Ideology In Children’s Literature


Every novel, every painting, every work of art with meaning contains an ideology. This includes stories written for children.

One of the fundamental changes in critical thinking and teaching over the past twenty years has been the acceptance that ideology is not a separate concept ‘carried by’ texts, but that all texts are inevitably infused by ideology. This has been particularly difficult to accept in the world of children’s literature, which is still widely assumed to be ‘innocent‘ of concerns of gender, race, power, and so on — or to carry transparently manipulative messages.

– Peter Hunt

We believe some ideologies so deeply that we consider them Truth: such ideologies as “education can improve people’s lives” and “it’s better to be rich than poor” can be difficult for people brought up in capitalist societies to recognize as arguable positions. But all adolescent novels are informed by such sociopolitical beliefs. Laura Ingalls Wilder, for example, infuses her own libertarian ideologies* into all of the Little House books, but most especially into the later books written for adolescents. Although in actuality the Ingalls family was closely connected to their neighbors during the historical season of blizzards depicted in The Long Winter (1940), Wilder portrays the fictionalised Ingalls family as living entirely isolated in self-sufficiency. Influenced by libertarianism, her ideological goal was to portray ogovernment intervention as both unnecessary and suspicious. William Sleator’s House of Stairs (1974), Robert Cormier’s I Am the Cheese (1977) and Virginia Hamilton’s The Gathering (1981) provide similar ideological critiques of government politics.

— Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature

*I feel it’s a bit easier for a non-American to see libertarian ideologies when they crop up. From my perspective here in Australia, Australians value equality, in contrast to North Americans, who seem to value freedom. Though membership to a certain culture gives one kind of insight, sometimes it’s easier to spot ideology in stories from a slightly different culture. It’s certainly easier to spot ideology in work from the past. You’ve probably experienced the phenomenon of sitting down to watch a classic film — Gone With The Wind or The Long Hot Summer or even Friends from the early 2000s, and noticed how ideologies which were once accepted and loved now seem hopelessly sexist, homophobic and racist. That’s exactly how future audiences will see the stories of today.

In order to understand…political ideologies…the reader has to understand at least two things: the historical context in which the story is set adn the historical context in which it was written. The distinction is especially important for historical novels like The Long Winter, when the historical setting is significantly removed from the date of the novel’s publication.

— Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature

The following are notes from various places, notably from Episode 9 of the Kid You Not Podcast, and from the book Language and Ideology In Children’s Literature by John Stephenswith extra insertions from me. If you’ve ever wondered what exactly is meant by ‘ideology’ and have come across words like ‘hegemonic’ without really understanding what the words mean, the Kid You Not podcast is a great way to spend 25 minutes. It’s clear and concise.


From a literary criticism perspective, all texts, especially fictional texts, are imbued with ideological content. This can refer to a system of values/beliefs/fears/world views, which are all linked to concepts of power. These values and beliefs will be distilled within language, whether through the words/images on the page or the words and images that are not there. [See: Where Are The People Of Colour In Picture Books?] Even picture books aimed at very young children can be ideologically charged. Sometimes ideology is transparent, because we’re bathed in it and therefore don’t even see it.

No text, and therefore no children’s book, is devoid of ideology. This isn’t necessarily a terrible thing. Ideology isn’t necessarily in reference to Nazi or communist propaganda. It might simply be an ideology of capitalism. While extremist groups have historically leaned on children’s literature to share their beliefs with impressionable audiences, but this is not what’s generally meant by ideology. Generally, ideology refers to children’s books at one end of the spectrum: Books designed to teach children something or deal with a specific problem. Peter Hollingdale has written about the distinction between implicit and explicit ideology.

He didn’t go so far as to explain that an explicit ideology can be communicated either directly or indirectly — but this is definitely the case. The difference between the two:

  • Novels with directly explicit ideologies go out of their way to explain certain views to the reader, in case the reader doesn’t pick it up.
  • Novels with INdirectly explicit ideologies trust that the reader has enough prior knowledge to pick up the messages in the book.

Some writers will tell you that books with direct and explicit ideologies are out of fashion, described as moralistic. But it’s a bit more complicated than that: Here’s what’s gone out of fashion: direct and explicit ideologies coming out of the mouths of adults. That includes adult characters and (presumably) adult unseen narrators. You’ll still see examples of direct and explicit ideology coming out of the mouths of first person young adult narrators. An example is the mini-lecture by the YA narrator of Am I Normal Yet? in which she describes the problematic language around casual use of words like ‘OCD’ thrown around in everyday discourse. If this had come out of an adult, then it would have sounded didactic.

Not every book has an explicit ideology. But every single story has an implicit one, and it is this kind of book which tends to be the more powerful vehicle for an ideology, precisely because it is invisible. The implication: that things are simply ‘so’.

The more covert the social practice in narrative, the more a text demands a reader who knows how to interpret a fiction. This demand is itself an ideological assumption.

Different categories of stories tend to have common ideologies. For example, in the mouse tale it’s common to find the idea that ‘When mice become too reliant upon human technology, this leads to the downfall of their own society.’ Is this saying something about isolated, ‘primitive’ human cultures and what happens to them when they rub up against technologically advanced civilisation?

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What Is Quality Children’s Literature? What Is Trash?

Children’s literature is often lumped into two broad groups: treasure and trash. The former is sometimes called ‘literary’, the latter ‘commercial’.

what is trash what is treasure

Many of the following are notes from Kid You Not Podcast Episode 2: ‘Quality and Trash

The concept of quality vs trash gets a lot of people quite worked up. Are these labels even helpful?


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Storytelling And Subversion: How is it done?

Subversion of reader expectation to challenge long-held beliefs is one of the most difficult — and the most important — things storytellers can do.

It’s also easy to get wrong. For an example of subversion which fails, see my analysis of bestselling picture book The Day The Crayons Quit.

It’s not surprising that feminists are all over this aspect of literature. Storytellers have been trying to challenge gender roles for a long while now, and also getting it wrong. In Waking Sleeping Beauty, Roberta Seelinger Trites writes: “Novels that engage in simple role reversal are no more feminist than their counterparts.”

