Hair In Children’s Stories

Merida from Brave

It’s stating the obvious to point out that, in children’s fiction, a character’s hair maps onto personality. But in continuing to use hair-personality shortcuts, are writers perpetuating stereotypes?

Canadian teen actor Sophie Nélisse plays the title role, a young girl in foster care who we know is not terribly well-off emotionally because her hair is so flat. Her attitude stinks, too.

review of the film adaptation of The Great Gilly Hopkins 

As is usual for matters of appearance, this post applies mainly to girl characters. The hairstyles of boys are far less commonly attached to their personalities, desires and psychological shortcomings.

Some authors, such as Daniel Handler, avoid mentioning how a girl looks in books. We didn’t know what Violet looked like until Netflix adapted A Series Of Unfortunate Events for screen. (We only knew that Violet had long hair because she does something with the bow on it.)

The distinction between ‘inborn’ and ‘styling choices’ of a character is important:

Anyone who has read a book is likely familiar with this phenomenon. Characters’ hair, for example, is often written as a remarkably accurate reflection of their personalities: feisty heroines are endowed with hair as sassy as they are, and these ‘wild manes’ subsequently spend every scene ‘struggling to escape’ from hair ties, messy buns, or other oppressive hairstyles. Granted, a green mohawk may imply a certain individuality of temperament, but self-styling can at least be controlled—this is very different to insinuating that because a person is born with curly hair, they’re automatically incapable of keeping their temper. Worse still is when this descends into racial stereotyping.

ACT Writers Blog

WILD HAIR

Wild hair is also described in fiction as kinky or curly.

Wild hair can mean: A free spirit, pluck, individuality, fun.

Quite often it means all of those wonderful things AND it means the girl is in need of some serious calming down. Messy-haired girl will undergo a character arc over the course of the movie in which she learns to be nice to people and appreciate family. Especially if this is a screen story, the girl’s hair will change to show us that she has been tamed.

This happens in the film adaptation of The Great Gilly Hopkins for instance, in which Gilly gets a very becoming new hairstyle at the end. In the final dinner party scene Gilly has her hair tied back, a pony tail carefully constructed to sit to one side and neatly parted down the middle.

Does anyone else interpret compliments on your haircut as attacks on your previous hair?

@studiesincrap

RED HAIR

Human hair postcard, c. 1900 Lithograph

Less than 2 per cent of the population has red hair. Most have Irish or Scottish ancestry.

In early modern England it was thought that if a woman had sex during her period, this would result in a puny baby with red hair — both undesirable attributes.

Red hair is also connected to witchery — in earlier times literally, and now mostly in stories. See for example Badjelly The Witch.

There’s a damn good reason why Anne Shirley wants black hair, and it’s not about vanity. She’s trying to avoid some very real discrimination. Anne’s life would really have been easier had she been born with non-red hair. Especially at that cultural moment, a girl with red hair was thought to have a bad temper. It was a form of actual discrimination and I don’t believe it’s truly died. I doubt we really think ‘witch child’ when we think red hair anymore, but that wasn’t true in L. M. Montgomery’s time. The concept of ‘wickedness’ and ‘evil’ run strong through the Green Gables series.

Picture book illustrators love red hair. Though I haven’t made a formal study, there is absolutely a disproportionate number of red-headed children in picture books and I suspect the reason is simple: red is an excellent focal point and attracts attention to the main character on the page.

Other memorable red-heads:

  • Amelia Bedelia
  • Fancy Nancy
  • Caddie Woodlawn
  • Madeline
  • Pippi Longstocking
  • The Weasleys in Harry Potter
  • Eleanor (and Park)
  • Olivia from The Year Of Shadows
  • Paige from Paige by Page
  • Gwinna
  • Tina Blake from Carrie by Stephen King

Most TV shows with a large cast of characters will feature a redhead for visual interest and distinction.

  • Bree of Desperate Housewives
  • Joan Holloway of Mad Men
  • Claire Fisher of Six Feet Under (probably one of the few natural red heads on TV)
  • Willow on Buffy — also Oz of the male characters
  • Daphne of Scooby Doo
  • Francie Jarvis of Gilmore Girls
  • Todd of Breaking Bad, partly to distinguish him from an otherwise indistinguishable gang of baddies. Though a friend of mine tells me he is definitely not a red head. He is a ‘strawberry blonde’.

Red hair, or lack of pigmentation around the eyelashes and eyebrows (be they red headed or strawberry blonde), is mostly used to show that a character is different. Since they will always stand out in a crowd owing to their pigmentation, they might as well step right out of normality, right?

Fregley from Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Sometimes, as in the Bree of Desperate Housewives case, the red doesn’t seem to stand for anything in particular, but is a stylistic choice, to individuate characters from one another. There are already two main blonde women, so Bree had to be different. In Bree’s case, you could argue that the redness of her hair marks her out as evil, deriving from witch folklore. Bree is cold and calculating and always composed. Red haired characters are just as likely portrayed as not in control of their emotions (the Anne Shirley trope). Bree and Anne represent to extremes on the same spectrum.

Richard "Dick" Sargent (American, 1911-1979) Cover illustration for "The Saturday Evening Post" magazine, April 14, 1956, "Sack Full of Trouble"
Richard “Dick” Sargent (American, 1911-1979) Cover illustration for “The Saturday Evening Post” magazine, April 14, 1956, “Sack Full of Trouble”. The illustration wouldn’t work so well if the troublemaker did not have red hair.

PERFECT HAIR

I judge television shows by the women’s hair. It turns out this is a binary judgment: Either the women have TV hair, or they don’t. What is TV hair? It’s shiny, long, has obviously been styled with a curling iron at the ends, and looks like that of a beauty pageant contestant. […] the less sleek the hair, the more likely a show will have a memorable female protagonist

The NYT Style Magazine

The girl opponents in middle grade/chapter books all seem to have perfect hair, even if they’re an opponent at first and then turn out to be besties, because ‘we shouldn’t judge others by what they look like’.

