Punishment In Children’s Literature

Poetic justice — or the punishment of characters who do wrong might be one solid difference between stories ‘for children’ versus ‘for adults’. Some adult gatekeepers are squeamish about the possibility of young readers siding with naughty characters who go unpunished.

Children’s storytellers from the first and second Golden Ages of Children’s Literature had no problem with didactic stories in which bad behaviour goes punished. Take the preface of Timmy Tiptoes (1893) , in which a child tortures animals then has nightmares about the animals torturing him:

Next, compare this story with a more modern picture book with the same plot: Monster Pet. The didacticism and just desserts is still there, but not stated in words, only via the plot.

How do I know the wish for punishment hasn’t entirely died? Well, if you enjoy spending  your one precious life reading one-star reviews of picturebooks on Goodreads, say, you may have noticed a few similarities in the types of books that get parents all riled up. One common crticism goes like this:

The baddie does not get punished. He gets away scot free! This is a very bad example to children, who will learn from this story that doing bad things is okay.

from an actual consumer review of a picture book on Goodreads

Award winning modern picturebooks such as This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen get multiple reviews of this kind. An Australian example is Millie by John Marsden and Sally Rippin.

Parents only have a problem with unpunished heroes, however. If the storyteller sets up a character who is clearly, clearly the hate-sink baddie, then punishment is expected.

Given that the readers of picturebooks are very young, and that picturebooks are very often read right before bed, children’s authors do not have the extensive fallbacks we might see in the punishment typically meted out to the villains of adult stories:

  • Community service
  • Fines
  • Incarceration
  • Bodily harm
  • Serious injury
  • Death
  • Torture followed by death

But what if picture book authors would like to somehow punish their baddies, in this culture where retribution feels increasingly outdated? (Scandinavian prisons are not about retribution; they’re about care and reform, and we all know we should by running the world like the Scandinavians.)

If you’re a writer creating narrative for an adult audience you have the option of exploring the true nature of (in) justice — how it is not always poetic; bad behaviour is more often rewarded than punished, and how does that change the world? How are we supposed to live with that fact?

Here is the creator of BoJack Horseman, a cartoon for adults, on the concept of punishment in storytelling:

[We are conditioned by narrative to believe] that if we are good we will be rewarded, and if we have good intentions, that will lead to good actions. And if we are true and brave and loyal and kind, then things will work out.

I’m interested in the ramifications of believing in that. And I think that’s another reason why Hollywood is interesting, certainly for me because the show is about how the people who create these stories are the people who are affected by these stories.

Junkee
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer illustrated by Norman Rockwell
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer illustrated by Norman Rockwell
Sister Alyonushka and brother Ivanushka sheep punishment
Sister Alyonushka and brother Ivanushka
Molly Brett (English, 1902-1990) animals caravan wagon
This illustration by Molly Brett (English, 1902-1990) is an attempt at an animal forest utopia, which would’ve worked for earlier audiences. Today, the prospect of a tortoise being whipped breaks the utopian spell. Casual violence is out.
Norman Thelwell (British 1923 - 2004) - possibly the most popular cartoonist in the U.K. post WW II waiting
Norman Thelwell (British 1923 – 2004) – possibly the most popular cartoonist in the U.K. post WW II waiting

Another common punishment from earlier times: Withholding food.

Ginger’s Adventures. Story and illustrations by A. J. MacGregor. A series 401 Children’s Ladybird book
Ginger’s Adventures. Story and illustrations by A. J. MacGregor. A series 401 Children’s Ladybird book

JUSTICE AND CHILD DEVELOPMENT

The idea of retributive justice is a concept learned very early by children, though we probably shouldn’t call it that. I remember my own daughter at about two or three years old, banging her own knee on a table, then crying with some fury. She believed the table had done that to her out of spite.

Psychologist Paul Bloom has shown that retributive thinking appears very early in the lives of infants, even before they begin to use language. Infants are delighted when they see the “bad person”—a puppet who has snatched something from another puppet—beaten with a stick. Bloom calls this an early sense of justice. I prefer to call it the internal Furies that inhabit us all, and that are not securely linked to real justice. The infants’ idea looks like a version of the lex talionis: an eye for an eye, pain for pain.  It’s not hard to imagine that the crude idea of proportional payback has an early, perhaps an evolutionary, origin. It is a leap to call this an idea of justice, and I think we should not make this leap.

Martha Nussbaum, Jefferson lecture on Powerlessness and Politics

CHANGING ATTITUDES TOWARDS PUNISHMENT FOR CHILDREN

In the 1800s, children who behaved badly in stories were punished for that exact behaviour, which always got found out. This has started to change by the time Beatrix Potter wrote Peter Rabbit. Oh yes, Peter is punished all right, but this is still a subversive tale because Peter is not punished for his actual transgression. Sure, he’s punished for losing his coat, but his mother never realises the true adventure he’s been up to, stealing carrots from Mr McGregor’s garden. Peter Rabbit gets away with his transgression. Also, he probably didn’t even need dinner anyway. Surely he was full of veges.

Baruch Hochman (1985) emphasizes the importance of historical and social context in our understanding of character. This is extremely important for children’s literature, since young readers may not be aware of the changing values presented through characters. For instance, child abandonment and abuse were acceptable before, but not today. We cannot judge a parent beating his children in a Victorian novel by the same measure we would judge a parent nowadays. The societal norms encoded in such adjectives as “nice,” “virtuous,” “well-mannered,” or even “pretty” differ considerably over time and from culture to culture. However, we do not always have the knowledge of exactly what these qualities denoted to their bearers. Again, this is especially important for children’s literature, since young readers may lack not only knowledge but also interest in this aspect. Therefore, they can easily fall victim to racist, sexist, and other prejudices.

The Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature, Maria Nikolajeva
A 20th century illustration by Harald Skogsberg which now seems quite disturbing.
A 20th century illustration by Harald Skogsberg which now seems quite disturbing.

In recent years educators and parenting experts have started telling us that punishment doesn’t work when it comes to modifying children’s behaviour. Techniques around behaviour modification change from one generation to the next and is of course mirrored in children’s literature.

Take parents and children. Parents often feel that children have acted wrongfully, and they are outraged. They want to protest the wrong, and somehow to hold the child accountable. But they usually avoid retributive payback. They rarely think (today at least), “now you have to suffer for what you have done,” as if that by itself was a fitting response. Instead, they ask themselves what sort of reaction will produce future improvement in the child. Usually this will not be a painful payback, and it certainly won’t obey the lex talionis, “an eye for an eye.” If their child hits a playmate, parents do not hit their child as if that were “what you deserve.” Instead, they choose strategies that are firm enough to get the child’s attention, and that express clearly that and how what the child did was wrong. And they give positive suggestions for the future, how to do things differently. So, loving parents typically have the outrage part of anger without the payback part—where their children are concerned. This will be a clue to my positive proposal for democratic society.

Martha Nussbaum, Jefferson lecture on Powerlessness and Politics

John Yorke reminds us that there really is no distinction between a real person and a fictional person when it comes to reader opinions on how ‘avatars’ should be treated:

[Characters] are our avatars and thus our entry point: they are the ones we most want to win or to find redemption — or indeed be punished if they’ve transgressed, for subconsciously we can be deeply masochistic in our desires. Effectively they’re us.

John Yorke, Into The Woods

Jeff Kinney created a very popular character who is basically an asshole a lot of the time, and although Greg Heffley is not actively punished by retributive parents and Trunchbull-archetype teachers, natural consequences tend to kick in for him. Here’s Kinney’s philosophy on punishment in children’s fiction. Like all popular contemporary authors, he’s wary of writing ‘morality tales’:

I think [readers] like to see somebody behaving badly because [they] know you can’t really do that. And you also like to see somebody punished for behaving badly,” he says. “My books are not morality tales but they allow kids to see their own lives through this character; what could happen if they made certain choices.”

Jeff Kinney, Diary Of A Wimpy Kid

Kinney uses natural consequences and an unreliable narrator to great effect. But what about all those other stories with clear, unambiguous baddies? How are we meant to tie those off nicely, if punishment doesn’t work, and is more and more often seen as unfair?

Here are a few case studies in poetic justice, from picture books which have sold really well. It would be worth looking at the most recent picture books too, because these are a few years old now, and this part of culture is changing rapidly.

SOLUTION ONE: FORCE AN EVIL CHARACTER TO EAT SOMETHING DISGUSTING

The Highway Rat punishment

Julia Donaldson knows just how to punish her baddies, avoiding the criticism of immorality, but without going too far. Donaldson is indeed a master of knowing what appeals to the broadest possible consumer base.

The Highway Rat ends up being lured into a cave where, in a plot similar to that in the classic Chicken Licken. Emerging on the other side of the cave, somehow unable to return to his hunting ground, this baddie is forced to spend the rest of his life sweeping up the floor of a bakery, eating nothing but crumbs off the floor.

If this were a human character, this would perhaps seem over the top, because it’s basically indentured labour, after all. But for a rat, that’s a kind of heaven, isn’t it? The ick factor comes from the fact that the rat is forced to eat leftovers, and the real punishment is that he has dropped in the social hierarchy.

Carolyn Daniels describes a different rat in a different story — Templeton, a character in Charlotte’s Web, in which E.B. White describes the food at the fair in such a way as to sound both appetizing to the rat character but nevertheless disgusting to the child reader:

In human culture…leftover partially eaten food scraps are generally classed as non-food. Charlotte’s Web contains a range of eaters, two of whom eat leftovers. However, because of the way these particular leftovers are classified, the eaters are characterized very differently.

Templeton, the rat, is a self-confessed “glutton” who loves leftovers. He is lured to the fair (where his services in fetching and carrying “words” for Charlotte to weave into her web are required) by the promise of rich pickings. The old sheep temptingly describes the fair as “a rat’s paradise”.

Everybody spills food at a fair…you will find old discarded lunch boxes containing the foul remains of peanut butter sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, cracker crumbs, bits of doughnuts, and particles of cheese…a veritable treasure of popcorn fragments, frozen custard dribblings, candied apples abandoned by tired children, sugar fluff crystals, salted almonds, popsicles, partially gnawed ice cream cones, and the wooden sticks of lollypops. Everywhere is loot for a rat…why, a fair has enough disgusting left-over food to satisfy a whole army of rats.

Here there are repeated inferences of impurity, suggestions of dirt and pollution, of excess, and even of abject body fluids. In particular the image of “candied apples abandoned by tired children” suggests something is half-eaten, excessively handled, with the grubby residue of a satiated child adhering to its sticky surface.

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

Daniels explains that when characters eat dropped/disgusting/leftover/contaminated food, this means that they themselves embody those things. A character who eats something disgusting becomes disgusting. This sequence is basically carnivalesque, where Bakhtin’s bodily principle often comes into its own.

In The Highway Rat, you’ve therefore got a character who becomes bad because he does bad things. Bad is as bad does, kinda thing.

You may have noticed that Wilbur the pig also eats disgusting human leftovers, but he’s a good guy. The difference is, Wilbur is eating things that have been coded as ‘slops’. He is supposed to eat those things. Wilbur’s goodness is underscored when he refuses food because he’s too upset to eat. Baddie rats, on the other hand, take food even when they’ve been gorging. Indeed, this is the set-up in The Highway Rat, where we have a baddie who steals even the food he himself cannot digest (e.g. clover).

Much later, Mo Willems and his writing team wrote an Elephant and Piggie picture book called I Really Like Slop, which makes use of the same story elements to comic effect.

SOLUTION TWO: GIVE THE BADDY A BIG FRIGHT

Room_on_the_Broom

Using a clever, setting-specific variation on the totem-pole trench trope, the empathetic characters in this story all gang up work together to defeat the baddie, who is sent running.

SOLUTION THREE: A NON-INJURIOUS CALAMITY

pig-the-pug

It’s not enough to just give the baddie a minor injury and call it a day. The masterful thing about the plot in Pig the Pug is that the mountain of toys Pig piles up to avoid sharing with Trevor is a metaphor for his greed. When the pile of toys collapses, so does his status as top dog of the household. On the final page we see Pig so fully covered in bandages that it’s comical rather than tragic (much like a certain scene in Office Space). ‘The pile of toys collapsing’ is, of course, an example of natural consequences kicking in. Trevor did nothing to ‘get him back’. Trevor is not into retributive justice.

officespace

Also noteworth: you can injure your picture book baddie, as long as it’s comical, and as long as the injury is not caused by the empathetic character.

SOLUTION FOUR: KILL THE BADDY OFF

Guess Who's Coming For Dinner Picturebook

Think you can’t murder your picture book baddie and still win a big award and many adoring readers? Think again! Once again we have an example of ‘natural consequences kicking in’. Like Pig the Pug, the baddie’s own actions lead to a kind of collapse which comes down upon the character, in a highly metaphorical form of poetic justice.

Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner is a prime example of a baddie who ends up dead. Not only dead, but eaten by his friends. In modern literature, it is common to create an ironic twist of fate in which the villain gets caught up in their own trap.

