The Treatment of Curiosity Across Storytelling

Are we supposed to be curious, or aren’t we? From reading stories, I just can’t make up my mind. If I open the box to find out what’s inside I risk unleashing evils across the entire world. But if I don’t open the box, there might be a bomb inside. If only I’d opened that confounded box, I could’ve saved everyone!

Today I’ll take a closer look at some popular narratives which seem to discourage curiosity as a valuable character trait, some which encourage it, and some which do both.

Without the resources to do an actual count up, punishment for curiosity in fiction does seem gendered. It’s possible that if we took every single story in which a character is punished for their curiosity, more male characters than female characters are punished for it. But then, most stories are historically about men so we’d have to adjust for that first. It’s certainly the case that in the best-known myths and fairytales young (and beautiful) women are punished for poking their noses into affairs that don’t concern them, which would be fully in line with the ancient rules of patriarchy.

However, narrative doesn’t track along one linear progression from ‘super misogynistic’ to ‘super enlightened’. (We haven’t seen super enlightened yet.) All too often, those ancient tales, when retold for children, are repackaged with extra blame heaped upon curious young women.

Let’s see how that works.

Continue reading “The Treatment of Curiosity Across Storytelling”

Enid Blyton, Food and Ginger Beer

I’m no Enid Blyton apologist when it comes to word echo and other matters of style, but Enid Blyton never wrote the phrase ‘lashings of ginger beer’. This phrase was used in a popular parody called Five Go Mad In Dorset, and is now often mistakenly attributed to the author herself.

Enid Blyton ginger beer
an advertisement for commercially produced ginger ale from 1894

Enid Blyton did use the word ‘lashings’, and there was a lot of ginger beer. I also remember lemonade, but what was it the children were actually drinking? Well, it wasn’t 7UP. The lemonade consumed by the Famous Five would have been sugar and lemon juice mixed in cold water, not the very high sugar carbonated variety. That’s simple enough to make. What about the ginger beer? Was it alcoholic? Were the children getting drunk, imagining those pixies, goblins and mushroom rings with lands at the tops of trees and chairs that grew wings?

In Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, the Swallows pretend that they’re drinking ‘grog’ instead of ginger beer. (This is all part of their pirate fantasy.)

Enid Blyton food drink schweppe's advertisement
Do you call it fizzy drink, soda or pop? In 1894 it was called ‘table water’.

To make traditionally brewed, homemade ginger beer, you will also need some lemons. Lemons plus ginger root and sugar and cream of tartar and brewer’s yeast. You can find a recipe for it here. The fizziness comes from the fermentation process, and required about four days to make — these are cooking skills which have been lost today. But our guts coevolved with the bacteria found in fermented foods and we should probably to go back to eating more of them to achieve well-balanced guts. That fermented stuff would not have been as sweet as today’s beverages by far, despite requiring quite a bit of sugar — that’s because bacteria eat the sugars in order to populate. (Hence, traditionally made sauerkraut is so sour — the bacteria has eaten any fructose out of it.)

Ginger Beer Brew

There probably was a bit of alcohol in it if left for weeks, but if left for less than a week the alcohol is negligible. Basically, we don’t really know if Joe, Bessie and Fanny were getting pissed when they took a picnic into the woods, because we didn’t know how long it had been brewed for.

Edith Nesbit was also a fan of ginger beer. It makes me wince when Robert uses it to wash sand out of Lamb’s eyes, but remember it wasn’t the super fizzy stuff you’re probably thinking of:

The thoughtful Robert had brought one solid brown bottle of ginger-beer with him, relying on a thirst that had never yet failed him. This had to be uncorked hurriedly — it was the only wet thing within reach, and it was necessary to wash the sand out of the Lamb’s eyes somehow. Of course the ginger hurt horribly, and he howled more than ever. And, amid his anguish of kicking, the bottle was upset and the beautiful ginger-beer frothed out into the sand and was lost for ever.

Five Children and It

Australians were busy making their own ginger fizzy drinks, lest you think it was limited to the British Isles:

Ginger ale advertisement from 1880
from 1880

Food In The Work Of Enid Blyton

Blyton’s most prolific period of writing took place during the war era when food rationing meant that the majority of people in England were eating less than they had throughout the whole of the twentieth century. Following the outbreak of WW2, food rationing began in January 1940 and continued until 1954. The average weekly rations consisted of one shilling and sixpence worth of meat, eight ounces of sugar, four ounces of butter or fat, one egg, one ounce of cheese, with jam and honey also heavily rationed. Fresh vegetables were in short supply, unless grown in the home vegetable garden.

