Birds occupy a special place in children’s stories, as they do in the Bible, in folklore and in fairytales. Are they good or are they evil? No other creature has so successfully been both, equally. If you’re writing a children’s story, you can do what you like with birds.
BIRDS IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
Remember that dove which Noah sent out, to see if the waters had subsided elsewhere? Everyone knows of that dove, because we see it depicted in art holding an olive leaf in its beak. Less memorable, for me at least, is the raven. Remember that? Noah sent out the raven first but it never came back. He only sent that dove out a week later. When he sent the dove out again and it didn’t come back this time, he knew waters had subsided enough for the bird to find somewhere on land.
I wonder what was supposed to have happened to that raven. Ravens today are super smart birds. I think maybe the raven was smarter than the dove and found dry land more easily. That’ why it never came back!
There’s more to this literary symbolism, of course. The raven is black and that dove is white. Ravens = bad, doves = peace. This is seen over and over again throughout our history of storytelling.
The Old Testament is all about ‘clean’ birds versus ‘dirty’ ones. When Noah gets off the ark he thanks God for the clean birds he took onto the ark with him. What’s the difference between a clean bird and a dirty bird? (Okay, ‘unclean’.) Dirty birds eat carrion. The clean birds mostly have a diet of grain, fruits, and vegetation. Humans are safer when eating ‘clean’ birds than birds who eat dead meat themselves — less chance of getting sick. However, when all the birds of the Old Testament are taken as a group, there is no clear-cut line we can draw between a clean and an unclean one. To our modern taxonomies, some of the birds on the unclean list seem a bit random.
Once upon a time there was a green valley, with a hundred farmhouse windows shining across the meadows. People were happy and prosperous there, but as the years went by the land grew poor. Many farmers left the valley for the town.
In the “King Ramses’ Curse” episode of Courage the Cowardly Dog we have three plagues — since storytelling loves The Rule Of Three — and the plagues comprise a mixture of ancient and comically modern curses.
This horror comedy for children takes inspiration from ancient holy texts such as found in the Bible and in the Quran.
In the Bible we have The Ten Biblical Plagues, also known as The Plagues of Egypt.
In the Quran there is also mention of a plague and it’s pretty similar except it happens all at once.
STORY STRUCTURE OF KING RAMSES’ CURSE
Muriel and Eustace are obliviously going on with their lives inside their house in the middle of Nowhere.
You’ve probably heard of foreshadowing, but have you heard of back-shadowing and side-shadowing? These techniques have nothing to do with each other, other than that they all describe literary techniques and they all include ‘shadowing’ in the term.
That said, each of these devices demonstrates a way of displacing the idea of temporal linearity in fiction.
Foreshadowing is a literary device in which an author drops subtle hints about plot developments to come later in the story.
Compare with ‘telegraphing’, which is basically foreshadowing done in an overly heavy-handed way. In this case, the readers are able to predict what is about to happen, even though the author doesn’t want them to.
By the way, the film industry equivalent is the ‘flashing arrow’. A flashing arrow is a metaphorical audiovisual cue used in films to bring some object or situation that will be referred later, or otherwise used in the advancement of plot, to the attention of the viewers. This technique is parodied in the 1981 film Student Bodies, which literally makes use of a flashing arrow to ‘telegraph’ to the audience that when the vulnerable young woman alone opened the front door, she forgot to lock it again.
Unlike telegraphing, foreshadowing is a useful and necessary technique. Foreshadowing is one thing that distinguishes story from real life.
We find instances of foreshadowing in literature where we would not suspect it in real life, because nothing in a story lacks a purpose, or it wouldn’t be there. (See Chekov’s Gun.) Events in real life cannot be foreshadowed. This makes foreshadowing a specifically literary construction.
Importantly, foreshadowing is visible only to the reader, not to the characters.
In picture books, foreshadowing can happen in the illustrations. For example, the drawing of the Wild Thing at the bottom of the stairs in Where The Wild Things Are. Upon second reading, the reader knows that Max has been creating these wild things in his imagination.
What is foreshadowing used for?
