In The Middle Of The Night by Robert Cormier

in the middle of the night

In The Middle Of The Night is a young adult horror novel by American author Robert Cormier. Written in the mid 1990s, this was one of his later works.


The cover reads like the poster for a horror film and gives us a horror tagline: “The sin of the father will be visited upon the son.”

Although Goodreads reminds me I read (and reviewed!) this book back in 2013, I have zero recollection of ever picking it up. This probably says more about my memory than about the book, though I do have strong memories of some of Cormier’s other work, particularly Fade, which I read as a teenager and which left a strong impression.

I’m reading In The Middle Of The Night again making read-along notes as I go, hoping to learn what I can about horror and suspense from a master of the form.

This time as a learning exercise I am reading a thriller/horror taking notes as I read. I want to see how a master storyteller controls his reveals and reversals. You’ll see I was wrong about a few things, and had trouble working out what was going on in the beginning. This is the book’s biggest shortcoming. Another look at Goodreads reviews tells me other readers had the same trouble. Why did I have trouble? For some reason, Cormier used the name Dennis twice, for two separate, unconnected people. The first was a minor character, Dennis Denehan, brother of Lulu’s best childhood friend. Later I was confused by the name Denny, the name of our main character. Why did Cormier do this? I guess it makes sense that within the world of the story, Jean Paul might have named his own son after one of the boys he felt responsible for killing, but it really did affect my ability to work out what was going on.

The other factor for contemporary readers picking up this book from the mid nineties, both the ‘contemporary’ world and the ‘past’ world of the story feel a bit retro now, so the usual markers that stand out as markers of time don’t work quite as well — I had no idea really about screening eras of I Love Lucy.


Beginner writers are often told not to write prologues, which stands in direct opposition to the fact that a lot of popular books open with prologues. (There are problems with prologues and other people have explained all the reasons why. Bear in mind, it’s #NotAllPrologues.) Cormier, too, opens this story with a prologue. He ticks a few things off in this prologue:

  1. Some of the novel is written in first person, and ideally, with a first-person homodiegetic narrator, the reader gets a reason why all of this is being written down. “I am writing all this down. I have never kept a diary or a journal or anything like that. My thoughts and memories were enough, but now that she has begun to assert herself. I find that it’s necessary to keep a record. Why? For my own good, my own testimony, in case anything happens.” Likewise, readers are given a reason why Greg Heffley writes his Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and why two girls are writing The Popularity Papers (by Amy Ignatow). I am constantly amazed how authors come up with original reasons for why their storytellers are writing things down. (You’d think there would only be a couple of reasons, right?)
  2. The middle grade examples I gave are comedies, but Cormier has given us a creepier reason for writing something down: We immediately feel the character might die. And that is another function of this prologue — to introduce the creepy tone. Cormier even lampshades the story problem he has just created for himself — the problem EVERY writer creates for themselves when they want to do two incongruous things, making us wonder if the character will die but also having that person still alive to write the story — he writes “Stop pretending, she says. You know what’s going to happen.”
  3. Cormier also introduces a slightly creepy brother/sister relationship. Anyone who has previously read Fade by the same author might be wondering if this is going to be a story of incest.
  4. Aunt Mary is introduced. Cormier contrives a situation where adults won’t be a problem; first of all these kids are orphans. Second, their spinster aunt is well-meaning but busy, with a childlike naivety. So she’s not going to stand in anyone’s way.
  5. We get some idea of the time. This is a time when kids are play-acting I Love Lucy. As a non-American reader I’m a bit confused about the setting — this is a show from the 1960s, but perhaps kids of the 90s watch re-runs? Mention of the ‘phonograph’ makes this a bit clearer. Yes, this boy is writing as an adult.
  6. Lulu is established as an unreliable character. She likes to make up stories to cheer her brother up.
  7. The narrator is established as Lulu’s mirror character. Whereas Lulu is loud and lively and makes friends easily, the narrator is bookish and quiet.
  8. We’re introduced to Dennis — the brother of Lulu’s best friend and neighbour, Eileen.
  9. We have basic details about the geographical setting: A town called Wickburg with its own local traditions. They live on the second floor (of low income housing?) below a big family of kids.
  10. Foreshadowing: The magician likes to make people disappear. Who else is going to disappear?
  11. Clues about the horror genre of this story: The parents who died apparently went to see a horror film at the drive-in. That’s a good clue that this story, too, is a horror.
  12. Sure enough, by the end of the prologue, Lulu is dead.

Why was this written as a prologue and not Chapter One? Because the rest of the novel has its own structure, with four parts. Chapter One switches to third person narration.


Chapter 1

We don’t know this is about Denny (briefly mentioned in the prologue) until a page and a half in, but Denny is now 16 and his family gets a phone call in the middle of the night every year, starting a few weeks before the anniversary (of Lulu’s death).

I remain confused about the name Denny for a while. Is the older Denny the younger Denny’s uncle? Why has this name been recycled? Or is it the same guy?

Chapter 2

The Power Of Not Naming A Character

We’re back to first person. Interestingly, we don’t know this guy’s name. Who is he? At first I haven’t picked up the switch in generations. Am I the only one with this particular problem, or would the story have benefitted from something like ‘Twenty five years later’ under the chapter heading, to show this guy is no longer a kid?

At this point we only know the first person narrator by the nickname Lulu bestowed upon him: “Baby” , or “Baby-Boy”. This in itself seems weird. Is he really messed up? Lives alone as a serial killer? An possibly incestuous background, obviously full of the trauma of death?

Is This A Ghost Or Is This A Nutter?

It’s clear pretty immediately that Lulu is a ghost, which explains Cormier’s decision to avoid conventional dialogue punctuation in favour of italics for Ghost Lulu. (Ghosts can’t talk in the conventional way, or so we would assume.) Alternatively, this could be a setting in which ghosts aren’t actually a thing — perhaps our main character simply thinks they’re a thing — and Baby-Boy is having some kind of hallucination, and will act on what he imagines to be Lulu’s behalf. His reliability is not yet established. (I mean, he hasn’t even told us his name.) “A sigh escaped me, like a ghost abandoning my body” encourages that interpretation. Lulu tells Baby-Boy that it’s time to stop calling and time to do something by way of retribution. Baby-Boy tries to persuade her not to.

Revenge Theme Established

In stories (as in real life) vengeful characters suffer the consequences of their actions. This is obviously going to be a story about revenge. What will Cormier have to say about revenge?

Chapter 3

Now that we’re back to Denny’s third person narration it’s clear this book is going to take the form of alternating points of view by chapter.

We have a classic 1950s-esque scene with the mother in the kitchen watching coffee percolate while the father reads the newspaper. This is your classic ‘cozy kitchen’ scene. Denny’s life is safe and normal. But we know from the phone call at midnight that this is not a genuine utopia but an apparent one.

Denny’s eating tasteless shredded wheat, which is a sign of the era. (Eras can be marked pretty clearly according to what characters eat for breakfast.) This is the 1990s. With the mother standing watching the coffee rather than cooking the breakfast and being all cheerful, I detect some nostalgia on the writer’s part about what a morning should really look like (and it is dependent upon the mother’s emotional and domestic labour.) In close third person point of view, the son gives us a critique of how old his mother looks. (I assume the mother, ideally, should look pretty and young, to boot.)

Cormier gives us something similar to a ‘looking in a mirror’ thumbnail sketch of Denny: “Himself: what did his mtoher and father see when they looked at him? The obvious: dutiful son, good student — not brilliant, not a genius (definitely not a genius), but a regular kid. Did not give them cause for alarm. Polite. Oh, sarcastic sometimes, when things piled up and no one spoke or said anything. Unco-ordinated, awkward at sports, quiet. Spent a lot of time in his room. Reading, mostly jink but some good junk too — the 87th Precinct novels he was racing through./That’s what someone would see, peeking through the window: a regular family.” In short, Denny is the boy equivalent of Bella Swan — very useful as the main character of a horror/supernatural story because this boy can function as The Every Kid. He has zero distinguishing features, at least according to him.

A horror story Every Kid is especially terrifying — This could happen to you, too, young readers. It also means Denny doesn’t have much in the way of distinguishing Shortcoming or Need. Instead, we are given surface details about him. Denny is portrayed as quite different from his own father — whereas the father is small and neat, Denny seems to attract grime and creases. Will this prove metaphorical? Just as likely: Readers are being reminded that Denny is not his father, and sons should not be punished for their fathers’ wrongdoing.

This hasn’t always been the case. It’s a modern, Western idea that children are separate from their families. Throughout history, and in other parts of the modern world, people are very regularly punished for something a family member has done. This is more likely in less individualistic societies, where family members are considered different facets of the same ‘person’.

By mentioning the imaginary audience looking in through the window I am put in mind of a horror film camera technique whereby the camera sort of follows a character as they go about their ordinary business. The scene thereby seems to almost be taking place underwater, with the camera as some kind of shark, floating without sound towards its target, waiting to surprise. An opening scene of Broadchurch uses this technique, and you’ll see it in Panic Room and various other horror suspense films. The ocean has two distinct parts to it: the ocean surface, which you can see, and the ocean deep, which you can’t.

The mother suggests they take the phone out. “Especially this year.” Unfortunately I’ve already read spoilers on the back cover and so I know this year is significant because Denny is sixteen — the same age Dennis was when he did something which lead to the death of Lulu. This says something interesting about back cover copy. When Cormier wrote this book did he mean for the publisher to give so much away on the back? (While the inside of a book is created by the author, the cover illustration and copy belong entirely to the publisher.) Did the publisher forfeit suspense in favour of selling more copies, or was theirs a literary decision? Did they think Cormier wasn’t giving enough away, early enough, so helped readers along?

The horror genre is furthered in the reader’s mind when we see Denny has assigned horror monster names to the kids at the bus stop. This is similar to ‘genre parody’, except there’s no comedy element here. Instead it becomes simply metafictive: The character in a story immerses himself in the genre of the story he himself is in. This is done for comic effect in a completely different kind of story — Jane The Virgin. In that story, Jane immerses herself in telenovelas. The story Jane The Virgin itself is a spoof of a telenovela, using conventions from that genre such as a high number of coincidences, melodrama and a character web who become more and more entangled with each other.

At the bus stop Denny is cast as a sympathetic underdog — he’s the eldest by far (and therefore alone), and also humiliated somewhat, as his father won’t let him get a car until he’s seventeen. Nor will he get a licence. Humiliation is one of those top-tier emotions readers can easily identify with: when a reader feels humiliated for something out of their control we are on their side. The younger kid knows Denny is old enough to have a licence. As well as reinforcing his humiliation, we as readers now know Denny’s exact age without having to be told directly. Is this story going to espouse the dominant ideology of underdog stories?

We also see from the bus stop scene that Denny is passive. He lets a younger girl step in to break up a fight (a kiddie fight which nevertheless foreshadows a high-stakes big struggle to come). “See?” Denny tells her when she confronts him, in unsympathetic, bossy-boots fashion. “It’s like a war. You win one big struggle and the war still goes on.” This sounds like it might be a theme in a nutshell. We are also reminded that Denny has been running from something his whole life and has basically given up the fight. I predict a Call To Adventure which he won’t be able to turn down, because the safety of his family will be at stake. Later in the story he will double down on this and fight to ‘the death’ (spiritual death, coming out a different person).

The girl — a bluestocking, Hermione Granger type — sits next to Denny on the bus. I’m disappointed in this dynamic, or rather, sick of seeing it. Why do men write attractive fictional who seem sexually interested in boys who have just proven themselves to be hopeless?

The narrator briefly alludes to a character called Chloe. Who is Chloe? A girlfriend he had at a former place, before the family were forced to move?

Chapter 4

School Buildings As Haunted Mansion

Norman Preparatory Academy, introduced in chapter four, is the perfect example of ‘school as haunted mansion’:

Normal Prep.

It was the nickname for Norman Preparatory Academy, named for Samuel J. Norman, a deceased Barstow millionaire, whose former home, a three-story mansion, now served as the academy’s administration building. It was so damn normal, which is exactly what Denny liked about it. And hated about it. Both at the same time.

The school looked almost too normal: two class-room buildings, located at right angles to the mansion, bright red brick with clinging climbing ivy, two storeys in height. The lawn between the buildings was mowed to such perfection that it resembled artificial turf, although no one would dare play football on its surface or even walk across it. An iron gate guarded the entrance to the academy.

We knew as soon as we heard ‘Normal’ Prep that this was going to be no ordinary school. Like Denny’s house, the school, too, is introduced as a possible snail under the leaf setting.

(By the way, my expectation that this novel was going to alternate points-of-view by chapter has been foiled. I’m pretty glad actually, because every time the narrator change it pulls us out of the story.)

Rich and Poor Together

I have assumed — naturally — that Denny comes from a rich family if he’s being sent to this fancy school, but Cormier correctly predicts my erroneous assumption and tells us that his father has to work overtime at the factory in order to send him there. This could introduce another interesting dynamic: Denny is now a working-class boy attending a school full of rich boys. Whenever writers put rich and poor together they get instant conflict — interesting kinds of conflicts, because the values are very often different.

A Geographical Setting That Gets More Specific As The Story Progresses

We’re told Denny’s family used to live ‘down near the Connecticut border’, which gives us a more precise location within the American continent. (Perhaps American readers have already worked out exactly where this story takes place?) On the other hand, this ‘zooming in’ slowly on the physical setting turns the reader into a kind of ghost in our own right — like the ghost of Lulu, if we get a little more information about this family, we too will be able to follow them around and haunt them.

(Though there are places in America called ‘Barstow’, is this particular Barstow supposed to be a real place?)

Ghost Metaphor

Cormier uses a ghost metaphor to describe the way Denny moves through his day — at school in body, but not in spirit. Nobody ‘sees’ him. This aligns him with the actual ghost who presumably plots to kill him. The reader can see this — the characters themselves cannot. Revenge related message: The person you hate the most is more like you than you think.

Manic Pixie Dream Girlfriends

We’re given the backstory of Chloe. She was his first sort-of girlfriend — Denny is so passive that he lets girls make all the moves. Like the girl at the bus stop, Chloe was also full of action.

Well-intentioned Opponent

On the steps, Denny is ‘stopped by’ a guy called Jimmy Burke. At first I expect Jimmy to be your classic school bully (also, bullying incidents often take place on stairs). But no, this is a different sort of Opponent. Jimmy is well-intentioned — presumably inviting Denny onto the student council for the specific purpose of including an outsider, helping him to make friends. That said, an opponent in fiction doesn’t have to be ill-intentioned. Jimmy is an opponent because he stands in opposition to what Denny wants from school: To blend in, unnoticed. Parents in young adult fiction are also quite often well-intentioned opponents, standing in the way of the young adult with the intention of keeping them safe or whatever.

Chapter 4 ends with Denny on the bus wondering if he’s up for a big struggle. This is in reference to joining the school council, standing against some bad stuff going down under the surface of the snail under the leaf setting of school, but speaks to the bigger big struggle to come. There is nothing subtle about this story structure (and ‘not subtle’ is not a bad thing).

Chapter 5

Denny is back in his apartment now. The phone is ringing.

