A ‘chosen one’ story stars a main character who is basically ordinary, but because of their bloodline, they are destined for great things. Harry Potter is the iconic example of a contemporary chosen one story. Harry Potter comes after a long tradition.
WHAT DOES SCIENCE SAY ABOUT THE IMPORTANCE OF BLOODLINE?
When we talk about blood we’re of course talking about genetics. We didn’t know this until recently, though scientists had a sense there was some kind of particle which passed traits on.
The 20th century gave us the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate, but anyone who still thinks in those terms is making a folk distinction. Scientists working in genetics today don’t think in those terms at all because, basically, it’s all circular. We now know that environment influences gene expression. Now we know how little we actually know about genes. Sean Carroll describes our early thinking on DNA, once we had a name for it, then goes on to describe how much more complicated it is than that:
If you knew what the DNA was you could predict exactly what the organism was going to be, maybe what kind of food they would like or what kind of occupation they would have later in life. Today we know it’s a little bit more complicated than that. There’s more going on than just our DNA to make up who we are, not only nature versus nurture but even the nature part is very complicated. There’s epigenetics and development factors. There’s mitochondrial DNA. There’s the expression of the different parts of the genes that we have, and so we’re in a very, very rapid state of evolution, as it were, in terms of how we think in terms of how heredity works.
Separately, I heard another geneticist talking in an interview. I don’t remember who it was or what they were talking about exactly, but one thing stuck in my mind: Geneticists, as a group, don’t tend to be all that interested in ancestry. You won’t find geneticists avidly researching their own family trees. They don’t hang out on the forums of Ancestry.com. That’s a separate interest altogether. Conversely, an interest in genetics seems to make you less interested in where you personally came from, partly because your greater understanding of genetics shows you that we’re all related in one giant web. It seems the story of our collective DNA is far more interesting than any individual’s bloodline.
Maybe we should all get PhDs in genetics and we’ll get some world peace?
Especially in kids’ literature … there’s a trend towards unhappily adopted orphan heroes, as we’ll all know, who are lifted from the abuse/poverty/hilariously wonky living conditions they’re in by discovering that their parents were secretly wizards, or royalty, or holders of some great destiny that Our Hero is now tasked to take up. The truth of their bloodline saves the day, and you can dream of a giant busting through your door declaring “Yer a wizard” and scooping you off into the adventure you were destined for, away from your mundane and terrible home life.
Gothic horror is also known as gothic fiction. This refers to a type of story with a combination of horror, death and romance. The characters generally get caught up in paranormal schemes. The victim of these schemes is normally an innocent and helpless female character. In some instances, supernatural features such as vampires and werewolves are later explained in perfectly natural terms, but in other works they remain completely inexplicable.
Its origin is attributed to English author Horace Walpole, with his 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto, subtitled (in its second edition) “A Gothic Story.” It originated in England in the second half of the 18th century. Only in the late 1790s did “Gothic” take on some of the meanings we most frequently associate with it today: Gothic as synonym for grotesque, ghastly and violently superhuman.
The Gothic continued with much success in the 19th century, with the popularity of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Another well known novel in this genre, dating from the late Victorian era, is Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
The height of the Gothic period is closely aligned with Romanticism (1764-1840).
The word Gothic also refers to the (pseudo)-medieval buildings, emulating Gothic architecture, in which many of these stories take place.
When the Gothic was emerging as an important genre in its own right, medical science was just starting to replace the mystery of the female body with scientific facts. Hysteria was the dominant response to sexual confusion and abuse. Cultural codes were still writing marriage as a loss of power and autonomous identity for women. Pregnancy and childbirth were downright dangerous, messy and awful. Today things are a bit different: We understand (basically) how the body works. We know that hysteria is actually depression. Women are brought up to believe we can have it all (itself a kind of fairytale). But the Gothic ideas are still recognisable to modern readers.
Gothic motifs change rapidly and consistently, both in form and in significance. It all depends on what is feared and valued at any given time. The Gothic genre is especially responsive to historical moment and cultural location.
These days, readers are unwilling to unilaterally assign blame. Even in children’s literature, villains are more complex. They are not inherently evil, but behave badly as a result of their environment. The innocent victims, too, are afforded some dignity in that they are assumed to have some part in their own predicament. In other words, modern victims have a psychological and moral weakness, whereas earlier victims were more ‘victim-y’ and more boring as heroes, to be fair.
Modern gothic stories don’t seek to expel the evil completely, but rather to accommodate it and give it its own space. Modern gothic stories are about finding some sort of middle ground.
The teacher archetype is related to the traditional ‘wise old man’ and ‘wise old woman’ archetype seen in many older stories. The teacher is the modern equivalent of these people, dishing out advice to help the protagonist get through the story. Teachers can be mentors, opponents, fake opponents, or very much background characters. In YA, teachers can also be love opponents. Continue reading “Teachers In Children’s Literature”
There’s a strange feminine bonding ritual I was determined not to pass on to my daughter. It is the supposed camaraderie of women criticising their bodies to one another while exchanging diet tips. I made a rule for myself never to expose my children to conversations like these. I’m not immune to moments of discomfort with my body as it ages but I process those thoughts alone and, in the course of following my rule I’ve actually found my own body image has improved.
First, a disclaimer because I am not a YA hater: There is a lot of great YA fiction.
Then there’s another kind of YA literature, heavily marketed at adolescent girls. Much of this is extremely popular and widely enjoyed. I’m not disputing that.
I’m talking about a subcategory of indulgent proto-chick-lit, whose main characters are pseudo-kiss-ass girls, but who pedal several scary ideas about Beauty:
Rule 1. Heroines are Beautiful
For a definition of Beauty, I am not talking about the kind of beauty which is common to young, healthy people. I mean the capitalised “Beauty” found inside speech marks: the Naomi Wolf sense of the word — that which is held up as a platonic ideal in Western culture, and which only a small number of women can ever achieve.
A modern YA heroine is indeed allowed to look ‘average’, but her lack of Beauty is so often not the case. So often, the character undergoes a makeover. The implicit message of a makeover plot: It’s not okay to remain your original ugly self.
The Makeover Trope and Attempts at Subversion
There is immense, deep-seated appeal for the makeover fantasy. There must be, because a lot of really old fairy tales are based around the makeover plot. Cinderella is the standout example. The Ugly Duckling is a variation on that, written by Hans Christian Andersen. There are many lesser known tales about beautiful princesses hiding out as ordinary folk. Take the princess of “All Fur”, who covers her beauty with soot, is taken into the woods, captured and required to labour hard as a kitchen hand until one night there is a ball at the castle, she washes the soot off and reveals her shining, glowing self. She marries the prince and lives happily ever after.