While the Famous Five were consuming fat red radishes, their readers were being fed banana sandwiches made with parsnips and banana essence or carrot tart glazed with lemon jelly to make a pudding, and while the Secret Seven breakfasted off well-buttered home-baked bread with chunky marmalade, their devotees never even saw fruit like oranges and bananas and had to make do with the infamous Woolton Pie, a combination of carrots, parsnips, turnips, and potatoes, covered with white sauce and pastry.

Barker
[…] Blyton can hardly be portraying the period realistically. […] the original appeal of Blyton’s food fantasies was intensified by the reader’s knowledge that their own family teatime was never likely to be as scrumptious as the feast Blyton served for them. And, for contemporary readers, the appeal lies in the huge quantities and the exoticism of the homemade foods in her narratives which, because of healthy-eating discourses and the lack of time generally available in contemporary households to produce such meals, are usually denied them. From this perspective it can be seen that a large proportion of the readers’ enjoyment is vicarious, a form of voyeurism, a chance to experience gluttony second-hand.

Carolyn Daniels, Voracious Children: Who Eats Whom In Children’s Literature
Illustrator unknown, 1950s
Illustrator unknown, 1950s

Enid Blyton and Froebel Training

Enid Blyton would have had all the skills of a good housekeeper, even if she preferred to write instead. As a student teacher Blyton received Froebel training, which encourages housekeeping, cooking, gardening and farming as a means of expression for young children.

Blyton’s ideal was one in which the earth-mother or a substitute earth mother provides food (preferably home-grown) for her cubs.

Barker

Mothers in Enid Blyton’s books tend to be plump, good at home-making and cheerful. While the children were out having their adventures, we can guess at what the mothers were doing: They were in the kitchen, fermenting fizzy beverages and making fruit cakes.

Thirteen O’Clock by Enid Blyton

I have conflicted views about Enid Blyton, but Thirteen O’Clock story is relatively free of the problems I (and many others) have taken issue with in these slightly more enlightened times. We still have a story in which a young patriarch-in-training helps an older female character out by tending to her minor injury and finding a lost cat, which some may read more generously as an example of feminine caring.

Thirteen O'Clock cover

All that aside, this was one of my most favourite books as a preschooler — that lady sure knew how to tell a tale to children. Mine is the 1974 version illustrated by Tom Barling in very 70s style. The story itself may have been written much earlier, though Enid Blyton was writing right up until 1975, and it’s not easy to find the years in which specific short stories were published.


WONDERFULNESS OF THIRTEEN O’CLOCK

Enid Blyton was well-schooled in a kind of superstitious mysticism which she made great use of in her fantasy stories. Fairies, goblins, pixies, brownies, witches, portals into other lands… In this story, she makes use of a very old superstition surrounding the number 13. What’s the basic back story of this unlucky number?

  • Oddly, superstition around the number 13 derives from various unrelated cultures around the world, not just one. This may have something to do with lunar-solar calenders, in which there are 12 point something ‘months’ per solar year. This gives a culture 12 ‘months’ plus a bit of a month (the thirteenth) per year.
  • The number 13 may rather disturbingly be linked to a form of ancient misogyny: In ancient cultures, the number 13 represented femininity, because it corresponded to the number of lunar (menstrual) cycles in a year (13 x 28 = 364 days). The theory is that, as the solar calendar triumphed over the lunar, the number thirteen became anathema, because (obv!) periods are evil.
  • In modern times, even people who actively avoid the number 13 probably don’t really think of that reason, but superstitious types still manage to find reasons to believe that there is something inherently wrong about the number.

Other authors have taken the number 13 and used it in a plot device for genres such as thriller and horror, but Blyton, in writing for children, pairs this rather sinister tradition with the childlike tradition of blowing dandelion ‘clocks’ in order to tell the time. (Blyton had no significant qualms about refusing to use literature as a conduit to a rounded scientific education.) In Blyton’s story, ‘once in a blue moon’ means that the moon literally turns blue.

photo by Yvonne Gorman
photo by Yvonne Gorman
Now That Days Are Colder by Aileen Fisher, Designed & Illustrated by Gordon Laite, Lettering by Paul Taylor (1973), also featuring the childhood play of blowing seeds.

