People in the children’s book world ask…’Is it suitable?’ ‘Is it the right age level?’ ‘Is it about a contemporary problem?’ These are important questions, but not of primary importance. The primary question should be ‘Is this a good book?’, or ‘Is this a good writer, writing a good book?’
In stories for children, as in stories for adults, emphasis on the seasons and the circular nature of time gives a story a feminine feel. Each season carries its own symbolism, but it’s not a clear delineation.
With the recent Gilmore girls revival we now have agents/editors asking for similar story structures.
What would that mean, exactly, to write a story with a similar structure to Gilmore girls?
One aspect which provides structure to Gilmore girls is the seasons. Rory’s life (like any diligent high school student’s) is determined by the school terms, in turn different according to season. Stars Hollow holds regular annual events which are also connected to seasons, be it Halloween pumpkins, picnic hampers or Christmas festivities.
In television miniseries, the seasonal structure isn’t new. Take for instance the Disney adaptation of Little House On The Prairie. Each of the three episodes has distinctly different seasons.
The fact is, this story structure is very old, especially in stories for and about girls.
The straight (non-reversed, un-ironic) version looks like this:
Characters exist in:
- a troubled, vulnerable state or
- in a world of freedom susceptible to attack
The crickets sang in the grasses. They sang the song of summer’s ending, a sad, monotonous song. “Summer is over and gone,” they sang. “Over and gone, over and gone. Summer is dying, dying.” The crickets felt it was their duty to warn everybody that summertime cannot last forever. Even on the most beautiful days in the whole year — the days when summer is changing into fall — the crickets spread the rumor of sadness and change.
— Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White
Characters begin their decline.
Alternatively, or as well as this decline, autumn lends a cosy feel which takes us back to childhood especially — this is a Northern Hemisphere thing, and works well for American audiences, who have Thanksgiving, Halloween and football matches in the fall.
The late scenes of Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman and Marlena by Julie Buntin both occur in a damp, shadowy, late-autumn woods haunted by literal death that signals the end of girlhood.
Movies in which autumn features heavily:
- When Harry Met Sally
- Autumn in New York is a movie in its own right, but…
- …another film which features autumn in New York is You’ve Got Mail! You’ve Got Mail spans the entire year through the seasons, but the fall scenes are thought to be the best.
- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (think of Hagrid’s hut with all the pumpkins)
- Stepmom — fall in Connecticut
- Hocus Pocus and other Halloween movies like Practical Magic — because for North Americans, fall is synonymous with Halloween
- Dead Poet’s Society — for its back-to-school feel. (Australian students return to school while it’s still well and truly summer, so this is a Northern Hemisphere thing.)
- Remember The Titans and Rudy — because fall is football season
- Pieces of April — because fall is Thanksgiving season
- Little Women — because a lot of the story takes place in the fall
Characters reach their lowest point.
Middle grade novel Skellig by David Almond is a story which makes use of seasonal symbolism. When Michael discovers Skellig, his luck begins to change. “Winter was ending.” The season of death and dormancy (especially for Michael and Skellig) is about to give way to the rebirth of spring-a kind of second innocence.
However, there’s winter and then there’s winter. A winter blizzard is dangerous, but a landscape covered in snow has the opposite effect, evoking hygge, or as Jerry Griswold puts it, evoking snugness.
There are, of course, certain times of year and day that are more conducive to evocations of snugness. Winter, especially after snow has fallen, and Christmastime are special in this regard; consider, for example, the tableau of the family in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, all gathered together around the fire when father returns at Christmas; or Clement Moore’s poem “The Night Before Christmas” when “The children were nestled all snug in their beds, / While visions of sugarplums danced in their heads.” And as for time of day, the moment for nesting is when sleep comes; here the great tableau may be in Johanna Spyri’s Heidi when grandfather, both when Heidi first arrives and when she returns from Frankfurt, steals up the ladder to look at the slumbering child in the nest she has made for herself from hay in the attic. To be brief: a snug place is a place where one can sleep peacefully.
In the spring, characters overcome their problem and rise.
This short film, called Spring, follows a girl’s trip out of the dark forest, which gradually blooms into a more welcoming arena.