Symbolic Character Quirk

The mother has ‘a strange approach to labelling’. She writes ‘coffee’ on the cookie jar. This little character quirk has a deeper meaning: Denny’s mother is constantly hiding. Her homelife is literally ‘not what it says on the tin’.

When Denny finally answers the call and it’s a mysterious girl. She says something mysterious about them not being friends ‘yet’. Cormier describes the voice in ambiguous terms — Denny can’t be sure whether the voice comes from a girl or a woman or what. (This could therefore still be the deluded alive brother acting on Lulu’s behalf.)

Chapter break.

Flashback scene. Angry father in kitchen telling Denny to never, ever answer the phone.

Another flashback scene to when Denny was seven years old. Shifts in settings are easy in horror: This scene is introduced with the sentence fragments, “Seven years old. Third grade. Home from school.” Mom is sick in the bathroom — she says it’s a 24 hour bug. Denny answers the phone for the first time, presumably.

We learn the father’s name: John Paul Colbert.

Mother comes up behind Denny and scolds him for answering the phone, momentarily at least turning the mother into her own sort of monster. With both parents lying to him or hiding things from him Denny is totally alone in the world. We are even told in this scene that he’s never even had a babysitter. Denny realises ‘he’s never been really alone’, which is the opposite of reality — Denny is nothing if not perpetually alone in the world.

Double carriage return, back to the present. ‘Answering the telephone’ are the two incidents that link this scene to the flashback scenes.

Desire Is Solidified

“Suddenly he was eager for the telephone to ring.” This marks a change in Denny. He desires something. Until now he has been completely passive. He has been hankering for some kind of big struggle, and this person on the other end of the line is going to provide him with one. Ironically, as soon as he wants the phone call it doesn’t come in the middle of the night.

Jump Scares

“But something had awakened him.” Turns out to be his father. This is almost mandatory in a horror story: Once the main character starts to be scared they are on edge (as the audience is). Something will happen but it turns out to be benign. In the Australian crocodile horror movie Black Water, something nudges ominously against the tin boat, but it turns out to be a petrol can. Minutes later the entire boat is overturned by an evil croc. Audiences know this trick as used in horror stories, but it works anyway. It may even be mandatory, though I’ve yet to explore that sufficiently.

Against Subtlety

Cormier does not shy away from stating symbolism which may be obvious to an experienced reader but not to many younger ones, and this is perhaps what makes this a young adult novel. Of Denny’s father:

Sitting there, forlorn, in the middle of the night. But he and his father and mother were living in a kind of middle of the night even when the sun was shining.

Thus, the double meaning of the title is explained, and I learn that writers shouldn’t necessarily shy away from that.

Chapter 6

The story switches back to Baby-Boy. We know this not because it’s sign-posted at the top but because of the presence of Lulu and the first-person point of view.


Wait, what? In a flashback to the scene of the accident in the theatre, we get a surreal, white scene in which we learn Lulu never died at all. She made a ‘miraculous’ recovery. “I’m not Lazarus,” she tells her brother. I don’t know anything about Lazarus, apart from the idiom ‘back from the dead’. Bible readers will know the Raising of Lazarus story from the Bible. Jesus restored him to life four days after he died and he became a saint. The subtext of Lulu’s words: She is no saint. It is implied at this point that she died, then came back as a kind of vengeful machine, perhaps sent instead from the Devil. She has come back with one mission: To get even with whoever caused the balcony accident.

The horror genre is full of Biblical references and, honestly, most of what I know about the Bible I’ve learned from looking something up after watching a horror.

The end of this chapter, and of part one, provides the Evil Monster (Lulu, back from the dead) a clear motivation for wrong-doing, and makes us wonder how she’s going to exact revenge upon young Denny and his family.

Writers are advised to set up the rules of the setting early on. It’s interesting that I’m still not sure about the rules of the supernatural in this particular story. I had thought Lulu was a ghost but now she is a different kind of ghost — more like a vengeful zombie. It’s probably enough that I know this story contains supernatural elements, and it’s okay if I am slightly wrong about these, amending my vision of the world as I progress.


Chapter 7

Finally we get some questions answered.

This is what Denny’s father, John Paul Colbert, thought about in the middle of the night: how his life changed for ever at the age of sixteen when he became assistant manager/head usher at the Globe Theatre in downtown Wickburg, Massachussetts.

Naturally, we’re expected to have worked this out for ourselves by now. Cormier was a fan of making readers work a bit. Eventually we’re told whether we’re on the right track or not. The reader should have had this question: How is thread A of the novel related to thread B? It’s a safe question to assume readers have asked. Readers always want to know how two different stories are related.

This is still third person point of view, but the ‘camera’ has homed in on Denny’s father.

This chapter takes us to the part where the balcony has just collapsed.

Chapter 8

Mostly an action chapter, concluding with John Paul waking up after six days in hospital. His parents show him a newspaper article and we learn that John Paul is to be questioned.

The reader now has a question: What could the 16 year old usher possibly have done to be thought responsible for the collapse of a balcony? My experience of real life news makes me think of a tragedy in my own country, in which a group of tertiary students were standing on a balcony in a National Park. The platform had not been made for that many people. New Zealanders know it as the Cave Creek disaster. That happened in April 1995, coincidentally the same year this book was published. Given the lag in publishing, Cormier no doubt wrote this story before the Cave Creek disaster.

Could the character of John Paul be guilty of allowing too many people onto the balcony? Did it collapse from overweight? I’m keen to find out, and also wondering from a writers’ perspective what kind of theories other readers might have regarding John Paul’s culpability.

Chapter 9

The details of the disaster continues to be conveyed via John Paul reading newspaper reports. This is a writing technique that no longer works — now it would be the Internet, with far more theories and much more information for someone to sift through before getting to any semblance of ‘truth’. A young audience today reading about John Paul on the Internet wouldn’t necessarily believe the Internet news in the way that we and John Paul are obviously meant to believe the journalists.

In this chapter we also have the emergence of another ‘ghost’ like character in the form of a woman who points at John Paul with a long, bony finger. “You killed my Joey!” she screamed (whether she’s real or hallucinated.) What is it about the gendering of these accusing apparitions? Notice that in stories, characters are less often tortured by a male character pointing an accusing finger. Paranormal creatures who kill us are more likely to be gendered male. I believe this narrative gendering comes back to that old truism: Men are terrified women will laugh at them (disapprove of them); women are terrified men will kill them. This woman is terrifying because she disapproves.

It becomes clearer later in the chapter that this ghostly woman is not a ghost at all, but a real woman. (Other people can see her and they talk about her.) This is the second time Cormier has played this trick on us, making us wonder if a female character is an apparition, then telling us she’s actually real.

My theory about a balcony collapse has more to it — there’s a fire. We are left at the end of this chapter knowing John Paul had something to do with a fire. The fire weakened the structure. How did John Paul start a fire? Was this pyromania or entirely accidental?

As John Paul leaves the hospital we can see he’s a crucified young man. People are holding pickets up in protest of whatever it is he did.

Notice Cormier has given John Paul the revelation before he’s given it to the reader. John Paul knows exactly what he’s done wrong, but we readers will have to keep reading to find out. If Cormier does this well, readers will have our own kind of revelation, applying John Paul’s mistake to our own lives.

Chapter 10

John Paul is going through a depressed phase of his life. Cormier does not shy away from a bit of pathetic fallacy:

The coldness of November greeted him as he stepped out of the house, and he raised the collar of his jacket. The sky, dark and low, pressed down upon him. Tree branches, stark and leafless, were like spiderwebs climbing against the greyness of the sky.

Cormier has used the symbolism of the seasons to match up with John Paul’s inner state. He was happy in summer, with his plum summer job and the pretty girl, but now his life is terrible and sure enough it’s also winter. It’s rare to find a happy main character in winter. A writer can still subvert this convention by contrasting a downcast character against the happiness of a blue sky and people going about their summertime activities.

The scene with the librarian and the microfiche took me right back to the nineties. Ah, microfiche. University students no longer need to be inducted to the joys of research with the microfiche machines as I was in 1996.

We learn that John Paul has been ‘cleared of responsibility’ for the tragedy. But John Paul was still ‘a part of it’. Because this is a character with a conscience, being legally in the clear doesn’t count for much. This aspect of a character endears them to a (non-sociopathic) reading audience.

The nice letter from the girl — Nina Citrone — shows just how much this male character puts stock on what girls/women think of him. This seems to be a theme running through Cormier’s work (at least, those novels that I have read so far); Cormier’s teenage boys are very, very concerned about what women and girls think of them. A glance from the right girl can make or break his year. (When girl characters are written this way, readers tend to think the girls ‘pathetic’ and the books are thrown into the romance category, even when the romance is a subplot.) This is why the phrase ‘strong female character’ has become problematic in recent years — it comes from an acknowledged double standard that female characters have to be strong. Strong does not equal real.

When there are no big headlines about John Paul being cleared of wrongdoing, Cormier is saying something about the nature of the media. The media loves a witch hunt, but stories fizzle out and the protagonists of those real life stories are left to deal with consequences and clearances on their own. Also, plotwise, if John Paul was never publicly cleared of wrong-doing, this explains why there are people who can never move on.

We are told that John Paul has a difficult relationship with newspapers. This takes us back to the first time the reader met John Paul — ‘hiding behind’ a newspaper in the kitchen but not really reading it, from Denny’s point of view. The newspaper in this story is serving as a character motif. What does it symbolise? When John Paul ‘hides behind’ the newspaper, it stands for his public reputation as contrasted with his private self.

Chapter 11

John Paul goes back to school. No one is paying attention to him. Remember the logline for this book: “The sin of the father will be visited upon the son.” A large portion of Part One was dedicated to showing the reader how invisible his son is — actively invisible. (That’s actually a useful concept — even the most passive characters in a good story are ‘actively passive’ — they go out of their way to do nothing.)

John Paul meets Nina — like the son, John Paul attracts actively romantic girls. He now has a sort of girlfriend.

Question: Is this Denny’s mother? (In real life, unlikely. In stories, however, teenage romances are more likely to last.)

Notice how Cormier ends this chapter. He’s sent John Paul on an emotional, heart-soaring high, but an anonymous quip calling him a ‘killer’ brings him plummeting back down to earth.

Question: Who sent that to John Paul. (We kind of know, don’t we? Baby-Boy or his sister.)


Chapter 12

We’re back to Denny’s point of view. Cormier makes sure we know this by starting the first sentence with ‘Denny Colbert’. He’s waiting for the telephone to ring. Whereas his father is symbolically connected to newspapers, Cormier is going out of his way to connect Denny to phones.

After yet another mention I’m moved to look up ’87th Precinct novels’. I learn that ‘the 87th Precinct is a series of police procedural novels and stories written by Ed McBain (pseudonym of Evan Hunter).’ They were published from the mid 1950s to the mid 2000s. Perhaps this series was important to Robert Cormier, and because they continued to be published, perhaps American readers are familiar with this series. I’d never heard of them. Now that Cormier has started talking about a mystery/detective series, I’m guessing this novel is going to metafictively switch tracks — I am now expecting Cormier to make use of some conventions from the detective genre.

We get a bit of backstory about when Denny first began his job at the theatre — an insight into the relationship between Denny and his own father. This is a story about the connections between fathers and sons.

Chapter 13

The point of view switches back to Denny. Denny is teased about his ‘girlfriend’ on the bus. Cormier provides us (and Denny) with the girl’s name after a few pages. Dawn is an unsympathetic character to this ‘girl’ reader — the classic guy’s gal, who thinks girls are too bitchy and boys easier to get along with. (Does this endear her to boys, though? Does this make her the perfect Cool Girl?)

Cormier really rams home how passive Denny is: He fails to get the number of the girl he has fallen instantly in love with. He walks past a fight where he could have stepped in. He avoids giving an answer to the guy who wants him to join council and make a difference. The difference is, now he’s starting to get angry with himself.

He finally does something active by applying for a part-time job. The man at the convenience store is looking for someone older, though. The wish to be slightly older is probably pretty common when it comes to sixteen year olds (though I never felt that way personally). Most YA readers can probably relate.

Something exciting has to happen in this chapter after all that passivity and disappointment. Trouble comes with a knock at the door. A smarmy reporter wanting the ‘human side’ of John Paul’s story, through the son. We know that he’s untrustworthy because Cormier has him hand over a grimy business card.

On the way to church Denny has a conversation with his mother about his father and how nice he is, visiting the dead kids’ cemeteries as his own version of church. The chapter ends quietly.

Chapter 14

Another quiet chapter. Why does this chapter exist?

The council guy is still keen for Denny to run. This guy’s enthusiasm contrasts with Denny’s reluctance to do anything much at all. Though Denny does want something. He wants money and a learners’ permit. (Freedom.) Denny’s desire is entirely selfish — he hasn’t yet learned to look outside himself.

The chapter about Denny having trouble even getting a part-time job contrasts with his father’s getting a plum job at the theatre at the same age. This is Denny assuming his father is going to be against him getting a job at all (because his own experience turned out so tragically) but being pleasantly surprised to learn that John Paul is a reasonable man.

So this chapter was about reinforcing contrasts. I feel neutral about Denny as a person — he hasn’t inspired empathy yet. Is he going to turn out a hero or is his passivity going to lead to his downfall?

Chapter 15

Okayyy, so Denny is actually a stalker. I had a feeling this might happen. Cormier definitely has voyeuristic interests, at least in his work.

One afternoon, [Denny] stood outside Barstow High School in another attempt to find Dawn. He had discovered that Normal Prep’s school day ended aa half-hour earlier than Barstow High and that he could, with luck and perfect timing, reach dawn’s school a minute or two before hundreds of students burst out of the place as classes ended for the day.

He had stationed himself in front of the school near the nine orange buses whose engines throbbed while waiting for their passengers. Denny figured Dawn would be getting on one of the buses.

Have you noticed that Denny is not the only stalker in this story? But, so far, Denny’s stalking is presented as ‘the normal thing to do if you’ve missed out on getting a girl’s number’, whereas the stalking done by the female character — the vengeful ghost chick — is crazy. This is a common dynamic employed by Hollywood screenwriters. While stalking behaviour in male characters is rewarded, women are killed. Will Cormier subvert this trope? Please don’t let Denny ‘get the girl’. I do see what Cormier is doing — I have already established that Lulu and Denny are mirror characters, so they must both also do their own version of stalking.

He doesn’t find Dawn (this time) and goes home alone.

Chapter 16

Finally, with no good reason, Denny picks up the phone. The smokey voice on the other end of the line has a lot to tell him — specifically him, not his father. Denny hangs up, at first thrilled but suddenly terrified.

Chapter 17

Point of view switch to Baby-Boy, describing his sister, the crazy stalker woman, Lulu. As Lulu and Baby-Boy talk about how it’s not the father’s fault, it is clear that Lulu is a horror machine — she won’t be stopped, not by reason, not by anything. She has a ‘cruel slash of a mouth’ and her face is ‘taut’. The old Lulu is gone. This is the archetypal horror genre monster. Cormier has linked her to the Christian church by talking about Heaven/Hell/Limbo — horror tropes come straight from the church.

Part Three ends with Lulu doubling down on whatever horrible thing it is she plans to do.