The Emma Watson remake of Beauty and the Beast attempts to subvert all kinds of problematic tropes but ends up face-planting:
[T]he trope of transformation – girl in rags trussed up in finery by supernatural cupboards or birds or whatnot – is subverted, as Belle finds herself encased in silks, only to liberate herself immediately after a defiant: “I’m not a princess.” However, for the climactic ballroom scene, she is transformed with a pretty dress. So it smacks of that tinny, 1990s inconsistency: rebelliously rejecting frilly conformity one minute, wallowing in it the next. I did, however, like the accent on her bravery, even if her only weapon of any efficacy was a kiss.
Makeovers are hardly limited to young adult stories. The basic plot of All Fur was utilised by Julian Fellowes in Downton Abbey, when the riches to rags cousin comes to live at the Abbey and disguises herself as a kitchen hand. When she attracts the interest of someone outside her station, this causes problems. Why did she attract such attention so quickly? Because she’s beautiful, like a princess.
Take Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games, a tomboyish, muscular, kick-ass girl. Yet when she gets her makeover scene – right before the hunger games, it turns out she was a Beautiful girl after all, hidden under ordinary garb.
Glasses don’t make a Beautiful girl any less Beautiful. But in fiction, take off the glasses and reveal a girl’s beauty. Glasses are the fairytale equivalent of soot on the face. The glasses reveal is satirised by Natalie Tran at her youtube Community Channel.
Perhaps more damaging, especially for Beautiful girls, is the idea that beauty is the one real thing you have, and that ‘being’ is more important than ‘doing’. Caitlin Moran summarises her own teenaged self succinctly when she writes:
As it turned out, almost every notion I had on my 13th birthday about my future turned out to be a total waste of my time. When I thought of myself as an adult, all I could imagine was someone thin, and smooth, and calm, to whom things… happened. Some kind of souped-up princess, with a credit card. I didn’t have any notion about self-development, or following my interests, or learning life’s big lessons, or, most importantly, finding out what I was good at, and trying to earn a living from it. I presumed that these were all things that some grown-ups would come along and basically tell me what to do at some point, and that I shouldn’t really worry about them. I didn’t worry about what I was going to do.
What I did worry about, and thought I should work hard at, was what I should be, instead. I thought all my efforts should be concentrated on being fabulous, rather than doing fabulous things. I thought my big tasks were discovering my ‘Love Style’ via questionnaires in Cosmopolitan, assembling a capsule wardrobe, learning how to go from day to night with the application of heels and lipstick, finding a signature perfume, planning when to have a baby, and learning how to be mesmerically sexually proficient – but without getting a reputation as a total slag.
– Catilin Moran, How To Be A Woman
Rule 2. Heroines obsesss over physical insecurities
Heroines are far more likely to worry about their Beauty than about their brains. The more beautiful a heroine, the more insecurities she must harbour. This echoes real life.
We might call this the One Direction brand of beauty. You’re only beautiful when you don’t know you’re beautiful. Knowing it automatically disqualifies one from the category.
Rule 3. Other characters will respond positively to a heroine’s physical beauty
…even if the heroine doesn’t realise she’s Beautiful. Especially if she doesn’t realise she’s Beautiful. So many heroines don’t think they are attractive to others, even when the reactions of others – namely boys – show that others obviously don’t think so.
This is an especially dangerous interplay, because on the surface it doesn’t seem wrong. An optimist might say of such storylines, ‘Well, Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It’s entirely possible that a heroine does not fit the Western Beauty Ideal, and that other characters are responding to her inner beauty instead.’
I’m no optimist, because I don’t think that’s how it’s interpreted by adolescent girls. You see, in their lives, they know damn well it’s the Beautiful girls who do get the attention, and you can’t easily change their minds about this, especially when they go to watch the movie adaptations of stories about ‘average’ looking girls in books.
It’s significant that the movie adaptations of ‘average’ looking characters such as Mia, from The Princess Diaries, are portrayed on the big screen by the Ann Hathaways of this world, and the Hermiones by the Emma Watsons.
This sampling is by no means broad, but I did pick it off a shelf sort of at random – based on the fact that I’d heard of these books before.
First, the opening of the All New Nancy Drew, #9 of a series. It is called Secret of the Spa. This is a New York Times Best Selling Series, according to its cover, and was published 2005. I would like to draw your attention to the amount of airspace devoted to Beauty. (Bold, mine.)
“Nancy? Nancy? Earth to Nancy Drew!”
I blinked, snapping out of a daydream as I picked at some lint in my bedroom carpet. “Sorry, Bess,” I said, swallowing a yawn. “What were you saying?”
Bess Marvin, one of my best friends, dipped her nail polish wand into the bottle of pink liquid on the desk in front of her and studied me. She propped one bare foot on the edge of my desk.
“Weren’t you listening to what I just said, Nancy?” she demanded.
My other best friend, George Fayne, smirked and rolled over on my bed. “Poor Nancy had probably passed out from the nail polish fumes.” George waved one hand in front of her face and wrinkled her nose.
Bess rolled her eyes. Even though she and George are cousins, they couldn’t be more different. If Bess is everyone’s idea of the perfect girl, with her blond hair and pretty, feminine dresses, George defines the word tomboy. She keeps her dark hair cropped short — wash-‘n-wear hair, as she calls it — and lives in jeans and sneakers.
I fall somewhere in the middle of the two of them. I’m nowhere near as interested in clothes and makeup as Bess — I’m lucky if I remember to dab on a little lip gloss most days. And I occasionally might even forget to comb my hair before leaving the house. On the other hand I don’t mind doing a little shopping now and then, or putting on a pretty skirt and some makeup for a special date with my boyfriend, Ned.
Somehow, though, despite all our differences, our three-way friendship works. George and I do our best to tolerate Bess’s incurable love of clothes, Bess and I try to look interested when George starts rambling on about the latest computer gadget she wants to buy, and the two of them are always ready to help out with my own favorite hobby — solving mysteries.
