All Summer in a Day is a short story by American writer Ray Bradbury, first published in 1954. Find it in Ray Bradbury Stories Vol. 1. It’s interesting to see how science fiction evolves alongside our increased understanding of other planets. “All Summer In A Day” is a story of its time, written in an era when people believed Venus probably looked like a jungle.Continue reading “All Summer in a Day by Ray Bradbury”
The Hundred Dresses is a middle grade American novel by Eleanor Estes, first published 1944. I consider this story a children’s literature sister of Katherine Mansfield’s short story “The Doll’s House“. The Hundred Dresses remains resonant with young readers today, and is happily still in print after winning a Newbery Honor. (The medal was awarded to Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson that year.)
The Hundred Dresses is illustrated by Louis Slobodkin in his usual loose watercolour and sketchy style. Slobodkin was a good choice, since he shared in common with fictional Wanda Petronski a non-Anglo last name in a more overtly racist era — a rare #OwnVoices before #OwnVoices was a thing.
THE HUNDRED DRESSES AND ME
I was 10 years old when my Year 6 teacher read us The Hundred Dresses. He said, “I normally read this book when I suspect bullying problems. I don’t think there are problems like this going on in this class, but I’m going to read it anyway.” I immediately wondered if he knew what was going on.
After he’d read The Hundred Dresses, I knew he had seen what was going on. He’d seen at least some of it. I knew it was a little about me.
This was the eighties. The ‘Mean Girl’ group started up in full force that year. The Mean Girls themselves were victims in a system which requires women and girls to look a certain way. They wore tan coloured pantyhose under their short skirts, even on hot days, because suntans were in fashion. There was a hierarchy regarding who had the most ear piercings. Some of the piercings extended right up into the painful cartilage area of their ten-year-old ears. They tied their hair in a whale spout fountain.
I wasn’t one of those girls. Unlike in Estes’ book, this wasn’t about socioeconomic status. Our hierarchy was a kind of rich-poor inversion. These girls with the piercings and the whale spouts had the most permissive parents. They rode their bikes around the neighbourhood all evening in summer, unsupervised. Their families didn’t seem to have much money. The girls somehow found cash for pantyhose and stud earrings. But when they learned I’d been enrolled in karate (they turned up one evening on their bikes and peered through the dojo — classroom — window), they expressed their envy the following day. “How long have you been doing karate?” they asked, envious, because The Karate Kid was new out. I felt little bad for them then. Extra curricular activities were for ‘rich’ kids, like me. If my parents seemed rich to them it was because my folks were so very careful about money.
Case in point: The school photographer was bad at his job. He took a portrait of me with my eyes closed. I carried it home feeling the utmost shame. You weren’t supposed to blink for photos and I had been bad. Film was expensive. You were supposed to stare at the camera with a smile affixed to your face. If your eyes were closed it was all your fault. My mother was dismissive, borderline disgusted. “I’m not paying five dollars for that,” she said. “You can take it right back.”
Masking my shame, I had to return the stupid photo to school. The worst of it was, I was smiling as directed. Grinning with my eyes closed, I looked like a simpleton. I placed the portrait discreetly upon the teacher’s desk. But I was the only kid in the class whose parents didn’t pay the five bucks for their portrait. The teacher said nothing, thank goodness. But that afternoon, the girl with the most elaborate fountain of ponytail cornered me near my box. (We had boxes, not individualistic desks — our teacher was a Rudolph Steiner type). She said, “I know why your mum didn’t buy your photo. You’re too ugly.”
My mother did pay for the class photo, though not for the portrait. I don’t look at it much. Then, last year, as most of my class turned 40, someone tagged me in it on Facebook. It struck me how similar my ten-year-old self looked to that nasty girl with the most flamboyant fountain ponytail. Same height, same build, same freckled face. By any measure, our ten-year-old selves are identical on glossy paper. If this were fiction, she’d be my foil character.
Back in 1988, I believed what this identical-looking classmate said about me. To clarify, I knew ugliness had not been the reason my mother sent the photo back. But I suspected this girl was right, in a general way, about ‘ugly’. I had no piercings and a bad haircut, not quite long enough to tie up. I looked kind of like a boy (by design, actually). I was the youngest in my year. I (gladly) hadn’t hit puberty. I wore homemade, practical athletic clothes, sewn with love, if not by fashion, by my auntie who owned an overlocker and sold polar fleece jumpers at the Saturday Morning Market. These clothes were great for running around in, and when I wasn’t reading Ramona Quimby in the school library, I ran around a lot. But elastic is a precious resource, so my track pants featured two stripes instead of the superfluous Adidas triple, which marked the apex of Year 6 status at that time.
I wonder if our teacher overheard that insult by the boxes when he decided to read The Hundred Dresses to our class. He could’ve heard any number of others.
I do wonder what that girl is doing now. I’ll never know, because nobody tagged her in our class photo 30 years later. I left the town after Year Six, because my father was transferred to the city. I didn’t attend high school with that cohort, and had spent only two years with them in total. So I was surprised anyone remembered my name to tag me in a photo. I’d aimed for invisible.
Back in Year Six, Marie was the opposite of invisible. Fast forward three decades, I wonder if anyone else remembers her name at all.
THE HUNDRED DRESSES AND HUMAN PSYCHOLOGY
WOMEN OBSESSED OVER WOMEN
Lately, lots of people are talking about the highly promoted TV series Killing Eve, which features a woman increasingly obsessed with another woman. The BBC’s Woman’s Hour podcast discussed other similar dynamics in fiction (at 31 minutes)and I thought immediately of Hundred Dresses as the children’s book equivalent of:
- Eve and Villanelle in Killing Eve
- Mrs Danvers in Rebecca
- Barbara in Notes On A Scandal
- Three women all obsessed with each other in The Favourite (2018)
- The Bostonians by Henry James
- Many French novels, usually set in school, usually someone younger who becomes obsessed.
- Sarah Waters does it beautifully in Affinity and The Paying Guests
- The Woman Upstairs by Clare Messud
- The Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante
- Sleep With Me features a character who inspires obsession in others
- All About Eve (1950)
- Black Swan
In each of these stories there’s a possessive charge between each of these women and their objects, whether that’s sexual, intellectual or whatever. It’s about owning a piece of another person.
Why do audiences respond so well to this dynamic?
- Despite all the examples above, we don’t see it all that often. There’s a current trend of writing ‘strong women’ who support each other. These stories are necessary too, but there are also conniving, devious, treacherous women. Audiences want to see all kinds of dynamic, not just the idealised ones.
- The male gaze is default in narrative, so watching a woman gaze at another woman feels refreshing in a different kind of maybe-feminist way.
- This kind of relationship is about identity and self-lack and not necessarily about the object in the way the gazer thinks it is. So the nature of the gaze is different. It’s turned inward.
- In the past, authors have hidden behind the male gaze. Willa Cather is one example. (Cather wrote “Paul’s Case“.)
- Women’s lust for power is rarely represented. It’s a new take on power dynamics. In the past it was more of a ‘woman catfight’.
- The woman with the obsession is lacking something in her own life. She watches another woman from the sidelines, fascinated.
- There’s a freedom that comes from watching another woman have the courage to do all the things you want to do yourself.
- We rarely see two female leads on screen unless it’s this dynamic.
I have seen literary agents who represent young adult fiction lament the huge number of submissions they get about the viewpoint character best friend looking on at the life of the cool, interesting, sparky best friend. This probably speaks to a common pitfall for writers — both characters must be equally interesting in their own right.
DEHUMANISATION IN THE HUNDRED DRESSES
We view minorities and the vulnerable as less than human. One striking example of this blatant dehumanisation came from a brain-scan study that found a small group of students exhibited less neural activity associated with thinking about people when they looked at pictures of the homeless or of drug addicts, as compared with higher-status individuals. Another study showed that people who are opposed to Arab immigration tended to rate Arabs and Muslims as literally less evolved than average. Among other examples, there’s also evidence that young people dehumanise older people; and that men and women alike dehumanise drunk women. What’s more, the inclination to dehumanise starts early – children as young as five view out-group faces (of people from a different city or a different gender to the child) as less human than in-group faces.The Bad News On Human Nature, Aeon
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE HUNDRED DRESSES
Many children’s stories (as well as stories for adults) begin in the iterative and switch to the singulative. The Hundred Dresses feels slightly unusual for its time because it begins from the very first word, in the singulative:
Today, Monday, Wanda Petronski was not in her seat.
Then, in small chunks, we get the iterative:
Usually Wanda sat in the next to the last seat in the last row in Room 13…
Wanda is ‘very quiet and rarely said anything at all. And nobody had ever heard her laugh out loud.’
‘She came all the way from Boggins Heights, and her feet were usually caked with dry mud that she picked up coming down the country roads. […] No one really thought much about Wanda Petronski’.
For everyone, the deep desire is identical — to have as much social capital as possible.
In a story there have to be outworkings. For Wanda, it’s the desire to have everyone believe that she has more than the one worn dress in her closet.
For Peggy and Maddie, it’s the Desire to have friends who are truthful and transparent, and in order to achieve this end they must ostracise those who they feel don’t follow the moral code of their community. They have been taught that lying is wrong; they will therefore punish liars. Since they are girls, they aren’t allowed to be outright mean, so they will do this is in a nasty-nice way.
Old Man Svenson is set up as the potential Baddie in this story.
People in the town said old man Svenson was no good. He didn’t work and, worse still, his house and yard were disgracefully dirty, with rusty tin cans strewn about and even an old straw hat. He lived alone with his dog and his cat.
But we’re all used to the classic Girl Opposition, which contains archetypes:
- The popular pretty girl (Peggy)
- Her sidekick (Maddie) Is the narrator Maddie? The narrator has excellent insight into Maddie’s head — she feels guilty for being a bystander to ostracism.
- The unpopular girl (Wanda)
- Various other by-standers
Peggy was the most popular girl in school. She was pretty; she had many pretty clothes and her auburn hair was curly. Maddie was her closest friend.