Foreshadowing gives the feeling that everything in a story is ‘tied-together’, and provides a sense of closure and satisfaction at the end of a story or scene. This technique helps avoid the feeling of deus ex machina, which is the feeling that something has suddenly swooped in to save the day (originally God, and in children’s literature, notoriously, an adult).
Foreshadowing provides the re-reader with extra insight.
Foreshadowing can add dramatic tension by building anticipation about future events. It can also help build a creepy/suspenseful atmosphere.
When added up, the details of foreshadowing can help the reader with verisimilitude, which is ironic, since foreshadowing doesn’t really happen in real life.
Backshadowing is the technique of inserting commentary into the present narrative that refers to earlier narrative events. For example, in a story a child living in present-day Germany discovers that she is a descendent of a war criminal. In order for such a narrative to make sense, the reader has to know something about Germany and the world wars. The author’s narration fills in the gaps.
Backshadowing is visible to readers as well as to characters — everyone knows what happened, and the story rests upon this shared schema. Neither narrator nor narratee is in superior or inferior position.
What is backshadowing used for?
Many historians and writers of historical fiction employ backshadowing of real-world historical events because the reader already has a schema. For example, the holocaust might be used as a setting in a romance novel to allow the writer to spend time on the characters and plot. This can be problematic.
In his book Foregone Conclusions: Against Apocalyptic History, author Michael Bernstein criticises authors who use their own and their audience’s knowledge of an apocalyptic event which occurs after the epoch about which they are writing to interpret the actions of their real or imaginary characters. Bernstein’s problem with backshadowing is that this technique encourages a reader to believe in determinism— that whatever happened in the past led inevitably to the present we know.
Related to this usage of ‘backshadowing’ is the cognitive bias ‘chronocentrism’, which is the natural human tendency to see one’s own time/era/generation as more special than others.
Another, completely different use of the word backshadowing: starting a story with its ending, then shifting back to the beginning with the reader in full knowledge of the outcome but no idea how it all happened. This allows the writer to use a climactic event as a hook, drawing the reader in immediately with the promise that something big and interesting happens. It’s a subcategory of a flashback. In a plot shaped like this, the character is likely to interpret their own current (fictional) reality according to whatever happened in the past. In first person narratives where the character is the storyteller, the very act of storytelling becomes the main focus rather than the events themselves — the narrator’s main role is ‘artist’.
Side-shadowing is used to present alternative scenarios to the reader. Side-shadowing is about possibility.
We are naturally inclined to imagine alternative realities. One thing you may notice about being middle aged is the tendency to look at the people you grew up with and compare their lives to your own, imagining that if you’d made those same decisions, you’d have that life over there. Tim Kreider calls this comparison “The Referendum”. He also describes a sort of real life side-shadowing:
One of the hardest things to look at is the life we didn’t lead, the path not taken, potential left unfulfilled. In stories, those who look back—Lot’s wife, Orpheus—are irrevocably lost. Looking to the side instead, to gauge how our companions are faring, is a way of glancing at a safer reflection of what we cannot directly bear, like Perseus seeing the Gorgon safely mirrored in his shield. It’s the closest we can get to a glimpse of the parallel universe in which we didn’t ruin that relationship years ago, or got that job we applied for, or made that plane at the last minute. So it’s tempting to read other people’s lives as cautionary fables or repudiations of our own, to covet or denigrate them instead of seeing them for what they are: other people’s lives, island universes, unknowable.
— Tim Kreider, We Learn Nothing
But of course, we don’t call this side-shadowing. We only call it something when it happens in literature. Often, it’s extremely sad.
In another essay Kreider writes:
One of the most pitiable things about Joseph Merrick, the “Elephant Man,” was his undisfigured arm–“a delicately shaped limb covered with fine skin and provided with a beautiful hand which any woman might have envied”–a glimpse of the man he was meant to be, all but smothered inside the aspect of a monster.
— Tim Kreider, “Bad People”, We Learn Nothing
What is sideshadowing?
A character or narrator posits a series of possible/hypothetical/imaginary events which never have any consequences in the story.
What is sideshadowing used for?