What are girl readers to think, when the most important thing about Nancy Drew and her friends is the way they look and dress? I’ve quoted from the opening passage, which is significant, because the underlying message is clear: Nancy Drew may be an intelligent, shrewd detective, an improbable role-model with many talents, but the most important thing you must know — before you know ANYTHING else, is that Nancy Drew is sort of interested in clothes but not enough to make her one of THOSE girls, all beauty an no brains, but not tomboyish enough to make her a proto-Lesbian called George — strangely reminiscent of a character in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series.
On my own bookshelf, I also have one of the 1970s wave of Nancy Drew mysteries. Here is the opening to The Mystery of the Fire Dragon (1973):
“What else does Ned say, Nancy?” Mr Drew asked. He was listening intently to a letter his daughter was reading.
“Ned likes being a college exchange student in Hong Kong, and he has actually learned to speak some Cantonese, Dad!”
“Excellent. That, together with his study of Chinese culture, should make him very valuable in a number of fields,” Mr Drew commented.
Nancy nodded. “He’d like to go into the United States Intelligence Service.” Suddenly her serious mood changed. “Dad, listen to this.” She read, ” ‘Nancy, can’t you find a mystery to solve in this far-off colony, so I might show you around?'”
Mr Drew’s eyes twinkled. “Mystery or no mystery, Nancy, you just might get to Hong Kong sooner than you think!”
“What!” the attractive blue-eyed girl exclaimed. “You mean–?”
Before Nancy could finish the question, the telephone rang and she went to answer it.
“Aunt Eloise!” Nancy cried out. “How super to hear from you! Are you in New York?”
“Yes, right in my apartment. I want you to rush here. A most peculiar thing has happened. A real mystery for you to solve.”
The young blonde detective was intrigued and could hardly wait to get the details from her aunt.
As you can see, it was important in 1973 that Nancy Drew was ‘attractive’. We can’t have a YA heroine who isn’t attracive – not in 1973 and not now.
In 1973, it was also significant that Nancy Drew’s hair was blonde and that she had blue eyes, and I do believe race relations have improved since then. (A bit. Thanks to Oprah et al.)
But has feminism done its job? I don’t think so. In the 1973 version, the book opens at least with a functional conversation between Nancy and her father. The reader is plunged straight into the action of the story, which suggests the story itself — what Nancy does, rather than what she looks like — will be the most important thing about her.
In the 2005 version, Nancy’s main concern is how she looks for her boyfriend: “I don’t mind doing a little shopping now and then, or putting on a pretty skirt and some makeup for a special date with my boyfriend, Ned.’
I find that sentence pretty offensive, myself, especially in a best selling story published 2005. I prefer that the 1970s version opens with a conversation between Nancy and her father. Perhaps more girls had great relationships with their fathers back in the 1970s. I do wonder.
Just in case I picked an especially bad example from the All New Nancy Drew Series, I picked another at random. This one is called Mardi Gras Masquerade, published 2008, and it opens like this:
“Ow!” I shrieked. “You’re killing me!”
“Chill out, Nancy.” My friend Bess Marvin tugged at the zipper on the back of my dress. “Now, hold your breath.”
I sucked in my stomach. Bess gave one last yank, and the zipper slid up without pinching any more skin.
Exhaling a sigh of relief, I turned toward the full-length mirror in the corner of my bedroom.
“Okay,” I said, surveying my reflection. “That was worth it. This dress is totally amazing.”
Bess came over and stood beside me. “We could both pass for Mardi Gras queens,” she said with a smile.
Blech. The not-so-sub subtext reads: It doesn’t matter how brilliant a girl is at solving mysteries, women must suffer to look good. Even if she exudes the natural beauty of youth, she must suck in her stomach and put on a pretty dress. Only then may she look in the mirror and be pleased with what she sees.
And what about that last line? Is that a wink-wink to any adult readers, hinting at some sort of lesbian relationship between Nancy and her friend? Is the ghost writer of this series a man, by any chance? I’m seeing a flamboyant gay queen, myself, who fancies he identifies with adolescent girls.
This time I give excerpts, all from the first few pages:
Page 1 I’m practically the biggest freak in the entire school. I mean let’s face it: I’m five foot nine, flat-chested and a freshman. How much more of a freak could I be?
P3 The truth is, when he’s away from Lana and all his jock friends, Josh is a totally different person. The kind of person who doesn’t care if a girl is flat-chested or wears size eight shoes.
[Here we have the first mention of our protagonist’s major insecurities. Ok. Fine. I accept that this is to help ordinary teenage girls identify with Mia. After all, every girl has to have something physically wrong with her. It’s a Western Beauty rule.]
P4 [on a to-do list] Number ten: measure chest
P5 …then Lana Weinberger made that sound she always makes and leaned over to me so that all her blonde hair swished onto my desk. I got hit by this giant wave of perfume and then Lana hissed in this really mean voice… I don’t understand what Josh Richter sees in her. I mean yeah, she’s pretty. But she’s so mean. Doesn’t she notice?
[Here we go, is this the set-up of the classic beautiful but nasty character? Please, please tell me it’s not. Because beautiful girls who KNOW they’re beautiful have to be nasty, right? That’s another rule about Beautiful girls in YA chick lit. If they’re too Beautiful — and know it — then they are mean.]
Still on p5: Today I noticed that Mr Gianini’s nostrils stick out. A LOT. Why would you want to go out with a guy whose nostrils stick out so much?
[Of course, when girls are encouraged to spend so much time obsessing over their own looks, they’re not going to turn off their criticism when judging other people, including their teachers and mothers’ boyfriends.]
Okay, I haven’t read on. I find this a little painful, to be honest but to give this hugely popular series the benefit of the doubt, I assume some sort of character arc takes place throughout this novel, and that by the end of it, the Princess is feeling far more secure about her own looks. So I skip to the next book in the series and open it up.
Here’s what I find:
THE PRINCESS DIARIES TAKE TWO
P1 [The very first paragraph includes a beauty judgment:] OK. So I was just in the kitchen, eating cereal – you know, the usual Monday morning routine – when my mom comes out of the bathroom with this funny look on her face. I mean she was all pale and her hair was sticking out and she had on her terry cloth robe instead of her kimono which usually means she’s premenstrual.
So I was all, ‘Mom, you want some aspirin? Because no offence but you look like you could use some.’