NO HAIR

The “Mother’s Day” episode of Courage The Cowardly Dog offers viewers the backstory of Eustace Bagge. When we see his mother is the female equivalent of her son, and that she mistreats Eustace the way Eustace mistreats Courage, we understand why Eustace behaves the way he does.

The ultimate gag in this episode is that, after preening herself, old Mrs Bagge is humiliated by losing her wig. It is revealed that under her accoutrements she looks exactly the same as Eustace. Without her hair, Mrs Bagge sobs that she is ‘ugly’ and that nobody could possibly love her. Eustace and his mother end up reconciling, rubbing each other’s billiard ball heads lovingly. They have realised how similar they are, and that loving each other means loving themselves.

While the implication is that true family will love you no matter what you look like, the other, inevitable implication is that having a full head of luxurious hair makes a woman beautiful. Lack of hair is connected to Eustace’s ugliness, too. But the difference is, he does not feel great shame about this. An absence of hair signifies:

  1. In old men, old age
  2. In younger men, toughness
  3. In women, ugliness, lack of sexual desirability

No surprises there, perhaps.

Writers, is it possible to subvert these tropes? Red-headed kids who are totally normal, and neither witchy nor out of control? The bookish kid with curly hair? The bookish girl who also happens to have messy hair? (Actually pretty common in real life.)

Alternatively, should we all make like Daniel Handler and refuse to describe child characters more than we absolutely must? When writers avoid talking about appearance, child readers get to see themselves as the hero. In Handler’s case he decided not to describe Violet because he realised girls have an undue amount of attention foisted upon how they look and he didn’t want to add to that corpus. I applaud him for that. Instead, all we know about Violet (in the books, at least) is that she ties her (long) hair up before doing something physical.

BLACK HAIR, WHITE HAIR

The title for this section comes from the old Western genre trope of white hats versus black hats, in which the guys with white hats are the goodies.

The idea of black hair as a female symbol of evil and power is illustrated perfectly by Rachel Wise:

From Rachel Wise’s F**ked Up Fairytales

If the witch and the fatal woman have functioned over the centuries as warnings to women who might be tempted to act autonomously or enjoy their own sexuality, the beautiful brides of hero tales have compounded women’s psychological oppression by providing a model of what they ‘ought’ to look like—in appearance, attitude and behaviour. This model has profoundly influenced women’s perceptions of themselves and has contributed to their pervasive self-lingering belief that it is natural for women to be submissive and self-denying, sacrificing their interests to the needs of the men in their lives.

It is hardly necessary to describe the physical attributes of the hero’s bride as her late twentieth-century incarnations smile at us every day from advertisements, fashion magazines, film and television screens, but a consideration of the significance of her appearance is instructive. She is, of course, beautiful; in one of the most popular fairy tales ‘Beauty’ is her only name. But her beauty is of a particular kind, and advances in the technology of printing and the reproduction of works of art, together with the advent of film and television, have made the visual definitions of Western female beauty as familiar as the motifs of the hero story itself. …

To begin with the bride is white, and usually blonde. In fairy tales golden-haired beauties abound; the only memorable dark-haired heroine is Snow White whose hair is in stark contrast to the pallor of her skin. Rapunzel is more typical: she had ‘long and beautiful hair, as fine spun as gold’, which she let down from her tower window to allow the witch and the prince to climb up. … The story of ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’ did not become popular until the late nineteenth century when it was modified to emphasize the golden hair.

Marjery Hourihan, Deconstructing The Hero

Hourihan also explains that even when the blondness of hair is not mentioned in picture books and illustrated stories, the illustrator often gives the ‘beauty’ blonde hair anyway, such is the power of the trope. Cinderella has had golden hair since 1854, courtesy of illustrator George Cruickshank.

Cinderella by George Cruickshank

See also The Betty and Veronica Trope explained with numerous examples.

The blonde-hair is better than brown-hair idea continues to be perpetuated, as recently as Laura Ingalls and Ramona Quimby, both of whom despise their own brown hair, wishing it could be blonde.

Since Ramona, middle grade realistic fiction aimed at girls has created a slightly different hair-related trope: The blonde girl as goody-two-shoes who at some point has to be punished for being so fussy about her willingness to please and her pretty dresses. A true, relatable heroine of middle grade fiction is more of a ‘tomboy’.

(Tina Fey addresses it in her autobiographical book Bossypants, and explains that as a child she noticed that blonde girls get all the attention.)

BIRDS AND HAIR

There is a clear association between hair and birds in funny stories especially, whether the hair is attached to a human or a furry animal.

by Cheri Herouard For La Vie Parisienne 1920's bird pulling hair
by Cheri Herouard For La Vie Parisienne 1920’s bird pulling hair

Teachers In Children’s Literature

Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes - School is Out

Teachers in children’s stories can be mentors, opponents, fake opponents, or very much background characters. In young adult literature, teachers can (problematically) be love opponents.

Why is it that English, drama and music teachers are most often recalled as our mentors and inspirations? Maybe because artists are rarely members of the popular crowd.

Roger Ebert

A BRIEF HISTORY OF TEACHERS IN CHILDREN’S STORIES

THE EARLIEST TEACHERS IN STORIES

The teacher archetype is related to the traditional ‘wise old man’ and ‘wise old woman’ archetype seen in many older stories. The teacher is the modern equivalent of these characters, dishing out advice to help the main character get through the story.

TEACHERS IN BOOKS FOR YOUNGER READERS

Most picture books are today published for preschoolers, and in stories which include schools, the function of the story is to reassure preschoolers that school will be a happy, welcoming and nurturing place, full of fun and joy, where new friends will be made. The teachers are most often smiling and welcoming, as almost all teachers of kindergarten children are in real life.

In books from the First Golden Age of Children’s Literature featuring girls, the main characters who become teachers learn to humanise their childhood images. (See Anne of Green Gables, Little House on the Prairie). The good teacher has no faults. The bad teacher has no redeeming qualities.

In the 1970s and 80s, fictional teachers who broke convention tended to leave their jobs/get dismissed at the end of the story, but today’s non-conformist teachers tend to be a bit more successful in staying in their jobs.

