As you can see from the cover art, this picturebook has been illustrated by someone with a lot of experience in digital art — as a coffeetable book of illustrations this stands alone as an exhibition of beautiful colour, wonderfully composed perspective drawings and interesting character design.
The original Jack And The Beanstalk, at its heart, a male coming-of-age tale, in a milieu where boys must learn to be the income earners for the females in their family. You’ve probably also heard theories about what the beanstalk symbolises. I think that’s a bit of a stretch.
CRITIQUE OF CAPITALISM
As a story for older readers, this modern retelling would be good for discussing ideas such as industrialisation and its impact on small vendors, the problems with large fast food companies and a capitalist economy.
Normally in stories like these, the ‘giant’ stands for ‘the corporation’. Is that what the giant stands for here? If so, would the world really run better if these corporations suddenly quashed the structures they’ve worked to build?
The ideology of the original tale is a bit dodgy actually, when you think about it: Modern picturebook writers don’t get away with glamorising thieves. Just take a look at the one-star reviews of This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen, which is a great story, but rubs some gatekeepers of kidlit completely up the wrong way. I would add, in the case of the modern Klassen story, the thief is duly punished. (He — or she? — gets eaten.) Not so in the original Jack and the Beanstalk. Jack is richly rewarded for his thievery and daring.
In Stimpson’s modern retelling, however, the setting is different and so must be the ideology. What do you think of when you think ‘capitalism’? Those in favour of capitalism probably conjure up a (traditionally) picturebook township, with a milk bar, a greengrocer, a picture theater and butcher on each side of main street. The butcher who sells better sausages ends up making more money and eventually puts the inferior butcher out of business. Consumers win.
We’ve seen over the past centure or so that, actually, capitalism has a much darker side than that; in a capitalist society the rich can become super wealthy simply by having money in the first place, while the poor become increasingly destitute and are unable to work their way out of the pit.
What about the ideology in this book? This is no idealistic view of capitalism; it is a critique. The ‘little guy’ can easily get screwed over due to the machinations and schemings of people with far more money. This ‘flyover’ symbolises the way in which the super wealthy build their empires without a second thought to the little people, passing them over, so to speak. And in any narrative, the little people are the ‘underdogs‘. We love stories starring underdogs.
NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION
Stimpson’s wonderful illustrations emphasise the similarity between the beanstalk and the flyover. Both are very high, thick structures wending and twisting high into the sky. There are other hints of beanstalk, too, foreshadowing what’s to come. Take a closer look at this wooden pole below, with the electrical cabling wound around it; this city hasn’t completely given itself over to industrialism — vestiges of the more wholesome natural world remain.
Read enough children’s literature and you’ll be left in no doubt: The city is bad for children. Take them out to the country, which is utopian, pristine and a veritable fantasy landscape.
There was once an old woman who left the city to get away from all the noise and confusion. Out in the country she found a small house by a creek with a big shade tree in the back yard.
— Duck Cakes For Sale, 1989
This ideology is a specifically white ideology (the ideology of publishing and children’s books):
White people love to be outside. But not everyone knows that another thing they like to do is make people feel bad for wanting to watch sports on TV or play video games. While it would be easy to get angry at white people for this, remember it is hard wired in their head that the greatest thing a person can do in their free time is to hike/walk/bike outdoors.
Forget futuristic computer games: Reading some classic literature you soon get the idea that many authors don’t even approve of cities. We see this particular anti-video game ideology in stories from award-winning picture book creators such as Chris Van Allsburg, in Just A Dream to hugely popular children’s books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (with Mike Teevee).
School itself must be so different these days than it was when you were in school. Certainly, having kids helps, but is that ever an issue for you when you’re writing?
I was reading about this phenomenon in television and film writing, which is that the references to school are always at least 20 to 30 years old, because writers are really writing about their own experiences, so these movies are hopelessly outdated. What I’ve been surprised with is that school seems a lot safer and more benign than it was when I was in junior high. You know, for me, junior high was like the Wild West. There must have been one teacher for 35 kids, and we were completely unprotected from the bullies, so the experiences I’m writing about in my book are actually very watered-down from real life experiences.