[While I have had a bit to do with teenage girls and recognise the sarcastic voice, I am tiring of it a little. In general. Hell, no wonder our girls are so proficient at it! It’s already a bad idea, the way our society is set up, to stick a whole lot of teenagers of the same age together in a year group and have them spend all day in each other’s company, making each other more homogeneous. It is surely a truism that when you’re surrounded by a certain culture all day, you tend to absorb the ideas purported by that culture. When adolescent girls are constantly bombarded with Beauty talk, is it any wonder that neurosis over their looks is taken as a universal given during the teenage years? It is not for YA authors to write didactic sap and get preachy. Yet I wonder, where exactly does author responsibility begin and end? I’m talking here about the responsibility to send affirming messages, rather than simply milking the widespread insecurities of readers, as a cheap — and very effective — means of creating instant reader identification.]
P2: [Another list, this time of her biggest problems:] I am the tallest girl in the freshman class. I am also the least endowed in the chest area. (Number seven is: I don’t have a boyfriend.)
[I’m sorry, but in the scheme of things these are not big problems. While I can see, from my adult perspective, the white middle-class irony of this, I’m not altogether convinced it’s HELPFUL, including such things in a list of massive problems. On the other hand, Beauty is so important in our culture (Western culture, and every country affected by the West) that for girls with small breasts, indeed, this insecurity is felt keenly.]
P4: I can’t help staring at Mr G and wondering what my new baby brother or sister is going to look like. My mom is totally hot, like Carmen Sandiego, only without the trenchcoat – further proof that I am a biological anomaly, since I inherited neither my mother’s thick curly black hair nor her C-cup. So there’s nothing to worry about there.
[Still rambling on about looks. Have you noticed we’re still on page four? This book has wide margins, by the way, and the sheer amount of space spent on criticising looks – both her own and those of others – is worrisome. And typical of YA fiction aimed solely at girls.]
But Mr G, I just don’t know. Not that Mr G isn’t good looking. I guess. I mean, he’s tall and has all his hair (score one for Mr G, since my dad’s bald as a parking meter). But what is with his nostrils? I totally can’t figure it out. They are just so… big.
I sincerely hope the kid gets my mom’s nostrils and Mr G’s ability to divide fractions in his head.’
[Finally, the scrutiny of looks comes to a temporary end. Next chapter.]
P7 [Description of self.] Sex: Haven’t had it yet. Ha ha, just kidding Mrs Spears! Ostensibly female but lack of breast size lends disturbing androgeny. Description: Five foot nine. Short mouse brown hair. (new blonde highlights) grey eyes, size eight shoe.
[‘ostensibly female’… There is nothing in here to reassure any small-breasted girl reading this book that actually, owning small mammaries does not make her any less of a woman. Can someone who has read this entire series kindly let me know if there is EVER any clarification of this point? I believe the male equivalent is worrying about penis size? Yet I don’t see endless rambling in YA fiction about that sort of insecurity. Boys, unlike girls, are not having it shoved in their faces when they pick up a popular YA novel. For boys, novels — as opposed to the screen — are one welcome respite from the world where Beauty is all. What about our girls?]
So should I read on? Princess Mia is hardly an example of a strong female character, though I have heard her described as such. She is positively neurotic about two things – her lack of breasts and her height. At what point should this character stop reflecting the real-life neuroses of teenage girls, because all this emphasis on looks is actually INFLUENCING the young female audience? I remember this time in my life. I know how obsessed girls get over their looks, and how scathing they can be of other people’s.
If this is what they’re reading, then no wonder.
THE SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS BY ANN BRASHARES
(How much did Levis pay for that product placement?)
The first chapter consists entirely of a group of teenage girls trying on jeans, obsessing about the size of their backsides and being magically transformed by a pair of pants.
Here are some excerpts:
Carmen glanced at the structured canvas bag splayed wantonly in the middle of her bed. Suddenly she wished she had all-new underwear. Her best satin pair was sprouting tiny ropes of elastic from the waistband.
[How terrible for her.]
“Don’t you think you should try [the jeans] on?” Lena asked practically. “If they fit Carmen, they aren’t going to fit you.”
Carmen and Tibby both glared at Lena, not sure who should take more offence.
[Does this sort of interaction in books reflect real life cattiness, or does it encourage it? I think it’s a matter of balance, and I believe the balance in this particular YA fiction goes too far. Do teenage girls themselves not tire of this constant bitchiness in books?]
Tibby had narrow hips and long legs for her small frame. The pants fell below her waist, hugging her hips intimately. They revealed a white strip of flat stomach, a nice inny belly button.
[We get a run-down of the ‘physical highlights’ of each character in this first chapter, in the same way pay-TV makeover programs such as What Not To Wear’ go out of their way to highlight ‘positive’ features and ‘minimise’ negative ones. The message here is that ‘All bodies are beautiful.’ But what’s the other message? That the cut of the jeans performs some sort of magic trick, all in aid of making the girls look more like that one Western Beauty Standard. Can anyone else not see the irony in this message? Note how the phrase ‘a nice inny belly button’ is not simply a reflection of this character’s attributes – the author may as well say ‘inny belly buttons are more beautiful than outty ones’, thereby influencing the Beauty ethos in Western culture. Why not just stay out of it?]
I wonder if the lives of these characters are going to change because the pants make them look better. Nothing can make me read on.
Then I picked up Knocked Out By My Nunga-Nungas, where we’re on to page two before the first application of mascara and dissing of an ‘unattractive’ (lesbian) PE teacher.
I can hardly talk about influential YA heroines without a passing mention of Isabella Swan.
These days it’s hardly worth making a distinction between a ‘character as portrayed in a popular novel’ and the ‘actress who plays her on the screen’. However, I won’t make any comments about Kristin Stewart, apart from to say that she is obviously inoffensive to the eye.
In the books, Stephanie Meyer goes out of her way to stress that Bella does not consider herself attractive. Of course she doesn’t. There’s no better way to create reader identification with teenage girls than by creating a main character who is insecure about her looks. Girls are cultured into finding something wrong with our bodies. It’s a rule. The more closely a girl fits society’s image of Beauty, the more effort she must go to in order to deny it. Say it often enough, and beautiful girls — in real life, as well as in Twilight — actually don’t see the Beauty that they do have.
This is a great shame.
Is it possible for a YA heroine to be at least ambivalent about her own appearance, by not really mentioning it at all?
Is it possible to write a YA heroine in which other characters respond to her brains, her wit, kindness or cunning, in the same way that other characters respond to Harry Potter; to the boy characters portrayed in Paul Jennings, Andy Griffiths and Morris Gleitzman’s books, and any number of mystery/detective novels aimed at YA boys, in which little to no mention is made of their looks?