In this post I make a case against simple inversion, hoping to subvert. I make a case against hipster irony. I make a case for a deep understanding of the cultural milieu.

Case Study: Brave

Pixar’s Brave was widely hailed as a welcome addition to a corpus of films which most often depict girls as princess types waiting to be saved. (Of all the reviews I have read of Brave, the review from Feminist Disney most closely matches my own impressions of it.)

Here’s why Pixar’s Brave is not subversive: Brave does not push traditional gender limits. An academic from Emory University explains in this short video that Merida encourages girls to be independent, but within the fairytale structure of this arc, demonstrates that there are severe consequences to stepping outside gender roles. Merida unleashes a curse by doing so. A better representation of girlhood in animated film is that of Violet from The Incredibles, who uses her super-power of invisibility to create a force field around herself. But there are other issues with this story — again, Violet exists — as most fictional female heroes do — within the realms of her family. She is not given the opportunity to leave the family and seek out independence as many boy heroes do. Another Pixar creation, Up, is quite a gender-bender in this sense, because the boy who befriends the old man is desperate for the love of family rather than separating from the family to seek his boyish independence on the way to manhood. His is a more typically feminine-coded storyline, in which family is important to him.

Case Study: Babette Cole

I didn’t fully understand my own problem with Brave until I took a close look at two picture books which parody traditional gender stereotypes. The first is Prince Cinders by Babette Cole and the other, a book called The Dragon Of Brog by Jean Hood. This is from the final chapter in Deconstructing The Hero by Margery Hourihan:

Just as [Babette] Cole’s stories lampoon the stereotypes of large hairy masculinity and the swashbuckling hero who overcomes all difficulties, so Hood’s story ridicules the figure of the brave knight in armour whose profession is mayhem, and appreciation of the joke likewise depends upon familiarity with the originals.

These stories certainly raise the issue of gender, and provide effective discussion-starters for teachers. As Stephens says of Prince Cinders [by Babette Cole] ‘that abjection, humility and passivity now become deficiencies poses the question of why they should be virtues for the female’. But there are problems with these works that go beyond their parodic dependence upon the originals.

Their ridicule of the gender stereotypes is ultimately nihilistic for females. There are no admirable male figures against whom to measure the exploded stereotypes, and the attitudes of the princesses Smarty Pants and Lisa [and Merida] suggest that all males are contemptible nuisances. While this might amuse some girls because it is such a neat inversion of the dismissal of females in so many stories, it offers nothing except a sense of pay-back. Smarty Pants and Lisa [and Merida] themselves are little more than the old male stereotypes in drag: they are arrogant, self-assured know-alls with no empathy for others — hardly positive embodiments of the female. The trouble with dualism is that if you simply turn it on its head it is still a dualism. Inversion is not the same as subversion

Further, these stories fail to engage with the material they deride. Despite the patriarchal values inscribed in traditional hero tales the fields of folk talk, legend and romance are rich with potent symbols that work at many levels.

Hourihan does go on to say (of the picture books mentioned above):

Of course these stories do have an ideological content. They are celebrations of self-interest, of ruthless, unconsidered individualism. The behaviour of Smarty Pants and Lisa, who both want to do exactly as they like all the time, exemplifies the strident selfishness of the extremists who give feminism a bad name.

On this, I feel Brave does better than Princess Smartypants and The Dragon of Brog. By the end of the film, Merida has changed the local law for everyone; no one will be forced to marry someone unless each is of the other’s choosing. Merida has been an activist for wider social change. However, let’s not mistake this for storytelling gender equality. That will not have been achieved until female characters are fighting for something other than female freedom.

Case Study: There’s A Girl In My Hammerlock (1991) by Jerry Spinelli

Main character Maisie joins the wrestling team in hopes of getting a boyfriend. She tries to transform herself into a boy, which of course does not work. (Dressing as someone else is a typical ‘mask’ plot.) She discovers that the boy she thought she liked is a jerk. But trying to gain power by acting male makes her little more than ‘a hero in drag’, which is irritating and retrograde.

‘Hero in drag’ is a term used by Lissa Paul in her essay “Enigma Variations”.

Subversion, Irony, Satire and Parody

These are the genres which most lend themselves to subversion.

That’s because subversion involves foiling the expectation of your audience. Subversion aims to challenge pre-existing views. This is hard to achieve because the writer must intuit what the audience will expect, as well as what they already believe to be true about the world. The writer must have a solid understanding of psychology and of cultural tropes. (Note that simple inversion does not equal subversion.)

Irony has a very wide meaning and various subcategories and very much deserved its own post.

Hipster Irony is a term sometimes used to describe ideas that would ordinarily be offensive, except there’s an understanding (true or not) that ‘everyone knows we’re not really sexist/racist/ableist, so therefore it’s not’. There is a social function to this kind of humour — it says, “Other people are sexist/racist/ableist, but we, of course, are not. I trust you to get that.” The game Cards Against Humanity took off like wildfire because it brings modern hipster types together, asking them to say offensive things in each other’s company, knowing that no one in the group would really believe such things. In storytelling, sometimes a writer gets the willies and in an attempt to save themselves from criticism they lampshade the hipster irony by having the characters point out how sexist/racist/ableist something is. Many examples of this can be seen in The Big Bang Theory, where the adorkable male characters say offensively sexist things all the time, but because the audience realises these horrible things are horrible, we’re implicitly asked to forgive them. The following video does an excellent job of explaining the problems with hipster sexism. Everything said about sexism applies to the other bad -isms equally.

Satire is the ridicule of vice or folly. Its ostensible goal is to take an individual person, a type of person, an individual folly, or a type of folly, and expose it to public scrutiny. Satire doesn’t have to be funny, though it very often is. Satire makes a political comment. Gulliver’s Travels is a very old example — a work of political and social satire by an Anglican priest, historian, and political commentator. Jonathan Swift parodied popular travelogues of his day in creating this story of a sea-loving physician’s travels to imaginary foreign lands.  The Paddington Bear movie offers a gently satirical view of a particular kind of middle-class white English person. Pride and Prejudice does the same to the gentry.

