Matchless by Gregory Maguire

Matchless Gregory McGuire book

Matchless is a fractured fairytale by Gregory Maguire based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl. Matchless makes for an interesting case study in storytelling.

First, the brief would have been to create a story for ‘all ages’ — for regular NPR listeners to enjoy with their kids. This ain’t easy. How is it done?

Second, Gregory McGuire has invented his own type of fairytale logic. What can a storyteller get away with?

Third, Matchless is a perfect example of techniques such as empathy for a main character, ‘the overview effect’ and linking an animal symbolically to a character.

Everyone can read along with this one because the entire text is available online. NPR release one every year. This ‘re-illumination’* of The Little Match Girl was also turned into a book. It’s binding suggests it will be mostly purchased as gifts. I was given a copy, and it may interest you to know, I was given this book because my friend, a huge McGuire fan, couldn’t stand this one. Too damn depressing, she said. The world’s biggest Wicked fan said that.

*Re-ilumination is McGuire’s word. (I can see why one might reject ‘fractured‘. Often, these new fairytales are fixing something about the story that now seems broken.)

For the printed book, McGuire sketched his own illustrations. This is an illustrated short story rather than a picture book. The graphic design of the book allows for a lot of blank space (green, rather than white). There are few words on each page of text — sometimes a single sentence. The book is smaller than average size, to reflect the miniature world I mention below, and also, probably, so it can be crammed into a stocking.

STORYWORLD OF MATCHLESS

The Pedersens lived in a couple of rooms tacked onto a herring smoke house on an island in the harbor. From their threshold Frederik looked across the water to the prosperous city on the mainland. The town was bedecked with necklaces of evergreen. Setting out across the low stone causeway that joined island to mainland, Frederik caught a whiff of a goose roasting for a holiday luncheon.

Matchless: A Christmas Story

Especially in stories about death, writers love islands. There are many examples; just yesterday I wrote about I Kill Giants, so I won’t go into the death/island connection again with Matchless.

Because this is a fishing village, birds are hovering around — seagulls, scavenging. Frederik has a special connection with these scavengers — he himself is a bit of a collector, scavenging the wooden spools when thread’s used up and eventually, the ultimate scavenge: the fateful slipper. Birds are also associated with death in stories — in films, a cut to birds flying away is very often symbolic of death. Some birds are so closely associated with death that there can be no other reading — I’m thinking of ravens. Seagulls are known for their scavenging, though. Frederik = a seagull, for narrative purposes. But why? Because seagulls also live by scavenging on the fringe of society, including on dead things sometimes. While seagulls are generally considered annoying — most of us encounter them only when we’re trying to enjoy a picnic — Frederik, too, is linked to death in this story. The link isn’t strong, but it’s there for those who look, adding an extra dimension. This is the kind of depth which makes this a story with a dual audience. (Children and adults alike.)

McGuire changed New Year to Christmas, but this may simply be because he was contracted to write a Christmas story. He could just as easily have kept it New Year.

The most interesting thing about this setting is the mise en abyme effect, and use of the miniature in storytelling. (See below.)

STORY STRUCTURE OF MATCHLESS

Matchless is a short story of 2,792 words, written in third person which varies — close third person for Frederik, deep third person for the match girl, deep again for section four, which ties the story — and all the characters — up.

When setting out to rewrite a well-known tale, a common tactic is to take a minor character and re-spin the tale from that character’s point-of-view. There is a very minor character in Andersen’s original — the boy who steals the match girl’s shoes.

Most terribly cold it was; it snowed, and was nearly quite dark, and evening— the last evening of the year. In this cold and darkness there went along the street a poor little girl, bareheaded, and with naked feet. When she left home she had slippers on, it is true; but what was the good of that? They were very large slippers, which her mother had hitherto worn; so large were they; and the poor little thing lost them as she scuffled away across the street, because of two carriages that rolled by dreadfully fast.

One slipper was nowhere to be found; the other had been laid hold of by an urchin, and off he ran with it; he thought it would do capitally for a cradle when he some day or other should have children himself.

the opening of Andersen’s The Little Match Girl

The urchin is so minor that the reader of Matchless may not even realise the connection. Andersen writes as if the urchin might have run off with the slipper despite knowing it belonged to the Match Girl, but in Matchless McGuire has decided to make him unambiguously sympathetic — the boy finds the shoe but he has no idea who it belongs to. The urchin is also more sympathetic now that he has been named: Frederik. Although Andersen’s boy is a minor character, the detail he did provide is an unusually detailed one, and therefore intriguing if you stop to think on it. We get the sense of a paternal sort of boy, already thinking of a time when he’d be a father. This character provides the perfect opportunity for an author to break down gender stereotypes, by depicting a boy who has a caring nature most often associated with mothers.

In Matchless, the match girl’s grandmother is now changed to mother — Andersen makes it clear that the mother is deceased in the opening paragraph (‘which her mother had hitherto worn’ — in an era when peasants wore footwear until they wore out). This is a good choice for a modern audience, who may not necessarily know their grandparents as well as they know their parents — and makes me wonder why Andersen chose grandmother and not mother. Perhaps in the peasant class, grandmothers may well have been closer to the children than the parents, who were forced to work long hours in the pre-labour law era.

SHORTCOMING IN MATCHLESS

Frederik

The story opens with Frederik and so Frederik becomes our sympathetic hero as well as viewpoint character. He has been written sympathetically in every respect — McGuire gives him a Save The Cat moment when he makes tea for his poor old mother, hoping to warm her up. We’re also naturally sympathetic towards poor people who don’t have money for basics like matches to keep warm. We also quite like ordinary kids. We can relate to them. When McGuire tells us that ‘his fingers were the only clever part of him,’ he’s not only foreshadowing the slightly silly things he’ll do later in the story, but is also creating empathy. Northrop Frye created a hierarchy of ‘relatability’ in characterisation. Frederik falls into the low mimetic category: a human who is just regular. Just to make sure we’re fully on Frederik’s side, McGuire goes that extra mile and has the mother complain about the tea he’s made her. A favour given, returned with a complaint. Frederik is stoic — he offers to boy some more, WITH HIS OWN HARD-EARNED MONEY.

There’s no better way to engender sympathy for a main character. When Tony Soprano takes a stereo system to his old mother in the pilot episode of The Sopranos, the writers make sure we side with Tony. When Skyler complains that Walt has used the wrong bank account to buy stationery supplies, the Breaking Bad writers are doing the same thing. McGuire knew that the reader was coming to this with heavy empathy for the Little Match Girl herself, so he uses every trick in the empathy book to get us to like Frederik.

(Have you noticed the gender of the ungrateful character in each case above? Male main character does something nice for woman; woman complains when he gets it wrong. Audience falls in love with put-upon man. It’s almost like there’s a pattern.)

As is often the case with children in fairytales — and in stories reminiscent of fairytales — Frederik’s biggest shortcoming is his youth, which makes him especially precarious as a member of the peasant class.