Then we’ve got another subcategory of YA novels which do, indeed, follow the lives of teens who are not even close to the Western model of Beauty. In this case, the hero(ine) is not a beautiful character, but there’s hardly any question why: The theme requires it. The message in the best of these is that you can lead a full and rewarding life, including boyfriends and girlfriends, no matter what you look like.
I’m talking about:
Cookie by Jacqueline Wilson, in which the heroine is overweight. The main story is about how how Cookie and her mother might escape her father, but weight is hardly a non-issue, as it might be in an ideal world where YA Beauty were less important.
The DUFF by Kody Keplinger (in which DUFF stands for ‘Designated Ugly Fat Friend’)
Uglies by Scott Westerfield
Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher
Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green & David Levithan, discussed very intelligently (as ever) on Radio New Zealand by the wonderful Kate de Goldi.
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
I would love my daughter to be reading books in which Beauty is a non-issue, but unless there is a shift in YA publishing in the next ten years, I’ll be steering her towards books such as above.
I have met parents who would have been happy if their daughters were reading anything at all, including Dolly and Girlfriend magazines. I’ve met girls who read nothing but this kind of thing, and novelised versions of it, and I do think YA literature is influential in forming girls’ self-image, along with the combined influence of peers, parents, teachers, advertisements, TV series, movies, magazines and everything else that makes up this thing called Culture.
I do think adults need to look carefully at the books being marketed to the YA girls in our lives. It would be easy to gift an All New Nancy Drew and assume a strong, if old-fashioned, role model.
I don’t think that YA proto-chick-lit is quite the same as chick-lit aimed at 20-something women. Grown women are able to see the spoofy nature of female insecurities in a way that adolescent girls cannot. I’m not having a go at chick lit here. There are plenty of others who’ll do that.
It’s not just proto-chicklit fiction which does this, anyway. Take a horror story – sort of Twilight, but from when I was at school:
She had bought a new bathing suit for the party. To compete with Clair, however, she should have purchased breast implants.
[This may be thought in jest, but unfortunately it goes unchallenged.]
She couldn’t wait to see the rest of that hard body. She was already investigating types of contraceptives…But there was still that big question – when Bill asked her out. When was that going to be?
[This girl is one of the ‘tough’ characters in the story, who’s not afraid to snub her nose at authority. She knows she wants sex, and will even organise contraception, but she still has to wait for the boy to ask her out.]
– Christopher Pike, The Party (1988)
Girls are particularly vulnerable to the idea that Beauty is All, which is pedalled, sometimes overtly, more often covertly, in much of the literature milking their dollar, in the same way those Dolly magazines milk them, exploiting their insecurities, stroking their egos with one hand and slapping them down with the other.
Aerie, the lingerie brand of American Eagle, increased its sales by 26 percent in the last quarter of 2015 primarily on the strength of its“#AerieReal” campaign, which eschews Photoshop and employs models of a slightly larger size — and is described as “empowering” as if by legal mandate. Dove, the Patient Zero of empowerment marketing, has lifted its sales to the tune of $1.5 billion with its “#RealBeauty” campaign, cooked up by executives who noticed that few women like to call themselves beautiful and saw in that tragic modesty a great opportunity to raise the profile of the Dove brand.
— How Empowerment Became Something For Women To Buy
Utopian stories are those which create a myth of childhood by describing it as a Golden Age.
Depictions of utopia have a long history. Medieval comic genres depicted worlds of abundance and enjoyment, at least for the male characters.
FEATURES OF UTOPIAN CHILDREN’S STORIES
Maria Nikolajeva lists the main qualities of the Utopian category that most researchers agree upon in her book From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature:
the importance of a particular setting
autonomy of felicitous space from the rest of the world
a general sense of harmony
a special significance of home
absence of the repressive aspects of civilisation such as money, labor, law or government
absence of death and sexuality
and finally, as a result, a general sense of innocence
Utopian stories tend to be set in the country and the weather is usually sunny and temperate, unless there’s a storm to symbolise someone’s state of emotion (pathetic fallacy). The setting is often secluded/walled, and this wall provides both security and restriction to push back against. Inside the boundary is the world of the child; outside is the adult world. Characters/readers never worry about where food comes from (there is an inexhaustible supply); same for money. Death and sexuality are entirely absent. In The Wind In The Willows, every single character is male; in Little Women, the story is heavily female. In a pre-homosexual time (ie. where the concept doesn’t exist for children) sexuality therefore never crops up. In general, this is a time of innocence, where characters are oblivious to world politics, intellectual debate and so on.
In utopian fiction there is a transformation of a spatial concept, like a garden, into a temporal state, childhood.
Readers often assume that each worthwhile story or poem is separate and unique, something that either emerges exclusively from one person’s individual creativity or has been inspired by forces beyond mere human knowledge–a “muse”, perhaps. And certainly, every interesting literary text does express the unique combination of cultural and other forces that make up the imagination of its writer. But writers have repertoires and work from their knowledge of previous texts just as much as readers do. The idea of a story about a detective figuring out which suspect committed a crime doesn’t occur independently to each person who writes a mystery novel. Most mystery writers have read many such texts before deciding to create their own.
– The Pleasures Of Children’s Literature, Nodelman and Reimer
It’s no secret that the success of Harry Potter is a big secret. In other words, no one really knows why it became so popular. HP Fans will of course say that it’s because the books are so good, but widely-read specialists of children’s literature don’t fully accept this reason, because Harry Potter contains nothing that was really new or ground-breaking. The Harry Potter stories are good, solid stories (an ‘enjoyable romp’ according to Kirkus), and no better or worse than many similar tales that came before (and after) it.
Indeed, the stories share qualities with much other children’s fiction. Harry Potter himself is an orphan who, to begin with, lives with rigidly conventional people who are nasty to him–just as child heroes of children’s fiction have been orphaned and misunderstood throughout the history of children’s literature.
The tone of the Potter books, a blend of comedy and melodrama, share’s much with Dahl’s writing in Matilda and in books such as James and the Giant Peachand Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. As stories set in a school, meanwhile, the Potter books reproduce the typical conventions of boarding school stories, particularly as represented in British boarding school stories from Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays to Frank Richards’s Billy Bunter series: characters of fairly stereotypical types and backgrounds indulging in hijinks, practical jokes, and sporting competitions.