Chapter 18

Halloween is approaching — a great time for horror happenings in suburbia, especially in children’s stories. It kind of makes me wish we had Halloween here in Australia — it would be nice to feel a frisson of fear. Note that Cormier has specified ‘no rain yet’. (No tears yet — no catharsis of emotion, but just you wait…) The wind blows the leaves in swirls — another kind of pathetic fallacy indicating change to come.

Denny is sullen and pessimistic about Halloween, disapproving of all the pumpkins. Denny is anti-childhood, and will be until he is confident he himself has left childhood behind. At the moment he’s stuck in his own kind of limbo — along with his mirror character, Lulu — between adulthood and childhood. He doesn’t like the painted faces on other peoples’ pumpkins but he still wants his father to carve him his own.

Denny finds something nauseating when he gets home. He has to clean it up. Cormier withholds from the reader what he has found. I’m thinking maybe a dead animal, small enough to flush down a toilet. No, it is human poo.

Now Cormier reveals that Denny and Lulu have had a number of conversations that the narrator hadn’t told us about. It seems Denny is falling in love with her a little. Cormier made sure to show us that Denny is the sort of boy who falls in love in an instant, so this makes sense.

Lulu is using her sexuality — basically a version of literary phone sex — to control Denny. This is where Cormier really makes the most of the season symbolism already introduced — Lulu categorises women according to season — summer is a voluptuous woman, Halloween is a witch. It’s clear Denny is responding to her only because of her sex appeal because the middle-aged male reporter tried to get Denny talking, to no avail. So here’s another gender trope: Women use their sexuality to get what they want from men.

Back to the present — Denny waiting for Lulu to call him on the phone, but she does not.

Chapter 19

The horrible twelve-year-old boy at the bus stop tells Denny that Dawn works in a certain shop at the mall, and comments lasciviously on the size of her breasts. Denny is apparently disgusted by this phrase, but probably only because another boy is saying it — he has objectified her similarly himself.

Denny has undergone an overnight character change and for once in his life he’s proactive. He goes straight to the counter where Dawn works. Dawn is delighted to see him. Turns out she even called him a few times, though Denny didn’t answer.

Okay, so now our alarm bells are supposed to be going off, right? How did she get his number? Normally I’d assume from the phone book, but the Colberts have an unlisted number. This has been established. Is Dawn Lulu? Somehow? A tool of Lulu? Possessed by Lulu? Significantly, Dawn works at the perfume counter — a symbol of bewitching femininity. In stories perfume can work almost like a poison, or a magic spell — always women casting spells upon men. (Well, I’ve yet to read a story about a women bewitched by Lynx, though the marketers of Lynx inverted the trope to comic effect in their The Lynx Effect series of commercials — which nonetheless still manage to sexualise women.)

Anyhow, by now we are supposed to be suspicious of Dawn. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be, but now I am.

Lulu asks Denny, “Would you like to know what I look like?” This is masterful on Cormier’s part because he now knows I want to know if Dawn is Lulu, somehow. A few pages later the narrator tells us “But Dawn Chelmsford was not the voice on the telephone,” thereby answering the question I had at the exact right time. If Denny himself had not started to wonder, I would have considered him stupid and irritating as a character. Denny says the voices are different, but I’m thinking of all the horror films I’ve seen and I know that when someone is possessed, the demon changes their voice.

Denny rushes home from school for his afternoon session of weird ghostly phone sex but is momentarily delayed by the reporter, who this time tries to garner his sympathy by saying he has a wife and kids and mouths to feed. Denny still does not talk to him.

Chapter 20

A creepy conversation between Lulu and Baby-Boy. Baby-Boy is the conscience, telling Lulu off for enjoying playing with the emotions of a teenage boy. In a faux-feminist way, Lulu asks him if it’s wrong to enjoy what she’s doing. She’s never had a sexual relationship with anyone. I have suspected she is grotesque after her injuries from the accident — now I’m more sure. The exact nature of her injuries will probably be revealed later… In stories a deformity equals malice. I previously normal-looking character who subsequently becomes deformed becomes malicious. Let’s see.

Chapter 21

The previous creepy scene juxtaposes with this scene: Denny bored to tears in history class.

Between classes, Denny runs into the guy who didn’t fight back. Denny asks why he didn’t fight back. The guy tells Denny to think about it, thereby forcing the reader to also think about it. Why don’t people fight back? Also, why is Lulu so intent on fighting back? That afternoon we get a theme of the book imparted via this guy’s dialogue:

“Know what? I didn’t figure I was the victim that day. They were. Those guys avoid me now, they look ashamed like they did something dirty. And you look at me almost the same way…”

There’s a small reveal: Everyone at Normal knows Denny’s secret. Denny had assumed he was anonymous, but he’s been exposed the entire time. I sense this small revelation is prelude to a larger but related one.

Cormier is using Halloween as a bit of a ticking clock device now, telling us that Halloween is in just three days and the reporter’s deadline is tomorrow, after which he risks massive exposure again.

This chapter is divided into two parts. In the second part Denny and Jean Paul are up at the same time in the middle of the night. They have a rare heart-to-heart and I realise why Cormier has made the father an immigrant — to put a mild communication barrier between them. (Though it’s unrealistic that the father wouldn’t speak native-level American English, having immigrated so young.)

Denny has a anagnorisis:

“Sixteen, Dad. You were sixteen when it happened! You were my age.” The knowledge overwhelmed him. He didn’t know how he would have handled such a thing. All those children dead an all those accusations. But his father had handled it. Had endured, had survived.

In short, Denny realises he’s not so old after all, and that things aren’t always as bad as you fear and that people can endure a lot before breaking. Denny realises that not fighting is one way of ‘dealing with’ things. (This goes back to what I earlier noticed about how Denny is actively passive himself.)

Cormier puts Denny’s anagnorisis into action by sending him to a telephone box to tell the reporter (in that passively-active way) “No comment”. So there’s a writing tip: if the anagnorisis happens during a conversation, have the character do something — however small — to put that new awareness into action. This scene also marks the end of the reporter subthread. We won’t be left wondering what happened to Les Albert.

I’ve started to really wonder if Dave in the store is Baby-Boy. I’m confident Cormier wants me to think this. Dave has flu the same day Lulu does not call, and as we know, these two are always together.

Lulu calls the following day and sure enough, Halloween is D-Day. They arrange to meet on Halloween night at the corner of Denny’s street. No, Denny! Don’t do it! Remember the shit stain!

Next we have Les Albert’s article, where the reader is told exactly how the blaze started (well, sort of? I don’t see why the match was lit? As a torch?) There is a moment of tenderness between father and son. The mother pops in to suggest they go away for the weekend and avoid the attention but father and son are united: they’re staying right where they are. This story began with a huge emotional wedge between father and son but the relationship itself has undergone a character arc and now they are close.

Chapter 22

The big reveal! Dave is at the wheel. (I guess ‘roof’ is an American word for ‘toupe’?)

This is the big struggle chapter. Dave turns out to have a conscience, and sacrifices his sister to save Denny. A reveal at the end of the chapter tells us he took his own life, too.

I suspect Cormier struggled a bit to come up with sufficient motivation for Lulu. The idea that Lulu was terrified by the nothingness of ‘death’ is at odds with my own thoughts on how it works. I’ve read Elisabeth Kubler Ross, who said that two types of people tend to have the least problem with death: the very religious and the confidently atheist. It’s that murky middle part you want to avoid. I do remember Christopher Hitchens saying, right up to the last, that he was comforted by the idea that there would be nothing.

But this is fiction, after all.

I appreciate that Cormier did not give Lulu a deformity. She was grotesque because she was old, though she didn’t have use of her legs due to the accident, not because she was old.

The chapter concludes with another anagnorisis — maybe home is the place you go to because there’s nowhere else to go. However bleak that sounds, having a home at all is a fortunate thing.

Chapter 23

Since the big struggle scene is over all that’s left is for us to get a sense of the new situation. Oh no, hang on, we need to know if Dawn is connected to any of this business.

The chapter opens with the jostling at the bus stop juxtaposing with the sorry scene with two deaths. But this return to normality has an interesting change: there’s a creepy new kid there, with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. This boy immediately feels like a symbol — a new ‘cancer’ in Denny’s life.

We’re told the phone keeps ringing. At first it could be that the evil didn’t die with Lulu. But then I learn that this is reporters.

As the book ends we’re told — as if it’s important to us, like it is to Denny — that Dave’s name is Dave O’Hearn. Plotwise, Cormier is making sure we’ve connected the dots, I guess. Baby-Boy is to be replaced with a more ordinary, human-sounding name. Also, knowing the guy’s full time achieves a kind of verisimilitude, and a sense of real closure. When you know someone’s full name there is the illusion that you really know them.

The scene with Denny in church, knowing about the blankness while his mother prays shows that Denny is now even more separated from his mother than he was before, and now he has several secrets he’ll keep from his parents, on his way to becoming a man.

Cormier pulls together the ghost theme, alerting me to some symbolism that hadn’t even crossed my mind: “He had loved nothing, loved nobody, because the Lulu who spoke those words to him had not been real, hadn’t even been a ghost or a phantom, only a fantasy.”

The story has to end with Dawn and Denny sitting silently, side-by-side on the bus. Because if he had ‘got the girl’, this would have been one of those stories where the crazy stalker woman gets killed, but the crazy stalkerish boy who has nothing to really offer a girl gets rewarded. I was pretty worried Cormier was going to let me down for a moment there, but I am breathing a sigh of relief that this is not one of those stories.

What is a heterotopia?


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

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

thanks, Wikipedia.

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

After taking a close look at what the concept means, I’m reminded of when I was teaching. Teachers would refer to ‘the real world’ as if it were somewhere else. In ‘the real world’ people don’t get 12 weeks of holiday. In ‘the real world’ you don’t get a fixed but safe salary every two weeks. Like some sort of wild creature taking risks real world people have to run their own businesses or something.

But then I had a job with public service. I noticed that people who work for the public service also talk about everyone else is if everyone else is ‘the real world’. Council workers do it, too. I now realise that teaching, like few other jobs, really is ‘the real world’. In a school you’re dealing with whatever (delight and) trouble comes through the door — family issues, medical issues, car crashes, rape, imprisonment and physical assault on top of the day-to-day actual teaching and paperwork.

This feeling that everyone else is ‘the real world’ and you yourself are living in some sort of insulated bubble is quite widespread, and I wonder if any group of professionals do in fact consider themselves The Real World. I suspect even emergency department nurses are prone to this feeling, working at night when everyone else is perceived to be asleep, and on the side of the bed where you are expected to be calm and helpful rather than show your human side.


Heterotopia is based on the concept of utopia.

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

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

Welcome To The Good Place Everything Is Fine What The Fork

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

In cosmological theory, there were:

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

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


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


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

Crisis Heterotopias

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

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

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

Boarding Schools

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

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

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

Train And Steamships

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

See also: The Symbolism of Trains

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

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

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

steam ship heterotopia in The Arrival by Shaun Tan

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

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


Pirate stories set on ships are likewise heterotopic.

Honeymoon Destinations

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

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

Libraries and Museums

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

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

Cinemas and Theatres

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

These are sites of temporary relaxation.

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


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

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

Forcible and Spink from Coraline

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


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman


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


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

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

Although this describes Disney World it applies equally to malls:

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

Philosophy Now

In  our local mall we have:

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

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

Vacation Villages

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

Gated Communities

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

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

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

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

Harlen Coben Safe gated community
Religious Spaces

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


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

Religious Communities

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

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

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

young adult novel cult as heterotopia

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

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


Brothels and colonies are two extreme types of heterotopia.


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

‘Love’ Hotels

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

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


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


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

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

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

Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulations (1981)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

Alan Bennett from Untold Stories
John Piper, (English, 1903-1992), Stonehenge, watercolor, ink and chalk on paper, 1981 rock stone
John Piper, (English, 1903-1992), Stonehenge, watercolor, ink and chalk on paper, 1981


Heterotopian Studies, an entire website

Lemon girl young adult novella


Humour In Children’s Stories

Founding editor of The Onion wants to help with the job of learning the write comedy. Stephen Johnson argues that every joke falls into one of 11 categories. At first glance this sounds like the ‘Seven Basic Plots’ idea, which is a pretty unhelpful way of looking at story if you’re harbouring hopes of telling one — forget whether there’s some elemental truth to it or not. That said, I am a fan of The Onion — they get humour right the vast majority of the time — so I decided to take these eleven categories and apply them to some popular humorous children’s books. Is Scott Dikkers right? Are there really only eleven categories of humour.

Also, can we apply these same categories to humour written for children?

There are no lengths to which humorless people will not go to analyze humor.

Robert Benchley

Humor is just truth, only faster!

Gilda Radner

So, why analyse humour?

I’m pretty geeky about comedy and am forensic about what makes a joke work, so I’m able to put things in my books that I won’t find funny but can be confident others will. 

Maz Evans via Charlotte Eyre’s publishing newsletter

By age seven, children begin to appreciate language play such as riddles, puns, and jokes as they develop the ability to restructure mentally events and objects in novel ways and begin to understand reversals, double entendre, and the different perspectives of characters.

Playing with Words, “Dav Pilkey’s Literary Success in Humorous Language


First, a refresher: What even is irony exactly? The Onion’s definition: Intended meaning is opposite of literal meaning. Honestly, I’m sure from the outset — if a joke doesn’t fall into any of the other categories, the definition of ‘irony’ is so broad that I predict it can be shoved into this one.

Humour often lies in the gap between what is said and what is meant. […] In relaxed, friendly talk, speakers collaborate in talking about one thing while meaning something else, thus maintaining a play frame.

Jennifer Coates

I’ve heard it said that we can’t rely on children to pick up irony until the age of about 8, though that has recently been revised right down to about 3. This may say something about our heavily ironic culture.

The thing about children’s books is, we never know the exact developmental stage of each individual reader, so there’s always a chance irony will be taken literally. On the surface this doesn’t matter. If the kid doesn’t get the joke they don’t get the joke, right? But what if ‘not getting the irony’ means seeing straight up sexism/meanness/racism or something like that? We need to be careful here, especially when it comes to ‘hipster irony’ -ie. being mean, but not really being mean, because everyone knows we’re not mean people, right?

This irony thing is important because a lot of children’s stories (especially films) are written with the ‘dual audience‘ in mind, especially in film and in picture books, where the adult is sitting alongside the child.