A Hundred Dresses remains a standout book because of its treatment of bullying, as a system rather than a good kid, bad kid dichotomy, which is not how bullying works:
Peggy was not really cruel. She protected small children from bullies. And she cried for hours if she saw an animal mistreated. If anybody had said to her, “Don’t you think that is a cruel way to treat Wanda?” she would have been very surprised. Cruel? What did the girl want to go and say she had a hundred dresses for? Anybody could tell that was a lie. Why did she want to lie? And she wasn’t just an ordinary person, else why would she have a name like that? Anyway, they never made her cry.
Readers will likely sympathise with Peggy a little, or a lot. After all, Wanda appears to be a liar. If Magritte were about, he would say “This is not a dress.” (It is a picture of a dress.) It is a little baffling why Wanda won’t say that her dresses are pictures — this is lampshaded at the beginning with the description that she doesn’t say much. Her laconic way of speaking seems to preclude her from uttering the simple words “I have drawings of pictures.”
ENEMY VS NEMESIS
There is a kind of rivalry, as mentioned above, which is a more like a love-hate relationship. I appreciate what Roxane Gay has to say about the distinction between an ‘enemy’ and a ‘nemesis’. We tend to love our nemeses as much as we hate them:
There are many famous nemeses both real and imagined — Batman and the Joker, Superman and Lex Luthor, Professor X and Magneto, Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, Eve and Villanelle.
The most important thing to remember is that the rivalry must be tended to, nurtured. It is an eternal flame, the heat of which can warm you during dark times.
An enemy is a nuisance but a nemesis is someone for whom you harbor an abiding, relentless dislike. A nemesis must be a worthy adversary. It is far too easy for someone completely odious to be a nemesis. People often ask if, for example, the President is my nemesis but that would absolutely be beneath me. Envy is certainly part of having a nemesis but it is not quite jealousy because generally you and your nemesis are equals in some way, even if you are the only person who believes that to be true. A nemesis can give you purpose, can hone your ambition. What I am saying is that having a nemesis is motivational.The Pleasure of Clapping Back, Gay Mag
But the way Eleanor Estes structures it: The opposition is kept as the final big reveal.
When there is a drawing competition at school Wanda takes this opportunity to reveal that the dresses are drawings of dresses. She enters every image into the competition.
After Wanda leaves the character focus shifts to Peggy and Maddie. Because they feel bad, their plan is to write a letter to Wanda as a friendly gesture. This will assuage their own guilt.
Wanda disappears. Her father says she has been bullied. The teacher gives the class a lecture. Wanda is basically the blow-in saviour trope, so now the Battle is internal, focusing on the psychology of Maddie. She feels guilt.
The first plot revelation is that Wanda was talking about dresses.
The second revelation is that Wanda drew the popular girls as models for her dresses.
What is not revealed is how the poor girl really feels about the rich one. Does Wanda genuinely admire Peggy? We are left thinking that, and as a child I did think that, but how does she feel, really?
I suspect this is a love-hate relationship from her side, and a nothing, you’re-less-than-nothing relationship from the other.
It is the rich girl who has the Anagnorisis — that even when you pay someone no mind, that doesn’t mean they feel the same about you. The moral? Treat everyone with respect, no matter how worthy you deem them. Everyone is worthy of your attention. Attention equals respect.
Peggy and Maddie have learned to be less passive aggressive in future because they have learned that Wanda is a rounded individual with feelings rather than a figure of fun.
It’s the first day of school, and Ruby is new. When her classmate Angela wears a red bow in her hair, Ruby comes back from lunch wearing a red bow, too. When Angela wears a flowered dress, suddenly Ruby’s wearing one, too. Fortunately, Ruby’s teacher knows a better way to help Ruby fit in–by showing how much fun it is to be herself!
“Sucker” has been called Carson McCullers’ ‘apprentice story’. Written at the age of seventeen, she naturally demonstrated more sophisticated writing later on. “Sucker” was written in the mid 1930s and published for the public in 1963.
For a while, McCullers forgot she ever wrote this story. “Sucker” was uncovered in her trunk of papers by someone studying her corpus for a thesis. By this time she was an established author. She never wrote “Sucker” thinking it would be published, but it was the first story she was happy to share with her family. She had written it by hand then typed it out on her first typewriter.Significantly, McCullers still liked this story after it was unearthed, and even though she had clearly grown more sophisticated as a writer. Many writers look back on their early work and cringe. Eleanor Catton can no longer enjoy The Rehearsal, for instance, saying she no longer writes in that style.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “SUCKER”?
Sucker is the nickname of a gullible 12-year-old boy — symbolically nicknamed, of course. Later in the story, Sucker will lose this insulting nickname, which will signal the shift in power dynamics. Sucker idolises his older cousin, Pete, who is not very nice in return. They have grown up in the same house, more like brothers than cousins. The age of twelve is pretty magical, in storytelling and in real life — people change a lot around this time. And so does Sucker in this story. He realises that his cousin Pete is not a good role model.
NARRATION OF “SUCKER”
You might expect such a plot to have been written from Sucker’s point of view, but no. This is all narrated by the sixteen-year-old cousin and reads like a catharsis in which Pete wrestles with his feelings of being adored while adoring someone who ignores him. Shit travels down, as they say.
Although Pete is sixteen at the time the story takes place, he must have had a little time to process all of this by the time he’s written it down. Storyteller narrators are like that — the reason for writing the story is to learn something. In the act of writing itself, they learn something. The Anagnorisis in such a story therefore occurs throughout the entire plot, and you’ll typically find wise observations scattered throughout.
The arc of looking up to someone and then realising they’re not worth your effort is well explored in literature and film. Go back to Vladmir Propp, who listed the plot point in every single classic fairytale. (See step six, in which the main character is ‘tricked’ — often into trusting the untrustworthy Opponent.)
So McCullers made an excellent choice to examine this dynamic from the idol’s point of view. We hear less about the trials of being adored.
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF TRANSFERENCE
Shit travels down. That’s everyday speak for what psychologists call ‘transference‘. Freud came up with it. Transference describes a situation in which the feelings, desires, and expectations of one person are redirected and applied to another person.
In the case of “Sucker”, Pete is rejected by a girl he likes. So he deals with this highly uncomfortable feeling by rejecting his younger cousin in turn.
There are gender issues here, too. Boys, more than girls, are culturally conditioned to expect love and romance. Think of all those stories and computer games in which the ‘reward’ is a girl. Enter the teenage years. A few boys are so shocked to learn that a girl’s time and attention is not a god-given right that they feel a sense of injustice where they should simply feel sadness and disappointment.
Pete’s treatment of Sucker shows that he is trying to restore his own version of worldly justice by treating someone else as he has been treated.
Although Carson McCullers kept growing as an author, she demonstrated a preternaturally mature understanding of human psychology when she wrote “Sucker” at the age of seventeen. I can see why she always liked it.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “SUCKER”
Robert Phillips (1978) said of Carson McCullers’ characters that they seem fine on the surface but suffer from an “inner freaking-out”. They are “spiritual isolates of circumstance”. Themes of rejection (and unrequited love) are seen over and over, in both her novels and in her short stories. (Worth pointing out because the short stories are qualitatively different from the novels.)
Pete is at the mercy of his own feelings of unrequited love toward a girl at school called Maybelle. Because of the environment in which he’s been brought up, these uncomfortable feelings are expressed as a silent, inward rage which must come out. Since he doesn’t have access to Maybelle, the target is Sucker. Sucker’s admiration for Pete only reminds Pete of his own admiration for Maybelle. Pete therefore has a strong Moral Shortcoming, treating his cousin very badly.
Pete is uncomfortable with being admired. This is probably because he doesn’t especially admire himself. He describes himself as a poor student. He feels Sucker is very stupid for admiring him. Stupid people are annoying.
Pete wants to go out with Maybelle. This is the outworking of a deeper Desire — to be loved for all the right reasons — for being himself.
Maybelle is the romantic Opponent. Sucker is the proxy for the romantic opponent, since Maybelle is not there to heap shit on.
Proxy romantic partner is strongly suggested at various points — the boys share a bed; Sucker’s wrists look thin and white like girls’ wrists. Maybelle’s hands are similarly ‘little and white’. When Pete dreams of Maybelle, he hears Sucker’s voice — the characters become conflated. This is a kind of coitus uninterruptus trope.
Pete’s focus is on getting Maybelle to like him in return, so he uses his own money to take her out to the movies, tries to impress her and so on.
When Maybelle finally musters the courage to tell Pete she’s really not interested in him (I suspect she’s been trying to avoid hurting his feelings until now), Pete wakes up in the middle of the night squeezing Sucker’s arm really hard. Then he tells Sucker he’s never liked him, in a reenactment of what Maybelle has said to him.
By the time he narrates this tale, storyteller character Pete has already achieved the following wisdom: “If a person admires you a lot you despise him and don’t care… it is the person who doesn’t notice you that you are apt to admire”.
So how does the Anagnorisis phase work in a story like this, narrated by someone who has already had quite a few epiphanies, sprinkled like aphorisms throughout?
Basically, it comes much earlier. We are told of Pete’s Anagnorisis at the beginning, in fact.
But you could argue that Sucker is the main character of this story. For Sucker, the Anagnorisis comes in the expected place, right after the Battle. He realises Pete is not a worthy object of his affection and hardens up like the ‘man’ he is expected to be.
The reader can see that in the two or three months since this all happened, Pete has come to an understanding about how he treated Sucker badly. For him, the outcome isn’t bad. It’s doubtful he’ll do this exact thing to anyone else. He has started to call Sucker by his real name, Richard. This indicates a new respect. But the dynamics haven’t disappeared — they have been flipped. Now that Sucker doesn’t care about Pete, Pete suddenly cares quite a lot about Sucker.
It seems he hasn’t realised this yet, though the reader does. His Anagnorisis is only partial, as in all coming-of-age stories.
Pete has wreaked much damage upon the character of Sucker, who has found another target of his admiration, this time it’s a bad lot of kids who may get him into irreversible trouble.
Sometimes, in service of us learning a valuable lesson, we damage someone else.
Header image from this site.
This Country is a fly-on-the-wall mockumentary sitcom with two series so far (2017-2018). The story centers the misadventures of two cousins marooned in a small village in the Cotswolds. Most of their peers have moved on. Kerry and Kurtan are stuck in adolescence. They behave like typical Year 10s, despite being in their late 20s, early 30s.
