves the son getting inside the whale to place dynamite inside it. He’ll wear a gas mask so he can stand it.
Unfortunately this plan explodes, badly, literally. The mayor’s son has tampered with the dynamite and bits of whale blow all over the town. It will cost $5000 to clean up, so they don’t get their reward.
Father and son do good by helping to clean up the town. As in a fairytale, they are rewarded by ‘the gods’ when the son discovers a lump of ambergris has landed on a pillow. Paul Jennings uses the appearance of a ‘little man’ who is after just this product, and will pay not $5000 but $10000. Unfortunately, Nick Steal (who ‘doesn’t steal’) takes it and throws it around like a ball.
The stakes are raised when the father confronts the mayor again about stolen ambergris. “We search the room, and if we don’t find anything we leave Port Niranda tomorrow.”
The action scene where the whale blows up is a man versus nature type big struggle. The boy loses his precious watch. (Watches were expensive back in the 1980s.) As for the interpersonal big struggles:
First Battle: Father and son confront the mayor saying it was his boy’s fault but mayor does not believe this.
Second Battle: The confrontation in Nick Steal’s room.
Paul Jennings does not mind coincidence. The degree of coincidence is itself comical.
As they all stand in Nick Steal’s room, Greensleeves starts playing. This is the tune that plays on the missing watch. Nick has put it in a trapdoor under a rug in his room. The ambergris just happens to have the missing watch embedded in it. So Nick Steal’s cover is blown because of the tune.
Father and son are richly rewarded. They don’t have to leave town and I imagine they used this money to buy a better house.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “MOUSECHAP”
“Mousechap” is a body swap story. Paul Jennings has written a few of these. In one of his Gizmo novellas a boy accidentally swaps bodies with a dog. In this case, an uncle swaps bodies with a mouse. It’s up to the boy to save his uncle from a domestic abuse situation.
Dung beetles a.k.a. scarab beetles have been associated with reincarnation for a long time, especially in places like Egypt. It’s thought that being a shit roller is the worst thing you could possibly be, but that doesn’t take into account the fact that dung beetles seem to enjoy it, because they are dung beetles… If you’ve ever seen dung beetles at work, they are fascinating creatures. And they seem quite happy to me.
Australia imported farm animals long before it successfully imported dung beetles (though they did try, as early as 1900). The Australian Dung Beetle Project was happening big time as Jennings conceived this story. I can tell you that around here, where we live, years with good dung beetle activity mean far fewer flies. Dung beetles mean I can go for a walk without a net over my hat in summer. So dung beetles are my favourite animal.
Julian doesn’t have any choice, but each year he is sent to holiday at his Uncle Sid and Aunt Scrotch’s house. But Aunt Scrotch doesn’t even like him.
He is afraid of the dark, or of the eyes which shine at him through the darkness of the bedroom.
Julian’s dung beetle is set up as a Chehov’s gun. He puts it into a matchbox in his pocket.
When Julian works out that there’s cheese everywhere around the house, he wants to find out why. (Jennings introduces a mystery.)
The reader will make the connection that cheese attracts mice (even though real mice prefer other foodstuffs — mice and cheese are culturally connected). Mice prefer sweet foods, grains and especially peanut butter.
Just by the name we know Aunt Scrotch is an opponent, but Paul Jennings is very clear about it: We are told she doesn’t like boys. Yet Julian wants to take a dung beetle with him to stay at her house for the holidays. So we have the classic crotchety aunt type against the rough-and-tumble, innocently dirty boy type.
It is gradually revealed by the narrator that Uncle Sid is not around. Something has happened to him. The reader probably catches on — after the mouse walks on two legs and prays — that Uncle Sid has turned into a mouse. In chapter two we see Uncle Sid locked up as prisoner, and behaving like a mouse.
Julian sets Uncle Sid free but this is a mistake because Aunt Scrotch has a cat.
After the first revelation Julian plans to save his uncle who is trapped in a mouse’s body. ‘Suddenly I knew what to do’. Julian puts his uncle in his pocket, and I’m remembering there’s a dung beetle also in there.
There’s a chase scene around the house, which involves a near miss with a mouse trap.
The second Battle is where Aunt Scrotch tries to regain control of the body swap machine.
The third and final Battle involves Aunt Scrotch turning into a dung beetle.
The first revelation (from a ripped diary page) is that the uncle has been body swapped because the mouse-trap electric fence switches brains over if two creatures touch the wire at the same time.
Julian is much slower to catch on that the reader. But in case the reader hasn’t picked it up, we are told exactly what happened after this revelation.
Uncle Sid is back to his normal human self and Aunt Scrotch has been turned into a dung beetle as punishment, in this Buddhism inspired tale.
Julian keeps Aunt Scrotch in his pocket but his cruelty is lesser — he gives it as many chocolate freckles as it wants (Aunt Scrotch’s favourite food).
STORY STRUCTURE OF “SPAGHETTI PIG-OUT”
Certain items are inherently comic. Marina Warner has written at length about the comedy value of bananas, for instance. And for kids, spaghetti is another funny item because it looks like worms. Pigs, at least in the West, are also inherently funny. Our idea of pigs (stupid and dirty) is quite different from how pigs actually are (intelligent and clean). Paul Jennings makes the most of spaghetti and pigs in this gross-out short story, though ‘pig’ only appears in the title. The character of Guts is therefore compared to a pig.
Paul Jennings deftly paints a picture of how bullying works in the opening of “Spaghetti Pig-Out” by describing how certain individuals are chosen to be the designated outcast. People who talk to an outcast lose social status themselves. This is a more nuanced picture of bullying than most of his stories offer. The character of Shaun, introduced later, is also realistic: Neither a friend nor a foe — simply too scared to stand up against the established hierarchy.
The narrator is the designated outcast in this milieu. This is possibly because he is poor, though the direct link is never made.
Matthew has a cat called Bad Smell. She farts. If you’ve read a lot of Paul Jennings you’ll know by now that this will come in handy later: The farting cat is the Chekhov’s Gun.
The narrator wants to avoid being targeted by Guts Garvey and also wants a friend or two of his own.
When it is revealed that the cat has been turned into a remote controlled cat, Matthew wants to learn how to use her. (This trope is also used in Wellington Paranormal Series 1, Episode 6, which concludes with the police officers realising the zombified victims are remote controlled.)
Guts Garvey — a ‘real mean kid’.
Matthew’s plan aligns with his desire — he discovers how the remote control works by using it, in typical kid fashion (playing around with it).
When he learns that he can control insects, I’m reminded of a scene out of a completely different story — Eye In The Sky — a war thriller film starring Helen Mirren and various others. (One of the most suspenseful films I’ve seen lately.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zWmEZAl4sxc
Matthew continues in carnivalesque fashion, playing rather than planning. He discovers the remote control works on people — first on his father, next on strangers. To keep reader empathy with Matthew, Matthew discovers this by accident.
When the bully and his sidekick get a hold of the magical remote control, Matthew becomes victim of it.
Adult readers might remember from the 1980s and 90s that VCRs only pause for a few minutes, to avoid pixel burnout, and this functionality saves Matthew from being paused permanently. So, Matthew is still not planning his way out of this predicament — he is a hapless character who responds to crises in the moment. He is a low-mimetic hero (by Northrop Frye’s classification).
Paul Jennings must have realised that this to-and-fro with the remote control alone doesn’t make for a big enough climax, so he introduces a spaghetti-eating competition in part 7.
Circumstances out of his own control lead Matthew to regain control of the magic remote. And because Matthew doesn’t ‘plan’ — he ‘reacts’, Paul Jennings ensures he can’t be held responsible for the bully character eating his own vomit. Because that would be mean, right? That would make him seem vindictive.
Yet the reader is fully encouraged to delight in this punishment.
The reader realises that Matthew will no longer be at the very bottom of the social hierarchy because something really gross just happened to someone else.
Guts Garvey is not unpopular and Matthew now has a lot of friends. In another (more didactic) story “The Busker”, Paul Jennings delivers a lecture about how you can’t buy friendship or romance.
But when it suits the story you can, and according to “Spaghetti Pig-out” you can buy friends with a magical device.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “KNOW ALL”
“Know All” stars a girl, because this is a take on the Greek tale of “Pandora’s Box”. In the myth, Pandora is created like a modern sex doll as the perfect specimen of womanhood and treated as a chattel. But there is one thing wrong with Pandora — she is too curious for her own good. The next part of the myth is like something out of a Jennings story — a massive stink comes out when she opens it. This stands for wickedness and evil. By my take, she finally realised she’s nothing more than a chattel and that misogyny exists. She’s now a woke feminist, and in this situation, this is a terrible realisation. But then she releases ‘hope’ from the box — the one good thing Zeus put inside it. The idea is that “sometimes you’re better off not knowing”. In modern speak, the power of positive thinking allows Pandora to exist within a misogynistic system of power.
What is Paul Jennings going to do with his Pandora character in “Know All?” Will he punish the girl main character for being a Know All? Or will her girly knowledge help her with a problem?
tl;dr: Kate is rewarded for her intellectual capacity, and I’m sure this story will be coded as feminist by many.
