This month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story. Today I continue with a selection of mentor texts to help kids see how it works. Today I look closely at a picture book classic by iconic American author/illustrator, Maurice Sendak. Outside Over There is a mythic journey of the imagination, with emphasis on atmosphere and emotion. It is a changeling story with the strong influence of fairy and folk tale.
Maurice Sendak’s most famous work is Where The Wild Things Are. Entire theses have been written about Where The Wild Things Are. I’ve summarised some of the key thoughts about that picture book myself, and have since noticed just how influential it was in its depiction of difficult feelings, previously taboo in stories for young readers.
Yet some children’s literature specialists believe Outside Over There is Sendak’s best work. In its publishing history, this picture book hasn’t always been marketed to children. This is one of those ‘children’s books’ which appeals to adults in a different, possibly deeper, way.
Many children’s stories feature windows, whether it’s children gazing from windows, opponents framed by windows, yellow squares of light offering the solace of civilisation. Windows are important to plot but are also symbolic.
THE WINDOW REFLECTION
Below is a screen capture from The Homesman. This is a trick often used by film directors as a way of showing an actor’s face and what the character is looking at simultaneously.
There are three main types of modern adventure stories, and they all make use of mythic structure. (For more on children’s adventure stories and their evolution, see The Centrality of the Adventure Story.)
1. THE MYTHIC JOURNEY
The ur-Myth is The Odyssey, first recorded by Homer 800 BC.
Also known as the (Mythic) Quest. These stories all have the same basic structure. The technical definition of myth:
The story of the transformation of the soul and the stages of its illumination.
It’s different from other genres — birth to death to rebirth, a story of recycling that never ends. It has the broadest story structure of any genre. Instead of a love story, typically tracking the courtship between a man and a woman, this is a story form that has massive scope. Myth stories are almost always epics. An interesting thing to do is to make a combination between myth and love, which aren’t normally put together, but if you did do this, your work would be separated from almost everyone else writing love stories so it’s an excellent technique.
There are four major story areas where myth is distinguished from other genres: character, story world, plot and theme.
The Monomyth comes from Joseph Campbell — the idea that there’s a single story that all writers tap into. But this is a faulty idea. If you look at the beats Joseph talks about, they tend to be warrior male myth stories, so don’t really work when you’re trying to talk about female myth. Well, maybe there’s a single female myth story? You get into a lot of problems because if you try to reduce all female stories to a single story — you end up reducing her to the single biological function of a woman. Better to think rather that the character can grow past the basic biological capacity to give birth.
There’s a new knight story, with knight stories being one of the most enduring stories at the moment, especially in the West. This story form will continue to be in its more modern version very popular for the next 10-20 years.
The rejuvenation myth is a story form about how do you rejuvenate the city and make it liveable, a place that’s freeing and promotes growth? This is probably the central challenge for story tellers if they’re trying to tell a modern day story. In the past writers have written that the city gets so technological and overbearing that it collapses and starts all over again. That’s no longer a good solution. Look at Avatar to see how popular these stories can be — it’s basically based on ecological story beats, so we have a new story form: ecological.
In this kind of adventure there are often two journeys, closely linked and mutually dependent, one physical and the other spiritual. The protagonist, by means of a physical journey, experiences a growth in self-knowledge or subtle character development. An observant reader will respond to both journeys and be aware of the spiritual growth that has taken place.
— Give Them Wings, edited by Saxby and Winch
Or, as John Truby says, in a mythic journey, the hero goes on a journey, finds himself, then comes back home a slightly (or vastly) changed individual.
The ur-Static Journey is the Robinsonnade, a word that appeared to describe two similar novels which happened to both have ‘Robinson’ in the title: Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Swiss Family Robinson.
What made Robinson Crusoe so popular?
A wonderful narrative voice — exciting, unhurried and conversational. Quasi-journalistic.
It’s actually a very old story pattern, also seen in the Bible: transgression, retribution, repentance, redemption. (Youthful rebellion, successive shipwrecks, the painful lessons of isolation, Crusoe’s return home.)