Critics have said that the strength of this show is the ‘winning mix of heartfelt moments and punchy belly laughs’.
STYLE OF NARRATION
Mockumentary sitcoms are having a moment. The Office is perhaps what kicked it all off. (Charlie Cooper bears an uncanny resemblance to the character of Gareth Keenan.) Of course mockumentaries wouldn’t work unless TV were full of reality TV shows, which is actually what they’re mocking — not actual documentaries. Another favourite of mine is Wellington Paranormal from New Zealand.
Daisy and Charlie didn’t originally write This Country as a mockumentary — producers saw that it was suited to this format and made it a requirement.
How did the producers know? How were they so sure? I can only guess, but if done well, the mockumentary mocks not only the characters but also the audience. There are many pitfalls for documentary makers, namely:
- They sometimes forget about the larger world in which their project falls.
- Documentary filmmaking is often extractive, and offers nothing good back to its subjects.
The mockumentary is also relatively cheap to make, and This Country was made on such a limited budget that the a large proportion of the pilot had to be filmed in a single room with just two people.
THE URBAN/RURAL DIVIDE
The danger of setting a mockumentary in a rural area: Storytellers sometimes position their own commentary as superior.
It helps that This Country is very much an #ownvoices story — real life siblings Daisy May Cooper and Charlie Cooper created it, wrote it and also star in it. They come from the Cotswolds themselves; their friends and family appear as actors. Unlike, say, New Zealand’s comedy character Lyn of Tawa, Daisy and Charlie really do speak with the accents used by their fictional characters, the Mucklowe cousins.
Here is the Lyn of Tawa character speaking in a broad New Zealand accent:
But Ginette McDonald actually speaks like this. (The video requires you watch it on YouTube.)
If you’re a fellow New Zealander those two accents will sound quite distinct, though I’m not sure non-Kiwis will hear the difference. Ginette McDonald was playing the house-o character of Lyn of Tawa back in the 1980s, though I doubt her routine would be so well received now. It carries a whiff of classism.
In contrast, the Coopers grew up in precisely the socio-economic environment they recreated for This Country, and have said as much in interviews. I’m sure it’s part of the humble marketing spiel, but they say their characters are basically themselves. (Jemaine Clement has the same public persona, suggesting that he never acts, simply appears.)
Another way in which This Country avoids patronising small towns: The narration that appears as words on the screen at various points in the show will be obviously distancing e.g., ‘Studies show that young people in rural areas…’
Here is the opening scene:
These ‘facts’ (stereotypes) are all familiar to the audience — we’ve all seen the media reports on crime, lack of opportunity and obesity in rural areas. These authorial intrusions into the story of Kerry and Kurtan Mucklowe achieve the effect of poking fun at urban people who think we know all about rural life, but who glean the sum total of information second-hand, filtered by the unreliable media.
Poking fun both ways is quite a feat, given that the creations of Kerry and Kurtan exemplify these stereotypes exactly. Perhaps it depends partly on the audience to know that the lampoon goes both ways. (This is of course the danger of expecting a lot from your audience — an audience is equally capable of taking these stereotypes and running with them.)
CHARACTER WEB OF THIS COUNTRY
THE FECKLESS, NAIVE MAIN CHARACTER
Kerry Mucklowe, late twenties or early thirties. Thicc, loves her food.
She’s different from other female comedy characters – the focus is not on femininity. This is someone who is asexual, tomboyish, and the biggest unrequited love story is her relationship with her dad. She’s got nobody, and her life is a lot sadder than Kurtan’s. […] She’s so lost and is such a plodder, [Kurtan] feels a duty to look after her.Daisy May Cooper
The main characters of comedies are often feckless as their stand-out attribute. You wouldn’t trust them with anything. They’re victims of their own whims and can’t seem to control their baser instincts. While everyone else can see they exist near the bottom of the local social hierarchy, they will step on the few who exist below them — elderly and disabled people tend to cop their wrath the most. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EcQtilmZeU4
Kerry is very naive and insular. It would seem she’s never left her tiny Cotswold village. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=piXcsnA5cJ0
She is at times very stupid, but this is lovable because she doesn’t take herself seriously. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bISOmcPa0MA
This is in contrast to her cousin Kurtan, who has delusions of grandeur. She does have her own comedic mask, but it’s not about seeming smart — she attempts to seem dangerous. (By the end of the pilot episode this mask has already come off and she is revealed to be hapless and ignored rather than actually dangerous.)
Kerry’s character includes some gross-out comedy, with her mother accusing Kerry on camera of failing to wipe her bum properly.
Other Examples OF FECKLESS COMEDIC CHARACTERS
- Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean lives outside the social hierarchy — that’s how different he is. But he also has a mean streak.
- Seinfeld’s George Kostanza is a wonderful example, but also Elaine and Jerry at times. George is the closest match to Kerry — he seems wily, but remember he also lives at home with his parents and is mostly unemployed, except for short-lived duplicitous schemes.
THE PETTY-POWER HUNGRY MAIN CHARACTER
Kurtan Mucklowe, around the same age as Kerry. He is skinny to the point where it’s useful for (he often takes his shirt off in comedic fashion).
While Kerry and Kurtan are similar in many ways, the writers have done a great job of making them distinct nonetheless. Kurtan is obsessive, turns into a megalomaniac when he gets a taste of power, fancies himself a bit of a fashion horse and is pretty scathing about old people and those he considers beneath him. On the other hand, he demonstrates great kindness and empathy at times, especially towards his cousin Kerry, buying her a soda stream on her birthday and saying it’s from her dad.
- Not an obvious connection perhaps, but Kurtan is similar to Hyacinth Bucket in some ways. Both are very good at physical comedy (Kurtan because of his skinniness, Hyacinth because she is the Fat Athlete Woman trope, similar to Mrs Henscher in ParaNorman and The Trunchbull in Roald Dahl’s Matilda — a woman who takes up ‘too much’ physical space and is stronger than her middle-aged woman status would have us assume. Both Kurtan and Hyacinth are power hungry, fixating in smalltown/suburban events as opportunities to exert their power and influence.
THE NICE CHARACTER WHOSE NICENESS IS TAKEN ADVANTAGE OF AND WHO EVENTUALLY REVEALS VERY HUMAN FRAILTY
Reverend Francis Seaton — the local vicar and erstwhile 80s popstar
When Kerry injures her leg at a sports event set up by the Reverend, the Reverend faces a moral dilemma. He eventually asks Kerry to lie, and say that she did not injure herself while playing sports. He has failed to get insurance.
When he fails to find a parking spot at the medical centre, parks illegally and gets booked, Kerry and Kurtan (by now our own viewpoint characters) watch him lose his shit.
The Mask is a vital component of any comedy (or thriller, in fact). Great comedy comes from that moment when a character’s true self is revealed. In this case, the Overly Nice is revealed to be nothing more than a mask which functions as a means to an end. The inevitable message is this: We are all equally human, though some hide it better. The other message is this: our feckless main characters may be terrible, but at least what you see is what you get.
TV Tropes calls this Beware The Nice Ones.
Feckless main characters with very obvious moral shortcomings do require a nice character to counterbalance their terribleness.
THE SCARY NEIGHBOURHOOD MONSTER
Mandy Harris — aspiring tattoo artist, bodyguard, erstwhile stalker and S Club 7 fan (she stalked one of the members). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tFh_IhFNKFM
These scary characters will have over-the-top attributes — even more so than the main characters. But they wear their Shortcomings like Soul Toupees.
In the skit above, Mandy is revealed to be a trickster (of the prankster variety). She is volatile, a bully, and a loner desperate for human connection. She probably thinks Kurtan and Kerry are her best friends, though Kurtan and Kerry are revealed to be scared of her. If anything, Kerry models herself on Mandy — at least, the scary part. Mandy also exists to reveal the strong, take-no-shit mask worn by Kurtan, who crumbles in Mandy’s presence.
It’s important that the scary comedic character share some characteristics with the main characters. Mandy shares certain attributes with Kurtan and Kerry — she is basically childlike. This is revealed when she demonstrates an enthusiasm for collecting fluffy Meercat figurines.
But Mandy also has superpowers like a horror movie monster. This is introduced when we first meet her. She has superhuman levels of hearing. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kcoDWApChLA
TV Tropes calls this trope the Brawn Hilda.
THE PEER OUTCAST OPPONENT
Slugs — breathes through his mouth, laconic, vacant.
Sadly, the actor who played Sluggs died earlier this year. Like the fictional character he played, Michael Sleggs had a terminal illness. He was a friend of the Coopers.
The Peer Outcast Opponent is a character who might easily be part of ‘the gang’ but due to some complicated backstory the main characters of the story can’t stand them. As a result, there will be a long-running, petty feud which never resolves. The audience is kept at a distance to allow insight into this fact: There is really no ethical/moral hierarchy between these tribes — they fight precisely because they are so similar.
Here’s the important thing about writing peer outcast opponents: Whether they get there via sheer dumb luck or by hook and crook, these characters often achieve the upper hand over our main characters who despise them.
Other Examples oF OUTCAST OPPONENTS
- Seinfeld’s Newman. Unlike Sluggs, Newman presents as a wily trickster. Sluggs is a hapless one.
- In Freaks and Geeks there is a bully who is revealed to secretly wish he was part of their nerdy gang.
THE OFF-SCREEN CHARACTER
Kerry’s mum, Sue, who only ever shouts from her bedroom upstairs. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WcnGNez9udw
Sometimes she reveals a little about herself e.g. “You can [come in] but I haven’t got a stitch on”. She is constantly asking Kerry to do things like get rid of the mushrooms growing out of the cups in her bedroom, but we do know she comes down from the bedroom to perform basic parenting tasks because she makes dinners for Kerry and leaves them in the warmer. (We never see this, though.) The comedy comes mainly from Kerry and her mother yelling at each other from different parts of the house and failing to understand each other.
This off-screen character can have any function at all, but they are linked by virtue of the fact that you never see them. You only ever hear them or hear about them.
There is also a logistical reason why we never see Kerry’s mum — she is voiced by Daisy May Cooper, who is playing her own mother.
TV Tropes calls this The Voice.
