The Carnivalesque in Children’s Literature

Children’s literature academic Maria Nikolajeva categorises children’s fiction into three general forms: prelapsarian, carnivalesque and postlapsarian.

This post deals with the second category: stories in which characters temporarily take over from figures of authority and often make mischief, but control their own worlds for a time. These stories don’t conform to classic dramatic structure, which is why some picture books in particular seem completely off-the-wall and immune to what we generally understand as ‘the rules of story. Carnivalesque characters don’t go through any kind of character arc, there’s no big battle (as such) and nobody learns anything. Just as comedy goes by a different structure, so too, does the carnivalesque picture book. The carnivalesque story has quite a bit in common with comedy structure — it can only ever be short (i.e. picture book length). There isn’t enough in it to sustain a full-length novel, say.

BASIC STRUCTURE OF A CARNIVALESQUE PICTURE BOOK

  1. An Every Child is at home. There are commonly two children, a boy and a girl. Or maybe just one. More than two is hard to manage.
  2. The Every Children wish to have fun. They therefore start in a place of restriction or boredom.
  3. Appearance of an Ally in Fun. (The Cat in the Hat turns up.)
  4. Fun ensues. Hierarchy is completely overturned. The adults are no longer in charge!
  5. Fun culminates!
  6. Peak Fun! Somehow the author must think of a way for the fun to get wackier and wackier. The best carnivalesque stories are displays of imagination even beyond a child’s wildest dreams. The carnivalesque story takes the reader beyond what they can imagine themselves.
  7. Return to the Home state. Normal and safe hierarchy resumes, with adults in charge.

I have just described your typical carnivalesque picture book for preschoolers. However, full-length novels and films for older readers do contain elements of the carnivalesque, if not hewing closely to that picturebook carnivalesque story structure.

DEFINING CARNIVALESQUE

In a carnivalesque story, the lowest in societal hierarchy — in the medieval carnival a fool, in children’s books a child — is allowed to change places with the highest: a king, or an adult, and to become strong, rich, and brave, to perform heroic deeds, to have power. […] The necessary condition of carnival is the reestablishment of the original order, that is, return to normal life. Carnival is always a temporary, transitional phenomenon–so is childhood. Like the carnivalesque fool, the child can temporarily, by means of magic or his own imagination, become strong, beautiful, wise, learn to fly, trick the adults, and win over enemies. The end of carnival means return to the everyday, but the purpose of carnival is not only entertainment, but a rehearsal of a future moral and psychological transformation.

Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time In Children’s Literature

To borrow ten dollar words: The ‘carnivalesque’ children’s story features a plot in which child characters interrogate the normal subject positions created for children within socially dominant ideological frames.

In simpler language: A child breaks free of the rules, has fun for a while, then returns home. The carnivalesque plot is basically a home-away-home plot, even if the child never literally leaves home e.g. The Tiger Who Came To Tea, or The Cat In The Hat, in which fun walks in the door. In the Dr Seuss example, it is the mother who returns home, but the children have nevertheless been on a journey (of the imagination). The Desire of the children in these stories is simply to have fun for a while. They often start in a state of boredom.

FUN AND ITS FLIP SIDE: A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE WORD

Although the carnival looks like unmitigated fun, it is socially sanctioned and controlled, originally by the church. (In case you need a word to describe flip side of this: ‘abject’, which describes the taboo and whatever should be repressed.)

Originally, carnivals were particular festivals with unique rituals that mirrored and inverted the essential elements of religious meaning. “Christmas/Yuletide laughter” was a time people were permitted to laugh. At Easter it was known as “Paschal laughter”. This was originally a pastoral phenomenon, inextricably linked to a Christian phenomenon, designed by the church to cheer up the congregation. (A good word to use for rituals of this era is ‘Christianized’ — ‘adjusted to Christian beliefs’.) Paschal laughter was first mentioned in texts in the early 1500s. The priest would tell jokes from the alter to cheer everyone up. (Maybe this is related to April fool’s jokes.) At all other times people weren’t permitted to laugh in church. Laughter and ridicule were to a certain extent legalised and tolerated on other holidays as well. That’s why the rich body of parodic literature from the Middle Ages is connected to celebrations and holidays.

Carnival tales are best considered to have two sides. These tales celebrate the two most significant stages of human existence: birth and death. In stories for adults, the events of the story are seen as a rebirthing and a reaffirming process for the renewal of society. Think of a body in two different ways: One is to do with birthing and dying. The other is conceived, generated and born. Creation or destruction, one or the other at any given time.

