The Influence of The Lovely Bones on Modern YA

The Lovely Bones cover

The emphasis in the First Golden Age [of children’s literature] was very much on being healthy in mind and body – if a child became sick, he or she usually got well as part of their story. Today’s reader has no such encouragement. There is an alarming trend in what has been termed “sick-lit” which seems to wallow in the idea of a child self-harming, being ill, dying, or even committing suicide. I trace this back to a novel which was not written for children at all, Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, but it has spread into best-selling books like Ways to Live Forever, Before I Say Goodbye, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and many more.

Amanda Craig

Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones wasn’t just influential on the subgenre of YA known derisively as ‘sick-lit’, but which continues to prove super popular with the 2017 release of John Green’s Turtles All The Way Down. It has now been a full sociological decade (15 years) since The Lovely Bones was published. As Sophie Masson writes in an article in the latest edition of The Looking Glass:

In the last fifteen years, fiction set in or about the afterlife has become a popular and critically acclaimed sub-genre within contemporary speculative fiction for young adults especially, but not only, in English language publishing. These narratives, where the main characters die at the beginning of the story and find themselves in an alien world, the world beyond death, have developed into a fertile ground for imaginative and intellectual challenge and discovery, as a means both to depict the ultimate culture shock and a challenging exploration of otherness and alienation.

I highly recommend a read Sophie Masson’s article as it’s free to access. The following are my own takeaway points.

afterlife young adult paranormal fiction


Its roots come from:

  • Myth
  • Religion
  • Classic literature
  • The Gothic mode
  • The Victorian Ghost Story

Writers and thinkers have always been exploring the afterlife. Afterlife stories can be divided into their own subcategories. For example, there’s a related subgenre of Grim Reaper plots. An example of the grim reaper plot is On a Pale Horse by Piers Anthony. On a Pale Horse is a fantasy novel from 1983. A feckless young man is about to shoot himself when the Grim Reaper appears. He kills the Grim Reaper instead, and then has to take the Grim Reaper’s place. However, this seems quite different from the modern afterlife story kickstarted by Alice Sebold.

Here’s something to bear in mind about YA readers: these days (in Australia, at least) more young people believe in an afterlife than believe in god. Readers will happily accept it.

  • Modern YA afterlife stories are a subgenre of paranormal YA fiction, which can include vampires, fairies, trolls and so on
  • The afterlife story is kind of like a portal story
  • They are usually but not always set in a fantasy storyworld
  • This afterlife world is a ‘liminal’ space, not the final end point. They are not the absolute territories of Heaven/Hell, but more closely resemble Purgatory/Limbo
  • The idea of Purgatory in these novels isn’t linked to religion — it’s there for the narrative
  • There’s still much mundane detail about the real world — what characters are eating, how much money they have. However there tends to be little mention of class.
  • The afterlife world might be a ghostly copy of the real place on Earth. The landscapes and townscapes of the afterworlds are more solid than the portals but are prone to unexpected changes and reversals which makes it hard for characters to carry out their quests
  • Characters in the afterlife tend to be unable to taste food
  • The genre blend is most commonly fantasy adventure
  • Rich narrative and prose styles
  • Strong plots
  • Interesting characters
  • High sales as well as critical acclaim
  • Absence of moral judgement
  • The main characters of modern afterlife YA have either died violently or after illness, which links this genre to the wider sick-lit movement.
  • There may well be monsters to defeat. These may be supernatural beings. These monsters and beings are often transformed by their encounters with the newly dead young characters.
  • There is probably a romantic subplot.
  • There’s fancy terminology to describe narration which takes place outside the world of the story: extradiegetic. (It helps to know that ‘diegetic’ refers to something that occurs within a story world: ‘Inside-universe’.) Extradiegetic basically means ‘out-of-universe’. By making a character dead, that character is outside the main world of the story. There are other ways authors can create extradiegetic characters. For instance, they can create an elderly person looking back on an earlier part of their life. However, if you’re doing this, you’re probably not writing YA.
  • An extradiegetic character is closer to the audience than they are to the other characters within the story, because an audience (in narratology terms) is also extradiegetic. The audience exists outside the world of the story. (We are ‘extradiegetic narratees’, to be exact.) Therefore, a story with a dead narrator can achieve emotional closeness with the reader. This sounds counterintuitive at first — you’d think a dead person would be hard to relate to!
  • There’s a very good reason: The thing that marks YA out from adult fiction is its immediacy of voice. The narrator hasn’t aged much before their story is told. But when the narrator is full on dead, that character is afforded omniscience and wisdom which would otherwise feel unnatural, while maintaining the immediacy.
  • Many stories for young people are about displacement and feeling like you’re ‘the other’. That’s because you’re trying to find your place at this age. By being dead, the main character is very much The Other.
  • If there’s a romantic subplot, it’s the job of the author to keep two lovers apart for the duration of the adventure. Making one of them dead is a really efficient way to keep two characters apart. Or, they may both be dead but of vastly different Earthly ages. Or, the afterlife might be kinder to one than the other.

The authors of these works are themselves from diverse backgrounds.

  • The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas (1881) — the narrator of Brazilian author Machado de Assis’ novel dedicates his memoir to “the worm who first gnawed on the cold flesh of my corpse.”
  • How The Dead Live by Will Self
  • My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk — published the same year as The Lovely Bones and begins, “I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well.”
  • Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan
  • His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman (sort of)
  • Everlost by Neal Shusterman and sequels
  • A Certain Slant of Light by Laura Whitcomb
  • More than This by Patrick Ness
  • Afterworld by Lynnette Lounsbury
  • Ferryman by Claire mcFall
  • The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo
  • The Afterlife by Gary Soto
  • When We Wake by Karen Healey
  • Me and Death: An Afterlife Adventure by Richard Scrimger
  • Memor: le monde d’apres by Kinga Wyrzykowska
  • The Ghost Squad by Sophie Masson
  • If I Stay by Gayle Forman — First person narrator Mia dies in a car crash then follows her friends and family as a kind of ghost, watching their reaction and writing about her life before she died.
  • I Stop Somewhere by T.E. Carter was pitched as Asking For It meets The Lovely Bones. The narrative viewpoint comes from The Lovely Bones — the main character is basically wandering around telling what happened before she died.