Another variant is The Faceless. In common with the Mask, The Faceless trope is utilised in horror as much as in comedy, but to completely different effect. What we can’t see is scary. But the unseen can also be anything we like, including an effigy onto which we paste our own shortcomings. The horror version of this is Norman’s mother in Psycho. (It is often a mother, in both comedy and in horror.)
This trope is related to The Ghost. In horror the ghosts are often actual ghosts.
Other Examples OF OFF-SCREEN CHARACTERS
- In Keeping Up Appearances, Hyacinth Bucket usually gets a call from their son Sheridan, who we learn, from Hyacinth’s one-sided conversations, is completely different from the son she boasts of to acquaintances. Sheridan is a not very smart, always after money and, in typically homophobic 1990s gags, presents as gay to everyone but his own mother. Technically, Sheridan is an example of The Ghost trope because we never hear his voice, either. Sheridan does eventually put in a brief and wordless appearance dressed in full motorcycle kit. His face remains hidden by his helmet.
- In Home Improvement we never see the full face of Wilson, his sage next door neighbour. Partly this is funny because neighbours are like that in real life — we see parts of their lives without knowing the full person. Partly it works because of Wilson’s Godlike advice to Tim.
Wilson’s un-shown lower face became a contractual gag. Originally, he just stood behind a fence on stage. As the show progressed, Wilson was shown out of the house more and set designers went to town finding ways to keep the portion of his face hidden with props. In all these cases, he was never shown, being obscured by at least three props in the scene as he moved around the set. When the cast would take their bows at the end of filming, Earl Hindman would hold a miniature section of fence made of tongue depressors in front of the lower part of his face. There was one time Wilson appeared without any props in front of his face…but it was a Halloween episode and his face was covered in skeleton makeup, to the point where Tim didn’t realize it was him until he’d already walked out of the scene. — TV Tropes
- Sometimes the off-stage character does eventually make an appearance. In the I.T. Crowd that would be the Goth who haunts the adjacent office. The mystery of the Goth lasted only one episode in that case — he hadn’t been introduced as a long-running gag.
STORY STRUCTURE OF THIS COUNTRY
The Desire line of each episode is often instigated by Kurtan, who has a very handy character trait — he develops a new obsession every week. Sometimes it’s Kerry who wants something badly, like seeing the steam engine exhibition. They share the role of being the instigator of an episode’s desire line. Although Kerry is lazy and unmotivated, she nonetheless finds things to do, whether it’s making an imaginary world at the dump or taking it upon herself to educate her younger half-brothers in fighting. Sometimes it’s the vicar who has a task for them, for instance Tea-Time with seniors.
The Opposition comes from all quarters, but a uniting feature of Kerry and Kurtan’s opponents are that they are revealed to actually want the best for Kerry and Kurtan, and for the village. For instance, the Reverend wants Kurtan to go to Swindon college, which stands in opposition to Kurtan’s desire to stay in the village and protect Kerry. Kurtan is fired by his boss at the bowls club, which makes Kurtan carry out a (failed) revenge plan. The big reveal is that the boss turns up to offer him some new hours. He’s not the big, bad opponent Kurtan had turned him into; Kurtan tends to think the worst of people, misunderstanding intentions, overestimating his own importance in their lives. Even Mandy is all elbows and trousers. (We never actually see her punching the blind man.)
Plans are small, and the characters take these plans way more seriously than any sensible viewer would. I have a soft spot for stories about people who do feck all, who don’t have the resources to achieve their dreams, but who nonetheless seem to make the best of their situation. New Zealand’s Bro Town is similar in that regard — young people walking around making their own mischief and fun with the occasional input of adults.
Small plans with small returns emphasise the smallness of the setting. Winning the scarecrow competition is so important to Kurtan that he cheats, lies and thieves for it. And because these characters are low mimetic heroes (stupid ones) their plans don’t work out. But rather than come up with a new plan they tend to freeze, unable to come up with new ideas. When Kurtan discovers his old boss has changed the code to the bowling club he is unable to leave the bag of pig shit. We see him struggle with this, thinking hard, failing to come up with a replacement revenge. Finally, he toddles back home with the pig shit — the joke is on him.
For this reason (among many) I believe Kurtan and Kerry are fictional examples of neurodiversity.
Battle scenes are often a tantrum, with one character smashing an object then immediately calming down. Picture books are often written like this, too. (The Cat In The Hat gets a significant mention in the special episode after season two.)
The Anagnorisis of a straight (non parody) story is often an optimistic, hopeful commentary on the nature of human kind. (Often but not always, of course.) In This Country, the expected Anagnorisis tends to be subverted. For instance, at the beginning of Season Two, we are told a lot has changed since we last saw them. Kerry is on a do-gooder mission. But she is really being generous for the accolades. When she fails to receive the accolades, she decides that being generous is overrated. You just get taken advantage of. She she’s back to being her ungenerous self by the end of the episode.
Because the Anagnorisiss keep Kerry and Kurtan arrested in their development as adult human beings, the New Situation shows us that the pair haven’t changed at all. That is the entire point. Once a comedic character achieves a character arc for the better, there is no longer series potential. And even when a lesson is learned, the character is unable to transfer that learning point to other, very similar situations.
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.
See also: Walter The Farting Dog (a New Zealand picture book).
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 Dahl is 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.)
According to the Accelerated Reader website, another book in the Jennings’ ‘Un’ series has 32,000 words.
With about 9 stories to each collection, each story averages 3,555 words. That’s across 110 pages. In reality, the stories vary in length between about 1500 words to almost 6000.
These stories are not illustrated, which is slightly unusual for stories aimed at the emergent reader.
PINK BOW TIE
A boy gets his hands on a machine which allows you to alter your age.
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”
The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler
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
- the reveals
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.
Brian Bell has a speech difficulty. He can’t help but say ‘without a shirt’ at the end of every sentence.
His problem really challenges this shortcoming: He is giving a speech in front of his whole class.
Brian’s problems mount up. When he gets home he learns he and his mother are about to be evicted, due to all the holes dug by Brian’s dog, Shovel.
Brian wants to avoid getting teased. He wants to stay living in his house.
But neither of these things is possible.
He wants respect and security.
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.
The bones form a leg which hops. This scares the opponent Sue, as her mother was scared, which means Brian regains his social capital and also scores ten out of ten for his speech.
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 Town by 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 Town successfully 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:
- Rags to Riches (rise)
- Man in a Hole (fall then rise)
- Cinderella (rise then fall then rise)
- Riches to Rags (fall)
- Oedipus (fall then rise then fall)
- Icarus (rise then fall)
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.
For more on this see The Symbolism of Flight In Children’s Literature.
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 punishment because 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
Finally, in a Three Little Pigs scenario, the ghost blows the roof off the dunny.
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.
Marcus’s initial opponent is the witch. The witch is a fairytale outworking of the forty-year-old middle-aged ‘hag’ he’ll encounter as punishment. (This duality — women as witches — was explored masterfully in Anthony Browne’s postmodern picture book adaptation of Hansel and Gretel.)
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.Inverse
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.The Lighthouse Keeper’s Life, ABC Radio, Perth
Because there’s a super long history of stories set on islands.
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.
IT is a 1986 horror novel by Stephen King, first adapted for screen in 1990, and most recently in 2017. This blog post is about the storytelling of the 2017 film.
THE TERRIBLE MONSTER OF IT
I liked what one reviewer had to say about IT: The monster in this film is whatever the story requires him to be for the scene. Indeed, this monster is the ultimate shapeshifter, sometimes calm, sometimes unleashed. This monster is a writer’s dream — he seems to have no rules. Why doesn’t every horror writer create a monster like this? He’s awesome.
He’s also one-dimensional.
Here’s the golden rule about movie-length (or novel-length) stories about unpredictable monster villains with no redeeming features: Villain versus hero cannot, in itself, sustain a story. The character web is simply not interesting enough. Alongside the monstrous villain the writer must create a very human web of opposition. We see this time and time again in popular storytelling:
- In Twister we have man versus tornado, but the human opposition comes from a couple of professional storm-chasers on the brink of divorce as well as an entire band of rival storm-chasers who aim to beat our heroes in their storm-chasing game.
- In Jaws we have man versus shark, but the interest comes once again from the human opposition. Sheriff Martin Brody wants to close the beach, but this is opposed by local businessmen. Then there’s the most subtle, macho opposition between manly-man Quint and the others on his boat.
- In Jurassic Park we have man versus velociraptor, but a park employee attempts to steal Hammond’s dinosaur embryos, among other interpersonal opposition.
And in IT, we have the evil outside villain (the shapeshifting clown), but there is a very strong human gang of bullies who are just as scary. The gang of bully kids is a common way to flesh out a web of opposition, especially in stories about children. Suzie Templeton used the bully opposition web for her short film adaptation of Peter and the Wolf.
IT: MODERN MONSTER
IT is very explicit about the symbolism of the clown, and why it is a shapeshifter. But this is the typical modern horror monster. I have written previously: What is the horror genre for? IT is a modern horror, having moved away from Christian symbolism and into psychological symbolism. The monster is a representation of whatever terrible thing happens to be in your own life.
SETTING OF IT
Realism interpretation of the IT setting: There is no clown. Georgie Denbrough drowns while trying to retrieve his paper boat from a drain. The body is never found. Bill bonds with the others in his vicinity who each have their own significant trauma: incest, Munchausen syndrome by proxy and so on. The monster is different depending on who sees him. This is like the Mirror of Erised in Harry Potter. Whoever looks into it sees their own unfulfilled desire. The Mirror of Erised is a descendent of an old fairy tale device, such as the mirror in stories such as Snow White.
Horror is one of the three most symbolic genres in existence. (The other two are science fiction and Western.) Much has already been said about the symbolism and, frankly, if you’ve seen a lot of horror, it doesn’t need saying.
CHILDHOOD REALISTICALLY DEPICTED IN A STORY FOR ADULTS
One thing that struck me while watching IT: The smart aleck dialogue, especially the crass sexual jokes in the dialogue of Richie Tozier, felt realistic. The irony is that this dialogue would never be acceptable in books for children of that age. These kids are meant to be 13, which upper middle grade, lower young adult. In children’s literature you never read dialogue such as:
Richie Tozier : You punched me, made me walk through shitty water, dragged me through a crackhouse… and now I’m gonna have to kill this fucking clown.