In religious terms, one is seen as a vessel (a temporary state before salvation), the other is corporeal and organic. This is why churches focus on saving the soul. (This view of bodies has been historically terrible for women. Men also have bodily functions, but with women’s grotesque and confronting childbirth or regular bleeding, women’s bodies are a constant reminder that humans are corporeal, not magical.)

THE FIRST CARNIVALESQUE STORY

In the Hebraic tradition, it’s probably the Adam and Eve story: the ‘adult children’ prance about in an Arcadia, and do something they know they’re not supposed to do — eat an apple. They’re trying to discover where the boundaries lie.

John Milton seemed to like that story, too, with Paradise Lost — a poem about the ‘arch transgressor’ Satan. Milton was himself transgressive. He was anti-clerical, a radical heretic and a political revolutionary.

In Hellenic myth we have Prometheus and his transgressive bestowal of fire upon humanity.

In both the Hebraic and Hellenic traditions, the ‘birth of imagination’ came from an act of rebellion against the divine order of things. In Western culture, transgression and imagination are strongly linked.

THE CARNIVALESQUE AND SHAKESPEARE

Shakespeare is just one example of a storyteller who has played with the carnivalesque. For instance, all the spells and enchantments in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream create a carnivalesque atmosphere for the lovers in which the normal rules of life just don’t apply.

THE FOUR TYPES OF CARNIVALESQUE

Mikhail Bakhtin was a Russian critic and philosopher. Bakhtin’s ideas are an evolution of the work of Francois Rabelais.

Mikhail Bakhtin’s four categories of the carnivalesque world:

  1. Familiar and free interaction between people: Unlikely people are brought together. They interact and express themselves freely.
  2. Eccentric behaviour: Unacceptable behaviour is welcomed and accepted. A character’s natural behaviour can be revealed without the consequences. (The idea that there’s a wild inner person behind a thin veneer is a Freudian way of looking at psychology.)
  3. Carnivalistic misalliances: Everything that may normally be separated reunites. Heaven and Hell, the young and the old, the powerful and the low-status, the rich and the poor, humans and animals etc.
  4. Sacrilegious: Carnival allows for sacrilegious events to occur without punishment. These plots are creative theatrical expressions of manifested life experiences in the form of sensual ritualistic performances.

CARNIVALESQUE TALES FOR CHILDREN

Though Mikhail Bakhtin had four categories, John Stephens divides carnivalesque texts for children into three main types:

  1. Those which offer the characters ‘time out’ from the habitual constraints of society but incorporate a safe return to social normality (of which Where The Wild Things Are is one such example). Adults tend to be not present to intervene.
  2. Those which strive through simple mockery to dismantle socially received ideas and replace them with their opposite, privileging weakness over strength (Babette Cole’s Prince Cinders, Anthony Browne’s Willy The Wimp, Fungus the Bogeyman by Raymond Briggs)
  3. Those which are more recent, and perhaps British in origin, consist of books which are endemically subversive of such things as social authority, received paradigms of behaviour and morality, and major literary genres associated with children’s literature (Out Of The Oven by Jan Mark and Anthony Maitland, Wagstaffe the Wind-up Boy by Jan Needle).

Carolyn Daniel, in Voracious Children, explains that texts that transgress adult food rules generally fall into either the first or third of these types. For more on the importance of feasting in children’s literature, see Sex Equals Food In Children’s Literature.

It’s all related to this concept of carnival, which points earthwards rather than heavenwards. Eating and other bodily functions are to do with Bakhtin’s “material lower body stratum”.

CORPOREAL DISCOMFORT

Gross-out books are also a subcategory of carnivalesque tales, focusing on bodily functions. During childhood we learn to come to terms with how the body works, which parts are private. (There is still a dearth of literature which affords the same level of comfort with menstruation compared to the other bodily functions. That said, I wouldn’t like the ‘gross out’ treatment for menstruation, because of a long history of taboo and disgust around women’s body.)

Series such as Diary of a Wimpy Kid are not gross-out books per se, though characters like Fregley seem to revel in it. There are regular scenes in which Greg Heffley is disgusted by the human body, for instance when he visits the local pool. He is of course terrified of impending puberty.

The PhD thesis by B.F. Haynes (2009): Elements of Carnival and the Carnivalesque in Contemporary Australian Children’s Literature. The work of Paul Jennings and Andy Griffiths comes up again and again. These two authors have ‘focalised the role of bodily functioning as narrative device’.