An earlier outlier and not really connected to anything that has come since: The Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren. In this story:

  • This is a story about brotherly love in a Narnia-like world.
  • Two brothers die at the beginning.
  • They find themselves in the afterlife world of Nangiyala, a place of campfires and sagas.
  • The brothers have no trouble fitting into the new world.
  • They are happy to be there.
  • There’s no mention of the grieving mother left behind.
  • It’s possible to die again in this afterlife world.
  • Futility by Morgan Robertson (1898) — a fictional account of the Titanic disaster which was written 14 years before the Titanic sank. Futility tells the story of the world’s biggest ocean liner and how, on its maiden voyage, on a freezing April night, it strikes an iceberg and sinks, carrying its cargo of fabulously wealthy passengers to the bottom of the Atlantic. It was penned by a struggling sci-fi writer named Morgan Robertson. The name of his fictional doomed passenger ship? The Titan. 
  • Sunset Boulevard, classic film (American) — the man lying face down in a pool turns out to be none other than William Holden, whose voiceover narrates his story and who is indeed dead.
  • Lost, the TV series (American)
  • The Returned, a French series called Les Revants (and all the other franchises based on this storyline)
  • Resurrection (American)
  • The Glitch (Australian)

It’s not hard to find people who dislike dead narrators. But why?

  • It can feel like the author cheated — ‘a little too easy, a little too glib’.
  • In Peter Selgin’s words, it requires suspension of all four laws of thermodynamics. Some readers are fans of mimesis, so this won’t suit them.

Specialists in young adult literature have noticed over the decades that literary trends start with YA and work their way ‘up’ into adult fiction. As they expected, The Lovely Bones influenced adult fiction which is coming through now, a decade later. Take Lincoln in the Bardo for instance, an experimental novel by George Saunders. The ‘bardo’ refers to an intermediate space between life and rebirth. Though this book wins a Man Booker Prize and is hailed as ‘experimental’, it also owes a lot to less critically celebrated trends which started a decade ago in YA.

In Saunders’s conception, the “ghosts” that inhabit the bardo are “disfigured by desires they failed to act upon while alive” and are threatened by permanent entrapment in the liminal space.[20]They are unaware that they have died, referring to the space as their “hospital-yard” and to their coffins as “sick-boxes”.



Might we count The Book Thief by Marcus Zuzak as afterlife fiction?

This book takes the dead narrator concept a step farther, with the Grim Reaper himself narrating, though some would argue that his “Death” is nothing but Omniscience wearing a hooded cloak and carrying a scythe.

— Peter Selgin

  • Afterlife in Contemporary Fiction by Alice Bennett, a groundbreaking study in the afterlife as depicted in fiction for adults.
  • Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination by Greg Garrett, who doesn’t talk much about YA in particular.
  • Dead Narrators by Peter Selgin at Janet Friedman’s blog

Babysitter’s Club Novel Study

It would be easy to dismiss The Babysitter’s Club as an outdated storyline aimed at channeling girls into careers in childcare, turning them into good little obedient baby-machines and not much else. However, never judge a book by its title, right? (Because a lot of the time authors don’t choose their own titles anyhow.) And I’d never actually read a copy.

After hearing The Babysitters Club series is was recently reissued as ebooks I decided to actually read one, for the first time in my life. You’d think I’d have read a number of the series already because I was nine years old when the first book, Kristy’s Great Idea was published, and therefore in exactly the right demographic.

My Own Backstory With Babysitter’s Club

In year six a school friend invited me to her house for a playdate and I was impressed to see that she owned the entire series. Her parents had bought her a weekly subscription and they had arrived in the mail. My Trixie Beldens and Famous Fives and Secret Sevens remained incomplete on my bookshelf — not only that, some were hardbacks, some were paperbacks — my books just didn’t look as neat as these super attractive pastel-coloured spines lined up in all their complete numerical order. In hindsight I don’t know if it was the stories I coveted but the books as works of art.

And those covers! Now that Photoshopped images are ubiquitous, those photo-realistic depictions of happy-looking American adolescents were an unusual sight in graphic design back then. It’s easy to forget that. I have memories of gazing at those covers marveling at how the pictures fit somewhere between photo and paintings. What skill, I thought, to be able to paint like that!

Ann M. Martin

Unlike the authors of other series of the 80s, such as Sweet Valley High and the never-die Nancy Drew, the author of The Babysitter’s Club is a real woman and that is her real name. Given Martin’s high work output, and the generic sounding everyname, I had wondered if she were a group of authors contracted to write a few books each. But no, Ann M. Martin obviously cares very much about her work — as much as any other authors writing under their own name.

As for the books themselves, I’m pleased to report that yes, they have dated (in a good way) and no, they are not the least bit sexist. In fact, they’re a damn sight better than a lot of the series being published now. If you can pick up a series of Babysitter’s Club cheap second hand and give them to your middle school daughter, you’ll be doing good.

*I have since handed my second-hand Babysitter’s Club books to a friend whose son loves them. Yes, son. He read them all voraciously at age 8.


Kristy's Great Idea cover babysitter's club


Kristy is responsible for looking after her little brother David Michael, but so are her two older brothers. Likewise, we learn that while Kristy refuses (initially) to babysit for her mother’s man-friend, one of her older brothers has already volunteered. So right from the outset, babysitting is not portrayed as a task for girls. Kristy knows her own mind, and will not be railroaded into doing something she doesn’t want to. The brothers are possibly more pliable than she is.

Kristy’s mom (who is divorced) “likes the fact that she can support us so well.” The mother has a ‘very good job at a big company in Stamford’… ‘but she still feels guilty‘. This reminds me of feminist conversations that would have been happening back then, before the 90s kicked in, and everyone assumed women had achieved equality now, so most people stopped writing things like this ‘out loud’. In the mid-eighties, divorced families were more of an oddity too. This sort of family situation is a lot more common today, and more young readers will identify with antagonistic feelings towards a parent’s new partner. I would add that this book is looking a bit too Brady Bunch at this point, because Kristy seemed to bond with her step-father-to-be quite easily in the end. I hope there will continue to be real-life blended-family issues in following stories.

The girls are inventive. First, there’s the Babysitter’s Club itself, which is spurred by Kristy herself. Their inventiveness is an historic kind; the girls have already worked out a way of communicating between the houses at night using torches. This is the sort of detail which dates the book, but not in a bad way.

There are other cultural references which set these stories firmly in the 80s, with references to G.I. Joe and Sesame Street, but I’m pretty sure a lot of these childhood icons are still about. At any rate, the cultural shock for a modern kid reading a story from the 1980s would be no more stark than that of a little New Zealand kid reading these same stories back when they were new. I still have no idea what a fudgesicle or a jawbreaker is. (Hello, Internet. Turns out a jawbreaker is a gobstopper. A fudgesicle is a chocolate icecream popsicle.)

“Mary-Ann and I ran home together.” For me this was a lovely scene of two adolescent girls enjoying the last of their childhood. Very soon I expect they will stop running, and become more aware of the expectations of ladyhood. I had a flashback of running along under the covered-way at my own very large high-school when a group of boys older than me yelled something disparaging about the fact that I was running instead of walking. I stopped running after that, having learnt that very day that high school girls do not run. (Also, cool people in general do not run. They don’t even walk. Cool people swagger, and make space on the footpath for no one.)