TEACHERS IN YOUNG ADULT FICTION

In young adult novels published before 1980 favourable treatment of teachers outnumbered the unfavourable.

Contemporary young adult literature sometimes juxtaposes a ‘good’ teacher against a ‘bad’ one, enforcing a good/bad binary view. Other young adult novels challenge this binary and achieve subversion, or even humanise the teacher.

Modern young adult novels feature more successful non-conformist teachers. Teachers who rebel against norms are seen as the most favourable.

Iconic teachers in films often leave their schools at the end of the movie, sometimes without wanting to go. But modern iconic film teachers are more likely to keep their jobs.

MCLAREN’S THREE TEACHER ARCHETYPES

Education theorist Peter McLaren said in 1988 that the ideal teacher plays the part of the ‘liminal servant’.  Less effective teachers fit the mould of the ‘hegemonic overlord’ or ‘entertainer’.

In the first two roles students are spectators and don’t participate. The knowledge they gain is outside lived experience. These classrooms will look like teachers pretending to teach and students pretending to learn.

The Entertainer Teacher

a propagandist or evangelist for dominant cultural, economic or ethical interests. Suppresses individuality and conditions students for sameness.

The Hegemonic Overlord Teacher

Information is transmitted perfunctorily, like it’s a bit of food pushed under a cell door. This teacher follows lessons strictly and mordantly by the book, and not interested in student empowerment. Standout example: The Trunchbull in Matilda by Roald Dahl

The Liminal Servant Teacher

The ideal. Empowers students to question domination and their own assigned places. Students respond with immediacy or purpose and are the primary actors within the ritual of instruction. This is student-based learning. Students will be involved, emphasis will be off the chalk-and-talk. Teachers remove obstacles to let students let through active questioning of dominant ideologies. Lessons will be in a flow state with students totally involved. These teachers are social activists and spiritual directors. The teacher is a co-participant or co-creator. Standout example: Mrs. Sauceda in The Jumping Tree by René Saldaña, Miss Honey in Matilda. (The self-sacrificing, inspirational teacher who almost martyrs herself for the sake of the students is heroic but not sustainable in a long-term teaching career.)

OTHER TEACHER ARCHETYPES

The Kindly But Frustrated Teacher
Ramona's teacher

Think of Ramona Quimby’s middle-aged teacher, who is obviously a kind-hearted person but who is regularly exasperated by Ramona’s failure to conform. This is usually a female teacher, perhaps in her 40s or 50s, who we are to imagine has been dealing with children over many, many years.

‘Mrs’ from the Junie B. Jones series is also a kindly but exasperated type.

The Kindly But Beginner Teacher
Ramona's young teacher
Miss Binney from Ramona The Pest

Ramona’s first teacher, however, is brand new to the school. Miss Binney. Miss Binney’s lack of experience leads to a different kind of comedy. The kindergarten children, most notably Ramona and Howie, misinterpret Miss Binney’s words which leads to chaos. Had Miss Binney been a more experienced teacher she would have made Ramona the wake-up-fairy, but instead she picked the goody-two-shoes who needed nothing in the way of encouragement to behave well.

For the dual audience we have Edna Krabapple who is a more cynical version again.

Bad Ass Teachers
  • Mad-Eye Moody would be the straightest example. Both, the real Moody, even though he never gets a chance to actually be a badass while a teacher, and the fake Moody, who manages to do a great job of impersonating a badass.
  • Dumbledore gets special mention, as the one and only time he rebuked Professor Umbridge was when she started physically attacking one of his students. And the one and only time he ever got angry with Harry Potter was when Harry thoughtlessly suggested that Dumbledore was leaving the school unprotected. There is also his Unstoppable Rage when a bunch of Dementors showed up at a Quidditch match.
  • As does McGonagall. Mess with her, and you get a disapproving glare. Mess with one of her students or colleagues, and she takes four Stunners to the chest at age seventy and bounces back with only a walking stick to show she was hospitalized for a month.
  • Then, for an encore, she and Slughorn help an Auror take on TOM RIDDLE HIMSELF and live to tell about it.
  • Let’s not forget Severus Snape. He was a spy for Dumbledore, could fly without a broom, and during his spying days he lied to Voldemort’s FACE for years. And he was an innovator, too. He is in fact the Half-Blood Prince who was behind a number of innovative—and sometimes nasty—spells. And when he actually does teach, once you get past his Jerkass-ness, he is focused; he teaches with a purpose.
  • Miss Wilson in the Chalet School series. Leading a group of kids to safety through a secret passageway, with a gang of angry Nazis in hot pursuit? I’d say that’s pretty Badass. Doubles as a Mama Bear moment.
  • Mr McCarthy in Me And Earl And The Dying Girl is covered in tatts and for part of the story we think he eats soup with drugs in it. He has the appearance of a badass teacher but is actually pretty conventional, just with a smart-alec comeback for whatever his students say to him.
The Stern Teacher

Minerva McGonagall from Harry Potter. So strict that she tends to subtract more points from her own students when they do wrong because she holds them to higher standards. Madame Hootch is another, mostly forgotten example from Harry Potter. Since her subject (broom-flying) is so dangerous, the penalty for breaking rules in her class is expulsion. Not point loss or detention. Expulsion.

(Subversion: Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie subverts the trope all to hell, specifically the “tough but fair” part. Miss Brodie deliberately designates one of her girls as a “stupid” victim, marking her for life. She’s a charming, intelligent, and vivacious fascist.)

In Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie (1974) we have Ms Desjardin. If you’ve seen either of the film adaptations you’ll notice the teacher from the book is more hardened than as played on screen.

She slapped Carrie smartly across the face. She hardly would have admitted the pleasure the act gave her, and she certainly would have denied that she regarded Carrie as a fat, whiny bag of lard. A first-year teacher, she still believed that she thought all children were good.

Downright Nasty Teachers

The teacher characters in the Captain Underpants series, however, are rarely nice. In fact, they’re downright nasty, with school principal Mr Krupp playing the role of villain (along with Professor Tinkletrousers and many others).