A story might start in springtime. In Beverly Cleary’s Emily’s Runaway Imagination, the story begins with spring and a feeling of welcome change. Almost exhilaration:
The things that happened to Emily Bartlett that year!
It seemed to Emily that it all began one bright spring day, a day meant for adventure. The weather was so warm Mama had let her take off her long stockings and put on her half socks for the first time since last fall. Breezes on her knees after a winter of stockings always made Emily feel as frisky as a spring lamb. The field that Emily could see from the kitchen window had turned blue with wild forget-me-nots and down in the pasture the trees, black silhouettes trimmed with abandoned bird nests throughout the soggy winter, were suddenly turning green.
Everywhere sap was rising, and Emily felt as if it was rising in her, too.
— Beverly Cleary
SUBVERSION OF SEASONAL SYMBOLISM
However, a writer may choose to avoid the cliche by turning it around. So the character declines in spring and is rejuvenated in the winter. This not only short-circuits the audience’s expectations but also asserts that humans, though of the natural world, are not enslaved by its patterns.
What about the seasons and writing for children?
If writing for children is different from writing for adults, surely it’s because our main audience has not seen enough of the world or of literature to have noticed cliche, which becomes more noticeable the older/better read you become.
Maria Nikolajeva, academic of children’s literature has made the following observations about:
THE TREATMENT OF TIME IN BOOKS FOR GIRLS AND BOOKS FOR BOYS
This is a fascinating concept, and something I’d not noticed until it was pointed out, by Maria Nikolajeva in Children’s Literature Comes Of Age. Earlier in the book she defines books for boys (often adventure) and books for girls (horse stories etc, and those starring girls) which these days tend to have pink somewhere on the cover. In an ideal world there’d be no such thing as sex differentiation in books. Because gender is not genre. But I’m quite radical like that.
One Swedish essay on narrative differences in books for boys and books for girls stipulated that male time is linear, while female time is circular…. Time in books for girls and in books for boys is closely connected with place. Not only is male time linear, but male space is open, as books for boys take place outdoors, sometimes far away from home in the wide world. Male narrative time is structured as a series of stations where an adventure is experienced, a task is performed, a trial is passed. Time between these stations practically does not exist. The text can say something like “after many days full of hardships they reached their destination…” The male chronotope is thus corpuscular, discontinuous, a chain of different separate time-spaces (“quants”) which are held together by a final goal. These separate chronotopes may also correspond to chapters in adventure boos: each chapter is self-contained, even if some threads can run from one chapter to another. It is easily observable in classic stories such as Mark Twain’s The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer (1876) or Robert McCloskey’s Homer Price (1943).
The chronotope in books for girls is completely different. The space is closed and confined. The action mostly takes place indoors, at home (alternatively at school). Time is cyclically closed and marked by recurrent time indications: (“It was spring again,” “It was Christmas again”). Three classical girls’ books, Little Women (1868), Anne Of Green Gables (1908) and Little House In The Big Woods (1932), are very good illustrations. Any gaps in time can be easily filled by the reader, who knows that it takes time for plants to grow or for snow to thaw, that the school year is full of homework, that housework is the same year in and year out. Female narrative time is often extended to several years with certain recurrent points. The chronotope is continuous both in time and space. Spatial movement in girls’ books means merely a change from one confined space to another likewise confined one — for instance, from the parents’ home to a boarding school, from the heroine’s childhood home to her husband’s home, to “the doll house,” an image often used by contemporary writers trying to break this pattern; one example is Maud Reutersward’s A Way From Home (1979), the Swedish title of which is “The Girl and the Doll House.”
The female narrative chronotope is also based on our conceptions of male and female nature…Female time is circular, follows the cycle of the moon, and consists of recurrent, regular events of death and resurrection, seasonal changes and so on. … Linear male time is a product of enlightenment and is the spirit of action and progress.
…there are many deviations… As in all other areas, in chronotope structures of children’s books of the past ten to twenty years there is also a merging of male and female, a disintegration of the epic chronotope, and some bold innovations.
