The Ideology Of Fatness In Children’s Stories

Here’s a list of all the times I have felt like a fat female character was depicted + portrayed accurately in three decades of watching:

SHRILL …this show is A LOT for me, pals!!!

Kate Hagen


A fat bully character in a book implies that fatness is connected to bullying—because our culture already has that stereotype entrenched. A fat bully character in an individual book invokes the culture in which it exists, and brings all that to bear. Can’t help but.


fatness blubber fatphobia Continue reading “The Ideology Of Fatness In Children’s Stories”

Characters Named Richard In Children’s Literature

Few names in history shine with so consistent a lustre as that of Richard; at first the little Duke, afterwards Richard aux longues jambes, but always Richard sans peur. This little sketch has only brought forward the perils of his childhood, but his early manhood was likewise full of adventures, in which he always proved himself brave, honourable, pious, and forbearing. But for these our readers must search for themselves into early French history, where all they will find concerning our hero will only tend to exalt his character.

— Charlotte M. Yonge 1872), pious children’s writer

aux longues jambes = long-legged

sans peur = fearless

The name Richard is a French baby name. In French the meaning of the name Richard is: Powerful; strong ruler. A Teutonic name from the European Middle Ages. England’s King Richard Coeur de Lion was a crusading knight.


Spotted Dick And Custard

See: How Dick Came To Be Short For Richard.

In children’s literature from the 1900s and the first half of the 20th century, Dick was a fairly common name for a boy character. Obviously the word then grew another meaning and started to be avoided by children’s writers, and at the same time embraced by adults’ writers.

I Love Dick poster

Children’s writers also started avoiding the names Titty and Fanny, as did parents.

Take Dick from Famous Five. He is the beta-dog, second-in-line to Julian, who has the more regal name, but still above the girls in the pecking order.

There’s another Dick in Blyton’s Faraway Tree series. He comes to visit from the city in the second in the series. Although he’s a bit hapless and incredulous, he is treated with far more empathy by the author than Connie, who is depicted as a prissy, spoilt brat in Folk Of The Faraway Tree. In an updated version, the characters Dick and Fanny have been updated to Rick and Frannie. While Frannie seems to work still, Rick is a glaring anachronism; were any Richards shortened to Rick until recently?

Dick from the Dick and Jane series, 1940
Dick from the Dick and Jane series, 1940

There’s a Dick in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons. Dick Callum is similar to the Famous Five Dick. He is a young astronomer, scientist, naturalist and master of the Scarab. Dick and his sister Dorothea Callum are often mentioned as a pair, the Ds.

Moby Dick


Do you know who Poor Richard was?

In adult fiction there’s the Martha Grimes detective series, with the title character named Richard Jury.

The Man with a Load of Mischief cover

But otherwise, it seems to me you’re far more likely to find a Richard as a writer, illustrator, historical king or movie director than as a fictional character in a book these days.

Mercy Watson Goes For A Ride by diCamillo and Van Dusen

If you’re looking for a chapter book to bridge the gap between beautifully illustrated picturebooks and pictureless novels, the Mercy Watson series is a great option, because the illustrations are just as enticing as any found in a high-production picture book.



1960s American suburbia.

Children’s authors and illustrators seem to love this era — in hindsight it feels so safe, with the housewives cheerfully putting on endless spreads of food. For every happy housewife we probably had a Eugenia and a Baby, sisters forced to live together because there was no pay equality, a dearth of husbands after the world wars, and no freedom for a full life outside the confines of marriage. However! This image of suburbia, illustrated in bright, sunny pastel colours by Chris Van Dusen, is a genuine utopia. You’ll find nothing rotten in the basements here. This is a parody of the era, in which everything can be fixed with hot buttered toast.

The pink cadillac convertible seems to be a 1959 model. This is an iconic car that you would’ve seen in the movie Grease. And Elvis had one.  Continue reading “Mercy Watson Goes For A Ride by diCamillo and Van Dusen”

Reading is a kind of gossip

In reading for character, readers conventionally use their knowledge of the way people in the world around them usually behave to assign traits to characters, to guess about their motivations, to reconstruct their past, or even to predict what they might do after the end of the story.

Reading in this way implies that fiction is a kind of gossip. It assumes that authors say a little bit about the characters they describe so that readers can have the fun of guessing about all the aspects of character and experience they are not told about. […] But, like gossip, guessing about literary characters can misrepresent them by fitting them into categories readers already possess. Readers who want the pleasure of perceiving something more than or something different from what they already know or believe about human nature have to work with a different assumption: that authors carefully select what they choose to say, and that their choices–both what they say and what they don’t say–define what they wish readers to understand.