How does one get away with this, as a picture book creator? The following tricks help:

  1. Make the baddie an easily recognised trope of evil. In this case we have a posh wolf whose only mission in life is to eat our empathetic characters.
  2. The calamity is of the baddie’s own doing. His own evil leads to his own downfall.
  3. The horrible death happens off the page.
  4. In this book, we are very cleverly left to surmise what happened. Don’t spell it out for the reader. In this way, readers who aren’t up to the task of surmising won’t have to deal with a conclusion they may not be ready for.
  5. Works best in a generally hilarious story, full of hyperbole, good-natured fun and illustrations which invite play, such as ‘Where’s Wally’ type details.

A much different story in which the baddy ‘dies’ is The Cheeky Crow by Ulf Nilsson and Eva Eriksson. The children enjoy setting this crow up as the villain, but when they think it’s dead they are forced to confront their unexpected bad feelings. But as it turns out, the crow is simply stunned, and eventually flies off. The baddy is no longer a baddy, but a real, live creature and the young characters (and the young readers) have developed empathy for it, which I suppose is the aim of the story. Nilsson temporarily killed a creature, made use of the emotions, then ‘brought it back to life’. (If every author did this it would get old pretty quickly.)

The Cheeky Crow

SOLUTION FIVE: TURN THE TABLES WITH WITS

Nickety Nackety Noo Noo Noo cover

Readers really warm to a character who can outsmart the baddie, aka tricksters. For an example of this, see Joy Cowley’s Nickety-Nackety-Noo-Noo-Noo. In this case we have a rather feminist tale in which a patriarchal husband-type troll wants to steal a wee woman to keep as prisoner (wife). The wee woman escapes by making stew made of glue. When the baddie gets caught up in the gluey stew she is able to make her escape.

In this modern fairytale, she has outwitted the baddie. This is a repeat of what’s already been done in many classic tales such as Hansel and Gretel, in which brother and sister work together to 1. convince the witch that Hansel is not yet fat enough to be eaten and 2. to coax her close enough to the oven so as to push her inside.

Are modern picture book writers able to get away with pushing baddies into fires to scream and burn in agony? I don’t think so, but look at how many illustrators have decided to re-do Hansel and Gretel. It seems if we want to keep this kind of Grimm violence alive (and published), remaking a classic fairytale is the way to go.

A variation on this sort of comeuppance can be found in Rosie’s Walk (and all the copycat plotlines that came afterwards) in which the naive empathetic character has no wits whatsoever — rather, gets out of trouble due to dumb luck.

That Is Not A Good Idea by Mo Willems is another example of this kind of plot. The wonderful thing about this book is that it’s a spoof of a B-grade horror flick — you know the kind — the beautiful female is sent into all sorts of ridiculous situations and you want to yell, ‘Don’t go in there!’ It’s pretty insulting actually, that women are used in that way, so to have the female duck turn the tables on the fox is a satisfying experience.

That Is Not A Good Idea

SOLUTION SIX: EXPOSE THE BADDY’S GREAT WEAKNESS

Scarface Claw by Lynley Dodd

Scarface Claw is the wonderful villain of Lynley Dodd’s Hairy Maclary series but the reader soon learns that, despite his formiddable appearance, Scarface is actually a scaredy-cat. That may explain why my own daughter called him ‘Scarfy Claw’ when she was a toddler — she saw right through his tough exterior.

With this type of ‘baddie’, simply exposing the baddie for what he is is often sufficient as a conclusion. Scarface Claw finds himself stuck up a tree in need of rescue in Caterwaul Caper. In Scarface Claw (the book named after him), he ends up frightened by his own reflection in a mirror. This is a wonderful comment on how Scarface’s appearance is the source of (indeed, the beginning and end of), his scariness.

Of course, in order to expose a baddy’s shortcoming you must first establish one. Don’t forget to do that at the beginning of the story! (Or as a characteristic running right through the series.)

In picturebooks, this seems to work really well when you start with a baddy who looks formidable. In fact, it seems to be a requirement. In the It’s The Bear! series by Jez Albrough, we have a usually cute character as possible baddie (the teddy bear) and because of its enormity we are surprised when we find that it’s basically a teddy-bear version of the empathetic main character, and just as scared.

SOLUTION SEVEN: BANISH TO FOREIGN LANDS FOREVER

You may argue that the main punishment suffered by the Highway Rat is removal from his home. But the visual we’re left with is that of the bakery, so we’re inclined to forget the main part of the punishment. Another classic book in which the baddie is ostricized, ‘taken somewhere/from the far end of town where the Grickle-grass grows’ is The Lorax, of course. Like the Highway Rat, the Lorax was basically causing a community great strife, upsetting the order in the same way an uncaptured serial murderer might.

The Lorax

Of course, the difference in The Lorax, is that the guy causing all the upset to the community is a goodie by the modern reader’s estimation. The story is therefore a tragedy rather than a comedy. Dr Seuss conveys his environmental message by inverting the usual way of things — he ostracizes the baddy rather than the goodie, making use of the old Western trope, in which the hero rides into town then leaves, unhappily, to presumably try and save the day somewhere else.

Shane rides away

SOLUTION EIGHT: THE BADDY DOES NOT EXIST

In Which Pooh and Piglet Go Hunting And Nearly Catch A Woozle

woozle

This is a chapter rather than a stand-alone picturebook, but this is the one in which our naive main characters are foiled by their own footsteps.

There is now a thing called The Woozle Effect.

Julia Donaldson uses this trope for the first part of The Gruffalo, in which the mouse manages to persuade all sorts of scary animals that he is off to have lunch with a so-called Gruffalo. But the story turns again when it turns out the Gruffalo is a real thing. I feel this story owes a lot to A.A. Milne.

The Gruffalo

With an imaginary villain, sometimes the main character realises their mistake but at other times only the young reader does, creating dramatic irony and humour and the feeling that one is very smart.

SOLUTION NINE: BADDY TURNS OUT TO BE BENIGN

There are many many go-to-bed picture books in which the feared monster turns out to be nothing scary at all. There are so many examples I can’t even think of a single one.

You’ve also got stories in which the feared-thing is not a monster but an everyday thing. For example, I Will Not Ever Never Eat A Tomato by lauren child, in which Charlie tricks his little sister into overcoming her fear of certain healthy foods. The baddy tomato turns out to be good, and doesn’t quite fit into this category because there is no punishment needed in the end.

Tomato lauren child

SOLUTION TEN: BADDY GETS A SECOND CHANCE

I’ve never come across an evil person. Have you? I write about what people really eat, and where they really live. I write about what people are really like, and in my experience most people are very kind to most people.’

‘Mm.’

‘I do have stupid and arrogant people in my books…’

‘You draw the slightly iffy characters in. Like David.’

‘I loved David! He’s one of my favourites.’

‘Instead of kicking them out, letting something dreadful happen to them.’

‘Oh, that’s a very simplistic thing to do. I don’t think that’s how real life works.’

‘It’s so sweet. The Cassons; they keep collecting people, don’t they?’

‘They would be very boring, just one family and no outsiders, so you have to give them friends or they wouldn’t be normal people. And their friends are going to be a mixture. David was a… he wasn’t really a bully, but he was led into bullying, by someone with a weak nature. There are people like that, and I think a lot of people who are going the wrong way are all too glad to see a way out of it, to be honest.’

‘They want to be given a chance.’

‘Yes, it is a world of second chances. I do believe that very strongly. I’m writing for a very young age group, and I think if I wrote adult books… I would like to write adult books,’ Hilary sighs but sounds quite determined, ‘actually, I might do that, and then you could go darker… I’m not very good at writing people off completely, because it always seems like a “what if?” possibility.’

‘Yes, that’s why I prefer children’s books. You don’t have to be quite as dark as people are in adult books.’

Hilary McKay at Book Witch

Punishment in Young Adult Literature

I have so far focused on punishments in stories for young readers, but young adult literature is a different thing entirely. In this category, characters die at an alarming rate.

Nicole Galante argues that death as punishment too often strips young readers of power they may otherwise grasp in the here and now:

In order to begin to restore power to adolescents, YA must stop doing two things. Firstly, it must stop relying so heavily on the future that the present is forgotten, and young adult readers are consequently are rendered powerless. Secondly, it must stop killing off “rule-breaking” characters. There are a million and one ways to punish characters for breaking the rules that don’t involve killing
them—and nearly every single one of those ways is more ethical than death. Of course, there are benefits of discussing the future and including death. It would be irresponsible of the genre to never look forward in time, just as it would be to paint a picture of the world that ignores the reality of premature deaths. However, mention of the future should never be so overbearing that the Spectacular Now is erased of all meaning, and death should be represented realistically rather than with exaggerated frequency.

Nicole Galante – A Genre Against Them: Regulating Young Adults Through Literature

RELATED

Picturebook Endings

Getting away with murder: literature’s most annoyingly unpunished characters from Charlotte Seager at The Guardian

Lemon girl young adult novella

READ AT MY OTHER BLOG

It’s The Bear! by Jez Alborough Analysis

It’s The Bear! by Jez Albrough  is one of our daughter’s favourite picture books. She loved it when she was three, and still loves it even though she is now seven. It’s The Bear! is the second of Jez Alborough’s three hugely successful bear books from the 1990s. Published in 1996, It’s The Bear came out two years after the first one, and two years before the final book in the series.

Published 1994
Published 1994
Published 1998
Published 1998

WHAT HAPPENS IN IT’S THE BEAR!

A boy learns not to trust his mum. At least, that’s what our seven-year-old concluded upon our most recent reading. “Eddy’s mum should listen to him!” she said. Basically, a mother takes her son for a picnic in the woods.

walking into the woods

They set out the picnic but mum has to duck back to the car to get a blueberry pie which she has forgotten. While she’s away, an enormous bear arrives, despite her earlier reassurances that there are ‘no bears around here’. The bear is a benevolent creature, however, who only wants to eat the picnic, not the humans. The mother gets a huge, comical fright when she turns around to find that her preschooler son is telling the truth about the existence of a bear.

WONDERFULNESS OF IT’S THE BEAR!

SUSPENSE AND TIMING

Like ancient tales such as Little Red Cap, in which the story is designed to be ‘performed’ rather than read, and in which the child audience grows deliciously scared at the point where the wolf eats the grandma up, this story has a theatre quality to it that will have young listeners cuddling up to their adult co-reader.

This is achieved, of course, by building up suspense. The marketing copy itself lets us know at exactly which point the turning point occurs:

The last time Eddie went for a walk in the woods, he had the biggest surprise of his life! There was a bear the size of a house in there! Now Eddie’s mom is in the mood to picnic in the wood—and she insists there aren’t any bears in there, (except Eddie’s teddy, Freddie). But when Mom forgets the blueberry pie, she runs home to get it while Eddie waits in the woods all alone! [TURNING POINT] What happens next? Just guess! Hold on to your teddies, because Jez Alborough is back with another hilarious story about little Eddie and that oversized bear—and this time he’s hungry!

First we have the set up, in which Mum denies the existence of a bear. Therefore, the experienced reader (and any young reader upon second reading) knows that a bear is definitely coming. This in itself builds suspense.

A BEAR? SAID MUM

Most of the story is spent on the build up. We see four images of Eddy sitting on the picnic hamper — by the fourth image he is climbing inside to hide.

The following page shows us the first glimpse of the bear. We see Eddy’s eyes as he looks in fright out of the hamper, and we’re sure the bear can see him too.

The page after that is mostly black, and we see Eddy inside the hamper — a top-down view. This mirrors an earlier page in which both Eddy and Mum are looking into the hamper together. We have the same framing of the hamper — the first time we were from the perspective of the food and the large frame was white. This time we see Eddy, and link him to food — Eddy IS the food.

The reader wonders if the bear is going to squash the hamper, but he doesn’t. He (or she) sets up their own teddy bear and ‘greedily gobbles up all of the food’. The small size of the sandwich and plate emphasise the hugeness of the bear.

bear_picnic

Take note how many separate illustrations depict the large bear’s realisation that there’s probably dessert in the hamper and actually opening it up. A more economical but far less suspenseful way to illustrate this would have been to show a single illustration (one of any of those shown here). What makes this a picture book rather than an illustrated story is the extra frames.

Notice also that the bear is, despite his size, a child character. We’re to assume he is scared of what’s inside the hamper as Eddy is scared of what’s outside it. One clue: the bear picks up his own teddy as comfort before looking inside — foreshadowing his reaction.

The next two spreads, which readers are to fully enjoy, include between 3 and 5 words each. “Help! shouted Eddy. I want my Mum!”

Adroit framing builds the story for the next big enjoyable surprise: Eddy and Bear have already had their confrontation, now it’s mum’s turn to jump out of her skin. We see her in the distance, but the illustration is framed by the bear’s massive furry leg. Another scene shows her walking closer, with a big smile on her face and a blueberry pie balanced for the taking on her hand, waiter-style. For visual interest, the big bear’s toy teddy is included in this frame.