Sideshadowing draws attention to the possibility that other paths could have been taken. Sideshadowing suggests to a reader that one must grasp what else might have happened in order to fully understand an event.
The technique suggests to readers that time is not a fatalistic line but a shifting set of possibilities.
Sideshadowing suggests that nothing can be wrapped up neatly, if at all.
In other words, sideshadowing is used to give a contrasting illumination to the ‘real’ event.
While foreshadowing makes the present and future seem inevitable, sideshadowing emphasises the contingency of the present.
Sideshadowing points outside the narrative, deliberately suggesting to the reader that more things might be going on than what’s expressed in the narrative.
In children’s literature, an example of sideshadowing can be found in Johnny, My Friend:
Let’s turn the clock back, Johnny! […] We’ll take the Alternative where […] you can have a home, Johnny, not just a bit of a smelly monster’s den, and a name, Johnny, you can have an English mum and a Swedish dad and a French sister, and me as a brother, and regular pocket money […]
This is a character visualising a series of alternative events that never happened in the story. (See Maria Nikolajeva’s From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature.)
Ann Dee Ellis uses sideshadowing in her 2017 novel You May Already Be A Winner. Here the narrator describes reuniting with her little sister after the little sister got lost. Notice the shift in mood from indicative to the subjunctive mood: ‘would’.
When I came in, I thought she’d run to me. I thought she’d cry and I’d cry and we’d hug and then I’d tell her I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.
And then she’d hit me. And it wouldhurt but then we would hug and Jane the social worker and all her coworker social workers would say, “Now there’s some sisters who stick together.”
But instead, when I walked in, Berkeley didn’t look up.
I said, “Berkeley!”
And she and the boy started laughing about something.
The purpose of this is almost metafictional. Or perhaps it’s the inverse of metafictional, attempting to persuade the reader that we are not reading a story at all, but that this is the real world. In this example of side shadowing, the author describes a sort of melodrama we have in our heads about how stories goes. But because the ‘reality’ within the world of the story ironically differs from the narrative Olivia has in her head, we are reminded as readers that stories are not like the real world (even though we are actually reading a story at this very moment).
Later in the story, Ann Dee Ellis writes:
Just then, a lady collapsed. And I gave her CPR. And everyone cheered.
No I didn’t. I never do anything.
In this case the idealistic first person narrator shows us how imaginative she is, and how she aspires to be better.
In the YA novel We Were Liars, e. lockhart uses side-shadowing when Cadence jumps from a cliff into the ocean:
I wonder if there’s another variation in which Johnny is hurt, his legs and back crushed against the rocks. We can’t call emergency services and we have to paddle back to the kayak with his nerves severed. By the time we helicopter him to the hospital on the mainland, he’s never going to walk again.
Or another variation, in which I don’t go with the Liars in the kayaks at all. I let them push me away. They keep going places without me and telling me small lies. We grow apart, bit by bit, and eventually our summer idyll is ruined forever.
It seems to me more than likely that these variations exist.
Lionel Shriver constructs an entire plot around sideshadowing in several of her novels: Big Brother and The Post-Birthday World. This is known as a sliding-doors plot, from the movie Sliding Doors (1998).
Chekov was a fan of sideshadowing in his short stories.
In Russia, Dostoyevsky was no stranger to sideshadowing, either. Might be a Russian thing, because Tolstoy does it too.
And Alice Munro is also a fan, for example in “Queenie“, when a woman wonders what happened to her estranged step-sister after she got into a coercively controlling relationship as a young woman.
Munro showcases various ways of doing it. In “Passion”, a paragraph begins: ‘But this was the thing that had not happened’. This lets us know that the previous paragraph was a sideshadow for what might have been. Now we hear how sex with her future husband really was. (Not romantic as she had hoped, for she has fallen in love with his family rather than with him.) In the same story, Munro achieves sideshadowing in another way: An elderly point-of-view character is looking back and isn’t sure which is a real memory and which is imagined:
As a matter of fact, she does not know, to this day, if those words were spoken or if he only caught her…
— Alice Munro, “Passion”
See also Cheever’s short story called Just One More Time, in which the final scene is an example of sideshadowing, because the reader doesn’t know if it really happened.