The thing I loved most about this book was the thing I also loved about the Faraway Tree series, in which Blyton’s wood whispers ‘Wisha wisha’ as the wind blows through the trees. This phrase gave me a deliciously thrilling feeling as a young reader. In Thirteen O’Clock, Blyton not only encourages word play with phrases such as ‘Hoona-looki-allo-pie’ but has created another marvellous phrase of frisson: ‘The witches are coming! The witches are coming!’ This had me hiding under my blankets.


NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION OF THIRTEEN O’CLOCK

What makes the illustrations in this book seem distinctively 1970s? The 1970s was a decade wedged between a time of great printing advancements, with the widespread introduction of colour printing in the 1960s, and the beginning of digital illustration used (at least for some parts of the process) by many illustrators working today. Illustrators were working in colour, but they were also drawing and painting by hand.

ILLUSTRATIONS OF THE 1970S

It was in the 1960s that a new type of picture book emerged — those in which illustrations dominated the text. This particular book isn’t one such example — in fact, this book is more accurately a richly illustrated short story, since the story can exist in its own right (and indeed does, inside various anthologies) without these pictures.

One thing that makes Tom Barling’s illustrations seem specifically 1970s is the strong use of line. Another illustrator working around this time was Pat Hutchins, who published Rosie’s Walk in 1968, just a few years earlier. In Rosie’s Walk, too, the influence of folk art is strong; line exists not only to add form and shadow to objects but also to act as a decoration in its own right. In Thirteen O’Clock, likewise, there is no attempt made at any kind of aerial perspective; leaves on a tree in the distance are depicted in detail, even though the unseen viewer is too far away from that tree to realistically perceive anything more than a green clump.

IMG_5634

To provide some rest for the eyes, Barling was making good use of white space — as modern illustrators are still doing today — the roads and the sky are white, and there is an area of blank reserved for the text on every double spread.

Here the table is white, to offset a highly ornamental kitchen background.
Here the table is white, to offset a highly ornamental kitchen background.

ILLUSTRATING CLOTHING

Tom Barling has of course dressed Sandy in 1970s fashion, with tight jeans that flare at the bottom and a wide belt. He wears his hair long (which happens to be in fashion again for adolescent boys, but isn’t always). It’s interesting to look at how various illustrators of children’s books deal with fashions of the day; if we dress our characters in clothing specific to the year or decade, this will place our stories firmly inside that decade even if the story itself is more universal than that. Is there an ‘unmarked’ wardrobe illustrators can use to avoid decade-placement as much as possible? Certainly, some illustrators rely upon stock clothing for their characters. Mercer Mayer is a good example of that. Though he has illustrated the Little Critter books over decades, his Mother Critter still wears a long dress and apron; the main character is still wearing pyjamas with an unbuttonable backside in them. Mayer’s characters are in fact middle class, 1950s, white America, and sometimes even stretch to Amish (for the mum) but for some reason a disproportionate number of illustrators hold onto lesser versions of this same milieu when illustrating modern books for children. I think it’s because we tend to idolise the era. (Hence Mad Men, which cleverly subverted our expectations.)

Just Shopping With Mom cover
The mother is dressed in a prairie dress, the main character wears overalls, and little sister has a big bow on her head. It is still very common to designate female children as ‘other’ by plonking a big bow on their heads.

Is there a normcore fashion for picture books? Even Shirley Hughes, who places no value in creating Pinterest-worthy interiors or youthful faces (even in children) or dressing her characters up in high-fashion places her characters in a specific era: as Frances Spufford said of her Alfie series, the mother ‘is a frizzy-haired CND-supporting social worker from about 1985’. Though Spufford also points out that child readers won’t assume this about her. In fact, non-British readers — and readers who were ourselves children in the 1980s — probably won’t know this about her — I had to look up CND — fyi, it stands for Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which picked up in the 1980s as a backlash to the Thatcher years.)

alfie's mother reading

ILLUSTRATING WITCHES

The historical view of witches is that they are not quite women.

You should be women,

And yet your beards forbid me to interpret

That you are so. (Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 3)

In art history, many witches are genuinely unattractive in a reproductive sense, either because they’re very old or because they make no effort to present themselves as alluring, and probably both.

Francisco Goya's depiction of witches going to Sabbath on a broomstick
Francisco Goya’s depiction of witches going to Sabbath on a broomstick, 1798.