The following illustration shows how smug and disbelieving the mother is, and allows the bear time to snatch the pie, which seems to be offered to him, after all:

behind_you

The denouement requires one double page spread, in which Mum and Eddy are sprinting back to the car, and a single page illustration of the very happy bear, who is enjoying the food thrown his way.

RHYMING TEXT

This is a story in which the rhyming text really works. There’s nothing fancy about what’s attempted — Teddy, Eddy, Freddy and ready are an example of words which rhyme; others are dear/here, long/gone, spread/bread, my/pie and so on. Much use is made of capitalisation to give clues about where emphasis should be placed.

IS IT ‘REAL’ OR IS IT ALL IMAGINED?

The detail which will have readers wondering about how much of this happened in ‘the world of the story’ is the detail of the toy bears. Eddy just happens to own the same teddy as the big bear, but in miniature. Readers of the previous book have already been treated to a story in which this coincidence makes the plot.

When adults are drawn into the story, witnessing bizarre events for themselves, then we are to assume that ‘there really is a bear in there’. So the question is answered for us.

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION OF IT’S THE BEAR!

The details of the forest look genuinely pre-digital era and are lavishly detailed. This makes the forest seem alive. Our eyes are drawn into the woods just as Eddy’s are. We should be searching for something inside — just as Eddy does.

IT'S THE BEAR FOREST DETAIL

The wonderful detail has been lost in the screen adaptation, with its focus on movement rather than the gaze. However, I’m sure Hayao Miyazaki would have keep the detail and made the most of it.

IT'S THE BEAR ANIMATION

STORY SPECS OF IT’S THE BEAR!

32pp

Published by Candlewick Press

Written and illustrated by Jez Alborough. Alborough has also written picture books about mice, ducks and dogs.

…an English writer and illustrator of children’s picture books that have been translated into at least 15 languages and have been recognised for numerous awards. 

Wikipedia

COMPARE IT’S THE BEAR! WITH

When it comes to lavish illustrations of a scary forest, I’m reminded of the illustrations in Anthony Browne’s Hansel and Gretel. In Browne’s story, the reader is rewarded for close examination, because the trees reveal themselves to be ominous shapes.

Hansel and Gretel forest details

It’s The Bear is interesting also because it plays with scale and proportion — something that seems to appeal very much to young readers. Other things that appeal to young readers are the identification with characters who are separated from their parents, who have imaginations which scare them, and whose toys seem to come to life. Animated toys are common in tales for children.

Different Types Of Toy Stories

In toy stories […] we should probably distinguish between toys existing in a world of their own (notably, doll-house stories, and Winnie-the-Pooh) and toys in contact with a child protagonist. Toys coming alive together with a lonely child may act as substitutes for missing friends, siblings, or even parents.

Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature

In the second type of story mentioned above, most toys in toy stories live only when the child is around, being played with. Most of them become worn out or broken and die, but a few go into suspended animation and may come to life generations later into changed worlds.

Moth Manor Martha Bacon cover
Written in 1978, present-day Monica saves a fine old doll’s-house and its inhabitants from destruction. When Monica finds hereself inside the house, it and its garden are “as real as Monica’s love for them.” The reader can’t tell if this book is about magic/dream/imagination (perhaps all three).
Animal Stories = Toy Stories

[…] There is no point distinguishing between animals stories and toy stories, since both have the same structure, and toy or animal characters share the same function, primarily representing the child. Clearly anthropomorphic animals (such as Beatrix Potter’s or Janosch’s) are especially hard to distinguish from animated toys. Paddington is another good example—the bear is something in-between an animal and a toy (in illustrations, he definitely looks like a teddy-bear) and has the unmistakable function of an “imaginary friend”. […]

There are many marginal cases, like Winnie-the-Pooh, where some characters seem to be more toys, while others are more animals. It is thus arguable whether Winnie-the-Pooh is a toy story or an animal story […] and this may also be a matter of child versus adult perception. For a child reader, the characters of the book are “real,” that is, animals, while adults probably tend to see them as toys.

Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature
Why Toy Stories Are Not Their Own Genre

Let us, therefore, not be deceived by the superficial form. Both toys and animals in children’s texts must be seen as representations of children and the texts themselves are, in my text typology, in no way different from domestic stories. When writers present their characters disguised as animals or toys, it is merely a narrative device, which has little to do with genre. There are few similarities between The Jungle Book, Babar and Peter Rabbit, besides their portraying animals; on the other hand, each of them can be related to other books without animals. For instance, The Jungle Book to Robinsonnades, Babar to a sentimental story about an orphan who is finally taken care of (Little Lord Fauntleroy, The Foundling): Peter Rabbit to any didactic naughty-boy book.

Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature

Nikolajeva explains that therefore, toy and animal stories are even more heterogenous than “realistic” domestic and school stories.

Animals no doubt are more like us than are dolls, since they are living creatures and dolls are not; but dolls are made in our own image, and in the field of anthropomorphic fantasy there seems no harm in giving them a place. To the children who own them, dolls are people; and often they are people who have a hard life. They are to children as children are to adults: small, powerless beings controlled by others.

John Rowe Townsend, Written For Children
Older Examples Of Stories Featuring Toys
  • The Nutcracker
  • Pinnochio
  • Winnie-the-Pooh
  • Miss Hickory by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey (1946)
  • Adventures of a Little Wooden Horse
  • The Dolls House
  • Rufty Tufty the Golliwog
  • Five Dolls in a House
  • The Mouse and His Child
  • The Mennyms series
  • Behind The Attic Wall by Sylvia Cassedy (1983)
  • Through The Dolls’ House Door by Jane Gardam (1987)
The Dolls House Rumer Godden Cover
Godden wrote a number of stories about dolls: The STory of Holly and Ivy, Impunity Jane etc. He also wrote about humanized mice. Mice, like children, are seen as stand-in children because of their small size and precarious status.

It is an anxious, sometimes a dangerous thing to be a doll. Dolls cannot choose; they can only be chosen; they cannot “do”; they can only be done by; children who do not understand this often do wrong things, and then the dolls are hurt and abused and lost; and when this happens dolls cannot speak, nor do anything except be hurt and abused and lost.

Rumer Godden, The Dolls’ House (1947)
Lemon girl young adult novella

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Home Away Home Story Structure

Sidney Richard Percy - Road to Loch Turret 1868

The home away home story structure is common in stories worldwide, and is especially popular in stories for children. Developmentally, children are leaving to leave the house in preparation for leaving for good. But they need the security of the stable home.

Home is not where you are born. Home is where all your attempts to escape, cease.

Naguib Mahfouz

“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”

Terry Pratchett
Goodbye, Mother 1898 Theodor Kittelsen

The idea of ‘home’ differs according to time and culture.

In lots of places, people are still tied back to the rural farms and stuff, so I see this in Fiji, I’ve seen it described in China, in Africa. So they still have responsibilities and obligations back home, but they go to the city maybe to make money, or for some short period when they’re there, they’re probably living with relatives or at least people from the region where they come from, and they’re just spending some time there. Whereas when you break everyone down to nuclear families, there’s nothing to go back home too. There’s not some big network of kin, you’re not tied to ancestors who are buried in your land, so you have ritual responsibilities. You can just move to the town and become a citizen of that town. So what you get are new towns sprouting up all over Europe where people would join and they’d be members, and this is where the idea of citizenship comes from. Citizen of a town, and by joining, I sign a contract, I swear an oath to God that I’ll fulfill my responsibilities and obligations to this town, to this group of strangers that I’m joining.

Joe Henrich

If you’re familiar with Christopher Booker’s 7 Basic Plots theory, the Home-Away-Home story corresponds neatly with his Voyage and Return category. According to Booker, this story structure comprises 5 main sequences:

  1. Anticipation Stage and “Fall” into the Other World
  2. Initial Fascination or Dream Stage
  3. Frustration Stage
  4. Nightmare Stage
  5. Thrilling Escape and Return

The frustration stage maps onto the Opponent, the Nightmare Stage maps onto the Battle, the Thrilling Escape maps onto the very end of the Battle sequence. Escape and Return maps onto New Situation.

The Ideological Problem With Home Away Home Stories

[T]he form of innocence described in many texts is one that suits adult needs. For instance, the small creatures in many generic stories leave home to achieve freedom, and then learn the wisdom of not doing so. Although they claim to be happy about their discovery that they are not capable of fending for themselves, their joyful acceptance of constraint seems to be wish-fulfilment on the part of adult writers who would prefer that children didn’t in fact wish for more independence.

The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Reimer and Nodelman
home away home the hobbit
‘There and back again’ is the subtitle of The Hobbit, and also the central pattern of movement in many children’s stories.

THREE PATTERNS FOR THE DESCRIPTION OF HOME IN CHILDREN’S FICTION

As categorised by Lucy Waddey:

1. The Odyssean pattern: Home is an anchor and a refuge, a place to return to after trials and adventures in the wild world. Home corresponds to Arcadia. This is the ‘here and back again’ pattern discussed below.

2. The Oedipal pattern: Found in domestic stories (Little Women, Little House etc.) These are stories where the child stays marooned in the home, but perhaps leaves imaginatively. This Oedipal pattern is also used in adult fiction when writing about women who, like children, are often confined to the home and can only escape in their imaginations. Katherine Mansfield’s female characters fit this pattern, with “How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped” as a stand-out example. (Also called the Robinsonnade.)

3. The Promethean pattern: There is no home at the beginning of the story but the main character creates one as part of their maturation (The Secret Garden)

But these categories are not mutually exclusive. The Wind In The Willows would be a mixture between all three patterns.

Nodelman and Reimer call such picture books ‘no-name stories’, because they are so generic. Here’s what generic, no-name home-away-home books have in common:

  1. A young creature/animal/object with human characteristics enjoys the security of a comfortable home until something happens to make it unhappy. 
  2. The small creature leaves home and has exciting adventures. 
  3. But the adventures turn out to be dangerous or as discomforting as they are thrilling.
  4. Having learned the truth about the big world, the creature finally returns to the security it at first found burdensome, concluding that, despite is constraints, home is best.

(The following are notes from the same book, with a few of my own examples.)

The Little Bus Who Liked Home Best by Lucy Prince Scheidlinger (1955)

A municipal bus becomes envious of the ‘great silver buses’ on the superhighway. After joining them, he becomes confused by the traffic, and, when he finally finds his way back, he concludes, as the title suggests, that home is best.

The Little Bus Who Liked Home Best

Fish Is Fish by Leo Lionni (1974)

A fish is left behind in the pond when his childhood friend becomes a frog and goes off to see the world. When the frog returns with stories of glamorous sights, the fish resolves to leave the pond. After the frog saves the fish’s life by flipping it back into the water, the fish concludes that it’s better to stay at home.

Fish Is Fish

The Story About Ping by Marjorie Flack and Kurt Wiese (1933)

A duck avoids punishment for being the last to return to its home on a boat by staying out on the river. Caught by a boy, the duck is threatened with death. After escaping, he happily returns home despite the inevitable punishment.

Or as an Amazon reviewer put it:

Ping and his extended family live on a boat on the river. They go out each day, and come back, and the last duck gets a swat on the back, so don’t be late — don’t be last. Ping, seeing that he will be last and hence swatted, stays out overnight. He’s caught by a family that wants a duck dinner, but the young boy of the family lets him go. The next day, Ping happily takes the swat as he runs up the gangway to his own boat. He’ll take that swat ’cause there’s no place like home.

The Story About Ping

VARIATIONS ON THE NO-NAME BRAND OF CHILDREN’S STORY

1. Instead of deciding that one’s own home is good after all, a creature learns to be content with one’s own body.

A daschund doesn't like his unusual body, but comes to terms with it after witnessing diversity at the local zoo.
A daschund doesn’t like his unusual body, but comes to terms with it after witnessing diversity at the local zoo.

2. Instead of actually venturing out into the world, the creature IMAGINES a journey out into the world, but this is sufficiently horrifying for the creature to learn that being home is the safest place.

  • Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak — Max is sent to his room for being rowdy and imagines a voyage into darkness.
  • Moon Tiger by Phyllis Root, art by Ed Young
  • George Shrinks by William Joyce
  • Architect of the Moon by Tim Wynne-Jones, pictures by Ian Wallace
  • A River Dream by Allen Say
  • Moonhorse by Mary Pope Osborne, illustrated by S.M. Saelig
  • The Boy Who Ate Around by Henrick Drescher — Mo, a little boy who doesn’t want to eat his dinner, turns himself into a series of ever-expanding monsters that eat virtually everything except string beans and cheese souffle, including math teachers and entire countries.

3. Instead of heaving a child leave home to confront danger, the book describes a child’s bedroom or home invaded by something that clearly belongs elsewhere.

  • The Salamander Room by Ann Mazer
  • The Sandman by Rob Shepperson
  • The Cat in the Hat by Dr Seuss — A cat turns up and creates havoc when a brother and sister are supposed to be behaving themselves.
  • The Egg by M.P. Robertson
  • Skellig by David Almond — The main child character has recently moved into a new house. The shed in the garden is occupied by a strange creature.