Ever since God punished Adam, Eve and the serpent for eating from that tree we have been banished from Paradise. Compared to Paradise, this toiling, this painful childbirth, these thistles and weeds growing up through our crops are considered part of this Earthly dystopia — a temporary punishment before taking up residence in Paradise once more in the after life.
If not taken literally by so many today, Earth as a dystopian setting was certainly more literal for earlier peoples from the major religious traditions.
Although dystopia seems to be the opposite of idyll, it has in fact the same purpose: to conserve the children–as well as adults–in an innocent, unchanging state, comfortably freed from memories, emotions, affections, responsibilities–and from natural death. Breaking away from a safe and secluded dystopian society, children break out into linearity.
— Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature
Nikolajeva goes on to explain that quite a few authors depict a reverse process, and offers A Cry from the Jungle by Norwegian author Tormod Haugen as an example of an ‘extremely complicated and equivocal novel.’
Features Of Dystopian Fiction
Characters in a dystopian plot start from a position of slavery.
If the land, people, and technology are out of balance, everyone is out for himself, each is reduced to an animal clawing for scarce resources or a cog working for the greater good of a machine. This is a world of slavery and, taken to its extreme, a dystopia, or hell on earth.
In dystopian novels, the protagonist usually rebels against the status quo by exposing its flaws, escaping the world entirely, attempting to take it over, or initiating a new set of rules.
Dystopian novels become difficult to classify because they often take place after a large societal restructuring, usually because of a global event. In this way they might seem post-apocalyptic, but when the conflict of a novel focuses on the oppression of a government or set of ideas, rather than the direct consequences of a wide-spread tragedy, it is dystopian.
Dystopian novels often focus on societies and cultures that appear stable and well established, whereas post-apocalyptic cultures are more imbalanced or volatile.
A Brief History Of Dystopia
The first public usage of the word ‘dystopia’ goes all the way back to John Stuart Mill in 1868. In a speech to the House of Commons, Mill said, “It is, perhaps, too complimentary to call them Utopians, they ought rather to be called dys-topians, or caco-topians” (‘cacotopia’ was relegated to the Wastepaper Basket of History). But it wasn’t until about 50 years afterward, when authors made the word their own, that the idea of dystopia began to actually take root in the public consciousness.
According to a new report, Australian kids are feeling pessimistic about their own futures, and this goes against all evidence. Australian kids should be feeling pretty good about the future, according to one expert.
Key points from the radio interview:
Youth unemployment has been higher in the past, and is reflecting that it takes time to find their way into the job market, as unemployment goes down as job seekers get older. This is reflected in other countries. Southern European unemployment rates for youth (especially Southern Italy and Spain) is much more bleak.
Why are young Australian people pessimistic? It is thought that young Australians have unrealistic expectations about what to expect from a first job. In Brazil, China and countries like that have youth with lower expectations and are therefore more optimistic.
Older people need to tell young people what their own paths to success have been.
The media also has a part to play. We’ve seen processing plants closing down, but we don’t see the steady flow of new job opportunities coming through the news. The small trickle more than offsets the big closures. (Audiences are after bad news, and the media cater to that.)
The number of law graduates each year far exceeds the number of places available. Law is ‘the new arts degree’. It’s true that law graduates are still useful in the workplace even if they are not practising law, but are young law students given a realistic idea about what percentage of graduates will find jobs as lawyers? Law graduates are not expensive to produce for universities. It’s book learning so they are cheap to train. Universities are following a good economic pattern, but at what cost for the 18 year olds enrolling in these degrees, which are quite expensive for them? (Or perhaps law students are more expensive to train than we assume.)
IT students are equally pessimistic as law students. Private providers are competing with the universities in IT, moving into computer science, which is quite distinct from being able to program. The ability to successfully adapt different technologies in work environments, they are the crucial skills. Just being able to code in a particular language isn’t much use. Australia is good at having the bright idea and being able to adapt the bright idea in a business context.
Where is the pessimism coming from? The negativity from politicians doesn’t help. Universities haven’t been very good at making their graduates work-ready.