This is an outdated form of feminism, however, in which girls are viewpoint characters for the fun exploits of men and boys. The girls don’t undergo a character arc because they are already mature and sensible at the beginning of the story. This means Kate is not the main character. She doesn’t get a story of her own.
Do the boys in Paul Jennings stories get character arcs? Not exactly. These are comic stock characters. But they often rise in the social hierarchy, which is a Jennings stand-in for ‘character arc’. Kate does rise in the estimation of her own father, within the realm of the family rather than the realm of the outside world.
Matthew is Kate’s brother, because as everyone knows, boys won’t read stories about girls. There needs to be an ensemble cast so boys can relate. (Insert irony punctuation.)
Matthew accuses Kate of being a Know All when Kate doesn’t want to open the box they find on the beach as buried treasure. We already know from the first sentence that opening the box was bad.
Kate is also accused of being a sad sack. Bear in mind, this is first person narration from Kate. She is mostly the viewpoint character and aligns with the audience, who shares her ‘intuition’ that the costumes inside the box are bad. The characters who get them all into trouble are the father and son, who don’t seem to possess intuition. The blunder forth and have fun.
Kate wants her family to put the costumes back in the box.
They put the clothes on the scarecrow, which gives human form to the evil that comes out of the box. The scarecrow looks like superman, which is how most Greek gods are depicted (well, more like He-man actually).
The father has a plan in which he decides to dress the Scarecrow in the clothes. But after that, the magic itself determines what happens.
Most of this story is a harlequinesque caper as the clothes make its wearers perform like clowns.
The father accuses Kate of being a Know All. He doesn’t believe the clothes are magic. In an antifeminist move to keep her in check, he makes her cook tea for them both as punishment.
The life and death battle happens in video game fashion, atop a cliff with perilous holes in the ground. It’s a real action scene.
For no apparent reason, Kate is sure “there’s help in the box”. This is in line with the Greek myth. Why the hell does Pandora open that box a second time? No reason given. That’s how Greek mythology works. It’s impossible to work out from the Ancient Greeks why Pandora opened the box, whether she knew what was inside or anything else. It’s up to individual storytellers to paste motivation onto Pandora, in the rare cases she is afforded autonomy at all. In the Greek myth, ‘hope’ comes out last, so that is definitely the right thing to do. Perhaps Kate is familiar with the Greek myth.
Ultimately, Kate saves the day.
It is revealed that Kate knows exactly what to do because she put on the fortune teller’s costume.
This twist at the end lampshades the fact that Kate has no reason to know all this stuff. It kind of subverts the Female Maturity Formula, but not really, because she was the designated mature female even before she put on the costume.
Unbelievable is a short story collection by Australian author Paul Jennings, copyrighted 1986. These are tall tales for eight-year-olds. Australia has a long history of tall tales, and Jennings very successfully adapted the techniques for a child audience. The 1980s was the decade of the irreverent male children’s author. Roald Dahl was the stand-out giant in this field, after starting out writing stories for adults. These days we have David Walliams and various other male authors. This genre of story continues to be a masculine domain, even though children’s literature is an industry full of women. This is carried over in Jennings’ stories for children.
In 1986 I was 8 years old, so the perfect age for Paul Jennings. When I look back on the creative writing myself around this age, they were very Paul Jennings-esque — usually written in the present tense, first person narrative, with a mischievous Every Boy as the main character, navigating his way through a perplexing suburban life, which would be boring and irritating if it weren’t for regular fantasy interruptions. So it’s very strange that I have no recollection of reading the work of Paul Jennings. Either I read them as a child and forgot that I did, or these stories were simply typical of the era. Roald Dahlis similar in many ways, and I certainly read Dahl’s entire oeuvre, numerous times over.
There are just nine short stories in the Unbelievable collection, which makes for a short book. ‘Reluctant’ readers could therefore enjoy the achievement of finishing an entire book without ploughing through a massive word count. (‘Reluctant’ often describes kids who haven’t yet learned to read fluently, which means reading itself is a lot of work. These kids are usually really up for a good story, if it’s accessible to them.)
The main characters in Paul Jennings stories are the Every Boy. This boy is addressed as a ‘lad’ on the first page.
Because he is an Every Boy, we don’t know his specific psychological shortcomings and needs. We only know he is stuck in an external problematic situation. His problem is that he’s at a new school and has already found himself sitting outside the principal’s office.
Like all children everywhere, this Every Boy is lacking in autonomy and power, at the mercy of the adults around him.
But at the start of the second section, Jennings does give this particular Every Boy his own psychological shortcoming:
I am a very nervous person. Very sensitive. I get scared easily. I am scared of the dark. I am scared of ghost stories. I am even scared of the Cookie Monster on Sesame Street.
Jennings gives the boy a romantic desire, which turns out to be necessary to the plot.
Notice that the female characters in the stories are female archetypes: In this particular story we have the young sex object and her inverse in many ways, the horny old lady (who has the hots for John McEnroe). Was McEnroe a sex symbol of the era? I don’t remember, but I suspect Jennings chose him for the minor comic value.
Presumably, this boy also has the desire to get out of trouble. This is assumed.
The reader relates to the boy because the boy makes a social faux pax, taking the piss out of the principal when he doesn’t have the information that this is the principal. (That’s why Jennings had to make him the new boy.)
The boy’s opponent is henceforth the principal, ‘Old Splodge’, who gives him the strap. This story was written just before laws were passed outlawing corporal punishment in schools. I remember a few kids (boys) getting the strap — one for pushing another kid off the top of the adventure playground, and another for giving a girl the brown-eye as the first of the girls’ cohort of cross-country runners caught up to the tail end of the boys. (The boys ran first.) He had the option of either the strap or a week of rubbish duty, so he chose the higher prestige option, after his mother gave the go-ahead.
This was in Year 8. The same boy, that same year, went on to sexually assault my friend in the back of a car full of kids being driven home from a birthday party. Nobody believed the girl… I had been picked up from the party earlier by my own mother, who didn’t feel comfortable leaving me there — so she related to me many years later. Her intuitions were right, because the party was badly supervised, by parents who scared me.
But I digress. Suffice to say, corporal punishment never worked. What that boy needed was intensive psychological intervention.
Notice how Jennings makes full use of descriptive nick names. We’re not told why the principal is called Old Splodge, but the ‘Old’ part is important.
Jennings is also making use of another subconscious bias — the bias against people who transgress gender rules. We are supposed to dislike the principal for wearing a pink bow tie, emphasis on pink. Pink is for girls and unattractively effeminate men. How is this boy supposed to respect a principal who has the outward appearance of a girly boy? He’s not supposed to, and neither are we.
The Every Boy in Paul Jennings tales tends to go along for the ride. Weird things happen, then more weird things happen and he finds himself out of his situation through sheer good luck, and sometimes a bit of cunning.
In this case, The Every Boy narrator happens to get into a train carriage with some very strange people. Turns out they have a machine that can increase and decrease their ages.
It hasn’t been clear to me until I analyse the story for The Battle, but this is actually a story with two diegetic levels. There’s the Level 0 story of a boy who has been sent to the principal’s office, ostensibly for dying his hair blonde.
Then there’s the Level 1, metadiegetic story embedded in that, in which the Every Boy tells us about what happened on the train yesterday.
The Battle of the Level 0 story is the principal grilling him about dying his hair. Jennings has sectioned this off neatly by calling it Chapter 2.
The Battle of the Level 1 story is between a ‘principal stand-in’ — another, similar authority figure — the guy who checks tickets and, similarly, tries to make everyone follow the rules. And no one wants to follow them.
The authority figure on the train ‘runs off as fast as his legs can take him’, which could be a line straight out of a fairy tale. (Not the Grimm versions, which ended differently — but of various 20th century English retellings. I’m sure I have a retelling of Goldilocks which ends like that.)
Chapter 3 marks the return to the Level 0 story, happening in the principal’s office. The principal has heard the same story we’ve heard and exclaims, “What utter rubbish!”
This is basically a rule in children’s fiction, and even in adult fantasy — nobody believes the main character when they happen upon something amazing and, well, Unbelievable.
But here’s another rule: The main character will eventually be vindicated.
Sure enough the principal has his revelation, because he tries the Age Rager machine which can alter someone’s age.
It is revealed in the end that the principal has disappeared, and that the sexually attractive, 17-year-old school secretary has a new, 18-year-old boyfriend. In case we’re in any doubt about what happened, this new boyfriend wears a pink bow tie.
It’s not 100% clear that the narrator realises the boyfriend is the magically age-reduced principal, which is deliberate — connected these (very easy) dots makes the beginner reader feel smart — possibly smarter than the narrator.
Reading from this time in history, in the midst of a #metoo era, there is something supremely icky about this ‘twist’ ending. In a post hoc analysis of the situation, the seventeen-year-old girl — and she is a girl, not yet able to drink, gamble or vote — was employed — probably by the principal himself — to work closely with him, and he was sexually attracted to her all along. This is a man whose very job is work with… children.