ParodyA parody mimics the style of a particular genre, work, or author. The purpose is to mock a trivial subject by presenting it in an exaggerated and more elegant way than it normally deserves. Parodies are the most popular and widely used form of burlesqueAn example (and subcategory) of the parody is the mock-heroic. Mock-heroic stories imitate the form and style of an epic poem (like Homer’s Odyssey); which is quite formal and complex. Mock-heroics induce humor by presenting insignificant subjects in the long, sophisticated style of epic poetry. Annie Proulx’s Wyoming stories are often mock-heroic. In The Half-Skinned Deer” we have a mythical hero who doesn’t quite make it back home. In “The Mud Below” we have a rodeo rider who thinks he’s a cowboy, but in fact he knows nothing about horses, or any of the traditional skills; he wants to become the bull — a symbol of masculinity — but is of course beaten by the bull. In children’s stories, you’ll often find a parody in the form of a carnivalesque tale.

Genre Subversion

If Princess Smartypants and The Day The Crayons Quit teach us how not to do it, how do we create stories which genuinely subvert reader expectations, forcing readers to examine their prior beliefs?

One way of subverting reader expectations is to twist GENRE expectations.

From John Truby, The Anatomy Of Story:

The great flaw of using a prefabricated metaphorical symbol web [such as those in Westerns] is that it is so self-conscious and predictable that the story becomes a blueprint for the audience, not a lived experience. But in this flaw lies a tremendous opportunity. You can use the audience’s knowledge of the form and the symbol web to reverse it. In this technique, you use all the symbols in the web but twist them so that their meaning is very different from what the audience expects. This forces them to rethink all their expectations. You can do this with any story that has well-known symbols. When you are working in a specific genre like myth, horror, or Western, this technique is known as undercutting the genre.

The post WW2 anti-Western subverted the traditional Western by forcing the audience to endure the dark hardships of the people inhabiting the new West, challenging them to reconsider beliefs they may have had about the value of expansionism at all costs. The audience was ready for this of course, because they’d just lived through a couple of massive wars.

You Can’t Trust Audiences

The problem with subversive humour, such as irony, satire and parody, is that the audience doesn’t necessarily come to the party. This is true of audiences of all ages.

Larry McMurtry went out of his way to write an anti-Western when he wrote the Lonesome Dove series, but readers consider his main characters heroic, and the West feels to us, from the safety of our homes, like a kind of utopia. He did his best to fix this in The Streets of Laredo. Comanche Moon is very violent and dark. But if you only read the Pulitzer Prize winner in this series you may well miss the wider anti-Western messages. Likewise, when test audiences of Hud were asked which character they admired the most, a huge proportion of them said they admired Hud — written to be very obviously the tragic antihero. Instead, audiences were highly critical of his morally upright father.

Fast forward 40 years and audiences empathised with the morally despicable Walter White while criticising his wife for opposing him. You can’t trust audiences. There is definitely a case to be made for being obvious.

Apparent Subversion

the ironic thing about irony

An ‘apparent utopia‘ has little in common with a ‘genuine utopia‘, and an ‘apparent subversion’ has little in common with ‘genuine subversion’.

As Heather Scutter comments with regard to jokes in children’s fiction, “apparent subversion may prove, on deconstruction, to mask a form of socialization which actually reinforces existing cultural values and beliefs, and encourages the child [reader] to accept the status quo“.

Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature by Carolyn Daniel

I recently took a close look at the taxonomy of humour as suggested by the main guy at The Onion. One of the categories he suggests is, of course, Irony. In that post I question whether young readers necessarily understand irony, which is a main feature of children’s humour, but then modern books (especially picture books) are aimed at a dual audience (adult readers and their children alike). To take a popular middle grade example, about half the jokes in a David Walliams books are decidedly ‘adult’ — not surprising given that Walliams comes from an adult comedy background. Jeff Kinney thought he was writing Diary of a Wimpy Kid for adults, and it remains unclear the extent to which kids ‘get’ the irony in his jokes. When Kinney makes fun of fat hairy people at the pool, do child readers understand that Kenny intends to poke fun at Greg Heffley for being grossed out rather than at the fat hairy people at the pool?

Animal Farm is often named as a satire on dictatorship, but Margaret Blount questions its success as such:

[Animal Farm] is a chronicle of the sad sameness of human nature and the ultimate absorption of every revolutionary movement — the endlessly turning wheel of conquest, power, corruption and decline. If you removed the moral, it would be no more memorable than the kind of sermon that tells one what ought to be done by giving a gloomy and prophetic chain of consequences that will be brought about if one persists in the way one is going.”

— Margaret Blount

The Satire Paradox

“The Satire Paradox” is a podcast from season one of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History series. This tenth episode is well worth a listen for those interested in children’s literature because there are particular implications for writing humour directed at an audience who are still learning what is ironic, what is straight. And, as Gladwell points out, adults are hardly immune from interpreting a stand-up comic exactly in line with how they already see the world.

Basically, leftie comedy news anchors in America are popular with both right and leftwing voters because their jokes are interpreted in whichever way the audience sees fit.

The lesson here: Know your audience. Easier said than done.

Other Examples For Close Consideration

Work By Jeffrey Eugenides

Jeffrey Eugenides is a writer who likes to subvert genre. Below he talks about his books The Marriage Plot (a novel) and Fresh Complaint (his first short story collection):

I guess I wanted to subvert the genre. You have lots of stories where you have an older male preying upon a younger woman, so I was just trying to subvert the conventions of that kind of story. In that respect, [Fresh Complaint is] like The Marriage Plot, where I was trying to subvert the conventions of the marriage plot.

I think we’ve come to a point in literary history where anything you try to write, you’re quickly aware of the precedents of that kind of story. And there’s only two ways to do something new. One way is to make fun of the convention, to send it up. Which is all well and good, but tends to leave a kind of aroma of irony after it, which is a little bit superior in tone and mocking.

If you still care about your characters, and care about the world, you stay in the realistic mode, but subvert the tale and the normal telling of the tale by trying to express a different side of the experience. I didn’t want to make fun of the marriage plot only to make fun of it. I also wanted to write about young people in love, and what it feels like to be in love. I don’t want my work to just show how false things are, and how inauthentic everything is. Life doesn’t feel inauthentic or false to me. It feels quite real. And I’m concerned with it.