  • Rosie’s Walk is the classic example of a picture book demonstrating an ironic distance between picture and text. The words say something completely different from the text. Today there are many more examples of ironic distance in picture books.
  • In A Long Way From Chicago, the grandmother is a comical character but the humour is often understated irony which involves nothing more than our narrator pointing it out: ‘She said she never slept but she had to wake herself up to go to bed.’ 
  • Dramatic irony is describes a gap between what the audience knows and what the character knows. Sometimes the audience knows more than the character. This kind of dramatic irony is called ‘reader superior position’. In The Seriously Extraordinary Diary Of Pig, Pig sees a funny looking farmer at the fair. From the illustrations, the reader understands immediately that this is no farmer. She looks like an archetypal villain. But Pig simply says, “She is the most ugly farmer I’ve ever seen” and describes an archetypal villain without putting two and two together himself. Then there’s reader inferior dramatic irony. This is less useful in comedy, but is especially common in certain genres such as heist, where the audience is constantly two steps behind the characters and their plans.
  • Another excellent example of dramatic irony can be seen in I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen. The reader sees the red hat long before the main character does. The younger the reader, the more you should make use of reader superior irony. Young kids are still working out the world and they need to feel smart. I can’t think of an example of reader inferior irony in humorous picture books.
  • In a story with no pictures, dramatic irony can come from an unreliable narrator, who is not telling the reader the full story. This might be because they don’t understand what’s going on. (But the reader does.) Unreliable narrators are useful for many reasons, and sometimes, in the hands of an expert storyteller, can lead to humour.
spongebob squarepants ironic distance
Here we see an ironic distance between what is illustrated and what the characters are saying. Funnier because both characters are duped, perhaps by each other. Perhaps because they can’t count that high.
ironic distance humour from Courage The Cowardly Dog
ironic distance humour from Courage The Cowardly Dog

Less specifically, ironic jokes would include:

  • A character tries to fix something but ends up making it worse. For instance in the We Bare Bears pilot a spider hanging from a tree is dealt with by kicking the tree. Hundreds of other spiders fall down from the tree. Ironic because the character aimed for one result but got the (exaggerated) opposite. (Irony combined with hyperbole.) Oliver Jeffers uses the same combo in Stuck.
  • In teen stories irony is often sarcastic.
This scene from 90210 is ironic because the speaker is saying something nice and awful at the same time. Also an example of juxtaposition.


Comedic character acting on personality traits

In order for this to work, the audience needs to think in terms of stereotypes or, more kindly, in terms of archetypes. Alternatively, the audience has to know (or feel they know) a character so well that they are able to think, “How very typical of [Character].”

  • In the Wimpy Kid books, the older brother Rodrick is set up as a dimwit but every now and then he says or does something really smart. This is both a ‘character’ and an ‘irony’ joke.
  • We feel we know Pig The Pug as soon as we meet him — he is the kid who hogs all the toys. We love it when he gets his just desserts.
  • This Moose Belongs To Me by Oliver Jeffers relies on the reader identifying the boy in the story as a self-involved bossy pants.
  • Scarface Claw by Lynley Dodd is an archetypal villain but with a soft side. This relies on irony as well as character humour.
  • Z Is For Moose stars a moose who has a meltdown because he isn’t given the opportunity to be the centre of attention for a minute. The stereotype is familiar — the narcissist stage actor.
  • In The Extraordinary Diary of Pig, character humour comes from a pig doing human-like things with his pig’s body, e.g. crossing his trotters for luck. This kind of humour is common in humorous stories featuring humans in animal bodies, and is one of the reasons animals are so often used instead of people in children’s stories.
This cartoon from Poorly Drawn Lines takes the animal character joke one step further, blending the category of ‘misplaced focus’.
  • Some character humour can tip into plain meanness. In Dog Days (Wimpy Kid series), Greg goes to the local pool and notes in his diary that someone should tell one of the neighbourhood women not to wear a swimsuit at eight months pregnant (due to its being too grotesque). While a kind reader puts this down to Greg’s character flaw — he is on the verge of adolescence and terrified of adult bodies, including the hairy bodies of the men in the changing room — this kind of humour matches (and models) schoolyard body shaming and bullying. I prefer to avoid books with this kind of humour. Which leads to the problem: If you want to write a mean-spirited character, how do you do it without promoting/triggering unpleasant memories of mean-spiritedness? It’s a fine line. Bear in mind that Jeff Kinney originally wrote Wimpy Kid for adults, aiming for a Wonder Years type story. It was his publisher who repurposed it for children. Meanspirited but funny characters are a surefire hit with kids, who see far more insulting interactions in their day at school than any typical adult.
  • In children’s stories as well as in playground chants, teachers and other adult figures of authority are often the butt of the joke. In a picture book such as The Book Without Pictures by B.J. Novak, the joy comes from hearing the adult reader saying ridiculous things.


Common experiences that audiences can relate to

Romantic Rejection. A lot of the Wimpy Kid humour is about rejection from girls that Greg Heffley sees as potential girlfriends.

Parental Wishes Conflicting With Child Wishes. The Wimpy Kid stories are also about the conflict that arises when you want to play on your computer all day in your own room but your mother wants you to do family bonding exercises and force you into ‘fun’ activities that are fun for her but not for you. A lot of adolescents can surely relate to this. Less specifically, kids can really identify with lack of freedom.

Obviously, stories for toddlers and preschoolers must refer to experiences shared by children of that age.

  • Chatterbox is a familiar story about waiting and waiting for a baby to learn to talk, then wishing they’d shut the hell up as soon as they start.
  • Harry The Dirty Dog plays on a childhood dislike of baths.
  • Z Is For Moose is funny because we’re watching a toddler (Moose) having a massive tantrum after being left out of a show.

That said, picture books sometimes appeal to a distinctly adult experience. Mr Chicken Goes To Paris relies on the incongruity of a large chicken doing all the typical touristy things in Paris. Adults will recognise the type of holiday, as well as the tedium of sitting through someone’s photos of it. The story’s interest comes solely from the fact that our tourist is a big chicken. This is hat on the dog type humour and because adults identify with the experience of tourism, Leigh Hobbs appeals to a dual audience.

Another type of reference humour is cultural. In the pilot of We Bare Bears, the brown bear (Grizz) suggests that the panda knows kung-fu, something he has in his favour when it comes to dating. The panda says that actually he does not know kung-fu. We are thus reminded of the Kung-fu Panda franchise of children’s films from DreamWorks. We feel ‘in’ on the joke for getting that cultural reference. Grizz’s comment is also funny because we recognise he is relying on stereotypes. It’s the fictional equivalent of people with Asian faces and glasses always being asked if they’re good at maths.

A similar joke is used repeatedly in the British comedy series Fresh Meat, in which other characters assume Howard is a Lord of the Rings fan because he is a nerdy type who looks like he’d be schooled up on the finer points of high fantasy. As Howard keeps insisting, he’s never even read Lord of the Rings, and has no interest in reading it. He gets increasingly irritated by accusations of having read it. This is a triple layered joke: (cultural) reference + character humour + irony.

When a story makes a cultural reference to itself, it’s now called a ‘callback‘. This relies on the audience having seen earlier episodes of the show. Each Simpsons episode has about 10-20 callback jokes in it, counted separately from other cultural references, which are even more numerous. Groups of friends cement friendships by swapping injokes that only those friends would get. Callback humour is how you get yourself a fanbase.

The converse of reference humour would be the non sequitur, a feature of absurdist/surrealist humour. The audience is exposed to situations they’ve never experienced before themselves. I wonder if this form of humour is not included in The Onion List for the reason that modern audiences don’t find absurdist humour laugh-out-loud funny. This is the humour of Edward Lear, Alice In Wonderland, Waiting for Godot… It’s clever, it can be interesting, it can highlight important political truths, but is it still funny? More recently, works such as A Series of Unfortunate Events and Far Side comics have been described as surrealist, so perhaps surrealism has not died, but evolved.

The humour in children’s literature is common to sitcoms for adults. The same rules apply. Characters feel awkward or humiliated. It’s difficult to think of comic heroes who don’t have significant flaws. Georgia Nicholson is obsessed about her looks, a little bit selfish, mean to her friends. Greg Heffley is that as well. You would think this is a reason not to like these heroes but in fact children relish these portrayals. They like finding their own shortcomings in comic heroes. [Do these flawed heroes really remind adolescents of themselves? I suspect that would feel too cringe-worthy to enjoy. I suspect they see their friends and school enemies in these characters rather than themselves, but I’ve yet to read research on that.]


Surprising jokes typically involving sex, drugs, gross-out humour and swearing

How to get away with more shocking things in comedy for kids? One popular trick: Make it look terrible at first but the reveal is that it’s benign.

adventure time humour
scene from Adventure Time

Something common in children’s stories but less common in adult stories: Bum jokes and gross-out humour (poo, vomit, snot and other bodily excretions). For adults gross-out humour is sexual.

Kids can also be shocked by post-pubescent bodies. The Greg Heffley (Wimpy Kid) example of Greg being disgusted by grown men in the showers (mentioned above) is also an example of gross-out humour. Greg is terrified of his imminently changing body. For good reason, this particular fear is often explored in coming-of-age comedies. Morphing into an adult is terrifying.

The Disgusting Sandwich is a picture book for young readers and a very mild form of gross-out humour. The humour of this story relies on the shared experience of dropping food on the ground but still sort of wanting to eat it.

The Mole Who Knew It Was None Of His Business is another fairly tasteful example of a story about poo, and is made more tasteful by the use of quite literary language and the German language onomatopoeia. The poo itself does not feel disgusting because of the countryside setting. Wholesome poo.

For slightly older kids (pre-adolescence is the golden age of gross-out humour), we have the work of Andy Griffiths, e.g. The Day My Bum Went Psycho and a whole raft of similar stories from the same Australian author.

Most humour has its origins in bad taste. Then, when the joke’s been done enough times, it no longer has shock value. The shocking thing has become part of the culture. This primitive side of humour comes out of aggression and fear, and is a way of dealing with that. This explains why comedians often go beyond the line of acceptability. Perhaps, like me, your favourite comedian offends you sometimes. The comedians don’t know where that line is either, because it’s constantly shifting. The comedian’s job is to find that line. That’s their raison d’etre. They inadvertently cross it from time to time, so we all know where it is.


Mimic a character, trope, genre as closely as possible

This type of humour relies on your audience having sufficient experience in the original character/trope/genre itself that they recognise the parody. Along with irony, parody might therefore be lost on the youngest readers. In the past I have written about popular ‘children’s films’ which should probably more accurately be described as films for adults or adolescents due to the advanced irony — which ordinarily might float on by younger audiences without consequence, but may convey pretty disturbing messages when taken at face value. Children (and adults) tend to assume that animated film and claymation is for children, but that’s no longer the case.

Genre Parody

The 2012 film ParaNorman relies on the audience’s understanding of the zombie horror genre. Or, we might be expecting a Cinderella story, for instance, but the character ends up even poorer than they were before. Or, as Babette Cole wrote in Princess Smartypants — we might be expecting the princess to find her prince charming, but she decides in the end to remain single, upending the classic romantic fairytale. This joke is a kind of cross between ‘misplaced focus’ (we’re thinking this is a love story) and ‘parody’ (of the archetypal love story).

That Is NOT A Good Idea by Mo Willems defies our expectation of a fable in which the duck gets eaten by a wily fox. It’s a parody of a fable, though also a form of irony — we don’t expect the cute little duck to be so wily. An understanding of Aesop comes in handy here, too. Aesop set up the animal character tropes for us and we’re still using them and subverting them to this day.

parody humour
Spongebob Squarepants speaks to introverts everywhere while also parodying the musical fantasy genre. (The other singer is a literal penny.) We expect this wonderful place to be somewhere like Never-never Land or Oz.
spongebob parody humour
Here we have a parody of fairytales such as The Ugly Duckling.
Character Trope Parody

The Fantastic Mr Fox film relies on the audience’s understanding of a stereotypical 1950s breadwinner father, as well as the dominant culture’s fictional nostalgia associated with that period. The first generation of readers who grew up with Fantastic Mr Fox are now my age — middle aged. The 1980s was The Golden Age of Roald Dahl. This film is mostly for them.


Exaggeration to absurd extremes

Unlike irony and parody, this type of humour is safe for the youngest of audiences. Hyperbole is super common in picture books, and almost mandatory in funny carnivalesque picturebooks. Hyperbole is a subcategory of intensification, but intensification goes beyond hyperbole.

  • Stuck by Oliver Jeffers is an excellent example. There’s no way all those things would get stuck in a tree. Jeffers knows how to take a joke to its conclusion. This book is a masterclass in hyperbole.
  • The Biggest Sandwich Ever features a massive sandwich followed by a massive dessert — everything in carnivalesque oversize.
  • The Cat In The Hat by Dr Seuss is perhaps the stand-out example.

Hyperbole or intensification can be achieved using all of the following devices, which are all commonly used across funny middle grade graphic novels in particular:

  • Creation of sounds in exclamations (included as ‘intensifications because they are typically disproportionate to the degree of shock, dismay, or surprise expected from a reaction to an event).
  • General sound play (onomatopoeia, alliteration, and assonance)
  • Palindromes (words, phrases, or sequences that read the same backwards as forwards e.g. poop)
  • Increased stress on words and meanings (word redundancy, word repetition)
  • Figurative language (idioms, similes, metaphors)
  • Synathroesmus (the piling up of words, usually adjectives e.g. “gigantic, gooey, robotic fingers”)
  • Textual emphasis (capitalization, italicization, extra large font)
  • Exuberant expressions (grandiosity, exaggeration)
  • Logical impossibilities
  • Repeated phrases which function as running gags (e.g. “Truth and Justice and all that is Preshrunk and Cottony!”)
Melodramatic Humour

Melodrama comes under the category of hyperbole. Melodramatic characters are sometimes funny because of their uber-pessimism or optimism. (By the way, I usually mean something different when talking about melodrama.)

Spongebob hyperbole
‘The problem’ = entire life.
  • Similar to the Squadward scene above, a client of the mother from Freaky Friday (Lindsay Lohan version) is particularly needy. “How’s your day been so far?” asks the daughter in her mother’s body. “Fine. Then I got up.”

I’m not sure where to put hyperbole’s opposite: understatement, or litotes. I guess it goes in here.

  • The Seriously Extraordinary Diary Of Pig “We don’t want to be handbags!” (Not — We don’t want to be slaughtered!)
  • From Spongebob Squarepants: “I don’t want to be peeled! I’m not a banana!” (Ditto)

Understatement often occurs when the main character is near death, but because this is a series we know (and the characters know, in a meta kind of way) that they are not going to actually die. Therefore their reactions to near death are often understated. In the examples above they are unrealistically articulate, for instance, calling to mind the plaintive cry of a toddler who doesn’t want to carry a bag, or doesn’t want to eat a banana.


Of course, hyperbole and wordplay often occur together. Hyperbolic language are words or expressions which exceed “the limits of fact in a given context” (Claudia Claridge).


Puns, rhymes, double entendres, homophones, homographs, nonce formations, portmanteau words, placeholders, baby talk, solecisms, slang and colloquialisms, nominalization, adjectivization, rhyming, ungrammaticality, metathesis etc.

What is a pun?

Puns are often simple wordplay for comedic or rhetorical effect.

What is double entendre?

Both puns and double entendres make use of intentional double meanings. Double entendres are not necessarily puns, though.

What is a homophone?

A homophone refers to two words which have different meanings but which sound the same. (You get a lot of homophonous puns.)

What is a homograph?

Use of the same word with different meanings. “Glued to their seats” (engrossed and also literally stuck to the seat with glue)

What is a nonce word?

“A nonce word (from the sixteenth century phrase for the nonce, meaning ‘for the once’) is a lexeme created for temporary use, to solve an immediate problem of communication”. (David Crystal) In literature, an author purposely coins nonce words for poetic or humorous effect, not to solve a communication problem.

What is a portmanteau word?

A word blending the sounds and combining the meanings of two others, for example motel or brunch.

What is a placeholder?

A word which stands in for another word e.g. thingymajig

What is solecism?

A grammatical mistake in speech or writing

What is nominalisation?

The formation of nouns from verbs

What is adjectivization?