Memorably concrete images, like Friday’s footprints in the sand, Crusoe with his parrot and umbrella.
One reason for the island myth is pure escapism, of course. But this sort of myth is often not an escape from work. Once you’re on the island, you need to work hard to live. Like ultra-camping, or the feeling you get watching reality TV of the Doomsday Preppers variety. In Robinson Crusoe, our hero has to build shelters, fence off territories, hunt and farm.
Another island story is The Tempest, by William Shakespeare. Prospero has to procure the island’s secrets from Caliban, make the wretch his slave, learn to master the elements and protect his daughter.
Why are these stories so popular? Well, we love a story in which characters work for what they have. This is a dominant ideology in children’s literature too. When characters get what they desire we like to see evidence that they deserve it. Robinson Crusoe has achieved longevity due in part to its consonance with this modern ideology that work is one of most important things humans can do. Indeed, Defoe presents work as a kind of therapy — working on mind, body and spirit. When Crusoe bakes his own bread he’s proud of his achievement. This is in line with the tale of The Little Red Hen: If you want to enjoy your bread you had better have baked it yourself.
For more on Robinson Crusoe see The Guardian, in which they count Robinson Crusoe as the second most important book in English literature.
A more recent evolution is Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, written in the mid- to late-1800s in which the hero doesn’t actually need to go anywhere; all the action takes place at home.
In the 20th century we read school stories and holiday stories, which are also static in that the action takes place at a (boarding) school or at a holiday destination. See: School Stories.
Around the 1960s and 70s adventure stories started to focus less on plot and more on character. Romanticism gave way to realism. As in the best adventure stories, setting is still important.
Ivan Southall — the Simon Black series — the Australian Biggles
A more direct modern retelling of the Robinson Crusoe story is of course Castaway starring Tom Hanks. But don’t forget that any adventure story which takes place in one place is a descendent of Robinson Crusoe.
Julie of the Wolves is a YA novel in the Robinsonnade tradition.
3. THE FEMALE MYTH
It could be that we’re all sick of the three act structure and that actually there is a way of telling a story that is different. And it’s just not about the big orgasm [Battle] at the end. We have multiple orgasms, that’s God’s gift to us. […] There is a theory around women’s storytelling, that it isn’t just the three act structure to get to the big bang at the end. That isn’t our biology. We like a slow burn. And it’s very rewarding. What’s wrong with 10 endings?
Odyssean stories and Robinsonades are of the ‘male’ type. (The first involves leaving home and going on a journey to find oneself; the second focuses a bit more on character development.) The Male Myth form is well-known to everyone because it is so common and so ancient.
Then there is the female myth form which is much newer.
This new female myth form is a blend of the two minus a few things.
There are few modern examples of the female myth form, but some notable examples are:
For the last 3000 years (since The Odyssey) adventure stories have been about men and typically masculine pursuits. Frozen is one of the most popular animated films of all time. This shows the absurdity of the old Hollywood conventional wisdom that says you can’t have a blockbuster hit with a female lead character. There is a tremendous thirst for new female myth forms.
…fundamentally change our collective vision of who the hero is and what she will accomplish on her life and story paths.[…] Of course both Joy and Riley are female. But that alone does not make this a female myth. Joy is not a warrior like the Diana goddess, as depicted by the Katniss Everdeen character in The Hunger Games. She is an emotion, and a way of seeing and interacting with the world without fighting. Riley isn’t the typical Disney princess. She’s a normal, eleven-year-old girl facing a traumatic life event where she’s been forced to move to a new home.
Like the Male Warrior Myth laid out by Joseph Campbell, Joy goes on a long, difficult journey.But she doesn’t fight her way through one opponent after another, ending with a big bloody battle. She thinks and feels her way through the labyrinth that is Riley’s mind. Nor is there a Minotaur at the center that Joy must slay. There are references to some of the old Greek myths, such as the Cyclops in the form of a giant, scary clown and a mountain which Joy, as Sisyphus, must climb only to tumble back down and try again. But it’s the way she handles the opposition, and ultimately succeeds, that makes this a new Female Myth story.