The time for gross-out books is limited to a very narrow window of childhood (and some kids never enjoy them at all). What does this turn into? Well, discomfort with living in a body doesn’t disappear. In young adult literature it simply takes a different form.

The Bakhtinian concept of the medieval grotesque — a dark focus on the corporeal — combines easily with the carnivalesque in adolescent literature because of adolescents’ extreme anxieties about their physical bodies.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe

As stand-out examples, Trites offers the works of:

  • Judy Blume
  • M.E. Kerr
  • Hadley Irwin
  • Richard Peck

Each of these authors ‘could be read as jesters parodying the adolescent body.’

FEATURES OF CARNIVALESQUE CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

  • is playful
  • is non-conforming
  • opposes authoritarianism and seriousness
  • is often manifested as a parody of prevailing literary forms and genres often has idiomatic discourse
  • is often rich in language which mocks authority, even though swearing is taboo in children’s literature (for example Dahl’s use of ‘pulled a pistol from her knickers’)
  • often stars a hero who is a bit of a clown or a fool

Maria Tatar has pointed out that children’s characters often begin from a place of boredom:

Look closely at children’s books and you will find that the heroic child often begins as a bored child, a child faced with the challenges of coping with the tedium of everyday life. … Oddly, the bored literary child often touches magic by falling asleep and dreaming about places like Oz, Wonderland, or Neverland. In real life, relief comes in the form of a story world rather than sleep.

Maria Tatar, Enchanted Hunters

Which — again — goes against much advice to writers — to create go-getter characters who want something specific and then go for it. Carnivalesque characters are different. They are generally just a stand-in for the child reader, with no real distinguishing characteristics of their own except for a fun body type (an animal in clothes, a rogue pet etc). These children have no more distinguishing characteristics than your average picturebook moose.

COMMON CARNIVALESQUE CHARACTER ARCHETYPES

The fool is a useful character in a carnivalesque tale.

  • (The fool is most often gendered male.)
  • The fool is free to speak the truth as he sees it but in turn usually reflects those believes of the society he mocks.
  • In the upside-down story world of the carnivalesque, the fool provides the opposition to established order.
  • The fool provides laughter for everyone. Laughter negates authority. Bakhtin said that the fool ‘speaks the laughing truth’. (You can probably think of real life examples of people with large platforms, who alternate between ‘speaking the truth’ and also saying outlandish things.)
  • The fool’s message might be farce, satire or parody.
  • As you can see, the fool is rarely made of pure stupid. This character is almost mandatory in any successful comedy. Seinfeld’s Kramer is alternatively naive and also lives outside mainstream society and is therefore able to see some of its absurdity, revelling in fun inside his own apartment by setting up a wonderland replete with spa pool and so on, focusing heavily on his stomach (food). In SpongeBob Squarepants, Patrick is alternately flat out wrong about basic truths but as the story requires he is able to point out a lot of truths to SpongeBob, who is a different kind of naive. In Kath and Kim, Kath quite often has a handle on the real situation and is able to give pretty good advice to the younger women in the show, namely Sharon and Kim.
  • Bakhtin has broken the particular stupidities of the fool down into further subcategories:
    • simplicity (Patrick of SpongeBob Squarepants)
    • naivety (Kel of Kath and Kim)
    • generosity (Sharon of Kath and Kim)
    • misunderstanding of pernicious social convention (today sometimes coded as autistic)

Of course, every fool needs his ‘straight man’, so the King archetype is equally necessary in carnival. Another take on the King archetype is the Lord or Abbot of Misrule — the leader of youth groups who were important in organising processions, competitions etc.

Misrule doesn’t have to be a ‘fool’ — jesters and clowns are related archetypes.

