“The Three Strangers” is a short story by Thomas Hardy, published as a serial in 1883. The story is set in 1820s pastoral England and is one of Hardy’s ‘Wessex Tales’. Continue reading “The Three Strangers by Thomas Hardy”
“Bliss” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield and one of Mansfield’s last. “Bliss” is offered as an example of a ‘lyrical’ short story.
From a writing point of view, “Bliss” is interesting for its battle scene, in which the main character experiences purely positive emotions rather than the negative charge which normally goes hand-in-hand with the ‘Battle’ part of a story.
Likewise, the self-revelation phase is not a SELF-revelation but a plot revelation (more commonly known as a ‘reveal’) which serves to prevent the main character from understanding something deeper about her own psychology. In this respect, “Bliss” is a similar story to Annie Proulx’s “In The Pit” (though in every other respect the stories are nothing alike). Continue reading “Bliss by Katherine Mansfield”
This month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story. Earlier in the month I looked at a wordless picture book, The Snowman by Raymond Briggs. Today I continue with a selection of mentor texts to help kids see how it works. Let’s look closely at Father Christmas, a seasonal picture book by the same author-illustrator. It’s not Christmas here, but it’s never wintry at Christmas Down Under. I prefer to read wintry books in our actual winter. This is just as much a winter tale as it is a Christmas one. Father Christmas is also a very British tale. You’ll soon see why.
At first glance, this picture book also seems to break the main rules of storytelling. It works because it is short. Father Christmas is partly making use of a comedic structure rather than classic dramatic structure.
STORY STRUCTURE OF FATHER CHRISTMAS
WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?
What’s wrong with him?
Sometimes the foreign translations of a picture book give you extra clues about the story. The Japanese title means ‘Father Christmas The Cold-blooded Creature’ (or ‘Person who feels the cold easily’). The Japanese publishers put the thing that’s wrong with him right there in the title. More specifically, this is his weakness. He doesn’t like the cold. But I’d say his weakness is a little different.This is not your usual Jolly Santa, the guy most kids are exposed to — the man who lives to give. This Father Christmas’s weakness is that he’s grumpy by nature. Or is it really a weakness? Is he really that grumpy?
This is a comment on a specific cultural milieu — this old man is proficient in the art of grumbling. He is cranky as a matter of habit, not because he has all that much to complain about. This is grumbling almost as a mantra to self, a reminded that although things may be terrible now, they may get better later. Father Christmas is grumbling to no one in particular, but he is drawing us in with his grumbling. We are invited to grumble along with him as a form of phatic communion. At the end of the story he has broken the fourth wall by directly addressing the reader, so we know we were supposed to hear him grumbling. He was inviting us to feel the cold with him, creating the weather as the mutual enemy to bring two characters (him and us) closer together.
This feels very British to me.
WHAT DOES FATHER CHRISTMAS WANT?
Father Christmas wakes up dreaming of a summer beach so we know right away that he wants to be on holiday somewhere. Sure enough, in another book in the series, Raymond Briggs takes him off on holiday. I haven’t read that one, though I’ve no doubt he grumbles about everything while on holiday, too.
His opponent is the cold weather. Father Christmas expends a lot of energy just keeping warm — tending to the fire, looking after the animals (who can’t be out in the elements), filling his belly with hot cups of tea.
WHAT’S THE PLAN?
We already know what Father Christmas does at Christmas time because this is a well-known cultural narrative. He delivers presents to children all around the world. We watch him do this, but Raymond Briggs’ new spin on it: Father Christmas considers this work, just like anyone else doing shift work on a freezing cold night would feel like they are doing work.
As you can see already, this is another mythic structure, in which the main character goes on a journey. This is not your classic mythic structure, however. Father Christmas is a modified version of that — known as a home-away-home story. A character leaves home, has an adventure, then returns home again. This home-away-home story usually takes place over a single day, and the child (or childlike) character usually goes to sleep at the end.
In general, a series of minor battles end in a big one. But sometimes, when there’s no fight or argument or near-death experience, the story includes something that stands-in for a battle.