In this case, the novels are fantasies rather than realistic fiction, and the school trains witches and wizards. But that also happens in Ursula Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea and Diana Wynne Jones’s Chrestomanci books. [I would add Jill Murphy’s Worst Witch stories.] Furthermore, many other fantasy series share the Potter books’ emphasis on characters maturing into a growing understanding of of their own powers and of the nature of good and evil through contact with unusual beings, not all of them human: not only Le Guin’s Earthsea books but also C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series, Susan Cooper’s Dark Is Rising series, Monica Hughes’s Isis series, and Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series (which also shares some of the Potter books’ breezy comedy). Like these series, also, the Potter books seem to be heading toward a climactic confrontation between a young protagonist and someone or something powerful, adult, and intensely evil. [Nodelman and Reimer wrote this in the early 2000s — they were right!] Different versions of this plot operate in recent critical successes within the filed of children’s literature such as Philip Pullman’s Golden Compass and Lowry’s The Giver and Gathering Blue, and also in Kristina Applegate’s popular Animorphs series.
Nodelman and Reimer dismiss also the possibility that the Harry Potter books were expertly marketed, because in fact they were marketed no differently from any other book from the same publisher. They posit that the HP books are so successful precisely because they are a perfect blend of what has come before. As John Truby says of screenwriting, blending genres is the hardest thing to do. Perhaps what Rowling did was the kidlit equivalent of this.
Jack Zipes is less impressed than many children’s literature critics with the Harry Potter series. In a critical essay on the first four Harry Potter books, Zipes expresses disappointment that so many people working in children’s literature today as critics and taste makers speak in glowing terms about the mediocre but nevertheless phenomenal series by Joanne Rowling without seeming to have read the books which came before and which, in some cases are superior works of literature. In Sticks and Stones, Zipes recommends the works of:
William Mayne – an English writer for children who is nonetheless notoriously under-read by children but read by adults. He published books between 1953 and 2009, but you may not have heard of any of them. You can still get your hands on A Swarm In May and a few others.
Joan Aiken – English writer specialising in supernatural fiction and children’s alternate history novels such as The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
Rosemary Sutcliff– British author well known for historical retellings of myths and legends
Ursula LeGuin – American author well known for fantasy and science fiction works for children, for example the Earthsea series
Janni Howker – British author of fewer novels than the above writers, as well as short fiction
Some of these authors you have probably heard of — others may be new. In any case, if you know of a reader suffering from Harry Potter withdrawal after reading the final volume, point them in the direction of his formidable ancestors.
“When I was a child, I would read absolutely anything. My favourite books for younger people would be I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, which I really love, The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge, all the classic children’s books. I love E Nesbit—I think she is great and I identify with the way that she writes. Her children are very real children and she was quite a groundbreaker in her day.”
THE INFLUENCE OF E. NESBIT
E Nesbit has perhaps given us the strongest DNA of all. Her stories, whether magical or not, are firmly rooted in the real world and have been hugely influential on books of the Second Golden Age – Diana Wynne Jones’s Chrestomanci books, Lucy M Boston’s Green Knowe series, Joan Aiken’s Wolves of Willoughby Chase sequence and Eva Ibbotson’s hilarious witches and ghosts. Her quarrelsome, highly believable brothers and sisters were echoed by Enid Blyton, Arthur Ransome, Noel Streatfeild, Roald Dahl and, more recently, a constellation of contemporary authors like Hilary McKay, Anne Fine, Cathy Cassidy, Frank Cottrell Boyce, and Francesca Simon. Above all, she is acknowledged as the single greatest influence on JK Rowling, presumably because her conception of mixing the magical with the mundane is sharply satirical. The most recent winner of the Costa Prize for Children’s fiction, Kate Saunders, updated one of Nesbit’s most famous books with Five Children on the Western Front – having cleverly worked out that, in just a few years, her famous Edwardian family would have been embroiled in the First World War.
The only time you truly become an adult is when you finally forgive your parents for being just as flawed as everyone else.
— Douglas Kennedy
It is partly a children’s book convention that you write from the kids’ point of view, so you cannot be entirely fair to the parents as well. If you are going to write about children of twelve and thirteen who have totally understanding and marvellous parents, there’ll be nothing to write about.
— Gillian Rubenstein
The subject of mothers is apparently very sensitive for Peter [Pan]: “Not only had he no mother, but he had not the slightest desire to have one. He thought them very over-rated persons”. This is rather a puzzling statement, since Peter’s desire is to have Wendy as his mother. But the desire is extremely ambivalent, and the Lost Boys can only speak of mothers in Peter’s absence, “the subject being forbidden by him as silly”. “Now, if Peter had ever quite had a mother, he no longer missed her. He could do very well without one. He had thought them out, and remembered only their bad points.” We know that Peter ran away the day he was born, because he heard his parents talk about what he was to be when he became a man, which was not his intention: “I don’t want ever to be a man…I want always to be a little boy and have fun”.
—From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature by Maria Nikolajeva
Frances Spufford writes that characters in fairytales are symbols.
A character in a story exists in particular before it exists in general. A wicked stepmother is a woman before she is a symbol of what a child might fear in motherhood. The story of Snow White therefore says things about gender, and the encounters of daughter, stepmother, father and lover, before it can become a picture of a psychological process.
Religion is still everywhere. So, reflecting and influencing the culture in which we find them, children’s books are not secular either.
It’s interesting to interrogate the role of religion in children’s literature because children’s literature is an acculturating medium: It will introduce children to social life and history so is both educational and enjoyable.
There Is No Dog by Meg Rosoff met with controversy for being a ‘blasphemous’ book.
A young teenage boy is god and has created the earth, and is dealing with it very badly. It’s an attempt to explain all the suffering that happens on earth – teenagers can likewise experience the pits of despair and ecstasy at another moment.
This is a ‘concept book’. The premise defines everything about the book, from the language used (pseudo-biblical, a parody of biblical language), to the characterisation. A lot of questions are raised about teenage love and the lack of spiritualism in the teenage years.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF RELIGION IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE
Children’s literature has very strong ties to religion. Religion is kind of the reason why children’s books were written — to indoctrinate children.Children’s publishing was originally to publish pamphlets to develop children’s fear of god.
The very first examples of children’s literature were prayer books and stories that had religious elements. The Bible was for a very very long time the only thing that children ever read (or had read to them). The cradle of children’s literature in the West is of course based on the Christian faith.