– The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Perry Nodelman and Mavis Reimer

Developing Characters In Stories

Goodreads to Anne Tyler: You are noted for your skill in writing character-driven novels. Do you consider yourself a student of human behavior? When working on character, do you turn to people watching or daydreaming—looking outward or inward for inspiration?

Anne Tyler: I figure we’re almost all students of human behavior. That’s how we get along in the world—by trying to make sense of the people we have to deal with.

When I’m working on character, I search my memory for telltale traits or gestures that I may have noticed in some random passerby. For instance, the other day I met a delightfully scatterbrained woman who was wearing a plastic bracelet the size of a giant bagel. When she tried to write a note, her bracelet was so thick that her fingers couldn’t reach the pad of paper she was resting her wrist on. I loved that; I thought it said reams about her.


Here’s what Robert McKee has to say about characterisation in stories:

  • Characters are not people. Whereas people constantly change and are difficult to pin down, characters in stories stand for things about human nature that are unchangeable through the ages.
  • Be mindful of the difference between ‘characterization’ (age, looks, IQ, job etc.) and ‘true character’ (that behind the mask).
  • True character can only be expressed through choice in a dilemma. How a character chooses to act under pressure will reveal the most interesting things.
  • Make sure you understand your character’s desires.
  • Don’t reduce characters to case studies. ‘Generally, the more the writer nails motivation to specific causes, the more he diminishes the character in the audience’s mind.’
  • What other characters say about your character is more revealing than what main characters say about themselves.
  • To create 3D characters, what you do is give them complexity by contradiction. The trick is to make the contradictions of their character consistent.
  • The protagonist has to be the most complex character in the story.

Catherine Tate was asked once, ‘Where do you get your characters?’ She told the journalist that there was a shop on such-and-such-a-street.

As Dean Norris said of his character Hank Schrader on Breaking Bad: “I knew all about my character before I’d read a thing.”

From an acquisitions editor:

Here is a problem I find in my own writing and one I see in a lot of submissions:
Characters so focused on their own agendas that they don’t react like normal human beings to what is going on around them.
Cardboard Characters from Novel Rocket


  1. Making use of Myers-Briggs Personality Types;
  2. How to Use Psychometric Testing to Create Believable Characters from Writer Unboxed.

Other Useful Links

4. Creating Authenticity in Fiction – Where do authors draw the line? a thought-provoking article from Carly Watters.
5. Why Your Novel Characters Need Real Flaws at Rachelle Gardner’s blog
7. What Is Character? Books which debunk the myth of fixed personality from Brainpickings
8. Under Development: Ways to Create Characters, from The Other Side Of The Story
9. Take Your Characters To Therapy from Writer Unboxed
12. CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT TEMPLATE FOR HEROES (based on Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey)

Princesses In Literature


The proliferation of princesses in stories for children is partly explained by Maria Nikolajeva in Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature:

A structural approach to formulaic fiction, presented by John G. Cawelti (1976, 91), singles out four roles in a detective story: the victim, the criminal, the detective, and those threatened by the crime but incapable of solving it. These roles correspond to Propp’s characters of princess, villain, hero and false hero. … Traditional children’s fiction is unmistakably plot oriented. It is commonly believed that young readers are more interested in plot than in characters, as compared with adult readers. Since myths and folktales are conditioned by plot, operating with flat and static characters, early children’s books, imitating folk narratives, also concentrated on the plot, mainly exploring characters to clarify the morals of the story.

So the princess trope is as useful as any other kind of trope.



The princess has become a symbol of naive girlhood. Ian McEwan uses the concept to illustrate a point about Briony, who is 12 or 13, on the point of adolescence when she can slip between childishness and adult precociousness in a moment. McEwan describes a defining moment in her transition to adulthood:

No more princesses! The scene by the fountain, its air of ugly threat, and at the end, when both had gone their separate ways, the luminous absence shimmering above the wetness on the gravel — all this would have to be reconsidered. With the letter, something elemental, brutal, perhaps even criminal had been introduced, some principle of darkness, and even in her excitement over the possibilities, she did not doubt that her sister was in some way threatened and would need her help.

— Atonement, p113-114.

So ‘princess’ forms the opposite of the elemental, the brutal, the criminal and the dark.



There is definitely a princess backlash going on, and in modern books for children, princesses are likely to be the subversive kind: They may well wear a crown and live in a castle, but they’ll be autonomous, “tom-boyish”, cheeky, irreverent. Some of these princess stories have a definite moral of their own: Little girls don’t have to be submissive and like pink. Or more universally: You don’t have to be behave in the way society expects you to behave.

Here is Mighty Girl’s collection of strong, independent fictional princesses.