I have known adolescent boys who talk very much like this. Another difference between stories for adults and stories for children: Children in stories for children must function, to some extent, as role models. Child characters in children’s stories are more naive and wholesome than many real-life counterparts.
It’s not just the horror elements of this film which keep this movie out of children’s hands. The clown, all told, isn’t that scary for many kids. The clown is clearly a monster. But the stone throwing, the chase, the fat shaming, the mutilation on a boy’s belly — those elements all feel uncomfortably real.
CHILDHOOD SONGS SECONDED FOR ADULT HORROR
Listen to the IT soundtrack (composed and arranged by Benjamin Wallfisch) and you’ll hear a very creepy, echoey version of Oranges and Lemons, music box inspired atmospheric tunes and children singing, slowly and without instrumental accompaniment.
This technique is common across horror and thriller films. Quentin Tarantino understood the creepiness of Shivaree’s 2000 song entitled ‘Goodnight Moon‘ when he chose for the soundtrack of Kill Bill Vol. 2.
There’s a nail in the door
And there’s glass on the lawn
Tacks on the floor
And the TV is on
And I always sleep with my guns
When you’re gone
There’s a blade by the bed
And a phone in my hand
A dog on the floor
And some cash on the nightstand
When I’m all alone the dreaming stops
And I just can’t stand
On it goes. Fans of child literature, however, are more likely to think of the eponymous but innocent story by Margaret Wise Brown.
That link to the well-known picture book is part of what makes for the creepiness of the song. There’s something about the admixture of horror and childhood familiarities such as songs, clowns, circuses and picture books which intensifies the creepiness of the creepy bit. This is how the folk at TV Tropes put it:
If a program or film wants to add fear to a scene one of the most creepy ways is to have a Creepy Child, or a whole creepy choir, singing somewhere in the distance or background, usually the tune is a mournful nursery rhyme. Sometimes it will seem like the characters can hear it and they may even call out, asking if anyone is there.Creepy Children Singing
The Wire is a TV series for adults, creepy because of its uncomfortable realism. The character Omar Comin is particularly interesting, due to his role as sometime-comic relief, for his incongruous same-sex attraction in an overwhelmingly macho environment, and for his sociopathic ability to kill. Regular viewers of the show will soon learn that when Omar Comin starts to whistle Farmer In The Dell, bad stuff is going to happen. In this clip, bystanders realise from the whistle that Omar is up to very bad business.
Why Farmer In The Dell? Because viewers familiar with the tune will associate it with innocence, childlike naivete and comfort. The tune works well in the story because Omar is probably using one of his own childhood favourites for dual purpose: To set up a nonchalant persona for himself in the eyes of others, and also to steady his own nerves. The words themselves may also have thematic significance, though The Wire is not known for its ham-handed metaphors in the manner of Mad Men, so this may be an overanalysis.
The tinkle of bells, the fast-to-slow tune of a music box, the call of the ice-cream van — all make for excellent horror soundtracks and IT makes use of it too.
10 Things You Might Not Know About Stephen King’s IT from Mental Floss
How IT handles the book’s most controversial scene from Entertainment Weekly
The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier was not written with a young adult audience in mind, but class sets of the book found their way into English departments all over the world. Though this is not my favourite Cormier novel, it remains his best known. Heavy in symbolism and discussable themes, The Chocolate War also makes for a good case study in juxtaposition. The novel begins with a juxtaposition in the title — chocolate is sweet and comforting; war most certainly is not.
There are many resources for teaching and studying this book in a high school literature class. This blog focuses on the storytelling: What writing lessons can we take from this young adult story from 1974, banned and beloved in equal measure?
I feel readers deserve a content note about Robert Cormier novels, and about The Chocolate War in particular. This novel has been widely banned, but my reasons for the content note are probably different and girl readers in particular deserve this acknowledged: Cormier writes consistently from the male point of view and objectifies female characters as part of his commentary on how awful boys can be. Cormier never proved he could write well-rounded girls, to be fair. Even when he writes a female character (not in this book) she self objectifies or she is murdered or both. The Chocolate War contains implied rape of girls at the nearby girls’ high school. Archie, a psychopathic character, ‘usually manages to persuade one of them into his car’. He gives them a ride home ‘with detours’. The older I get the more icky I find this. Here’s my exact beef: Robert Cormier and many other writers who imply/describe sexual assault feel the need to include girls — otherwise absent in the story — in order to amplify the awfulness of a particular boy character. This is done for characterisation reasons, yet that’s not how sexual assault works in real life and I expect a bit of mimesis here. Despite his heterosexual orientation, a character as awful as Archie does not need to prey on the girls at a different school entirely. If ever there was a clear psychopath in young adult fiction, Archie is it.
Archie was always puzzled about whatever there was inside of him that enjoyed these performances — toying with kids, leading them on, humiliating them, finally.
Robert Cormier, The Chocolate War
There are plenty of boys he can pick on to assert his sexual dominance, without leaving his own school. My problem here is the extent to which writers are comfortable with the implication of male on female sexual assault, but can’t seem to even fathom male on male sexual assault. Written in the 1970s, going this far may not have even crossed Cormier’s mind, or maybe he self-edited, who knows. Archie carries out his own version of sexual assault on Emile, pretending to take a photo of him after finding him in the toilets masturbating. But it’s never implied that he does to the other boys as he does to the girls. And I don’t think his heterosexuality has anything to do with that. Archie’s 1970s pretend camera would be an actual camera in the 2010s. This kind of timelessness is why some schools continue to study The Chocolate War with modern teenagers, though I think the objectification and assault issue requires a discussion. Though uncomfortable to talk about, the problems with glossing over this aspect of Archie are two-fold:
- As a culture we underestimate the rate of male on male sexual assault (important emphasis: rape is about power over others, not about orientation);
- We become uncomfortably comfortable with the image of the assaulted female, to the extent where, as a culture, we have now learned to look the other way. To what extent is the male gaze designed to be titillating? Does it matter really if it’s not meant to be, and still is? At no point are readers encouraged to find descriptions of the boy characters titillating, regardless of the reader’s orientation.
These are not the exact reasons The Chocolate War has found infamy as a frequently banned book. This novel has been banned due to:
- Frequency of sexual references
- Detail included in the sexual scenes e.g. masturbation
- Physical violence
- Negative portrayal of the institution of school
- Catholic schools in particular get a bad rap
But mostly? The issues in this book are so heavy they are difficult to discuss with 30 teenagers, some of whom will have been sexually assaulted themselves, some of whom will sexually assault/have already assaulted. I find it far easier to write about these issues on a blog than to manage a class discussion, and to have that discussion go in the right direction. When schools ban books, that’s sometimes a factor. The Chocolate War is one of those novels which requires the reader to bring their own morality to the table. We’re to look at these boys as an example of treating people badly. But what if some readers do not have morality to bring? What then?
Three Types of Young Adult Novels
Further to the banning, it’s important to note that Cormier did not intend The Chocolate War for a young adult audience. The reading age happens to be twelve, however. That seemed to be Cormier’s natural writing style.
The American Library Association classifies adolescent literature into three categories:
- Books Written Specifically for Adolescents
- Books Written for General Trade Market Which Have Adolescent Main Characters
- General Books of Interest to Young Readers
The Chocolate War belongs to category two and was seen by many as a good text to study in schools.
THEMES IN THE CHOCOLATE WAR
There are many. Here’s a big one:
“Do I dare disturb the universe?”from T.S. Eliot, in a poem he wrote in his early 20s.
At its heart, this question “Do I dare disturb the universe?” is about power. It serves as an apt metaphor for what adolescents often seek to know about themselves. Jerry Renault takes up this question in Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (1974).
Jerry hangs in his school locker a poster of a man walking alone on a beach that bears the caption “Do I dare disturb the universe?”: “Jerry wasn’t sure of the poster’s meaning. But it had moved him mysteriously.” The Chocolate War explores the question of whether Jerry can disturb the universe—of what will happen to him if he dares assert his personal power. […]
In The Chocolate War Jerry Renault has power in agreeing to exist in harmony with the forces of oppression at Trinity High School, The Vigils and the teachers. He is defeated by novel’s end because he has chosen to break the contract and so be oppressed by the power structure. Foucault would say instead that rather than possessing a certain amount of power to begin with, Jerry actually exists in a chain of power, a chain that involves the selling of education as a commodity and that results in the commodification of the chocolates. Their sale is a means of production for the students. Jerry’s power in the situation is fluid: he both has and does not have power, depending on his relationship to the market forces at specific points in the novel’s time. When he overwhelms the market by providing a model for the other boys’ non-participation in the means of production, the market retaliates by attempting to obliterate him in a “war.”
Foucault even supplies the term “war repression schema” as a synonym for the “domination repression” model of power; he makes much of the notion that “power is war, a war continued by other means”. […]
The Chocolate War is the same sort of dark adolescent fantasy that Lord of the Flies is: when adolescents achieve total control, they become totally corrupt. Both novels are metaphors for the concept that absolute power corrupts absolutely.
[…] Anne Scott Macleod argues that what happens at Trinity is a microcosmic metaphor for American politics. […]
Perry Nodelman interprets the chocolate war as a metaphor for the Vietnam War. […]
Jan Susina interprets The Vigils as the Mafia. […]
Cormier himself has identified big business as the central metaphor of the novel.
At the heart of all these interpretations is the recognition that The Chocolate War is a political novel. It is an investigation of social organisation and how individuals interact with that organisation. The novel communicates that institutions are more powerful than individuals, but that individuals who engage their own power can affect the shape of the institution. Cormier implies that as social organisations, institutions are not to be trusted. […]
When ideologies in YA novels focus specifically on government, they tend to convey to adolescents that they are better served by accepting than by rejecting the social institutions with which they must live. In that sense, the underlying agenda of many young adult novels is to indoctrinate adolescents into a measure of social acceptance.Robert Seelinger Trites in her book Disturbing The Universe: Power and repression in adolescent literature
But is The Chocolate War any more political than your typical young adult novel?