Although writers are generally advised to give characters a moral shortcoming as well as a psychological one, this doesn’t always apply to fairytale child heroes, but this boy takes something which may have contributed to a little girl’s death. Though this is a pure accident rather than an act of immorality, it does what any genuine moral shortcoming does to a story — adds an interesting layer. The morality of a character encourages us to ask deeper questions: We don’t have to act out of malice for our actions to affect another person badly. Might something minor we have done have contributed to someone else’s downfall, and we’d never even know it?

The Little Match Girl

I wonder what McGuire’s reasons were for naming the urchin but refusing to name the match girl. Readers with a solid grasp on history will understand the history of erasing women completely from the books, which makes this is an irritating political decision. Naming a character is a heavily symbolic act — the name alone affords humanity.

I can only guess at why McGuire made this decision when writing Matchless, preferencing narrative reasons over political ones; when writers don’t name a character, that character can stand in as proxy for many characters just like them. There would have been many match girls around (if not selling matches then selling baskets, or candles). I’m not sure this argument holds water.

In Matchless McGuire has retained the sense of melodramatic poverty from Andersen’s original, with the descriptions of the abject poverty, exclamations of “Oh!”, ‘wandering this way and that’. If we empathise with Frederik, ’empathy’ is not quite the word for the emotion evoked by the utter misfortune of The Little Match Girl. This character remains one step removed from full empathy — her story is just too terrible. When we read a story about a boy sort of like us who is under-appreciated and underestimated, it’s easier than empathising with Syrian refugees on the six o’clock news, whose misfortune is so heavy as to be unimaginable. The Little Match Girl occupies that space in our minds.

That said, she’s plenty affecting. The Little Match Girl was the most disturbing picture book I owned as a kid. It was the only story I ever heard which ended in a child’s death. I hadn’t realised children could die. (I didn’t see Bambi or Old Yeller or Where The Red Fern Grows — those movies didn’t make it to New Zealand’s TV channels, and if they did I missed them. There was no way of seeing them otherwise.)

Clearly, then, Matchless is Frederik’s story. The Little Match Girl’s section doesn’t let us into her head — not really. It’s not just that McGuire decided not to name her; he decided to hew The Little Match Girl’s narrative to Andersen’s original, which is not about a girl — it’s about poverty. In a story of this length McGuire didn’t have the room to flesh both children out equally. He could either flesh out the girl, or the boy.

There exists a gender imbalance in stories, and a disproportionately large number of stories in which a female character dies to inspire a male character’s arc. However, since McGuire gave us Wicked and has proved himself plenty capable of writing female characters, I will emphasise that this is a general problem with the corpus of literature, not with any individual author, necessarily. Also, you could claim Matchless in its own right is a feminist story: None of the characters are limited by their gender. The boy plays with dolls. That’s the very definition of a feminist story.

DESIRE IN MATCHLESS

For someone in the peasant class, keeping alive is the overriding desire. Homeless people will tell you that just performing the basics of keeping alive takes up the entire day. But have you noticed this desire alone doesn’t make for a complete story? No matter how destitute someone is, writers generally give even the poorest main characters a short term desire. There are several reasons for this:

  1. Without a desire either fulfilled or unfulfilled, the story can have no end. (Well, you can leave off where you like, but to your audience it won’t feel finished.)
  2. A desire which is more specific than food/water/shelter individualises a character.
  3. Readers like to see characters rise bravely above their poverty and hope for something more. I’m not sure what this says about us as a culture. Optimistically, I’d say we like to see poor people as human, and perhaps this allows us to see ourselves as poor. Pessimistically, I’d say we find it supremely uncomfortable to imagine what it’s really like to be poor. We don’t want to go there; we don’t want to imagine ourselves as poor. I try doing the thought experiment where I have absolutely nothing. I find myself thinking, “But I have an education and I could probably go back to a salaried job.” I have to force myself to imagine if I didn’t have the benefit of an education. “But I’m healthy. I could clean people’s houses.” But what if you weren’t healthy? The thought experiment where you spiral right down is not easy to do.

Frederik wants to keep his family warm; he wants to eat (fish), but McGuire has given him this side hobby — an endearing one — in which he collects discarded items to create his own miniature world.

Now this is interesting for a different reason, and relates to the overall setting: The reader is reading a book in the real world about a sub- fairy-tale world which includes an even smaller imaginary world… This is a mise en abyme effect — the kind you get in a dressing room, with mirrors on three sides. This world goes on forever — at least, the illusion goes on forever. McGuire will use this mise en abyme effect later to tie up the story. When he talks about the stars, we are encouraged to regard the entire world as just a small sub-world within something much larger. Astronauts who view Earth from space all describe the psychological effect of seeing the entire world in one view:

The overview effect is a cognitive shift in awareness reported by some astronauts during spaceflight, often while viewing the Earth from orbit or from the lunar surface.[1][2][3][4][5][6]

It refers to the experience of seeing firsthand the reality of the Earth in space, which is immediately understood to be a tiny, fragile ball of life, “hanging in the void”, shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere. From space, national boundaries vanish, the conflicts that divide people become less important, and the need to create a planetary society with the united will to protect this “pale blue dot” becomes both obvious and imperative.

The Overview Effect, Wikipedia

McGuire demonstrates in Matchless how authors can attempt a cognitive shift in their audience by making use of the miniature technique.

There’s a universal ideology running throughout narrative, and throughout our culture — that an abundance of imagination trumps abundance of toys. We are universally charmed by characters living in difficult circumstances who make the most of their situation by delving into their minds. McGuire spends a paragraph describing Frederik’s miniature world:

On the planks of the attic floor waited Frederik’s secret: a town hunched on an island, a heap of netting that had washed into his path once when north winds drove the waves clear across the causeway. The houses were made of empty boxes that he’d lifted from merchants’ rubbish bins. Frederik cut out windows and folded the cardboard: perfect hinged shutters. He built eaves out of slates that the wind had liberated from real roofs. He planted trees by poking sprigs of balsam into dollops of boat caulking. Best was the customs house: A gold-papered chocolate gift box sporting a porcelain dome — an upturned bowl of chipped blue china.

We admire Frederik for this even though he seems to subscribe uncritically to the dominant culture’s established hierarchies: In his attic ‘he was not fish-thief, but governor’.

This is basically a quest story — Frederik wants a particular item — he wants a boat for his toy people. (The slipper.) Of course, this slipper represents so much more to Frederik; if his little people aren’t lonely, he won’t be lonely either, up there in his poverty-stricken attic that smells of rotten fish.

OPPONENT IN MATCHLESS

Some stories are clearly hero versus baddie. Other stories contain a more balanced web of opposition, in which characters each have their own competing goals (desires). No one acts immorally; fate takes its course. Matchless falls into the latter. Our hero, Frederik, is also the key opponent in the little match girl’s downfall.

Who opposes Frederik? His mother is a cold, unhelpful character who serves as token opposition even though she’s probably doing the best she can for him. The mother’s opposition is clearly shown — she’s a member of the working class, at the beck and call of royalty. It’s interesting that McGuire has humanised the Queen. We don’t normally learn of personal details such as a tendency to step on one’s hems. Royalty in story is often presented as next to god. And the Queen herself is not deliberately evil — she offers Frederik and his sisters food in an act of charity which is nonetheless completely underwhelming. (If she really wanted to help she’d pay his mother more.)