CARNIVALESQUE OBJECTS

Carnivalesque characters are often given props with which to have fun. In Where The Wild Things Are, the saucepan becomes a crown, which highlights the absurdity of the props of hierarchy. Speaking of Max…

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE

carnivalesque wild things

Where The Wild Things Are is [the first kind of carnivalesque text in three important ways: Max’s behaviour is oppositional to normal socializing expectations; the ‘wild things’ in the illustrations are grotesques, and thus in essence parodies of the natural creatures usually encountered during a wilderness adventure; and the book clearly belongs to the ‘time out’ group, in that Max’s adventure is formally a parenthesis in his relationship with his mother. Roger H. Ford (1979) has suggested that the main characters in several of Sendak’s books are modelled on the folk-tale Trickster figure, dominated by selfish appetites and emotions, given to practical jokes, capable of heroism and generally unselfconscious. Max’s entry into the land of the wild things, whether we regard it as a dream or an act of the imagination, enables him to enjoy a time of unconcerned spontaneity free of the social constraints which define his behaviours in the world as ‘mischief’. Max’s attempt to construct a site for fantasy play in the opening illustration involves causing damage to property, as is foregrounded by the grossly oversized hammer with which he attempts to drive a huge nail into the wall. His second act of mischief is to attack the family dog with a kitchen fork, an actual breach of proper conduct going beyond the quasi-‘hanging’ of his teddy bear included in the first illustration. Max, then, still deeply immersed in the solipsism of childhood, has not yet learnt the first principle of freedom–that freedom of action is bounded by the rights of others. Carnivalesque texts, by breaching those boundaries, explore where they properly lie and the ideological bases for their determination, but without always necessarily redrawing those boundaries…The grotesque in this book is comic and droll rather than frightening, though this was not always perceived when the book was first published. …By giving comically grotesque forms to inner fears, the illustrations image the defeat of that fear. Moreover, Max is always in control. Swanton (1971) offers this as one reason why children do not find the book frightening.

Language and Ideology in Children’s Fiction by John Stephens

John Stephens explains that the carnivalesque story is used not to question the values of the official world (that children being rude to their mothers needs to go punished before they are allowed to eat dinner), but to ‘define the values which may be at most implicit in some of the puzzling actions performed by those in power. In this respect, it is important to see that Max’s return and his mother’s gift of ‘supper’ are not causally linked but contiguous, since each is unconditional.’ Other authors of the era were writing quite different stories re parent/child power. For example, E. Nesbit. Stephens points out that modern books are not necessarily any better than Nesbit’s were, in that regard.

PIPPI LONGSTOCKING

Pippi Longstocking, Swedish favourite, is the ultimate carnivalesque character, and a rare female example. Ramona Quimby, Junie B. Jones and various new female stars of chapter books and middle grade are filling a bit of a hole there, but I have heard literary agents lament that they have all but disappeared by the time the reader advances to young adult literature. If carnivalesque female characters exist, they tend to be the main character’s best friend.

Pippi Longstocking, Swedish favourite, is the ultimate carnivalesque character.
Pippi Longstocking, Swedish favourite, is the ultimate carnivalesque character.

CURIOUS GEORGE

You’ll notice in the picture below, carnivalesque children’s characters are often depicted in mid-air, mid-mischief. By the way, the inverse of a carnivalesque character is the underdog. Readers also love underdog characters, so long as they break free of that status.

Flying is a carnivalesque (fun) thing to do.

THE CAT IN THE HAT BY DR SEUSS

The O.G. of carnivalesque picture book characters.

In The Cat In The Hat, Theodore Geisel (Dr Seuss) slyly revealed that discipline and anarchy live on opposite sides of the same street. (Cheersome fact for writers: Though fun to read, it took a year and a half of struggle for Geisel to write.)

The Cat In The Hat is the ultimate carnivalesque character
The cat grins at the reader in complicity. Let’s have fun together!

PETER PAN AND WENDY

The Darling Children, like their more anxious counterparts in The Cat In The Hat, move from the orderly routines of a space ruled by their mother to rowdy antics and alluring adventures in a story world that bears a distinct resemblance to the way we imagine the mind of a child.

BUGS BUNNY

The stand-out carnivalesque character from retro cartoon world would be Bugs Bunny, who is all about fun and over-turning whatever social hierarchy is in place.

Bugs Bunny ultimate carnivalesque character
What’s he poking fun at? Authority, no doubt.

NOT ALL CARNIVALESQUE IS FUN

Now I’ve given you all those examples of laughing, prancing characters, remember what I said above about the dark flip side of carnival.

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier is not a fun novel. Yet we use this story as a young adult literature example of the carnivalesque. When the main character decides not to sell chocolates, he is rebelling against the authority of an institution. This ultimately leads to his downfall. Perhaps a good way of summing up the carnivalesque is simply ‘disturbing the universe’.

In fact, the carnival is a way for people — including children — to come to grips with scary things.