HOME-AWAY-HOME CHILDREN’S NOVELS

  • Treasure Island — Jim Hawkins expresses boredom with the quietness of his home. After his exciting but dangerous experiences with pirates, he returns home convinced that nothing could make him wish for adventure again.
  • From The Mixed-up Files of Basil E. Frankweiler — A brother and sister seek adventure by running away from home to the safe pleasures of the Metropolitan Museum and then return home again.
  • Hatchet — Brian learns to survive the breakup of his parents marriage and his feeling of being isolated after he leaves home in a plane that crashes in the bush and leaves him literally isolated. Having experienced physically what he at first felt emotionally, he returns home with knowledge of his inner strength.
  • Holes — A stay at a dangerous juvenile detention centre gives Stanley Yelnats a completely new understanding of himself and the home and family he finally returns to.
  • The Amber Spyglass — The two main characters return not merely to the homes but also tot he home worlds they each left earlier. In between, they learn much about why home might be a good place to be.
  • Joey Pigza Loses Control — Almost exactly replicates the pattern of Where the Wild Things Are. Joey takes a real voyage into the wildness of his father’s and his own hyperactive disorder. The voyage ends when Joey decides he wants to return to the comfort of life with his mother.

When Charlie’s longed-for brother is born with a serious heart condition, Charlie’s world is turned upside down. Upset and afraid, Charlie flees the hospital and makes for the ancient forest on the edge of town. There Charlie finds a boy floating face-down in the stream, injured, but alive. But when Charlie sets off back to the hospital to fetch help, it seems the forest has changed. It’s become a place as strange and wild as the boy dressed in deerskins. For Charlie has unwittingly fled into the Stone Age, with no way to help the boy or return to the present day. Or is there … ?

What follows is a wild, big-hearted adventure as Charlie and the Stone Age boy set out together to find what they have lost – their courage, their hope, their family and their way home.

HOME INVADERS

Sometimes, instead of a child leaving home to confront danger, writers describe a child’s bedroom or home invaded by something that clearly belongs elsewhere. In most of these stories the child is happy to have the calm restored at the end.

Picturebooks
  • Where The Wild Things Are — the forest clearly belongs elsewhere
  • The Salamander Room — another forest
  • The Sandman by Rob Shepperson — the title character
  • The Cat In The Hat — the cat
  • The Egg by M.P. Robertson — the dragon that hatches
Children’s/YA Novels
  • Skellig by David Almond
  • Wringer by Jerry Spinelli
  • When Zachary Beaver Came to Town by Kimberley Willis Holt
  • Go and Come Back by Joan Abelove
BOOKS WHICH REPRESENT A DIFFERENT VARIETY OF HOME-AWAY-HOME
Home Away Home mix up
  • Anne of Green Gables — a child whose life has been filled with troubling adventures arrives at a safe home at the beginning of the story (rather than at the end)
  • Cinderella — and its many variants describe how children journey away from homes whose security or happiness have been disrupted and finally find a new home representing the old security elsewhere.
  • The Giver by Lois Lowry — makes use of this Cinderella pattern
  • Lyddie by Katherine Paterson
  • Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
  • The Folk Keeper by Franny Billingsley
  • Lisa’s War, Sworn Enemies, The Burning Time, Rebecca — all by Carol Matas. These stories all start in a peaceful place and end in a similar one.
  • Harry Potter — the first four books start and end in a dangerous home and allow Harry adventures in what seems to be a more secure place in between.
Ivy Lilian Wallace Pookie In Search Of A Home
Ivy Lilian Wallace Pookie In Search Of A Home
Dark YA fiction often has a different pattern, which is the very thing that makes it dark:
  • Hush by Jacqueline Woodson — a teenage girl’s family is forced to move interstate under the witness protection program. This story starts in an uneasy-dangerous place and ends in a slightly less uneasy one.
  • Hansel and Gretel — starts in a dangerous home, end up in the same home, which is now safe
  • Snow White — starts in a dangerous home, ends up in another castle, married to a handsome prince, this time happy. Pride and Prejudice is similar in that Lizzie Bennett’s financial situation makes her life precarious unless she gets married. She ends up in the slightly more modern version of a castle.

The Hero’s Journey: Outward, Inward

This view of storytelling has been hugely influential, but in modern stories, there is rarely any such thing as ‘a call to adventure’. In television in particular, there is no time for characters to sit around waiting for a call. This is part of the reason why TV is so often set in settings such as police headquarters, schools and courtrooms — the ‘call’ comes walking through the door every single day. Instead, look for an Inciting Incident.

At heart, despite its infinite variety, the hero’s story is always a journey. A hero leaves her comfortable, ordinary surroundings to venture into a challenging, unfamiliar world. It may be an outward journey to an actual place: a labyrinth, forest or cave, a strange city or country, a new locale that becomes the arena for her conflict with antagonistic, challenging forces.

But there are as many stories that take the hero on an inward journey, one of the mind, the heart, the spirit. In any good story the hero grows and changes, making a journey from one way of being to the next: from despair to hope, shortcoming to strength, folly to wisdom, love to hate, and back again. It’s these emotional journeys that hook an audience and make a story worth watching.

Christopher Vogler, The Hero’s Journey, introduction

In fact, the call to adventure has always been about young men. It seems youth plus testosterone is a combo required for wanting to go out and save the world. In the name of diversity, it’s probably just as well that this call to adventure story falls out of use.

Philip Richard Morris - Home, Sweet Home
Philip Richard Morris – Home, Sweet Home

THE HOME-AWAY-HOME STRUCTURE AS WISH FULFILMENT FANTASY

Below, picture book writer Julia Donaldson speaks in an interview about her experience continuing to produce work after her 25-year-old son died:

“I realised afterwards that I had [written] books like Stick Man and Tiddler, which are both about a family member disappearing, but actually coming back.”

The Guardian interview

This leads me to the idea that the home-away-home structure can function as narrative fulfilment of the desire to be with a departed loved one once again.

A Dragon in a Wagon by Janette Rainwater, illustrated by John Martin Gilbert (1973) children in bed
A Dragon in a Wagon by Janette Rainwater, illustrated by John Martin Gilbert (1973) children in bed

Header painting: Sidney Richard Percy – Road to Loch Turret 1868

Lemon girl young adult novella

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Gorilla by Anthony Browne Picture Book Analysis

Gorilla Anthony Browne cover

Gorilla is the book that made Anthony Browne’s name as a creator of postmodern picture books. It was awarded the Kurt Maschler Award (1982-1999), which specifically rewarded British picture books demonstrating excellent integration between words and pictures.

WHAT HAPPENS IN GORILLA?

A girl called Hannah — about 6 or 7 years old — feels that her father doesn’t spend any time with her. She often wants to do something with him but he is always busy. One day her father gifts her a toy gorilla, as she has a special interest in gorillas, seeing gorilla related things everywhere. That night Hannah dreams she goes on a dream date with her life-sized gorilla, who is now a stand in father figure. He takes her to the zoo and then to a cafe. In the morning we learn that it is her birthday, and her father has a surprise — he is going to take her to the zoo.

See more on hallways and corridors in art and illustration.

WONDERFULNESS OF GORILLA

There is something wonderfully unsettling about the picture books of Anthony Browne, who is a postmodern picturebook writer/illustrator.

Postmodern picture books are a specific genre of picture books. Characteristics of this unique type of book include non-linear narrative forms in storybooks, books that are “aware” of themselves as books and include self-referential elements, and what is known as metafiction.

Wikipedia (BTW, anyone would think from the Wikipedia write-up that postmodern picture books are created only by men.)

Features of Postmodern Picture Books

  • they expand the conventional boundaries of picture book formats
  • contain non-linear structures and storylines
  • offer multiple perspectives or realities to the reader (in common with Impressionist literature)
  • may be self-referential — they discuss their own creation or existence
  • contain elements of ambiguity or irony
  • often contain surrealistic images
  • include the juxtaposition of unrelated images
  • mock traditional formats
  • are often sarcastic / cynical in tone
  • contain overly obtrusive narrators who directly address readers and comment on their own narrations
  • often contain narrative framing devices (e.g., stories within stories, characters reading about their own fictional lives)
  • feature typographic experimentation
  • feature a mixing of genres, discourse styles, and modes of narration
  • illustrated with a pastiche of illustrative styles

– Frank Serafini

For more on postmodern picture books see David Beagley’s lecture on iTunes U, or my notes on that, here.

A less well-executed story may have started with something like, “Tomorrow it was Hannah’s birthday…” It is particularly masterful that Anthony Browne withholds this information until the conclusion. Why? Because the brightness associated with birthdays lightens the ending. Since the first part of the book is melancholic, a birthday tone would not fit well.


NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION

A feature of Anthony Browne’s work is that although the characters are depicted in almost naturalistic style, “in all styles we can only interpret faces with certainty as positive, negative or neutral in affect, with more subtle readings dependent on contextual and intermodal guidance. (Tian, 2011.)

As is the case in all of Browne’s books, the illustrations contain surreal details which reward the reader for lingering. This is not a page-flipper. A young reader will feel smart, in a Where’s Wally/Spot The Difference kind of way, for picking out what’s strange about each picture.

Anthony Browne Gorilla Newspaper Breakfast Scene

First, Browne sets up a desire in Hannah: She wants her dad to show her some affection. The reader must emphasise with Hannah and feel some of her isolation and loneliness. Above, the father holds up a newspaper as a wall.

Anthony Browne Gorilla Dad Is Busy In His Office

In the image above, the father has his back to his daughter. Hannah’s isolation is emphasised by the rectangle of light coming through an off-stage door. The rectangle forms a border between Hannah and her father. They may as well be in different worlds.

There is no comfort in this house — not even a sofa to sit on, and no carpet. Notice the map of Africa on the wall — a part of Hannah’s imagination. The truly masterful part of this illustration is that the light coming out of the television turns the pattern on the wallpaper into butterflies. The light coming out of the television is Hannah’s only company — her only brightness in an otherwise dark home environment.

What does it mean when a background merges with the real life of the story?

  • The character feels ignored/isolated/lonely, having more in common with the background than with the action going on around her
  • The character is retreating into her imagination/dreamscape/fantasy
  • The world around the character is not what it first appears, suggesting there’s a hidden depth to everything. Here, the father’s feelings towards Hannah are warmer than initially suggested. (He is redeemed at the end.)
Anthony Browne Gorilla Kiss

There’s something a little disturbing about this, unless we realise that the gorilla is a fantasy stand-in father.

I must admit there are a few scenes that had me arching my eyebrow at what she was up [to] in the way of questionable behaviour, but the end explains everything nicely.

from a 3 Star Goodreads Review
Anthony Browne Gorilla Superman Movie

Superman is the symbol of supreme strength and prowess. This little girl thinks of her father as a superhero. But, like Superman, he is also some glamorous figure who remains out of reach.

Anthony Browne Gorilla Swinging Through The Trees

The city is a jungle and the jungle is a city. Most stories set in cities have elements of the jungle in them, and vice versa.

Anthony Browne Gorilla Eating Out

Food is immensely important in children’s books. Though there is a bit of a movement towards depicting healthy food in picture books, this is almost impossible to do when the feast takes place inside a child’s imagination, in which case (in the West, at least) it’s almost always cakes and sundaes.

Anthony Browne Gorilla Happy Birthday Hannah

Not seen in this shot, but the father has a banana poking out of his back pocket. There are little details like that which tell the reader visually: “The gorilla IS the dad.” Anthony Browne reuses this trope in his postmodern Hansel and Gretel, in which the mother IS the witch.

The reader (along with Hannah) now learns that Dad really does think about his daughter. He has intuited that Hannah is fascinated with gorillas, and has planned exactly the birthday outing she has been dreaming about. He’s the sort of dad to hang Hannah’s pictures on the wall, framed. The young readers are left with the message that even when they feel that their caregivers don’t care about them, parents actually do love them, no matter what. This is a reassuring story: children will eventually receive the attention they crave.

Of course, terrible caregivers do exist in real life. But they don’t tend to populate picture books. Even in the young adult category, truly terrible parents are extremely rare.

Although very sad at the beginning I found this story to be refreshingly honest and deeply gratifying.

from a 5 Star Goodreads Review


STORY SPECS

Gorilla won a number of significant awards:

There have been a number of reprints with different covers over the years:

This image with the surprised cat is my six-year-old’s favourite. The expression on the cat is funny to a kid, and is perhaps the one bit of true hilarity in the whole book, which is bitter-sweet and melancholic. Perhaps this is why it was chosen as a front cover image.

Anthony Browne Gorilla Swinging

This cover makes readily apparent the jungle/city metaphor.


COMPARE WITH

A number of artists merge backgrounds with ‘the real world of the narrative’. Here’s an example:

My Family by revolenka
My Family by revolenka

Gotye blends into the wallpaper in Someone That I Used To Know.