The Case Of The Matriarchal Dystopia

Also in 2017 we have the highly lauded The Power, by Naomi Alderman. Barack Obama listed this book at the top of his favourite reads of 2017. The Power also won The Orange Prize. This is a novel which reimagines an inverted dystopian future where everyone lives under a violent matriarchy rather than under a violent patriarchy, as we do now. This is an inversion, not a subversion. What is the ultimate message? “If women ruled the world they’d be just as bad as men.” This is a misanthropist view taken for granted, but is it really true? History has offered us just a handful of matriarchal cultures and they looked nothing like a dystopia, except perhaps for certain men whose idea of a good life was domination. When storytellers encourage audiences to fear the power of women, that is not helpful to the fight for equality. The Power is a failed subversion, if it ever set out to be one.

Hipster Racism and Hipster Ableism

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) is very much reliant upon its audience picking racism and ableism for what it is. The most racist of the characters is punished heavily for his racism. First, Sam Rockwell’s character is fired from his job by the new black chief, though it’s not for being racist, but for beating up a white guy. He is also punished in a fire, scarred for life by his burns. Again, this wasn’t punishment ‘for being racist’, which is interesting because thematically that’s the exact reason he had to be punished. If he had been punished directly for his racism, that would have felt too much like didacticism, at odds with the aim of the humour — to get the audience onside by trusting us to know racism when we see it. Significantly, this racist character undergoes a redemption arc, realising that he can do something good for other people even when he doesn’t have to. It was the burning itself which taught him to dob in the rape-boasting soldier. We saw him dismiss someone else’s fire — “I’m not a police officer anymore so it’s not my problem.” This telegraphed the redemption arc to come.

Peter Dinklage’s underdog character is referred to as The Midget by everyone in the town. I saw this film in a theatre and the audience laughed every time a character called him a midget. Of course, if we didn’t know that midget is offensive, we wouldn’t be laughing. That would just be his moniker. Again, this is the writer drawing us in with a wink and a nudge, trusting us to get it.

But what is the real-world effect of hipster irony? For story purposes we are encouraged to dismiss sexist/racist/ableist characters. We enjoy seeing them punished. Their outdated ideas justify the punishment. Hipster irony is also a comment on the very real racism and ableism that exists in many small towns such as Ebbing, Missouri. The writer of Three Billboards covers his ass not by lampshading at the dialogue level — unlike in The Big Bang Theory there’s no one sitting on a couch pointing out the racism — but by bringing in a black cop who is the most sensible, reasonable and level-headed guy in town. “See?” says the film, “This isn’t racist when the black guy is the best guy in town. Look at all these white fools.”

This trend looks to me like the PoC version of the Female Maturity Principle, in which black characters are given the job of educating racist white folk. Like female characters, these good guy black characters play ‘the straight man’, and enter the story as fully-realised (but flat) reasonably folk. As long as this is the case, PoC can never be the stars of the story, because the overriding feature of a ‘hero’ is the self-revelation aspect. If you’re ever wondering who the main character of a story is, ask “Why changes the most?” That’ll be the star of the show. A character can’t change if they arrive on stage/on the page as a tool in the character arc of another character.

Though hailed as a feminist triumph for depiction of the Frances McDormand female antihero character, dig just a little deeper and you’ll see Three Billboards has done nothing new in its storytelling. In line with the last 3000 years of storytelling, the character arc was given to a despicable white guy.

It’s worth noting, too, that for people of colour living in small towns such as Ebbing, Missouri, the hipster racism fails to be escapist, because it’s an everyday lived reality. And that professional Black reviewers consistently rated this film lower than white reviewers.

Children And Irony

A child’s ability to understand irony depends on all sorts of things, including culture and subculture. A child from a heavily ironic family will naturally learn to pick irony, and use it, at an earlier age. Certain cultures — Japan is one I know about — accepts and expects far less irony than typical Western subcultures. Even within the West, there’s a subculture called ‘hipster irony’, in which any sort of racist/sexist/ageist joke can be told with the shared understanding that the speaker is not really racist/sexist/ageist. This shared understanding binds subgroups together. However, hipster irony has justifiably come under some fire for perhaps actually reinforcing ideas the group purports to disagree with.

Children don’t understand all the different kinds of irony all at once.

  • Earlier studies believed that children didn’t understand irony until the age of eight or ten, but these studies were conducted in a lab environment and ‘irony’ was mainly limited to ‘sarcasm.’
  • Later studies suggest children can understand hyperbole by age four.
  • It takes another two years before children can start to get a handle on sarcasm.
  • Sarcasm remains one of the easiest forms of irony for children to understand.
  • Sarcasm and hyperbole are associated with positive experiences for children. (I would have guessed that sarcasm is not an overall positive form of communication.)
  • Euphemisms and rhetorical questions are associated with conflict.
  • Fathers are more likely to use sarcasm.
  • Mothers are more likely to use rhetorical questions.

Adults and Psychology

It’s not just children’s writers who should be thinking about this.

In the “What Is Technology Doing To Us?” episode of The Waking Up Podcast, Sam Harris (who I don’t always agree with) talks to Tristan Harris, who touches on a peculiar psychological bug in which humans can be told a story, then told in the same paragraph that that story is blatantly untrue, but later it turns out we’ve forgotten the ‘it’s untrue’ part of the message and accidentally held onto the story. This is perhaps because the human brain is wired really well to remember story. Harris touches on this phenomenon again in the “Living With Violence” episode, in which Gavin de Becker gives the audience an example about violent kangaroos, then tells us that everything he just said is totally wrong. Be careful when using this trick to try and persuade your audience of something. They may end up misremembering that kangaroos give clear signals before they kick you in the mouth. (They don’t.)

Humans have a bunch of memory errors. It pays to be aware of these if you’re ever called to the jury.