Nikolajeva’s book was published in 1996, so another 10 or 20 years have passed even since then. I’d be interested to know what has happened. Are stories for girls still mostly set inside? Do books for girls run by the moon?
EXAMPLES OF SEASONAL SYMBOLISM IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE
Sometimes, winter is a metaphor for depression. As an example, see Blackdog by Levi Pinfold.
In the similarly named, earlier title by Pamela Allen, Black Dog, more is made of the significance of the seasons with inclusion of the following double spread:
In Stick Man, illustrator Axel Scheffler demonstrates the passing of time with the following montage:
In the Australian picture book Tanglewood, too, we have a page of thumbnail illustrations depicting the passage of time via the seasons.
Handy quotes Lewis on his own memory of reading the Beatrix Potter book “Squirrel Nutkin” when he was young: It “troubled me with what I can only describe as the Idea of Autumn.” The subject of childhood, even more than old age, seems always to be about its ending. My favorite chapter was the last one — about death in children’s literature, but also about endings generally.NYT review of Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult By Bruce Handy
The examples above are all picture books, but stories which emphasis cycles are common in stories for (or about) older girl readers. Julie of the Wolves is an excellent example. This novel is a Robinsonnade earlier feminist novel with explicitly ecological themes.
Miyax (Julie) must kill to remain alive herself, but her killing is always shown to be part of the ongoing life cycle that must continue if life is to be sustained on the tundra. […] The ideology […] is explicitly ecological, but it contains an implicitly feminist message as well, for this ecological veneration of life cycles inherently praises the interconnectedness of life cycles that feminist texts so often embrace. Rather than unfolding with the linear plot-line that is common in children’s realism, Julie of the Wolves contains an embedded narrative structure that parallels the text’s consciousness of cycles. […] Nothing in Miyax’s life happens in isolation, and nothing occurs in a straight line. Instead, she moves forward, makes mistakes, and moves forward again. Thus, the narrative structure parallels the nonlinear nature of Miyax’s life and the cyclical nature of the novel’s setting.Roberta Seelinger Trites, Waking Sleeping Beauty
As for the cycles of the female body, the text openly addresses how a teenager living in isolation deals wtih menstruation by clearly stating that she has not yet reached menarche.
Obviously, the association of cycles and femininity are to do with menstruation, pregnancy and childbirth. The female body goes through clear cycles of birth and rebirth, while men just get older and die.
Unfortunately we weren’t able to attend the Bookseller’s Children’s Conference held in London last month, mostly because we live on the other side of the world. Nevertheless, I read children’s book news with keen interest. Kate Wilson of Nosy Crow was indeed at this conference, and I was interested to read her response to something which was said by a respected critic of children’s literature. Here’s Kate’s summary, which is what I have to go on:
Nicolette [Jones] said that she had “reservations” about picture book apps, on the basis that the printed book “does it better”, and went on to say that the “technology of the app interferes with the story”. She worried that “interactivity in apps replaces the space in children’s imagination”, and that “the app doesn’t go through the adult”. She said that the only apps she’d found successful were apps like the Touchpress Warhorse app, and Hot Key’s Maggot Moon app which provided additional material around each book, which, in itself, remains unaffected by the surrounding multimedia or animation material.
I’m not the slightest bit surprised to read this, and a large part of me wants to ignore it. After all, if you’re not ‘in the ring’, your opinion as a critic ain’t worth all that much to me. On the other hand, this kind of thing directly affects our sales. And sales are, unfortunately, relevant in this discussion. As noted by Philip Jones at FutureBook:
[The] combination of huge abundance and the difficulties of commercialising the products should not be under-estimated when looking at book apps. We seem to spend an inordinate amount of time discussing whether particular apps work, or don’t, but not enough time figuring out how the market conditions may be impacting these developments.
I have suspected a dismissive attitude towards book apps from longtime children’s literature critics and established printbook authors for a while now, and I’m glad to see it voiced, as it gives those of us in App Land a chance to respond to something concrete.
ARE YOU THERE, CRITICS? IT’S WE, BOOK APPS.