These 12 year old girls are never late for a job. This is spelled out, and is one example of how Kristy is a good role model for adolescent readers. Via the running of the Babysitters’ Club, readers learn the basics of  business management: how to run meetings, members of a board, dealing with interpersonal issues, in-coming and outgoing expenses… This series would be a good introduction for any kid with aspirations of starting her own small company. A criticism might justifiably be: The teaches our kids to be little capitalists. But then, isn’t that what they’re expected to be? Economically self-sufficient?

Fashion has changed a lot and the descriptions of clothing is entertaining. Claudia is held up as the goddess of fashion with her ‘short, very baggy lavender plaid overalls, a white lacy blouse, a black fedora, and a red high-top sneakers without socks… I felt extremely blah compared to her.’

Claudia’s older sister Janine has an IQ of 196, and is quite an annoying character. I can’t think of many examples in school stories in which the nerdy genius character is female — it’s more often a male trope: ‘Her second best friend is her computer.’

So I only read one, but if the stories continue in that fashion, I would be perfectly happy for my daughter to take a liking to them when she’s older.


The Babysitter’s Club: Idea And Phantom from Beauty And The Armageddon

Graphic Novels Aren’t Just Comic

12 Facts About The Babysitter’s Club from BuzzFeed

The Baby-Sitters Club: The Things You Notice Reading as an Adult from Beauty and the Armageddon

The Babysitter’s Club at TV Tropes

Ann M. Martin is still writing books. (Not Babysitter’s Club books.)

I need to insert an apostrophe. Does that missing apostrophe bother you, too? (It bothers me in the same way that the title Gilmore girls does not capitalise Girls.) Anyhow, there are internet discussions on this.

If you’re into 80s fashion and derive pleasure from learning what the members of the Babysitter’s Club were wearing during their suburban adventures then you might check out Buzzfeed’s Definitive Ranking Of Babysitters Club Cover Outfits (and they even put in an apostrophe for you).

Psychological Novel And Children’s Literature

psychological novel

Modern young adult literature bears many similarities to what has previously been called ‘the psychological novel’.

psychological novel is a work of prose-fiction which places more than the usual amount of emphasis on interior characterization, and on the motives, circumstances, and internal action which springs from, and develops, external action.


The psychological novel is also called “psychological realism”.

A Brief History Of The Psychological Novel

  • Psychological novels co-evolved with psychoanalysis (Freud et al) in the first half of the 1900s.
  • Henry James was one of the first to focus on the motives and psychology of his characters rather than on their actions.
  • Readers take on more work. We don’t just read what happens, we are expected to analyse the characters.
  • English novels were influenced by French and Russian novels. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were especially influential.
  • Stream of consciousness is one of the distinguishing features of a Psychological Novel.

Dostoevsky was the great analyst — in a sense, almost the inventor — of the psychological category that Nietzsche called ressentiment. Again and again, Dostoevsky shows how pride is really very close to humility, and how hate is very close to a kind of sick love.

— James Wood, How Fiction Works

(Ressentiment is the French word for resentment.)


Ways In Which Modern Children’s Literature Resembles The Psychological Novel

Modern children’s literature tends to resemble the psychological novel.

1. Abandonment of overt and controlling narrative voices in favour of single and multiple focalisations

In other words, the didactic unseen omniscient voice died.

2. Changes of perspective

The ‘camera’ of the narrator zooms in and out, sometimes right inside the head of a character, oftentimes further away, commenting on an entire scene. Chapters can alternate first person narrators, or switch between first and third. We see characters from both the inside and from the outside.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell alternates first person narrators, with one chapter narrated by Eleanor, the next by Park.

3. Montage effects

Montage novels are a type of modernist novel which is ‘cinematic’, but we shouldn’t conclude from that, that cinema was influencing the novel. (It’s just as likely the other way around — the word ‘montage’ was not invented for cinema.)

In the 1920s and 30s a lot of development was going on in the arts. The word ‘montage’ started to be applied to other kinds of art, not just film.

Montage ‘involves juxtaposing two fragments and combining them into a new representation whose sense is equal neither to the sense of each fragment nor to their sum.’ (Ėjzenštejn)

  • contrasting ways of expression (collage)
  • different points of view or hyperfragmentation of the text (cubist montage)
  • joining elements from heterogeneous cultures, citations, various subtexts or sources
  • ‘contaminations’ of motifs or genres

While montage in the cinema is the basic means of connecting fragments, montage in literature serves to show their dissociation.

Critics have always had trouble defining the montage novel and you could argue the term is basically meaningless now.

However, the modernist novel — which includes the montage novel — is different from the pre-WW 1 era in that it emphasises the irrationality of life and lost faith in traditional values.

4. Internal monologues

We know what the characters are thinking. The opposite of this is what we see on a Shakespearian stage, for example, in which the only way we can possibly tell what a character is thinking is via a monologue or a murmur to the side.

5. Stream-of-consciousness and similar techniques

The opposite of stream-of-consciousness is dramatic monologue and soliloquy.

The Symbolism Of Cardinal Direction

The cardinal directions have quite different associations in Asia and in each culture around the world — the post focuses on the Western literary tradition, which is heavily inspired by the Bible. One thing all ancient cultures have in common: cardinal directions are in some way sacred.

 no.5 witch weathervane!!—1924 john martin’s magazine halloween cover (by finsbry)

Not all cultures have those same four basic points of north, east, south and west. The Zuni tradition has six points — ours plus one above and another one below. Eastern cultures associate animals of the zodiac to their cardinal directions: Rat for north, rabbit for east, horse for south, rooster for west. By coincidence, the Christian tradition also uses the rooster on weather vanes, not because of any particular association with the west, but because Pope Gregory I said that the cock (rooster) “was the most suitable emblem of Christianity”, being “the emblem of St Peter”. (And Saint Peter is the patron saint of travellers, who need direction to bring them home.)

In the Bible, the cardinal directions tend to have both good and evil associations. This is apparently to do with the idea that you find evil everywhere, all over the place.


We often orient ourselves by facing north. North = orientation, knowing where you’re going, having a firm plan.

North = permanence/eternity. The polar stars were permanently visible in the sky. It is the place of God’s celestial dwelling.

North = disaster, represented by the left hand. (North came from an ancient European language with a term that meant “left”.)

In the Bible, the enemy of God’s people come from the north, bringing destruction. False kings come from the north.

North = cold, wintry, inhospitable.