Flight of the Concords had spoofed this earlier, in their song I Told You I Was Freaky.

Other Postmodern Picture Books

  • David Macaulays award winning Black and White (1990)
  • David Wiesner’s The Three Pigs
  • Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith’s The Stinky Cheese Man
  • Bamboozled by David Legge
  • Shaun Tan and Gary Crew’s The Viewer
  • Emily Gravett’s Wolves
  • McGuire, R. (1997). What’s Wrong with This Book?
  • Burningham, J. (1977). Come Away From the Water, Shirley.
  • Watt, M. (2009). Chester.
  • Child, L. (2002). Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Book?
  • Ahlberg, A. (1987). The Jolly Postman
  • Pretty much all of the other Anthony Browne picture books
  • A Goodreads List of Postmodern Picture books

The adult equivalent of a slightly disturbing story about a gorilla’s relationship with a human is Peter Goldsworthy’s Wish (Australian).

Lemon girl young adult novella

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Guess Who’s Coming For Dinner? Picture Book Analysis

Guess Who's Coming For Dinner Picturebook

Guess Who’s Coming For Dinner is one of my all-time favourite picture books and funnily enough, it has been created by a husband and wife team. Some of the very best picture books are obviously created with a lot of collaboration between writer and illustrator, and it amazes me that so many (also good) picture books are created without writer and illustrator ever meeting.

PLOT OF GUESS WHO’S COMING FOR DINNER

Horace and Glenda Pork-Fowler hav one an “all-you-can-eat” weekend at Eatum Hall – a dream come true for the pair for whom no plate is too big. However, their greed and desire to make the most of their luxurious surroundings distract them from the true purpose of why they are there!

Gradually we are fed details about the wolf’s intentions: He intends to fatten up his dinner guests then trap them in a giant pie machine. After he has cooked bacon and goose pie, he will invite his wolf cronies for a feast.

Needless to say, the wolf’s plan backfires. The Pork-Fowlers escape unharmed.

WONDERFULNESS IN GUESS WHO’S COMING FOR DINNER

Although marketed at ages 5+*, I have to admit not fully understanding what had happened after the first time I’d read it. Everything became clear on second reading. The more I read the story, the more I marvel at the intricate plot — I have no doubt that this was a difficult plot to pull off. On second reading, certain details will be discovered: The wolf who hasn’t left Eatem Hall at all, but who looks with freaky, shiny eyes upon the Pork-Fowlers’ car approaching the mansion.

The Kate Greenaway Judges suggest 7+ and I tend to agree. Picture books are increasingly difficult to sell for whatever reason, and there’s a temptation for publishers to market even the most sophisticated picture books to younger readers, sometimes turning quite difficult texts into board books, knowing that older children are being pushed into reading chapter books and novels exclusively. Please don’t push your young readers completely away from picture books! Buy them picture books as presents!

Intratext provides humour throughout:

Glenda Pork-Fowler's Perfumes
Glenda Pork-Fowler’s Perfumes

In fact, reading the intratext is necessary, if you want to fully understand the plot:

Letter From The Wolf
Letter From The Wolf
Guess Who's Coming For Dinner Bedscales
Guess Who’s Coming For Dinner Bedscales

Gradual Revelation Of The Baddie

Especially masterful is the way in which the wolf is gradually revealed, body-part by body-part, to the reader. On the front cover we can see the wolf but only if we look very closely: He’s hiding in darkness to the left of the page. His fangs gleam. Unusual for wolves in picturebooks, he’s wearing spectacles. (This is a picture book about middle-aged characters — not a toddler, child or baby in sight.) The title page depicts a furry hand with sharp, white claws holding the invitation to dinner, though the reader doesn’t know what it is yet. Next is a second title page, brightly coloured, forming a double-page spread with the colophon. Most picture books don’t have two title pages, but this one helps to set the scene and is very much meant to be read: The reader now sees the wolf’s tail disappearing off the page. Wolves don’t like to be seen, especially when their motivations are nefarious. The next we see of the wolf is his shining eyes gleaming from a distant window, then, for the rest of the story, a Where’s Wally sort of game of ‘spot-the-wolf’ has been set up for the reader: Where is the wolf on this page? Where might he be hiding on this one? Sometimes the reader never knows — he might be inside the suit of shining armour. At other times, the reader is given enough clues to work it out — on one page he has poked the eyes out of a portrait and looks at his dinner guests through the wall. Interestingly, the reader never is given a good, clear view of the wolf. The best we get is a drawing of his face in semi-darkness under his pie-contraption, but this is enough. There is not ‘Aha! The wolf!’ surprise moment. The surprise moment for the reader comes only when the reader works out what the wolf is up to, and why he has not turned up for his own feast.

Wickedness Is Humorous; Each Side Is Balanced

The comic wickedness of the wolf (why doesn’t he just shoot them or bite them?) is amplified by the wonderfully naive and good-natured victims, who escape unscathed, none-the-wiser that they were ever in any danger at all. In fact, reading this book feels like watching Road Runner: You don’t know which side to root for. After all, the coyote needs to eat. And the road runner seems to take so much pleasure out of foiling the coyote you almost want him to get caught. This story is an inversion of that: The Wolf is obviously very smart, and the Pork-Fowlers are sinfully greedy. Each side is evenly matched in avarice.

Dramatic Irony

Children love to know things before the characters do — perhaps we all do, so long as we’re not presented with fools for protagonists. The naivety of the Pork-Fowlers achieves this feeling in the reader, as well as providing for a happy ending. Note the body language of Glenda, who offers a friendly wave to a pack of wolves who have turned up to eat her:

Glenda Pork-Fowler Waves
Glenda Pork-Fowler Waves

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION

This is a book with a strong sense of place: Think of that wonderful series from the 1970s, To The Manor Born. This story is the picture book equivalent, set in rural England where old money live luxurious lives to varying degrees. Though the Pork-Fowlers live comfortably in a cottage-like house, the real wealth resides with the wolf, an eccentric aristocrat who lives in a gothic mansion from the old world.

The time period is less clear, but could well be set in the 1970s or 1980s — the contraptions built by the wolf have a steampunkish vibe. He listens to music on a gramophone but has a room full of CCTV set up. Technology in picture books is often an anachronistic mixture of things and, if the book is good, matters not a jot. Perhaps this is set in 2004, with the wolf still living in ‘the past’.

The cover is a combination of dark and warmth, with the sun setting behind the Pork-Fowlers as they drive into a dark forest. The pages themselves are a mixture of cheery brightness and ominous dark. The Pork-Fowlers are not only happy and naive — their kitchen scene is filled with light and joy. The cheerful kitchen scene is filled with humorous details: Ham Jam, Mr Pork-Fowler reads a newspaper called The Hog. One of them has used a knife to spread jam then plunged it back into the butter, in a piggy display of happiness and greed. Then, of course, is the fact that we are looking at two animals behaving like people, though we’ve seen this so much in picture books now that it has probably lost some of its humour — the humour must come from elsewhere.

The Pork-Fowlers Breakfast Scene
The Pork-Fowlers Breakfast Scene

Food is important across children’s storytelling in general, but pigs and food are particularly well-suited. If you see a pig in a picture book, they are almost certainly enjoying their food.

Gaston and Josephine 1933
The image in Guess Who’s Coming For Dinner reminds me of this advertisement, which utilises a popular nursery rhyme, Jack Sprat.
Use of Light and Dark

Apart from the light-dark contrast between the happy Pork-Fowlers’ cottage and the gothic darkness of Eatem Hall, we usually see the light-dark contrast in a single page. Lightness follows the Pork-Fowlers around.

Driving To Eatem Hall
Driving To Eatem Hall
Vintage Thanksgiving Postcard ~ Date unknown
Vintage Thanksgiving Postcard ~ Date unknown
A Backlit Portrait Of The Pork-Fowlers
A Backlit Portrait Of The Pork-Fowlers
The Pork-Fowlers Bathed In Firelight
The Pork-Fowlers Bathed In Firelight
Mr Pork-Fowler Stands In The Glow Of The Fridge
Mr Pork-Fowler Stands In The Glow Of The Fridge

Of course, some sort of light-source is necessary when illustrating a dark, gothic room, but the light is always positioned near-to and highlighting the naive dinner guests, with the brightness serving as a symbol of innocent utopia. Note that Mr Pork-Fowler’s bulky shadow bleeds into the darkness of the mansion. His greed may well be his downfall. (With pure dumb luck, it isn’t.)

Hints Of Bad Things To Come

Like an Anthony Browne forest scene, there are slightly surreal and comical hints that there will be blood:

Pie Machine Eyes
Knobs on the pie machine look like scared eyes.
Pie Machine Sauce
Is it sauce or is it blood?

STORY SPECS OF GUESS WHO’S COMING FOR DINNER

This is a generously sized book at 10.2 x 0.4 x 11.7 inches, published by Templar Publishing in the UK. Here are their other picture books. It’s worth checking them out if only because they don’t seem to have any ‘Picture Book Superstars’ on their list (you know, Lemony Snickett, Jon Klassen, Oliver Jeffers, Julia Donaldson), though you will recognise a number of names.

Published in 2004, GWCFD was shortlisted for the 2005 Kate Greenaway Medal.

Horace and Glenda Pork-Fowler take up an invitation to enjoy a weekend’s hospitality at Eatem Hall, and only narrowly escape being on the menu themselves. The dead-pan text contrasts with the illustrations: children love looking for the visual clues which suggest the pantomime fate which awaits the weekend guests. A very distinctive book which works fantastically with children.

Judges’ Commentary

This is a beautiful production in all respects but I do wish it had been printed on matte paper. If ever there was a case for matte paper in a picture book, this is it. With its dark pages and quite dark text, the book must be positioned just right if reading before bedtime in winter under artificial light.

Guess Who's Coming For Dinner Midnight Snack

COMPARE WITH

Another fictional animal character who ‘lives to eat’ and takes great delight in food is Winnie the Pooh.

To The Manor Born
Glenda & Horace Pork-Fowler IRL. (Actually a screen shot from To The Manor Born.)

For hints of bad things to come, see a picture book by Anthony Browne, such as Hansel and Gretel, in which the trees look like gnarled creatures. Into The Forest is similar, with the boy’s worry symbolised by the legless soldier statue in his bedroom, or the lightbulb over the dining-room table that seems to be melting into tears.

Lemon girl young adult novella

READ AT MY OTHER BLOG

Food And Sex In Children’s Literature

Carl Larsson banquet

Food plays an important role in children’s literature, and is one difference between mainstream literature and literature for children. Food means all sorts of things throughout literature — sometimes it symbolizes good, other times evil.

Writers don’t care what they eat. They just care what you think of them.

Sport, Harriet the Spy

Why All The Food in Children’s Literature?

The feasting fantasy in children’s literature is a particularly good vehicle for carrying culture’s socializing messages: it acts to seduce readers; through mimesis it “naturalizes” the lesson being taught; and, through the visceral pleasures (sometimes even jouissance) it produces, it “sweetens” the discourse and encourages unreflexive acceptance of the moral thus delivered. Hence, while ostensibly pandering to hedonism, a feasting fantasy frequently acts didactically. 

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

Several scholars have pointed out the parallel between sexuality in general fiction and food in fiction for children. Glutton and greed are common motifs in traditional children’s literature, inevitably followed by punishment.

Maria Nikolajeva in The Rhetoric of Character in Children’s Literature

Without food everything is less than nothing.

Bunyip Bluegum

Here are a few things to bear in mind when you come across food in literature:

  1. All food in literature is symbolic, since made up people don’t actually need to eat anything.
  2. In Western philosophical thought (e.g. Freud), everything inside/edible is aligned with the self and is good. Everything outside/inedible is aligned with the other and is bad.
  3. Inside/self = mind/reason, outside/inedible = body/passion. This also leads to a whole nother discussion about phalluses that I’d rather erase from the history of Western thought, thanks. (It pits the masculine against the feminine in a way that supports an unhelpful gender binary. Also, femininity = thinness = mind over matter.)
  4. The ultimate ‘bad eater’ is the cannibal = the antithesis of humanity.
  5. Food is obviously culturally specific. Bear in mind that in the West, our list of acceptable proteins is quite narrow. A lot of this comes from the food rules as described in Leviticus. (Sheep, pigs, cattle, chickens = OK. Pretty much everything else = NOT OK.) In Jewish culture, no pigs either. Hindus, no beef.
  6. Some animals are accorded a sort of interim status similar to humans. In kidlit, dogs.
  7. Food fantasies were especially prevalent in England during the Victorian era (due to underfeeding of children) and during the world wars (due to rationing).
  8. Relatively expensive ice cream and chocolate products tend to be marketed at adult women whereas cheap sugary products are marketed at children, but in literature, children get to eat the expensive ones.