In other words, the Female Myth:
Doesn’t technically have to star female heroes — ‘female myth’ describes the story type rather than the gender of the main character. The inverse is also true: Just because a myth stars a female doesn’t mean the story is a ‘female myth form’. (Likewise, a feminist story doesn’t have to star a female character — feminist stories let characters of all genders transcend limitations of their sex.)
Doesn’t have all the fighting
Or the big battle at the climax
Doesn’t necessarily involve a journey away from home, but there is some sort of long, difficult journey
There doesn’t have to be a ‘minotaur’ (a powerful outside opponent)
Plots are not based on conflict
It draws heavily from Jungian theory.
Interiority. The Female Myth is an inner journey. It seems to have been around since the Second Wave feminist movement (though there may well be excellent earlier examples I don’t know about.) Either the character goes into their own heads or, as in Inside Out, there’s a whole other world in there. Imagination and fantasy are great combos for the female myth form, as without the big battles and strong outside villain we do require a rich story world.
In children’s literature, it’s possible to track the development from ‘male myths only’ to where we are today, with Inside Out.
In Waking Sleeping Beauty, Roberta Seelinger Trites names two books in particular: The Blue Sword by Robyn McKinley and On Fortune’s Wheel by Cynthia Voight.
THE BLUE SWORD (1982)
This novel has a lot of feminist problems, to be sure.
Harry is silenced because of how it’s plotted — she can’t speak the local fantasy language and has to rely on a dude to translate everything for her. This means he dominates conversations.
Only four of the fifteen knights are women and they remain unnamed, so McKinley doesn’t achieve gender balance in her minor characters.
This is ultimately a marriage plot. At the end she gets married and this is a happy ending for her.
But The Blue Sword is an important work because it was one of the first books to allow a female character a traditionally masculine mythic quest.
Seelinger Trites points out that imagery of cycles and wheels inform both texts to emphasize how Birle and Orien’s journeys are process- rather than goal-oriented. This lines up with what Maria Nikolajeva has said about how seasons dominate in children’s books written for girls, since seasons are cyclical.
The journeys themselves are circular as well. In male myth forms, the hero often (though not always) ends in a different part of the world.
ON FORTUNE’S WHEEL (1990)
Published 8 years later, Cynthia Voight’s novel is similar to The Blue Sword but avoids some of the traps of subversion.
Birle goes on a quest, like Harry, though she’s not after an object in particular.
She doesn’t give up her voice, identity or her culture when she marries.
She starts her journey voluntarily, trying to rescue her family. (This is similar to the much later Katniss Everdeen ‘call’ to adventure.) She’s not kidnapped or anything.
She serves as the male character’s guide for a while then makes her own decision to join him on his journey in the hopes of escaping an unwise betrothal (that she made herself).
She falls in love with her male companion and chooses to be with him.
Birle is not setting out to destroy a foe. This is what makes it different from the male quest/myth.
Instead, it is the process of the journey, which allows the characters’ love for each other to grow, and not the end of the journey that matters. This is the main narrative choice that separates Voight’s quest from others.
The differences between the ‘male’ and ‘female’ myth forms are described by Elizabeth Lyon in her book Manuscript Makeover, in which she picks the highlights from an earlier feminist book The Heroine’s Journey by Maureen Murdock.
MALE MYTH: THE OUTER QUEST
FEMALE MYTH: THE INNER QUEST
The Hero is in his familiar Ordinary World when a serious event introduces a problem that is his Call To Adventure.
A life changing event compels a woman to go on a quest to find her own identity, separate from the one she assimilated from the male culture that was modelled by her mother.
He refuses the Call because it will mean change, challenge, Separation from the known and familiar, and Departure from home. It may even mean risking his life. He also doesn’t know if he is capable of the task.
At first she adopts so-called male behaviours, thinking that she has denied aggressiveness in the past and that is what she needs.
A Mentor assures him that he can do it, must do it, and is the only one who can succeed.