As you may notice from the digital badge to the upper right of our website, our second picturebook app Midnight Feast won a mention in the BolognaRagazzi Digital Awards earlier this year. There are few literature prizes open to digital picturebooks — most we must pay to enter and are therefore not worth a damn — but the BolognaRagazzi is the one big exception. So we were thrilled when our book app was judged as one of the top three fiction apps of the year (alongside an app by Nosy Crow, as it happens). Of course, a literature prize is not a running race — individual tastes of the judges are relevant rather than a millisecond on a stopwatch, and so we must always take literature prizes for what they’re worth. The fact is, any of the shortlisted apps as judged by the BolognaRagazzi panel is a heavyweight. If you’re interested in checking out the jurors’ commentary, you’ll see this is not an effusive bunch. Each member of the panel is suitably critical and careful when it comes to literary use and abuse of new technologies.
So, what happens to your app after it wins a mention in a big prize these days? Less than you might think*. Organisers of the BolognaRagazzi Digital Prize asked us for fifteen promo codes which were to be distributed to reviewers and critics over the course of the book fair. The wonderful advantage about being in the business of apps (rather than in printed materials) is that Apple provides us with unambiguous statistics. We can tell you via our stats that of the fifteen promocodes requested by Bologna, only three of them were actually redeemed, and none of them was redeemed by a user with a UK iTunes account. It’s possible that Bologna did not get around to sending out the codes, or perhaps they sent them to the wrong people at the wrong time. But when influential critics publicly dismiss the entire shebang, I’m inclined to err on the side of, ‘critics weren’t interested in them’. Lest it be thought that I am focusing these thoughts on the single critic Nicolette Jones, this is obviously a bigger issue. I am asking the question: Which influential people in Children’s Literature world (not Tech World, not Teaching World, not Parent World) are seeking out the award winning picture book apps before dismissing them? Nicolette Jones is not personally responsible for evaluating our book apps in particular, especially since we never sent her any promocodes. I’m pointing out that Children’s Literature World, in general, is increasingly closed to creators of picturebook apps. I do wonder if the promoters of award-winning printed picture books have any trouble giving them away at book fairs?
*To be fair, I’m pretty sure — insofar as anyone can be sure of anything when it comes to the Charlie’s Chocolate Factory which is Apple — that the mention of Midnight Feast in the BolognaRagazzi led to our previous app The Artifacts being featured in the App Store several months later. (Midnight Feast itself is and always will be a hard sell. Nor does it fit neatly into any App Store age category in the Kids’ section.) It’s easy to criticise Apple for failing to help book developers. Apple prefers to promote games. Philip Jones sees ‘very little evidence that Apple is doing anything to help with this transition,’ and I can’t really argue, except to add that Apple has done a darn sight more for our sales figures than any critic of children’s literature. (And I say this knowing it’s easy to say, AFTER a book app of yours has been featured.)
Unredeemed promocodes aside, I would like to share with you Midnight Feast’s sales figures for the United Kingdom* over the year since our ‘award winning app’ has been released: 52. Fifty-two downloads from the UK.
There’s only one thing worse than a children’s critic slamming an entire category, and that’s failing to mention it at all. Part of me is glad that critics recognise that book apps count as books. A book app’s lack of an ISBN is problematic to its credibility as a work of literature. But the difference between a critic and a reviewer is surely this: A ‘reviewer’ is welcome to pick and choose from a subcategory of books according to the reviewer’s own interest, whereas a ‘critic’ has a responsibility to read and seek out** award winning and starred reviewed examples of a category before speaking about the category in public as a figure of authority.
Stuart Dredge quotes Jones directly:
“I’ve never seen a picture book-app that does something that a book doesn’t do better.”
**I know that critics are not accustomed to ‘seeking things out’. They are sent an avalanche of material every week (50 printed picturebooks for Nicolette Jones, according to reports from Stuart Dredge) and for them it’s a matter of culling them. But we are now in a different place when it comes to publishing, and Ron Charles explains brusquely in the Washington Post ‘No, I don’t want to read your self-published book’ why critics and review sites simply cannot respond to everything. I understand, fully. Our apps are self-published, and largely ignored. My response to that: Nor may they comment on the quality of everything. And if they are interested in commenting on the quality of what’s being self-published, a time-efficient way of seeking out the best would be to seek out the prize winners.