In Diary of a Wombat, Jackie French used the ‘accumulation’ technique, where several objects pile up/come together.
Raymond Briggs uses a variation on that. After visiting a number of ordinary houses to deliver presents, including a caravan which he has trouble getting into, Father Christmas visits the Palace of Westminster, presumably to deliver presents to the most important children in the land. We have an accumulation effect going on, but it isn’t a piling up of objects. Instead, it goes from ‘ordinary to extraordinary’, or ‘ordinary to grand’. This stands in for the big battle scene, which exists to let us know the journey is coming to an end.
WHAT DOES FATHER CHRISTMAS LEARN?
Nothing. Because this story is comedic, not dramatic. Father Christmas is the ultimate recurring character. He appears year after year and never changes. Therefore it makes sense if he doesn’t change. It also makes sense if he’s a bit grumpy about that. Which is the gag.
However, the story still works as a complete story. Why?
In lieu of a character arc, in which Father Christmas learns something, we see Father Christmas on an emotional arc. When Santa gets up he’s grumpy because there’s so much work ahead of him. But over the course of his day he overcomes many small hardships, stopping in between to enjoy his snacks. Finally at the end he is happy to be home, but before bed he’s unhappy again, because he knows he’ll have to do it all again next year. The unrelenting nature of work would appeal to adults more than to children, I’m guessing. This story therefore appeals to a dual audience. Young readers also know what it’s like to do something they don’t want to do, and everyone (in most parts of the world) knows what it feels like to be uncomfortably cold.
HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?
It won’t, but Father Christmas is home safe in bed, which is enough to close the story on. It’s not original, but it works, time and time again.
FURTHER NOTES ON THE STORY STRUCTURE
Did you pick up the main ways in which this story is not typical dramatic structure?
- The only opponent is the weather. Usually there is a human opponent, or a monster as well.
- The main character doesn’t learn anything.
- His life won’t be any different from before. He’s basically an automaton.
This is because the story is a comedy. Here’s the thing about comedic structure: It only sustains its audience for 5-10 minutes before we tire of it. That’s why comedic structure can work in picture books. They’re short. When Father Christmas was adapted into a short film, and by short I mean over 20 minutes, the script writers wisely decided to combine two of Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas books. There is simply not enough in this picture book to sustain 20 minutes’ worth of entertainment.
My Summer Of Love is a 2004 film based on a novel by Helen Cross set in 1984. If you’ve seen Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (1994), My Summer Of Love bears similarities: A relationship of romantic infatuation between two teenage girls from very different backgrounds. My Summer Of Love puts the relationship between the girls to the forefront, making it a romance rather than a crime drama. This is a love story but it is a tragic one.
GIRLS AND FANTASY LIVES
Picture books and middle grade novels are full of boys with rich fantasy lives, in which the line between reality and fiction is blurred. But when it comes to young adult and adult fiction, what happens to all these dreamy boys? They disappear. Destructive, manipulative fantasies suddenly become a female characteristic.
At one point the girls enjoy a post-coital cigarette. This is such a Hollywood cliche that filmmakers themselves must be aware of what they’re doing. Here, the girls have themselves been influenced by what they’ve seen on the silver screen. Smoking in bed is what adults do, they have learned, and so they do it.
The girls’ whole summer is a construction of performed melodrama. There has always been handwringing about young women and the types of stories we let them read — a century ago it was thought that novels would rot their minds. Ten years ago it was Twilight, more recently it’s sick-lit, and concerns (justified or not, I’m not sure) that 13 Reasons Why encourages suicide as a legitimate and successful form of revenge. Mona’s background in fiction includes horror films. As evidence we see her mimic the voice of a movie devil. But what has influenced Tamsin? She says she loves Edith Piaf. We also see she has made up melodramatic things about Piaf’s life. (Edith Piaf did lead a rather tragic life but she didn’t murder anyone, and not with a fork.) Tamsin’s mother may or may not be an amateur actress but in any case Tamsin seems to worship (real) actors, and has no doubt seen a lot of plays and films. She has been exposed to Nietzsche, and encourages Mona to read him, but soon shows that she doesn’t really know anything more than his name.