By the 1970s, the nature of folkloric witches in the West had evolved to the point where witches were often depicted as feminine women, but the grotesque mismatch between unattractive essential witchiness is made more stark by their feminine style choices. Barling’s witches might also grace the pages of Dahl’s chapter book, The Witches, published about a decade later; their faces are asymmetrical and their noses and chins are masculine (transgressing gender expectations), but Barling’s witches wear lipstick and earrings, and have their hair styled into layered bobs.

Barling's witches
Barling’s witches
Illustration for The Broomstick Train or The Return of the Witches by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Color Edition published by Houghton Mifflin 1905 by Howard Pyle
Illustration for The Broomstick Train or The Return of the Witches by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Color Edition published by Houghton Mifflin 1905 by Howard Pyle

Though these witches are standard in any illustration of witches in picture books, I recently happen to have read Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity by Julia Serano, in which the author points out the extent to which femininity (and here, feminine accoutrements) is seen as an untrustworthy artifice, which is problematic for anyone presenting as feminine, but is especially problematic for transgender women. (I’m sure someone has done a study on witches and femininity in picture books. I’m guessing the witches of picture books are more feminine than scary due to the age of the target readership.)

Extratextual musings aside, Blyton’s imaginary world has no layers; everyone is exactly how they appear.

“I’m going to be nice to her. Besides she’s got a friendly face, rather like my granny’s — I’m sure she isn’t a bad witch.”

Indeed, the witches of this story are not nasty at all:

“You’re the cleverest, kindest boy I’ve ever met!” said the witch. “Most people are afraid of witches because they think we will change them into blackbeetles or something—but that’s an old-fashioned idea. Nowadays we witches are gentle folk, making magic spells that will do no one any harm.”

So there you have it: an anti-bigotry moral from an author who was quite well-known for her xenophobia.

THAT PESKY GUTTER

It’s clear reading this book in 2015 that publishers of picture books sometimes had a few lessons to learn in this new era of double-page colour spreads. It’s hard to find a professionally produced book these days in which the illustrator has been schooled in avoiding placing characters’ faces right where the gutter goes.

IMG_5629
IMG_5631
IMG_5632
This is probably the worst example of gutter problem I’ve seen…

STORY SPECS OF THIRTEEN O’CLOCK

Thirteen O’Clock appeared in a number of different Enid Blyton anthologies, and is the title story of this one, which demonstrates its popularity:

Thirteen O'Clock and other stories

Illustrator Tom Barling was born in 1936, and illustrated a few of Enid Blyton’s stories over his career. He had a varied creative life as author of eleven crime novels about gangsters. Tom Barling is also well-known as a comic illustrator and an animator on the 1973 TV series of The Addams Family. If you look for books hoping to find more of his illustrations, though, you’ll find most of them seem to be out of print.

However, did you know that Bananas in Pyjamas is not just an irritating but super popular Australian children’s show but was originally a book written by Enid’s nephew, Carey? That was also illustrated by Tom Barling.

Bananas In Pyjamas Tom Barling who also illustrated Thirteen O'Clock

Barling also illustrated in an art noir style when required:

Frankenstein Tom Barling

Comic book illustrators are required to draw from a variety of different, extreme perspectives. We see this skill a little bit in Thirteen O’Clock with a low-angle view of Sandy:

IMG_5633

COMPARE AND CONTRAST WITH THIRTEEN O’CLOCK

There are many fantasy picture books (and chapter books) in which the child character goes off for an adventure, finds him or herself in a magical world, then goes back to the main parent (usually the mother) and is told that whatever happened is nonsense. But the reader is let in on the secret. Blyton’s authorial voice comes through clearly in the final paragraph:

“Eat up your lunch and don’t talk nonsense!”

But it wasn’t nonsense, was it? Sandy always puffs the time on all the dandelion clocks he sees now — perhaps one day it will be thirteen o’clock again!

The message here: Children, cling on to childhood, because the world of adults is devoid of magic.

This sort of plot might be contrasted with a book for children written by Richard Dawkins, presumably as an antidote to stories such as these.

TheMagicofReality_Dawkins_Bantam2011

The Magic of Reality is a fantastic book and I wish every child in the world would read it as they embark upon the study of high school science. But I think there is room for fantasy; clearly, some forms of fantasy are simply better done than others — fantasy which tells readers something about the real-world is the most valuable, and fantasy which urges children to believe in fairies even after the story is over is perhaps the laziest way of ending a story. However, Blyton was nothing if not prolific, and her stories were written in the oral tradition. It is therefore up to the adult co-reader to read this story with a nudge and a wink.