I would prefer Nicolette Jones to add, ‘but I am not a particular enthusiast of picturebook apps and I certainly don’t pretend to have done a wide survey of them’. Note that Jones spoke of the most expertly marketed picture book apps:
“I can see some publishers like Nosy Crow doing fantastically well with very interesting apps, and trying to reproduce the quality of a book. [Aw, bless!] There’s a lot of energy and creativity and intelligence going into this, and I don’t want to be too dismissive,” she said [dismissively].
This should be a red flag. Would you listen to a games critic dismiss mobile apps if he offered the example of Angry Birds to make his main point? The Nosy Crow picture book apps are the Angry Birds of App Picturebook World, known to anyone who’s had even the most passing interest in the category.
BUT WHY THE HIERARCHY, ANYWAY?
So, ‘I’ve never seen a picture book-app that does something a book doesn’t do better,’ she said.
Between our first two picture book apps I noticed something of a paradox when it comes to expectations of the interactive medium. To quote myself:
I’m hearing two distinct but conflicting messages from those of you who know children’s literature:
1. Apps should be simple. You’re encouraging us to think very hard and long about interaction and animation. This is good. I’m thinking. Hard.
2. Apps have to offer something more than a print book does. For less cost to the consumer, by the way.
But we didn’t go into this industry hoping to add something more than print books can achieve.
Printed picture books are an excellent medium. I can’t see a single way in which the print book fails. [There are fewer ways in which to cock it up.] The best of them do a great job of sparking imagination, transporting children to other worlds, offering the gift of story and creating a love of reading.
Can a digital medium possibly offer more oomph than that? And should the savvy consumer expect it to?
When Jones says that she’s never seen a picture book app that a book doesn’t ‘do better’, I am very suspicious: Has she actually seen and studied picture book apps (like ours) which were created for a touch screen? Our products do not exist alongside printed versions. They exist in their own right. A comparison, let alone a hierarchy, is therefore difficult. In order to even make a statement that includes the word ‘better’, a critic would have to compare a printed picture book alongside its appified version. If a critic were to approach Midnight Feast or The Artifacts in this way, she would have to imagine-up a printed version of the story — one which exists only inside her head. Here’s the thing about things that exist inside heads: They are always better than any real-world product. (Any creative’ll tell ya.)
THE DEVICE ISN’T NECESSARILY ‘OVER THERE’
From Stuart Dredge’s summary of Nicolette Jones’ comments:
“If you look at a book with a small child, it’s a hug,” [Jones] said, making a gesture to show a parent with a child sitting in their lap, and an open book in front of them.
“With a device over here, there isn’t that relationship, and it doesn’t go through the adult,” said Jones, motioning to an imaginary tablet by a child’s side.
Cutesy hug metaphors aside, this is frustrating. I mean, it’s ridiculous to blame app developers for adults who may (or may not be!) using our products as substitutes for (rather than as complements to) parent-child interactive reading. Although I sense Jones isn’t talking about the ‘point of purchase’ when she says that a picture book app ‘doesn’t go through the adult’, it’s worth pointing out that an adult with a credit card is required in order for a book app to appear in front of a child in the first place. We’re not just leaving them lying around in gutters, for instance, like discarded bottles of rum, ready for two-year-olds to clap their chubby hands upon. Is there hard evidence, even, that an adult who has just selected and installed an app is throwing the device into the lap of the child before briskly leaving the room? Our own anecdotal evidence suggests that any adults who buy and share our apps care very much about what their children are reading. I see it in the quality of their App Store reviews. Ours are some of the most coherent on the store. (I know that’s not saying much, but still.)
THERE ARE ACTUALLY A FEW THINGS THAT PICTURE BOOK APPS CAN DO BETTER.
It’s true that interactive books can be somewhat overhyped. Developers are quick to label something as ‘educational’ in the same way food companies are keen to label products as ‘natural’. (i.e. It’s meaningless.) I have my own reservations about certain taken-for-granted enhancements; in particular I’m waiting for more research about the benefits of text-highlighting, or for a study which will lead developers into best practice.