This belief leads her into the world of men, often also growing closer to her father.
Emboldened and committed, the Hero departs. He Crosses the Threshold into the Special World, which is alien compared to his Ordinary World.
She often achieves success in the work world as she perfects her Animus, the assertive competitive, perfectionist, and male-identified side of her personality.
He quickly learns the rules, encounters Allies and Enemies, and begins his Descent deep into the Special World, the territory of those who oppose him and where he’ll find the solution to the problem.
At the same time, she challenges, rejects and even rebukes the beliefs in inferiority, dependency, and romantic love that she now sees as cultural indoctrination of women.
As he continues on the Road of Tests and Trials, the obstacles grow more formidable. He reaches the Approach to the Inner Cave, knowing that at its heart will be the Supreme Ordeal. In the innermost cave, he encounters the biggest obstacles and threats to success. If he overcomes these final challenges, he will have claim to the Reward: He’ll achieve the goal that resolves the problem that set him on his journey.
She may blame her mother and distance herself from her.
After he succeeds (or fails), he Refuses the Call to return home, instead emerging from the cave to regale in his glory or to lick his wounds.
But when success in the male world also leaves her feeling hollow she no longer feels close to her father or male mentors. She feels betrayed by everyone and everything she has known and believes, including God as a male-defined creation of the culture.
Believing his quest is over and he can at last begin his Return home, he is confronted with one last obstacle, the Ultimate Test. Whether or not he reaches his story goal, if he summons all that he has learned, and releases or heals a wound he was afflicted with in his past, he will let his old self die to be reborn into a new, freer self.
Alone, “spiritually arid”, the woman begins her turn inward in search of her unique self. She examines her unique experiences and searches for memories that seem to reflect pieces of a lost but authentic self. However long this period lasts, it often involves shedding any accoutrements of what the patriarchal culture deems appropriate and desirable: female dress, manners and friends. Yet she yearns for an end to the grief and emptiness. She fears she may die without finding her true self and a chance to pursue dreams that she discovers within her.
This is his emotional passage, his Initiation. Death and Rebirth allow him to overcome this final confrontation (unless the story is a tragedy, and then he clings to his old ways, weaknesses, and the emotional wound.)
Little by little, or all at once, she finds that connection, and the courage to receive the archetypal power of the Feminine. She integrates it in her own way. She begins to express her unique and now known self. Now she can also express, as needed, nurturing, relatedness and receptivity. These are the positive qualities of the Feminine.
She reconnects with her mother or with the archetype of the Mother. If the relationship with her earthly mother permits it, she seeks to heal the former breach.
Instead of rejecting all the Masculine qualities, she integrates the side of herself that also holds the power of the positive Masculine archetype.
At last he can Return with the Elixir, perhaps a treasure, but the true reward is being a new, transformed individual, a Master of Two Worlds, an integrated person with wisdom to share, in the form of the theme reflected by his journey.
Finally, she ends her duality, the split of her self and cultural beliefs about the Feminine and Masculine. She ends the misery of beliefs and behaviours not in harmony with her discovered self. She emerges into her new world and selects her new life as an integrated, renewed and healed person.
In order to work out whether a mythic story is ‘male’ or ‘female’, don’t look at the gender of the hero. Men and boys can star in female myths while women and girls can star in the traditional male myth.
Oprah’s book club picks were usually good examples of the female myth. Since the reader of this kind of female myth form is asked to identify with a character battling what is essentially the patriarchy, it’s not surprising that some men (one of whom even refused to appear on Oprah’s book club…) will be turned off by a Oprah’s book club sticker. It is true of many things in life as it is in reading — women are expected to understand and sympathise with the male experience but not vice versa. Many men simply cannot understand what such a struggle would feel like, or what it even entails.
The most recent Female Myths have branched out. The woman/girl hero no longer has to battle against the patriarchy, or wrestle with the binary gender norm. We are moving into a political period where, in enlightened communities, the gender binary is put aside in favour of individual expression.