Some questions for writers of children’s humour

  • If your viewpoint character expresses nasty views towards another person/group of people (I’m still seeing a lot of hatred directed towards fat people), will the young reader understand that ‘this is the character being awful because they are awful’, or is this character modelling the behaviour the author means to call out as wrong?
  •  Who is the likely audience for your particular story? Sophisticated kids with hipster parents, or do you think there’s a chance this has an international audience?
  • If your subversive humour will be understood only by a certain proportion of young readers, does this matter? Menippean satire is a subcategory of satire aimed at attacking mental attitudes rather than specific individuals or entities. (Alice In Wonderland is an example from the children’s book world.)
  • Are you hoping to make fun of an individual (real or fictional) or of a group? Menippean satire passes criticism of the ideas of certain character tropes and on the single-minded mental attitudes, or “humours”, that they represent: the pedant. Common victims include the braggart, the bigot, the miser, the quack and the seducer. In children’s stories it’s commonly the schoolyard bully, the evil teacher, the overprotective parent, the prissy blonde girl.
  • If you are going for Menippean satire, if your subversive humour were inadvertently swallowed as straight, does this harm any group of people?

The Importance of Subversion In Children’s Stories

Alison Lurie, author of Don’t Tell The Grown-ups: The Subversive Power of Children’s Literature makes the following argument about how children’s books can affect the common good:

The great subversive works of children’s literature suggest that there are other views of human life besides those of the shopping mall and the corporation. They mock current assumptions and express the imaginative, unconventional, noncommercial view of the world in its simplest and purest form. They appeal to the imaginative, questioning, rebellious child within all of us, renew our instinctive energy, and act as a force for change. This is why such literature is worthy of our attention and will endure long after more conventional tales have been forgotten. 

Race, Culture and Power in Children’s Stories

Jack Zipes talks specifically about the role of schools in subverting the status quo, and it comes down to teaching students to be critical:

[Schools in the West] are geared towards making children into successful consumers and competitors in a ‘free’ world dictated by market conditions…If storytellers are to be effective on behalf of children in schools…it is important to try to instil a sense of community, self-reflecting and self-critical community, in the children to demonstrate how the ordinary can become extraordinary…Schools are an ideal setting for this ‘subversive’ type of storytelling…if schools want…to show that they can be other than the institutions of correction, discipline, and distraction that they tend to be.

In adult stories, the ‘absurdist’ genre comes closest to achieving the same ends, with absurdism’s emphasis on the corporate world. Perhaps subversive children’s stories are the childhood equivalent of absurdism, minus some of the darkest tropes. The corporation is swapped out for the school.

A Piece of Advice For Subversion

Yesterday I had a dayjob training in which the trainer said, re trends: “Look for the ask behind the trend.” She was talking about dayjob things but I think it works for book trends too. So currently thinking about the ask with vampires, or dystopian, or pirates, etc.

— @Bibliogato

Someone I follow (unfortunately I forget who) pointed out that this advice “to look for the ask behind the trend” applies equally to subverting narrative as much as it applies to ‘picking the next trend’.

Someone else asked what exactly was meant by “look for the ask” (I’m glad they did). @sarahnlemon replied, ‘It means looking for the silent need that people are trying to fulfill.’ The ask is not the metaphor. The ask is the reader need/pain point being fulfilled.

Others gave examples, mostly @Bibliogato themself.

The ask behind mysteries: ‘Mysteries tend to get popular in times of uncertainty and social change/unrest because they’re all about restoring order to the universe.

The ask behind zombie stories: ‘Half the population is ‘dead’ (asleep, not awake, not paying attention) and destroying everything that’s left for their own ends without any care or thought whatsoever.

The ask behind pirate stories in YA: self-organizing and self-empowerment in a time of perceived lawlessness.

The ask behind vampires: Vampires are a proxy for our fear of terrorists. They look like us, walk among us, we can be turned into one but they have alien desires which involve our deaths. Showing them as capable of love means they can be rehabilitated into the community. There’s an old theory that vampires become more popular in America when Democrats are in power because conservatives see Democrats as effeminate elites who suck the life out of the working class. (According to the same theory, zombies are popular with conservatives are in power, because Democrats see conservatives as mindless drones.) There are many, many theories about vampire fiction. Others have argued vampire stories become popular when sexual shame and fear peak in the culture. In the 80s with the AIDS crisis, for example, and in the oughts with Bush’s focus on abstinence—we get Twilight and True Blood

I was at a writers’ workshop myself lately and the presenter advised us to write ‘subversive’ poetry. I didn’t put up my hand to ask what he meant us to subvert, because everyone was heads down, bums up working on a poetry assignment at the time, and this question might have derailed the entire session.

But it did strike me that so often when we sit down to write ‘subversively’, we may not have asked what exactly are we subverting here? This is an essential question and we must ask it of ourselves at some point in the writing process. The presenter was simply using ‘subversive’ as a descriptor, same as he was using ‘anarchist’. He wanted us to write ‘subversive, anarchist’ poetry because ‘kids are really drawn to it.’

Ask: Whose need is being fulfilled?


What Really Makes Katniss Stand Out? Peeta, Her Movie Girlfriend from NPR, in which the Movie Girlfriend trope is gender swapped.

Dragon-Slayer vs. Dragon-Sayer is a paper by Keeling and Sprague which discusses the female hero as opposed to the ‘heroine’, which may be considered a different thing altogether — a ‘hero in drag’.

The Centrality Of The Adventure Story

Edgar Rice Burroughs is probably the most influential writer in the entire history of the world. By giving romance and adventure to a whole generation of boys, Burroughs caused them to go out and decide to become special. That’s what we have to do for everyone, give the gift of life with our books. Say to a girl or boy at age ten, Hey, life is fun! Grow tall! I’ve talked to more biochemists and more astronomers and technologists in various fields, who, when they were ten years old, fell in love with John Carter and Tarzan and decided to become something romantic. Burroughs put us on the moon. All the technologists read Burroughs. I was once at Caltech with a whole bunch of scientists and they all admitted it. Two leading astronomers—one from Cornell, the other from Caltech—came out and said, Yeah, that’s why we became astronomers. We wanted to see Mars more closely.

Ray Bradbury, The Paris Review

Peter Rabbit is a picture book example of an adventure story.