Few adolescent novels are as direct as Cormier’s are in addressing government as a form of social organization, although almost all adolescent novels are informed by ideologies that are political in nature. That is, all novels are influenced by their authors’ sociopolitical beliefs.
Robert Seelinger Trites in her book Disturbing The Universe: Power and repression in adolescent literature
STORYTELLING TECHNIQUES OF NOTE
Juxtaposition and Irony
The Chocolate War is a story of irony and juxtaposition, which makes the title so apt. Examples from chapter one:
- ‘A terrible stillness’
- ‘Suddenly he loved that voice, “Show up tomorrow”.’
- ‘A strange happiness invaded him.’
And in chapter two we get all the ironies of Archie:
- ‘Archie the bastard. The bastard that Obie alternately hated and admired.’
- Archie looks like an All-American Boy but it turns out he’s atheist, which is not very American at all, especially in 1974.
- ‘That’s what baffled everyone about Archie — his changes of mood, the way he could be a wise bastard one minute and a great guy the next’
- Although Archie is really mean, he ‘disliked violence’.
Norman Stanton: ‘a blustering bragging character with wild red hair and eyelids matted with yellow crap’
Roland Goubert: The Goober. Juxtaposition: Very tall yet like a child.
Brother Leon: Can control a class but Archie sees vulnerabilities. Assistant Headmaster but in Archie’s eyes he is simply an errand boy for the head. Not worthy of respect. However, like Archie, this man has two juxtaposed sides to him. “In the classroom, Leon was another person altogether. Smirking, sarcastic. His thin, high voice venomous. He could hold your attention like a cobra. Instead of fangs, he used his teacher’s pointer, flicker out here, there, everywhere. He watched the class like a hawk, suspicious, searching out cheaters or daydreamers, probing for shortcomings in the students and then exploiting those shortcomings.’ This man will make a good shadow character for Archie.
Leon is an ambiguous character. In Chapter Six we see him carry out a cruel taunting on a student then tells the class he’s delivered a lesson. He hasn’t delivered a lesson without causing the boy in question grief, so is this similar to doing something really mean and then calling it ‘a joke’? Another juxtaposition.
‘Emile was a brute, which was kind of funny because he didn’t look like a brute. He wasn’t big or overly strong. … Wise guys usually sat in back. Emile didn’t. He chose seats near the front where he’d be in better position to harass the teacher.’
‘Emile, you’re a beautiful person’, says Archie, watching Emile steal fuel from a weaker kid’s car. But Emile never knows if Archie is serious or not — in fact, stealing fuel probably does count as beautiful in Archie’s eyes, because Emile can be useful to him. At the end of Chapter Six, Emile is ‘somehow disappointed’ that the owner of the vehicle hasn’t caught him stealing gas. This is a different kind of irony — an emotion the the audience wouldn’t expect in most people.
The sale of chocolates is such a cozy thing to do — this part of the plot could easily be used in a middle grade novel set in a genuine utopia. But here, the chocolate fundraiser is juxtaposed against the evil of the school.
Goober is the reflection character for Archie. Whereas Archie is delighted at chaos, Goober is utterly bewildered by it, not comfortable at all. We are set to root for Goober because he is such an underdog, but we are equally keen to see what Archie gets up to, because Archie is interesting. Without each other, this book would feel too pathetic or too mean. These boys balance each other out for the reader.
Jerry Renault is the Every Boy — most readers have not lost their mother to cancer, but we can empathise with him because we feel our lives would look like his if we did. Apart from the ghost of a dead mother, nothing much stands out about Jerry. He’s like the Jerry Seinfeld off Seinfeld actually — the characters around him are more individualised.
Among the teachers, too, we have a replica of the classroom, with the Brothers responding in contrasting ways to the same event. Brother Eugene is the grown up Goober — sensitive and emotional and vulnerable. Brother Leon understands Archie the best, though Archie does not have a sociopathic equivalent on staff, which is good for him. The teachers have power by virtue of being teachers, so Brother Leon is still a formidable opponent for Archie.
STORY WORLD OF THE CHOCOLATE WAR
The Chocolate War is an American novel with a USA setting.
Obie describes the school as ‘a lousy little high school like Trinity’. This is a Catholic school. The culture revolves around sport. Football is everything. It is clear from this that we’re talking about a boys’ high school, with its particular brand of hyper-masculinity. Boxing turns out to be other other big sport at Trinity — another dangerous, combative pastime.
The Trinity brothers wanted peace at any price, quiet on the campus, no broken bones.
This is a run-down school — the football field needs seeding and the bleachers need replacing. This needs to be a run-down school because if it were wealthy the need to sell all those chocolates wouldn’t be as dire.
Within this school we have something akin to the mafia:
The Vigils kept things under control. Without The Vigils, Trinity might have been torn apart like other schools had been, by demonstrations, protests, all that crap.
The school is populated with a variety of teachers, some good, some not so good. Brother Eugene: one of the good brothers who teach at Trinity. ‘A peaceful sort’. He exists to contrast with Brother Leon.
The Vigils meet in a small room behind the gym.
Obie works at the grocery store stacking shelves for a part-time job. A friend of the family owns the store, suggesting a cosy, small town where everyone knows everyone.
But this version of American suburbia is an snail under the leaf setting — underneath, things are rotten. Case in point: The Vigils. The gang headed by Archie. These boys run the town. Lead by Archie. President is another bastard called Carter. Obie is secretary and underdog.
For fun there’s the Teen-Age Canteen where the boys have the opportunity to meet girls, referred to as ‘broads’, because these boys objectify female characters as if they’re an entirely different species.
NARRATIVE TECHNIQUE IN THE CHOCOLATE WAR
In a novel, even the unseen narrator can be considered a character. I feel the narrative voice is masculine, perhaps someone who knows these boys really well, a stand-in for a fellow student at the school. He talks about girls as if they are a different species: “The girl was heart-wrenchingly, impossibly beautiful.” (Not the way girls usually describe each other.) However, he is also closely emulating the voice of the characters themselves. ‘Close’ third person.
This close third person narrator reminds us occasionally that he is telling a story. Here, he lampshades some pretty obvious symbolism. Perhaps as he was writing even Cormier thought the cross symbolism felt a little heavy handed:
The shadows of the goalposts definitely resembled a network of crosses, empty crucifixes. That’s enough symbolism for one day, Obie told himself.
Robert Cormier, The Chocolate War
Cormier’s narrator is an all-knowing, misanthropic, pessimistic character who can zoom right into the psychologies of the characters as if he knows them better than they know themselves (he does), and that’s because he sees through their eyes. The narrator is one of them. However, The Chocolate War does not have the immediacy of voice common to most young adult novels. Most are written either in first person right after the events, or occasionally in third person right after the events. Perhaps because this was never meant for the young adult audience, Cormier’s narrator seems much older, as if he’s looking back in time as an unnamed student in this school, but with the psychological insight of a 40 year old man. The advantage of this kind of narrator is that his wisdom can fill in the gaps for an audience who has yet to give much thought to how social groups and dominance works. A teenage narrator would seem preternaturally gifted in psychology to believably write this stuff.
The Chocolate War does not ask the young adult reader to trust in the voice of a single speaker or to accept a single, unchallenged view of events. In alternating chapters we are given thirteen different characters’ perspectives on events. Within some chapters, especially chapters twenty-five and thirty-five, the reader gets multiple points of view. Although Jerry Renault’s views are those most frequently shared, they do not account for even one third of the book. Despite the fact that no adult’s thoughts are represented (we never see into Jerry’s father’s or Brother Leon’s or Brother Jacque’s thoughts, for instance), the book does not limit itself to a single adolescent’s view of the world. The reader develops a sense of a complicated world through the recognition of competing positions and perspectives that are quite different from each other despite their all being “young adult”.
The Chocolate War is not written in first-person address, though the narrator reports throughs from the position of the characters being portrayed. We are told, for instance, that “The Goober was beautiful when he ran”. We understand that Goober himself considers this to be true in contrast with the rest of his life, including the moment under narration in which he attempts a terrifying “assignment”. Here we see what Gerard Genette would call indirect address.
Mike Cadden, The Irony of Narration in the Young Adult Novel
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE CHOCOLATE WAR
QUESTIONS AND REVELATIONS IN THE CHOCOLATE WAR
Cormier is a master of this technique:
If you have too many scenes that just set up questions and knock ’em down, then the story will seem plodding and episodic, and it won’t build a larger narrative. So you have to mix quick payoffs with longer mysteries. Usually the question that ends the scene is a practical one that’s instantly answered by the circumstances of the next. But you should keep your audience looking further ahead, breathlessly wondering how the events they’ve just witnessed will affect the rest of the story.Matt Bird, The Secrets of Story
Cormier was a master of the question and revelation sequence. He makes readers work just the right amount before handing over the information. I started to make detailed notes on how Cormier was achieving this, but it soon got so complicated I gave up the task. Just know that this book looks simple at first read but is extremely intricately plotted, with set ups and pay-offs, perfect foreshadowing and expert subtleties. If I planned to write a book similar to this I would persevere with my detailed notes.
Our protagonist (in its original, Greek sense — the character who gets the story going) is Jerry Renault. We see him getting beaten up in the first scene, straight into ‘action’, in its most widely used sense.
Hey Coach, you pit on me, Jerry protested. Stop the spitting, coach. What he said aloud was, ‘I’m all right, coach,’ because he was a coward about stuff like that, thinking one thing and saying another, planning one thing and doing another — he had been Peter a thousand times and a thousand cocks had crowed in his lifetime.Robert Cormier, The Chocolate War
He is not the right body type to be playing football. Too skinny. Ironically, this is his dream.
Chapter two flips to Obie.
Obie was bored. Worse than bored. He was disgusted. He was also tired.
There we have them — Obie’s main psychological shortcomings in the very first line. Cormier is masterful the way he combines unexpected emotions. We can imagine how someone would mistake disgust for boredom, though may not of thought of this before.
The alternating points of view establish that this is not a story about any one character or hero, but about a community. The community itself is the main character, and this community has a dark, seedy underbelly. Another story like this is Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx. Another is The Lottery by Shirley Jackson.