This is an interesting dynamic in its own right: We make token gestures to make ourselves feel better. We take our reusable bags to the supermarket and feel good about saving the environment. We donate ten dollars to the SPCA and imagine we’ve saved a puppy. A child audience won’t necessarily read all that into the scene with the queen, but it is this kind of detail which appeals to a dual audience.

PLAN IN MATCHLESS

Frederik’s plan is to keep his eye out for something that will do for a boat for his dolls. But he realises somehow that the slipper has been lost. Unable to read, he asks his mother to read the tag.

This is what I mean by weird fairytale logic. It makes sense that she would keep her key in her slipper I guess. However, didn’t women’s clothes from the 1800s contain pockets in the apron? But why The Little Match Girl’s key have an address on it? I suppose this works to our modern minds; the address is written on the key in case it gets lost, which it has. People used to do that a lot more often, I think. (Now I’d avoid it — it’s kind of like writing your passcode on your phone, right?)

This is what Alfred Hitchcock called a ‘refrigerator moment’, because I honestly did not think of this at the time of reading this story. I was perfectly happy with this and glossed past it. It’s only coming back that I notice all this and wonder about it. In short, the label on the key did its job. It’s my own problem that I came back later for more musings. Did it work for you?

In any case, now Frederik plans to return the key and the slipper to its rightful owner. But when he arrives he finds the girl frozen solid and the family quietly grieving, intercepted by a neighbour. This scene reminds me very much of Katherine Mansfield’s The Garden Party.

Frederik’s mother puts the sick baby to her breast. So, I can get past the address on the key thing, but this bit of invented fairytale logic is more egregious because it gets biology wrong. And there is a long, long history of getting female bodies wrong which continues to this day. Women aren’t physically capable of suckling a baby just like that. It requires prolactin. The only possible way the mother could be feeding that hungry baby is if she were employed as a wetnurse, but she’s employed as a seamstress. Perhaps she just meant to comfort the baby, despite the absence of milk. However, comfort alone wouldn’t save them. In early modern times people thought differently about ‘nature’ — what is natural, what is unnatural. It was considered natural for women to have children and breastfeed, but it didn’t have to be their own babies. Our sensibilities have changed around that, though the newish industry of sold breast milk is changing that culture again.

BIG STRUGGLE IN MATCHLESS

The big struggle scene of The Little Match Girl: When Frederik sees a lost slipper, he is so excited he pounces on it, and doesn’t hear the girl telling him to give it back.

Frederick’s Battle: Finding his way home in bad weather, which we already know can kill.

ANAGNORISIS IN MATCHLESS

He is guided home by stars twinkling at him which, to the superstitiously inclined, must be meant for him and him alone. McGuire guides us carefully towards this interpretation. This is a Christmas story after all, so Christian ideas about life after death and Heaven, and loved ones looking down on us, guiding us, is part of the ideology.

NEW SITUATION IN MATCHLESS

When Frederik invites his two step-sisters into the attic to play with his toys we know he has accepted them as family, with help from the dead girl, who would also be family if she hadn’t died of hypothermia. Symbolically, in the attic, they are closer to Heaven and closer to the dead sister. The attic has been transformed from a forgotten, unpleasant space for paupers to a special place closer to paradise.

For more on attics, see Symbolism of the Dream House.

Goldilocks and The Three Bears

Goldilocks and the Three Bears by Katharine Pyle - Boucle d'OrGoldilocks and the Three Bears by Katharine Pyle - Boucle d'Or

This month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story. Today I continue with a selection of mentor texts to help kids see how it works. Let’s look closely at a classic fairytale, Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

STORY STRUCTURE OF GOLDILOCKS AND THE THREE BEARS

Here’s the version I’m looking at:

Goldilocks, wildflower picker, enters the snug little cottage in the woods, knowing or not knowing whose it is, the owners absent as if by arrangement. Three pots of porridge, three chairs, three beds. Too hot, too cold, too high, too wide, too hard, too soft. Just right. The rule of three. G eats, breaks, crawls in. The owners return. There has been an intruder!

— The Goldilocks Variations from The American Reader

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

This is an interesting question, because you could pick Goldilocks or you could pick ‘The Three Bears’, with focus on the Baby Bear, since the target audience is going to identify with him.

I’m going to pick Goldilocks. The human girl is slightly closer to the human child reader, and we’re with Goldilocks when she enters the bears’ house in the woods, which means we’re exploring a new environment along with her. You could also argue that Baby Bear is just as convincing as ‘the main character’, but if in doubt, ask the question ‘Who changes the most?’ I’d wager Goldilocks gets the biggest fright and learns the biggest lesson.

What is wrong with Goldilocks?

Oh! I just realized! You know why this struck such a chord with me? No, of course you don’t. Well, I’ll tell you: I’ve been rearranging all of our fairy tale picture books, and so I’ve been thinking a lot about various stories and whatnot, but especially about how Goldilocks is SUCH A JERK. I mean, she breaks into someone’s house, eats their food and breaks their stuff, and somehow we’re supposed to care about/root for her? NO, THANK YOU. Anyway, I love that This is Not My Hat is kind of the anti-Goldilocks.

Bookshelves Of Doom

I’m not so hard on Goldilocks, because I code her as about five or six. She probably shouldn’t have been left to wander into the woods in the first place. In most versions from my childhood, she is illustrated as a well-dressed, upper-class little girl with the Sunday frock and the ribbons. If I was illustrating her, I would dress her in a ragged tunic and bare feet. Because a well-dressed little girl wouldn’t have been afforded that amount of freedom.

On the other hand, this is the escapist longing of that well-dressed, upper-class little girl, who would never be allowed into the woods. Of course.

WHAT DOES GOLDILOCKS WANT?

A lot of children’s stories start out with a character who is basically bored. Goldilocks seems driven by pure curiosity. She’s not a thief, she’s not a starving urchin who has broken in with any purpose.

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

This information is withheld until the middle, used as a reveal when the three bears arrive back home after a stroll in the woods.

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

Goldilocks is fascinated by a cabin in the woods, goes in and tries to work out who lives there by conducting small experiments: testing each bowl of porridge

BIG BIG STRUGGLE

The climax (Big Battle) is very obvious: The bears find Goldilocks asleep in Baby Bear’s bed. She is so startled she escapes out the window.

This is one of those fairy tales which is designed to be retold orally, perhaps by adults who have never been taught to read and write. When the bears find Goldilocks asleep, this provides opportunity for a jump scare — a pounce, a tickle and a great burst of laughter. Another fairy tale good for this purpose is Red Riding Hood, in which the wolf eats the girl.

WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?

The rest of the story is chopped off, but the narrative still feels complete because we can extrapolate (guess) the rest.

Goldilocks learns that when you break into someone’s house you might meet with danger.

In any fairy tale, it’s not just the fictional character who learns something, but also the reader:

When [Goldilocks] samples the three chairs, porridges, and beds, Goldilocks discovers that Papa Bear’s items are not right and that Mama Bear’s don’t suit; only Baby Bear’s chair, porridge, and bed are perfect. As psychologist Bruno Bettelheim suggests, this story teaches the child two things: that there are roles in the family and just which one is theirs. (It teaches this lesson, we might add, by means of bears.)