The story of the hero and his quest, the adventure story, is always essentially the same. It is the story of Odysseus, of Jason and the Golden Fleece, of Beowulf, of Saint George, of the Knights of the Round Table, of Jack and the Beanstalk, of Robinson Crusoe, of Peter Rabbit, of James Bond, of Luke Skywalker, of Batman, of Indiana Jones, of the latest sci-fi adventure and the latest game in the computer shop. It appears in countless legends, folk tales, children’s stories and adult thrillers. It is ubiquitous. Northrop Frye has argued that the quest myth is the basic myth of all literature, deriving its meanings from the cycle of the seasons and ‘the central expression of human meanings from the cycle of the seasons and ‘the central expression of human energy [which transformed] the amorphous natural environment into the pastoral, cultivated, civilized world of human shape and meaningthe hero is the reviving power of spring and the monster and old king and outgrown forces of apathy and impotence in a symbolic winter.’ Whether we accept this or not, the centrality of the hero story in our culture is unarguable.

– Margery Hourihan, Deconstructing The Hero

Continue reading “The Centrality Of The Adventure Story”

Stories About Female Friendships

Novels about female friendships are disproportionately few and far between. Historically, stories about friendship between women have waxed and waned. For instance, there were plenty of poems about female friendship between women in the late 1600s but by the 1700s there were very few. Who knows why — I suspect homophobia, and increasing awareness of female homosexuality (which was not at this time a crime in England, though it was in various countries on the continent). In other words, people were happy with close female friendships before they realised there might be something more to them — something which would exclude men.

Narratives about ambitious women (in real life as well as fiction) often pit those women against each other: one woman who seems to have it all vs. another who will do anything to take it from her. Sure, it would be great if the women in these novels could all just get along, lift each other up instead of climbing over one another to get to the top—but then there wouldn’t be much of a story, would there?


Genuine female friendships are still rare in fiction compared to real life, but here are some young adult options.

Notes below are from Radio New Zealand’s Saturday Morning podcast – Children’s Books With Kate De Goldi

Code Name Verity

Kate De Goldi heard about this book from librarians in Wellington. Also she has met the author Elizabeth Wein, and the author pronounces her own last name /wi:n/ to rhyme with ‘teen’. Wein has a very interesting backlist of books which she wrote before this breakthrough novel.


I don’t know why books come out with so many different covers but here they are.

Wein is a self-confessed Arthurian nerd and has transferred the King Arthur stories into 6th century Ethiopia.

Wein is a pilot herself because her husband was a pilot and she thought she’d better learn in case he had a heart attack mid-flight. She also has a doctorate in folklore from Penn University, so an accordingly well-stocked mind. Code Name Verity has been very well researched. The companion novel is Rose Under Fire.

It’s hard to say a lot about Code Name Verity’s plot because a lot of its impact rests on a couple of surprises. It’s about women pilots working during the war. But the basic conceit is that there are two women (in their early 20s?) as main characters. Wein wanted to write a book which puts female friendship at the fore. This is an important point to make because although male/male friendships, male/female friendships, male/female romantic friendships are often at the heart of a story, stories in which female friendships form the main story (rather than the subplot) are few and far between.

Female friendships in stories tend to fall into several categories:

  1. Frenemies – Groups of girls, girls that you have to ‘negotiate’ and also ones which are likely to stab you in the back
  2. Sidekicks – The confidante while you’re pursuing your romance or whatever adventure a girl happens to be on (which may be a political act rather than an ‘adventure’, especially in SFF).

One of the few examples of a female friendship in literature is the relationship between Anne of Green Gables and Diana. But in fact Diana isn’t Anne’s equal in that story.

However, in Code Name Verity the female friendship is equal. This is part of what makes this book special.

De Goldi doesn’t quite believe the narrative voice, which is true for both CNV and the sequel. The narrative voice changes, but the carapace for this book doesn’t allow for this change. The reader doesn’t have sufficient legitimacy for that voice. A problem with this kind of narrative technique: as readers we have to ask ourselves where does the story really come from? What holds the two stories together? Narrative focus gets confused. Rose Under Fire feels a bit like two stories that have been cobbled together, but are nonetheless quite powerful. Every now and then they’re a little bit hectic, with a lot of italicising and exclamation marks to convey rage/frustration/horror/terror, but there are more subtle ways of conveying these emotions.

But the story is undeniably good, and the research impeccable.

Kim Hill doesn’t like the way she made Maddy and Julia a bit flaky while at the same time making them amazing. They have flappy comedy moments and Kim thought, ‘Oh gimme a break.’

De Goldi guesses that the author did this to show what an insane world this was. Nothing felt normal. They got silly and frenetic because they were under such stress. (De Goldi agrees it didn’t always come off.) De Goldi is intrigued by the friendship. The whole plot turns on their friendship, which is love.

People read this book in different ways, and Wein has been asked about the nature of it — is this a romantic friendship between the girls? Wein doesn’t see this as an erotic relationship herself, but doesn’t care how other people interpret it. De Goldi didn’t read it like that. This is a fluid area.

This book highlights how absent such stories are absent from modern publishing, and it’s perhaps significant that this one is set in the past, during a time of great stress and tumult, in a way the perfect setting for transformative, powerful love and heroic acts that display the act of love.

De Goldi recommends this book to readers 15 and up. There are some quite horrifying parts in it, but it’s a great primer on a significant part of the second world war.

Related: A review of Rose Under Fire from DYESTTAFTSA Blog (who calls it one of the best books of the year, and points out in another post that this was the only children’s literature reviewed by the Telegraph.

Paula Boock

De Goldi recalls another author who has written well about female friendships: Paula Boock. (Name to rhyme with ‘stock’.)

Paula Boock is a New Zealand writer and editor.

Born in Dunedin, Boock is a member of a sporting family. She is the sister of four brothers, among them former New Zealand cricket representative Stephen Boock and sports journalist Richard Boock, and has herself represented her province of Otago at cricket. She studied at the University of Otago, after which she began working as an editor and publisher, co-founding Longacre Press in the city in 1994.


Also Sasscat To Win (possibly the hardest to source out of all three).