I’m not a big fan of heavily animated book apps, mainly for aesthetic reasons. I’m very wary about games which pull a reader out of the story. Perhaps my biggest reservation of all about e-reading in general is that when a book exists on a device, it exists alongside push-button access to games, TV and the Internet. I’ve noticed from my own experience of reading ebooks on a tablet that it’s harder to become immersed in a novel when you know you can dart here there and everywhere to look up a word, then dilly-dally back to the story-at-hand via a quick few games of Boggle. Still, I’m not going to blame publishers of my favourite ebooks for that.
So sure, let’s take a moment to indulge in the undying need for hierarchies. I have given much thought to what book apps can achieve and what printed books can’t, partly as a way of deciding the future for our own indie company: Is it worth it, to spend years creating picture book apps when the environment is basically hostile? I might include a number of other more obvious benefits of the touchscreens themselves, such as the ability for a teacher in a classroom to share and discuss a picturebook via the big screen, without needing to buy a slightly larger printed version of a popular book, seen best by those sitting at the front of the mat, or of publishing advantages, such as the ability to sell your stories in Saudi Arabia, and to keep a book app in the App Store for as long as it needs to be there, even if it doesn’t immediately take off. (The Artifacts took 2 and a half years to be featured by Apple. If it had been on a bookstore shelf it would’ve most likely have disappeared forever after 6 months.)
Happily, we’re not the only ones asking questions about how touch screens might be integrated in children’s literature. The academics care a lot and some of them are all over it. Junko Yokota spoke on this very topic for her keynote at the International Research Society Children’s Literature conference 2013 in Maastricht. You can watch her speak here. I highly recommend it, to developers, reviewers and critics alike. But when it comes to ‘interactivity’, as far as we’re concerned at Slap Happy Larry, the main ‘interaction’ happens between the screen and the reader’s brain.
In Sweden, a critic has coined the notion of idyllophobia, a fear of presenting the world of childhood as idyllic. Children’s and juvenile literature becomes more and more violent, not necessarily in actual depictions of violence, but in the general attitude toward the essence of childhood. The narrative strategies which writers use, most often the autodiegetic unreliable young narrator, amplify the tone of the novels as uncertain, insecure and chaotic. In many novels, notably Cormier’s I Am The Cheese, we see a total disintegration of character, narrative and structure. YA novel as a narrative which goes beyond the point of no return to idyll also transgresses all conventions which are normally ascribed to children’s fiction.
— Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature
David Beagley, La Trobe University, lecture available on iTunes U
- Only Connect by Sheila A. Egoff. In the second edition is a very good article about the ‘Problem Novel’, which was starting to become prevalent in YA fiction. [I’ve also heard ‘Issues Novel’ a lot.] Rather than an adventure in which the MC goes away on an adventure, the problem exists at home.
- Robin Sheahan-Bright talks about this [exact work not given in the audio]
- Maureen Nimon (retired 2004, University Of South Australia) looks at the idea of censorship — what are the boundaries that adult mediators (especially librarians) set for children? Where do they draw the line? (John McKenzie disagrees with Nimon’s position quite strongly.)
- Robin Klein’s Came Back To Show You I Could Fly is about a young boy who moves into a new house. Something has disruped his family and he meets the next door neighbour who is a bit of a rebel/streetkid. She is teenaged, heavily tattooed, pregnant, heavily into drugs. The 12 year old boy learns to deal with what he has discovered.
- Dear Miffy by John Marsden caused a huge furor and a lot of people changed their attitude towards Marsden. Marsden is very good at portraying female characters. All the voices in his other works are spoken by a teenage female — very direct, very good. And then this one is a diary by a boy. People were surprised at the drugs/sex content, but also the language, which people saw as ‘un-Marsden-like’.
- Morris Gleitzman’s Boy Overboard and its sequel Girl Underground — issues around boat people and detention centers. Two Afghan boys are desperate to play for Australia in WC soccer. But they’re in a detention camp. As with all Gleitzman’s stories, there is a wonderful surface of humour, but underneath is a tough story.