‘Most of the teachers I had in elementary school, or primary school, and in high school were very vicious and cruel people,’ says Pilkey. ‘However, there are some good grownups in the Captain Underpants series and that’s the parental figures.’

Dave Pilkey, author of Captain Underpants, from interview at ABC

Principal Trunchbull of Matilda, reputedly used by Roald Dahl as a surrogate for all the cruel tutors he had over the years. Her treatment of children, as Matilda deduces, is deliberately so extreme and outlandish that no kid’s parents will believe the truth even on the off chance any child got up the courage to tell.

Captain Lancaster in Danny, the Champion of the World is a more realistic example. He’s obviously based on one of Roald Dahl’s actual teachers, Captain Hardcastle, described in his autobiography Boy.

It’s bad enough is you have a Sadist Teacher, but misery ensues if you have a Sadist (Vice) Principal who doesn’t just kick you around, but he kicks all the students. That’s right, meet Vice Principal Nero who runs a boarding school in A Series of Unfortunate Events. Not only he was generally mean to the students and tortured them with hours of awful violin playing, but he also had a bunch of outrageous and stupid punishments: For example, if you went to the office building and you weren’t an adult you’d have to eat your food without a fork and knife. And if you missed a class or got there late you weren’t allowed to have a glass from which to drink, you had to lick your milk from the tray. And if you didn’t go to see him play his violin, he’d force you to buy him candy and watch him eat it. I don’t want to even think what would happen if you’d skip a class.

Lucy Maud Montgomery’s heroines almost always fall victim to this teacher. Probably the worst offender was Miss Brownell, of Emily of New Moon. She takes Emily’s manuscripts in class and reads Emily’s poems to the rest of teh class in a mocking voice, with snide comments, occasionally accusing Emily of passing off other authors’ works as her own. When Emily refuses to apologise for writing poetry in class, Miss Brownell comes to New Moon and tries to convince Emily’s guardian to force the girl to kneel to Miss Brownell and apologize.

Mrs. Gorf in the first book of Louis Sachar’s Wayside School series turns her students into apples when they do anything wrong. This includes sneezing in class. The students manage to outsmart her by forcing her to turn them back into humans and tricking her into turning herself into an apple, which Louis then unknowingly eats.

Wendy Nogard in Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger is a more subtle (but even more insidious) example: while she appears to be a sweet, considerate teacher, she uses her mind-reading abilities to humiliate and turn her students against each other—all without ever compromising her “nice teacher” facade. An example of this is when, during a homework-checking session, she deliberately calls on the one student who has the incorrect answer for each question, and using the resulting slew of wrong answers to retract her promise of no homework for that day. Every student ends up hating all the others for being idiots who cheated him/her out of a homework-free afternoon, even though in reality none of them missed more than two questions on the assignment.

Sexual Interest Teacher

Though more common in YA, we also have teachers such as Miss Edmunds in Bridge To Terabithia by Katherine Paterson:

The somewhat unconventional and controversial music teacher, whom Jesse greatly admires. She invites Jess to go to the Smithsonian Museum, which leads Leslie to go to Terabithia by herself. As a result, Leslie is alone when she falls from the rope and drowns. She is played by Annette O’Toole in the 1985 film and Zooey Deschanel in the 2007 film. In the 1985 film, Mrs. Edmunds seems to take the role of Mrs. Myers. She tells Jess the story of a relative dying after Leslie dies instead of Mrs. Myers, and she, instead of Mrs. Myers, gives the homework assignment of watching a show on television.

Terabithia Teacher

Zooey Deschenel also plays the Hippie Teacher.

From Holes, we have Miss Katherine, whom many of the townfolk was after. (From the Hot Teacher page at All The Tropes) Another hippie teacher would be Barbara Finney from The Cat Ate My Gymsuit by Paula Danziger.

Falling in love with your teacher is a solid way for a writer to keep lovers apart for the entire length of a story. This is harder and harder these days, where in real life at least romance is permissible across cultural, socio-economic and geographic boundaries. People can sleep with each other without much in the way build up. The student-teacher relationship recreates the 1700s erotics of abstinence Jane Austen depicted so well (and which, more recently, Stephenie Meyer utilised in her vampire series.)

In Pretty Little Liars, a hot young teacher dates one of his students before he realises she’s one of his students. Somehow they continue this romance, meeting alone in his classroom, without anyone noticing.

TEACHERS IN REALISTIC NOVELS

The realistic novel “emphasises truthful representation of the actual”. ‘Realistic’ fiction supposedly corresponds closely with the real world. In a realistic novel, readers bring an expectation that representations of humanity will somewhat mimic real, rounded humans.

When teachers in realistic novels are presented in an unrealistic way, this undermines the realism of the story.

GOOD TEACHER/BAD TEACHER IN MODERN YOUNG ADULT LITERATURE

The more favourably depicted teachers help students develop their identities and resist dominant and oppressive educational paradigms; the less favourably perceived teachers often represent the authority against which the adolescents and good teachers rebel.

Beyond a Good Bad Binary

Mostly, teachers are adults who get in the way of adventure and independence, so the author uses teachers as background furniture then disappears them.

If you meet a bunch of teachers on your first day in the new school, only pay attention to the one who puts you in a group project with a handsome stranger. You’ll never see the rest again.