Boock is remarkable because she writes both group friendship among girls and one-on-one friendship between girls really beautifully. She also wrote about a young lesbian relationship in Dare, Truth or Promise. So she looked at that continuum implicitly.



Animals by Emma J Unsworth

The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker

Anne Of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery

Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodsom

Beaches by Iris R. Dart

Before Everything by Victoria Redel

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

Break In Case Of Emergency by Jessica Winter

The Burning Girl by Claire Messud

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells

The First Bad Man by Miranda July

Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Invincible Summer by Alice Adams

Let’s Take The Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell (a memoir)

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Living The Dream by Lauren Berry

The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill

The Lying Game by Ruth Ware

Marlena by Julie Buntin

Miss Sherlock, HBO Asia

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, as well as her other Neapolitan novels

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

You’re The Only One I Can Tell by Deborah Tannen (non-fiction, linguistics)



Every now and again you’ll find a list of curated books by people who really know books, and this one is a list of stories for children about friendship. A quick glance at the protagonists will demonstrate how few books exist about friendship between girls.

Why modern fiction has turned its back on friendship from The Guardian

For a long time, especially in TV shows and movies, the major focus was always on romantic relationships. The ‘best friend’ character was an afterthought – a comedic foil or subplot, often just there to facilitate the progress of the main romantic relationship. The friendships shown on our screens were often somehow still centred around men. This approach never seemed realistic to me, because it failed to show how important female friendships can be, and how central those relationships are to women’s lives.

Rebecca Shaw


NOREEN:  Are male friendships inherently richer (or easier) comedic terrain than female friendships in some way? The guys on “New Girl,” for instance, have a much funnier dynamic than the women. Same with “Happy Endings,” I think, and “Friends” back in the day.

LAURA BENNETT:  I do feel like it can be tough to make female friendships funny when a lot of sitcoms resort to having their female characters talk almost exclusively about men. I find this to be a particularly irksome feature of “The Mindy Project”

— from What’s Not Wrong With Sitcom TV

Cell Phone Data Suggests Female Friendships Drive Evolution from Jezebel

Portraying and Pushing Female Competitiveness, from Sociological Images

 Hold On To What You’ve Got, a nice piece on a female friendship from The Rumpus


An Experiment
An amazing exploration of female friendship, and, well, appetite.

Romanian director Cristian Mungiu made two films focused on friendship between women, “4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days“, which won Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and “Beyond the Hills“, which won Best Screenplay in Cannes, as well as being on the shortlist for the Best Foreign Film Oscar nominations (and both were praised quite enthusiastically by US critics, too)

– from a comment on a Bitch Flicks post.

You say “I’m a guys girl!” I hear “I’m gonna be mean to your wife.”

– @JohnRossBowie

Guys’ Gals

I know quite a few women who describe themselves as guys’ girls, meaning that they prefer male over female company. “No offence, by the way.”

Except I kind of do take offence.

I do.

Because first of all, if you’re a woman and you say this to another woman, what is that other woman supposed to think?

Second, I wonder why a woman might feel like this about her own kind. There are a variety of reasons why, depending on the individual.

A few spring to mind:

1. Some women, by habit, employ the power of their sexuality in social interactions. They enjoy the effect they can have over heterosexual men. If they come to rely on that, then it seems pretty hard to deal with women by comparison, where they have nothing but their other charms to get by.

Consuela shared a flat with a friend who ‘has self-esteem issues. I’ve never seen her without makeup, not going to the gym, not even for a shower.’ This girl actively encourages strangers to catcall at her. ‘When we’re out as a group she’ll deliberately walk behind so they pick her out, excited to get the attention, it doesn’t matter who it is. I’ll say, “We’re supposed not to want to get harassed, remember?” She’ll say, “Oh yeah, that’s right.” Actually, all my friends are only happy if they’ve got men. It’s basically to validate them, tell them how pretty and great they are. They can’t get it anywhere else, they must have it from men, constant reassurance. I’ve no idea why.’

– a case study in Affluenza, by Oliver James

2. Women who say they don’t have many female friends usually don’t have many male friends either. It just seems that they do, because they’re including the men they have sex with. That’s one way to get close to someone, but if that’s the only way you ever get close to someone, of course you’re going to flounder when that’s off the table.

When I was a teen, most of my friends were guys. Thought of myself as a cool “guy’s girl” but was actually just needy attention whore.

– @diablocody

3. Women who say they prefer the company of males usually cite the competitiveness of other women as a reason to avoid their company. But I have noticed the women most cognizant of this competition notice it acutely because they’re a big part of it themselves. They’re usually the worst offenders, in fact.

I sometimes wonder how many heterosexual men go around declaring to other men their allegiance to women, that they much prefer the company of girls over guys. Is that a thing?

I wonder if men know how many women feel this way about themselves. To me, anecdotally, it feels like way too many. I’m not going to pretend there’s such a thing as ‘sisterhood’ and that women should spend more time together in the exclusive company of other women as a form of group bonding, but I do feel instinctively that there’s something a little wrong with the world when women feel the need to declare their allegiance to one sex over the other, and when they obviously see this self-professed trait as something of which to be proud.

I was born into a world in which, given my particular set of personal circumstances and privileges, I was told that I was equal to men from the day I was born—and it was a real shock to me to find out that not everyone agreed. In theory, I was equal. In practice, I was decidedly not.

And the way I first learned to navigate that ego-rattling disparity was to assert myself as an Exceptional Woman. Not like those other women. Certainly not like those radical feminists. I wasn’t like them. I laughed at dirty jokes and didn’t take three hours to get ready and liked baseball. I was practically one of the boys.

Ugh. Embarrassing stuff.

– from Shakesville


Women Who Love Pickup Artists Hate Women, Too

Getting Over Girl Hate from Rookie Mag

Marilyn Was a Feminist: Why It’s Not OK to Hate on Other Women from Persephone Mag

BFFs & Mean Girls: Why Best Friends Forever Can Be Harmful to Girls, from Christina at Blogher

How to be friends with another woman from Jezebel

All Women Hate Each Other? from Tara Moss

How Other Women View Your Sexy Outfit from Discover. (Really?)