A verb turned into an adjective

What is metathesis?

The transposition of sounds or letters in a word

Children take a special delight in odd or pretty sounds. Given the chance to write, they are very playful with the sonic side of language. Experts say their learning of new words is a process of wonder, laughter, and punning. What children may lack is a developed sense of artistic judgment, so that their poems often include startling successes in sound right next to bland or awkward passages. They tend to accept whatever comes into their heads.

The Poetry Foundation

Between the ages of six and ten we begin to riddles and puns and jokes based on the tricks and confusions of language. The attraction of the riddle is that the person who asks it demonstrates her or his mastery of the ambiguity that is built into language. For instance:

What has four legs and can’t walk?
A table.

A riddle can also be a device for proving the other person stupid — in some cases, stupid because he or she takes riddles seriously.

What’s the difference between a mailbox and a hole in the ground?
I don’t know.
Well, I certainly wouldn’t send you to mail a letter.

Eventually children learn that words can be used to excuse misbehaviour, and even as a way of trapping a victim into a  kind of complicity with his or her persecutor — which is something a lot of adults do with children, getting them to agree that they’ve been bad and deserve a to be punished, for instance. This use of language seems to be behind a familiar catch-riddle:

Adam and Eve and Pinchme went out in a boat to swim. Adam and Eve got drowned, and who was left?

The correct answer maneuvers the victim into asking to be hurt. But there is more to this joke. Its three characters, Adam and Eve and Pinchme, suggest primal, innocent man and woman — or boy and girl — and someone who represents evil, violent impulse, knowledge of good and evil: the serpent in the garden.

As children get older they discover other tricks of language. They become fascinated with tongue twisters, with secret languages like Pig Latin, and with simile and metaphor. Some years ago, for instance, there was a whole cycle of jokes about a character called the Little Moron; the point of the joke was always that he misunderstood metaphors and took them for reality:

Why did the Little Moron throw the clock out the window?
Because he wanted to see time fly.

In telling this joke the child asserts that he is not a little moron; he knows what a metaphor is and no longer takes it literally. But the joke also, like a lot of folklore, allows the vicarious expression of forbidden impulses: in this case, the rage children feel when some adult points to the clock as a reason for going to bed, or not having lunch. “No, dear; see, the clock says it’s not time yet.” No wonder the child wants to throw the clock out the window, to make time fly.

Often the mastery of metaphor is used against adults — even against unknown adults. This happens with the telephone jokes that are played by girls and boys when they begin to acquire a more adult voice — or at least the ability to imitate one. They can then spend happy hours calling up numbers at random and saying, for example: “Good afternoon, ma’am. This is the electric company. Would you please check to see if your refrigerator is running?” The hope is that the person on the other end of the line will hurry into their kitchen to check, hurry back, pick up the phone again, and confirm that it is. Then the reply is: “Well, you’d better catch it before it runs away out the door.” If the joke works, the caller has the satisfaction of making the adult follow a child’s directions and look silly.

Alison Lurie, Don’t Tell The Grownups: The subversive power of children’s literature
  • Jack and the Baked Beanstalk takes a classic tale and gives it a modern twist. Even the title has been modernised — ‘bean’ is universal, but ‘baked bean’ is comically specific, which I’d actually add as another category of humour. (Comic Specificity.) The story itself is not humorous. (The title may therefore be a little misleading.)
  • From A Long Way From Chicago: “The cherry bomb had scared them witless, except for Ernie, who was witless anyway.” More specifically, this is an example of metalepsis — taking an idiomatic expression then turning it into something more literal.
  • The whole book of The Seriously Extraordinary Diary Of Pig is written in a naive kind of dialect reminiscent of the speech of Roald Dahl’s BFG (which, it’s worth noting, was based on Patricia Neal’s mixed-up language as she partially recovered from a serious stroke.)
  • Symbolic names might also be considered a type of wordplay — i.e. someone’s name is in itself funny either because it’s so apt or so ironic.
  • Alliteration can make serious things sound funnier due to alliteration’s usual association with light-heartedness. In The Seriously Extraordinary Diary Of Pig Cow is captured. The villain chants “Mince them on Monday, tan them on Tuesday…” (Do you recognise this joke from The Tawny Scrawny Lion, a classic Little Golden Book?)
  • Sometimes the wordplay element forms the entire basis of a plot. In The Incorrigible Children Of Ashton Place, the children have been raised by wolves. Literally.
  • Wordplay humour presents issues for picture books (in particular) that could otherwise be translated. There are probably books which cannot be successfully translated, for example funny books which relies on rhyme. The Gruffalo doesn’t really take off outside its English language version [because what makes it so good is its rhyme and rhythm.]
  • Mentor Texts for Word Play by Marcie Flinchum Atkins
  • Timmy Failure (Stephan Pastis)
  • Big Nate (Lincoln Pierce),
  • Captain Underpants (Dav Pilkey)
  • Middle School, the Worst Years of My Life (James Patterson)
  • The Odd Squad (Michael Fry)
  • The Wayside School (Louis Sachar)
  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Jeff Kinney)
  • Stink (Megan McDonald, Peter H. Reynolds, and Nancy Cartwright)
  • Dork Diaries (Rachel Renee Russell)
  • Some language play characterizes the Amelia Bedelia series for grades one to five written by Peggy Parish and Herman Parish and illustrated by Fritz Siebel, Lynn Sweat, and Wallace Tripp
  • The nonsensical poetry books of Shel Silverstein, John Ciardi, and Steve Attewell.
catdog wordplay humour
This dual audience joke from Catdog is designed so that only those old enough to get it will get it.

The following from Spongebob Squarepants is not only dual audience humour but is also in-group humour, understood only by people from a particular culture. It includes an explanation, for those of us not in the know when it comes to hipster cafes in a particular moment in history and place:

spongebob hipster cafe parody wordplay humour

The following gag from another Cartoon Network series, Ed, Edd n Eddy, is childlike humour but no doubt appealed to young adults who know what it’s like to hang out with stoned people:

from Ed, Edd n Eddy

The following example from Freaky Friday appeals to teenagers who are often stuck with the job of trying to decipher their teachers and parents. The words make no sense at all, so wordplay is layered with recognition and also character humour (the teacher is vindictive and has a vendetta).

freaky friday humour

While it takes on a different form, wordplay is just as popular for a young adult audience.

Wordplay from 90210
Wordplay from 90210

Even within the category of ‘wordplay’, there are many different types of wordplay, and a joke can work on various layers of wordplay at once, just like any other forms of humour.

Language play at a syntactic—or grammatical—level can be found in Roald Dahl’s statement “I is not wishing to know anything” in The BFG (for the Big Friendly Giant). And language play at a semantic—or meaning—level may include the use of an idiom such as “it’s time to hit the road” used by Mr. Rogers in Amelia Bedelia Goes Camping: Amelia hears Mr. Rogers say it, and she literally hits the road with a stick. Or consider the novel word creation such as the use of “clean-a-rella” for the name of a housekeeping robot in 2030: A Day in the Life of Tomorrow’s Kids, playing off Cinderella who also did all the housework in a well-known fairy tale.

Sometimes language play occurs at multiple levels simultaneously. For example, sound substitutions at a phonological level can change meaning at the semantic level, as in Peter Bently and Deborah Melmon’s portmanteau word “pantachute” (word parts from underpants combined with parachute) in Underpants, Wonderpants.

Other examples include use of puns, as when Lewis Carroll in Alice’s Adventures
in Wonderland explains that the turtle was called a tortoise because “he taught
us,” and as when the Mock Turtle describes “seaography” school, saying there
they study “reeling and writhing.”

Playing with Words, “Dav Pilkey’s Literary Success in Humorous Language

Literary devices used most often by Dav Pilkey fall into two categories of language play— hyperbole and linguistic creativity.


Comparing two disparate things (perhaps by flipping them completely)

Although Scott Dikkers of The Onion talks about ‘analogy’, when it comes to children’s humour, I prefer ‘juxtaposition’. Analogy emphasises what’s similar; juxtaposition emphasises difference. Similarity isn’t that funny; difference is.

gilmore girls humour
Humour comes from recognition (being so bowled over by a kiss you do something unthinking) but also from the juxtaposition between something sweet — a first kiss — and something slightly criminal.

Others — such as Robert Mankoff — have called ‘incongruity’ the basis of humour. There has to be some deviation from the normal. The incongruity can’t be just any old thing — it has to be fitting.

An example: Grandiose titles and language typical of royalty, upper social class, or powerful groups attributed to persons of lower social status or insignificant and inanimate items produce humorous incongruity. (This would also be a type of burlesque humour, because it pokes fun at the upper classes.)

In logic something is either X or not X. In humour, it’s both X and not X.

From an academic paper:

McGhee (1979) proposes that incongruity is a central cause of humor. Indeed, Oring (2010) goes so far as to claim that “humor cannot be appreciated without the perception of an underlying appropriate incongruity” (p. 12). Incongruity humor occurs when an element of a story or situation is established as unexpected, exaggerated, or inappropriate and is then resolved. McGhee (1979) separates incongruity humor into two parts: Discovery of the incongruity and its resolution. In agreement with McGhee (1979), Dean & Allen (2000) state that the two essential elements of a joke are the set-up, which includes the minimum amount of information to establish an initial assumption, and the punch line, a reinterpretation that reverses the initial assumption. Polimeni & Reiss (2006) discuss Veatch’s theory that incongruities in humor must contain one “socially normal” element and one element that violates the “subjective moral order,” or as Veatch defines it, the “rich cognitive and emotional system of opinions about the proper order of the social and natural world”.

In children’s humour juxtaposition is the ‘hat on the dog’ thing. Putting two unlikely things together. This is why my year three daughter thought it funny when her year three teacher did a cartwheel in the playground — a teacher doing a childhood thing. This was the most newsworthy event of her day.

The Mercy Watson series involves the juxtaposition of a pig in a house — the pig not quite human, but treated as a child. There’s a lot of madcap humour in the Mercy Watson stories, too, since Mercy the Pig loves life. (As you’d expect, there is a juxtaposed character who is dull and no fun at all.)

However, in a lot of stories for a middle grade audience the juxtaposition often involves that old sexist joke of a boy dressing up as/being mistaken for a girl. This is not as benign as the ‘hat on a dog’ joke you’ll more likely see in picture books, as it says something terrible about girls, even when the boy is ostensibly the butt of the joke. At first glance it looks like the boy is the butt of the joke, because he has lost his power owing to behaving/dressing/being mistaken for a girl. But it is girls who lose out here. If being a girl means ‘losing face’, what is that saying about girls? Sometimes it’s not the boy dressed as the girl who is the butt of the joke — sometimes it’s the girly girl getting her comeuppance for being too feminine. Feminine as equivalent for prissy, annoying, swotty and self-absorbed. Too many middle grade novels make use of these jokes.

The Status Flip

First we have the socioeconomic status flip.

Juxtaposing upper class with lower class folk is another source of humour, though only if we’re making fun of the rich people and not the other way around.

In A Long Way From Chicago we have the richest woman in town talking to the most down-to-earth, spade’s-a-spade woman in town:

“What a nice, moist consistency your pie filling has, Mrs Dowdel. I’m sure it will be noted. How much water did you add to the mixture?”

“About a mouthful,” Grandma replied.

This is a nice bit of character humour (the characters have already been established — Grandma is anti-pretention, say-it-like-it-is). It is also funny because of the (possibly intended) image of a hillbilly grandma spitting water into the pie, later meant to be eaten by important people. A similar gag is used in The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. In American stories, pies are good for hiding things in because they look delicious and benign. That particular joke is an example of juxtaposition of class combined with character humour and a bit of gross-out humour, too.

The following gag from The Simpsons might be Bart being a smartass, flipping the insult from the bullies, but he may also be oblivious to a classic wind-up line:

bullying flip joke from The Simpsons

This kind of joke works well in stories for teens when it’s being used as a deliberate evasion. Hanna is that smart ass character in Pretty Little Liars.

Is Hanna a smart ass or is she the stupid blonde trope, pitted against the smart brunette? It depends. The writers use Hanna as they see fit.

stupid blonde trope
The Child/Adult Flip

This is the humour utilised in every single carnivalesque picture book ever written. (Okay, only the funny ones — not all carnivalesque stories are comedy genre.)

In the pilot of We Bare Bears, the bears with adult male voices turn out to be more enthusiastically childlike than the actual children at the party, who are only wearing their party hats ‘ironically’, so they tell us. In other words, the adult/child relationship has flipped. This is common in children’s stories. Oftentimes it’s the grandparents or the father who is shown to be less responsible and knowing than the child, who is then charged with saving the day. The antics of this older person themselves are designed to be funny, partly because old people are thought by children to be staid and lacking in movement.

Here’s Hanna again, flipping status with her gym teacher. She’s using irony but the irony works because of the status juxtaposition.

Hanna again, from Pretty Little Liars

Boss Baby by Marla Frazee is an excellent example of an adult/child status flip.

The Book With No Pictures by BJ Novak is also an example of a status flip.

The Classic Trickster Flip

I don’t know what else to call this gag from Spongebob Squarepants:

trickster flip humour


Crazy, wacky, silly, nonsensical

Madcap is another common feature of the humorous carnivalesque.

As I said, with young kids, ‘putting a hat on a dog’ is enough to tickle their sense of humour.

What if you dress up an animal and put them in a house? Is that still funny? When Beatrix Potter created Peter Rabbit, that had not been seen before. Potter’s animal stories aren’t overtly humorous, but would have delighted audiences at the time. Do children still see dressed up animals as funny? I will argue that no, they don’t. That’s not to say animals dressed as humans don’t hold their interest, because they obviously do. An animal behaving as a human says to the kid, “Hey, this story is probably for you!” There are many reasons for writers of children’s books using animals as stand-ins for humans. As for ‘humour’, we’re now at a point where there has to be some meta element to the talking animal before it’s funny. As an example, an episode of We Bare Bears sees the optimistic adventurer Grizz leading the other two bears into the forest to survive like natural bears, with no mobile phones and no processed food. Over the course of this jaunt the bears devolve into angry, ferocious, actual bears. Until now, humans in the series have treated the bears as humans without batting an eyelid. Now suddenly they are terrified. By the end of the episode the wild bears have made it through a fast food drive-thru, have refuelled on burgers and shakes and are now behaving like teenage boy humans. The juxtaposition is now funny. They look like animals but don’t act like the real world animals they represent. The viewer holds both versions of ‘animal’ in mind.

Some carnivalesque stories can have a strong plot. Others put plot in the background.

  • The Tiger Who Came To Tea is a great example of the carnivalesque. (The title gives away the plot.)
  • Fortunately, The Milk by Neil Gaiman is a carnivalesque tale for slightly older readers, in which the father comes back from the corner shop with a tall tale. It’s no coincidence that the father tells the tall tale while the mother has been removed from the story. The tall tale is an historically masculine tradition. At its base, the tall tale is probably used to establish and maintain hierarchy — who is the best storyteller around this campfire, and who is taken in by my story? Boys are especially likely to use humour to establish and maintain hierarchy.
  • Iconic New Zealand children’s author Margaret Mahy wrote madcap tales for middle grade readers, such as The Pirates’ Mixed-up Voyage.
  • Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland is a sort of madcap adventure, though I feel the main interest comes from the wordplay. Alice In Wonderland has a meandering plot, much like Ulysses, and the earlier Wimpy Kid books (before Jeff Kinney started writing with movie script adaptations in mind).
  • The Madeline books by Ludwig Bemelmans are carnivalesque. Madeline gets herself into some unlikely adventure where the reader has fun along with Madeline herself.