Jerry Griswold

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

I’m guessing those bears were left in peace, at least by Goldilocks. Someone needs to write a story about how Goldilocks became a breaker and enterer, and did three and a half years’ bird as a small-time crim.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF GOLDILOCKS AND THE THREE BEARS

For a very brief synopsis of each of the main versions:  The Goldilocks Variations from The American Reader

An early version is quite disturbing to modern sensibilities. Marina Warner writes of the story written and illustrated by Eleanor Mure:

Controlling children through bogeys, rather than lulling their terrors through merriment, inspires many famous tales in English in the nineteenth century. The earliest written version of “Goldilocks”, called “The Three Bears” in a manuscript of 1831, does not feature the little girl of today but another witchy old woman, and in much less benign spirit than the characters of nursery rhymes. At first, she stoves in the chair she sits on and lands, legs flailing, on her bottom; her pranks in this story are at first intended to be funny but turn ambiguous. For the end appals: the bears ‘drag forth the dame, half expiring with fear’, maltreat her for a witch, throwing her on the fire to burn her, and then ‘swimming ‘ her in a pond where, like a reputed witch, she floats. As if this were not enough, they then ‘chuck her aloft of St Paul’s churchyard steeple’. The teller also illustrated her manuscript, which she was giving as a present to her nephew. The three bears’ house is very large, gracious and well-appointed, and stands behind bayonet railings: the little nephew was learning about the social order. Violence in children’s literature changes form, and its targets differ—but it never disappears.

— From The Beast To The Blonde, Marina Warner

The Three Bears large house
Not the quaint cottage today’s children are more familiar with.

Three Bears Kill Old Lady
‘Expiring’ is obviously a more child friendly way to say ‘kill’.

Burning Old Lady
You may notice the fairytale reference to witch burning.

Hair

This tale has changed a lot over the years, as all fairytales have. Originally, the intruder was an old woman. Then she was aged down, then she was given blonde hair, named ‘Goldilocks’ and has been known as Goldilocks since. Sometimes it only takes one version or illustrator to lead to a big change like that. Snow White was changed permanently by Disney, who gave the dwarves the jobs of miners. Previously they weren’t miners, and they didn’t have those names.

Clothes, or No Clothes?

The Three Bears in The Golden Goose Book, 1905, are not dressed; they live in a charming house that seems to have been transported to the wood from Hampstead Garden Suburb; they are not fearsome except by their sheer size. Their animal faces have deftly indicated human expressions of surprise and censure at their discoveries and absurd parental pride in the antics of the small Bear who wails and grouses like a child or jumps and somersaults in excited fun and naughtiness. Their bear home is full of fancies with punning human words, pictures, ornaments and books turned into their bear equivalents.

— Animal Land, Margaret Blount

naked bears

 Faulty Physics In Goldilocks And The Three Bears

Baby Bear Is Mad
Gets me every time.

Fair enough that the largest bowl of porridge is too hot. Fair enough that the mother’s medium sized bowl is too cold. But how can the baby bear’s even smaller bowl of porridge be just right? If it’s the smallest mass of the lot, it holds its heat for the shortest time. It should be even colder. This just doesn’t make sense.

(Unless, of course, three separate batches of porridge were made from scratch, to cater to everyone’s preferred consistency. I do know families who prepare meals like this.)

There’s a feminist issue in here. I’m sure of it. I understand the three bears went for a walk to let their porridge cool down. Whose idea was that? I presume from the state in which Goldilocks found the porridge, that it was only the father bear’s porridge which had been too hot; I imagine also that the mother bear went along with him, even though her own porridge was probably just right and she wanted to eat it then and there. She should’ve let him go out for his own bloody walk. Then none of this sorry saga would’ve happened.

 

 

NOT RELATED BUT VERY INTERESTING

New Definition of The Goldilocks Zone Puts Earth Right On The Edge Of Habitability from io9

Woman Wakes Up To Find Three Bears In Her Car

The Really Ugly Duckling by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith

Earlier this month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story. Earlier this week I looked closely at Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen’s Sam and Dave Dig A Hole to show how this classic story structure can be turned upside down, ironically. Today ‘s story is The Really Ugly Duckling.

The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales is a metafictional picture book from 1992, by Jon Scieska and illustrated by Lane Smith. It’s a collection of very short stories, but I’m only going to look at one. Like other tales in the book, The Really Ugly Duckling is a re-visioning of the classic fairy tale The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen. To get the gag, the reader is meant to know the original tale, otherwise it’s not so funny.

The Really Ugly Duckling shows writers can break the rules of narrative and create surprise. In this case, Jon Scieszka omits the bit that normally comes after the Big Battle. The fancy word for this part is ‘denouement’. In seven step story structure, the denouement is the final two steps.

If you aren’t going to write the last two steps, you need a good reason, other than, ‘I got sick of this story and called it quits’. Usually, these stories with an abrupt ending aim to make the reader laugh.

There are terms to describe these kinds of stories.

  • If the story ends right before the big big struggle, it’s called a Bolivian Army ending. (The name comes from classic movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. We never get to see the main characters die.)
  • If someone’s been spinning a long-winded, really boring story with lots of pointless detail and then refuses to finishes it off to make you groan, it’s called a Shaggy Dog story. These stories are pretty good and hold your attention. They’re designed to disappoint.
  • A Shaggy Dog story is also known as the Feghoot. A feghoot is described as a short-short story (300 words on average, although 500-word examples exist), ending in a pun or a punchline that is pretty obviously the only reason for the story’s existence. The telling detail in a Feghoot is the groan emitted by the reader/listener when he hits the punchline. A Shaggy Dog tale is more likely to be known as a Feghoot if it’s in written form.
  • Related to the Shaggy Dog story is the Shaggy Frog story. Unlike the Shaggy Dog story, the Shaggy Frog story goes absolutely nowhere.

The Really Ugly Duckling is too short to be a Shaggy Dog story, and there’s no expectation of a big big struggle, so it’s none of those exactly. Instead it simply has No Ending. If there’s a subcategory, it’s Aborted Arc. In other words, there’s no character arc. We expect one, of course, but it has been abandoned.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE REALLY UGLY DUCKLING



WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

At first we’re introduced to the entire family. If you read the really old fairytales, like those transcribed by Charles Perrault, you’ll find that before the story even starts we get a rundown of the main character’s family history, and it’s not even brief. The Charles Perrault version of Sleeping Beauty goes into a whole heap of family stuff we don’t need to know. This re-visioning uses the tradition, sticking pretty closely to it for the first paragraph. So far, so good. We have an ugly duckling, the most interesting character in this otherwise unremarkable family of ducks.

What’s wrong with them?

He’s ugly. Based on a human world, being ugly means you’ll be shunned in this community.

WHAT DOES THE UGLY DUCKLING WANT?