Are you a girl’s girl? from Daily Life

If Women Are Catty Bitches, It’s Not About Gender. It’s About Power, Jezebel

Why are friendships between teen girls so radioactive? from Electric Lit

Who does the nurturing work in children’s books?

“Mothers in the books were more likely than fathers to perform almost every nurturing behavior, including verbal and physical expressions of love, encouraging, praising and listening,” the researchers write. Similarly, mothers outperformed fathers on every care-giving behavior.

Gender stereotypes plague children’s picture books, from Salon

Mothers often appear at the beginnings of hero tales. They preside over the home which the hero leaves when he sets out on his quest, remaining there when he has gone. Sometimes they reappear at the end of the story to welcome him home. These mothers are invariably good, nurturing, sometimes almost saintly. They are the presiding spirits of the domestic sphere…The stereotype of the gentle mother content with her role in the home is, of course, not restricted to hero tales. It is widespread in advertising and it abounds in children’s literature of all kinds, functioning as a powerful tool of social conditioning. In 1992 a random selection of 282 children’s picture books published since 1970 revealed that 62 per cent of the mothers in these books were depicted in a purely homemaking role, with another 29 per cent in an indeterminate role. Only 9 per cent were shown in professional or professional/home-making roles, despite the fact that 1986 Bureau of Statistics figures showed that almost half the married mothers in Australia were employed. Interestingly, 36 percent of the home-making woemn in these books were depicted wearing aprons. Earlier studies had shown this badge of domestic servitude to be rampant in children’s picture books and while this study revealed some lessening of the phenomenon it was still quietly flourishing.

– Deconstructing The Hero by Marjery Hourihan, referencing The image of mothers in contemporary children’s picture books by Gillian Tunstall

I was called a misogynist because I was reducing women to mothers. ‘Reducing women to mothers’ – now there is possibly the most anti-women statement I’ve heard.

— Steven Moffat


This is not surprising when the general message is still that parenting is for women. Even large media outlets such as CNN are busting out with headlines such as The 7 kids’ health myths every mom should ignorewhich manages to ignore theh fact that dads might also need to ignore health myths, because dads are parents too. Salon has been interested in this issue for a while now, and also published a piece called: The Times thinks dads are just baby sitters. A flipside of this attitude is that women and men feel as though they are judged differently on their parenting skills: You know there’s still a double-standard for fathers and mothers when a man who can change a diaper is hailed as a hero from The Guardian. Australia is currently talking a lot about parenting in the lead up to the election, but it’s being framed as a women’s issue. Apparently French fathers don’t change nappies.

The links could go on and on.

Back to picture books, I was already aware of these issues when I wrote and illustrated Midnight Feast, and it was a deliberate decision to have Roya and Afya’s father involved in the bedtime routine. As the evening of the Midnight Feast progresses, it was a deliberate decision on my part to have the mother step down. While the father suggests party games, the mother reads her own book and talks on the phone. I ended up mindful of the fact that as the mother, this character would be judged more harshly unless she reappeared at bedtime the following night, saying ‘Goodnight’ alongside the father.

I still look at Midnight Feast and see a gendered society in action: It is the father who asks the mother about food, assuming that women are responsible for the household catering. In the morning, it is the father who is dressed in a dress-shirt and tie, presumably off to a middle-class job.

I considered reversing that, too. And now I’d like to explain why I didn’t: Because in the limited space of a picturebook, illustrators need to rely on certain stereotypes, or risk confusing the reader. The father’s necktie is designed to represent middle-class employment. This is important to the storyline because the message is that hunger may eventually affect even the middle classes of rich countries. Sometimes women wear uniforms to work — there’s no doubt I could have had the mother hungry, asking the father for food. I could have had the mother dressed in a work uniform with the father making the sandwiches for his daughters. And I’m looking forward to the day when I can do this without even thinking of it as a transgressive act against gender norms.

Small steps in the transgressive direction. I think we should all aim for that.

Related: Does Biology Determine Gender Roles? New Study Says It’s a Numbers Game from Dads and Families


Men Are Better At Making Sound Effects With Their Mouths, Apparently.

This headline caught my eye because I’m busy collecting and making my own sound effects this week for Midnight Feast.

Hilarious Video Proof: Your Ability To Make Realistic Sound Effects Is Gender-Based.

Here it is: Sound Effects Film

Is it just me, or are the men actually no better than the women at making sound effects in this short film? They just don’t look as stupid doing it.

I would agree that the worst of the female sounds have been edited to appear at the beginning and I would agree that the men are better at imitating guns than the women. I would hazard a guess that this is because the men of this demographic — youngish and white as they all are — have had more practice listening to such sound effects while playing computer games and watching action films. Then there’s, you know, all those years of school yard play.

I also get the feeling from that film that the men are less inhibited about making such sounds.

But as one of the women says, why weren’t they asked to make a duck or something? I think women and men would be equally good at making duck noises. I can definitely do a better sheep imitation than my husband. Definitely. I think that’s to do with the fact that his voice dropped due to testosterone and mine didn’t. So, can a woman make another short film and get the men to make sheep noises and music boxes and babies crying, perhaps? Don’t ask them to stand on their own. Get them to stand with their friends, preferably after a few drinks.

We’d soon find out that women are just as good as men at making stupid sound effects with our mouths.

Related, sort of: Ever wondered how the dinosaur sounds got made in Jurassic Park? No? Not keeping you awake at night? Well, I guess you don’t need to check out the answer, then.

In this clip, Tom Myers talks about his job as sound designer for the Pixar animated film Monsters University (which I have no intention of seeing, BTW). He explains that he has to create the world from the ground up, unlike in regular (non-animated movies, in which there exists some diegetic sound to work with). It involved visiting real world locations on campus, though they didn’t get invited to any frat parties. They pan the dialogue a little more aggressively because the voice is so clean. The sound designers play with ‘reflection’ and ‘perspective‘ and tricks like that. They didn’t put a lot of ambient material in a scene which already had music. The last pass is the ‘foley’ pass, where they put in footsteps and things like that. The most important thing about sound editing is keeping the dialogue clear. (As the feet swell the sound of their footsteps change.) I’m sure that next time I watch an animated film I’ll be listening with newly appreciative ears.