Perhaps boys continue with their fantasies but those take a different form and are not seen as such. Tamsin’s father is having a series of affairs. Perhaps this should be compared to the sexual fantasies and longing of his teenage daughter. Continue reading “My Summer Of Love Film Study”
- Children of the rural laboring classes relied for reading material on cheap chapbooks
- Chapbooks were passed from family to family
- School library books were all of the “goody goody, Sunday-school prize type”
- Middle class children were able to choose their own books and had a wide selection of adventure, school, nonsense, fantasy and fairytales available
- Poor children grew up without access to literature
- Between the late 1700s through to the beginning of WW2 young children from wealth British families rarely ate with their parents and other adults apart from servants
- Their diet was generally austere even though they were well-off, at least by today’s standards. It was thought during this period that rich food spoiled the character of children, so they may not have been allowed to eat things such as pork chops. Experts of the time advised that children shouldn’t be eating fat, sugar, wine and spices.
- So what did they eat? Boiled meat, steamed fish, cabbage, milk-based puddings. Milk was considered only food for children — adults wouldn’t drink it.
- Eating between meals was strictly frowned upon.
- Bread and jam both on the same piece of bread was thought to be very indulgent and unheard of. Such greed was a matter of morality.
- Middle class children and above spend childhoods almost entirely within the self-contained space of a nursery where they were looked after by a nurse or nanny.
- Boys were sent to boarding school but girls were generally tutored at home by a governess.
- The nursery was usually situated at the top of the house or in a far-flung part and was frequently spartan, furnished with items not needed elsewhere.
- Children saw their parents — generally the mother — for about an hour a day.
- Children were allowed plenty of exercise.
- They were accustomed to being seen and not heard.
- Children were regarded as inherently sinful. They were confined to the nursery until their ‘natural state’ had been knocked out of them. They weren’t allowed to eat with the adults until then.
- By 1850 it wasn’t just the very wealthy who employed nurses — genteel tradesmen could afford to employ women as nannies and nurses, too.
- George Bernard Shaw described how, seeing his own mother so seldom, he tended to idolise her when he did see her — similar to the way in which modern children can also idolise a generally absent parent after a separation.
For more see Lark Rise to Candleford, autobiography of Flora Thompson, as well as the academic work of Denis Butts and Carolyn Daniels.
You can read more about these types of families in books such as:
- Mary Poppins
- Pride and Prejudice
- Jane Eyre
- Seven Little Australians (who had an English father)
Best Loved Books
(Not sure where to start)
A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-pooh stories in the 1920s
Peter Pan, which few children find readable today, was the first novel in which ordinary children enter a magic world and have an adventure there – something that readers of Alice in Wonderland, The Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter and His Dark Materials will recognise.
Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island has also fallen out of favour with present-day readers, but any number of adventure stories, from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book to The Action Hero’s Handbook derive from it. Stevenson’s young hero, Jim Hawkins, foreshadows the plucky resourcefulness of Anthony Horowitz’s reluctant teenage spy, and Eoin Colfer’s criminal mastermind Artemis Fowl.
Enid Blyton (the most prolific of British children’s authors)
David Walliams is the new Roald Dahl, and has been paired with Roald Dahl’s illustrator Quentin Blake, so the publishers are obviously pushing that comparison, too.
Julia Donaldson is currently one of the biggest selling picturebook authors, paired with illustrator Axel Scheffler
Jacqueline Wilson writes gritty realistic stories for adolescent readers and has been criticised by conservative adults for introducing horrible things to children who are too young to deal with it
J.K. Rowling of course, who is popular all around the world, and has perplexed kidlit academics as to how on earth the Harry Potter series has been sooo successful given the many similar works which, by any yardstick, are just as good.
The ‘classics’ are generally thought to be: Lewis Carroll, Rudyard Kipling, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Arthur Ransome, William Maybe, Philippa Pearce. (Of course, the notion of ‘classic’ is problematic.)