We need to change the nature of internships and cadetships, which currently accept large numbers of graduates but at the end of that period only one in sixty (for example in finance) will be offered a job at the end of it. This turns the whole thing into a bit of a waste of time for the other 59. Internships need to go hand-in-hand with study. Companies need to work more closely with degree programs to prepare students for the workforce.
Where else might youth pessimism be coming from? Is it limited to ‘pessimism about work’ or pessimism about the environment, politics and society in general? Could youth pessimism also be to do with the stories that are popular for young people? Today’s young people have grown up in the Third Golden Age of Children’s Literature, and this is an age rife with dystopias. There have been so many dystopias in fiction that if you listen to what agents and publishers are looking for in the kidlit-o-sphere you’ll hear a lot of publishing professionals say they are sick to death of them and are looking for something completely different.
Here in Australia, parallel importing and the Hollywood trend of adapting best-selling YA books to film has changed the Australian reading landscape over the past 15 years to point where the top-selling books are mainly from America.
Insofar as best-selling books corresponds to library lending rates (which are very easy to find), here are Australia’s library lending stats for YA last year:
The most borrowed young adult fiction titles were:
1. Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins (American/science fiction adventure)
2. Divergent series by Veronica Roth (American/science fiction adventure)
3. The Fault in our Stars by John Green (American/romance)
4. The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak (Australian/Holocaust)
5. Looking for Alaskaby John Green (American/romance)
6. Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan (American/fantasy adventure)
7. The Maze Runner by James Dashner (American/science fiction)
8. Every Breath by Ellie Marney (Australian/thriller)
9. An Abundance of Katherines by John Green (American/romance)
10. Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare (American/fantasy adventure)
Ms McKerracher said: ‘Teen borrowers from Australian libraries were looking for a blend of escapism and realism. Gritty romances, fantasy and adventure were the main themes, with all but two of the list coming from American writers.’
An apocalyptic novel tells the story of the end of the world, which occurs during the timeline of the story. The novels Outbreak and World War Z, or the movie Contagion, are good examples. In almost all apocalyptic stories life is threatened on a global scale: disease, natural disaster, war, or alien invasion, for example. The characters facing an apocalypse must try to outlive, outlast, or outsmart the hazards of a crumbling world, which is made increasingly unlikely when the majority of the population has fallen victim. It is common for apocalyptic novels to classify as “genre,” because the survival conflict is at the forefront of the story, making apocalyptic stories more plot driven than character based.
After the zombies or super flu or nuclear war, the characters left to deal with the consequences are in a post-apocalyptic story. There are numerous examples: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, I Am Legend, and the recent Station Eleven, The Dog Stars, and The Dead Lands all tell stories about people navigating a new and hostile world. The central conflict for characters in a post-apocalyptic story is managing the new physical, social, and cultural landscape left behind by a recent disaster. There are often fewer people and less established societies in post-apocalyptic novels, so the central conflict in these stories surrounds characters who are often fighting for resources or searching for other survivors.
What Is Cli-fi?
It wasn’t until I’d got to the end of writing and illustrating Midnight Feast that this article appeared in The Guardian: Global Warming And The Rise Of Cli-Fi. I realised that what I’d written was a picturebook contribution to cli-fi.
a sub-genre of sci-fi in which the earth’s systems are ‘off-kilter’
sci-fi takes place in a dystopian future, whereas cli-fi is set in a dystopian present
Describes works which set out to warn readers of possible environmental nightmares to come
The best cli-fi novels allow us to be briefly but intensely frightened: climate chaos is closer, more immediate, hovering over our shoulder like that murderer wielding his knife.
Unlike sci-fi, cli-fi writing comes primarily from a place of warning rather than discovery.
What do you think would happen in a globally warmed globe? Do you envision a Cormac McCarthy sort of apocalypse with bands of humans turning evil? In fiction, this is pretty much a given. Could there be a brighter view?
Our own storybook app Midnight Feast is kind of cli-fi (if you like). Another storybook app which is more overtly about climate change is this one. Jörgitsis iPad-only.