We’re even starting to see the female myth in film — traditionally later than novels in picking up the latest trends. (Hollywood is notoriously conservative.)
The Male Warrior Myth, indeed all of Western storytelling in the last 3000 years, is based on maximum conflict. The hero goes on a journey and fights one opponent after another. There is always a big bloody battle near the end.
Female Myths solve problems in a different way. The hero goes on a journey, but instead of battling with others, she might think and feel her way through her problem.
[Echoing Maureen Murdock and Elizabeth Lyon:] Females as main characters are not what make a ‘female myth form’. It’s all about how the hero deals with the problem.
— John Truby, Anatomy of Story
As John Truby points out, Pixar’s film Inside Out is an excellent example of a Female Myth. While Riley is a girl, she could just as easily have been a boy.
Like the Male Warrior Myth laid out by Joseph Campbell, Joy goes on a long, difficult journey. But she doesn’t fight her way through one opponent after another, ending with a big bloody battle. She thinks and feels her way through the labyrinth that is Riley’s mind. Nor is there a Minotaur at the center that Joy must slay. There are references to some of the old Greek myths, such as the Cyclops in the form of a giant, scary clown and a mountain which Joy, as Sisyphus, must climb only to tumble back down and try again. But it’s the way she handles the opposition, and ultimately succeeds, that makes this a new Female Myth story.
Her primary ally in this journey, and the key to its final success, is another woman, Sadness. As in any Buddy Picture Comedy, the buddy is the first opponent. In the mind of Joy and the audience, Sadness is her polar opposite and best avoided whenever possible. But the key to the self-revelation, for Joy and thus Riley as well, is that experiencing loss and Sadness is part of growing up.
Other examples of the Female Myth form:
Coraline — A girl retreats into her imagination where her ideal home life is found. She realises she doesn’t want what she thought she wanted after all, and battles the demons before returning to reality more grateful and satisfied.
Arrival — A woman’s ability to see holistically instead of divisively is matched by the story’s structure, and results in a personal and global revolution.
Where are all the female creation myths?
The female body follows the lunar cycle, which is closely associated with the idea of death and rebirth (waning and waxing moon). The cardinal function of the female body is reproduction. The female myths, describing female initiation, are aimed at repetition, rebirth, the eternal life cycle. Actually, very few genuine female myths exist in written–male, civilised, “symbolic” (Lacan)–form, due to many reasons. Connected with essential life mysteries such as menstruation and birth (both involving bloody), female myths are more secret and sacred than male myths. They have mostly existed in oral form, as esoteric rituals. In Western civilisation, they have been suppressed and muted by the dominant male culture. We can only discover traces and remnants of them, in the figures of the *Progenitrix, the witch, the **chthonic goddess.
— Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature
*Progenitrix = A female progenitor, a foremother, any of a person’s direct female ancestors (ancestresses).
**Chthonic = relating to or inhabiting the underworld
There are still few female myths around, which is why I wrote one myself, in the form of Hilda Bewildered. Though I didn’t realise it at the time, this story is similar to Inside Out in that it’s about a girl facing a hard situation, learning to overcome a difficult fear by going inside herself. There is no minotaur; there is no big battle scene. These stories are certainly difficult to write, for exactly that reason.
The Artifacts is also a female myth form even though it stars a boy.
Midnight Feast may also fit the female myth form — I’m not quite sure myself. But I did aim to write something different, and I think I succeeded in that, for sure.
I would love to see more female myth forms in the world, so if you have an idea for one, please write it!
Swine Lake is a 1999 picture book by James Marshall, illustrated by Maurice Sendak. The humour is an example of ‘hero wears a mask’ transgression comedy.
About the Author and Illustrator
If you’re American, perhaps you’re familiar with the following series:
The author and illustrator of the George and Martha series also wrote other books, and one of those was illustrated posthumously (after Marshall had died, that is) by Maurice Sendak. Even if you’re not American, if you’re at this blog you’ll most definitely know who Maurice Sendak is!
So Marshall died in 1992 of a brain tumour. The powers that be probably weren’t expecting him to die quite so young, and awarded him the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for contributions to children’s literature in 2007.