The boys in this story each has their own shortcoming, except for Archie, who demonstrates better than anyone in YA literature how psychopathy is an evolutionary advantage.
Archie is kingpin and has a very specific goal. It’s Archie’s goal which drives the story, making him the ‘main character’ in a sense. His aim is always to inflict as much psychological pain as possible on those around him.
Certain other boys desire the approval of Archie. Emile is another sociopath, though not quite as smart. I suspect circumstances have deprived him of empathy, whereas Archie seems ‘born evil’.
Goober just wants to be left alone to run.
Jerry doesn’t want anything at first but gets sucked into the drama and wants to passively aggressively claim some status for himself. He doesn’t have to do much to earn that — in fact, he has to do the opposite of something — nothing, so the little rebellions prove too tempting.
So in these characters we see the whole range of desire, from ‘leave me alone’ to ‘I’m going to turn this little community upside down.’
The coach is Renault’s first opponent, though it remains to be see whether he is an ally. Teachers can swing either way — in fiction as in real life, they can seem mean but actually have students’ best interests at heart. This coach is a stereotypical mean guy. He looks like ‘an old gangster’ and even has a movie-star scar on his cheek. ‘But a helluva coach, they said’. Turns out the meanest looking coach isn’t the most dangerous adult in the school.
Obie’s arch nemesis is Archie. Archie is depicted as an ‘all American boy’, with blonde hair blowing in the wind, sitting in the bleachers. ‘Archie turned and smiled at [Obie] benevolently, like a goddam kind passing out favours.’ Archie is soon set up as the main force of evil — the true, evil villain of the story. Even the title is drawn from him — minions must buy him Hersheys or else get on the wrong side of him.
There’s no true friendship in this novel. When a pecking order is being established it has to be constantly maintained. Everyone is everyone else’s opponent. Though it appears Goober and Jerry could have been friends, they weren’t for the entirety of the novel.
Each character has his own plan in an intricate big struggle for top of the hierarchy. The boys are each a different example of one way of going about gaining dominance within an institution. For instance: Jerry — passive aggressively, by refusing to do as asked, then getting a bit addicted to the adrenaline of rebellion and taking it further. Archie — like a sociopath, taking power from others, killing their spirits Goober — Just trying to get along unnoticed, manoeuvring around the power plays of others These characters are mirrored in the characters of the teachers.
The minor big struggles of the pranks and the refusal to sell lead up to the big fight — a literal big struggle scene which we suspect may have killed Jerry Renault. (You have to go back to the first sentence of the book to be sure, but it’s metaphorical — his spirit has been killed.) This fight has been set up by Archie to get Jerry back for refusing to start selling the chocolates again. He is pitted against Emile Janza, a strong physical opponent. Students can buy raffle tickets. They write on the tickets who gets to hit who and where. Things get out of hand when Emile loses control of himself.
Jerry is almost dead when he comes to some kind of understanding:
The knowledge, the knowledge: what he had discovered. Funny, how his mind was clear suddenly, apart from his body, floating above his body, floating above the pain. ‘It’ll be all right, Jerry.’ No, it won’t. He recognized Goober’s voice and it was important to share the discovery with Goober. He had to tell Goober to play ball, to play football, to run, to make the team, to sell the chocolates, to sell whatever they wanted you to sell, to do whatever they wanted you to do. … They tell you to do your thing but they don’t mean it. They don’t want you to do your thing, not unless it happens to be their thing, too. It’s a laugh, Goober, a fake. Don’t disturb the universe, Goober, no matter what the posters say.
The Chocolate War
When writing anagnorises: Make your character come to the absolute brink of (spiritual/actual) death before giving them their epiphany. Otherwise it won’t feel like they earned it.
Seelinger Trites makes use of the word ‘epiphany’ when describing the revelation that takes place in this novel, and points out that the anagnorisis experienced by Jerry in The Chocolate War is completely typical of young adult literature:
[The] intertextual question that lies at the heart of The Chocolate War — “Do I dare disturb the universe?” — is representative of an ethos that informs many adolescent novels. The chief characteristic that distinguishes adolescent literature form children’s literature is the issue of how social power is deployed during the course of the narrative. In books that younger children read…much of the action focuses on one child who learns to feel more secure in the confines of her or his immediate environment, usually represented by family and home.
Children’s literature often affirms the child’s sense of Self and her or his personal power. But in the adolescent novel, protagonists must learn about the social forces that have made them what they are. They learn to negotiate the levels of power that exist in the myriad social institutions within which they must function, including family; school; the church; government; social constructions of sexuality, gender, race, class; and cultural mores surrounding death. […]
In The Chocolate War, for example, Jerry Renault must negotiate his place within a family, in terms of a religion, and in his school.. Jerry’s epiphany is a recognition that social institutions are bigger and more powerful than individuals. The lesson he learns is a primary one in Young Adult literature.
Robert Seelinger Trites in her book Disturbing The Universe: Power and repression in adolescent literature
YA literature reassures readers that the world is your oyster if only you can find the power within yourself to rise above it or up into it.
To help lead a character (and readers) towards a anagnorisis, authors often make use of a symbol which they return to again and again. In YA novels, it’s quite often photos. But it can just as easily be something else. In The Chocolate War, it’s “The Love Song of Alfred Prucock“. Jerry sees a poster with Do I Dare Disturb The Universe? (the inspiration for Seelinger Trite’s book on YA literature) every time he opens his locker.
This is a classic case of: The reader has the anagnorisis even if the character doesn’t. When the character doesn’t have any revelation, the author has to use recursive tricks like a photo, a line from a poem, a stamp on a hand (in The Changeover by Margaret Mahy) to ram home the message for readers.
I would like to point out that Jerry’s advice to Goober can be read two ways. It can sound like he’s saying, ‘buckle in, do what they tell you.’ But Seelinger Trites believes the message is yes, do disturb the universe:
Jerry’s final words in the novel echo the novel’s opening statement, “They murdered him.” His final lines are unspoken thoughts that he directs to his friend Goober: “Do whatever they wanted you to do…They tell you to do your own thing but they don’t mean it. They don’t want you to do your thing, not unless it happens to be their thing, too…. Don’t disturb the universe, Goober. Although Jerry appears defeated and is even possibly dead by novel’s end, the book still answers the question affirmatively: yes, he can disturb the universe. In fact, he should disturb the universe. Doing so may be painful, but Jerry has affected other people with the choices he has made.
Robert Seelinger Trites in her book Disturbing The Universe: Power and repression in adolescent literature
- The events in this novel ring very true to me. They probably ring true to you, too. Weird things happen in schools. This viral thread about the bread reminds me of the incidents in The Chocolate War, though doesn’t end as darkly.
“Middle school wasn’t much fun for me. We had some bullying going on, and the best thing to do was to stay out of their way.”Jeff Kinney, author of Diary Of A Wimpy Kid
WHAT IS BULLYING?
Bullying is repeated verbal, physical, social or psychological aggressive behaviour by a person or group directed towards a less powerful person or group that is intended to cause harm, distress or fear.
If two people disagree, that is not bullying.
If two people dislike each other, that is not bullying.
A single episode of aggression also does not count as bullying. This is especially important because an act of retaliation on the part of the bullied does not mean ‘both sides are at fault’.
COMMON BULLYING TACTICS
When authors cover the topic of bullying it can be super helpful to young readers, explicitly teaching what bullying is and how to recognise it for what it is. Even if we as adults have no further advice — I don’t consider myself qualified to give advice on how to deal with bullying — recognising bullying behaviour is a huge help to kids on the receiving end of it.
So, what does bullying look like? Some of these are obvious to neurotypical kids but in my opinion even neurotypical kids need explicit training on what bullying looks like. By putting these tactics into words, we are holding kids to higher standards. They then hold each other to higher standards.
- Touching someone in anger, or touching someone who doesn’t want to be touched
- Saying something nasty then putting ‘just joking’ on the end as a way of blaming others and demeaning the reaction of the victim
- Spreading untrue information about a person
- Threatening to tell an authority figure that a person has done something they have not
- Sharing true but personal information about a person
- Taking photos of someone without their consent, worse when shared, even worse via social media
- Mimicking the way someone walks/talks/eats etc
- Excluding someone because of skin colour/religion/culture and similar
- Microagressions are also a subtle form of bullying e.g. constant reference to someone’s difference from the wider peer group
- Barring someone from entering or exiting a space (commonly stairwells, toilets, shared play spaces)
- Practical jokes and pranks which are designed to humiliate someone, probably in front of a group
- Going into someone else’s bag/pockets/locker/desk without their consent
- Or more generally, messing around with someone else’s stuff with the intention of annoying them or shaming them
- Touching someone’s clothing, especially with the intention of exposing their body to others
- Provoking someone to anger, in general, hoping they will explode and get into trouble with teachers and parents
- Threatening to withdraw friendship unless someone does what you want them to do
- More generally, any behaviour designed to control another person. A lot of the bullying that goes on between girls mirrors exactly the abuse we call ‘coercive control’ when it happens in an adult relationship. Unfortunately, a history of falling victim to coercive control as a child/teenager primes someone to fall victim to it as an adult, too. (We can flip this, but we have to first name it, and teach it explicitly.)
HOW IS BULLYING TREATED IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE?
“I live with a bear,” the story’s young narrator declares. The bear is loud, messy, uncouth, and very strong (too strong!). For some reason, his parents treat the bear like family, despite his protests. Why can’t they see? Then he runs into some bullies on the playground. When the bear ROOAARS with all her might and scares them away, he realizes that there are advantages to having a bear in the family. In a delightful twist, the narrator’s older sister (the bear) appears, telling him that she is NOT a bear. But if she is, HE is too–because two bears are even better than one!
Almost any story set in a school or a school stand-in will involve opposition between peers. Bullying is a common topic in children’s literature from chapter books onwards.
Adults know way more about how bullying works than a couple of generations ago. This can be traced through fiction (or ask any elderly person about their experiences of bullying in school).
Fictional bullies occurred frequently in school/boarding school stories, and it wasn’t treated as bullying, but more of a ‘character building exercise’, designed to prepare school aged children for a world in which they’ll be ranked in an adult hierarchy.