Whenever The Dark Lord rises to gather his armies and bring destruction upon the lands of men, elves, dwarves and the race of funny midgets, he always, always, always does this from a stronghold built in the most frigid, dark, frigid, remote, frigid, cold, benighted corner of the wasteland that in most cases is simply called “the North”.This trope may stem from how generally inhospitable the North often is to human (and other) life (at least in the Northern hemisphere). While a gentle cover of snow can imply romance, and snow can often be used to create an incredibly beautiful and peaceful otherworldly air, when taken to blizzard-level extremes it becomes an icy hell.

— TV Tropes, Grim Up North

It seems quite common in fantasy worlds to have an arctic or temperate climate in the northern hemisphere, and a tropical climate in the southern hemisphere, i.e., a cold north and a hot south.In reality, it doesn’t quite works this way. You have a cold north… and a cold south. The only “hot” part is in the middle. This representation probably comes from the fact that 90% of of the world’s population lives in the Northern Hemisphere, where that trope seems true.

— TV Tropes, North is Cold, South Is Hot

As someone from the Southern Hemisphere, I can confirm that we are well-used to this norm and hardly even think about it. But it did take my daughter until she was about five or six before she stopped hoping for snow at Christmas in Australia.

The North In Britain

Northern England. To those of the metropolitan southeast in particular, a strange and alien place full of salt-of-the-earth lower-class types who talk funny, notable only for football, pop music and flat caps. To some Londoners, this is anywhere north of the M25, the motorway surrounding Greater London, forgetting about The Midlandsnote . Geographically, the North is usually classed as Cheshire, Greater Manchester, Yorkshire,Merseyside, Lancashire, Durham, Tyne & Wear, Northumberland, Cumbria and parts of Lincolnshire and Derbyshire.It’s less crowded than southern England, but not half as rich or full of TV bosses. The media sometimes portray a stereotypical place of urban deprivation, coal mines and men in flat caps. Expect stories about working-class struggle, unemployment, crime, alcoholism, and old men having humorous adventures. There may well be trouble at t’mill. The setting of many a Kitchen Sink Drama.

— TV Tropes, Oop North

There’s a separate entry for North East England.

The North In America

The American counterpart of Oop North is  Ap Nort, which is a parody of the dialect spoken in the Twin Cities.



But the real American north is Alaska, America’s modern frontier. It is by far the least populated state of America.

Most people who live there aren’t actually born in Alaska. (It’s about 40 per cent who were born there.) It’s a place where people go, or escape to. Much of the population is transitory.

Useful Notes On Alaska from TV Tropes.

In children’s literature, Alaska is where the Cullens go to hunt in Twilight. Jack London’s stories were set there, as was Julie of the Wolves. In all three cases, there is hunting and wildness, and the environment brings the wildness out of the characters.



East of Eden book cover
The novel explores themes of depravity, beneficence, love, and the struggle for acceptance, greatness, and the capacity for self-destruction and especially of guilt and freedom. It ties these themes together with references to and many parallels with the biblical Book of Genesis (especially Genesis Chapter 4, the story of Cain and Abel).

The Sun rises in the East everywhere on the earth. Sometimes a little north of east, sometimes a little south of east, but always east. It’s likely that the word East came from a word that means ‘shining’.

East = Beginnings. Because that’s where the new day begins. Metaphorically, east = an awakening, vision, ascension.

In the ancient world the point of orientation was east. The east was before them, the west behind, the south to the right, and the north to the left.

The importance of the east as the main point of orientation may be related to the rising of the sun and its importance in the religions of the ancient Near East. In the Bible its symbolism emerges for the first time in Genesis. The Garden of Eden was placed in the East and its entrance faced the east.

After sinning, Adam and Eve left the garden and went toward the east.

This eastward movement continued with Cain and culminated in the movement of the human race toward the east.

The east is symbolically ambivalent. The garden placed there symbolized safety and security. After sin, when it was the direction of the exile, it represented a condition of alienation from God. It was also the place of the wilderness, from which destructive winds came, threatening life.

To the prophets the east was a symbol of Babylonian exile and the saving presence of God. He traveled to Babylon and ultimately redeemed His people. The east became a place where God intervened on behalf of His people, bringing them salvation.

From The Sleeper and The Spindle by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell
From The Sleeper and The Spindle by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell
Hordes From The East

“The East” comes from the typical placement of the “others” in Real LifeWestern Europe. The usual candidates for the hordes include Mongols, Muslims, Huns, Hungarians, Scythians, or Russians, or Fantasy Counterpart Cultures of them. Like several of these cultures, they’re likely to have been Born in the Saddle. They’ll sometimes look stereotypically Asian, but they aren’t criminal masterminds like the Yellow Peril – they’re just a mass of Mooks born to be mooks.A culture can even be on both sides of the trope. Russians are a source of Hordes for Western Europe, but they themselves endured Mongol control for some centuries – it’s a popular trope in Russian folk tales.The Hordes from the East will often act like The Horde, but they don’t have to. Hordes from the East will always be presented as a feared foreign danger, but their behavior can vary. There’s a chance that they don’t pillage at all, or that they use clever strategies in battle instead of just brute force.Some cultures have their own tropes involving attacks from a particular direction. For example, an attack would have always come from the North/West in China, from the North-West in India, and from the North in Rome. Another variant is to have hordes from up north, Vikings or Norse barbarians.

TV Tropes

The East vs West In America

New York and New Orleans have symbolic significance as “gateways” to America. Most of our American forefathers entered the new world of America through the eastern gateway of New York and then entered into the heart of America through the southern gateway of New Orleans. In this sense, one could say that New York represents the gateway to America while New Orleans represents the gateway to the “heart” of America. True to general east-west American symbolism, the cities of the east represent the old and traditional values of America while those of the west represent the new.

Symbolism of Place

The Wizard Of Oz/Wicked — Case Study

Since Elphaba is The Wicked Witch Of The West, why did Maguire choose to have her born in the East? Elphaba gradually makes her way West over the course of Wicked.

Did Maguire make use of the symbolism generally associated with cardinal directions? I believe he is influenced by directions as portrayed in Judeo-Christian thinking:

The sun rises in the east. It makes sense that in a work of fantasy, East = birth. The Garden Of Eden was in the East. And remember, it was only when Adam and Eve left Eden that everything turned terrible for us humans, according to the Bible.

In the Bible false kings come from the North. This is where Elphaba goes to university. Though she was presumably ostricised at school, too, this is where we see it. She is frozen out of Galinda’s social circle, relegated to the lunchtable with the Munchkin (the beta-male). Since most of the world lives in the Northern Hemisphere, the North is seen as cold. In Wicked, North is emotionally cold.

Biblically, the south is primarily a negative symbol. It is negative because to the south of Israel was the wilderness, a region where life does not prosper.

The word for west likely comes from another word meaning ‘to go down’. The West is also the place of darkness because that’s where the sun sets. In other words, the West symbolises a green girl’s descent into evil.