A lot of what people call their favourite books, even today, are often very religious. Little Women is one example: All the characters try and follow the Pilgrim’s Progress, a text by John Bunion which children definitely don’t read anymore. The Secret Garden (all of the Frances Hodgson Burnett books, Anne of Green Gables, Polyanna, are all Christian.
Even children from non-religious backgrounds – who are big readers – today tend to be exposed to heavily Christian works.
Picture books with Christian themes still sell well, and so they are still published, particularly around Easter and Christmas. Parents buy them. Bible stories are really good stories on their own – the nativity story is a very pleasant story. Have they been stripped of the faith? Can they now be treated as a myth or legend? The nativity story probably fits that category for many modern families.
The Lutterworth Press is an old publishing company (of 200 years) whose mission is to publish Christian texts. They published Joan’s Crusade [which my mother had as a child, and it graced my own childhood bookshelves, and I remember one very bored Sunday I actually read it].
In mainstream publishing today, when religion is mentioned in children’s literature it is to talk about religious extremism, or else the human aspect of religion, what humans create. There are books about the Sikh community in Britain, for example, but they don’t explore faith but rather the way of life that accompanies the faith. It is currently unfashionable to express devotion to god in children’s literature.
YOUNG ADULT BOOKS ABOUT RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS RATHER THAN FAITH
For a good example of this, see (Un)arranged Marriage, set in Leicester or Killing Honour, both by Bali Rai.
Popular stories about religious traditions present extremism as something that isn’t part of the faith, as something separate and malicious and which has grown from bitterness. There are very religious characters in the story but never the main character – usually the main character’s parents.
Religion is now presented as a social problem – not necessarily in a negative way – but as something to be dealt with.
More fashionable are books sometimes attack religious beliefs. (For example There Is No Dog.)
CHRISTIAN SYMBOLS IN PARANORMAL YOUNG ADULT NOVELS
Angel by L.A. Weatherly is an example of a YA book about angels, which are Christian ideas.
Angels are all around us: beautiful, awe-inspiring, irresistible.
Ordinary mortals yearn to catch a glimpse of one of these stunning beings and thousands flock to The Church of Angels to feel their healing touch.
But what if their potent magnetism isn’t what it seems?
Willow knows she’s different from other girls. And not just because she loves tinkering around with cars.
Willow has a gift. She can look into people’s futures, know their dreams, their hopes and their regrets, just by touching them. But she has no idea where she gets this power from.
Until she meets Alex…
Alex is one of the few who know the truth about angels. He knows Willow’s secret and is on a mission to stop her.
The dark forces within Willow make her dangerous – and irresistible.
In spite of himself, Alex finds he is falling in love with his sworn enemy.
— promotional copy of Angel, book one
Yet the Angel series, and the Fallen series by Lauren Kate, is devoid of spirituality even though god exists as a character. He doesn’t exist in the way religious readers would understand. It can therefore sit strangely with religious readers.
Angel accuses angels of being the cause of mental illness, which is completely at odds with their significance in religion. The main plot point is that the angels create The Church Of Angels to help angels break free from humans, which is probably a metaphor for the evangelical churches in America: Meetings, huge churches, TV evangelists. The angels need these to feed on souls. The author cleverly takes all the characteristics of a cult and applies them to angels, and the Church of Angels may be the most ingenious thing about this series. Significantly, the author at no point attacks belief itself, only organised religion. Again, this speaks to the reluctance of YA authors to tackle the issues of faith and belief head-on.
Many other recent dystopian YA novels do not mention religion at all. The Hunger Games, Delirium etc. are visions of a religion free future.
RELIGION AND CHARACTER ARCS IN YOUNG ADULT NOVELS
In pretty much every story, a character goes through a character arc, from less mature to more mature. These stories are known as Bildungsromane, though click through to find out a more accurate term to apply to most YA novels., in which the main character doesn’t become fully adult.
An author’s choice of plot, setting and conflict is pretty much infinite. But the exact nature of the character arc is more predictable than it seems when we look beneath these surface differences:
Adolescent novels that deal with religion as an institution demonstrate how discursive institutions are and how inseparable religion is from adolescents’ affiliation with their parents’ identity politics. Adolescents in such novels eventually experience language determining not only their religions beliefs, but also creating competing dialogues that influence their own religious views. Moreover, such novels depict how religion influences identity politics, especially those of race, class and gender. […] All of the protagonists [in examples given by Seelinger Trites] experience some form of the (over)regulation >> unacceptable rebellion .>> repression >> acceptable rebellion >> transcendence model that typifies the domination repression model of institutional discourse common in adolescent literature.
— Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe
PHILIP PULLMAN AND ‘RELIGIOUS ATHEISM’
Philip Pullman’s series His Dark Materials is all about stories and about how they shape your existence, and how they are your passage to life after death. Pullman hated The Chronicles of Narnia and wrote his own series – Paradise Lost for children, in a way that would say to readers that they are allowed to question religious authority. A huge proportion of the American religious community hate this series. They have been denounced by the pope. These books are able to shape a child’s ideas about religion: They are critical of organised religion but very spiritual. Pullman takes away the Christian God but replaces it with the idea that there is a higher power and everything is connected.
It’s quite a fashionable statement now to say you see the world as spiritual and connected but outside clerical order. Naturally, this is reflected in children’s literature too.
Phillip Pullman describes himself as a ‘religious atheist’. His grandfather was a priest. Most books still do commit to a Christian sense of morality. [I disagree with this. I’m with Richard Dawkins on this point, that modern morality is not of the Bible but rather an evolution of culture, shared by atheists and theists alike. Morality according to the Bible is a tough world indeed. Christians do not own morality, though Lauren and Clementine do specify ‘ideas promoted by Christianity’, which is a better way of phrasing this, I feel.]
Salman Rushdie’s book for children is also an example of an author with a religious agenda.
WHAT WOULD JESUS DO?
In Harry Potter, it is not questioned that the right thing for Harry to do is to top himself. This has a Jesus ring to it. [The reason I take issue with this being a Christian thing to do is because it’s very much a part of traditional Japanese culture – the harakiri culture which is in place even today – and Japanese culture is not based on Christianity at all. The Japanese, like the British, drive their cars on the left side of the road, but saying that therefore the Japanese drive like the Brits would be erroneous – this shared culture is simply coincidence. However, perhaps it’s the case that J.K. Rowling herself is influenced by Christianity and that it has influenced her work, which is to say a slightly different thing.]