On Wikipedia British children’s literature has been grouped by century to make it more manageable:
Then there’s the thing this non-Brit can never get my head around in which Britain/UK/British Isles comprises separate areas:
A Brief History Of British Kidlit
- The 1740s are commonly regarded as the decade in which both the English novel and the English children’s book got under way. This is connected to new ways of thinking. There was a rise and growing refinement of the middle classes in the 18th century. A growing number of people had the time, the money and the education to read books. Middle class readers were more domestic — they had their own homes — no more great houses or street bustle. Children stopped being dressed as little adults and a specific idea of childhood emerged. Children started to call their parents ‘mamma’ and ‘pappa’.
- Publishing houses also started up around this time. Generally until the mid 18th century, people who sold books also made them themselves.
- John Newbery (1713-67) was an influential person in the children’s publishing trade. He was wealthy, but not for his interest in printing books for children — he had another job selling pharmaceutical products, and bought the rights to sell Dr James’s Fever Powder, which took off. He married the widow of the previous owner of a printing house, which is how he started in the printing business. He published 30 titles for children. It’s thought he wrote a number of those himself, but no one knows exactly which ones; he employed cheap hacks to write many of them.
- Of the titles published by Newbery, the most influential was ‘Goody Two Shoes’.
- Though Newbery was English, and his books have fallen out of common use, his name lives on in the prestigious prize for American literature; Newbery was as influential to American children’s literature as he was to English.
- In the 1840s less didactic books started to be written, though didacticism was by no means dead. e.g. Captain Marryat’s adventure stories, pointing the way to Ballantyne, Kingston, Robert Louis Stevenson and Henty.
- In the 1860s through 1930 or so, English kidlit was characteristic for its misgivings about Christianity and the wish to create imaginary paradises as alternatives. e.g. The Water Babies, Lewis Carroll, George MacDonald. There was a desire to destroy the old order. On the other hand, Winnie-the-Pooh, Wind in the Willows, books of E. Nesbit, Richard Jeffries’ Bevis etc. the authors’ disenchantment with religion led not to destruction but to the construction of green alternatives. (Enchanted places, arcadias, never-never lands.)
- By the end of the 18th C, the writing of children’s books was considered to be a job suitable for gentlewomen: Anna Letitia Barbauld, Lady Fenn, Priscilla Wakefield, Dorothy and Mary Jane Kilner, Mary Elliott. These ladies mixed didacticism with a little fun.
- There were also some fierce old Puritans: Mrs Trimmer, Mrs Sherwood.
- Then there were the English followers of Rousseau: Maria Edgeworth, Mary Wollstonecraft (mother of Mary Shelley, incidentally). Rousseau was all for naturalness and simplicity (the language of the heart, the idea of the Noble Savage.) The fact that Rousseau didn’t like books has been forgotten — he had an unintended influence on kidlit regardless.
- The educational purposes of literature have always been an issue, with official reports and curriculum documents from the 1920s emphasising the importance of the role of literature. By implication, children’s literature is influenced by the educational market. The English National Curriculum has spawned a market for certain classroom aligned topics.
- In Britain as in America, attention has been given to ‘diversity’ in children’s literature since the 1970s, when it was noticed that a fantasy world populated by middle class white boys isn’t really all that great. However, that hasn’t had much effect. Books which were criticised in the 70s are still being used widely in schools. White middle class male characters still dominate.
- Homer, Dickens and Defoe wrote for adults, but their stories are often offered to children in simplified form.
- In older works, the notion of the ‘gentleman’ is very important.
- In the 1890s, British kidlit was utopian. By the 1990s it was all about children’s needing to/struggling to grow up.
- The First Golden Age, which took off in the 1850s, thanks to the increasing number and status of children, was particularly dominated by five authors: JM Barrie, Robert Louis Stevenson, E Nesbit, Frances Hodgson Burnett and Anna Sewell. These authors have been hugely influential on subsequent authors.