Maurice Sendak illustrated James Marshall’s standalone book Swine Lake for publication in 1999. Sendak himself died in 2012, but he was 83 when he died and, lucky for him, he lived long enough to see himself awarded that Laura Ingalls Wilder award, as well as receive an honorary doctorate, the National Medal of Arts and the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, among others. The moral of that story is, if you’re a talented picture book creator, make sure you live to a grand old age if you want to live to see all of your awards.
Let’s talk some more about James Marshall.
Marshall obviously enjoyed reimagining pop culture as animals. He came up with George and Martha while lying in a hammock as his mother watched Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? nearby. He took the characters George and Martha from that, but turned them into hippopotami.
He’s done it again in Swine Lake which, to the adult co-reader, at least, is an obvious pun on the famous Russian ballet Swan Lake, composed by Tchaikovsky. A synopsis of Swan Lake can be found here.
Notes On The Illustration Of Swine Lake
It’s interesting to see that lettering on the cover, in which the block letters incorporate the picture, because it’s become very popular since Photoshop with its layer masks making it so easy to do.
Swine Lake is an example of a picture book in which the intratext is a part of the plot. This page adds to the humour, with a variety of #PigTheaterPuns (let’s make that trend on twitter, shall we?) Later in the book we’ll see the wolf reading the reviews of his own performance, in which the review is part of the illustration.
This is also one of those picture books which includes a subplot running through the illustrations which isn’t mentioned in the text. It’s often a pair of animals which play a minor part, and so it is here with the squirrels who Wolf initially contemplates eating, and who end up laughing at the spectacle of the wolf as dancer. The squirrels know that the wolf is really a wolf even if the pigs don’t. We see them exchange a knowing look on the final page (where there is nothing but a small picture, in true picturebook tradition).
Story Structure Of Swine Lake
The wolf eats other animals and is ungrateful (for example when offered tickets). He is your typical sociopathic wolf. (Actually, I did hear that wolves are basically ‘sociopathic dogs’.)
He wants to eat pigs.
Is there a true opponent in this story? This is one man’s self-revelation. Everyone around him is very obliging. The circumstances stand in his way a little — he has no money to buy a ticket.
He will get inside a performance of Swine Lake because there will be pigs everywhere. He can then have a pig feeding frenzy at an opportune moment. The hitch in his plan is that he has no money for a ticket, but he is saved by circumstance when a rich sow gives him her tickets.
The reader is expecting a battle, and this story subverts the expectations. The wolf’s battle is an inner one — what has happened to him? He’s so overwhelmed by the beauty of the play that he’s not the same wolf anymore.
In stories where there is no outer battle there is always some sort of climactic scene. Here, the author takes the climactic scene from the play and uses that to convey the crescendo of the wolf’s emotions.
Wolf realises he loves the theatre, and his love of this art can even keep his mind off more grim matters.
After reading such wonderful reviews of his own performance he’ll probably keep going to the theatre and trying to get in on the act. The final sentence says, “And he executed a couple of flashy dance steps.”
The Humour Of Swine Lake
A lot of comedic stories are of the type where the hero wears a mask, metaphorical or otherwise. The structure goes like this:
Discontent: the hero is unhappy about something Transgression with a ‘mask’: peculiar to comedy and noir thrillers (the mask is metaphorical — the hero is trying to pass themselves off as something they’re not) Transgression without a mask: midpoint disaster when the mask is ripped off — the hero is ‘found out’ Dealing with consequences [Howard Suber writes: “What will the hero do when he discovers his armour doesn’t protect him, that he can be violated — now and in the future? There is only one satisfactory answer: he can pick himself up, dust himself off, and start all over again.”] Spiritual Crisis: happens in almost every story Growth Without a Mask [Suber writes on this point: Some people might find it astonishing how many memorable popular films end in violence and death, but the history of drama is filled with them, and it is difficult to find any period that is not filled with them. If death is the ultimate separation, the next worst is the separation of people who love one another…The story that resolves itself in unification is most often a comedy.]