Today’s authors show a better understanding of the true nature of bullying, in which bullying is a social system, rather than a person:
All kinds of attitudes have changed, mostly for the better. Bullies were hated in Tom Brown’s Schooldays but now, as in Louis Sachar’s Holes, they are both villains and victims.Amanda Craig, writing about the third golden age of children’s literature
We’re all doing better now, but still have a long way to go. How are adults, specifically adult writers, still getting bullying a bit wrong?
BULLIES WHO LOOK LIKE STEREOTYPICAL BULLIES
“There was a bully at Peter’s school and his name was Barry Tamerlane. He didn’t look like a bully” writes Ian McEwan in chapter four of Daydreamer. The explicit and direct message here is that “There’s no such person who looks like a bully.”
He wasn’t a scruff, his face wasn’t ugly, he didn’t have a frightening leer, or scabs on his knuckles and he didn’t carry dangerous weapons. he wasn’t particularly big. Nor was he one of those small, wiry, boney types who can turn out to be vicious fighters. At home he wasn’t smacked like many bullies are, and nor was he spoiled. His parents were kind but firm, and quite unsuspecting. His voice wasn’t loud of hoarse, his eyes weren’t hard and small and he wasn’t even very stupid. In fact, he was rather round and soft, though not quite a fatty, with glasses, and a spongy pink face, and a silver brace on his teeth. He often wore a sad and helpless look which appealed to some grown-ups and was useful when he had to talk himself out of trouble.Ian McEwan, Daydreamer
I do wonder if there’s an unfortunate implicit message in here, though. When we describe the appearance of bullies, no matter how we do it, we’re conveying the implicit message that if you just study this hard enough, you’ll find you can typecast people according to how they look. ‘Bullies don’t look how you think they look… they actually look like this’, is one possible interpretation of the passage above, when I believe the intention is ‘You can’t pick a bully based on what they look like.’
McEwan does side with the young reader and does what most authors do: He acknowledges the fact that adults will never understand the complicated and subtle social dynamics of adolescents:
Of course, Peter kept out of the bully’s way, but he took a special interest in him. Barry Tamerlane was a mystery. On his eleventh birthday Barry invited a dozen boys from school to a party. Peter tried to get out of it but his parents would not listen. They themselves liked Mr and Mrs Tamerlane, and so, by the terms of grown-up logic, Peter must surely like Barry.Ian McEwan, Daydreamer
MODEL VS IMPERFECT CHARACTERS
Authors sometimes set up a character web with ‘model’ children versus ‘imperfect’ children. By the end of the book, the young reader is supposed to have worked out for themselves who is in the wrong, and mimic the behaviour of the model children in real life. An example of this kind of book is Pigface by Catherine Robinson. The focus character learns a lesson when he breaks his leg playing football. While he’s away on the couch, a new boy joins the class. This new boy is preternaturally mature. When our focus character returns to school he realises he should stop calling Harry ‘Pigface’ because he probably doesn’t like it. He has also learned to stick up for other people, and not to judge others at face value. The reveal is that this cool new boy was bullied at his previous school.
This story for emerging readers does not attempt mimesis. It attempts (and achieves) a clear line between bullying and friendly behaviour. The reality is that a boy who was bullied at his previous school is likely to continue to be bullied at a new school, though bullying cultures do differ from school to school. It is possible to start with a clean slate in a new environment, though perhaps not quite so cleanly.
WRITING DEVELOPMENTALLY INCORRECT BULLYING
When do people start forming social hierarchies? As soon as they start interacting with groups of peers. But when does that real ‘mean-girl’ crap start happening?
“The mean-girl thing is happening much sooner than everyone realizes,” our elementary school counselor told me when I called to talk it through. “I see it all the time.”The Washington Post
The parent who wrote this article found it first started happening to her daughter in fourth grade. I also have a daughter of that age (in NSW Australia it’s called ‘year four’) and I can confirm it started happening this year. What form does it take? For my daughter, it has involved social exclusion. Friend has a birthday, brings enough cupcakes for everybody, gives extra cupcakes to her ‘besties’, refuses to give cupcake to one girl in particular as some kind of social punishment. It’s easy to almost laugh at this ridiculous example, but if this happened to us in our workplace, we’d be equally wounded. Apart from blatant social exclusion:
The most common ways girls ages 8 to 12 bully is by mocking, teasing and calling people names, says Cosette Taillac, a child and adolescent therapistThe Washington Post
Though that article focuses specifically on the types of bullying that goes on among girls, it strikes me that at 8-12 years old, there’s no significant difference between how girls and boys bully others. Boys use this same strategy of ‘mocking, teasing and calling people names’. However, the nature of these names might be different. Because of a cultural emphasis, girls are more vulnerable to commentary about physical appearance:
“Girls at this age are extremely conscious about how they look in relationship to others,” Taillac says. “Any way they look ‘different’ is a potential target. This goes beyond weight — it can also be about being taller or shorter, skin color, or even about things like having freckles or pimples.”The Washington Post
(No one is saying boys aren’t also picked on due to how they look; the difference is that all girls are judged based on their looks no matter what they look like, whereas physical appearance only comes into it for boys when the boy does actually fall outside the ‘accepted norm’, and ‘the norm’ is wider for boys. Which is of course no comfort to boys who do fall outside the accepted norm for boys. And boys are getting more judgemental about each other’s appearance, unfortunately. Living in the exact same culture, it’s getting worse for girls as well.)
On a more positive note, this form of bullying has all but disappeared by senior high school.
This opinion piece written by a teenager echoes something I’d already noticed myself:
In my school, most people like each other! We might not like the same brands or bands, but that doesn’t mean we have a burning desire to watch those more traditional or popular fail. (That would be middle school.)
While this HuffPost article is painting too broad a stroke with an inflammatory headline about not liking YA novels in general (there are many different genres within that category), the writer is pointing out that bullying takes on a different form altogether once students move through high school. (But it doesn’t disappear completely.)
HOW BULLYING CHANGES DURING ADOLESCENCE
Bullying among the 8-10 year old set looks completely different from bullying in senior high school. This needs to be reflected in stories.
I Study The Psychology Of Adolescent Bullies is about Donald Trump but offers an insight into how bullying works at each age. The subheading sums it up: Kids who dominate other kids are often popular — for a little while.
Below is the reason given for why middle school is terrible for bullying, though I grew up in a country where middle school was often attached to the primary school — no major reshuffling necessary. I don’t know how the social dynamics are different in those cases but:
Although bullies are never liked, they are popular in certain situations. Our research shows that bullies initially become “cool” during their first year in middle school. We think that this link between bullying and popularity is strengthened by the collective uncertainty associated with the transition to middle school. As youth are trying to acclimate to the new setting, many worry about their own social standing and ask: Where do I fit in? Who should I hang out with? When the future is uncertain, it is vital to know not only where one fits, but also who is in charge. Dominance hierarchies help group members find their places and form alliances, and bullying is among the most primitive ways to establish dominance.
I have noticed in some stories, especially those on TV, middle school level bullying continues long past its due date. By the time students are about 15, explicit, racist or un-woke bullying behaviours have morphed into social dynamics far more subtle. But what does it turn into?
Our research on middle-schoolers also shows that the popularity of bullies wears off after the transition period. That is, after the first year in middle school, bullies’ popularity gradually decreases. […] When a young child is questioned whether he ate the last cookie (even when there are crumbs on his lips), the immature response is: “I didn’t do it.” Children deny the act before they learn that it is socially beneficial to admit the wrongdoing but deny any negative intent. Teens tend to become even more skilful and elaborate on various mitigating circumstances, such as not turning in their homework due to illness or because they were helping an ailing grandmother. These accounts reduce the likelihood of punishment and facilitate forgiveness.
If bullying is still going on in senior high school, it is insidious and covert and ridiculously difficult to deal with. It can usually be denied completely. ‘Social exclusion’ looks a lot like, simply, exercising your right to choose your own friends.
COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT BULLYING
- Bullying is a problem that bullying people have. It does not follow that someone targeted by a system of persistent bullying is the one doing something wrong.
- Children and teens need friends. Friends aren’t just ‘the icing on the cake’.
- In order to be happy, children don’t need a wide circle of friends. Sometimes all it takes is one friend. The difference between no friends and one friend is like night and day.
- Unkind behaviour toward children without social status is rewarded with social capital and elevated social status, because it highlights the status differential.
- It is not easy — in fact it is an act of rare and unusual bravery — to step in and defend someone with low social capital. Defending a low-status child is like touching someone with “cooties,” so bystanders rarely step in.
- A child at the bottom of the social ladder becomes “untouchable.” Even if that child has a delightful personality and loads of friends elsewhere, in a social system in which she lacks social capital, she is not likely to acquire friends. Take away point: a child can have loads of friends in one situation and none in another, because ‘untouchable’ cultures can pop up anywhere if not kept in check.
- Children with status erroneously believe that the reason untouchables have no social status is because they are repulsive, but in truth, it is precisely the reverse. The lack of social status is what makes an untouchable appear repulsive.
- Adults are no more likely to sacrifice their own social capital to stop bullying than children are. Adults don’t magically go through a character arc in which they are immune to all this crap. Most of us quietly become part of the system.
- When adults instruct kids to simply ‘walk away’ from bullying, we are indoctrinating them into this system. Parents justify this by going back to the concept of ‘freedom’. ‘My child must be granted the freedom to choose her own friends’.
Can we end the whole “you attract who you are” myth? There are abusive, terrible and mediocre people who latch on to vulnerable, kind and generous folks.
Another myth to abolish: You don’t have to “love yourself” first in order to be worthy of love in return. You are worthy of being loved, of being safe and well-cared for regardless of how you feel about yourself.@femmefeministe
RELATED RESOURCES ON BULLYING
- A New Way To Reduce Playground Bullying
- Bullies and Bullying In Kids’ Books
- For more on coercive control, this podcast (actually the entire series) is excellent.
- Judith Staff on the difference between ‘resilience’ and ‘resignation’ is important.
- Bullies Use Their Dominance and Manipulation In All Areas Of Life, Study Reveals from The Independent (possible paywall)
Amy Alkon coined the term ‘social greed’ to describe someone’s unwillingness to risk their own social capital without an anticipated return on investment.