He’s looking forward to growing up. He’s obviously read the original fairytale (like us) so he is comforted by the fact that he’s only temporarily ugly. The illustration shows that he’s not worried about looking ugly. He’s smiling as everyone watches on.

really ugly duckling

But we want him to grow up to be beautiful. The Hans Christian Andersen original is basically a revenge tale. “I used to be ugly, but ha ha, look at me now!” The Ugly Duckling is the original makeover trope.

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

Ugliness in itself wouldn’t be a problem if peeps (and cheeps) weren’t so judgey.

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

To grow up and become beautiful. In the meantime, don’t care. This subverts the characterisation of the original duckling, who cared a lot what others thought of him.

BIG BIG STRUGGLE

Turn the page and you get massive font, suggesting a shouty argument:

Well, as it turned out, he was just a really ugly duckling. And he grew up to be just a really ugly duck. The end.

There is no big struggle within the story itself.

WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?

Nothing, but we readers learn we’ve been tricked. That’s the thing about postmodern picture books like this one. The reader is very much part of the story. The characters talk to us. It is likely us who changes rather than the fictional characters.

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON

It won’t! It really won’t.

As you can see, Jon Scieszka created a gag by chopping off the last three steps of your typical story.

He subverted our expectations, using our ‘intertextual’ knowledge of the Hans Christian Andersen original.

It’s a decent gag.

The writers of SpongeBob Squarepants like it too:

spongebob parody humour
Here we have a parody of a fairytale such as The Ugly Duckling.

What is a heterotopia?

heterotopia

I have previously written about utopias, snail under the leaf settings, idylls and dystopias. I thought I had -topias covered. Then I came across the word heterotopia. What’s that, now?

Foucault uses the term “heterotopia” to describe spaces that have more layers of meaning or relationships to other places than immediately meet the eye. In general, a heterotopia is a physical representation or approximation of a utopia, or a parallel space (such as a prison) that contains undesirable bodies to make a real utopian space possible.

thanks, Wikipedia.

That last clause makes zero sense to me. The article gets more impenetrable from there.

After taking a close look at what the concept means, I’m reminded of when I was teaching. Teachers would refer to ‘the real world’ as if it were somewhere else. In ‘the real world’ people don’t get 12 weeks of holiday. In ‘the real world’ you don’t get a fixed but safe salary every two weeks. Like some sort of wild creature taking risks real world people have to run their own businesses or something. But then I had a job with public service. I noticed that people who work for the public service also talk about everyone else is if everyone else is ‘the real world’. Council workers do it, too. I now realise that teaching, like few other jobs, really is ‘the real world’. In a school you’re dealing with whatever (delight and) trouble comes through the door — family issues, medical issues, car crashes, rape, imprisonment and physical assault on top of the day-to-day actual teaching and paperwork. This feeling that everyone else is ‘the real world’ and you yourself are living in some sort of insulated bubble is quite widespread, and I wonder if any group of professionals do in fact consider themselves The Real World. I suspect even emergency department nurses are prone to this feeling, working at night when everyone else is perceived to be asleep, and on the side of the bed where you are expected to be calm and helpful rather than show your human side.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE WORD HETEROTOPIA

Heterotopia is based on the concept of utopia.

  • The Greek ‘u’  bit at the beginning of utopia means ‘not’.
  • The ‘topia’ part means ‘place’.

So if utopia means a place that is not — a place which doesn’t actually exist — heterotopia means a place that is different. Whereas the word ‘utopia’ has been around since 1516 thanks to Thomas More. The word ‘utopia’ is a bit confusing, actually, because it was based on a Greek pun. Of course, the pun got totally lost in translation. So in Thomas More’s pun, utopia meant both ‘place that is not’ and ‘good place’. (ou-topos vs. eu-topos). In modern everyday English, when we say ‘utopia’ we’re generally referring to the good place.

Heterotopias differ from these ‘good’ utopias because they allow for the inherently unpredictable nature of human contexts to disrupt this space.

The word heterotopia has only been around since 1967, thanks to Michel Foucault, who was giving a lecture to students of architecture at the time.

The sorry truth is, Foucault made this word up, explained it a bit, and then left it alone. At least he wasn’t making any puns. Maybe he confused his own self as he was explaining it. BUT he said just enough to make a lot of us want to know more, and others have said a lot since. Some have picked up the word and ran with it.

Let’s look at the concept of heterotopia from a perspective I can sink my teeth into  — children’s literature.

WHY WAS HETEROTOPIA INVENTED IN THE 20TH CENTURY?

Heterotopia is a 20th century concept because it best describes 20th century life and beyond.

In the Middle Ages there was a hierarchic ensemble of places when it came to humans here on Earth:

  1. sacred places and profane places
  2. protected places and open, exposed places
  3. urban places and rural places.

In cosmological theory, there were:

  1. the super-celestial places (as opposed to the celestial)
  2. the celestial place was in its turn opposed to the terrestrial place.

(Galileo put an end to that. Galieo’s new theories made people realise the universe was way bigger than they’d thought. They also separated ‘time’ from ‘the sacred’, but that still hasn’t happened entirely with the concept of ‘space’.)

HETEROTOPIA IN A NUTSHELL

  • Heterotopia is a ‘real world utopia’. A utopia has no real place. A utopia is a ‘perfect version’ of a real place — a society turned upside down. But heterotopias are fundamentally unreal.
  • The mirror is a kind of utopia. (It is a placeless place.) The mirror is also a kind of heterotopia as well as a utopia. The mirror does exist in the reality of your bathroom. But while the person you see in the mirror is real, but the image in the mirror is unreal. The mirror is the ultimate link between the real and the unreal. That’s why mirrors are so fictionally interesting.
  • A heterotopia, similar to a utopia, is a kind of ‘unreal’ space.
  • Time works differently in a heterotopia.
  • Heterotopias have a system of opening and closing that both isolates them and makes them penetrable. In general, the heterotopic site is not freely accessible like a public place. Either the entry is compulsory, as in the case of entering a barracks or a prison, or else the individual has to submit to rites and purifications.
  • A heterotopia is a place that represents society, but in a distorted way which calls to mind particular idealised aspects of the culture.
  • Heterotopias attempt to encourage transition from a space of chaotic governance and leadership to a mapped, organised one.

EXAMPLES OF REAL WORLD HETEROTOPIAS AND ANALOGUES FROM CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

Every culture has the concept of a heterotopia: privileged, sacred and forbidden places reserved for certain people.

Crisis Heterotopias

There are ‘crisis hetereotopias’, where you find adolescents, menstruating women (See Menstruation In Fiction), pregnant women, women in general, the elderly. We have fewer of these ‘crisis heterotopias’ in modern society. It’s considered not-nice to lock people away when we don’t want to deal with them.

retirement village heterotopia of Ponyo
The retirement village of Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo soon turns into a genuine utopia where all the old people regain use of their bodies.

We still have boarding schools and many countries have the military service for young people.