There are a lot of book in which characters are resurrected. Providence is an important part of children’s literature, as discussed in the podcast on Death in Children’s Literature. Artichoke Hearts doesn’t seem to have much to do with religion but the protagonist frequently calls on not sure who, not sure what, to help her family.
On the topic of Wicked by Gregory Maguire:
Too often in fantasy religion is either distant, or too close, with gods interacting directly with characters, and characters in turn becoming far too aware of just how this fantasy universe operates, at least divinely. Here, characters cling to faith—in at least two cases, far too fiercely for their own good—without proof, allowing faith or the lack thereof to guide their actions. It allows for both atheism and fanaticism, with convincing depictions of both, odd though this seems for Oz. (Baum’s Oz had one brief reference to a church, and one Thompson book suggests that Ozites may be at least familiar with religious figures, but otherwise, Oz had been entirely secular, if filled with people with supernatural, or faked supernatural, powers and immortality.)
David Beagley, LaTrobe University, available on iTunes U
Fantasy is the biggest area in children’s literature, and close to being the biggest area in adult literature too, eclipsed only by crime.
This didn’t start with Harry Potter, though the popularity of that series has given it a huge kick along recently. Since there there has been A Series Of Unfortunate Events, Artemis Fowl, Dark Materials, Eragon, all of these big, best-selling series just in the last 15 years, every since HP revolutionised the world of publishing.
Twilight is now challenging Harry Potter in the amount of marketing that is being done, from movies to pale make-up for teenage boys.
With movies such as Red Riding Hood, fairytales are now being returned to adults.
But fantasy is far from new. Works such as Peter Pan have been around forever. Fantasy has always been here and is here to stay.
For an Australian focus refer to Maurice Saxby: Books In The Life Of A Child (1997) and Give Them Wings have some very good explanations of fairytales and fantasy as a genre written by different people and gathered by Saxby.
Fantasy is very clear on morality. Fantasy goes for extremes rather than shades of grey. Villains are very villainous, heroes are very good and heroic.
If we call where we are now the ‘primary world’, a parallel/secondary world may be influenced by the primary world but it is different in some way. The earliest use of the word fairy comes from 1393 from a writer called Andrew Gaury (sp?). Tolkien pointed this out as a mistranslation — it was supposed to be ‘of fairy’ not ‘a fairy’ and reflects a prejudice about fantasy and the fairy world. Fairy is a place. Fairy is the world of Rip Van Winkle, about a man who out in the woods meets some people, has a party and wakes up to what he thinks is the next day but is actually 20 years later. The secondary world is not inferior to the primary world. Another term used is the ‘perilous realm’. This is a world of danger and darkness, of the forest, through which Red Riding Hood walks. In the Twilight Series it’s the world Bella discovers, of vampires and werewolves.
Hollow Lands is about how children are taken off to a place to grow up differently. Fantasy is a dangerous, threatening place that ‘takes’. It is not just an escape into something, though it can be. It can be the world of little toys in Winnie The Pooh (as in Toy Story). These stories are humorous but they are also sad — the loss of childhood.
How do secondary worlds operate? (PM = primary world. SW = secondary world.)
One option: PM and SW are totally separate. (Rowan of Rin.)
Another option: A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. It is not here. Completely separate from this world. (The Hobbit, Eragon, The Wizard of Earthsea, Deltora). Even in the derivative worlds such as the steampunk ones, ‘This is what the world would be like if we did not have things like electricity, computers, nuclear power, in which computers are made out of wood with brass keys.) What happens when the two worlds get closer together? It’s possible to move from one world to another through a portal. (Narnia, Magic Faraway Tree, Magic Wishing Chair, Alice In Wonderland, Oz, Monsters Inc)
A third world: Characters can cause things to happen in each other’s world. Although they occupy the same place they are kept separate. (Harry Potter, Peter Pan.) There is overlap but they are still largely separate.
Fourth way: Worlds are the same world: We are completely oblivious to whatever’s happening under our very noses. (Toy Story is a classic one, Indian In The Cupboard, The Borrowers, Mrs Frisby And The Rats Of Nimh — Nimh is a real mental health organisation)
The key element in all those four kinds of secondary worlds is imagination, creating an image, an image of things which are not actually present. So the author and the reader are both creators of these worlds. Imagination is the key to all human understanding. All our learning is extending into the unknown. At some stage everything we learn must be a leap of faith into the unknown. As Lao Tsu put it: The journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step. Even as scientists, as rational observers, we must for a moment think what could, what might, what if. And that’s when we start taking those steps. We must dream the future, then step into that world. So the experimental scientist is no different from the author writing a story and just wondering, or the person daydreaming about what could be. When we dream of these future truths, while they don’t exist now except as fantasies, we aim to create them as realities. We explore the boundary between the knowledge we have and the possibilities we have.
If we accept only that which we see, we go nowhere. We need to have someone taking us into the unknown. That which can be measured and organised is limited to what the human can see now. Imagination, on the other hand, takes us past the probable (though we can predict things based on what we’ve already seen) and into the unknown.
Fantasy stories use our imagination to understand what is happening here in reality. The term ‘speculative fiction’ is used to describe stories that consider what is not… yet. This enables exploration of great, broad concepts.
Cosmology vs Cosmography – cosmology is the whole universe and cosmography is how it’s created/written down.
Tolkien is a master of cosmography. He had a real talent for languages and started inventing them as a teenager. During the first world war he created languages as a means to keep himself sane during battle. Tolkien’s languages are studied by academics today. Then he started wondering who would speak these languages, so he created fictional characters and the rules of their society. Lord of the Rings came from this thought experiment.
100 years ago relativity in physics would have been seen as a fantasy story as in fantastic as in ‘non-existent’. Tolkien argued that fantasy worlds exist because we can’t prove otherwise.
Fantasy stories are usually asking ‘what if’? What if animals could talk? What if children could fly? What if toys could come alive? What if you could travel across the galaxy and turn left? What if you could become invisible? What could happen? What if magic was a human skill?
Types of fantasy stories stem from the what if question: Wish fulfilment (Harry Potter – what if I could escape from this horrible world from being at the bottom of the heap to the top?), Time travel stories (Madeline L’engle), Anthropomorphic Stories (animals operate as humans — Peter Rabbit), Utopia (the perfect world — Gulliver’s Travels is one of the earliest one), Dystopia (the horrible world — Z for Zachariah, The Lake At The End Of The World — particularly stories that happen after a nuclear holocaust).