How has Jennings achieved what feels like a ‘twist’ ending? I am rebelling against that word, for some reason, wanting to put it in rubber-glove quotation marks.
To put it in clearer terms, Jennings is using the trick of misdirection. He introduced the 17-year-old receptionist as if she’s a part of the landscape. At the beginning we think she’s a side-detail, similar to a pot-plant in the waiting room, but it’s only at the end we realise she’s the reason for the principal winding his age back. Jennings used a technique known as Chekhov’s gun, but instead of an object, he used a person.
Therein lies my problem with it, on the back of a long, long history of the sexual objectification of young women and predatory old men. For me, the ‘twist’ isn’t funny — it’s not even unexpected. It’s more of a disappointed groan.
There is usually an ironic or cynical tone to such [endings], as if they mean to say “Ha, fooled ya!” You are caught foolishly thinking that human beings are decent or that good does triumph over evil. A less sardonic version of a twist Return can be found in the work of writers like O. Henry, who sometimes used the twist to show the positive side of human nature, as in his short story “The Gift of the Magi”
So, the old principal is now the young boyfriend of the attractive 17-year-old girl, who is presumably either too stupid to realise who he is (despite the ostentatious pink bow tie) or too pressured by the hierarchy of the situation to resist his sexual advances.
Child readers don’t encode the narrative like that, of course, because all of this weirdness bubbles under the surface and is completely normalised. Normalisation is exactly the problem. Readers are not encouraged to question the girl’s autonomy in any of this. We assume that because ‘all the boys’ find Miss Newham sexually attractive that she feels the same way in return.
An older character in a young person’s body was roundly criticised as creepy and predatory when Stephenie Meyer used the trope in her Twilight series. An old man (Edward Cullen) stalks seventeen-year-old Bella Swan. The creepiness was mitigated for other readers because we saw Bella’s point of view, and knew she found him sexually attractive. Therefore we knew there was consent.
Consent is off the page in this story. Yet Paul Jennings appears to have gotten away with the device. Mainly, he was writing in an earlier era. Also, the storyline of the 17-year-old girl in “Pink Bowtie” is secondary — almost a MacGuffin, or so we’re led to believe. The viewpoint character is the boy. We worry about the emotional safety of the boy, with no thought to that of the girl. In contrast, the character of Bella Swan is the viewpoint character of Twilight, so some readers do worry about her.
ONE SHOT TOOTHPASTE
A dentist spins a tall tale for a boy who is nervous about getting a filling. The story is the origin story of the massive tooth used as signage outside the window. This story has a more successful twist at the end.
“One Shot Toothpaste” is written in third-person. It seems Jennings has a natural preference for writing in first person, unless there’s a storytelling reason for writing in third. The reason here is because at the end, the young viewpoint character is not in the picture, because another child turns up and the repeating pattern continues.
Having recently visited the dentist myself, an early detail struck me as wrong: After getting the numbing needle, you are not required to spit. But maybe you were required to spit in the 80s. I don’t remember. (Numbing needles are still huge. Not the needle itself, mind, but the receptacle on the end of it. A perennial source of terror.)
As in “Pink Bow Tie”, this story is a story within a story — the Level 0 story is the boy in the dentist’s chair. The Level 1, metadiegetic story is the dentist telling the boy about how he always wanted to be a dustman.
There’s a comic irony embedded in the MacGuffin of “One Shot Toothpaste” — a high prestige dentist longed for (and still admires) the lowest prestige job out there — cleaning up after other people, behind the scenes. (It’s a MacGuffin because this desire gives the young dentist a reason for looking through bins, but his desire abruptly changes when he realises there is animal cruelty going on.)
The main character of the Level Zero story is Antonio. His problem is revealed in the first sentence: He needs a filling, and he’s scared of the numbing needle.
His psychological shortcoming is that he is terrified, shown by the comical description of his knocking knees.
The main character of the Level 1 story is the dentist as a child. The dentist doesn’t have a problem but he has a mystery to solve. (The ‘problem’ is that he can’t rest until he finds out why his neighbour seems to go through so much toothpaste.) Because this is a tale told by an older man to a boy, this can be interpreted as a tall tale — the sort of story a dentist might spin to keep the boy’s mind off his fear. (It’s a masculine genre.)
The dentist wants to solve the mystery of Mr Monty’s toothpaste tubes.
Mr Monty is presented as the likely opponent. The young dentist is going to peer into his ramshackle house.
Sure enough, it is revealed that Mr Monty is holding animals captive, testing foul-tasting toothpaste out on them, hoping to come up with a recipe that will make his fortune. Mr Monty is a Eustace Bagge character (from Courage the Cowardly Dog.) He has no power in real life, and dreams of riches. Eustace Bagge sometimes comes up with outlandish schemes to this end. (They never work.)
A cursory look at the list of fictional characters named Monty confirms for me that this name has become associated with powerful but defeatable villains. Montgomery (Monty) Burns of The Simpsons springs first to mind.
So, we’re clearly given the opponent’s plan. (Jennings has him talk to himself, like a mad scientist type.)
The young dentist ambushes Mr Monty.
The Battle of the Level 0 story is the psychological big struggle as the boy gets his tooth filled, despite his own terror.
The Battle of the Level 1 story begins with section three, in which Mr Monty tries to capture the young dentist to try out his ‘one shot toothpaste’ on a boy. At the end of section three, the young dentist has ‘won’.
Section four is a comical description of a fantasy scene. The tooth grows and grows and overtakes Mr Monty, consuming him as it grows bigger. Mr Monty’s own invention has consumed him. This is a horror trope from way back.
Jennings is making use of another trick here, common to children’s stories in particular — he’s playing with our sense of scale. Children’s humour is augmented by making tiny things massive and massive things tiny. The image of a rotten tooth turning into the villain is in itself comical to a young audience. This is a comical image of irony: A meaningful gap between audience expectation and outcome.
Expectation: A small tooth is small and needs looking after by its ‘owner’ Outcome: The tooth is actually the boss.
The wrapper story of a boy being at the dentist is therefore masterful on a psychological level, because when you’re at the dentist, enduring terror and perhaps pain, you realise, perhaps for the first time since your last visit, that your teeth are more important — more powerful — than you thought. For the first time, you’re centring your tooth in your own narrative.
A shift in psychic valence is another classic feature of horror. The ordinary becomes the terror.
Jennings ends the horror scene with a comical Rube Goldberg type device:
Kangaroo tries to escape
Knocks over candle
Curtain catches alight
House burns down
The final section (Chapter 5) of this story ends with a genuine, satisfying twist and it is achieved like this:
The dentist reveals that a massive tooth signage outside, advertising his business, is the real fusty tooth from his tall tale. Take note: This would not have worked if Jennings hadn’t mentioned its existence on the first page. But we weren’t meant to make special note of it.
How does Jennings make sure we don’t make special note of it? By diverting our attention to the comically symbolic name written on the side: M.T. Bin. We are busy sniggering that M.T. Bin is pronounced ‘Empty Bin’.
That revelation belongs to the Level 1 story.
But there’s a second revelation which belongs to the Level 0 story: This has indeed been a tall tale invented wholly to keep the child’s mind off his filling. In a circular ending common also to fantasy picture books, another, similar story begins again, this time with a little girl. The dentist tells her that he, too, always wanted to be a ballerina when he was a boy. He launches into a tale and we the reader can only imagine what that might be.
We extrapolate that the dentist spends all day spinning tall tales for his nervous patients.
But there’s always that little bit of doubt. Are any of them true? For all we know, the dentist wanted to be a dustman and then he also wanted to be a ballerina. This element of doubt is essential in providing that last ten percent of the frisson of delight in the twist ending.
THERE’S NO SUCH THING
A boy gets his grandfather out of a sanatorium by proving that he’s not imagining things — there really is a dragon down Donovan’s Drain.
This one is written in first person.
Chris misses his grandfather, who has been locked up in a sanatorium. Although this is a modern 1980s setting, I do remember these really old-fashioned (and hugely damaging) institutions for the mentally ill population were closing down around this time. The example from my own home town was Sunnyside Hospital (formerly Sunnyside Lunatic Asylum), which didn’t fully close down until 1999, but which was roundly criticised from at least the 1980s onwards.
So it’s easy to forget that these places did exist in the 1980s. These days, the existence of a sanitarium as described in the story feels like a throwback to the 1960s, at least.
Chris wants to help his grandfather vindicate his own sanity by taking photographic evidence of a dragon that the grandfather has seen in a drain. I have a theory that Paul Jennings had just read Stephen King’s IT when he wrote this story. (IT was published in September of 1986.) Either that or monsters down drains were in the collective air.
Normally in a story featuring a dragon, the dragon is the opponent. But in this story, the opponent is the authority figure at the sanatorium. Paul Jennings loves authority figures as opponents. Basically, he loves to exact revenge on characters who robotically do their jobs without letting their humanity shine through.
Chris visits the drain at midnight equipped with a flash camera (in those days cameras didn’t come with a flash — flashes were an add on, and I still remember the huge tower of little lights, which required a truckload of batteries to work), which was bigger by far than my father’s camera itself.