@broodingYAhero

YOUNG ADULT NOVELS MAKING USE OF THE GOOD/BAD BINARY

  • Anne of Green Gables — Miss Stacey replaces an ineffective, uninspiring, authoritarian male teacher who plays (inappropriate) favourites.
  • The Teacher’s Funeral by Richard Peck (2004) — set in 1904. Weaker teacher Myrt Arbuckle dies, succeeded by the more effective Tansy Culver.
  • Scat by Carl Hiaasen (2009) — Similar to The Petition, students assume teachers who mark hard must be bad teachers. Hiaasen inverts reader expectations of a good/bad dichotomy, in which the demanding teacher, Mrs Bunny Starch, is the effective one. In contrast, Dr Wendell Waxmo is a comedic caricature of an unqualified, eccentric substitute. He is basically an extreme Entertainer Teacher archetype.
  • The Sledding Hill by Chris Crutcher (2005) — English teacher Mr. Sanford Tarter represents the hegemonic overlord type. Mr. Tarter intrudes excessively in the life of Eddie. The other English teacher in The Sledding Hill, Ms. Ruth Lloyd gives students choice and power. Crutcher’s own ideology is no doubt influenced by the fact that his books have been widely banned by Mr Tarter types. Chris Crutcher’s coaches fall into good and bad categories. The good coaches let kids figure out what they need for themselves and provide them with backup to let them make their own discoveries.
  • Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (1999) — Mr Freeman is a shamanistic archetype and gifted artist who models what he expects of students and exposes the reality of the institutional power structure. But Mr Neck the social studies teacher is bigoted and unprofessional.
  • The Petition by Anne Schraff (2001) — Mr Pedroza is the best teacher and initially seems like a hegemonic overlord but turns out to be a false opponent ally and liminal servant. In contrast, Ms Corey is both Entertainer and Hegemonic Overlord. Schraff subverts archetypes by challenging the reader’s first impressions of these teachers. The young, relatable funny teacher who gives out easy grades is proven to be the less effective teacher. Superficial niceness covers bigotry.

The problem with the good/bad binary in a realistic novel is that teachers are dehumanised. Humans are more nuanced. Characters such as Matilda’s Trunchbull are clear comedic archetypes, but in a realistic novel, shouldn’t the characters be presented realistically to achieve the effect they’re going for?

MOVING BEYOND THE BINARY

The most interesting characters are not morally binary at all. To that end, some authors assign good and bad attributes to the same teacher.

  • Standing Up to Mr. O by Claudia Mills (1998) — the biology teacher Mr. O’Neill embodies all three of McLaren’s models depending on the moment.
  • No More Dead Dogs by Korman (2000) — The teacher changes from mixed good/bad to good, and has their own character arc alongside the students, with the effect of humanising teachers for readers. Everyone’s attitudes change for the better. This is achieved via narration from various perspectives including the teacher’s own journal entries and memos to himself.

AMERICAN TV TEACHERS

Many of the most memorable TV teachers are single women. There was a time only about 50 years ago when teachers were expected to give up work after getting married.

There have been fewer shows set in a tertiary institution but there is a lead woman lecturer in How To Get Away With Murder. There are even fewer women. Unlike most shows starring a teacher, this one isn’t a ‘family show’.

There are far more female high school teachers/administrators in real life than there are on screen.

Room 222 is from the 1960s. It was huge in America back then — a 30 minute sitcom. These were years where most houses only had one TV in them so everyone was watching it. It was made by the creator of the Mary Tyler Moore show, which is perhaps better remembered. Denise Nicholas was Liz McIntyre, an educated woman well-respected by her peers. She plays a counsellor. There’s also a student teacher who became a permanent character. Room 222 had a more diverse cast than many shows today.

Friday Night Lights stars Connie Britton. This is a sexist environment set in a football oriented community. She is the school counsellor and at times called actual counsellors to ask them how they’d advise on tricky issues. This show, like The Waltons, gives a family with young teens plenty to talk about.

There was a TV show in the 80s called Fame, based on the film, about a dance teacher and her students.

Square Pegs – a 1980s time capsule. Sarah Jessica Parker is in it.

Good Morning Miss Bliss — about a fictional high school in Indianapolis. The show was renamed Saved By The Bell and lost Miss Bliss. It just didn’t work.

DeGrassi Junior High morphed into DeGrassi High – teens don’t want to watch anything with ‘junior’ in the title. It focused pretty realistically on teen life. There is a teacher who is lesbian. This was breakthrough stuff in the late 80s.

In the 90s there weren’t as many female authority figures on TV.

Moesha was a quality sitcom which featured an African American cast. Her step mother played the principal.

The Bionic Woman — a teacher with supernatural powers. It aired in the 1970s and was a spin off from the Six Million Dollar Man, itself a breakthrough hit. Jamie Summers is the lead character – a tennis pro turned teacher who was injured in a sky-diving accident. Jamie is a government agent going undercover to complete all sorts of assignments to repay the favour of keeping her alive bionically. In her spare time she teaches classes on a military base in California.

Freaks and Geeks — Bill loves Bionic Woman and dresses up as her for Halloween. Freaks and Geeks features a number of teachers, though the memorable ones are all male. This was typical for the 1990s. There’s the male hippie counsellor, the jock P.E. teacher and the mean bald guy.

FURTHER READING

Header painting: Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes – School is Out

Happy vs Sad Endings In Children’s Stories

If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.

Orson Welles

I want them all to have happy endings although I do realize this is not true to life. But I get attached to my characters and I don’t really want to do them in. And I think it is significant that the only book of mine that got a big literary award [the Pulitzer for Foreign Affairs] was the only one in which I’ve killed off a major character. Somehow tragedy attracts awards and comedy doesn’t.

Alison Lurie

I don’t think a happy ending should be one of the requirements of a children’s book. Kids want their books to reflect reality. They know that the bully doesn’t always get his comeuppance in the end.

Robert Cormier

It’s easier to identify with loss than love, because we have had so much more experience of it.

Roger Ebert

CASE STUDY: THE ENDING OF BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA

BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA COVER

At the end of this story, Leslie dies while swinging on the rope to Terabithia and Jess blames himself for it. Luckily Jess’s father helps him accept Leslie’s death and convinces him that it’s not his fault and to hold onto Leslie’s friendship to keep her alive. Jess returns to Terabithia, but builds the titular bridge, and takes his sister with him, offering her the title of princess.

Quite a few critics have objected to the fact that Katherine Paterson’s novels do not offer young readers any hope. Paterson has refuted criticism by saying that “there is no way that we can tack [hope] on to the end of the story like pinning the tail on the donkey.

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

Do children require happy endings?

[Alan Garner] states that a writer must not offer readers solutions or happy endings, but instead make use of something he calls “the method of the open hand” where readers must discover for themselves what the writer has to show. It was the publishers who requested that The Moon of Gomrath (1963) be given a “happy” ending instead of an open and disturbing one.

from Children’s Literature Comes Of Age by Maria Nikolajeva

I do not necessarily claim that young readers need happy endings. Rather, they are conditioned to see conventional endings, which in our Western tradition happens to be a happy ending, reestablishing the characters in their power position.