- The First Golden Age of children’s literature ended with WW1, meaning this was the end of the dominance of Arcadian-type books. However, the era of utopian domestic fiction or animal stories definitely didn’t end then.
- Carnivalesque children’s stories were popular mid 20th Century. (e.g. The Hobbit, the Narnia Chronicles)
- The decade of the 1920s was a sorry one in England, with few new stories being published, and old ones being reprinted which were nonetheless second-rate. (This contrasts with America, where children’s literature was starting to boom.)
- Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome (starting in the early 1930s) marked the beginning of a story now seen as far from ‘realistic’, but Ransome did write seriously and without condescension, similar to the ‘realistic’ writers of today. There are 12 in the series published over 18 years, but the time span they cover is only 5 years. In these books there’s a clear preference for country over town, for wind-power over mechanization. The parents are understanding figures in the background and the children are always right-minded. In the books, they are always on holiday.
- Ballet Shoes (1935) by Noel Streatfeild was the beginning of a new genre: The career novel. This book and all that followed by the same author were all based on detailed research.
- In Britain, the 1950s were a hopeful decade. Publishing houses at last appointed children’s editors with standing and ambition. Puffin Books had been established by Penguin during the war with Eleanor Graham as editor. This company became the world’s first major children’s paperback imprint. A new wave of writers included: Rosemary Sutcliff, Philippa Pearce, William Maybe and artists such as Brian Wildsmith and Charles Keeping.
- By the 1960s many talented writers had been attracted to the children’s book world. Educators started to take notice of kidlit. The term ‘reluctant reader’ first started being used. A big complaint of books of this era was that they were too middle class. They reinforced the existing social structure.
- The recession of the 1970s hit Britain as much as it hit America. A declining library market meant that publishers became more dependent on sales in the bookstores (and supermarkets) with the result that they were on the whole selling to less informed purchasers than the librarians. There was more demand for shelf appeal and less for literary quality. Even libraries started to look for popularity rather than literary merit.
- While American kidlit tries to be conservative, British kidlit encourages children to grow up.
- By the mid 1990s, experienced editor David Fickling said, ‘Nothing can save the hardback at its present price‘. Gone were the days of ‘librarian books’, which only librarians knew about and would recommend to their more discerning child readers alongside the top sellers.
- In both America and Britain there has been a swing from library to bookshop sales. Books are published by corporations which operate on both sides of the Atlantic. Fiction for older children suffers most because while adults are happy to guess at what a toddler wants to read, they’re less likely to guess what an older child is interested in, and don’t gift books so readily.
- While there were plenty of new writers in Britain in the 1950s-1970s, there has been a dearth of them since then. Too high a proportion of the worthwhile children’s books of the 1980s came from writers whose reputations were already made.
- Realism started mainly in America, but has made its way to Britain.
- Fantasy continues to be huge in YA everywhere, but historical fiction has taken a steep dive. The historical story has traditionally had high standing in Britain. The standard is still very high, but there has been a shift in the perception of children’s needs. It used to be thought that an education in history was necessary for children but now it’s thought that history lacks relevance for children. The big name in British historical fiction is Rosemary Sutcliffe (1920-1992). The young heroes of historical novels tended to be very right-thinking and upright. The trend is towards replacing such heroes with ‘real children’, whose flaws are obvious. (See also: notes on Historical Realism)
- It used to be easy for Britain to sell its writers in America, but now it’s more the other way around — British teens are reading American fiction but not so much the other way around. One or two generations ago, most British children would hardly have been aware of quality American literature.
- Children’s literature is getting less and less attention in major newspapers and magazines, and the status of children’s authors is low.
- Picturebooks started to bloom in the 1960s. (In America they had started to bloom after the second world war.) Leading names of the 1960s: Charles Keepings, Brian Wildsmith. John Birmingham and Quentin Blake also started illustrating for children in the late 1960s.
- Today, children’s books, new and old, are actually what is keeping publishers in business.