Boarding Schools

Hogwarts is a well-known example. Harry Potter’s boarding school is a heterotopia because it is both separate from but also intimately connected to the world beyond its walls. Zooming in on more specific spaces within the Harry Potter universe we have some even better examples of heterotopias:

  1. 12 Grimmauld Place, the ancestral home of the Black family, located in the Borough of Islington, London, in a Muggle neighbourhood
  2. The tent that Harry, Ron and Hermione share in book seven
  3. The Room of Requirement is a space within the place of the school proper.  Itonly appears when a person is in great need of it. The room is thought to have some degree of sentience, because it transforms itself into whatever the witch or wizard needs it to be at that moment in time, although there are some limitations. For example, it cannot create food, as that is one of the five Principal Exceptions to Gamp’s Law of Elemental Transfiguration. It is believed that the room is Unplottable, as it does not appear on the Marauder’s Map, nor do its occupants, although this could simply be because James Potter, Remus Lupin, Sirius Black, and Peter Pettigrew never found the room.

Those two spaces exist in the margins of safety and danger. There are shifts from order to disorder, from safety to danger. The idea J.K. Rowling is pushing forth is that young adults can be powerful when it comes to opposing the abuses that permeate the spaces in our own world. What the trio does in Hogwarts does not stay in Hogwarts. The teenagers go against authority, learning the limits of their own power. For this they need to operate in a fictional space which is part fantasy, part real-world.

Train And Steamships

Many children’s stories still feature steam trains even though most modern kids have never ridden one in their lives. The steam train, or the ship (offered as an example by Foucault himself) are especially good as heterotopias because they operate like alternative worlds. They are kind of like a portal in a portal fantasy, One obvious reason to linger in a portal is to give an audience the enjoyment of being transported to another world. Another reason is to make sure the audience doesn’t zone out for a moment and lose track of where they are. But there are other reasons.

See also: The Symbolism of Trains

When the fantasy portal is something like a train or a ship, this gives the writer some space and time to:

  1. Establish the logic of this new universe
  2. To subvert it
  3. To have it clash with the logic of the existing, real world universe.

(In the real world, the ship which inspired the film Pirate Radio (2009) existed in a kind of heterotopia, able to broadcast non-classical music due to floating outside the reach of the rule makers.)

steam ship heterotopia in The Arrival by Shaun Tan

Anne With An E, the Netflix miniseries based on Anne of Green Gables, also features a steamship during the episode when Anne is sent away from Prince Edward Island.

The boat is a floating piece of space, a place without a place, that exists by itself, that is closed in on itself and at the same time is given over to the infinity of the sea and that, from port to port, from tack to tack, from brothel to brothel, it goes as far as the colonies in search of the most precious treasures they conceal in their gardens, you will understand why the boat has not only been for our civilization, from the sixteenth century until the present, the great instrument of economic development… but has been simultaneously the greatest reserve of the imagination. The ship is the heterotopia par excellence. In civilizations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates.

— Foucault

Pirate stories set on ships are likewise heterotopic.

Honeymoon Destinations

In the past the ‘honeymoon trip’ had the purpose of removing a young woman from society so that she could lose her virginity elsewhere (out of sight, out of mind — because everyone’s always been scared of young female sexuality). So the honeymoon destination is a kind of heterotopia, without geographical markers.

The honeymoon destination is the closest real world analogue I can think of for the portal fantasy that takes a character (and her sidekick) away to a fun and fabulous land where children can eat as much as they like of whatever they like and get up to other carnivalesque mischief. After all, in children’s literature food is basically sex.

Libraries and Museums

A 20th century heterotopia. Time works differently here because in these places time never stops ‘building up and topping its own summit’.

A lot of children’s books feature libraries — probably because children’s authors are huge fans of books. For instance, A Series of Unfortunate Events contains memorable libraries.

Cinemas and Theatres

Juxtaposition is very important when it comes to the importance of a heterotopia. Cinemas and theatres are heterotopic because they are capable of juxtaposing “in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible”. There’s the audience, sitting comfortably in their chairs, juxtaposed with whatever mayhem’s going on on the screen or stage.

These are sites of temporary relaxation.

The theater brings onto the rectangle of the stage, one after the other, a whole series of places that are foreign to one another; thus it is that the cinema is a very odd rectangular room, at the end of which, on a two-dimensional screen, one sees the projection of a three-dimensional space.

Foucault

Drag queen cabarets are especially good examples of heterotopias because the men dressed as ‘women’ are not mimicking real women at all, but a particular kind of ideal woman, with exaggeratedly feminine attributes. They caricature feminine traits. What is the raison d’etre of kikis and drag queen cabarets? The kinder interpretation: Drag queens highlight the ways in which femininity is a performance. And through a misogynistic lens: by highlighting that femininity is a performance, women are seen to be performative, duplicitous and basically liars when we put on ‘masks‘ such as make-up, and dress to make our legs look longer and so on.

In children’s books there are few (if any) drag queen cabarets — this is considered adult entertainment. But we do often get a form of cross-dressing. This is most often done to disempower boys by comparing them to girls, long considered a lesser gender. This is not a form of heterotopia but a kind of gag. There is a drag performance in the movie version of Coraline — not a gender transgressive one but one performed by the two women who live together next door. (Are Miriam Forcible and April Spink cis women? I like to think they are not.)

Forcible and Spink from Coraline

Whenever a character in a story visits the cinema or the theatre and watches fiction on the stage, this might (or might not) be metafictional, depending on whether the author calls attention to the fact that, Hey, look, this character is watching a play and you’re reading a book about them watching a play.

Gardens

Perhaps the oldest example of these heterotopias that take the form of contradictory sites is the garden. We must not forget that in the Orient the garden, an astonishing creation that is now a thousand years old, had very deep and seemingly superimposed meanings. The traditional garden of the Persians was a sacred space that was supposed to bring together inside its rectangle four parts representing the four parts of the world, with a space still more sacred than the others that were like an umbilicus, the navel of the world at its center (the basin and water fountain were there); and all the vegetation of the garden was supposed to come together in this space, in this sort of microcosm. As for carpets, they were originally reproductions of gardens (the garden is a rug onto which the whole world comes to enact its symbolic perfection, and the rug is a sort of garden that can move across space). The garden is the smallest parcel of the world and then it is the totality of the world. The garden has been a sort of happy, universalizing heterotopia since the beginnings of antiquity (our modern zoological gardens spring from that source).

— — Foucault

Since heterotopias represent a society’s idealised version of reality, each culture has its own raison d’etre. Japanese gardens are all about balance, because balance is important to Japanese people. French gardens are made of straight lines whereas English gardens mimic the irregularity of nature (with the emphasis on ‘mimic’). Gardens are attempts to recreate an ideal, utopian nature.

Heterotopia is also about the side-by-side, the near and far, and simultaneity.

Botanical gardens in particular are driven by the desire to reconstitute the whole world in a walled enclosure.

The golf club is a kind of massive, over-manicured garden — another example of heterotopia. Malcolm Gladwell did an excellent podcast on American golf clubs, and how taxpayers are all paying for them even though they are accessible by very few.

Cemeteries

A cemetery is a heterotopia because the tombs form a sort of ideal town for the deceased, each placed and displayed according to social rank. Our local graveyard divides people according to religion — we have protestants on one side, Catholics on the other. The odd atheist (I assume) is over by the fence, as far as possible away from the religious folk. This represents some sort of idealised town, in which people of different/no faiths don’t have to deal with each other.