Through Wicked, Maguire narrates the story of the Wicked Witch of the West, and her life and experiences in Oz — which is not a fairytale place of happiness and joy, but a dark, oppressive police state full of political machinations. It’s a land where Animals, who are sentient and have voices, souls and minds, are persecuted and exiled. It’s a place where you are wicked if you are different; if you tell the truth.


Oz’ politics is as complex and often as ludicrous as it is in our world. The same is true of Oz’ religions and belief systems. The religion of the Un-named God, the pleasure-seekers, the followers of the time dragon, education, the different social and political causes — each has its zealous followers who have their own tenets of Right and Wrong, about Good and Evil.



Okay, so here’s the general rule: whether it’s Italy or Greece or Africa or Malaysia or Vietnam, when writers send characters south, it’s so they can run amok. The effects can be tragic or comic, but they generally follow the same pattern. We might add, if we’re being generous, that they run amok because they are having direct, raw encounters with the subconscious.

— Thomas C. Foster, How To Read Literature Like A Professor

Foster makes reference to:

  • Lawrence’s searchers
  • Hemingway’s hunters
  • Kerouac’s hipsters
  • Paul Bowles’s down-and-outers and seekers
  • Forster’s tourists
  • Durrell’s libertines
The Road front and back cover
In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, father and son travel south ostensibly because it is warmer there, leading to more chance of survival. Metaphorically, however, the reason for going south in the book is slightly different.


South derives from a word meaning sun, alluding to warmer parts of the world.

Biblically, the south is primarily a negative symbol. It is negative because to the south of Israel was the wilderness, a region where life does not prosper.

To the south was Egypt, which opposed God’s power and oppressed His people. But the south was also the place where the Lord appeared to Moses, went with Him to Egypt, liberated His people, and appeared to them on Mount Sinai.

But the fact that it is represented by the right hand makes it also a positive one.

The American South

The Savage South

If you thought the north was bad, you haven’t seen the south. Down there, everyone is crude, their language indecipherable and their mannerisms are barbaric. The land is an inhospitable jungle full of wild beasts, barren desert, or nasty swamps full of crocodiles (sometimes it has all of the above). Also, don’t go swimming: there are sharks, or worse.The Savage South is when a southern area is seen as more barbaric than its northern counterpart. This shows up frequently in westerns, fantasy settings, horror films, and many other works and takes many forms. In milder versions, the area’s just unpleasant with rude, poorly groomed people. At worst, the people are hostile to any outsiders and the land itself is a nightmare realm just waiting to kill unlucky travelers.

— TV Tropes

The Deep South

The Deep South: home of fat redneck sheriffs, hillbillies, moonshiners, The Klan, tobacco-chawin’ Good Ol’ Boys missing half their teeth, and all other manner of Corrupt Hicks, not to mention fire-and-brimstone preachers, iron-bound matriarchs, white-suited plantation owners, Southern Belles in flouncy gowns or short-shorts with crop tops, and possums. Some Kissing Cousins could also be in the mix somewhere.Although the real mid-Southern and Southeastern United States has a far wider range of locales and settings, the Deep South as it appears on TV is usually one tiny rural town after another, separated by miles of farmland or steep, forested mountainsides. Its inhabitants always seem to be about fifty years behind the times, at least as far as social issues are concerned

TV Tropes

(If the South is looking decayed, misty and/or possibly undead, then it’s Southern Gothic instead.)


The word for West likely comes from another word meaning ‘to go down’.

Five Children and It cover

Edith Nesbit must have been a stickler for detail when she wrote:

And the sun was sinking slowly in the west. (I must say it was in the west, because it is usual in books to say so, for fear careless people should think it was setting in the east. In point of fact, it was not exactly in the west either – but that’s near enough.)

— E. Nesbit, Five Children and It

(In New Zealand, where I come from, the sun rises in the East but sets more in the North.)

According to the Bible, the Israelites crossed the Jordan River westward into the Promised Land. Note that the sea lies to the West. In fact, in the Bible, the term “sea” often referred to the west.

The West is also the place of darkness because that’s where the sun sets.

West = evil and death.

But the West also pointed toward restored unity with God — a return to the Garden of Eden. For example, when the Israelites traveled to and worshipped in the Temple they faced West to have the rising sun behind them.

King Arthur

Upon his release, Joseph gathers his in-laws and other followers and travels to the west, and founds a dynasty of Grail keepers that eventually includes Perceval.

In America: The Western Genre and ‘Manifest Destiny’

The Theme Park Version of the old west is a land of Indians, grizzled prospectors, scenic bluffs, Conestoga wagons, tough, shotgun-toting pioneers and buxom, be-feathered dance-hall girls. Also home to very lucrative sugar glass and balsa-wood chair industries, judging by the number of bar brawls which occur during a single episode of a typical western series. Bad guys and anti-heroes wear black hats, good guys and sheriffs wear white hats, shootouts on Main Street occur with the frequency of at least one an hour—with the sun at high noon each time—and everyone drinks sarsaparilla or whiskey.The real Old West was nothing like The Theme Park Version (which was originally the creation of 19th-century “dime novels”). There weren’t any huge shootouts, quickdraw duels were rare, and gun duels and violent gun-wielding criminals weren’t exclusive to desert-like “western” areas. Plus, since many guns were very inaccurate in those days, they sometimes tended to happen in significantly closer quarters than they do in fiction.

— TV Tropes, The Western


I was entering a land of drifters: dreamers, losers, vagrants, crazy people – they all always go west in America. They all have this hopeless idea that they will get to the coast and make a fortune as a movie star or rock musician or game show contestant or something. And if things don’t work out they can always become a serial murderer. It’s strange that no-one ever goes east, that you never encounter anyone hitch-hiking to New York in pursuit of some wild and crazy dream to be a certified public accountant or make a killing in leveraged buy-outs.

– Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent


The Western is the national myth of the United States [just as the King Arthur story is the national myth of England]. The Western is the last of the great creation myths, because the American West was the last liveable frontier on earth. This story form is the national myth of America and has been written and rewritten thousands of times. So it has a highly metaphorical symbol web. The Western is the story of millions of individuals journeying west, taming the wilderness, and building a home. They are led by a lone-warrior hero who can defeat the barbarians and make it safe for the pioneers to form a village. Like Moses, this warrior can lead his people to the Promised Land but not enter it himself. He is doomed to remain unmarried and alone, forever traveling the wilderness until he and it are gone.

— John Truby, Anatomy of Story


The Great Gatsby penguin edition

In American literature (e.g. in The Great Gatsby) moving West has sometimes symbolized gaining freedom, perhaps as an association with the settling of the Old West (see also Manifest Destiny).