Some classic and well-known children’s books are famous for their celebration and proliferation of food and mealtimes:

The Wind In The Willows

Wind In The Willows food picnic illustration by Michael Hague
Illustration by Michael Hague
Many stories of Enid Blyton, such as the Famous Five Adventures and the Faraway Tree trilogy

“Soon they were all sitting on the rocky ledge, which was still warm, watching the sun go down into the lake. It was the most beautiful evening, with the lake as blue as a cornflower and the sky flecked with rosy clouds. They held their hard-boiled eggs in one hand and a piece of bread and butter in the other, munching happily. There was a dish of salt for everyone to dip their eggs into.

‘I don’t know why, but the meals we have on picnics always taste so much nicer than the ones we have indoors,’ said George.”

Enid Blyton, Five Go Off in a Caravan

The symbolic meaning of food which we see in Arcadia children’s books is present in travel instructions too. It has been noted that in no other children’s books do the characters eat as much and with such relish as in Enid Blyton’s adventure novels. In adult formula fiction, this corresponds to excessive drinking and sexual exploits. The reader partakes in behaviour which is not wholly accepted in our society, an initiation into the “other” and the forbidden.

Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature

If you’ve ever read something about how to improve your memory for lists of objects, you may be familiar with the advice to play with size. For instance, if you’re heading to the shops and you need to buy apples, imagine a massive apple on top of the hill behind your house.

Simple in format, with vibrant folk-art inspired paintings of everyday items and a single, large-type word on each page, Picture This . . . is the ideal first word book for the very young. But there is much more to Picture This . . . than first meets the eye! Each turn of the page reveals a new perspective on what has come before and gives a hint of what’s to come. Parents will delight in reading this book with their children, finding visual surprises together and following the gentle story as it progresses through the day and through the seasons.

When it comes to massive food, the story conveys abundance. Examples:

Pippi Longstocking

Pippi Eating Food
from the cancelled Studio Ghibli animation project

Nikolajeva explains that we need to understand food in mythology before we can understand food in children’s literature:

According to most mythologists, meals in myths and folktales are circumlocutions of sexual intercourse, but we can reconstruct this meaning only partly from the existing texts. When folktales were incorporated into children’s literature, their motifs changed further, to suit pedagogical purposes, so that the original meaning has become still more obscure. It is therefore essential to understand what food represents in myth and folktale, before we can interpret its meaning in children’s fiction.

Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time In Children’s Literature

We are told:

The most important role of food in myths to accentuate the contrast between nature and culture. The origin of food is in nature, but it is used within culture, and it is the result of the transition from nature to culture. Thus food neutralizes this basic contrast.

Nadezhda Illarionova - Sleeping Beauty
Nadezhda Illarionova – Sleeping Beauty

Cultures are made up of many different kinds of oppositions (own/alien, male/female, home/away, sacred/profane and so on). The opposition between ‘own and alien’ tends to be especially connected to food in ancient cultures. Whatever we eat is natural and genuine; whatever others eat is alien, unnatural and unclean. This can be seen in a the big three religions. In Judaism and Islam followers are not allowed to eat certain foods. Christians have rules about Lent.

So what’s the first step when cultures start to become civilized?

Richard Scarry mealtime
Food and Christianity

Unlike most of the world’s religions, Christians are able to eat anything. Christians are omnivorous. This is reflected in children’s literature.

  • The imagery of eating pervades the very language of the culture, its beliefs and its rites
  • It provokes anxiety about impurity — an anxiety that used to be partly contained for Catholics, by minor rules of abstinence, such as no meat on Fridays and fasting before communion, but is no longer.
  • The taboo on cannibalism — on eating your own kind—offers the apparently unbreakable standard of propriety and hence ethics. Yet it is always being broken though performance and metaphor, thus plunging the system of discrimination between the good and bad eaters into continual disarray.
  • Eating and being eaten inspires one of the most common games adults play with babies. (Animal noises, gobbling — this is used in Gremlins to comic effect when the Gremlins say ‘yum yum!’)
  • It’s instinctive to growl and grit your teeth and curl your fingers, as instinctive as kissing or crying.
  • Faire barbo is a French expression which refers to the ancient game of clenching your teeth and grunting and making as if to claw at a little baby in fun.

Marina Warner’s take on literary cannibalism is related but a little different. Whereas Nikolajeva highlights the link between ‘eating and being eaten’, Warner highlights the link between eating one’s children and giving birth to them as another kind of ‘cycle of life’. In The Juniper Tree, the ‘birthing’ and ‘eating’ symbolism is braided all the way throughout the story. The boy gets to live on through the father. The false mother is expelled and the true father is validated. The result is a patriarchal triumph of a sort not seen in the earlier Kronos version — the female is erased entirely — the father is both birther and nurturer in the end. The family itself is reborn. Biology is negated. The dead mother has no body (and nor does the evil step-mother).  The father’s link to his children is solid — and ‘link to one’s own children’ is the one thing men have never been able to take away from women, even in the most repressive and patriarchal of cultures. Instead we see it done in stories.

In short, a tale such as The Juniper Tree is all about a deep-seated question regarding family relationships:

  • Who do children belong to? To mothers or to fathers? How can they belong to both?
  • Who has control of the child’s identity?

The culture of primogeniture comes in here, too. This is the custom of leaving all the family wealth to the eldest child. This happened in my own extended family just one generation ago, so it’s hardly dead. It tends to happen in farming families, in which the farm would otherwise be dismantled if the assets were divided among multiple children. The idea behind primogeniture: The boy who inherits the farm provides for his extended family. (In practice this may not happen.)

Political activist Thomas Paine was against the culture of primogeniture and had this to say about it:

Aristocracy has never more than one child. The rest are begotten to be devoured.

The link between primogeniture and cannibalism is a fascinating one — metaphorical cannibalism.

Now for eroticism. There’s a fine line between love and hate. For more on that listen to the Real Crime Profile podcast with Laura Richards, a British criminal profiler and feminist activist who does a lot of work around coercive control. For women (more rarely a man), the people most likely to kill us are men who say they love us.

In that vein, Nikolajeva posits that cannibalism in storytelling can function as a sign of extreme love:

when a man (more rarely a woman) eats up his beloved, in order to own her completely. Here is once again a parallel between food and intercourse, oral and sexual satisfaction. In some myths, parents devour their children out of great love.

Nikolajeva isn’t using the term because it’s a recent concept, but she is describing ‘coercive control’.

When Women Eat Children

Think of the folktales in which a witch eats the children, or tries to. Most of the time, the children get away. Marina Warner points out that in Greek myth, there are no examples of women eating their children. Not on purpose. Nor are they duped into it. This seems a bit of an anomaly, because Greek women of myth engage in plenty of infanticide. Ancient Greeks obviously thought of mothers eating children quite separately from other methods of murder. Consider the act of eating one’s child as a kind of inverted birthing. Ownership via incorporation. This idea lingers in modern stories about giants and cannibal fathers.

From the Grimm collection, a good example of child-eating women is Hansel and Gretel. Closely related is Baba Yaga. In these tales, cannibalism symbolises death and resurrection — and a near death experience is a vital part of story structure. It comes at the end of the big struggle stage, right before the anagnorisis.When someone almost eats you, that makes for a pretty good big struggle. Or maybe someone almost eats your children. There’s only one thing worse than someone else eating your children — and that’s being tricked into eating your own children, a la the Juniper Tree tales. Again, though, these women never actually get to eat the children. She is always easily duped. The trickster children get away.

Cannibalism and Sex

Hannibal Lecter is the standout example of cannibal eroticism. But what about in stories for children? Fairytales were not for children until the Grimm brothers bowdlerised them, so bear that in mind. (It was Charles Perrault who introduced the sex-cannibal link to Little Red Riding Hood, in a wry, knowing way.)

Fairytales are about all the various initiation rites, and these rites include sexual intercourse.

The sacred food [of myth] is developed into a magical agent in folktales: bread, milk, honey, apple, beans etc. As compared to myths, folktales have lost their secret sacred meaning. Folktales collected and retold for children have often acquired the opposite meaning. It is therefore necessary to go back to myth to clarity the function of food in fairy tales, often connected with prohibition against incest. Food as a part of a trial appears in many fairy tales; the hero takes food from home when departing on his quest. Many folktales reflect the dream of Cornucopia, described as a magical mill, tablecloth or bag. Food can also be a means of enchantment, when the hero is transformed by eating or drinking something.

Maria Nikolajeva

I believe Nikolajeva is talking about food as cycle of life, which is what Marina Warner was talking about vis a vis The Juniper Tree pattern of tale. Warner also says that in these early myths, cannibalism functions as a motif to dramatize the struggle for survival within the family.

Marina Warner sees cannibalism — overall — as a metaphor for the internal states and private knowledge.

Mythic cannibals who started off as sexually indifferent grew more sexual over time. A good example of that is Polyphemus (the Greek guy with the eye in the middle of his forehead).

The Hierarchy of Cannibals

In fairytale there’s a distinction between eating someone raw or ‘as carrion’. Even better than that, cooking them is the most genteel kind of cannibalism. Sushi is one step down, followed by eating them as carrion, in which you are the worst kind of beast.  (But if you are tricked into eating your own children, you’re absolved, and in fact you’ll get them back and live happily ever after.)

For the word lovers among you:

  • Anthropophage — someone who eats humans
  • Omophage — someone who only eats their own kind. (Well, I guess that’s okay then…)
  • Infantiphage — someone who eats babies

Basically, there’s no sex in traditional children’s literature, so we have lots of food instead.

In The Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature, Maria Nikolajeva describes this function of food in literature by summarising Forster (1985), though numerous others have said similar:

In fiction [food] mainly has a social function; food “draws characters together, but they seldom require it physiologically, seldom enjoy it, and never digest it unless specially asked to do so”. … For all that Forster denies the characters of mainstream fiction the joys of food, they are all the more explicit in children’s fiction. … Food in children’s fiction is the equivalent of sex in the mainstream. Still more important is that for child protagonists, food is the essential link between themselves and the surrounding adults who have the power to provide food or to deny it. Food symbolizes love and care or lack thereof. A number of well-known children’s texts, from Hansel and Gretel to Where The Wild Things Are, rotate around this theme. Last but not least, food in children’s fiction is, much more often than in the mainstream, used for characterisation. James Bond may be characterized through his passion for “shaken, not stirred,” but we are more likely to remember Winnie-the-Pooh through his passion for “hunny”.

Marina Warner has this to say, after describing early childhood games in which the parent pretends to eat the child, or tuck them into bed as if putting them into an oven:

The same impulse can arise in adult love-making, but orality there is not usually accompanied by monster faces or jaw-snapping and munching sounds. In sex, the eating fantasy does not often twist and turn through comic exaggerations and parodic beastliness. As Adam Phillips has commented, ‘If…kissing could be described as aim-inhibited eating, we should also consider the more nonsensical option that eating can also be, as Freud will imply, aim-inhibited kissing.’

The interplay of these two ways of connection sometimes tilts, in the changing representations of poetry, play, images and songs, towards eating, sometimes towards kissing; in today’s climate, the public emphasis falls on food. Food may stand in for sex, the oral gratifications perhaps interchangeable at a psychic level, but in terms of shared, overt expression, the promised satisfactions of food eclipse mutual exchanges of kisses and caresses. And these satisfactions include power over the hungry, control of the consumer.

No Go the Bogeyman

Since sex and death (violence) are intertwined in mainstream stories, it is food and death which are intertwined in stories for children.

Jonah and the Whale
Jonah and the Whale

In traditional (mythic) stories, food has its own particular symbolic function:

Food is an indispensable part of the initiation rite, since it is closely connected to death and resurrection. Death in a rite of passage is often represented by the novice being eaten up by a monster (Jonah and the Whale is an example), which during the rite itself is staged by the novice entering a cave or a hut (for instance the famous Russian hut on chicken legs, inhabited by Baby Yaga). Resurrection is represented by the novice being invited to participate in a meal in the Otherworld, the realm of death. By accepting food from the Otherworld, the hero gains passage into it (the Holy Communion is a remnant of this archaic rite, as is the Jewish Sabbath meal). The Russian folktale hero Ivan replies to Baba Yaga’s threats of eating him up: “What is the good of eating a tired traveller? Let me first have some food and drink and a bath.” He pronounces himself ready to accept witch food and go through a symbolic purification.

From Mythic to Linear: Time In Children’s Literature by Maria Nikolajeva
by Rima Staines
illustration of Baba Yaga by Rima Staines

I’m reminded of Spirited Away, in which Chihiro must eat a berry in order not to disappear. When her parents eat food from this Otherworld, they turn into pigs, becoming part of this Otherworld.