Other picturebook authors employ the princess trope for reasons which are not entirely clear to me — perhaps based on the idea that little girls are drawn to princess culture and will therefore be drawn to their book.


This is the first picture book I’ve seen in a while which has been worked on by three people — two authors as well as an illustrator. I guess a lot of women and girls would relate to this story; I do too, as I remember hating pink when I was about six through adolescence. This was nothing to do with pink itself, which did nothing wrong, and everything to do with going against what society thought I should be wearing/playing with/interested in.

These days my feelings about the pinkification of everything are rather more complex.

There now exists a type of children’s book which is a backlash against the pinkification of girlhood. This book is one such example. Although pink is the symbol of all that it means to be a ‘proper girl’, it goes further than that. Of course I want my daughter to get the message that she doesn’t have to conform to any special to any stereotype of feminine roles. As depicted in this book, girls can get dirty playing football, look badass pitching a baseball, wear practical rather than pretty shoes and fix things with power drills.

In other words, this is a celebration of tomboy-hood. (I have an issue with the word ‘tomboy’, but no other word is good.)

I don’t see any shortage of these sorts of stories, important as they are for the tomboys of this world. But girls, at least in this culture, are usually highly rewarded for doing traditionally male things such as science, mathematics and engineering. Girls are also applauded for playing rough-and-tumble games, at least until they become women, because although society is comfortable with watching ‘girls’ play sport, we’re not all that happy about watching ‘women’ play rough. Even in early childhood, few parents would chastise their daughters for playing with ‘boys’ toys’. This reflects the fact that male is still the default and the dominant, and so a girl who acts like a boy isn’t giving away any of her power by playing male roles.

What I do see a shortage of are picture books which celebrate dabbling in the feminine for little boys. That’s not to say that such books don’t exist; they may do. I just haven’t seen any. It’s time more parents accepted gender blurring activities for their little boys as well as for their little girls.

PRINCESS POPPY TWINKLETOES BY JANEY LOUISE JONES The Princess Curse eBook: Merrie Haskell: Kindle Store

The cover shows a picture of an ordinary girl (albeit with long blond hair) wearing a riding helmet and petting the mane of a horse. So far so good. She looks ready for some sort of activity, and it looks like she’s going to be doing something useful or fun involving horses and not sitting around preening herself, waiting for her prince.

The aim of this story is to foster care of others, and especially care of animals, because Princess Poppy ends up taking care of a pony which has been found wild in the hills. Feminine attributes are celebrated, without any overt Tomboyish ironic statement about princesses and how pathetic they are. That said, I find the dialogue saccharine: ‘”Aw, that pony is soooooo sweet!” cried Poppy.’

Except this is a My Little Pony kind of horse obsession, in which the pony is groomed, gently, and although some riding takes place, we have the usual heavy emphasis on what the female characters look like. ‘As the girls entered the stable block, they spotted two sets of beautiful riding clothes that Daisy had grown out of. They changed into jodhpurs, riding jackets with velvet collars, and shiny black boots. “And choose a hat!” said Daisy, pointing to rows of little wooden shelves, each containing hard hats in black, brown and navy blue.’ (Would a horse story for boys list all the different colours of hat?) ‘When they arrived back at the paddock, Mum and Granny Bumble were there too and everyone told Poppy and Honey how smart they looked.’

Note this use of ‘smart’ is in reference to their clothing, not to their riding smarts. This is hardly a story about girl power. ‘David helped Poppy into the saddle.’  On the final page: ‘”You are a perfect little princess — you didn’t give up.” said Mum. This is a good message, giving up. Except I don’t feel as if enough time has passed in the story for it to be a story about perseverance. In order for that one to work, we’d have to see the perfect little princess a year later, diligently grooming and feeding her new pony without being reminded by her mother.


I’m increasingly suspicious of books with glitter stuck to the pages. I’ve yet to meet a good one.

I have no idea when this book was created because it entirely lacks a colophon. I only notice this because I had the task of cataloguing it for preschool over summer. This job alerted me to another big problem with underfunding of preschools: a lot of the books they’ve gathered over the years seem to have been donated by former students, with no curation whatsoever. Our preschool is private (there is no public alternative), and as a non-profit instutition fees are kept as low as possible. There are no decent funds for books. A lot of the books are from the 1970s. The teachers buy their own books if they want modern and enlightened. This isn’t good enough.

The opening sentence alienates me somewhat: ‘It was Christmas Eve and Emily was all alone. She had no brothers or sisters to play with, and her parents had been made to work.’ I’m a parent of an only child (by choice) and the author seems to have an agenda, reinforced overleaf:

‘Haven’t you got any brothers or sisters to play with?’