No word of a lie, it looked like this:
(ANTI-CLIMACTIC) BIG STRUGGLE
So Chris waits until midnight, because the dragon is only seen at midnight, and goes on this mythic journey into the underground. In more lofty stories, this journey into the underground would represent a journey into the main character’s psyche, symbolic of his deepest, darkest fears, but Jennings takes the structure of these serious stories and makes light of them. In fact, the journey itself feels like a necessary but not all that interesting sequence. (A young reader may differ.)
Jennings doesn’t linger down there — the anticlimax is that the dragon is asleep. Chris fails in his mission to collect photo evidence because of a calamity with the camera, but he does emerge from this fantasy world with a talisman — a red cube.
I have since looked up whether there is existing, well-known folklore about dragons and cube-shaped eggs, because the revelation is that Chris has come back to his grandfather with a dragon egg. (I wasn’t all that surprised — but I wasn’t supposed to be.)
Turns out the cube dragon egg is Jennings’ invention. He needed to invent his own folklore in order to surprise the reader with the revelation that he’s brought an egg back into the real world.
(REAL) BIG STRUGGLE
Because Jennings has given the reader an anticlimax with the dead dragon mum proving a non-opponent, now we have the real Battle scene, in which a dragon hatches and immediately attacks the horrible nurse keeping the grandfather prisoner.
This is a vengeful scene — wish fulfilment to exact punishment upon a nurse for refusing to believe something which — let’s face it — no properly skeptical reader would ever believe, either.
We extrapolate that with the nurse out of the way, granddad will return to his home as a free and sane man.
The truth of the setting has won out. The child hero has saved the day.
Gordon is scared by nothing, unlike his sissy sister. Until he comes face to face with a ghost who wants to pass his spooking exams by turning him inside out, like a sausage.
Gordon believes there’s nothing that can scare him. His fearlessness is established in opposition to the scaredy-cat nature of his sister, who wants to watch Love Story when Gordon wants to watch a slasher horror.
We know, therefore, that Gordon is going to come face-to-face with something really scary and get his comeuppance. Part of the pleasure of this tale is in waiting for that to happen.
The problem with this set-up is that it relies upon a system of misogyny, and unwittingly supports it. Gordon is our viewpoint character and he believes Love Story (ie. thinking, feeling, emoting stories) is girly, and because anything girly is inferior, he wants nothing to do with it.
Although Gordon’s bravado comes tumbling down, there’s nothing within the story itself to subvert the notion that girly = inferior. And that is the problem with stories like this.
There’s nothing 1980s about this, by the way. Middle grade authors (especially male authors) are still using girly as inferior to undercut their male main characters, while failing to dismantle the underlying misogyny.
I don’t think they even realise it’s there.
Gordon wants to watch a slasher movie.
When this proves impossible, he sets out into the world in search of something scary. Jennings doesn’t go out of his way to give Gordon a plausible motive. Rather, Gordon is the archetypal fairytale brother who sets out into the world ‘to seek his fortune’. He’s a lad in search of something, anything, to disrupt the utter monotony of his ordinary life. And the reader accepts that in a young man.
Note: Readers don’t tend to accept this motive in anyone other than a young man.
Ostensibly, Gordon leaves the house to teach Mary a lesson — she’ll be scared alone in the house without him, as the parents aren’t back until early the following morning.
Gordon’s initial opponent is his girly sister, who initially tries to persuade him against the slasher movie, then steals the video tape.
The central gag is that Gordon comes face to face with a variety of horror tropes, but doesn’t really draw a distinction between movies and reality, so he isn’t scared by any of these scary things. At this point I wonder how the gag will end. I think the only way this could possibly end is by showing Gordon to be scared of something run-of-the-mill — something ordinary kids would NOT be scared of. Anything other than irony would fail to finish it off… that I can see. Then again, Jennings might have advanced tricks.
Gordon’s subconscious plan is to run into something spooky.
But it’s the fake-opponent who has the more thought-out plan: To pass his spooking exams by scaring a boy half to death. Gordon becomes the target in this comedy thriller. (But comedy thriller is a very hard genre mix, and I don’t consider this story one of Jennings’ best.)
The punk tries to scare Gordon by sprinkling pink powder on a sausage, then on a watermelon, before instructing them to explode.
Next he sprinkles the pink powder onto Gordon, and we worry he, too, is going to explode like a sausage. In the nick of time, the examiner ghost drops to the floor in fright, I assume at the prospect of seeing Gordon with his innards on the outside.
Gordon also faints too, and I wonder if he has turned into an exploded sausage. Honestly, I don’t really get this bit. Is he meant to be an exploded sausage ghost now?
Turns out I was right — Paul Jennings really had no choice but to end this story the way he did — by depicting Gordon as scared of things that aren’t scary. Gordon is revealed to find The Great Muppet Caper really ‘creepy’.
In any case, Gordon walked home with his knees knocking. After this experience he is finally scared of things now.
From now on he knows to be scared of certain things.
A boy wants money to take the designated Hot Girl at school out on a date. She has told him she’ll only go out with him if he takes her by taxi. His father won’t give him money, so he goes to the beach in search of The Mahogany Ship. If he finds this, he reasons, he can make lots of money. But at the beach, a stranger emerges from the shadows…
A boy is attracted to a girl who will only go out with him if he can afford to take her out by taxi.
He doesn’t have the money.
What he is wrong about in the beginning: He thinks as long as he has the money he’ll secure Tania as his girlfriend.
He desires the girl, or the status that the girl will bring.
To get the girl, he needs money.
The romantic opponent of the Level 0 story is Tania, described as an archetypal 1980s catch:
This wasn’t just any old date. This was a date with Tania. She was the best looking girl I had ever seen. She had long blonde hair, pearly teeth and a great figure. And she had class. Real class.
(White het men of Paul Jennings age overwhelmingly fetishise blonde women, having come of age in the Marilyn Monroe era.)
The boy narrator goes on to say:
She had already told me it was a taxi or nothing.
We don’t get to see Tania on the page, but my interpretation is that Tania does not want to go out with this boy. She wants to go out with Brad. Instead of risking backlash by turning him down flat, she has put the ridiculous condition of ‘only by taxi’ on her ‘yes’, knowing full well that he doesn’t have the money. Instead, he sees this as a challenge to overcome. The boy narrator sees it as a ‘yes’, because he hasn’t been told a direct and insistent ‘no’, and because he is not even listening for ‘no’.
This desire line is already creepy to me, then I notice something else.
Brad Bellamy is the guy Tania is really interested in, which is kind of prescient because Incels have since imbued their own meaning to the name ‘Brad’. A ‘Brad’ is a guy who supposedly gets all the attention from high status ‘Staceys’, while the low status men, involuntarily celibate, feel righteously aggrieved for missing out on sex they feel that they feel they are owed.
Why do they feel they are owed these ‘yes’s from Staceys, or Tanias? Because 1980s media told them that blonde girls with pearly teeth and great figures are their prize. I played a lot of arcade games on my Amstrad as a kid in the 1980s. The few times I clocked a game, it was a letdown to realise that the outro sequence often consisted of a pixellated but unmistakeable ‘Tania’ emerging from right of screen to plant a massive kiss on my — until this moment — genderless avatar. This phenomenon was critiqued brilliantly by Anita Sarkeesian back in 2013 in her Tropes vs. Women video series.
Paul Jennings gives his main characters weird plans. There’s nothing sane that really leads this boy from
Need ten bucks to
Will go in search of long lost treasure on the beach
But that is the wacko nature of Paul Jennings stories and we accept that happily. There is the in-between step, in which the boy offers to mow the lawn for payment, and a funny anecdote backstory about how he’s not allowed to do that anymore after mowing over a whole row of plants. (I find this supremely irritating as a parent—it probably mildly funny to its young, target audience.)
Anyway, that’s why the father won’t just give the boy ten dollars. That’s why he goes in search of The Mahogany Ship. Non-Australian readers won’t necessarily know that The Mahogany Ship is thought to be a shipwreck buried under the sand on a beach in South West Victoria. There was much talk about this in the 1980s and 1990s because two writers documented all the reports. This explains why there’s no explanation in the story itself.
Alongside this Level 0 story we’ve got the metadiegetic Level 1 story of the mysterious man on the beach who steps out of the shadows to tell a lengthy cautionary tale against trying to impress others by giving them money. The lesson is that the more you give, the more people take. And you can’t buy love anyway, no matter how much money you give someone.
This entire story has its own 7-step structure of course. The dog down the well reminds me of Silence of the Lambs, which was actually published 2 years AFTER this collection was copyrighted, so I guess people and little dogs in wells was in the collective narrative air.
The Battle of the story takes place within this metadiegetic story. In the end, the loyal little dog dies and teaches the busker narrator a lesson. It’s a real tearjerker—manipulatively so.
The plot reveal is that the busker is the star of the story. The misdirection (which probably works on a young audience) is that he was talking about himself in the third person.