Spirited Away Eating The Berry

FOOD AS A LINK BACK TO THE HOME

When the character of a children’s book departs from home (a necessary part of initiation), food can serve as a link back home. Since food emphasizes affinity, “own” food, food from home is especially important. It is also important that the mother packs the food and, as in folktale, supplies it with her blessing. This security of home, represented by food, is to be found in all types of children’s fiction, including adventure books, where home is treated more like a prison.

from Mythic to Linear: Time In Children’s Literature by Maria Nikolajeva

FOOD AS A TRIAL

Since food from home gives security it can also function as a trial. When protagonists meet other characters, they are often invited to a meal or are encouraged to share their food with strangers, who become friends and helpers. In both cases, shared food is a sign of union. Food becomes a token of belonging together in a quest or struggle, or belonging to a particular group, good or evil. It can also be a passkey into the Otherworld, as in Alice In Wonderland. Finally, it can enchant, corrupt and even destroy.

from Mythic to Linear: Time In Children’s Literature by Maria Nikolajeva
Edmond drinks hot chocolate and eats Turkish delight offered by the evil witch. He is now under her spell.
Edmond drinks hot chocolate and eats Turkish delight offered by the evil witch. He is now under her spell.

…this was enchanted Turkish Delight and…anyone who had once tasted it would want more and more of it, and would even, if they were allowed, go on eating it till they killed themselves.

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe

If that’s not a symbol for the evils of drug addiction, what is? In fact, C.S. Lewis was influenced by The Arabian Nights, in which sherbet and Turkish delight are evil confections. C.S. Lewis himself disliked these foods as a child, which together form his reason for using Turkish delight when painting young Edmond as the Judas of the story.

On the other hand, Lucy has shared food with Mr Tumnus:

During her first stay in Narnia, Lucy is invited to tea with Mr. Tumnus, the faun. He promises her “toast—and sardines—and cake”. Indeed, on the table there is “a nice brown egg, lightly boiled, for each of them” [Nikolajeva explains that during the war, eggs were rationed.] and then buttered toast, and then toast with honey, and then a sugar-topped cake.”

Nikolajeva

Did C.S. Lewis realise that what he was doing was the children’s literature equivalent of sex? Nikolajeva thinks he probably did know, but propriety prevented him from admitting it in his essay “On three ways of writing for children“.

She replied, “No more do I, it bores me to distraction. But it is what the modern child wants.” My other bit of evidence was this. In my own first story I had described at length what I thought a rather fine high tea given by a hospitable faun to the little girl who was my heroine. A man, who has children of his own, said, Ah, I see how you got to that. If you want to please grown-up readers you give them sex, so you thought to yourself, “That won’t do for children, what shall I give them instead? I know! The little blighters like plenty of good eating.” In reality, however, I myself like eating and drinking. I put in what I would have liked to read when I was a child and what I still like reading now that I am in my fifties.

C.S. Lewis

A shared meal—which we all know in its refined form as the Holy Communion—is the foremost symbol for affinity. Lewis was well-acquainted with mythology. The faun is the first person Lucy meets in Narnia. Our previous experience of stories prompts us that food comes from the good. Thus we immediately assume that the faun is a good creature. As it is, it is not totally true, since the faun is running the White Witch’s errand and tries to deceive Lucy. At the same time, the shared meal prevents the faun from turning in Lucy to his ruler. When you have broken bread with someone, you are committed. A shared meal is a covenant.

Nikolajeva

Later, the meal with the Beavers continues the affinity, showing the Beavers are friends.

“I must bring you where we can have ea real talk and also dinner”…everyone…was very glad to hear the word ‘dinner’.

mid_beavers

In The Child That Books Built, Francis Spufford writes of the religiosity of C.S. Lewis, which obviously had an influence on his work:

Lewis took a completely orthodox but rather marginal point of Christian doctrine, and made it central to his belief. It was axiomatic that no sinful act could bring the sinner any substantial reward. You might be tempted by the idea that the sin would bring you a full, overflowing pleasure, but when you actually succumbed, you’d find out that all you got was flat, empty sensation. The apples of Sodom taste of ashes. This happened because sins were parodies, or perversions, of the legitimate pleasures God had ordained for human beings. In that case, reasoned Lewis, if you resisted sins in this life, every pleasure they held out delusively to you now, would be supplied in reality and in overwhelming abundance in the greater life to come. Every pleasure, though we might no longer recognise them as sexual once they have shed their mortal connections with biology.

Now we’re seeing more diverse characters in children’s literature, food is being used in a different way — to bring different cultures together.

Sixth-graders Sara, a Pakistani American, and Elizabeth, a white, Jewish girl meet when they take a South Asian cooking class taught by Sara’s mom.

Sixth-graders Sara and Elizabeth could not be more different. Sara is at a new school that is huge and completely unlike the small Islamic school she used to attend. Elizabeth has her own problems: her British mum has been struggling with depression. The girls meet in an after-school South Asian cooking class, which Elizabeth takes because her mom has stopped cooking, and which Sara, who hates to cook, is forced to attend because her mother is the teacher. The girls form a shaky alliance that gradually deepens, and they make plans to create the most amazing, mouth-watering cross-cultural dish together and win a spot on a local food show. They make good cooking partners … but can they learn to trust each other enough to become true friends?

A lively celebration of food and community from Caldecott Honoree Jillian Tamaki

Tie on your apron! Roll up your sleeves!
Pans are out, oven is hot, the kitchen’s all ready!
Where do we start?

In this lively, rousing picture book from Caldecott Honoree Jillian Tamaki, a crew of resourceful neighbors comes together to prepare a meal for their community. With a garden full of produce, a joyfully chaotic kitchen, and a friendly meal shared at the table, Our Little Kitchen is a celebration of full bellies and looking out for one another. Bonus materials include recipes and an author’s note about the volunteering experience that inspired the book.

BAKHTIN’S MATERIAL BODILY PRINCIPLE

In the book Language and Ideology In Children’s Literature, John Stephens writes of so-called interrogative texts — texts which question authority, and introduces the concept of the material bodily principle:

The interrogative texts of children’s literature allow a significant space for what Bakhtin termed ‘the material bodily principle’ — the human body and its concerns with food and drink (commonly in hyperbolic forms of gluttony and deprivation), sexuality (usually displaced into questions of undress) and excretion (usually displaced into opportunities for getting dirty).

MEALS AS A MEANS OF CIVILIZATION

Stephens continues:

Meals and feasts, for example, are an important part of human culture, and have a unique and significant role in children’s literature. Official meals, that is, meals conducted at times and places determined by adult authority, reinforce the existing patterns of things and social hierarchies, and assert certain values as stable, normal and moral. An early reference in Five Children and It to the children being ‘caught and cleaned for tea’ discloses, despite its jokiness, the prevailing attitude that meals are part of the process whereby children are civilized and socialized in order to take their place in adult society. Katz has observed that the practice of using meals as a measure of a child’s adjustment to the social order is especially pronounced in English children’s literature. The carnivalesque children’s feast — whether ‘midnight feast’ or birthday party or food-fight — celebrates a temporary liberation from official control over the time, place and manner in which food is consumed. In Five Children and It, where food is of central concern to the main characters without being carnivalized, the baby is allowed to be revolting at mealtimes but a somewhat arch distance is maintained when the older children, compelled to eat invisible food, regress to primitive methods.

Five Children and It by E Nesbit book cover
Five Children and It by E Nesbit

THE CONNECTION BETWEEN ANIMALS AND FOOD IN CHILDREN’S STORIES

The focus on animals and their nature may explain a[nother] common feature of children’s texts, especially those intended for younger readers. Their characters are often centrally concerned with questions about food. In well-known fairy tales, Little Red Riding Hood brings food to her grandmother but is threatened with becoming the meal herself, and Hansel and Gretel become possible meals after they nibble parts of the witch’s house. Meanwhile, Peter Rabbit has his dangerous adventure because he can’t resist Mr. McGregor’s vegetables even though his father was made into a pie by Mrs. McGregor. And In Where The Wild Things Are, Max is sent to his room because he threatens to devour his mother, discovers that the Wild Things want to eat him up because they love him, and is drawn back home by the smell of good things to eat.

Eating is less central in longer works of fiction, but it’s still an important subject. For instance, Charlotte’s Web focuses attention on descriptions of Wilbur’s slop. Charlotte’s methods of killing her food, and Templeton the rat’s pleasure in the feast available at the fair.

In these and many other texts, the fact that human beings eat creatures that once lived but were too weak to protect themselves suggests some ambiguity about the degree to which one is a human eater, like one’s parents, or an animal-like food, like the “little lambs” and “little pigs” adults so often tell children they are. The focus on eating raises the question of children’s’ animality in an especially intense way.

The Pleasures of Children’s Literature by Reimer and Nodelman

GASTRONOMIC UTOPIAS

The dream about the Land of Plenty—Cocayne or Schlarafflenland—has haunted humanity for many centuries. One of the earliest literary descriptions of this paradise is to be found in the German Hans Sachs’s verse from mid-16th century. 19th-century German picture books especially depicted travels into elaborate lands of sweets and cakes, with the inevitable didactic consequence of stomach ache.

Twentieth century children’s writers are much more liberal in their Schlaraffenland variations. The most famous contemporary tale of Schlaraffenland is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The title itself may be seen as an allusion to early children’s books about gluttony. As in many such books, the story starts with a description of poverty and hunger. […] The big family does not starve, but “every one of them…went about from morning till night with a horrible empty feeling in their tummies.” […] The description of the Schlaraffenland matches the traditional stories: rivers and waterfalls of hot chooclate, trees and flowers of “soft, minty sugar”, a pink boat made of “an enormous boiled sweet” […] It is almost inevitable to assume that Roald Dahl read a good deal of Schlaraffenland tales as a child.

Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature

See also: The Wind On The Moon for another well-known story of gluttony.

the-wind-on-the-moon
In this story, sickly interest in food is a natural sign of immaturity. The girls are too young to have control over their bodies and still less over their emotional needs.

Wish fulfilment fantasies about food in abundance go back to antiquity.

Food is everywhere in the Bible. From the Forbidden Fruit to the Last Supper and from the Manna in the Desert to the Feeding of the Five Thousand the Good Book is obsessed with diet. It is set in a land of milk and honey but one also faced with famine; a place of feast and fast, of drunkenness and self-denial, and of marvellous showers of bread from the skies and the transformation of water into wine. Sacrificial banquets, with bread, oil, alcohol and meat are offered to the populace, with slices reserved for the priesthood and the choicest cuts saved for the deity. Women do the cooking. Many are honoured with culinary names; that of Rebecca, mother of Joseph, means ‘cow’ and the title of Rachel, matriarch of the Twelve Tribes, can be translated as ‘ewe’.

From The Serpent’s Promise by Steve Jones

HUNGER IN CHILDREN’S STORIES

Nikolajeva explains that children have a subconscious fear of hunger, which can be used to good effect in stories.

Death as such is an abstract notion for most young readers. Hunger on the other hand is something everyone has experience, at least on a very modest scale. To be hungry, not to get food, is a tangible threat. However, it can also be translated into more symbolic notions. Hunger [can be] hunger for love and warmth.

Children of earlier eras were rarely fully satiated. As an example, this is typical food for children in the 1700s, from the menu of a London foundling hospital (orphanage):

  • gruell for breakfast
  • potatoes for lunch
  • milk and bread for supper on Monday
  • milk porridge, boiled mutton and bread on Tuesday
  • broth-rice milk, bread and cheese on Wednesday
  • gruel, boiled pork and bread on Thursday (And this was in pork season).
  • milk porridge, dumplins, milk and bread on Friday
  • Gruell, hasty puddings and bread and cheese on Saturday
  • Broth, Road pork and bread on Sunday (the climax)

This menu is basic, but far better than many children got.

THE IDEOLOGY OF FAMILY MEALTIMES TOGETHER

The overriding image of a happy family round the table has remained static, fixed in the culture, as something that should happen, something that is essential to the wellbeing of the family and the nation. This is prevalent in all kinds of different media. Many Happy Returns of the Day, for example, an iconic Victorian painting (1856) by William Powell Frith, demonstrates the importance of ritual and celebration in family life, gathered together and marking occasions of private meaning. Such imagery plays a crucial part in naturalising the family meal in the same way as certain types of meals or recipes are handed down the generations and thus create tradition, nostalgia and a sense of belonging.

Cowpie, gruel and midnight feasts: food in popular children’s literature

This particular ideology may influence how things work in your own family. This post from advice columnist Captain Awkward highlights the ways in which a family can construct a narrative about What Tight Families Do, and also the problems this can lead to when adult children develop different diets.

If you take a look at various photography projects, like What Dinnertime Looks Like Around The World, you’ll get a more accurate view of how families gather for dinner.

HUNGER AND FOOD AS EMOTIONAL JUXTAPOSITION

Nothing says ‘nonchalant’ like wolfing down food. There’s no better way to make a baddie look truly psychopathic than to put him in a middle of a gruesome scene then have him pick up an apple and eat it. All the normal characters — and perhaps the audience — have churning stomachs. Yet the psychopath in question doesn’t bat an eyelid.

In this case, the juxtaposition is between the horror and the banality of satisfying a literal hunger, at the bottom of the hierarchy of needs. This most literal belly-filling hunger can also serve as a metaphor for other types of hunger: Perhaps the villain has a hunger for killing sprees or blood.

The insertion of food can also be used in different ways in fiction.