This book is a slight variation on this structure — when his mask ‘came off’ (when he lost himself and flew into the middle of the pigs’ performance to dance) the characters around him assumed he was only dressed as a wolf.
The metaphorical mask he didn’t know he was wearing from the get-go has come off, however: He demonstrates his wolflike bravado when he threatens to chase the squirrels (and then doesn’t), and when he has every opportunity to eat pig outside the theatre (but still doesn’t). This wolf is a lot more at home as a lover of ballet. Now he is free to dance. He also seems to have been freed from his wolflike impulses (though I’ve no idea what he’s going to eat from now on, which is a problem in all of these stories in which a carnivorous animal sees the error of their ways — The Tawny Scrawny Lion is another one!).
Everywhere you look in the illustrations, the more you realise you’re living in pig-land. The banister at the theater has been carved with pig faces, for example. Is this a visit to Pig Town for the wolf, who would surely be spotted right away if he’d really gone to such a part of town, or is this Wolf’s hallucination? We’ve already seen that he is scrawny and sick in bed. He could be dreaming the whole thing.
Another word on the humour: A lot of picturebook humour derives from stock characters which have been inverted. In this case, a wolf loves ballet rather than eating meat and ballet dancers are shaped like pigs rather than the svelte figures we’re used to. In other words, it is funny that fat characters are dancing. Of course it is, right? Except for the problematic message this sends. And the fact that ballet is rife with eating disordered young dancers. I’m reminded of the documentary series Big Ballet which sets out to defy expectations by employing dancers with bigger bodies.
For the Channel 4 documentary series Big Ballet, 18 amateur plus-sized dancers were selected from 500 applicants for an experiment: under instruction from former Royal Ballet principal Wayne Sleep and dancer turned artistic director Monica Loughman, the larger ladies (and a couple of men) had just 20 weekends to master Swan Lake.
I wonder if Prawn Lake could have been just as funny? I really don’t know. And if we lived in a culture where there was no body-size shaming, this book stands up just fine. I’m simply pointing this out type of humour as an example of just how deeply fat politics run.
“If there’s anything missing that I’ve observed over the decades it’s that that drive has declined,” said the 83-year-old author… “There’s a certain passivity, a going back to childhood innocence that I never quite believed in. We remembered childhood as a very passionate, upsetting, silly, comic business.”
“Where The Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak is the picture book that changed picture books forever.
The picture book began to be understood, after Maurice Sendak, as something extraordinary – a fusion of images and limited vocabulary which authors such as Julia Donaldson, Lauren Child, Alan and Janet Ahlberg, Emily Gravett and more have turned into a post-modern art form.
When I started reading books about picture books the first thing I noticed was how much the books of Maurice Sendak are referenced as primary sources, especially Where The Wild Things Are. Handy hint: If you’re thinking of reading academic literature in a bid to understand children’s books, have the Sendak oeuvre at your side. (Also Rosie’s Walk, the picturebooks of Anthony Browne and Chris van Allsburg.)
I find it ironic that the Book Depository description of Where The Wild Things Are includes the phrase: ‘Supports the Common Core State Standards’. Sendak famously did not write for children, saying, “I write stories, then someone else decides that they are for children.” I wonder what he would have to say about the heavily pedagogical motivations behind adults encouraging children to read his stories.
Sendak readily acknowledged his inspiration for his stories, and this one was apparently inspired by King Kong.
When the main character is an underdog the audience tends to care about them and root for their success in whatever goal the writer sets up.
Sometimes the underdog is discriminated against due to their identity, e.g. racism or sexism or any other kind of prejudice. In fairytales it was because they were poor or unconnected or because their stepmother didn’t love them.
In children’s stories, the child is always part underdog archetype by virtue of being a child, not considered capable of doing anything significant, not trusted, not believed.
In fables, mice are under-‘dogs’ because of their small size.
Northrop Frye categorised heroes based on how similar main characters are to the average person. The underdog sits between low mimetic and ironic narrative, right at the bottom of the pecking order.