— Wikipedia

What is ‘Manifest Destiny?’

In the 19th century, manifest destiny was a widely held belief in the United States that its settlers were destined to expand across North America.


These days you don’t find genuine Westerns being made. Everything ‘Western’ the 1960s has been an anti-western (aka ‘revisionist Western), in which the audience is encouraged to believe that expanding West is actually a grim and dangerous affair rather than a heroic one. The one exception is Shane, which is a straight Western, using all of the Western symbolism without irony.

Watch out for references to moving West when watching gangster films, too:

There are several gangster films in which a member of the gang says he’s got his eye on a farm or ranch out west, where he plans to get married and settle down. Anyone familiar with gangster films knows upon hearing this speech that this character will be dead before the story is over. Once you’re in the gang, you’re trapped, even if you’re its leader. Perhaps especially if you’re its leader.

— Howard Suber, The Power of Film

Midwestern Values

These days you get a lot of American stories set somewhere in the non-specific ‘mid-west’ — and that’s all we need to know about the place. For those of us who are not American, what does this mean, exactly?

What are Midwestern Values? is a question asked and answered on Quora.

Westerns and Children’s Literature


When it comes to Westerns and children’s literature, there was nothing for children at the time. Nothing excellent, anyway. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn came along and changed that. (At the end of Huck Finn, Huck declares that he is quite glad to be done writing his story, and despite Sally’s plans to adopt and civilize him, he intends to flee west to Indian Territory.)

Weird West — A New Genre

Weird West is a type of urban fantasy. It uses lots of Western tropes but makes use of magical realism/supernatural features. Westworld is a great example of Weird West.

For more see: Why The Weird West Works

 For anyone interested in literature from WESTERN AUSTRALIA in particular, more here, from The Book Show.

The Cosy House In Winter

Isn’t it true that a pleasant house makes winter more poetic, and doesn’t winter add to the poetry of a house? The white cottage sat at the end of a little valley, shut in by rather high mountains; and it seemed to be swathed in shrubs.

Baudelaire, French poet

This cosiness is exploited in full in the horror genre for all ages. Take Misery, in which Stephen King goes out of his way to create a cosy, loving shelter after a brutal car accident, before inverting the cosiness to invoke terror.

In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard makes some related points:

  • The reason we feel warm is precisely because it’s cold outside.
  • Dreamers tend to love winter. More time to dream.
  • Edgar Allan Poe had a thing about big, heavy curtains. When the curtains are dark, the snow outside seems even whiter. It’s all about juxtaposition and contrast.
  • ‘Everything comes alive when contradictions accumulate’.
  • When snow covers everything outside, the outside world is pretty much obliterated. There is no longer any struggle between the house and the environment. The whole universe has a single, unifying colour. ‘The winter cosmos is a simplified cosmos.’
  • ‘Winter is by far the oldest of the seasons. … On snowy days, the house too is old.’

Misery film poster

In Blackdog we also have a cosy house (on the inside) but it is snowing outside. In this house, ‘everything may be differentiated and multiplied’ (Bachelard).

Black Dog by Levi Pinfold, book jacket

In the film adaptation of 101 Dalmatians, snow makes a chase scene more treacherous, not least because of the ability to track paw prints. But when the camera pans to this cosy village, the audience is reminded that although a treacherous journey taking place, there is comfort to be found at the edges.

cosy village in winter

The Role Of The Chimera In Storytelling

Before science took hold, when humans were still trying to classify everything we saw around us, people really did believe in the chimera. Take the example of the Scoter duck. No one could decide whether this bird was a bird or a fish. he Abbe of Vallemont even took it out of the bird category and put it in the fish category, and in the 19th century Catholics were allowed to eat Scoter duck on Fridays in lieu of fish if they wanted.

If people thought this duck were a fish, you can imagine how the platypus confused them.
If people thought this duck were a fish, you can imagine how the platypus confused them.

The chimera is important in the horror and speculative fiction/sci-fi genres.

The term chimera may be about to undergo a renaissance in modern parlance, because scientists are using the word to describe a single organism composed of cells from different zygotes. Animal chimeras are produced by the merger of multiple fertilized eggs.


The Ancient East and Its Story by James Baikie.c.1920. Artist – Constance N. Baikie. “Farewell to the Enchanted Island”

Continue reading “The Role Of The Chimera In Storytelling”

Domestic Dramas In Children’s Literature

While adventure stories were originally written for boys, domestic dramas were written for girls.


Adventure stories are linear. The hero starts the story by leaving. He often finds himself in a new home after completing his journey. This is a linear plot. In contrast, domestic dramas are circularDomestic stories are home-away-home stories, with the implication that a girl’s proper place (indeed, only place) is in the homeThe chapters of domestic stories tend to be episodic rather than suspenseful, a la Anne of Green Gables, in which a number of the scenes could be switched around and it wouldn’t really matter to the timeline of the plot. Domestic dramas emphasise the seasons, since seasons are themselves cyclical and therefore circular.

For more on the major plot shapes in children’s literature see this post.


Even today, stories thought to be more popular with men tend to feature stronger narrative drive. Breaking Bad, for instance, has recently been a very popular fictional work among men and women alike, and its heroes are men. But the women of Breaking Bad exist mainly as wifely opponents, with the addition of a non-wife female role only in the final season (Lydia). Breaking Bad has episodic elements to it — each episode features a different self-contained plot such as a factory heist to steal a drum full of chemicals, or a visit to the guy with the gold tooth to blow up his lair. At the end of each of these episodes, Walter White returns to his home. As the series progresses it becomes more and more linear. Walter White does not end up back in the home.

Breaking Bad

We might compare and contrast Orange Is The New Black for a modern television drama starring women, ‘for’ women. This is a far more episodic show. Though there is a linear narrative holding the scenes together, the audience derives pleasure not from intense curiosity about what’s about to happen next, but in enjoying the moment — the humour and the dialogue of each scene.

Orange Is The New Black

There are of course genre differences between Breaking Bad and Orange is the New Black, but it’s no coincidence that one stars men and the other stars women; there is a long history of just this sort of gender division in our popular fiction.