The anagnorisis in the Level 1 story is that money doesn’t buy friends. Your friends simply are — as exemplified by the loyal little dog. As a message this doesn’t exactly work, because the little dog sacrificed all its own food and ultimately its own life to ‘buy’ the affection of the busker, but heigh ho.
As for the Level 0 story — the boy does not get the girl. He has his own epiphany prompted by the moral lesson: He does not even want a girl who requires an expensive mode of transport. She is suddenly disgusting to him. I’m sure Paul Jennings considered this a subversion of the trope that boys who behave ‘well’ always get ‘the girl’.
But it’s not a feminist subversion at all. The idea that boys deserve pretty girls instead gets an addendum: boys deserve pretty girls who are also nice. (And presumably self-sacrificing. No accident that the busker’s dog is small and female. Bear in mind the default gender for fictional dogs is male.)
The epiphany our boy narrator should have had: He should leave Tania the fuck alone, because Tania wants nothing to do with him in the first place.
I stuffed the ten dollars into my pocket. Then I went round to Tania’s house and told her to go jump in the lake.
The reader is meant to feel some catharsis at this final sentence.
Here’s what remains in the story: The old chestnut that pretty girls tend to ask for too much from men who chase them. They use their high beauty status for monetary gain.
The boy still doesn’t realise that Tania was never interested in him in the first place. He literally went round to her house—her safe space—to insult her.
“Souperman” is set in the city — the natural arena for a superhero tale. Paul Jennings takes the classic super hero (the classical god) and strips him of power until he is a low mimetic human (according to Northrop Frye’s classification). Any boy can be Souperman, so long as he drinks the soup.
Robert is obsessed with Superman comics to the point where it’s affecting his school work. His angry father insists he dispose of all his Superman paraphernalia.
Robert wants to be a super hero.
His opponent is his father, who makes him get rid of all his Superman stuff. This makes him even less like a superhero than he was before.
He meets Souperman, who at first proves to be a fake-ally, teaching Robert how he, too, can have superpowers.
Robert does as Souperman suggests and eats ‘raw’ soup from a can (canned soup is never raw, but ‘raw’ does sound better in a tall story).
On the way back up from the skip he encounters ‘Souperman’ who tells him that if he eats certain flavours of canned soup he’ll be able to perform specific feats attached to the flavours. He tries out the theory and fails, but is left with the problem of indigestion.
Next he gets himself into a further scrape by falling into the council skip, which is then picked up by the rubbish truck. He’s about to be crushed.
The maybe-fake Souperman does save the day, by rushing downstairs to tell the rubbish truck driver to stop the crusher.
Souperman saves the day using only human abilities (he falls from the window rather than flying), and tells the driver to stop (rather than making it stop with superhuman strength). We conclude he’s just a guy playing at being a superhero.
But the plot twist is that Robert has inadvertenly taken off with the can opener, which means Souperman couldn’t eat the soup purported to imbue him with temporary superpowers. Souperman insists that he can fly, but only after eating soup.
In short: The twist ending is achieved by persuading the reader something fantasy is actually mundane, then adding extra detail to make us revise that view — that the mundane could still be fantasy.
The reader is left with an intriguing question — this Souperman guy could still be a real superhero.
Ergo: Any guy dressed in a superhero costume could, just possibly, be a real super hero.
This ending fits well inside a collection called Unbelievable.
THE GUM LEAF WAR
A boy on a train knows that the other passengers are staring at his nose. He launches into backstory about how he got his nose stuck between two swinging doors. Now it is 7cm long. He can’t cope with the teasing at school so his parents send him on a country retreat.
Click Go The Shears is an Australian bush ballad. Unfortunately the most popular versions you’ll find on YouTube are by Rolf Harris, and Rolf Harris has since been found guilty of 12 counts of sexual assault. This was all going on in the 1980s, when this story was written. He abused children.
Here’s a version not by Rolf Harris
And here’s what a gum leaf tune sounds like, if you’re a pro:
The boy is left with a massive nose after an accident. His shortcoming is that he can’t lead a good life without fitting in, looks-wise.
He wants his regular nose back again. In the meantime, he wants to get out of school to avoid the bullying.
The kids at school are the narrator’s initial opponents, for making his regular life a misery.
Grandfather McFuddy at the farm is going to be either an opponent or an ally to his grandson. But the neighbour, Foxy, is quickly established as McFuddy’s ally.
Like Hatfields and McCoys, these two old men are at each other’s throats. The young narrator works out what’s going on without too much trouble. He summarises it for the reader:
This was the weirdest thing I had ever come across. These two old men seemed to be able to give each other their illnesses and cure themselves at the same time. By blowing a gumleaf where the other person could hear it.
The boy goes exploring around the farm. Children in fiction are obliged to explore any new environment. Coraline does the same thing. Incurious children don’t seem to exist in books.
The tree goes up in flames.
Neither of the old men, temporarily made friends through working together to fight the flames, realised the old twisted gum might be in danger. Though the reader has already deduced this, they realise the gum they’ve been weaponising is now a burnt and twisted corpse. Except for one leaf, which falls to the ground.
The boy transfers his long nose to the two old men, settling the rivalry between them by giving them both the same affliction, and also solving his own problem.
The old men have the revelation that once both of them are afflicted by the same thing, they are no longer automatic rivals.
The ranger on the train on the way home notes that gum trees tend to spring back to life after bush fire. This produces more leaves. The rivalry is likely to start up again. This sets up expectation of a repeating story.
Birdscrap has a strong gross-out element. 15-year-old twins Gemma and Tracy are at the beach. They end up covered in seagull crap. But why? This one’s a ghost story.
Consider this the kiddie version of Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds, later adapted for film by Hitchcock.
This is the story in the book starring girl(s). It feels tokenistic. I’m a little creeped out by the gendering of it, but in order to understand why, you have to know some context: In middle grade fiction it’s always ‘funnier’ when girls get covered in dirt, or crap. The girlier they are, the more satisfying it’s meant to be. Usually it’s revenge for being too girly, but includes an easily milkable slapstick comedy element. The characters in “Birdscrap” could easily have been boys — indeed, Jennings’ default character is boy. Jennings chose to cover girls in shit, for a reason. A completely subconscious reason, I’d wager.
“Birdscrap” is a Holy Grail type of quest to find hidden treasure, described only as ‘Dad’s rubies’. The problem is, they don’t know where to find them.
The twins want to find the rubies so they can ‘sell them for a lot of money, fix up Seagull Shack and give Grandma a bit of cash as well’. Because we’ve got two twin sisters talking to each other, this is revealed in dialogue, as they argue about whether this is an idea worth pursuing.
In general, Holy Grail plots have something really specific the character wants — probably something they can hold in their hand. But deep down the outer desire is different e.g. to be accepted, to make a friend, to get past a break up.
But the hi-lo fiction of Paul Jennings doesn’t have that kind of complexity. The rubies don’t stand metaphorically for any deep desire. These girls are cardboard cut outs — they could be anyone. The interest factor for young readers derives from:
the gross-out spectacle of girls covered in poo, and a shack surrounded in poo
the intrigue of an invisible bird
the intrigue of a ghost who has come back for revenge
An invisible seagull craps on the girls. Soon they’re bombarded, and absolutely covered in crap.
The girls take refuge in Seagull Shack. One of them checks the inside of the bird for the missing rubies.
They put the creepy stuffed seagull on the windowsill.
A ‘lonely darkness’ settles upon the shack and the night is one long psychological big struggle for the girls as the stuffed seagull stares at them from the windowsill where they released it back into the wild.
Once again, Jennings is making use of an exaggerated scene — most of us have the experience of being crapped on by a bird. This is that, taken to its extreme.
In the morning they realise the shack is surrounded by a huge volume of bird poo. No one knows they’re in the shack, so the twins consider themselves doomed.
They conclude the stuffed seagull is the body of the transparent seagull bombarding them, then plan to fix the problem by giving the ghost gull its body back.
The big reveal is that the eyes of the stuffed seagull are the rubies. It’s pretty unbelievable, on a narrative level, that the girls would rip the entire stuffing out of this bird and check it for rubies, yet wholly fail to notice that the creepy eyes staring at them all night are… rubies. This is the wrong kind of ‘Unbelievable’.
The ‘twist’ feeling in the end comes from the revelation that the bird is an ally opponent, not an outright villain. In its own way, the ghost seagull has ensured the girls would find the rubies. The ghost gull has a strong sense of reciprocity.
The girls are left with the rubies and henceforth they’re rich. They will probably do as they discussed: fix up the shack and live there together.
The ghost gull disappears (presumably forever) with its band of shitting marauders.
This is the only story in this collection which made me LOL. Remember milk deliveries? They stopped sometime in the 80s, so I doubt young readers would even know what that’s about.
A creature named Snookle arrives in the milk bottle. This creature wants to do everything for the child narrator, including picking his nose for him.
The narrator wants to continue doing things for himself, without being treated like a helpless baby.
The narrator tries to resist.
There’s a big struggle for control.
I went back to the kitchen for my breakfast. Snookle beat me to the spoon.