There are many, many examples of madcap humour in children’s literature. A lot of it involves slapstick, physical comedy:

  • Falling down and breaking things
  • Tripping/kicking/punching someone else by accident
  • Landing in something disgusting (puddles, poo, mud)
  • Landing on top of other creatures in pile-ups
  • Falling over cliffs, down hills, into bodies of water
  • Accidentally starting machinery, which springs into action and does something unexpected
  • Provoking a wild creature by accident
  • The list is endless

There is a trick writers often use to make madcap/slapstick/absurd behaviour even funnier:

Give funny characters an audience within the setting itself.

In the pilot of We Bare Bears, we are shown that the bears get around by two of the hopping onto the bottom bear’s back. “I’ll drive,” says the bottom bear. Next we see them on a commuter train, still on top of each other. The bears are largely ignored, because these creatures are accepted as part of the world of the story, but an old lady looks at them with interest. “Wassup?” says the top bear nonchalantly, and the scene ends. There is also something meta about this. The audience wonders, are these bears really a part of the setting, or are these strangers on the train the same audience as we are? The audience on the train exists not only for humorous purposes, but also to establish the ‘rules’ of the setting — humans accept these bears (so long as they behave like humans with a few animal quirks).

The audience effect is also used a lot for important monologues. I have noticed American audiences/writers really like to include an audience within a story. This must say something interesting about American culture, and is possibly related to the American Culture of Celebrity. A post for another time.

Perhaps in the category of Madcap Humour we can include any kind of surrealist/absurdist humour. Grandiosity, exaggeration, logical impossibilities, silliness, and comedy of chaos are other similar concepts. All of these increase any intensification/hyperbolic comedy.


Jokes about jokes, or about the idea of comedy

Meta-humour is a subcategory of metafiction: What is metafiction, anyway?

  • This Book Just Ate My Dog! This picture book by Richard Byrne combines irony (dogs eat books, not usually the other way around) and metafiction. The dog disappears into the gutter of the book. Readers are not normally meant to regard a book’s gutter as part of the reading experience.
  • Press Here by Herve Tullet makes fun of digital books by turning an actual book into a fake book app.
  • In Powerpuff Girls the main characters are often called ‘bug-eyed freaks’, ‘pumpkin heads’ and other insults which actually make accurate reference to the way they have been character designed — drawing attention to the fact that these are cartoon people.
  • Wolves by Emily Gravett is another excellent picture book example.
  • Dogman: Lord of the Fleas has a running gag about humour itself. What is it with you and POOP? Look, you can’t just tell the same joke… over and over… and expect it to still be funny! You can’t do the same things… again and again… and expect to get a laugh! Ya gotta avoid repetition…shun redundancy…eschew reiteration… resist recapitulation… and also, stop telling the same joke over and over! […] Why do you keep telling these stupid jokes? Because it’s distracting. Distracting from what? […] Ya just gotta switch expectations! The story itself includes many jokes about poop, repeated over and over. The story itself is metafictive, supposedly written by the two boys from Captain Underpants. This gag seems to poke fun at adults and teachers who would call this kind of humour facile.

There’s another type of joke which can probably fit in here: When the writer very specifically names something which would not be called that in the real-world, because it is far too on-the-nose.

  • The Incorrigible Children Of Ashton Place gets a nanny from an institution called ‘the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females’. This not only harks back to a time when things were more often called exactly what they were ‘orphanage, sugar diabetes’, ‘crippled’, but is a wink and a nod to the reader — this is what the place is called because it is fictional, and I, the writer, am giving you everything you need to know about this nanny up front.

The following from Pretty Little Liars is slightly meta because the audience has been pulled into this supernatural world where anything is possible. Then, we’re reminded sarcastically that not everything in this supernatural world is necessarily magical and evil.

meta humour from Pretty Little Liars


Attention is focused on the wrong thing

This category of humour is often a subcategory of irony. In picture books there is almost always some ironic distance between the text and the illustrations. This allows for dramatic irony, in which the reader knows something before the main characters do.

spongebob squarepants humour
misplaced focus humour from Spongebob Squarepants
  • The stand-out example of this joke, sustained throughout the course of the entire story is Guess Who’s Coming For Dinner? A hapless goose and pig think they’ve been invited to a wolf’s mansion to share a feast but they are in fact intended as dinner. These delicious dinner guests are so focused on gorging themselves that they miss the numerous clues (conveyed only in the pictures) that the reader is picking up. They avoid death only by pure chance.
  • Wolf Comes To Town is funny because the people of the town don’t realise there’s a wolf among them, dressed as a human. Wolves are commonly this kind of trickster in children’s literature — this too comes from Aesop. Foxes are also cunning tricksters.

At a line level, this sort of joke can often be expressed as ‘metalepsis’. Metalepsis is a figure of speech in which a word or a phrase from an idiomatic expression is used in a new context.

Related to metalepsis (or perhaps a subset of it?), a commonly understood concept or phrase is interpreted over-literally. This is why it’s so handy to have a stoopid character in the ensemble of a comedy cast. In Spongebob Squarepants it’s Patrick. In The Simpsons it’s Homer. In We Bare Bears it’s Grizz. In Seinfeld it’s Kramer. Seriously, there’s one in every comedy series. (As a side note, every stupid character needs a smart counterpart to bounce off.) 

Avoiding mean-spiritedness, the stupid character also often comes up trumps precisely because of their stupids. For instance, their stupid remark will come across like a witty comeback. Or, the baddie will attempt to eat them, but because they’re stupid they end up escaping their fate entirely by accident. The stupid/naive trickster is beloved of young audiences.

stupid character humour taking something literally
  • In The Seriously Extraordinary Diary Of Pig by Emer Stamp, our main character (Pig) is more naive than the reader. Commenting on his owners’ decision to grow ‘organik’ vegetables, he says, “Duck says the Sandals now grows a special kind of veggie what is called organik. He says this means they is super expensive so the Sandals gets lots more money when they sells them. Why would anyone wants money more than they wants veggies? Money doesn’t taste anywhere near as nice as veggies.”
  • Later, when Duck says they’ve only just got back into the Sandals’ ‘good book’, Pig takes Duck literally, imagining an actual book with ‘Good Book’ as its title. Taking things literally is one common way of getting a laugh in children’s books and is, coincidentally, also the origin of most Dad jokes, in which the Dad deliberately misinterprets what has been said in order to raise ire.


When you’re a parent or a librarian or a teacher or a bookseller who reads a lot of children’s books, you sometimes wish for fun. Children’s books are often by their very nature “fun”. But there’s fun that’s strained and trying to appeal to everyone and then there’s fun that appears to be effortless. You read a book, are transported elsewhere, lose track of time, and never want the story to end.

Betsy Bird, from her review of The Incorrigible Children Of Ashton Place
  • You can indeed shove almost everything into these 11 categories if you use your imagination.
  • As Scott Dikkers says in his book expanding on this topic, jokes can be ‘layered’ by using more than one of these categories at a time. This is also very much true for the humour in children’s stories. The cleverest of the jokes fit three or four categories at once.
  • As I suspected, irony is a common catch-all for anything that doesn’t fit the other categories. Irony blends with all and any of the others.
  • Certain types of humour such as wordplay, madcap and hyperbole are very common in books for young readers.
  • As children get older they are expected to recognise more subtle character humour, irony and eventually parodies. However, even the youngest of readers are able to pick when the picture says something different from the words. This in itself is a kind of ironic distance.
  • Also, writers of children’s comedies don’t avoid, say, parody jokes just because the youngest members of the audience wouldn’t understand it, yet. They’ll most often include jokes for the older co-audience.
  • Even if a children’s story isn’t comedy, almost all popular children’s fiction is funny in places. Even something like Pretty Little Liars, which might be mistaken for taking itself too seriously.
  • Stories for and about girls are in general more earnest. The stars of funny stories are most often boys. (This is why Betsy Bird created the book Funny Girl — a collection of the moment’s funniest female writers.) While it’s perfectly possible to line your daughter’s bookshelves with funny stories for and about girls, the big-name most dominant funny stories in our culture are about boys.
  • This is particularly noticeable in the cinema. Feisty princesses don’t need to improve the world in serious fashion a la Brave. There’s no reason, Pixar et al, why you can’t make a film starring a girl who is genuinely, consistently funny. Where are the stories starring girls in which humour is the main point? Frozen is a big name movie for/about girls but it is not all that funny. The funniest bits involve the male characters. The girls get a bit of slapstick. (NPR explained that Frozen is a bit different from most similar films in that the jokes are not all jammed into the start — the film does in fact become more funny as the film progresses. However, it’s interesting to note that the men on that podcast didn’t think it was sufficiently funny.) Inside Out, likewise, does not give preference to humour. Maybe this is the real reason why boys apparently don’t want to watch films starring girls? (So it’s said.) If you go to a popular TV show for and about girls (take Pretty Little Liars as an example again) you’ll find that the fandom does a great job of inserting their own humour by sharing memes with their own one-liners.
  • Because The Onion is all about verbal humour — if we exclude the stock photography that accompanies the text — funny mainly because it looks so normal and serious — the categories above don’t do justice to the visual humour found in picture books, cartoon shows and illustrated books for children.
  • The bestselling books for children contain humour aimed at adults (bookbuyers). David Walliams’ books are about 50/50 adult humour/kid jokes. Walliams is the contemporary Roald Dahl.
  • Are Funny Books Taken As Seriously? In 2008 Michael Rosen set up the Roald Dahl Funny Prize to reward authors and books which otherwise get looked over in the major awards. Funny books are easier to read, garner a wider audience and by definition are not ‘serious’ books, so not ‘taken seriously’. They don’t challenge readers in the same way. This isn’t true, but is a common view. The body of scholarship on Pippi Longstocking (very light and funny) in Scandinavian is astonishing and shows that this story is taken seriously despite being funny. Pippi Longstocking is one of the few books that challenges authority. This is a rare example of a classic which, despite its status as a funny book, garners a lot of respect. So maybe things aren’t as bad as they look, and that after a book has acquired status as a classic makes people wonder what is being said about deeper issues. Wait a generation or two and funny books are then taken seriously.



What category is it when a polar bear crashes a child’s birthday party and ends up with jelly all over its fur, making it look like it just murdered one of the children? (From the pilot of We Bare Bears.) It’s not shock exactly, because it is funny rather than shocking — there’s no real taboo that’s being broken, and the reader knows the bear is harmless. Shared symbolism is important here. The audience interprets this humour with the understanding that red equals blood. This is visual humour.

The Penguin Ronald Searle By Ronald Searle (published by Penguin Books Ltd, London 1960) monster sale
The Penguin Ronald Searle By Ronald Searle (published by Penguin Books Ltd, London 1960). A visual-language combo, reliant upon a literal interpretation of ‘monster sale’.


People in children’s literature world like educational texts and that even applies to jokes. Educational value is not something adults look for when we seek our own comedy.

And like a lot of my favourite children’s fiction, [York] has jokes that are going to lead to kids looking up further information, just so that they can stay in the know. For example, at one point a kindly therapist asks why Tess draws crows over her heads when she sketches and her reply is, “That’s not a crown… That’s a nimbus of outrage.” My favourite, however, may be Theo’s shirt that says “Schrodinger’s cat is dead” on the front and then a zombie cat on the back with the line, “Schrodinger’s cat is ALIIIIIIVE.” I will be seeking this t-shirt out to buy presently. And for the record, I’m pretty sure there are a lot of references in this book I wasn’t getting.

from a review of York by Betsy Bird


Is there such a thing as kid logic jokes?

[Louis] Sachar builds kid-logic jokes into his stories—in 1989, he published a book of absurdist math problems called “Sideways Arithmetic from Wayside School,” in which, for example, a girl named Sue proves that her dog Fangs is a good dog by the equation “good” + “dog” = “fangs.” The letters correspond to numbers, and all the equations work—though I’ve yet to solve one.

The New Yorker

I don’t know about you, but I personally don’t find these funny. Kids do, which is why you’ll see the same old 1980s playground jokes still doing the rounds in 2017.

As [psychoanalyst] Martha Wolfenstein says, the joke that seems funny to a child may not seem funny to adults, or to children of different ages. The general rule seems to be that as you grow older the forbidden wish or emotion is gradually more disguised, and the joke that allows it expression becomes more complicated.

For examples, take the natural interest that children have in their own and other people’s bodies. Preschoolers will often spontaneously pulls their skirts up or their jeans down to show you their tummies, or lie on their backs waving their legs about and giggling. By the time they start school, this sort of activity has mostly been given up. Instead, children of six or so tease others by trying to pull down their pants; they now know they are not supposed to exposed themselves, so they try to expose someone else.

At about seven, actual physical assault is replaced by rhymes about exposure. There are literally dozens of those, most along the lines of

I see England
I see France
I see [Mary’s] underpants.

To the adult such verses seem stupid and, if one has to hear them very often, annoying. But to the child, as Wolfenstein points out, they represent a giant step toward growing up. The conflict between id and superego, between the wish to see and show off nakedness and the knowledge that this is naughty and forbidden, has been sublimated into art. It is a very low form of art, but art nevertheless.

A year or two later, at about age eight, we begin to get verses about the nakedness of absent or fictional persons — another level of sophistication. Children this age recite rhymes like:

Hi-ho Silver everywhere
Tonto lost his underwhere.

At nine or ten children get to the point where simply announcing the physical exposure of someone doesn’t feel right; there has to be an excuse for the event. So we get a new sort of rhyme. Here, for instance, is a taunt that uses the name of the victim’s mother:

[Mrs Smith] went to town
To buy a pair of britches,
When she came home she tried them on
And bang went all the stitches.

Another charm of this one, no doubt, is that the person exposed is a parent, an authority figure. [It is also a fatphobic joke, still very common in 2017.]

By eleven or twelve most children have given up reciting such verses, but they still enjoy jokes and stories about physical exposure, especially if it happens as a result of an accident. Sometimes they will tell a story in which one of the characters is a younger child who doesn’t know something about the world that they have recently learned. Such a tale has a double payoff: it works, a psychologist might say, both in Freudian and in Adlerian terms (sexual release — superiority). For example:

Once there was a little girl walking home from school and she met a man on the street and he said to her, “Little girl, can you stand on your head?” So she said yes, and he said, “If you’ll stand on your head now, I’ll give you ten cents.” So she did, and he did. But when she got home she told her mother, and her mother was indignant. “You shouldn’t have done that,” her mother said. “All he wanted was to see your underpants.” Well, the next day when the little girl got home from school, her mother asked if she met the nasty man who wanted to see her underpants. So the little girl said, “Yes, and he gave me ten cents today, too. But I fooled him. I didn’t wear any.”

Alison Lurie: Don’t Tell The Grown-ups: The subversive power of children’s literature


Lemon girl young adult novella


A Brief Taxonomy Of Book Titles

taxonomy book title

When writing a story, sometimes titles come easily, other times hard. This is something the self-published author has to think about. Traditionally published authors don’t need to get invested in the title. Marketing departments will decide for you.