The Rhetoric of Children’s Character by Maria Nikolajeva

Death by Newbery Medal: A Phenomenon

There is a Slice of Life story about childhood and coming-of-age. The main character has a best friend (an animal, another child, or a family member) who is a source of joy, wisdom, and understanding in their life. This friend is often frailer, more unworldly, or otherwise more “special” than The Protagonist. Bonus points if the character is cute or adorable.At the end of the story, this very special best friend is abruptly killed off, usually in a clear-cut case of Diabolus ex Machina. A favourite trick is to have the death happen entirely off-screen. The more horribly poignant, the better.All this is generally accompanied by lots of “end of the innocence” angsting from the main character, along the lines of “That was the day my childhood ended…” Really, it’s just the author’s way of having a child suddenly make the jump to adulthood via a single defining tragedy.The Newbery Medal is a prestigious award given to American novels written for children. To win one, it helps a lot to use a story like this. The British equivalent is the Carnegie Medal, which has a similar reputation.

TV Tropes

Fairytales, Weddings & New Relationships

The “happy endings” of Hollywood films link them with the world of fairy tales, which are often about the achievement of perfection. Fairy tales frequently end with a statement of perfection, like “and they lived happily ever after”. Fairy tales bring the shattered family back into balance, back to completion.

Weddings are a popular way to end stories. Marriage is a new beginning, the end of an old life of being single and the beginning of a new life as part of a new unit. New beginnings are perfect and unspoiled in their ideal form.

pride-and-prejudice-1995-wedding-scene-jennifer-ehle-and-colin-firth-x-450

Striking up a new relationship is another way to show a new beginning at the end of a story. In Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart makes the difficult Resurrection sacrifice, giving up the chance to be with the woman he loves. His reward, the Elixir he brings away from the experience, is his new alliance with Claude Rains. As he says, in one of the most famous tag lines in the history of the movies, “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler

Endings of Carnivalesque Stories

In a carnivalesque story, the lowest in societal hierarchy — in the medieval carnival a fool, in children’s books a child — is allowed to change places with the highest: a king, or an adult, and to become strong, rich, and brave, to perform heroic deeds, to have power. However, the very idea of carnival presupposes a temporal limitation. The child, who has been allowed to leave the security of home and experience breath-taking adventures, is taken back, and the established order is restored. This is what we sometimes call a happy ending. As Pat Pinsent demonstrates, excessive “coincidences” in children’s fiction, which sometimes irritate mimetically minded critics, should not be considered artistic flaws since they are part of this restoration of the initial order.

(In general, though, coincidences are okay at the beginning of a novel but not as a way of tying up the end.)

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

Do Unhappy Endings In Children’s Stories Endure?

We love heroes and heroines from Peter ­Rabbit to Harry Potter because we know that no matter how bad things get, they will return stronger and happier through what they’ve learnt, and that their experiences will enable them to restore justice. Every work of fiction that we take to our hearts, up to and including Jane EyreThe Odyssey or Pride and Prejudice, follows this template. A great work of tragic fiction brings about catharsis, but on the whole, we need the consolations of children’s fiction far more.

Not every classic has what you might call a conventional happy ending: the boy in Roald Dahl’s The Witches gets turned into a mouse, and never returns; at the finale of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, Will and Lyra must be parted for ever; the hero of John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas chooses to die in the gas chambers with his imprisoned friend. Though all have been made into successful films, my guess is that none of these novels will continue to be read with enthusiasm by future generations because of the way they end.

Doom-laden children’s books may impress prize juries, but it’s the ones that offer hope that will be remembered: Why has the Carnegie Prize honoured a work as depressing as ‘The Bunker Diary’

Related

Realism In Fiction For Children

WHAT IS REALISM?

There is a spectrum of how real-world a story feels. At one end we have naturalism, all the way through to about ‘speculative realism’, after which we’re in speculative fiction realm:

  1. NATURALISM — This term is often used interchangeably with realism, but if you want to talk about realism as a group of terms, naturalism is at the MOST realistic of these different types of realisms. Basically, any hint of romanticism is completely stripped away. The subject is neither idealised nor flattered. God is also kept out of it. The tone is generally pessimistic. Realism/naturalism emerged in the 1800s. Sometimes the difference between naturalism and realism depends on the subject matter. In realism the main focus is on the middle class and its problems. Naturalism often focuses on poorly educated or lower-class characters, and on themes involving violence and the taboo.
  2. SOCIAL REALISM — ‘Kitchen sink realism’. Draws attention to the middle class and its problems. Use the term ‘social realism’ when you want to be clear that you’re not talking about naturalism.
  3. SURREALISM — Describes the ‘super real’. See this post for more.
  4. MAGICAL REALISM — Lately there is a movement among Latinx people from South America to keep the term magical realism specifically for South American writers using magical realism to write stories about the South American experience of colonisation. The argument is that another word exists which we can use for every thing else — fabulism. While I have some sympathy for this view, the fact is, magical realism did not begin in South America, and there are many reasons for making use of magical realism in storytelling. I am happy to call it fabulism myself. Here is a list of fabulist children’s books. Fabulism is especially popular in literary middle grade fiction, and I’ve noticed literary agents and editors are constantly on the hunt for it, and keep complaining that true examples of magical realism rarely crosses their desk.
  5. ‘DIRTY’ REALISM — This is a concept coined by the Granta Magazine guy, who is actually an American who moved to England. So the term is used in England, whereas Americans might call it ‘minimalism’. Dirty realism describes a specifically North American way of writing in which the author focuses on the seedier, mundane, nasty bits of everyday life. A lot of these writers are white men — Richard Ford, Cormac McCarthy, Raymond Carver. But there are also some women. Take Carson McCullers, Annie Proulx. When you find dirty realism in a short story, it’s often called KMart Realism.
  6. METAPHYSICAL REALISM — There is a reality independent of humans’ conscious perceptions of it. The world is as it is and what humans think of it is irrelevant. If this describes your worldview, here’s your metaphysical realist card.
  7. SPECULATIVE REALISM — Okay, so are we still talking about realism now? This is a term suggested by a guy called Ramón Saldívar (an American professor and author) to describe work which is a hybrid between speculative genres and any of the different levels of realism. In children’s literature, the book American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang is a contender for speculative realism. American Born Chinese is an experiment in discussing minority racial identity through metaphor made possible through genre blending. The experiment leaves us ultimately with a parallel between a monkey god from folklore and a young adult American-born-Chinese in a realistic context. For more on that, see here.