My high school English teacher hated Dead Poet’s Society. He never said why, and we never asked. Then I became an English teacher myself. Then the #metoo movement happened, and I really hated it then.
Stories set in schools haven’t been the same for me since my teachers’ college year. Dead Poet’s Society ceased to be a story about an inspirational, enthusiastic English teacher and more a demonstration of an egotistical lover of attention who would have served his students better if he had tried a bit of group work. (Jumping around on desks is also considered uncouth in a country where even sitting on desks is a no-no. This was New Zealand.)
As and aside, Dead Poet’s Society hasn’t aged well, either. There is a sexual assault scene which is not treated as such. For more on that I’d recommend listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast rather than watching the entire movie again.
Dead Poet’s Society is just one example of an unrealistic, annoying but romantically idealised teacher. While teaching high school myself, I had zero patience for stories in which fictional teachers keep individual students behind after class to speak to them about various misdemeanours — mostly, these teachers were young men in fake horn-rims who, had they been of truly innocent intent, as we were meant to believe as the audience, would have made sure never, ever to be in a room alone with any student. Don’t keep students behind after class. If you do, keep them back in a small group. Keep the door open. Teaching 101.
It was the large classes of eerily silent student, in which the actor posing as teacher makes zero use of body language, has no slightly embarrassing strategies for gaining everyone’s attention.
In fictional classrooms, the teacher walks around the classroom and everyone watches in rapt attention, even though the students at the front of the classroom can no longer see, nor hear. The teacher with magical magnetism approaches a single student’s desk to engage more closely with them when, in reality, as soon as the teacher moves from the front of the room, the class is likely to break out into little groups chattering. “Don’t do what actors always do on TV,” our teachers’ college lecturer warned us. “Stay at the front of the classroom until you’ve finished talking to the entire class.” The ‘rules’ of body language, standing position and classroom management are not something that has been picked up by film-makers, who are in love with the ‘camera moves around the classroom’ technique.
Also: “Don’t confiscate passed notes and read them aloud to the class. Crumple them up and throw them into the bin without looking at them” Anything else is a shaming technique, which went out of vogue decades back.
In sum, teachers’ college is a year in which naiive student-teachers’ hopes and dreams about what the Role of Teacher might be like are moulded into something more closely aligned to reality. Still, it amazes me how, even though all of us have known a lot of teachers over our 13-odd years of schooling, we nevertheless accept quite a chasm between the reality of teaching and the fictional portrayals. We accept these fictional teachers partly because narrative has its own rules; likewise, police officers are not usually damaged alcoholics who can’t maintain a healthy family life and eat nothing but donuts, but we see this character all the time in the crime genre.
On movies, the bell rings and everyone gets up to leave. No fictional teacher says, ever, what I said weekly: “The bell is a signal for me, not for you.”
Every novel, every painting, every work of art with meaning contains an ideology. This includes stories written for children.
One of the fundamental changes in critical thinking and teaching over the past twenty years has been the acceptance that ideology is not a separate concept ‘carried by’ texts, but that all texts are inevitably infused by ideology. This has been particularly difficult to accept in the world of children’s literature, which is still widely assumed to be ‘innocent‘ of concerns of gender, race, power, and so on — or to carry transparently manipulative messages.
We believe some ideologies so deeply that we consider them Truth: such ideologies as “education can improve people’s lives” and “it’s better to be rich than poor” can be difficult for people brought up in capitalist societies to recognize as arguable positions. But all adolescent novels are informed by such sociopolitical beliefs. Laura Ingalls Wilder, for example, infuses her own libertarian ideologies* into all of the Little House books, but most especially into the later books written for adolescents. Although in actuality the Ingalls family was closely connected to their neighbors during the historical season of blizzards depicted in The Long Winter (1940), Wilder portrays the fictionalised Ingalls family as living entirely isolated in self-sufficiency. Influenced by libertarianism, her ideological goal was to portray government intervention as both unnecessary and suspicious. William Sleator’s House of Stairs (1974), Robert Cormier’s I Am the Cheese (1977) and Virginia Hamilton’s The Gathering (1981) provide similar ideological critiques of government politics.
Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature
*I feel it’s a bit easier for a non-American to see libertarian ideologies when they crop up. From my perspective here in Australia, Australians value equality, in contrast to North Americans, who seem to value freedom. Equality wasn’t originally written into the American constitution (for obvious reasons — slavery.) Though membership to a certain culture gives one kind of insight, sometimes it’s easier to spot ideology in stories from a slightly different culture.
In the same way, it’s easier to spot ideology in work from the past. The past is a different culture. You’ve probably experienced the phenomenon of sitting down to watch a classic film — Gone With The Wind or The Long Hot Summer or even Friends from the early 2000s, and noticed how jokes once accepted and loved now seem hopelessly sexist, homophobic and racist. That’s exactly how future audiences will see the stories of today.
In order to understand…political ideologies…the reader has to understand at least two things: the historical context in which the story is set and the historical context in which it was written. The distinction is especially important for historical novels like The Long Winter, when the historical setting is significantly removed from the date of the novel’s publication.
Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature
The following are notes from various places, notably from Episode 9 of the Kid You Not Podcast, and from the book Language and Ideology In Children’s Literature by John Stephens, with extra insertions from me. If you’ve ever wondered what exactly is meant by ‘ideology’ and have come across words like ‘hegemonic’ without really understanding what the words mean, the Kid You Not podcast is a great way to spend 25 minutes. It’s clear and concise.
DEFINITION OF IDEOLOGY
From a literary criticism perspective, all texts, especially fictional texts, are imbued with ideological content. This can refer to a system of values/beliefs/fears/world views, which are all linked to concepts of power. These values and beliefs will be distilled within language, whether through the words/images on the page or the words and images that are not there. [See: Where Are The People Of Colour In Picture Books?] Even picture books aimed at very young children can be ideologically charged. Sometimes ideology is hidden, because we’re bathed in it and therefore don’t even see it. “You’re soaking in it.”
No text, and therefore no children’s book, is devoid of ideology. This isn’t necessarily a terrible thing. Ideology isn’t necessarily in reference to Nazi or communist propaganda. It might simply be an ideology of capitalism. While extremist groups have historically leaned on children’s literature to share their beliefs with impressionable audiences, but this is not what’s generally meant by ideology. Generally, ideology refers to children’s books at one end of the spectrum: Books designed to teach children something or deal with a specific problem.
Peter Hollingdale has written about the distinction between implicit and explicit ideology. He didn’t go so far as to explain that an explicit ideology can be communicated either directly or indirectly — but this is definitely the case. The difference between the two:
Novels with directly explicit ideologies go out of their way to explain certain views to the reader, in case the reader doesn’t pick it up.
Novels with INdirectly explicit ideologies trust that the reader has enough prior knowledge to pick up the messages in the book.
Some writers will tell you that books with direct and explicit ideologies are out of fashion, described as moralistic. But it’s a bit more complicated than that: Here’s what’s gone out of fashion: direct and explicit ideologies coming out of the mouths of adults. That includes adult characters and (presumably) adult unseen narrators. You’ll still see examples of direct and explicit ideology coming out of the mouths of first person young adult narrators. An example is the mini-lecture by the young adult narrator of Am I Normal Yet? in which she describes the problematic language around casual use of words like ‘OCD’ thrown around in everyday discourse. If this had come out of an adult, then it would have sounded didactic. But coming out of a ‘peer’, it sounds persuasive.
Not every book has an explicit ideology. But every single story has an implicit one, and it is this kind of book which tends to be the more powerful vehicle for an ideology, precisely because it is invisible. The implication: that things are simply ‘so’.
Different categories of stories tend to have common ideologies. For example, in the mouse tale it’s common to find the idea that ‘When mice become too reliant upon human technology, this leads to the downfall of their own society.’ Is this saying something about isolated, ‘primitive’ human cultures and what happens to them when they rub up against technologically advanced civilisation?