Off-the-page, the narrator realises that there are people in life who do need this kind of personal care. So he rehomes Snookle with the elderly woman next door, who can barely go outside to pick up her milk bottles.
The old lady now has someone to help her stay in her home. The lawns are mowed and she seems very happy. And the narrator is glad to be rid of Snookle.
Unreal is a collection of 8 short stories, first published 1985. This was the book that really kicked-off Jennings’ career as a children’s author. Though it wasn’t called that at the time, these books are excellent examples of hi-lo literature.
I am revisiting the work of Paul Jennings with the benefit of 2019 hindsight. I’d like to clarify what writing lessons I can learn from Paul Jennings, against what to throw out.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “WITHOUT A SHIRT”
The premise of “Without A Shirt” is masterfully childlike.
I’m reminded of a group of boy classmates in Year 9 who started saying ‘Cheese On Toast’ very randomly. There was nothing behind this joke — it wasn’t an in-joke — the joke was that it was utterly meaningless.
One day these boys got in big trouble. They stole a piece of chalk (I guess our high school was phasing out blackboards in 1991) and used that chalk to write Cheese On Toast in huge letters across the blank canvas wall of the Hunter Gym. Although chalk isn’t permanent, and although Cheese On Toast is harmless, a PE teacher walked past, saw the graffiti and started fuming. My friends and I happened to be sitting right in front of the wall. Looking back, the boys were probably hoping to impress.
The scary PE teacher interrogated us girls until we told him who had done it. I still regret telling this teacher who’d done it, because they all got detention. For ‘graffiti’ that would come off in a shower of rain.
Paul Jennings understands the things that kids do for fun. One reading of “Without A Shirt” is that Brian Bell’s speech issue is an analogue for stuttering or similar, but really, the premise could derive for this kind of playful ridiculousness.
Playing with words in this way is carnivalesque. Children are expected to say certain things at certain times, and by defying this expectation, humour ensues.
Paul Jennings does his trademark story-within-a-story in “Without A Shirt”, because Brian is doing a speech about his own family history. It starts, “A man fell overboard”. The content of this Level 1, metadiegetic speech is important to the Level 0 plot.
Sue Featherstone, a high prestige girl (her father is the mayor), makes fun of him for his speech issue.
Paul Jennings likes to use girls for this role, on the basis that boys like to impress girls even more than they like to impress other boys.
Margaret Attwood: Men are afraid of being laughed at. Women are afraid of being killed. In this story, Brian happens to wish Susan were dead. Is this mitigated by the fact that he also wishes himself dead?
Not really. This oppositional set up feels so icky to me. That’s because I’m reading this story in 2019. Margaret Attwood’s quote wasn’t published until 1996. “Without A Shirt” was published more than a decade earlier than that. Hard to remember this, but people didn’t have a clue about the experiential differences between existing as a man versus as a woman.
The Featherstone family is a formidable opponent — Sue Featherstone’s mother is their landlady. She comes to evict them.
After eviction, they go live in the cemetery. This is a very Paul Jennings thing to do. Common sense and reality is replaced by an absurd decision. But then he reveals that they actually live in a ‘cottage’ in the middle of the cemetery.
Now we have the comic scenario of a dog that digs holes, living in a graveyard. Paul Jennings needs the audience to understand this connection, so the real estate agent walks away chuckling about it. This is a necessary step.
Because predictably, the dog starts bringing bones back. Unpredictably (and quite a bizarre writing choice), the bones don’t come from the graveyard. They come from the nearby beach which we didn’t know about.
Brian fits the skeleton together, same as a detective in a detective story would piece together a puzzle. Eventually, Brian realises the skeleton is that of his great-great-grandfather, whose bones are unhappy because they are scattered and aren’t wearing a shirt.
Once Brian has pieced the bones together and dressed them in the found-shirt, he no longer says “without a shirt” at the end of every sentence. The ghost has found peace.
Notice how Paul Jennings doesn’t give a fig about coincidence. That is the feature of the tall tale. By complete coincidence, Brian is giving a speech about his great-great-grandfather at the same time his dog happens to find the great-great-grandfather’s skeleton.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE STRAP BOX FLYER”
This short story reminds me very much of a picture book Wolf Comes To Townby Denis Manton (now hard to get).
The story opens from the trickster’s point of view. We are let in on the trickster’s scheme, so we are in audience superior position.
Next we are shown a few incidents in which the trickster causes trouble for a community.
In both stories, a boy dies as a result. So yes, it is okay to kill off a child in books for very young readers, if you were wondering. Writers have to be very careful about this, because it’s sometimes okay and at other times not. The rules seem to follow the rules for killing off mothers: If we don’t get to know the character, their death does not affect us. If we’re going to kill off a child character, set up the story so the child expects it. Don’t spring child death on the reader. Genre is important. Child death in funny stories is okay. Child death in sad stories must be handled with more care. See also: Death in Children’s Literature.
In both stories, the trickster leaves town in search of a new community of gullible people to trick.
Here’s where the stories part ways: The trickster wolf in Wolf Comes To Townsuccessfully gets away. The trickster scam glue-seller in “Strap Box Flyer” meets his trickster match, then comes to a sorry end.
Being a good con artists also makes you a really good mark. This is a psychological phenomenon which applies to real con artists. The con artist is always on the knowing side of things, and they can’t imagine themselves on the dupe side. This gives them a lot of (false) confidence.
This is explored in many stories which end in the con artists getting duped by another con artist e.g. Dirty, Rotten Scoundrels.
This is one of those stories. Audiences do love tricksters. We love it even more when a trickster outwits another trickster.
Giffen, con artist, wants to get rich quick. He is immoral. He is only after money and, by extension, power. He is the ultimate trickster villain.
His opponent appears as the “little man”, named Flinty. Flinty is a symbolic name. When describing a person, the word means very hard and unyielding. We know that this trickster is going to outsmart Giffen.
Once Flinty appears, the audience is now placed in audience inferior position. We have full trust in Flinty and watch him as he carries out his plan.
It is satisfying to watch what a master trickster does, but only when that information is withheld from the audience. This is how heist stories work, too. To see how this is done, it’s a good idea to refer to the heist subgenre of crime. Breaking Bad and Animal Kingdom are TV series for adults which also structure their episodes in this way.
The plan: Flinty makes a flying machine, uses Giffen’s glue to hold it together, then coaxes Giffen up into the air. That’s the plan in sequential order.
But note that, as revealed, the audience is shown the plan in reverse order. The LAST thing the reader learns is that the flying machine has been held together with Giffen’s glue.
When it comes to the metrics of ascent and descent, artificial intelligence has come up with six basic plots:
Jennings has clearly drawn upon the Greek tradition here. One of the most influential stories in Western literature is the Greek story of Icarus and Daedalus.
Giffen’s glue = the wax, a symbol of hubris.
A lot of the time, flight = freedom. Not just freedom from specific circumstances in the plot but also freedom from more general burdens. In a slightly religious sense, flying = freeing of the spirit. The notion that the disembodied soul is capable of flight is deeply embedded in the Christian tradition and probably many others. But for the ancient Greeks and Romans this concept was problematic: the souls of blessed and damned alike were meant to go to an underground realm. The belief in a celestial heaven leads much of later Western culture, who think of a soul as light and travelling upwards.
But as in all symbols, the ability to fly can also be symbolic of ‘failure to fly’, or failure to take advantage of one’s freedom.
If anyone flies or falls for too long, Icarus and his imaginary cousins are probably being invoked.
There are plenty of stories about flying whose flights — like Icarus — are interrupted prematurely.
These much earlier stories in the Icarus tradition were written in highly spiritual times and the endings include an element of rebirth. (Gravity starring Sandra Bullock is a clear example of that. Testament of Youth is another.)
But there is no such religious awakening in a Paul Jennings story. Instead, the reader gets a simple ‘plot revelation’, in line with a comedy set up and gag. After fully expecting it, the reader learns how the “little man” tricks the con artist.
We extrapolate that the con artist falls to his death. This feels like a just punishmentbecause he has already killed a child, and is fully a victim of his own misdeeds.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “SKELETON ON THE DUNNY”
The Australian-ness of this story is evident from the title. We know it’s going to follow in the tall tale tradition.
Bob is scared of the outhouse toilet at his Aunt Flo’s house. The name Aunt Flo is in itself funny, for being a pun on ‘flow’.
Bob’s problem is that the dunny is haunted by the ghost of Old Ned, who died out there. Comedy derives from Aunt Flo’s deadpan story that she came home to find her house sitter dead on the toilet. Only his skeleton was left.
When the ghost makes Bob’s teeth chatter, he breaks one off. The plate is expensive, then falls down the toilet.
This doesn’t make sense to me, since I’ve never used an outhouse connected to the sewerage system — it’s always a composting set-up — but I suppose such things exist. It’s technically possible that this house is so old, the sewerage system was set up without the owner (Aunt Flo) moving the toilet into the house. I don’t know the sewerage history of Timboon.
Anyhow, Bob now wants his plate back.