REALISM IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

Bear in mind, children’s literature is a recent form of literature and emerged with the establishment of realism.

Many of the notes below are from Professor David Beagley, La Trobe University, Genres In Children’s Literature: Lecture 13: Realism In Fiction For Children, available on iTunes U

REALISM FOR MIDDLE GRADE READERS

Set reading for this lecture: Bridge To Terabithia and The Naming of Tishkin Silk

American, 1977

My Girl (the film) is an interesting work to contrast with Bridge To Terabithia because the plot is very similar, and is about a girl and boy the same age. But the intended audience is adult.

Helicopter Man is another example of realism, aimed at upper primary school rather than high school aged reader.

Throughout the 20th century, British children’s literature is thought to have produced better and more lasting classic fantasy series than North America, which has leaned towards realism for longer.

Right around middle school, the fun books suddenly disappeared. Dreary realism replaced fantasy.Read Hatchet. Read ShilohRead Sounder. Read The House of Dies DrearRead about kids in the Great Depression, whose dogs always die. Read about the gruesome fact of slavery. Read about Anne Frank in the attic. Today, class, we’ll be reading a graphic novel! […] it’s called Maus. No wonder I kept my nose buried deep in Dragonlance novels and The Collected Calvin & Hobbes. Eventually I accepted that the mark of serious, grown-up books was joy turning into woe. Merry old Gatsby is really a huge fraud who bites it in a swimming pool and no one cares but his neighbour. The end. Jake Barnes is living it up in Paris with Brett Ashley, but he got injured in the war and they can’t have sex, so… the end. The older I got the more books seemed to skip the joy part altogether—they just went from woe to more woe. The Joads are starving in the Great Depression so they head West but find that everyone else is starving too and then somebody dies in the back of a truck… the end. Frank and April Wheeler are hopeful suburbanites who dream of moving to Paris but then she gets pregnant and dies trying to give herself an abortion. The end!

Why Children’s Books Matter

There is a certain kind of magic about realism in middle grade books, which is not magical at all, and not magical realism, either, but magic.

I think there’s a kind of kid for whom an adventure based in realism — even if it’s stretched almost to the breaking point of plausibility — is so much more satisfying than pure fantasy. Because I knew for sure that I was never going to end up communing with a gang of bugs inside the pit of a ginormous peach — and I loved that book, I did. I loved the Narnia books, too, and the Wrinkle in Time series. But I had a special fondness for stories that could actually happen. Which explains, I think, something about the plot of One Mixed-Up Night. It is certainly unlikely that two kids would spend the night alone in a massive Swedish furniture store. But it is not impossible. And I had spent enough time listening to my son Ben and his best friend Ava leafing through the IKEA catalogue to know that having the run of the place was high on their list of fantasies. Were they ever going to spend a semester at Hogwarts? Of course not. But IKEA! That was an actual place where we actually went. What if they ditched their parents? What if that stylish and birch-patterned world became their oyster? I mean, it wasn’t likely to happen. But it could…

Catherine Newman
HIGH SCHOOL READERS

Realism tends to be aimed at the high school reader. It began in earnest with J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye (1951) and has been followed by work from authors such as:

  • S.E. Hinton
  • Robert Lipsyte
  • Paul Zindel
  • Richard Peck. Peck sometimes writes realism, sometimes historical realism (e.g. The River Between Us), sometimes realism with a humorous, exaggerated touch (e.g. A Long Way From Chicago), sometimes he writes fantasy (e.g. his mouse stories).
  • Norma Klein lived from 1938 to 1989 and wrote about ‘the things real kids cared about’.
  • M.E. Kerr couldn’t find an agent for her realistic stories so became her own agent. She ended up with a lifetime award for her contributions to children’s literature. She wrote under a variety of different pen names.
  • Norma Fox Mazer and Harry Mazer. Norma lived between 1931-2009. The husband/wife couple had four children and were teacher/writers.  Although they both wrote the same sort of thing, they didn’t work together. Each has their own books. Harry was born in 1925 and died recently, in 2016.
  • Robert Cormier. The Chocolate War initiated a new level of excellence in young adult literature but also unleashed a storm of controversy. (Cormier didn’t intend a YA audience, actually. He wrote it for a general audience and it was marketed as YA.) Gatekeepers felt the subject matter was too dark. Cormier followed up with I Am The Cheese and After The First Death, in the same vain, ignoring the naysayers. He continued to get darker over the 26 years of his writing career. He definitely influenced other authors, who started to do the same.

If you notice more realism coming out of America, that’s because realism in children’s literature is largely American, whereas a lot of the most beloved fantasy comes out of Britain.

Australia has its own examples of realism in children’s literature. Australian literature for adults tends to be described as ‘gritty realism’. Take Helen Garner for instance, or the work of Christos Tsiolkas, who sometimes writes about young adulthood. The TV adaptation of Barracuda has a distinctly YA feel about it — more so than the novel upon which it is based.

The Valley Between by Colin Thiel is about the author’s own life, growing up in the Barossa Valley.

For more examples of realistic books themselves, search for Books in the category ‘Real Life’ e.g. at the Reading Matters website.

ACADEMIC READING ON REALISM IN CHILDREN’S BOOKS

Only Connect. Sheila Egoff died in 2005 but was an enthusiast for the proper intellectual consideration of children’s literature. Being Canadian, she had a huge impact in Canada. (A Canadian literature prize has been named after her.)

John Foster, Ern Finnest, Maureen Nimon: Australian Children’s Literature, an Exploration Of Genre and Theme, 1995 looks at family stories and the ‘problem’ novel.