Children are frequently involved as subjects and players [in carnivals], and not only during Halloween. Guaranteeing their survival is a central part of the story, and different festivities face up to dangers that can assail from any number of directions—sickness, animal predators, witchcraft, devils, cannibals, ogres, succubi, fire and flood and famine. The magical attempt to secure safety takes two predominant forms: either the participants impersonate the danger itself, as in the carnival masks and fancy dress of Halloween, and thus, cannibal-like, absorb its powers and deflect is ability to inflict harm; or they expose themselves and by surviving the ordeal, prove their invulnerability.

Marina Warner, No Go the Bogeyman

How To Write Underdog Stories

underdogs in fiction

The underdog is very popular as a main character in fiction. But there are ways to write underdogs well as well as pitfalls to avoid.

What Is An Underdog?

  • An underdog story is a ‘David Beats Goliath’ story going back even further than Biblical times.
  • Underdog stories are often rags-to-riches stories. (Cinderella stories)
  • Another variation is the Baby In The Basket, starting with Oedipus.
  • When the main character is an underdog the audience tends to care about them and root for their success in whatever goal the writer sets up.
  • Sometimes the underdog is discriminated against due to their identity, e.g. racism or sexism or any other kind of prejudice. In fairytales it was because they were poor or unconnected or because their stepmother didn’t love them.
  • In children’s stories, the child is always part underdog archetype by virtue of being a child, not considered capable of doing anything significant, not trusted, not believed.
  • In fables, mice are under-‘dogs’ because of their small size.
  • Northrop Frye categorised heroes based on how similar main characters are to the average person. The underdog sits between low mimetic and ironic narrative, right at the bottom of the pecking order.

 

The Three Assumptions Behind Most Underdog Stories

It’s worth thinking hard about our own attitudes towards social hierarchy before writing an underdog story. In contemporary stories, these are some shared beliefs:

  1. In every situation there always has to be a winner and a loser. A happy ending requires not just someone’s triumph but also someone else’s defeat.
  2. The best way to win is to have the individual power to take control and win by one’s own actions
  3. A truly happy ending occurs only when a person who was oppressed achieves a position in which it’s possible to oppress others. 

If you’re anything like me, you have a problem with these assumptions. For starters they promote a particularly combative, warring view on the world. Subversive stories will go beyond these conservative defaults. From a feminist perspective, these assumptions also pander to a masculine sensibility.

Maurice Sendak’s “Where The Wild Things Are  is an excellent representation of these political assumptions. Surprisingly few award-winning texts for children celebrate the value of groups of people working together as equals; far more celebrate the power of individuals controlling groups.

– from The Pleasures of Children’s Literature by Nodelman and Reimer

The Paradox Of Underdog Characters

Readers want heroes to be underdogs, but they don’t want them to be losers. They don’t want your main character to actually go from being zero to hero: they want him or her to start out with skills and admirable characteristics that will carry him or her though the story.

Matt Bird

Matt Bird uses the phrase ‘zero to hero’, analogous to John Truby’s concept of Range of Change.

The Smallest Girl In The Smallest Grade
The Smallest Girl In The Smallest Grade is an example of a children’s story in which the reader is encouraged to root for the smallest character.

Underdog Stories vs Carnivalesque Stories

Leaving Northrop Frye’s categorisation aside for a moment, in which the superhero is the inverse of an underdog, the inverse of an ‘underdog story’ is a ‘carnivalesque’ story. Read Pippi Longstocking for a prime example of carnivalesque. In a carnivalesque story a character with little agency (probably a child, or a child stand-in) has great fun by ignoring societal conventions, basically going on a bender and to hell with the consequences. For the duration of the story, this character has broken free from their underdog status.

Happy vs Sad Endings In Children’s Stories

If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.

– Orson Welles

There are no happy endings.
Endings are the saddest part,
So just give me a happy middle
And a very happy start.
– Shel Silverstein
I don’t think a happy ending should be one of the requirements of a children’s book. Kids want their books to reflect reality. They know that the bully doesn’t always get his comeuppance in the end.
– Robert Cormier

CASE STUDY: THE ENDING OF BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA

BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA COVER

At the end of this story, Leslie dies while swinging on the rope to Terabithia and Jess blames himself for it. Luckily Jess’s father helps him accept Leslie’s death and convinces him that it’s not his fault and to hold onto Leslie’s friendship to keep her alive. Jess returns to Terabithia, but builds the titular bridge, and takes his sister with him, offering her the title of princess.