  • The Wide, Wide World by Elizabeth Wetherell — a sentimental, religious story. A girl is sent to live with a country aunt after her mother is sent away to die.
  • The Lamplighter by Maria Cummins — Gerty is dragged up by a brutal woman in a Boston slum, popular on both sides of the Atlantic. (Read online.)
  • The works of Miss Charlotte M. Yonge — a very ‘Victorian’ woman, believing in the inferiority of females. She edited a magazine for girls called The Monthly Packet for more than 40 years. (See it online.) Considering her works are now out of print and seldom read, she was very popular in her time. She wrote The Daisy Chain, which is an important forerunner to Little Women.
  • Little Women by Louisa May Alcott — the first two books in this series have been an enduring success. As well as sermonising, the stories feature human reaction against sermonising, which is probably part of their longevity. The character of Laurie is probably a precursor to the likes of Edward Cullen — not entirely fleshed out as a male character, but filling girlhood dreams of boys at a certain developmental stage. This series set the tone for many girls’ books to follow.
  • Elsie Dinsmore by Martha Finlay — a series about a tearful eight-year-old who is an extreme goody-goody.
Elsie Dinsmore Number 6
Modern cover model looks a lot like Elaine Benes to me, though I doubt there are many similarities.
  • What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge — starts off active and ‘feisty’ but ends up married to a handsome naval officer as the series continues.
  • The Gypsy Series by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps — the heroine Gypsy Breynton is an appealing and sporty main character, but there’s no realistic place for her one she is past adolescence, so she ends up supporting her brother as he goes off to Yale.

Gypsy Breyton sopping wet


  • Three Vassar Girls Abroad — the first story to feature young women at university, as was happening in the real world with the admission of women to Vassar College and other women’s colleges in America.
  • Little Prudy by Sophie May — for younger readers. Prudy is mischievous and fired with enthusiasm, perhaps a precursor to the likes of Junie B Jones
  • The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew by Margaret Sidney — notable for being the first story about genuinely poor people rather than just ‘hard up’.
  • Seven Little Australians by Ethel Turner — the first notable Australian story of this kind, starring model children,  though it reads as quite English, since the father was English.
  • Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm by Kate Douglas Wiggin — very similar to Anne of Green Gables, though it came first
  • Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery — Anne exemplifies the ‘Ugly Duckling’ plot, not present in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Later books in the series have been described as ‘sentimentally dishonest’.
  • Jackanapes by Mrs. Ewing — a later Victorian work. A low-tension story about a boy and his growth into manhood with a war setting.
  • The Cuckoo Clock by Mrs Molesworth — Griselda goes to live with her two old-maid aunts in an old-fashioned house. She gets bored and enters into a fantasy world with a real-life friend who has come to live nearby.
  • Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances Hodgson Burnett — similar to Mrs Ewing and Mrs Molesworth but by a much more powerful writer. This book is described as ‘namby pamby’ but the main character isn’t all that odious, apparently, if you read the story. Instead,  he is likeable and unaffected and has left-wing politics for his class. The moral is that the only true nobility is within oneself. A Little Princess is like Fauntleroy but in reverse — a story about a girl who goes from aristocracy to the street. The moral is exactly the same. The Secret Garden was written 20 years after Burnett’s first, and is a lot more complex. Mary Lennox has to struggle before achieving a heroine’s status, whereas for the other two main characters it came naturally. The Secret Garden does not espouse Victorian values, in which children should be seen and not heard and do as they’re told. Instead, the book encourages self-reliance and cooperation, which may explain its enduring appeal.

Little Lord Fauntleroy

  • The function of domestic dramas was to teach girls that a home life is a glamorous one, and to give them a glimpse of life outside the home, presumably so they’d be happy to stay inside the home.
  • But looking closely at these stories, they weren’t really about promoting how wonderful it was to scrub and cook and look after babies — the absolute ideal has always been that these tasks are done by ‘some other woman’ rather than the heroine.
  • There’s no doubt that most reading girls would have been reading adventure stories too, especially if they had brothers. Unfortunately for them, they never got to see themselves in those stories, except as annoying mothers who needed to be broken away from.
  • The more successful domestic dramas were less pious and had more action, which shows what girl readers really wanted, despite what was thought to be good for them. For example, the character of Nancy (a friend to the heroine) made The Wide, Wide World successful because she was a bit of a tearaway, and Gerty of The Lamplighter was also a wild child.
  • “Domestic” does not necessarily mean “bliss” in a children’s book. From the mid 20th Century authors didn’t shy away from portraying threats to young characters’ well-being. But even earlier than that, intimacy didn’t equal peace.
  • Domesticity has always been considered an unstable state. The word itself has meant different things in different eras (think of today’s common usage, as police terminology). It has gone from ideal to pejorative.






Allegory = Extreme Metaphor

What Does Allegory Mean?

Allegorical means, among many other things, that the characters, worlds, actions and objects are, of necessity, highly metaphorical. That doesn’t mean they aren’t unique or created by the writer. It means the symbols have references that echo against previous symbols, often deep in the audience’s mind.

Allegorical also means ‘applicable to our modern world and time’.

Good stories have elements that are founded on the thematic line and oppositions. This especially applies to allegory. For example, for Tolkien, Christian thematic structure emphasises good versus evil.

Continue reading “Allegory = Extreme Metaphor”

The Magic Porridge Pot And Famine

The Magic Porridge Pot is also known as Sweet Porridge and various similar titles.

Sweet Porridge

There is a motif common in European folktales: A cooking pot that will not cease overflowing. Although this story is obviously a response to famine, I think it’s also a response to a general childhood way of thinking in which you’re not sure when things that start are going to stop. Although there were no flush toilets back in the middle ages, I still remember being wary of flushing toilets when I was a kid, never completely sure if a flushing toilet would overflow, or if a fast-running tap would ever turn off, for instance.

I am more familiar with the English title ‘The (Magic) Porridge Pot’ and you probably are too, but this fairytale was originally called ‘Sweet Porridge’ in German. Apparently it is originally Swedish.

Various Versions Of The Magic Porridge Pot

Several different Ladybird versions of this tale can be found on our shelves. They are interesting to compare because the style of illustration is so different. Most of the big children’s book titles have produced a version of The Magic Porridge Pot. Here’s an Usborne version, with its bright colours and lively black outline work:


Ladybird produced its own version in the same illustrative style:


Not just one, actually! Here we have a more subtle, watercolour style for the distant background but the cartoonish style of the characters is very similar:


Just for contrast, this takes the cake for the ugliest children’s book cover I’ve ever seen. I don’t know what they were thinking but what the actual? Is this a Magic Eye type thing? Or the underbelly of a snake?

ugly porridge pot cover

Here’s an illustration from a more recent version of this story which appeared in a children’s magazine in 2015. The style of the characters reminds me of Japanese manga characters. It could almost be a still from a Hayao Miyazaki anime:

by Ariane Delrieu
by Ariane Delrieu

Back to the earlier versions, I’m not sure what that thing is on the mother’s head, is it a towel because she has washed her hair, or a very big bow?

The Magic Porridge pot towel on head

In any case, these characters look like recognisable people. The cartoon characters can be pretty much anyone white, but these two look like they’ve been based on real human models. This one’s similar, though she looks like a more generic beautiful white woman:


Now to my own 1971 Ladybird edition, which I like the most. It is illustrated by Londoner Robert Lumley, born 1920.