Perry Nodelman’s book The Hidden Adult is about adults who read children’s literature without reminiscing, for the reading experience. Nodelman looks at what the adults can find in the children’s literature and the serious intellectual ideas that are there for children to discard.

See also Literature and the Child and Give Them Wings, by Maurice Saxby. Most general books about children’s literature include a chapter about realism.

From Romance To Realism by Michael Cart was published 1996. The author is an expert in YA literature.

THE INNER AND OUTER REALITIES OF REALISM

In a binary, the two things represented each require the other. For example, evil needs good. Light needs darkness. Each defines the other.

There is an ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ reality. In realism, this idea of the inner world and outer world revolves very much around you as the reader. Whereas primary and secondary worlds are based around the text itself, inner and outer realities rely on the reader and what the reader knows about him or herself. Your inner reality is yours. No one can take it from you. Others can influence it, but only if you let them. The outer reality is anything you share with family, friends, people you know — the settings in which you find yourself, the actions that happen to you, the noises you hear, the dialogues you have with other people.

Fiction on the realism spectrum aligns the inner and outer realities and exposes them. In our real life interactions we rarely get a glimpse at the inner realities of other people because sharing inner realities depends on a lot of trust. But in a book you can share someone else’s inner reality — how they think, what they want, why they choose to do the things that they do.

THE INNER AND OUTER REALITIES OF FANTASY

In fantasy we start with the fantasy but then move strongly from the probable to the extraordinary. The extraordinary dominates. In fantasy, the inner reality is best related to the probable (primary world). The fantasy is related to the outer world.

In fantasy, a character’s outer reality is the focus of the story. A fantasy story is not so much about the actions of the fantasy world, but about the ideas that we have in our probable world. All fantasy works describe reality.

You’ll still read ‘probable’ and ‘extraordinary’ elements in a realist story, but in realism, readers will be able to imagine encountering these problems themselves. (Maintain the distinction between ‘possible’ and ‘probable’. In a realist story, something isn’t necessarily ‘probable’, but it must be ‘possible’.)

FEATURES OF A REALIST STORY

In a realist story, something must happen to disrupt the ordinary. This something must not leave the realm of likelihood. Characters have to be the sort of people you could know in real life.

The setting must be somewhere you could go. Bridge To Terabithia takes place an hour of two’s drive from Washington DC. The town in which they live may not be a real town, but it feels familiar. (Lovettsville, Virginia?)

The plot itself is often character driven.

But if the story is too mundane the reader is going to wonder what the point is. The Famous Five are a good example: These stories are now very dated. How come these kids are always on holidays? How do kids this age get so much freedom? Even young readers are now used to the realist tradition and have come to expect mimesis unless the setting is obviously fantastic.

Realist books can be didactic (not in a negative sense) in that we can ‘vaccinate’ our children by giving them a little dose of hardship in a fictional environment where they still have the safety of coming back out of the story. But this can lead to books which are so heavily didactic that they are a sermon: This is the way you ought to feel/behave, and if you don’t, the problem lies with you, the reader.

The problems in the stories must not be solved by adults. In fact the adults are quite often the cause of the problem, especially in YA. If not the direct cause, adults are opponents, setting the boundaries, setting the situations, causing the situation or by keeping information to themselves, leading to the children to jump to conclusions.

rugrats
Rugrats’ problems are caused by the adults. The plots are based upon the misinterpretation by the babies of what the adults say.

Plot: The sequence and plot structure of a realist story is pretty much the same as a fantasy story. That’s because all stories share an underlying basic structure.

The Hero: The main character is often a lonely outsider. A child hero might be new at a new school or looking for a friend or something like that. These stories are often formed around separation of some kind.

Theme: Justice is another common idea explored in realist fiction. What’s right? How do we decide what’s right? A big subset of the justice idea is, “When is it okay to lie?

Voice: Realist stories are dramatic, but not melodramatic.

Tiff and the Trout is an Australian story set in Mount Beauty (not called that in the story). The main character’s parents are splitting up. The father is a mountain person and the mother is a beach person. This symbolises their separation and Tiff is caught between. This story is neither melodramatic nor especially traumatic. There is one moment where the mum’s new boyfriend takes her fishing. She almost drowns. Apart from that, it’s ordinary, everyday stuff but is a very good exploration and discovery of how Tiff feels, not how the parents feel. In the end Tiff must choose which of her parents she goes to live with.

Endings: There is also a reasonably positive resolution, but not necessarily happy-ever-after. Characters are able to move on.

POSSIBLE PROBLEMS WITH REALISTIC STORIES

Representation

If a reader hasn’t experienced a situation herself, the plot may feel a little bit exotic. ‘That’s not really going to happen to me’. The author can also accidentally promote stereotypical attitudes. In the case of Josie Alibrandi, it might be easy for readers to conclude, ‘This is how all people of Australian Italian background behave’. Likewise, when reading Parvana’s Journey, if would be easy to assume girls in Afghanistan are all like that.

In Looking For X, the MC’s brothers are both autistic. The girl tries to find another homeless person who witnessed something that happened so that her mother can keep the boys. Is that a little too far from a reader’s experience? Are all Canadian homeless people like this one?

Currency

When including modern slang/attitudes/brand names and so on, these things will date quickly compared to details in completely made up fantasy worlds. 15 years ago Specky McGee was a popular Australian series, but now the footballers mentioned in the stories are all retired. How current to make a realistic story? [Dated stories can make for very interesting historical documents.]

CONTROVERSIES THAT ONLY SEEM TO AFFECT REALISTIC CHILDREN’S BOOKS

How ‘problematic’ must the problem be? If a story is about sexuality or drugs or other grim realities, do the readers really need to know all about that just yet?

Perhaps this is because children tend to emulate the behaviours of viewpoint characters in books:

The findings from the study reinforce the idea that young children have an easier time exporting what they learn from a fictional storybook to the real world when the storybook is realistic. The leap from a fictional human to a real one is simply smaller than the leap from an anthropomorphic raccoon to a human.