Quite a few critics have objected to the fact that Katherine Paterson’s novels do not offer young readers any hope. Paterson has refuted criticism by saying that “there is no way that we can tack [hope] on to the end of the story like pinning the tail on the donkey.

Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature

Do children require happy endings?

[Alan Garner] states that a writer must not offer readers solutions or happy endings, but instead make use of something he calls “the method of the open hand” where readers must discover for themselves what the writer has to show. It was the publishers who requested that The Moon of Gomrath (1963) be given a “happy” ending instead of an open and disturbing one.

– from Children’s Literature Comes Of Age by Maria Nikolajeva

I do not necessarily claim that young readers need happy endings. Rather, they are conditioned to see conventional endings, which in our Western tradition happens to be a happy ending, reestablishing the characters in their power position.

– The Rhetoric of Children’s Character by Maria Nikolajeva

Death by Newbery Medal: A Phenomenon

There is a Slice of Life story about childhood and coming of age. The main character has a best friend (an animal, another child, or a family member) who is a source of joy, wisdom, and understanding in their life. This friend is often frailer, more unworldly, or otherwise more “special” than The Protagonist. Bonus points if the character is cute or adorable.At the end of the story, this very special best friend is abruptly killed off, usually in a clear-cut case of Diabolus ex Machina. A favorite trick is to have the death happen entirely off-screen. The more horribly poignant, the better.All this is generally accompanied by lots of “end of the innocence” angsting from the main character, along the lines of “That was the day my childhood ended…” Really, it’s just the author’s way of having a child suddenly make the jump to adulthood via a single defining tragedy.The Newbery Medal is a prestigious award given to American novels written for children. To win one, it helps a lot to use a story like this. The British equivalent is the Carnegie Medal, which has a similar reputation.

– TV Tropes

Fairytales, Weddings & New Relationships

The “happy endings” of Hollywood films link them with the world of fairy tales, which are often about the achievement of perfection. Fairy tales frequently end with a statement of perfection, like “and they lived happily ever after”. Fairy tales bring the shattered family back into balance, back to completion.

Weddings are a popular way to end stories. Marriage is a new beginning, the end of an old life of being single and the beginning of a new life as part of a new unit. New beginnings are perfect and unspoiled in their ideal form.

pride-and-prejudice-1995-wedding-scene-jennifer-ehle-and-colin-firth-x-450

Striking up a new relationship is another way to show a new beginning at the end of a story. In Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart makes the difficult Resurrection sacrifice, giving up the chance to be with the woman he loves. His reward, the Elixir he brings away from the experience, is his new alliance with Claude Rains. As he says, in one of the most famous tag lines in the history of the movies, “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler

Endings of Carnivalesque Stories

In a carnivalesque story, the lowest in societal hierarchy — in the medieval carnival a fool, in children’s books a child — is allowed to change places with the highest: a king, or an adult, and to become strong, rich, and brave, to perform heroic deeds, to have power. However, the very idea of carnival presupposes a temporal limitation. The child, who has been allowed to leave the security of home and experience breath-taking adventures, is taken back, and the established order is restored. This is what we sometimes call a happy ending. As Pat Pinsent demonstrates, excessive “coincidences” in children’s fiction, which sometimes irritate mimetically minded critics, should not be considered artistic flaws since they are part of this restoration of the initial order.

Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time In Children’s Literature

(In general, though, coincidences are okay at the beginning of a novel but not as a way of tying up the end.)

Do Unhappy Endings In Children’s Stories Endure?

We love heroes and heroines from Peter ­Rabbit to Harry Potter because we know that no matter how bad things get, they will return stronger and happier through what they’ve learnt, and that their experiences will enable them to restore justice. Every work of fiction that we take to our hearts, up to and including Jane EyreThe Odyssey or Pride and Prejudice, follows this template. A great work of tragic fiction brings about catharsis, but on the whole, we need the consolations of children’s fiction far more.

Not every classic has what you might call a conventional happy ending: the boy in Roald Dahl’s The Witches gets turned into a mouse, and never returns; at the finale of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, Will and Lyra must be parted for ever; the hero of John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas chooses to die in the gas chambers with his imprisoned friend. Though all have been made into successful films, my guess is that none of these novels will continue to be read with enthusiasm by future generations because of the way they end.

Doom-laden children’s books may impress prize juries, but it’s the ones that offer hope that will be remembered: Why has the Carnegie Prize honoured a work as depressing as ‘The Bunker Diary’

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