The Three Assumptions Behind Most Underdog Stories
It’s worth thinking hard about our own attitudes towards social hierarchy before writing an underdog story. In contemporary stories, these are some shared beliefs:
In every situation there always has to be a winner and a loser. A happy ending requires not just someone’s triumph but also someone else’s defeat.
The best way to win is to have the individual power to take control and win by one’s own actions
A truly happy ending occurs only when a person who was oppressed achieves a position in which it’s possible to oppress others.
If you’re anything like me, you have a problem with these assumptions. For starters they promote a particularly combative, warring view on the world. Subversive stories will go beyond these conservative defaults. From a feminist perspective, these assumptions also pander to a masculine sensibility.
Maurice Sendak’s “Where The Wild Things Are“ is an excellent representation of these political assumptions. Surprisingly few award-winning texts for children celebrate the value of groups of people working together as equals; far more celebrate the power of individuals controlling groups.
– from The Pleasures of Children’s Literature by Nodelman and Reimer
The Paradox Of Underdog Characters
Readers want heroes to be underdogs, but they don’t want them to be losers. They don’t want your main character to actually go from being zero to hero: they want him or her to start out with skills and admirable characteristics that will carry him or her though the story.
Matt Bird uses the phrase ‘zero to hero’, analogous to John Truby’s concept of Range of Change.
Underdog Stories vs Carnivalesque Stories
Leaving Northrop Frye’s categorisation aside for a moment, in which the superhero is the inverse of an underdog, the inverse of an ‘underdog story’ is a ‘carnivalesque’ story. Read Pippi Longstocking for a prime example of carnivalesque. In a carnivalesque story a character with little agency (probably a child, or a child stand-in) has great fun by ignoring societal conventions, basically going on a bender and to hell with the consequences. For the duration of the story, this character has broken free from their underdog status.
[T]here are rarely ugly heroes or handsome villains in illustrated versions of fairytales–assuming, of course, our usual societal values about what constitutes beauty and ugliness. Indeed, picture books help to teach us such values; when an illustration shows us that the princess whom the text calls beautiful is slender and blond and has a small nose and large eyes, we are being given information about the nature of beauty. Traditionally, the young characters in picture-book illustrations have almost always represented that sort of idea of beauty; many adults were so used to the conventionally blond, perfectly proportioned angels of previous picture books that, when Sendak began to produce his books in the fifties, they found his large-headed, fat-bellied, dark-haired gnomes repulsive. Yet Barbara Bader quotes Ursula Nordstrom’s comment that, by the early seventies, all real children had come to look like Sendak’s depictions of children.
– Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures
The girls who were unanimously beautiful often rested on their beauty alone. I felt I had to do things, to be intelligent and develop a personality in order to seem as attractive. By the time I realized maybe I wasn’t plain and might even possibly be pretty, I had already trained myself to be a little more interesting and informed.
— Diane von Furstenberg
Challenging social norms about who can be beautiful is vital work, and of course it is true that representations of beauty in the media are pathetically white, thin, able-bodied and hetero, and of course this should change. But somewhere along the way, the message of inclusivity went from “every kind of person can be beautiful” to “every person is beautiful.”
I’m increasingly convinced that this message isn’t only less radical than we might like to believe, but also actively harmful.
In stories which attempt to make readers think about beauty – or in stories which inadvertently portray beauty and its opposite in a certain light – what are the common messages? Can you think of any examples?
Consider one of the following tales and answer the following questions:
Is there any clear link between beauty and goodness?
Are there instances where danger or harm is associated with beauty or desirability?
If so, is beauty or desirability the cause?
Are there any links between beauty and jealousy?
Shrek – If you’re not beautiful you may well marry another not-beautiful creature, but you can still find happiness with that person. But know your ‘level’. I criticise the messages in this film, which is otherwise a beautifully constructed story:
Shrek has the best script I’ve seen this year. It’s the result of two elements of writing, structure and texture, that are rarely found together in Hollywood mainstream movies.