Emily shook her head miserably.

‘How dreadful,’ said the fairy. ‘Everyone should have someone to play with.’

This reminds me of comments I’ve had such as, ‘Don’t you feel sorry for her?’ and ‘Children need brothers and sisters for playmates’ and ‘What about after you’re dead and gone?’ and ‘But if — god forbid — something happens to your only child you won’t be a mum anymore.’ Yes, people actually say these things.

Likewise, children’s authors should be wary of expressing their personal views on lifestyle choices. Even if it’s purely accidental, it’s still not good enough to get all judgey on parents who have to work Christmas Eve (a class issue) and parents who choose to have fewer than two children.

Moving on, this isn’t a good story in other ways. First, it doesn’t need to be a Christmas story at all. It’s not about Christmas, and there is nothing Christmassy about it. The only reason I can think of for the author to have set the story on a Christmas Eve is to engender more sympathy for Emily All Alone. But the problem with introducing Christmas in the first sentence and then not coming back to it until the very last is that this confuses genres in an ad hoc sort of way. This is a fairy story reminiscent of the Enid Blyton era.

The problem with re-creating 1940s style fairy stories is that it’s all too easy to reproduce outdated gender stereotypes. When Emily first encounters the fairy, the fairy speaks harshly (for no good reason other to drum up some conflict, I suspect — the same thing that annoys me in films and novels ). Emily starts to cry. It is only after Emily starts to cry that the fairy softens and takes Emily under her wing. I’m not sure about all the other parents of preschoolers out there, but teaching children not to burst out crying whenever they don’t get what they want takes some years of concerted effort, so I don’t need this modelled in picturebooks.

As for the plot, the dilemma in the story is that Princess Ruber (the colour red) can’t marry Prince Caeruleus (the colour blue) because if they do, they’ll each lose their colour. I’m not sure if this is meant to be saying something about intermarriage — I’m sure I’d be well advised to stay well clear of reading any subtext into it. In the end, the two do get married and become the colour purple. So children learn, if they haven’t already, that blue plus red equals purple and it turns into a mini art lesson.

It’s the other lessons they might also learn which concerns me. Not Every Princess eBook: Jeffrey Bone, Lisa Bone, Valeria Docampo: Books

princesses are not just pretty


A list of positive princesses in picturebooks from No Time For Flashcards

Reminder that the book Princess Academy is actually very good from BloomsburyUS Kids/YA

Must authors know their audience?

It is not seldom that writers misjudge their audience. Writers may declare that they write for boys and girls between ten and twelve, while the implied readers of the novels may have to be slightly older and more mature to understand the character, or the character’s experiences will only appeal to girls, or the particular settings and events of the novel presuppose a certain knowledge of the British public school system in the nineteenth century, or the intertextual links address reader with substantial reading habits. All this does not necessarily prevent real readers from enjoying a text that postulates a different implied reader.

– Maria Nikolajeva in The Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature


A lot of writers say that they don’t think about the reader at all. I’m a complete fucking whore for the reader. If someone picks up my book, they’re really doing me a fucking turn, and I want to give them a good time on many different levels. So I try to make every page and sentence pop. And that causes weird technical difficulties as a writer. It makes your work very intense as a reading experience.

Kevin Barry at The Millions

Gods, Heroes and Ordinary Characters In Children’s Fiction

 The conventions of literary fiction are that the bourgeois hero (more likely the heroine) be vulnerable, prone to shame and guilt, unable to fit the pieces of the larger puzzle together, and on the same banal moral plane as the “average reader”: sympathetic, in other words, someone we can “identify” with, who reflects our own incomprehension of the world, our helplessness and inability to effect change.

– an example of why we need to read about amazing characters, in an opinion from Anis Shivani


Gods, Heroes, Ordinary Kids


Roman Mars of the 99% Invisible Podcast has an interesting discussion with the author of a biography of Superman. It’s episode 82, here. Like me, Roman Mars finds Spiderman a far more interesting character, but as is pointed out, Superman was never meant to be relatable. Before he was known as ‘Man Of Steel’ he was known as ‘Man of Tomorrow’, in a much more optimistic age when it was thought that humankind is making its way closer to the ideal mindset of altruism for altruism’s sake.

This raises an interesting question: Where are we headed? Are humans becoming more kind or more harsh toward others? Steven Pinker thinks we’re getting less violent, for one thing. This is the main argument in his book: The Better Angels Of Our Nature.

Listen to him speak on iTunes U, in a podcast from the School Of Humanities and Sciences from Stanford.


A Psychoanalysis Of Clark Kent (from Emory University on YouTube)