Features of British Kidlit
- Food fantasies are important in kidlit because children, ideologically, are supposed to be very interested in food. But in British children’s literature food has been particularly copious and rich and sweet. Fat-laden foods are frequently served to children who seem to have huge appetites. Food in seemingly never-ending quantities is a regular feature in classic British stories for children, but can also be seen echoed in many early Australian stories such as The Magic Pudding.
- Traditionally, British kidlit is good at fantasy whereas American kidlit is great on realism, but of course now you find great realistic stories coming out of Britain and great fantasy coming out of America, not to mention the rest of the world.
- Here is a ridiculously inflammatory clickbait article which nevertheless detaials interesting points about how American literature and British literature for children differ — writte I think by a fan of fantasy rather than by a fan of realism.
- Although Britain is part of the European Union, when it comes to children’s literature, it makes more sense to regard Britain as standing apart from Europe.
When you talk about your writing with Europeans, they’re more interested in what you’re saying with your fiction–your themes and influences. Americans tend to be interested in how much it pays, and when the movie’s coming out.
Could this mean that Europeans have more interest in themes and messages in kidlit, also?
- In European countries that remained as dictatorships after WW2 (like Spain), the production of children’s books remained very much under state control and didn’t flourish.
- With the exception of Britain, translated books are seen to have an important educational and hence ideological function, fostering mutual understanding and European unity.
- With the exception of Britain, in European countries up to 35% of their published children’s literature has been translated from another language. (Britain’s rate is 1%.)
Britain, like America is not translating enough European children’s literature.
Walking around at Bologna [International Children’s Book Fair], there is so much good work from so many countries (as well as a lot that is, well, market driven, to be polite), whether in text or illustration, that you wonder why more of it isn’t represented in Britain. Take the Andersen and Astrid Lindgren award winners for instance. [Argentinian writer] Andruetto isn’t published at all in English and only two of [Danish writer] Guus Kuijer’s over fifty titles have ever been translated. And this isn’t just about translation, because there’s a lot from other countries that publish in English that doesn’t reach us. … To be at Bologna, then, is to be astonished both by what is published for children internationally, how little of this we see in Britain, and yet how large a presence British children’s books have worldwide.
If anyone would like to see this changed, do support small publishers such as New Zealand based Gecko Press who translate some of the best work from (mainly) Europe for English speaking children to enjoy.
Edgar Rice Burroughs is probably the most influential writer in the entire history of the world. By giving romance and adventure to a whole generation of boys, Burroughs caused them to go out and decide to become special. That’s what we have to do for everyone, give the gift of life with our books. Say to a girl or boy at age ten, Hey, life is fun! Grow tall! I’ve talked to more biochemists and more astronomers and technologists in various fields, who, when they were ten years old, fell in love with John Carter and Tarzan and decided to become something romantic. Burroughs put us on the moon. All the technologists read Burroughs. I was once at Caltech with a whole bunch of scientists and they all admitted it. Two leading astronomers—one from Cornell, the other from Caltech—came out and said, Yeah, that’s why we became astronomers. We wanted to see Mars more closely.
The story of the hero and his quest, the adventure story, is always essentially the same. It is the story of Odysseus, of Jason and the Golden Fleece, of Beowulf, of Saint George, of the Knights of the Round Table, of Jack and the Beanstalk, of Robinson Crusoe, of Peter Rabbit, of James Bond, of Luke Skywalker, of Batman, of Indiana Jones, of the latest sci-fi adventure and the latest game in the computer shop. It appears in countless legends, folk tales, children’s stories and adult thrillers. It is ubiquitous. Northrop Frye has argued that the quest myth is the basic myth of all literature, deriving its meanings from the cycle of the seasons and ‘the central expression of human meanings from the cycle of the seasons and ‘the central expression of human energy [which transformed] the amorphous natural environment into the pastoral, cultivated, civilized world of human shape and meaning…the hero is the reviving power of spring and the monster and old king and outgrown forces of apathy and impotence in a symbolic winter.’ Whether we accept this or not, the centrality of the hero story in our culture is unarguable.
– Margery Hourihan, Deconstructing The Hero