FOR COMEDIC EFFECT

‘And I like your shoes.’

He tilted his foot to examine the craftsmanship. ‘Yes. Ducker’s in The Turl. They make a wooden thingy of your foot and keep it on a shelf for ever. Thousands of them down in a basement room, and most of  the people are long dead.’

‘How simply awful.’

‘I’m hungry,’ Pierrot said again.

from Atonement by Ian McEwan

MORE ABOUT FOOD IN FICTION

Food In Science Fiction: In future we will all eat lasers, from NPR

From the gingerbread house to the cornucopia: gastronomic utopia as social critique in Homecoming and The Hunger Games by Sarah Hardstaff

Fictional Characters With Food Issues from Book Riot

Food Riot, their sister website lists The Best Cakes From Children’s Literature. (Contrast this with my post on Stock-Yuck in Picture Books.)

The second half of Episode 61 of Bookrageous is about food in fiction. The hosts make reference to an article called Cooked Books’ which was in the New Yorker a few years ago. The author of that explains that there are four types of food in books.

  1. the writers for whom dishes are essentially interchangeable, mere stops on the ribbon of narrative, signs of life and social transactions rather than specific pleasures
  2. the writers who dish up very particular food to their characters to show who they are. Proust is this kind of writer, and Henry James is, too.
  3. the writers who are so greedy that they go on at length about the things their characters are eating, or are about to eat—serving it in front of us and then snatching it from our mouths
  4. and then there are writers, ever more numerous, who present on the page not just the result but the whole process—not just what people eat but how they make it, exactly how much garlic is chopped, and how, and when it is placed in the pan

Which of these types of food writing is most common in children’s literature? Has this changed over time? Can you think of children’s authors who fit each of the four categories?

FURTHER READING

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Header illustration: A watercolour of a banquet by Carl Larsson

Children’s Literature: How scary is TOO scary?

Writing scary tales for children is difficult, because it has to be interesting without being too scary. How is it done? Where’s the line?

What have storytelling experts said?

I’ve always believed that children, even at a very young age, know their limits, and if a story is too frightening and overwhelms them in some way, they will either fall asleep or walk away.  If you read to your child on a regular basis, it’s easy to navigate this terrain with conversations about each story that help you instinctively calibrate what is appropriate for bedtime reading.  Reading fairy tales may expose children to the dark side, but it also introduces them to survival skills, teaching them to use their heads to outsmart predators.  Shoving the witch into the oven may be a bridge too far, but no reason to be reverent about the words on the page, especially for the younger crowd.

Maria Tatar

People say, ‘Your book keeps giving me chills,’ but I don’t know what that feeling is. Horror always makes me laugh. Normal adult things scare me, but not things from a book or a movie.

R.L. Stine, from an interview with Village Voice

There’s no formula. I think you have to create a very close point of view. You have to be in the eyes of the narrator. Everything that happens, all the smells, all the sounds; then your reader starts to identify with that character and that’s what makes something really scary.

R.L. Stine from an interview with mediabistro.

What’s the difference between a monster movie and a dark fairy tale?

It’s a very, very, very thin difference. I think that horror stories come from fairy tales, in a way. They share a lot of similarities. I think the difference is tonal. You know, the fairy tale contains a lot more elements of magic and whimsy and the the horror story contains a lot more, sort of, almost existential feelings — sort of dread, and ultimately they are similar melodies, played at a very different key.

Guillermo del Toro

Over time, supernatural and horror fiction that has been targeted to children and young adults has become darker. If we look at books from the early 20th century through to the 1950s or 60s, we see books similar to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in their mild handling of frightening characters and scenarios. As we move into the 1970s we start to find horror novels targeted towards young adults. Stephen King’s works Salem’s Lot and Firestarter won the American Library Association’s Best Books for Young Adults award in 1978 and 1981 respectively, showing that children and young adults have been quite willing to read scary literature for some time. Neil Gaiman’s books Coraline and The Graveyard Book are also targeted for the tween audience, and could easily be considered scarier than even these specifically labelled horror books from authors such as King and Dean Koontz. In recent years, it appears clear that more and scarier books are being targeted to the child and young adult audience, and as a result, children are reading scarier books than in the past.

Thomas Pynchon

It is debatable whether or not fear of the unknown is greater than fear of the known, but in childhood so much is unknown that a child, in order to make sense of fear, must isolate and identify it; only the known can be dealt with.

Jan Mark, British Writer

I believe that children should be allowed to feel fear … Walter de la Mare … believed that children were impoverished if they were protected from everything that might frighten them … Once one has answered this basic question … the second problem arises of how it is to be presented. This is really a technical problem which has to be faced by every writer for children.

Catherine Storr, from ‘Things That Go Bump In The Night’ in the Sunday Times Magazine, March 1971

We’re not really being scared by movies at all, at least not in the ‘brain chemistry way’.”

FilmmakerIQ

What Does The Research Say?

The Center for Scholars and Storytellers has come up with seven factors which induce fear in children:

  1. The threatening appearance of a character
  2. A character behaving threateningly
  3. A character children identify with being under threat and helpless
  4. Stories that make children aware, for the first time, of threatening scenarios within their experience
  5. Stories in which safe places are deliberately breached
  6. Music and sound that signify danger
  7. Scenes depicting injury and homicide

Importantly, ‘many programs that most parents and professionals would not consider problematic, induce fear reactions as well – from Disney animated movies to even educational programs. For example, little Dumbo’s trunk reaching out to his caged mother was painful to watch for many children. Similarly, scenes from the classic Wizard of Oz that included the Witch and the monkeys elicited strong fear experiences.’

The researcher recommends content creators and parents offer thrill experiences rather than fear experiences. Unfortunately no further clarification is provided for the word ‘thriller’. I have taken a deep dive into the meaning of thriller and it’s a nebulous term, used differently by storytellers than by marketers.

Whatever is meant by that, most children can’t cope with thrillers until about 7 or 8.

When you were a kid, did you like scary stories?

What about those of you who have kids of your own? Do your kids like scary stories?

Our four-year-old daughter loves the Hayao Miyazaki movies (Studio Ghibli). I’m sure there are many, many reasons for this, but she loves those films partly for the periodic frisson of horror. Her favourite of the lot is Spirited Away, which includes a particularly scary scene in which Chihiro briefly loses sight of her parents, only to come back and find they’ve turned into pigs. This scene haunts and delights our daughter in equal measure. She asks to watch Spirited Away over and over again, and some days she only wants to watch up until the part where the parents turn into pigs (the first inciting incident, as it happens) before turning the DVD off and doing something else. For that reason, I can tell she watches it for the thrill.

She also loves Princess Mononoke. Like Spirited Away, this film has a well-deserved PG rating here in Australia, not least for the ‘monster covered in worms’, as she puts it. You can see a screenshot of that horrible thing on this blogger’s list of Top Ten Movie Monsters. Demon boars deserve their place on that list, though I’m sure Japanese stories could fill a top ten list all on their ownsome. If you’ve never delved into the monsters and demons of Japanese folklore, you’re in for a miserable and thrilling treat. (Who needs Stephen King when you’ve got Wikipedia?) Then, when I look at this seriously unsettling clip from the disturbing new children’s film Toys in the Attic (brought to us via io9), I see that the Czechs have a higher tolerance than we do for scaring the bejeebus out of their children, so maybe we in the West are particularly antsy about what we let our children watch.

I sometimes wonder, though, whether our four-year-old should be watching these films.  She enjoys them, all right. She is mesmerised by them in a way ABC for Kids can’t quite achieve. That said, she also likes eating McDonalds, and I wouldn’t give her unlimited access to that. I’m reluctant to limit her viewing to the bright and cheerful though, for a few reasons.

1. These stories all come good in the end.

At the end of Spirited Away, the parents turn back into people, and Chihiro leaves the spirit world safe and sound, ready to embark on her new life. At the moment when the parents turn back into humans, our daughter rushes in to tell me this, with a big smile on her face. In children’s literature there are rules which don’t necessarily apply to adult literature, and the happy ending is one such rule. (Actually, I’m going to stick to the phrase ‘reassuring ending’. ‘Happy’ can sound trite and cliched.)

2. Children imagine terrible things endogenously.

They don’t need outside media input: children seem universally terrified by the idea of parental abandonment for example, and no one taught babies to cry out of loneliness at night. If anything, stories with reassuring endings might have a healing function rather than a terrorising one. Also, how good are we, really, at predicting what our children are going to find scary? It’s impossible to reimagine any children’s show as horror, even The Magic School Bus.

3. Once we get to a certain age, we know when we’re being (over)protected from the harsh realities of life.

Drawing on my own childhood experience, I was sent to bed to read every night after dinner, so I never viewed TV that was meant for an adult audience. I don’t begrudge this I was allowed to read in bed until much later, and this did wonders for my imaginative life.  But it also meant that the few times I caught a glimpse of adult TV, those scenes became memorable for their rarity.

One Saturday night I must have been up later than usual and I caught the beginning of a horror film before being sent up to bed. The film was probably a terrible 1980s B-grade thing, and I have no idea what it might have been called; I only remember the horrific scene of a child being locked inside a wooden chest in his grandmother’s attic, then etching a cry for help into the wood with his fingernails. That must’ve been the scene that alerted my mother to the inappropriate content, and I was sent to bed at that point, protestations ignored.

Had I watched the movie to its conclusion, it’s likely I’d have been disappointed, because no film lives up to a child’s imaginative world. Instead, I concocted my own events, and even managed to terrorise my younger cousin with that made-up story, because we shared a bedroom over the Christmas holidays and that scene formed the basis of my ghost stories. My cousin still remembers those stories. (I remember those evenings for a different kind of disappointment: Lisa had always fallen asleep before I got to the really scary part.)

So this point is related to my second point: the imaginings of children out-colour much of the media content out there, and certainly out-colours the scariest of the scary stories produced with a child audience in mind. All children are different in this regard, and parents are the best judge of their own children’s scariness thresholds. But there’s a fine line between ‘protective’ and ‘over-protective’. Some commentators argue that some parents are going too far in an attempt to shield their children from anything less than peachy:

‘If it’s true that childhood is a kind of walled garden, then it shouldn’t surprise us that children try to poke through the wall at every chance they get’, writes Kathleen McDonnell in her book Honey, We Lost The Kids: Rethinking Childhood in the multimedia age. ‘If there are secrets, kids will try to uncover them, simply because it’s their nature to want to know. In fact, it’s precisely because this knowledge is kept secret that it becomes so highly charged for kids. The forbidden fruit is invariably the most appealing.’

  1. The Most Unintentionally Terrifying Movies Of All Time, from io9
  2. 22 Incredibly Creepy Toys, from Buzzfeed. I don’t care what it is, if it’s got those shutting and opening eyes with stiff black lashes on it, it’s creepy. (Those Jolly Chimps come a close second, and I drew one in The Artifacts. Did you see it?)
  3. This limbless amphibian family discovered in India is pretty scary. But then I don’t like diaphanous life forms in general.
  4. Someone’s list of scariest movies, on IMDB. I haven’t seen all of the films on this list, but the ones I have seen are super spooky!
  5. The Earth Might Have A “Pulse” Which Causes Extinctions Every 60 Million Years, from io9
  6. The World’s Largest Rodent on Wikipedia I wouldn’t want to feel this massive thing swimming between my ankles in any dogdamn South American waterhole. It’s a lot less cute when you know it’s a rodent though, no? Otherwise it might pass for a catdog.
  7. The Spooky TV Movie That Caused Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, from io9 (the website of many spooky things).
  8. A list of the 8 Scariest Places On Earth. The closest to me is Victoria’s Beechworth Lunatic Asylum. I intend to pay a visit someday, since I somehow forgot to visit when I actually lived in Victoria.
  9. I think all ice-cream vans play scary music, but this one on YouTube is pretty darn scary indeed.
  10. The Most Disturbing Books Of All Time from Pop Crunch
  11. 5 Scary Reads from To Be Read Blog
  12. Watch a GIF of The Joker applying lipstick
  13. An incredibly simple horror short to make you afraid of the dark, shared by io9
  14. This ‘Goodnight Moon’ Remake Will Ruin Your Favorite Children’s Book from Mashable
  15. The Bloodlines series from Wired breaks down what exactly it is that makes a movie scary.
  16. Scaryish Stories (for Halloween) from Imagination Soup
  17. Terrifying macro pictures of polychaetes or bristle worms from The Telegraph
  18. Top 10 Scariest Monsters in Children’s Books according to Smashing Lists
  19. Monsters Inked from Teach With Picture Books, in which teachers are provided with some great classroom ideas.
  20. Terrifying French Children’s Books from The Guardian
  21. 10 Terrifying Children’s Books from around the world, collected by Oh No They Didn’t
  22. 9 Unintentionally Terrifying Children’s Books from Flavorwire
  23. 8 Disney Movie Scenes I Refuse To Show My Daughter from Mommyish
  24. Fairytales too scary for modern children, say parents, from The Telegraph
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