Notice what Paul Jennings has done with the desire line: There’s really nothing Bob can do about getting rid of the ghost. Bob’s deep desire is to ‘use the dunny without being scared to death’.
But this deep desire to avoid fear needs an active desire-line which functions to propel the narrative forward. So Jennings gives him a surface level desire-line — a Holy Grail type quest: To find a lost item.
The ghost of Old Ned.
Bob goes to a fantasy version of a treatment plant, where all sorts of lost things are kept in baskets. He finds his tooth and now
The valuable painting is hidden in the roof of the dunny. (This information has been planted earlier in a very obvious form of Chekhov’s Gun.)
Old Ned floats up into the sky.
He was gone. He wouldn’t be coming back.
Paul Jennings must have realised that the audience would be left with a refrigerator moment: What was a painting doing in the roof of the dunny? Chapter 10 functions as an epilogue, in which the narrator offers his theory on that.
Because epilogues are inherently boring (with closures instead of reveals — the storytelling equivalent of tidying your room), Paul Jennings makes it seem less epilogue-y by including a supernatural gag in Chapter 10: The recovered painting now contains an image of Old Ned (on the dunny).
STORY STRUCTURE OF “LUCKY LIPS”
Growing up in the 1980s my parents subjected us to a lot of Cliff Richard. I am mortified to find I know all the lyrics to “Lucky Lips”. The things the brain stores…
“Lucky Lips” (the song) is a simple wish fulfilment fantasy for the Every Man — you don’t have to be rich or good-looking (or even decent) — all you need are lucky lips and you’ll have ‘a baby in your arms’.
I resisted re-reading this Paul Jennings story by the same name. I didn’t remember the plot — I remembered I had never been comfortable with now. Now that it’s 2019, and I am older myself, I am better able to articulate what is wrong with this story: It is rapey. It is also uncomfortably heteronormative. The transgression between boy and animal would have always felt risque, which was Paul Jennings’ point. But now, that feels rapey as well.
Moreover, this story promotes the idea that being sixteen and never kissed is shameful. It turns sex into a competition and a milestone, which mutually excludes its main function for teenagers: enjoyment and excitement.
“Stuck up snobs,” he said. “I’ll teach them a lesson.” He decided to make the most popular girl in the school kiss him. That would show them all.
The adventures of Marcus fail to amuse me at all. This character is very creepily reminiscent of Elliot Rodger, who in 2014 went on a misogyny driven murder spree before ending his own life.
Marcus doesn’t realise this about himself, but the third person narrator is able to tell us that Marcus is stuck up and unlikeable.
Because he lives in a culture which tells boys (especially) that having sex with girls is a prerequisite for manhood, the fact that he’s never been kissed goes against his sense of self. He feels entitled to girls’ attention.
After setting this up, Jennings had a chance to subvert the cultural expectation. But he doesn’t do that at all. Instead, he punishes Marcus for being stuck up and manipulative. There is no critique of the cultural forces at work.
On the page, Marcus wants to be kissed by girls.
His deeper desire, dangerously off the page, is that he feels entitled to girls and their bodies and their attention, and requires this attention to prove his own sense of worth. Desire and need are meant to intersect in a good story. I’m in no doubt of my own analysis. The problem is, the child reader is likely to only see the slapstick humiliation of the story.
This story is absolutely typical of the 1980s, in which ‘consent’ never once came up in sex education lessons. Paul Jennings does try to lampshade this icky aspect. ‘Consent’ wasn’t used in this context, so he talks about ‘stolen kisses’:
Marcus started to feel a bit guilty. He fingered the lipstick in his pocket. Should he use it? He remembered something about stolen kisses. Was he stealing a kiss if he used the lipstick? Not really — if he used it, Jill would be kissing him of her own free will.
But free will is a very controversial concept. Just take a listen to what philosophers and public intellectuals disagree about when they talk to each other.
So if a children’s author is going to delve into the nature of free will, it’s super risky to use sex as a means to do that.
It soon becomes clear that these girls (referred to — jokingly, I’m sure — as ‘victims’ on the page) do not have free will at all. The setting magic of the lipstick takes free will away from them. Marcus is justifying non-consensual sexual acts to himself. These girls are horrified to learn they have kissed a boy they’re not attracted to at all.
Jill jumped back as if she had been burned. She put her hand up to her mouth and went red in the face. … Jill didn’t know what to say. She was blushing. She couldn’t understand what had happened.
As a forty year old woman myself, I’m also icked out by Paul Jennings using Fay Billings’ mother as his ‘punishment victim’. Mrs Billings is too old for Marcus — of course — and her ‘old-ladyness’ is his first punishment. He himself is non-consensually kissed, and this is the first (more minor) part of his punishment.
He realises he’ll have to be more careful if he doesn’t want to be kissed by undesirable older women. So he stops going round to girls’ houses and instead makes sure he surrounds himself only by other girls.
Marcus wants to be kissed by only one type of girl, and only one at a time. But in a scene I’m sure Paul Jennings intends as ridiculously slapstick, Marcus is kissed by many at once.
The ‘catty girliness’ of these ‘females’ is underscored by the following description:
They shrieked and screamed and fought: they scratched and fought and bit.
I’m not sure if this idea is completely dead yet, but I clearly remember being told by my father in the 1980s (my father is the exact same age as Paul Jennings) that boys fight ‘fair’ and girls fight ‘dirty’. A punch in the face is ‘fair’; scratching and biting is ‘dirty’. I don’t know why I was told that, since I never relied on scratching and biting myself, and never got into physical tousles with my brothers anyway. This was common wisdom.
Leaving aside the fact that a single punch can be deadly, whereas biting and scratching tends to create surface wounds, there is no evidence to support a gender division between ‘ways of fighting’. When lives are threatened, people fight for in any way they can. When a victim is overpowered by size and strength, they will use non-muscle means of escape, whether male or female. In order to understand how and why people fight, researchers need to move away from gendered constructs. This is especially important now that women are becoming more violent, even as men become less violent. (At least, here in Australia.)
The wilfully sexist misunderstanding of gender and violence is why Paul Jennings’ description of the girls mid-Battle is so offensive to me. Also, there’s that very long history of women being compared to cats (and to birds). Scratching and biting are distinctively feline.
Plus, as he has done in other stories, Paul Jennings has created a scenario in which the worst thing that can happen to a boy is being laughed at by girls.
Well, almost the worst thing.
Marcus’ final punishment is left off the page, and for good reason. It would be disturbing to watch. The reader can easily extrapolate: Marcus is kissed by the ultimate unattractive partner: an actual sow who has just eaten slops.
Women have been placed on an attractiveness continuum throughout this story as a way of building to a climax.
First we have the ‘unattractive class’, starting with the witch, leading to the forty-year-old woman, then to girls who laugh at Marcus, then to the sloppy sow.
At the top of the ‘attractive class’ we have the designated ‘popular girl’, though the new (vulnerable) girl is a better victim, so Marcus targets her first.
“Lucky Lips” is a gross-out narrative at its most damaging. Give me the poo jokes any day.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “COW DUNG CUSTARD”
As a kid, whenever I asked what was for dinner, the answer was ‘horseshit and rhubarb’, or ‘a big potato with a little one’. The title of “Cow Dung Custard” reminds me of the first (non-)answer. I’m sure I’m not the only child of the 80s who got this response. (My child doesn’t even need to ask — it’ll be one of my three rotating dishes.)
“Cow Dung Custard” is a rags to riches plot with a surprising ending.
I imagine this short story was inspired by the terrible stink of hair removal cream, which has gotten less offensive in recent years, but still smells like hell.
A boy has no social prestige because his father makes him collect dung for his prize-winning vegetable garden.
The Cow Dung kid, along with his mad-scientist archetype father, want enough money to buy a farm where their smelly cottage industry bothers no one.
The rest of the townsfolk are up in arms over the stink, especially after the father invents Cow Dung Custard, which smells so bad it attracts a massive swarm of flies.
The flies themselves are an environmental opponent, in a comical variation of a cyclone movie such as Twister.
Father and son must get rid of the flies and appease the townsfolk. They plan to mix a batch of Cow Dung Custard so strong it kills the flies.
The Battle is against the flies but also against the stench of their own invention.
They realise it smells so bad it makes hair fall out.
In an epilogue paragraph, we learn that cow dung custard has been rebranded as hair-removal cream and has made father and so so rich that they have moved out to the farm. Now, only the characters and the readers of this book know that hair removal cream is really made of cow dung.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “LIGHTHOUSE BLUES”
I read the first section of this story when I was reminded of a film which really took off for a long time in my hometown of Christchurch. It played at one of the Arts Centre cinemas and was called Gloomy Sunday (Ein Lied von Liebe und Tod). I went away and found the tune to Gloomy Sunday. I’ve played it heaps over the last 24 hours. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bI7nbxec7XQ
I don’t know why I’m listening to it, because it really is gloomy. At least, I think so.
Not everybody experiences chills when listening to music. Those people are called ‘musical anhedonics’. Between 1 and 5 percent of people experience “specific musical anhedonia”.