Also, a cemetery gives the illusion to its visitors that their departed relatives still have an existence and status, symbolised by the stone of their tomb. This is a simulated utopia of life after death, but it is also a representation of the real world, where things like your religion and status — as described briefly on your tombstone — actually matter.

Take the strange heterotopia of the cemetery. The cemetery is certainly a place unlike ordinary cultural spaces. It is a space that is however connected with all the sites of the city, state or society or village, etc., since each individual, each family has relatives in the cemetery. In western culture the cemetery has practically always existed. But it has undergone important changes. Until the end of the eighteenth century, the cemetery was placed at the heart of the city, next to the church. In it there was a hierarchy of possible tombs. There was the charnel house in which bodies lost the last traces of individuality, there were a few individual tombs and then there were the tombs inside the church. These latter tombs were themselves of two types, either simply tombstones with an inscription, or mausoleums with statues. This cemetery housed inside the sacred space of the church has taken on a quite different cast in modern civilizations, and curiously, it is in a time when civilization has become ‘atheistic,’ as one says very crudely, that western culture has established what is termed the cult of the dead.

Basically it was quite natural that, in a time of real belief in the resurrection of bodies and the immortality of the soul, overriding importance was not accorded to the body’s remains. On the contrary, from the moment when people are no longer sure that they have a soul or that the body will regain life, it is perhaps necessary to give much more attention to the dead body, which is ultimately the only trace of our existence in the world and in language. In any case, it is from the beginning of the nineteenth century that everyone has a right to her or his own little box for her or his own little personal decay, but on the other hand, it is only from that start of the nineteenth century that cemeteries began to be located at the outside border of cities. In correlation with the individualization of death and the bourgeois appropriation of the cemetery, there arises an obsession with death as an ‘illness.’ The dead, it is supposed, bring illnesses to the living, and it is the presence and proximity of the dead right beside the houses, next to the church, almost in the middle of the street, it is this proximity that propagates death itself. This major theme of illness spread by the contagion in the cemeteries persisted until the end of the eighteenth century, until, during the nineteenth century, the shift of cemeteries toward the suburbs was initiated. The cemeteries then came to constitute, no longer the sacred and immortal heart of the city, but the other city, where each family possesses its dark resting place.

Foucault

Cemeteries are a good example of how time is different in a heterotopia. In a cemetery humans have met with broken time — starting at the time of death.

graveyard heterotopia children literature

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Fairgrounds
[Fairgrounds are] marvelous empty sites on the outskirts of cities that teem once or twice a year with stands, displays, heteroclite objects, wrestlers, snakewomen, fortune-tellers, and so forth.

Foucault

Disney World is the ultimate real world heterotopia. The characters are really nice to visitors not because Donald Duck is best friends with every visitor but because friendliness and photo opportunities are the service parents have paid for. The place is open only to those with enough money to enter — poverty and beggars are absent. The ‘city’ itself is a miniaturised version of an idealised world. For more on Disney World as the ultimate heterotopia see this article.

Madeline and the Gypsies heterotopia of the circus
In this carnivalesque story Madeline gets stuck at the top of a ferris wheel at the heterotopia of a ferris wheel.
Malls

Although this describes Disney World it applies equally to malls:

Stephen Fjellman explains in Vinyl Leaves that the ‘magic’ of Disney World is actually a cognitive overload associated with decontextualization. ‘Cognitive overload’ simply means that the visitors’ senses are constantly overloaded by stimuli: music, stories, animatronics, cute characters, pretty buildings, rides, simulations and more. The visitor is overwhelmed and loses part of his capacity to discriminate information or think.

Philosophy Now

In  our local mall we have:

  • Booths in the middle of the ‘street’ with salespeople trying to sell you mobile phone plans, insurance and do your taxes, depending on the time of year
  • The sub-heterotopia of a children’s entertainment arena, again different depending on the time of year. Before Christmas you can pay for the simulated intimacy of a photo with Santa. During school holidays you can be tied up to bungee ropes and jump and flip up as high as the third level of the mall. For younger kids we have mechanical horses which ‘run’ if you rock them the right way.
  • Music which is different depending on the store
  • Smells — some unintended, like the chemicals coming out of the nail salon; others intentional, such as the smell of baking coming out of the gourmet bakery.
  • Lighting which highlights some features over others
  • Massive advertisements, often of semi-naked women, always young and either smiling or seductive.
  • A help desk which supposedly caters to your every need, including telling you where to find things and dealing with misplaced items, like a patient mother
  • Tiny cars with flags on the top, so toddlers can imagine the mall is a city
  • Balloons with ‘Westfield’ written on them, simulating a party atmosphere
  • Mechanical animals, which take you to an imaginary other world if you put two dollars in the slot.

While malls are the ultimate shopping heterotopia, individual shops do their best to emulate the exclusivity of their stores — the very definition of ‘brand’.

Vacation Villages

Quite recently, a new kind of temporal heterotopia has been invented: vacation villages, such as those Polynesian villages that offer a compact three weeks of primitive and eternal nudity to the inhabitants of the cities. You see, moreover, that through the two forms of heterotopias that come together here, the heterotopia of the festival and that of the eternity of accumulating time, the huts of Djerba are in a sense relatives of libraries and museums. for the rediscovery of Polynesian life abolishes time; yet the experience is just as much the,, rediscovery of time, it is as if the entire history of humanity reaching back to its origin were accessible in a sort of immediate knowledge.

Foucault

Gated Communities

Like a permanent vacation village, the gated community is a phenomenon of the 21st century. In America, the same companies running prisons are guarding gated communities.

The ‘trailer park’ or the ‘mobile home community’ is a compulsory form of gated community — made compulsory due to poverty.

Rapunzel lives in the ultimate gated community. Rapunzel is the ur-Story of any overprotected girl who has lost freedom to move around her environment due to real or perceived danger.

Harlen Coben’s novel Safe was adapted for TV, starring Michael C. Hall, Michael C. Hall’s mish-mashed, weird-ass British accent, and a gated community which may not be so safe after all.

Harlen Coben Safe gated community
Religious Spaces

There are even heterotopias that are entirely consecrated to these activities of purification -purification that is partly religious and partly hygienic, such as the hammin of the Moslems, or else purification that appears to be purely hygienic, as in Scandinavian saunas.

Foucault

In a children’s book the tree house can function as a kind of religious space, letting in only those who perform the ritual of a password (e.g. Enid Blyton’s The Secret Seven). In The Three Investigators the boys have a caravan in one of their uncles’ scrapyard.

Religious Communities

The first wave of colonization in the seventeenth century, of the Puritan societies that the English had founded in America and that were absolutely perfect other places.

Jesuit colonies that were founded in South America: marvelous, absolutely regulated colonies in which human perfection was effectively achieved. The Jesuits of Paraguay established colonies in which existence was regulated at every turn. The village was laid out according to a rigorous plan around a rectangular place at the foot of which was the church; on one side, there was the school; on the other, the cemetery-, and then, in front of the church, an avenue set out that another crossed at fight angles; each family had its little cabin along these two axes and thus the sign of Christ was exactly reproduced. Christianity marked the space and geography of the American world with its fundamental sign.