Here’s a secret: many, many, many titles are changed once a publisher gets hold of them. In fact, every single one of my book titles has changed, if you can believe it.

from Alison Winn Scotch, writer

Well, I will admit to thinking that if Marketing truly had their way, the title for every book would be an artless string of words broadcasting its selling appeal. The Hunger Games would be called ACTION PACKED DYSTOPIAN LOVE TRIANGLE.

from Boxcars, Books and a Blog
Continue reading “A Brief Taxonomy Of Book Titles”

Storytelling Notes On A Series Of Unfortunate Events (2017)

Unfortunate Events Netflix

Daniel Handler wrote the teleplay (as well as the books) to the Netflix adaptation of A Series Of Unfortunate Events. The author’s voice and politics come through loud and clear.

Handler loves wordplay, and is not shy of delivering a ‘moral lesson’ on the difference between ‘literally’ and ‘figuratively’. Words and their meanings are consistently explained, but because Klaus, at least, already knows what the words mean, the young viewer does not feel condescended to. The joke is almost always on Count Olaf. Handler also has a keen handle on the most common storytelling tropes in children’s literature, and makes fun of them whenever he can. Lemony Snicket is on the side of the child.

In the books the storyteller is hidden from view, but for the television series Lemony Snicket is portrayed in the form of Patrick Warburton, whose formal dress juxtaposes with the humorous positions he is placed in: sitting on a lifesaver’s chair, coming out of a sewerage hole in the middle of the street and so on. See: The Role Of Storytellers In Fiction.

This is the fist scene in which Lemony Snicket tells us to look away. We are put in mind of film noir (which is not a genre by the way, more a stylistic descriptor invented by critics).

Storyteller as ghostly lifeguard

A Series Of Unfortunate Events is famously metafictive, in which a character called Lemony Snicket warns children that this is going to be a terrible, horrible tale and they’d best turn away. Tongue-in-cheek reverse psychology. This advice is taken to its metaphorical limit in the TV series, in which the theme song advises us to ‘look away, look away!’ Then we have all the eye imagery — the viewfinder views, Count Olaf’s gaze through the peep hole (the first the Baudelaire children see of him), his eye tattoo and so on.

The cinematography of the Netflix TV series seems influenced by the films of Wes Anderson, both in symmetry and in colour. An audience knows to expect quirky from this style, and dark humour. (It was filmed in British Colombia, Canada, and you may recognise an actor or two from Orphan Black.)

Two point perspective as a train rolls past a static camera

The reflection of the old mansion allows the viewer to see both the children’s expressions as well as what they are saying goodbye to.

I’m guessing the clouds have been digitally manufactured in this distinctively storybook scene.

The brother and sister Baudelaire children stand in for ‘The Everychild’. They do not have all that much in the way of personality, aside from being inherently good and kind and well-behaved. There are differences between them — while I read Klaus as an autist, Violet is a comically Pollyanna character, determined to make the most of the situation when she asks Klaus to come across the worst predicament he’s ever encountered in his reading, then concludes they are not so badly off. Again, this is Daniel Handler making fun of the character trope that girls and boys in popular children’s stories are expected to be ‘nice’ and ‘good’. This doesn’t matter — we have Count Olaf for the laughs. In fact, all of the surrounding characters have more quirks and personality than Violet and Klaus, who, like the child audience, are newcomers to the situation and are to be read as ‘normal’.

The baby has magic super powers — she can chew things to pieces, and even create entirely new objects simply by using her four teeth. Her baby language is treated as if it’s an entirely different language, which only her siblings and surprising other characters are able to understand to the exclusion of everyone else. The baby’s words are subtitled in a font from the silent film era.

This setting is an example of Magic Realism. It also has steampunk elements, not so different from the Spy Kids series, in which our child heroes are expert at building contraptions. These expertise are first shown as a means of them having fun (retrieving the perfect skimming stone from the ocean), but of course these skills come in handy later, to get themselves out of dire trouble.

“It’s only scary because of the mist,” Klaus says metafictively, as Mr Poe (surely named after the horror writer?) approaches them on the beach to deliver terrible news. See: Fog Symbolism.

“It’s only scary because of the mist.”

A lot of the humour comes from the juxtaposition between the fairytale setting and very modern problems. For instance, when Hook-Handed Man ruins an old-fashioned typewriter (because he has hooks for hands) he asks for IT support. When Count Olaf says Violet will be marrying him ‘in an hour’ he upends a giant hourglass which he can’t remember the name of. This is making use of the classic ‘ticking clock’ storytelling device, often used to heighten suspense, but when the timer runs out nothing happens, except for Count Olaf losing face by returning through the trapdoor of the attic to explain that, actually, he bought the thing online and he didn’t know the sand went through so quickly so the children will have to turn it over a few times.

Handler is a master of irony, and there is irony in every scene and in a large proportion of the dialogue. For example, the Baudelaire children are at first taken to Mr Poe’s family — an archetypal cosy house with both parents, full of children and a well-coiffed mother in an apron who at first appears to be the epitome of a caring 1950s housewife.

We soon learn, however, that not all is well in the suburbs and she is in fact unwelcoming, taking obvious and great pleasure in the publicity she is able to garner for her own family via this tragic event.

Later that night, her children ask the Baudelaires how they managed to kill their parents, presumably because they’re hoping to do the same. The following morning we see just how small and ‘cosy’ the Poes’ house really is. Small-minded people live in very small houses — ‘cramped’, more than ‘cosy’, as first suggested by the dining table scene.


“I know he’s very eager to meet you and he’s employed as an actor so you know his excitement is genuine.”

This ironic tone pairs very nicely — like a great pair of serif/sans serif fonts — with the fact that much of the dialogue is in fact ‘on the nose’. The plot itself is signposted. While we are busy enjoying the setting and humour, we are not expected to work too hard to understand what is going on.

“Chop chop, Baudelaires. Now that I’ve found you a suitable guardian I’m going to take you to your new home before banking hours begin.”

Daniel Handler is firmly on the side of the child audience.

Mr Poe: “I know you must be nervous about living with a guardian. I know how I was when I was your age.”
Klaus: “We’re all different ages.”

The joke is repeated again later when another clueless adult — Count Olaf — talks about how much he loved cupcakes when he was ‘their age’. Again, Klaus repeats, “But we’re all different ages.” As is the child audience. More proof that in Daniel Handler’s writer’s mind, the Baudelaire children stand for The Audience In General. Also, we are not to believe adults who use the annoying phrase, “When I was your age”.

When Klaus expresses dismay at Count Olaf’s having a tattoo of an eye on his ankle (not to mention all the obvious eyeball paraphernalia about the house), the very reasonable and politically correct Violet advises her brother, as well as the audience, that tattoos are simply a decorative pigmentation of the skin and do not mean the person wearing them is bad. This stands in stark contrast with much characterisation from The First Golden Age Of Children’s Literature in particular, in which we were actively encouraged to judge baddies based on what they look like.

A mystery is introduced when the children find a strange object hidden in the rubble of their family home.

Cinderella is the ur-tale behind A Series Of Unfortunate Events. We have poor orphans who have lost their caring and excellent real parents and who are sent to live in a big house which is emotionally bereft. They are forced to endure terrible hardships, though not of the realworld kind — that would be too cruel and not at all for children — cleaning and scrubbing and cooking and always failing to win approval. Basically an exaggerated form of how generally-cared-for children feel when they’re feeling a bit sorry for themselves.

The parents are not actually dead. We are reassured of this at the end of the first episode.

Why is it not more tragic that the parents (apparently) die in a terrible fire right at the beginning of the story? Because we don’t know the parents. The history of children’s literature (particularly American children’s literature) is chock full of orphans. If we don’t get to know them, their deaths are not sad per se, rather the plight of the children is the sad thing. See: Why So Many Orphans In Children’s Literature?

The dark, empty mansion belonging to Count Olaf is contrasted with the inverse living right across the road — Justice Strauss who is not the slightest bit evil, has a garden full of blossoms, a beautiful big library and is a very caring person. Extreme evil against extreme nice. Comic characters are often 2D and that’s just fine. These are dream houses, to use the terminology of Gaston Bachelard, so of course they have stairs, basements and attics. See: Symbolism Of The Dream House.

This is all we see of the Baudelaire children’s house before it is razed to the ground — a wonderful, warm library (and no parents in sight).

When the camera pans from Justice Strauss’s house to Count Olaf’s gothic mansion the camera follows a blue bird flying happily. Unfortunately, in the middle of the street, a raven swoops down and kills it. A raven in storytelling probably puts you in mind of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, among many others. The raven is a metaphor for death, understood by young audiences and jaded ones alike.

Blue bird, and blue sky on the sunny side of the street.

Raven swoops in front of Count Olaf’s mansion

Count Olaf himself is birdlike, watching the children from his bird’s eye view in the belfry.

Count Olaf ‘welcomes’ the children to his home.

It’s such a shame the Baudelaire children can’t live with Justice Strauss, and we are made to feel it keenly. This regret is underscored by her declaration that she’s just bought a new food processor, but who does she think she’s kidding because “I have no mechanical skills whatsoever”. Since we already know the children are expert mechanics, they would obviously be a great fit. Moreover, she has no way of cutting up the baguette, which the baby is excellent at doing with her teeth.

meeting Justice Strauss


Performative Metafiction: Lemony Snicket, Daniel Handler and The End of A Series of Unfortunate Events

Goodbye My Brother by John Cheever Analysis

“Packing the Car” by Stevan Dohanos, (cover art for The Saturday Evening Post, September 8, 1956

“Goodbye My Brother” is one of John Cheever’s best known short stories. In fact, it was this story which contributed to Cheever’s receiving his Guggenheim Scholarship. Cheever returned time and again to the dynamic of an uneasy relationship between two brothers. The relationship is always a metaphor for something bigger.

Clear Island Goodbye My Brother
Modern Day Clear Island, Massachussetts

I prefer the nihilist brother Lawrence, nick-named ‘Croaker’. He may have a tendency to point out the downside of any situation, but he is nonetheless right. When he notes that making improvements on a house near the coast is futile due to erosion from the sea, I’m reminded of that very modern division that can occur between family members at gatherings: Those who worry about climate change and rising sea levels versus those who insist that any climate change is a natural phenomenon and nothing at all to worry about. No matter the era, there will always be somewhat of a clash between pessimists and optimists; that’s what make this story timeless.

After reading “Goodbye, My Brother”, I suspected there was far more below the surface. Sure enough, after reading Peter Mathews’ essay A Farewell to Goodbyes: Reconciling the Past in Cheever’s “Goodbye, My Brother” I realise that in order to really understand Cheever you would ideally have an understanding of mythology, the history of religion, and a keen eye for symbolism. I’m sure I could keep digging into this one until I reached China.


The Pommeroy Clan gathers at the family’s summer house, built in the 1920s on an island off the coast of Massachusetts. The four grown children and their families join their widowed mother for this summer ritual. This is a special gathering as they haven’t seen Lawrence in four years. Unfortunately, Lawrence has a reputation for putting a downer on proceedings, and sure enough, he starts to piss off the rest of the family by pointing out the negatives and refusing to be a ‘joiner’.

One night, the family all dress up for an ‘As You Were’ party, except for Lawrence and Ruth, who don’t want to go. All the wives turn up in their wedding dresses; the men are surprised to find more than one has turned up in his high school football uniform. Then Ruth turns up, wearing a red dress which feels to the narrator ‘all wrong’. Lawrence is outside and refuses to come in. The narrator assumes it’s because he thinks the whole idea of dressing up as someone from the past is pathetic. Note that we never really know what Lawrence thinks.

While the rest of the family is at a flower show, Lawrence and the narrator have their own little showdown on the beach after the narrator has a go at Lawrence for spoiling everyone’s holiday. Then he whacks him across the back of the head with a wet root, wishing him dead. He ends up going off to have a swim and not worrying too much about whether he is okay. Lawrence, nihilist that he is, doesn’t seem all that surprised by this, but is angry enough to pack up and leave after announcing the incident to the family.  Only the mother got up to say goodbye before Lawrence’s family took the six o’clock boat to the mainland.


New England Coast Map

Laud’s Head appears to be a fictional headland of the sort that you find dotted along the New England coast of America. Cheever wrote “Goodbye, My Brother,” after a gloomy summer in Martha’s Vineyard, so I suppose we might imagine that setting. That said, the name ‘Laud’ apparently has significance to readers who know their English history:

[T]he summer house, or Eden, of the Pommeroy family is called Laud’s Head, a name which, if one knows some English religious history, undoubtedly refers to one of the most famous Anglican Archbishops, William Laud, who was beheaded by the Puritans in 1645 for attempting to bring back into the Episcopal Church music, ritual, the Communion table, and the sacramental system the Puritans had banned. […] Chaddy Pommeroy […] and Chucky Ewing […] both have names that are cognates of […] Charles I, who also lost his head to the Puritans under the chief Roundhead, Oliver Cromwell.

Patrick Meanor
The Weather As Emotion In “Goodbye My Brother”

The blustery Atlantic air plays an important part in the story. The cold ocean air has blown away the gloom that Lawrence has brought with him from Albany. At the end of the story, the narrator wakes up on the morning of Lawrence’s abrupt departure with a feeling that a black cloud has blown away and left a perfectly gorgeous day.

Jesus, what a morning! The wind was northerly. The air was clear. In the early heat, the roses in the garden smelled like strawberry jam.

In stories, when the weather reflects character emotions, this is called ‘pathetic fallacy’. See: Pathetic Fallacy not actually an insult. (There are other examples of this poetic device, though weather/emotions is a commonly utilised one.) On the other hand, the veridical weather may not have changed; rather, the narrator’s perception of it changed along with his improved mental state.


Cheever’s characters have been described as ‘Sisyphean’, meaning they can never quite achieve completeness. (Sisypheus was a Greek king who, punished for deceit, was forced to roll a huge boulder uphill only to watch it roll back down again, repeating the task for eternity.)

The Pommeroy Clan

A Puritan American family who have a holiday house with a tennis court.

With his mouth set, my brother looked to me then like a Puritan critic. Sometimes, when I try to understand his frame of mind, I think of the beginnings of our family in this country […] The branch of the Pommeroys to which we belong was founded by a minister who was eulogized by Cotton Mather for his untiring abjuration of the Devil. The Pommeroys were ministers until the middle of the nineteenth century, and the harshness of their thought — man is full of misery, and all earthly beauty is lustful and corrupt — has been preserved in books and sermons. The temper of our family changed somewhat and became more lighthearted, but […] it seemed to me to have been a trial of the spirit in which Lawrence had succumbed.

The French roots of the name Pommeroy signifies “king of the apples,” a reference to the story’s Edenic setting.

The Unnamed Narrator: 38 years old, a married schoolteacher. Apart from time spent with the family, he lives in a school dormitory. Since this is a story told in the first person, this narrator will be unreliable to some extent. And to some extent, our narrator acknowledges this:

I think I saw what was going on his mind.