WRITE YOUR OWN

If fantasy stories for children are to do anything other than entertain — and pure entertainment is a satisfactory goal, no mistake — we must aim to pull readers out of a fantasy world with something to ponder. An io9 article outlines how reading Harry Potter has been shown to make readers better people.

…because Potter is continually in contact with stigmatized groups. The “muggles” get no respect in the wizarding world as they lack any magical ability. The “half-bloods,” or “mud-bloods” – wizards and witches descended from only one magical parent – don’t fare much better, while the Lord Voldemort character believes that power should only be held by “pure-blood” wizards. He’s Hitler in a cloak.

— Robbie Gonzalez

Is this partly what makes the Potter books so popular, even though scholars of children’s literature struggle to put their finger on exactly why H.P. took off while many recent ancestors of the series which seem just as adeptly written muddle along with middling sales?

How to leave the preschool reader a better person by making use of fantasy in a picture book? That’s your ultimate challenge.

Holding On To Enid Blyton

from Enid Blyton's Famous Five series, illustrated by Eileen Alice Soper

I grew up in the 1980s and 90s, but this was before parallel importing of books in New Zealand, when books were still super-duper expensive. Few kids owned many and school libraries were quite small. I was lucky to grow up in a household full of books, though these comprised almost entirely of:

  1. Little Golden Books
  2. Read-It-Yourself books from Ladybird
  3. My mother’s childhood books, and for some reason, a number which had belonged to her cousin. These were mostly Famous Five novels, along with a few from Blyton’s Malory Towers series and a few similarly bound ‘girls’ novels’ by Elsie J. Oxenham.

Here is a picture of Elsie J. Oxenham. It was taken in 1910.

Elsie J Oxenham portrait
The photo says it all.

I never was impressed by Oxenham’s books, which have dated in the most conspicuously terrible way you can imagine. I’ve since passed them on, and perhaps a collector found them at the second hand store. Enid Blyton’s books, however, are harder to get rid of, not because they haven’t dated. Enid Blyton’s books are terrible in ways that are well-known and well-documented by many other modern readers:

Enid Blyton’s Books Were A Product Of Their Time

When it comes to Blyton’s notorious characterisations of travellers and gypsies [Cullingford says they are] ‘so absurdly innocent that they are beside the point’, a worrying observations both in light of the fact that, around the same time as Blyton was writing, over 200,000 gypsies were either being killed or had recently been killed in the Nazi death camps, and in light of the fact that Blyton is still promoted in school and very widely read by children.

Understanding Children’s Literature, edited by Peter Hunt

The reason I’m having trouble giving my Enid Blyton collection away is because the stories are still compelling, and because I have such fond memories of Enid Blyton stories as a child. Again, I’m not alone in this:

500 Million Readers Can’t Be Wrong from Children’s Books Articles

The Enduring Appeal Of Enid Blyton from The Guardian

Some of my Enid Blytons
Some of my Enid Blytons

If there’s any dilemma at all in the first world problem of owning too many books, it is this:

  1. Do I want my daughter to read Enid Blyton, over and over again, like I did?
  2. Did I love the stories of Enid Blyton mainly because I wasn’t exposed to much else?
  3. Is there enough time during childhood for the average reader to get through all of the old classics as well as all the best new ones?
  4. What does it mean to be a well-read child these days, when there is so much out there?
  5. Wouldn’t I prefer my daughter read modern classics over and over, for example the Harry Potter series, which is neither racist nor sexist (at least, if it is, we can’t see it yet)?
  6. Do I donate these Enid Blytons to the second-hand store, or do I keep them here, taking up space on a shelf?
  7. If I give them away, will I feel the hole they have left? After all, those are my childhood memories right there!
  8. If I keep them on the shelf and my daughter finds them, will I be slightly irritated that she’s not reading better stuff, which I have bought for her with good money?
  9. If my daughter reads them, is this an unexpectedly wonderful lesson in 20th Century inequalities, as it was for me?
  10. Is there a danger in sheltering young people from the sexism of earlier eras that they forget things can swing just as quickly back the other way?

What have you done with your childhood books? Do you encourage your children to read those over newer ones? Do you think children should read older books alongside modern publications for a rounded view of recent history?