Not all emotions associated with music are good emotions. This is in line with my usual response to classical music: I usually feel bittersweet. I feel like I just watched a film with a pyrrhic victory for an ending:
In a study involving more than 1,000 people, Swedish music psychologist Alf Gabrielsson showed that only a little over half of strong experiences with music involve positive emotions.
Many involved “mixed emotions” (think nostalgic or bittersweet love songs), and about one in ten involve negative emotions.
But the vast majority of readers have experienced emotional reactions to music.
In “Lighthouse Blues”, Paul Jennings extends this feeling and uses the same trope used in the 1999 film Gloomy Sunday: A song which affects a character so deeply has an effect not only their emotions but on their fate.
The affective music Jennings chose for this story is “Stranger On The Shore”. I’m pretty sure Paul Jennings’ CD tower looks the same as my parents’ CD tower. I grew up with the clarinet tunes of Acker Bilk, and now associate it with long car trips. I also associate it with elevator/waiting room music.
I’m not familiar with Stay Away From Me Baby, but I’m guessing it’s this one, by Larry Bryant:
But Paul Jennings has chosen these ‘grandpa’ tunes for a reason. The third song is a childlike tune, and juxtaposed against those first two, creates humour. Do kids still know this song? I’d say all kids of the 1980s know it.
STORYWORLD OF “LIGHTHOUSE BLUES”
Both setting and era-of-publication are important for “Lighthouse Blues”.
Paul Jennings grew up in an era with lighthouse keepers, or ‘wickies’, as they were often known. Here in Australia, the majority of lighthouse keepers became redundant in the early 1980s, just a few years before Jennings published this short story.
With the advent of satellite navigation and automation of many functions, lighthouses were deactivated in 1983 and no more keepers were employed.
Even when lighthouse keepers existed, we have long associated lighthouses with loneliness:
While the image of the lonesome keeper, trudging the stairs up the light tower all through the long wind-swept nights is partially true, many keepers had families who lived with them. They moved from lighthouse to lighthouse around the coast. Together the families worked, played, taught their kids, grew their own food and even made their own home brew.
Apart from the symbolism, islands remain very useful to storytellers because a character stuck on an island cannot easily escape. Oppositional characters are thrown together, and this creates an extra layer of conflict. Not all islands are actual, literal islands, in the ocean. A small town in the middle of nowhere can also function as an island. A hotel in the middle of a massive blizzard is an island. Various kinds of heterotopias (or ‘heterotopies’) can be used as symbolic islands. The island itself is a heterotopia (Foucault’s terminology) because the rules there are different. The island is therefore a perfect setting for a ghost story. Anything might happen.
Anton’s problem is that he can hear ghosts but can’t see them. His ‘problem’ is initially more of a mystery to be solved.
Notice that in stories, opposition is introduced at the same time (or instead of) a mystery.
Anton wants to find out why he’s hearing music.
When Anton learns the lighthouse will be unmanned, he wants to fight to keep it manned.
The ghosts are the supernatural opposition, for frightening Anton.
But the big, bad outside opposition is the unseen, unnamed ‘they’ who want to shut down the lighthouse and turn it into an unmanned one.
Anton points out to the ghosts that playing music isn’t going to help them keep the lighthouse manned. This is a comic spin on the usual scary ghost story, because it contains logic. Ghost stories are about atmosphere, not logic. So humour derives from the juxtaposition of logic and a generally inexplicable scenario.
Playing music on Friday nights won’t stop them. We have to think of something else.
The ghosts can’t talk so they can’t formulate a plan together. But they start playing a well-known protest song.
(Pete Seeger’s version is quite moving. He sings ‘straight and gay together’, which was radical for 1966.)
Anton teaches the ghosts to come out during the day so that they can scare the wreckers. Jennings might have made the decision to keep their practice behind the scenes, and simply show the reader the scare.
But because the scare itself doesn’t have a twist, he made the decision to show us the ironic scene of a boy teaching ghosts as if he’s the teacher and they are his students. This is a hierarchy flip, and is therefore satisfying itself, especially for a young reader.
The wreckers are terrified when they see the floating instruments and hear their music.
We’ll Meet Again is a classic wartime tune. When you consider how many young men hearing this song never saw their loved ones again, it’s very sad. (Yep, I also grew up listening to The Very Best of Vera Lynn.)
Well, that is just about the end of the story.
This marks a kind of epilogue. The story is not finished. A child and ghosts save the day. There’s a pyrrhic victory with Stan dead. But it’s not a complete story, yet.
In part 10 we learn that Anton has been made lighthouse keeper.
And Stan has joined his father and grandfather as a third ghost. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gqsT4xnKZPg
STORY STRUCTURE OF “SMART ICE CREAM”
Smart Ice Cream is an example of a very short story.
The story starts in the iterative and our narrator explains that he is smart and handsome. We deduce that he is full of himself.
The switch to the singulative starts with:
Last week something bad happened.
His problem is that another boy is getting the same high score as him at school and this affects his inflated self-esteem.
Later, he is revealed to be rude and vindictive.
He wants to solve a mystery: How did Jerome Dadian get so smart? He’s sure he cheated.
The ice-cream man, Mr Peppi.
The narrator plans to look inside Mr Peppi’s ice cream van to find out what’s going on. Legend has it, his green ice creams cure all sorts of ills. The hypothesis is that Jerome has been given ice cream to make him super smart.
There are some minor big struggles leading to the Anagnorisis. Those are the insults the narrator dishes out to his less fortunate classmates.
The Battle scene itself is a quiet one, in which the narrator breaks into the ice-cream van with a crow bar, then gets into the forbidden special ice creams.
The narrator has the following revelation:
I think I have made a mistake. I don’t think Dadian did get any Smart Ice Cream.
Meanwhile, the reader knows that ‘smart alec’ does not mean ‘smart’. I laugh in recognition at that, because when my daughter was very young I called her a smart alec and she took it as a great compliment.
The final paragraph is written in a dumbed-down style full of obvious spelling errors. The narrator is no longer smart. He’s not a smart alec, either. The truth is, he was probably never smart, just a braggart.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “WUNDERPANTS”
Though this story doesn’t include girls with speaking part, “Wunderpants” is a case study in how to foment disrespect for girls. Short answer: With femme phobia. There’s possibly a bit of homophobia too, though it’s subtle for a child audience:
The underpants felt strange. They made me tingle all over. And my head felt light. There was something not quite right about those underpants — and I am not talking about the fairies.
Aside from all that, this is a disjointed story. I suspect it was positioned last in the book because it is the least successful as a narrative.
David’s main problem is that he’s a victim in a hierarchy power play between boys. They all live in a macho system whereby the worst thing you can be is weak and girly.
But of course, that’s my take on it.
David wants to watch Mad Max 2 with ‘all the other kids’ but his mean dad won’t let him. He especially won’t let him after it’s revealed the narrator used his father’s toothbrush to brush his pet mouse.
After this, the desire line seems to change. The desire to go to the movies is a MacGuffin. Section one exists to introduce the mouse in a funny way, and to set up a bit of family context and empathy for the narrator, who gets up to funny pranks and hi-jinx.
This is really a story about a race, which symbolises the hierarchy between a community of boys.
So the overwhelming desire of David is to win a mouse race, in which he’ll earn a substantial amount of money.
David’s father is his first opponent for standing in the way of him going to see Mad Max 2.
Scrag Murphy is the child opponent. “The meanest kid in town”, literally. (Jennings makes use of the cliche to draw a quick character sketch.) We’re told he’s carrying too much weight to run in the race (though he does manage to run away with the underpants). The fat kid bully is a common character from the 1980s. Now it seems fat phobic. But it did convey something important, perhaps — that bullying is a network of transferred abuses, and the fat kid bully has no doubt been bullied himself. Scrag is likely to beat the narrator in the mouse race because he has the fastest mouse. He speeds his mouse a special diet.
Now the mother becomes the opponent. She’s made a pair of pink underpants from fairy fabric and insists David wear them. (I do find myself thinking “Why doesn’t he just… take them off without his mother knowing. The last thing you want is for the reader to think “Why doesn’t the character just”.)
Pete, the best friend, becomes a temporary opponent by laughing his head off at David’s pink underwear.
There’s no real plan — David remembers it’s cross country day. On the way to school he discovers the pink pants give him super strength. This is supposed to be funny because pink means girly, and girly is the opposite of strong. But it only works as a joke if you believe that about girls in the first place.
David is winning the race by a long shot, so in a Hare and the Tortoise scene, he decides to have a swim in the lake, waiting for the others to catch up.
In a slapstick farce, David’s clothes are stolen by Scrag. He is forced to make his way home naked. On his way, his nakedness disgusts an old lady. (Girls’ naked bodies = appealing; boys’ naked bodies = disgusting in this kind of humour.)
David gets into trouble and also prepares his mouse for the big day.
The Battle is the mouse race itself, in which mice behave like greyhounds or horses (rather than actual mice).
The reader learns in the last sentence that David’s mouse is wearing the little underpants. That’s what gives the mouse strength.
For David, this is a victory. He has won against his main opponent.