On the other hand, we see the narrator calling the kettle black:

It is like Lawrence to try to read significance and finality into every gesture that we make…

Usually, the reader identifies with the first person narrator, or the main character. In this case, the reader may or may not side with Lawrence we are prompted in no particular direction by Cheever, who presents the story without asking us to take a moral stand. This narrator isn’t a particularly nice person.  He express no guilt over the fact that he had tried to kill his brother on the beach the day before by hitting him over the head with a waterlogged tree-root. It’s not even an isolated incident he recalls a time in childhood, hitting Lawrence on the head with a rock.

This unrepentent narrator may have his youngest brother all wrong, for all the reader knows:

“The ‘I’ of the story seems at first a patient, long-suffering and trustworthy narrator, but as the tale progresses we realize that a great deal of Lawrence’s gloominess is not demonstrated but ascribed to him, proceeding less from his act than his thoughts, to which we have no access but the narrator’s speculation.

David Raney

The narrator is married to a woman called Helen, who dyes her hair to hide the years. Helen and the narrator live on Long Island with four children.

The Narrator’s Widowed Mother: husband was killed in a sailing accident. She has formed strong opinions on how to lead a life well-lived, and is fond of dishing out life advice to her children, even though the children are old enough now to see contractions between what she says and how she behaves.

The Dead Father: Just as important to a story are the characters who are not there:

The absence of the Pommeroy father constitutes more than just a fictional device: Cheever places him at the fringes of the story in order to create a deliberate echo of the other legal discourses evoked by the narrator. Through this repeated association, the Pommeroy father becomes the symbol of the law. His legal correlates are mapped in Figure 1: God the Father, the Logos from the Gospel of John and the author of the Ten Commandments; Uranus, the grandfather of the Greek gods and the father of the Titans; and Cotton Mather, the patriarch and lawgiver of colonial, Puritan America.

Peter Mathews

We are told the children are ‘out of their twenties’. It turns out they are in their early forties/late thirties.

One Recently Divorced Sister: Diana. Diana has been living in France while her two children are at school in Switzerland. The names of the two women, Helen and Diana, have mythic associations.  Mythic associations add a dimension of tradition to a story, and reinforce Cheever’s need to explore the past, ‘even into antiquity’.

Two Other Brothers:

1. Chaddy, lives in Manhattan. Chaddy and the narrator have a competitive relationship with each other, but not a soured one. Chaddy is their mother’s favourite and successful in his work, whatever that is. Chaddy is married to Odette, who flirts to restore her youth. Odette has black hair and black eyes and is careful to keep out of the sun. She flirts (not seriously) as modus operandi.

Lawrence is described as a 'changeling'.
Lawrence is described as a ‘changeling‘.

2. Lawrence is the youngest son and a lawyer. He got a job with a Cleveland firm after the war.  The family didn’t see him during that time. He now works for a firm in Albany, so agreed to spend time with the family at Laud’s Head. Lawrence’s name, of course, contains the word “law,” but his nicknames also possess deeper meanings: “Little Jesus” during the latter part of his youth. But it is his childhood nickname that has a particular resonance throughout the story. He was called Tifty as a child because of the sound his slippers made on the floor as he walked. Also called Croaker (a person who grumbles or habitually predicts evil) and Little Jesus (fitting the Puritan motif). Lawrence is the only member of the family who has never enjoyed drinking.

With his mouth set, my brother looked to me then like a Puritan cleric. Sometimes, when I try to understand his frame of mind, I think of the beginnings of our family in this country, and his disapproval of Diana and her lover reminded me of this.

Lawrence is both repulsed by and attracted to the past.

I remembered Lawrence’s sensitivity to time and his sentiments and opinions about our feelings for the past. I had heard him say, years ago, that we and our friends and our part of the nation, finding ourselves unable to cope with the problems of the present, had, like a wretched adult, turned back to what we supposed was a happier and simpler time, and that our taste for reconstruction and candlelight was a measure of this irremediable failure.

Lawrence is a nihilist. He can ‘make a grievance out of anything’, according to the narrator.

But in Lawrence’s favour, he doesn’t seem all that bothered by a blow to his head by his older brother, because the nihilist in him must have been expecting it.

Note that Lawrence barely speaks more than a few lines in the entire narrative. Though the title is named for the narrator’s relationship with this particular brother, Lawrence is not all that important to the story, because the story is about the narrator’s inner-world alone. Interestingly, the character of Lawrence did not even exist in an early draft of this story.

The brother story, in its bare outline, was the story of one man. There was no brother; there was no Lawrence. (In the finished story he speaks only a few lines and the bulk of his opinions are given to him by the narrator.) I tried to bury this outline then under several others so that the story would unfold like an uncooked onion.

Letters 160

Lawrence is married to Ruth. The character of Ruth also highlights the importance of names to unlocking the themes of Cheever’s story; Ruth is a Biblical character who sacrifices a lot for others. In this story, Ruth is ‘a thin girl, tired from the journey.’

I…passed Ruth in the laundry. She was washing clothes. I don’t know why she should seem to have so much more work to do than anyone else, but she is always washing or mending clothes.

Their two children, too, are thin and wear ‘ornate cowboy costumes’. They cry/take offence easily. Even their own grandmother can’t stand to be around them as they look so dejected.

But does Lawrence really exist? Cheever apparently told a mentor: “There was no brother; there was no Lawrence.” I’m not sure of the context surrounding this perhaps he meant in an early draft, but I like the idea that Lawrence is a figment of the narrator’s imagination the squirrel in his attic, the pessimistic side of himself, putting a dampener on his very own holiday.

I have recently started asking of stories: What if X character doesn’t really exist in the world of the story? Simply by asking this question you can come up with some fascinating insights. There are of course stories built on the imaginary character as a big reveal: Sixth Sense, A Beautiful Mind, Tully. But what about Ollie from “Powers” by Alice Munro? He might not be real, though his lack of realness is not on the page. Take your favourite TV show. If any of the characters were figments of another character’s imagination, which would it be? What if Kramer of Seinfeld weren’t real? Or Newton? What if Phoebe’s twin off Friends wasn’t real?

Minor Characters In “Goodbye My Brother”

The man who Diana is sleeping with while here for the summer, mentioned only in passing.

The summer cook, Anna Ostrovick, a recognisable trope of a woman jolly and fat and industrious. She ends up banning Lawrence from her kitchen because she can’t put up with his negativity.


Revelling in nostalgia is futile.

Critics have said that Cheever’s ‘brother motif’ tends to come back to this.

“This house is about twenty-two years old,” he said. “These shingles are about two hundred years old. Dad must have bought shingles from all the farms around here when he built the place, to make it look venerable. […] Imagine spending thousands of dollars to make a sound house look like a wreck,” Lawrence said. “Imagine the frame of mind this implies. Imagine wanting to live so much in the past that you’ll pay men carpenters’ wages to disfigure your front door.” Then I remembered Lawrence’s sensitivity to time and his sentiments and opinions about our feelings for the past. I had heard him say, years ago, that we and our friends and our part of the nation, finding ourselves unable to cope with the problems of the present, had, like a wretched adult, turned back to what we supposed was a happier and simpler time, and that our taste for reconstruction and candlelight was a measure of this irremediable failure.

The story’s basic thematic structure: the clash between the father, the mythological founder of the law, and the legacy he leaves to his children.

“Goodbye My Brother,” is wrought with his recurrent themes of light and nostalgia.

Powell’s, Review A Day


The Motif Of The Sea In “Goodbye My Brother”

Cheever uses the sea as a motif in a number of his works. In this story, too, the sea forms the crucial backdrop to the narrative.

“The sea salt that I think is in our blood”, says our unnamed narrator. Note also that the father died in the sea. The sea therefore is an important part of the narrator, bonding him with his family and to his history. Both he and his brother Chaddy miss the sea when they venture out West. The sea binds together various threads of the story.

Lawrence, on the other hand, doesn’t think well of the sea. He rejects the sea and hates everything about it, seeing the havoc it wreaks on the coastline and on the family holiday home. He and Ruth refuse to go swimming with the rest of the family, partly rejected by the matriarch, of course, who takes Chaddy’s arm and proclaims that she is determined to have fun.

Writes Mathews:

The sea relieves the narrator from the nihilism that permeates Lawrence’s thought. There is a paradoxical tranquility in the sea’s restlessness that is typified by the family’s daily swimming ritual, a practice that takes on quasi-religious overtones in its “illusion of purification”. The antidote to society’s Puritan past is thus to be found in the sea. Reflecting on his encounter with Ruth in the laundry, the narrator thinks about the alternative spirituality he feels in the sea’s presence….Lawrence fears that the sea, destroyer of his father and the law, will also destroy the family structure itself, as symbolized by the house. Cheever’s allusion is to the Bible, to Matthew 7:26-7, in which Jesus says: “Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened to a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it” (AKJV). For Lawrence, the family has built its foundations on sinking sand, a view that Cheever thematically transfers from the house to the values that underpin the lives of his mother and siblings.

From the story:

Now I could hear the waves, whose heaviness sounded like a reverberation, like a tumult, and it pleased me as it had pleased me when I was young, and it seemed to have a purgative force, as if it had cleared my memory of, among other things, the penitential image of Ruth in the laundry.

“‘This house will be in the sea […] The sea wall is badly cracked,’ Lawrence said. “I looked at it this afternoon. You had it repaired four years ago, and it cost eight thousand dollars. You can’t do that every four years’”

The narrator ends the story with a life-sustaining image that depicts the sea not as a destructor but as life-giving.

Mythological Allusions In “Goodbye My Brother”

Using the sea’s mythical symbolism, Cheever reaches back to a time before the invention of Christianity, before the God of the Puritans to a different and more ancient creation myth. Through a series of allusions, he instead evokes the pagan myths and deities of the ancient Greeks: Odette looks up at the night sky, trying to find the constellation of Cassiopeia; the narrator imagines Lawrence saying “Thalassa, Thalassa” (the Greek word for “sea”) when he leaves Laud’s Head; their sister, Diana, is an allusion to the virgin goddess of the hunt; the narrator’s wife, Helen, is the namesake of the most famous beauty of the classical world. But these allusions are swallowed up in a greater story that is alluded to yet never explained, namely, the creation myth of the ancient Greeks.

Peter Mathews


Beginning versus Ending In “Goodbye My Brother”

There is a copious amount of juxtaposition in this story. It begins with the second sentence, in which

our mother has always stressed the fact that our familial relationships have a kind of permanence that we will never meet with again.

This is juxtaposed with the ending, in which it is perhaps true that familial relationships have a kind of permanence, but whether they should be revered or not? The reader is left knowing that the two brothers will never be friends.

Juxtaposition of Voice In “Goodbye My Brother”

The story is divided between the rather flat, dour pronouncements delivered by Lawrence and the rich, sensuous counterpassages of the narrator. As Lawrence, for example, calls Odette a promiscuous woman, the narrator describes her in sensual detail, noting the roundness of her shoulders and the whiteness of her skin. Similarly, at the conclusion of the costume party, the guests rescue the floating white balloons from the sea while Lawrence laments the partygoers’ foolishness. The lushness of the prose that Cheever employs when describing the smells, the sounds, and the contentment of the narrator’s life among his family strikingly contrasts not only with Lawrence’s gloom but also with his matter-of-fact language. The sense of possibility of the former overshadows the finality of the latter.

Peter Mathews
Juxtaposition Of Character In “Goodbye My Brother”

Again from Mathews:

Lawrence’s life is characterized by a string of goodbyes, but this pattern is not accompanied by a process of healing and moving on. On the contrary, his history is scarred by these failures, and these recurring moments of disillusionment are remembered with the force of resentment. For the narrator, by contrast, the sea allows him to forget, it allows him to be washed free of his pain and thus avoid the canker of resentment that eats away at Lawrence’s being.

The narrator experiences the visit as tender and warm, which contrasts with Lawrence’s perennial exasperation with his family. For example, at the age of sixteen, he labeled his mother as “frivolous, mischievous, destructive, and overly strong.” But, the narrator believes this projection to be the result of Lawrence’s basic refusal to embrace life, which leads to the realization that the lifelong rift between the brothers may always remain. The sadness that accompanies this conclusion is palpable.

The philosophical difference between the brothers is acknowledged early in the story:

“Then I remembered Lawrence’s sensitivity to time and his sentiments and opinions about our feelings for the past. I heard him say, years ago, that we and our friends and our part of the nation, finding ourselves unable to cope with the present, had, like a wretched adult, turned back to what we supposed was a happier and simpler time, and that our taste for reconstruction and candlelight was a measure of this irremediable failure.”

Subtle Repetitions In “Goodbye My Brother”

“Goodbye, My Brother” has aspects of the cumulative plot shape. Mathews quotes Morace:

“Essentially, Cheever plays the same scene or situation over and over with slight but cumulatively significant changes, gradually transforming the real into the fantastic, time into dream. […] [His fiction] depends considerably less on linear plot, narrative focus, and character development than it does on various forms of narrative parallelism: echoing, juxtaposition, counterpoint, incremental repetition, thematic variations, and the coming together of disparate characters, situations, and narrative lines”

Robert Morace

Narrator As Character In “Goodbye My Brother”

See: The Role Of Storytellers In Fiction

Written in first person point of view, the unnamed narrator is wry, compassionate and detached. At first we may think of him as a sympathetic observer. This kind of narrator is commonly utilised by Cheever in his short stories.

The effect, according to Mathews:

to initiate a move beyond the surface story, thus showing how these forces penetrate every level of discourse, from the level of everyday life (in the family’s clashes with Lawrence) to its deeper, more metaphysical levels (in the story’s religious, historical, and mythical references).

The function of the narrator is to evaluate his family’s ideas, and the story is the scale on which he weighs the different worldviews he encounters in that milieu. His effectiveness is guaranteed by the double consciousness with which Cheever imbues him. Indeed, the narrator shifts continually back and forth between lyrical celebrations of life and gloomy ruminations about Lawrence’s character.


This story first appeared in The New Yorker, August 25, 1951 on P. 22, and is available online behind a paywall.

“Goodbye, My Brother” is the first short story in this vintage collection.


The mood and atmosphere in other words, the setting of “Goodbye My Brother” remind me very much of the first few episodes of Bloodline, in which brothers and a sister return to the family home for a gathering. In this series, too, there is one brother who is the black sheep (played by Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn). The setting is reminiscent of that portrayed in “Goodbye, My Brother” the smell of brine, the coastal holiday vibe. The feeling that not all is well beneath the surface. That said, Bloodline is set and filmed many miles south, in Florida Keys.

List of films set in New England, separated by decade.

Bloodline Poster compare with Goodbye My Brother

“In-flight Entertainment” by Helen Simpson is also a short story which juxtaposes the nihilist against the optimist. The optimist is only an optimist on the surface, and put sin effort to maintain the charade. I believe if John Cheever were born later he’d be writing about climate change in this way.


Not all of us have a family holiday house. But if you did have a family holiday house, where might it be? Who would join you there? And what sorts of dynamics would prove uncomfortable?

Have you ever been on holiday with people who you know and don’t know, in just the wrong combination?

Is there anybody in your life who you suspect misreads you consistently? If they were to write a story about you, and all the things that supposedly go on inside your head, what would that story look like?

Lemon girl young adult novella


Header illustration: “Packing the Car” by Stevan Dohanos, (cover art for The Saturday Evening Post, September 8, 1956