This woman looks like a specific person, doesn’t she?


This version is part of the ‘realistically illustrated’ series, all by Robert Lumley, in the decade between 1964 and 1974.

Ladybird Books 1970s

The most hilarious thing about the illustrations in these books is that they look very much ‘posed for’ and staged. “Imagine this pot on the table is overflowing,” says the artist, taking a reference photo. “Now, look surprised!”

overflowing porridge

“Look a different kind of surprised!”

Porridge Pot staged actors

“Imagine the pot is magical!”

Ladybird version 1971 Porridge Pot

(I’m assuming the emaciated mouse wearing pants and holding a mini plate was not posed for.)

I know I sound critical of this realistic style of illustration in these Lumley Ladybirds, but really they’re my favourite versions. While the illustrations do lack more realistic movements that can be better achieved via a cartoonish style (see the illustrations of Australian Emma Quay, especially Rudie Nudie, for a great example of characters in movement), the illustrations here are very much of a time and place — specifically old world German — which is harder to achieve in a highly cartoonish style.

“Now, you just stand over there in the background. Don’t move…”

Cook little pot cook

The addition of wild animals in the frame make these photorealistic illustrations seem more ‘picturebook-like’. In the picture above, an interested rabbit.

Here we still have some off-kilter perspective — I suspect there was no reference photo for this one, or perhaps the illustrator specialises in portraits — but it absolutely does the job of conveying the quaintness of the town.

Porridge Pot town aerial view

Food In Fairytales

Food is a regular component of fairy tales that have medieval oral antecedents. Famine was a frequent and devastating feature of life in Europe in the Middle Ages and deprivation inevitably shapes fantasies and desires. The magic world of fairy tales often promised rich, sweet, and plentiful food.

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


In medieval times when crops failed the poor were forced to live on: “horsse corne, beanes, peason, otes, tares & lintels.”

— William Harrison’s A Description of England, 1577

horsse-corne = corn grown for horses

peason = an obsolete plural for peas

tares = any of several weedy plants that grow in grain fields

lintels = ‘lentils’ is the modern spelling

During the period 1437 to 1439, for example, “when there was a succession of wet summers and harvests were ruined, the peasantry was reduced to eating such herbs and roots as they could gather from the hedgerows, and thousands died“. The scenario in “The Sweet Porridge” reflects similarly desperate circumstances; the girl’s mother is a widow, so the earning capacity of the husband/father figure has been lost and the girl is presumably searching for something edible in the woods. It is not hard to understand how such persistent hunger and hopeless conditions could lead to a fantasy such as a magic porridge pot. It is not so much what is eaten that is at issue when you are starving but that there should be sufficient of whatever there is to eat. Good, sweet porridge, and plenty of it, could fulfill that desire. “The Sweet Porridge” is thus a story that relies upon habitual and chronic hunger as a driving force.

— Daniel

In fact, even those who lived in castles couldn’t afford to withstand a famine back then, at least in what’s now known as The Great Famine (1315-1317). The human population in Europe was exceeding the ability for land to provide food, except in years with bumper crops. Other impacts of starvation:

  • Sometimes elderly people would sacrifice eating in order to let the younger ones pull through.
  • Some churchgoers started to  realise that no amount of prayer would provide food and church attendance dropped during times of famine.
  • The Black Death actually helped fixed the starvation crisis, since the population was greatly reduced. But famine was still a great threat.
  • Most people would go through 3-4 famines in their lifetimes during the middle ages.

In the Middle Ages, rich people ate what today could best be compared to Sally Fallon and Mary Enig’s Nourishing Traditions diet, with plenty of meat, poultry and saturated fats, with fermented grains and unpasteurised dairy products. But poor people ate whatever they could get their hands on, with porridge being cheap, along with bread made from barley and rye. Poor people drank ale, similar to beer. Barley was eaten at every meal. The poor drank water and mixed it with honey if they could. This is not so different from what poor people eat today: grain products and lots of fructose.

Compare and Contrast With The Magic Porridge Pot

When it comes to food fantasy in folk tales, Hansel and Gretel is the stand-out example, to the point you can’t now put a witch in a forest without the audience thinking of this famous tale.

Versions of The Magic Porridge Pot story can also be found in other cultures. For example West Kalimantan (Indonesia) has a folktale called Why Rice Grains Are So Small.

Tomie dePaola wrote a tale called Strega Nona, published in 1975, a modern version of The Magic Porridge Pot in which there is an overflowing magic pasta pot. This is probably dePaola’s best known work. It is set in Italy, of course. dePaola created the character of Strega Nona (Grandma Witch) himself, even though she sounds like she’s borrowed from folklore.


Mirrors and Reflections 06: The Character Change Mirror

Symmetry matters more to writers of fiction than readers consciously perceive.

— David Lodge

Next time you’re reading (or writing) something, you might think of character change in the form of a mirror.

  • Change is the root of all drama.
  • Some characters have a deficiency of knowledge rather than a ‘flaw’ or a ‘moral weakness’. This is particularly true of child characters, whose main ‘flaw’ is being young and inexperienced. It is also true of a character such as Inspector Morse who knows nothing of a killer at the beginning of his journey but everything by the end. Child characters are quite similar to genre fiction characters.
  • At the midpoint protagonists start to really understand the nature of forces against them. This is when the identities of baddies are revealed, usually, if they’ve been hidden at the beginning.
  • At the midpoint the protagonist holds the solution to the mission in their hands. If it’s a detective film, this information changes the story completely. If it’s a thriller the midpoint marks the end of the ‘outward’ journey to achieve the goal and marks the beginning of the journey back.
  • The midpoint of each story is the moment when each protagonist embraces for the first time the quality they will need to become complete and finish their story. It’s when they discover a truth about themselves. In an archetypal (three dimensional/memorable) story, that truth will be an embodiment of everything that’s the direct opposite of the person they were. The protagonist will embrace that truth and attempt to assimilate and understand it in the second half of the tale. The character learns what they themselves are capable of.
  • In what John Yorke calls a ‘two dimensional story’ (that would include ongoing series such as Courage the Cowardly Dog or Seinfeld), the main character learns the truth about the adversary.
  • All stories at some level are about a search for the truth of the subject they are exploring. Just as the act of perception involves seeking out the ‘truth’ of the thing perceived, so storytelling mimics that process. The ‘truth’ of the story, then, lies at the midpoint. The protagonist’s action at this point will be to overcome that obstacle, assimilate that truth and begin the journey back — the journey to understand the implications of what that ‘truth’ really means.

If the main character in a story doesn’t change, there’s no story.

character change mirror

ASAF The Artifacts character change