The daily life of individuals was regulated, not by the whistle, but by the bell. Everyone was awakened at the same time, everyone began work at the same time; meals were at noon and five o’clock-, then came bedtime, and at midnight came what was called the marital wake-up, that is, at the chime of the churchbell, each person carried out her/his duty.

young adult novel cult as heterotopia

Thirteen-year-old Kyra has grown up in an isolated community without questioning the fact that her father has three wives and she has twenty brothers and sisters, with two more on the way. That is, without questioning them much—-if you don’t count her secret visits to the Mobile Library on Wheels to read forbidden books, or her meetings with Joshua, the boy she hopes to choose for herself instead of having a man chosen for her.

But when the Prophet decrees that she must marry her sixty-year-old uncle—-who already has six wives—-Kyra must make a desperate choice in the face of violence and her own fears of losing her family forever.

Brothels

Brothels and colonies are two extreme types of heterotopia.

Foucault

In YA fiction featuring the heterotopias of brothels we have Naked by Stacey Trombley, Dime by E.R. Frank and Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys, among others.

‘Love’ Hotels

There are others, on the contrary, that seem to be pure and simple openings, but that generally hide curious exclusions. Everyone can enter into these heterotopic sites, but in fact that is only an illusion—we think we enter where we are, by the very fact that we enter, excluded. I am thinking for example, of the famous bedrooms that existed on the great farms of Brazil and elsewhere in South America. The entry door did not lead into the central room where the family lived, and every individual or traveler who came by had the right to open this door, to enter into the bedroom and to sleep there for a night. Now these bedrooms were such that the individual who went into them never had access to the family’s quarter the visitor was absolutely the guest in transit, was not really the invited guest. This type of heterotopia, which has practically disappeared from our civilizations, could perhaps be found in the famous American motel rooms where a man goes with his car and his mistress and where illicit sex is both absolutely sheltered and absolutely hidden, kept isolated without however being allowed out in the open.

For children, a hotel doesn’t have to be a sex destination in order for it to function as a getaway.

BEAUTY PAGEANTS

I would include the world of beauty pageantry as a heterotopia. This world is explored in films such as Little Miss Sunshine, Whip It! and Dumplin.

IS HETEROTOPIA A USEFUL CONCEPT FOR TALKING ABOUT CHILDREN’S LITERATURE?

The word is probably more useful for architects than for students of literature, because it describes the function of a real world fictional place such as a Spanish garden or a games room. The truth is, every story with elements of realism features a heterotopia. Some sort of closed arena is a requirement for a story, after all.

The word is still useful for students of literature and here’s why:

[Disneyland] is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyper-real and of simulation.

—Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulations (1981)

Certain kinds of stories, including many children’s stories, are likewise presented as imaginary in order to make us believe the rest is real. Yet the very existence of these stories draws attention to the fact that the ‘real world’ is pretty fucking far from ‘real’. We’re actually living in a simulcrum of reality. I’m wearing a graduation gift that is a $300 dress ring, and it looks like it might be a lot more expensive than it is. Outside I have planted natives which I hope will look like they’re self-sown, if I can get them to establish.

When The Tiger Who Came To Tea leaves the house, the young reader’s attention is drawn to the fact that their real life is bound by certain rules and expectations. Foucault considered heterotopias escapes from authoritarianism, much like the carnivalesque settings in picture books. Subsequent thinkers have expanded his original meaning. Hetereotopias can also be dystopias, in fiction as in real life.

Children’s literature in general is very concerned with truth. Middle grade fiction in particular is read at a time when children are learning not only to lie, but when it is okay to lie. The concept of heterotopia is useful when considering the difference between reality and a shiny veneer which is not genuine at all. Is this expensive boarding school your parents have sent you to really all that great? Does this teacher in charge of your welfare really have your best interests at heart? Do the ‘popular’ kids in your class have real friends, or does popularity really mean ‘social status’? Is this world created for you by adults anything like the world you’ll be thrown into once you enter adulthood?

All children — at least, all well-cared-for children — live in a heterotopia, where they are protected from certain news stories, from the full spectrum of adult sexuality, from toxic food choices and their own bad decisions. The best coming-of-age stories — not the ones solely concerned with losing one’s virginity — are at their base about a young person realising the extent to which they’ve been living inside a heterotopia, and how much they’re willing to come out of it.

Heterotopia is also a useful concept when talking about the ‘Disneyfication‘ of children’s stories. This has been going on for more than half a century, and is an interesting look into how the West thinks of childhood.

It is also useful for getting a handle on your own personal philosophy of children’s literature. To what extent are you comfortable with people/children living in multiple levels of reality? Do you think that when children read magical stories like Harry Potter this affects their real-world understanding of science? At what age should children be exposed to what? If we allow privileged child readers to remain in the heterotopia we have created for them will this affect how they identify with people less privileged than themselves?

Also, the words used to describe “non-realistic” narratives have not been specific enough. Academics were overlapping different words and using them interchangeably. This was no good. Take the word ‘fantasy’ itself. Different scholars call it a ‘genre’, a ‘style’, a ‘mode’, or a ‘narrative technique’.  Believe it or not, people have big arguments about this. When describing children’s literature in particular, anything that’s not realistic is generally called either ‘fantasy’ (for long works) or ‘fairy tale’ (for short ones). This distinction is pretty useless really. Fairy tales and fantasy may seem related at a surface level, fairy tales came out of myth and have roots in archaic society. But fantasy is definitely a product of modern times. Heterotopia can be useful when talking about concepts related to modern fantasy stories, especially those with no portal. Portal fantasy most often has just the two distinct worlds — the ‘real world’ and the ‘fantasy world’ through the looking glass or whatever. But modern fantasy often involves a multitude of ‘secondary’ worlds. Traditional fantasy is all about simplicity, stability and optimism, whereas modern fantasy can explore reality in a much more complex fashion, emphasising uncertainty and ambiguity. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series is a good example of this kind of fantasy.

Perhaps it might be especially useful for talking about fabulism,  magical realism, and especially the typical modern child’s relationship with computer games. The word ‘spaces’ is often used to describe the imaginary worlds of computer games but we might use ‘heterotopia’ to be more specific.

ISLANDS

Islands in children’s literature are often considered a heterotopia — both a fantasy portal and a fantasy destination rolled into one.

PRISONS/JAILS

From a distance the prison might be an out-of-town shopping mall, Texas Homecare, Do It All and Toys ‘R’ Us. There’s a creche at the gate and a Visitors’ Centre, as it might be for Fountains Abbey or Stonehenge. Reasoning that I am a visitor myself, I big struggle across the windswept car park but when I put my head inside I find it full of visitors of a different sort, the wives and mothers (and very much the children) of the inmates, Birds of a Feather territory, I suppose. At the gate proper I’m frisked, X-rayed, my handprints taken, and am then taken through a series of barred gates and sliding doors every bit as intimidating as the institution in Silence of the Lambs.

– Alan Bennett from Untold Stories

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Heterotopian Studies, an entire website