The Monster At The End Of This Book by Jon Stone and Michael Smolin (1971) is possibly the most successful Little Golden Book starring Sesame Street characters. I grew up with it myself, though I can’t put my hands on it right now so I’ll be talking specifically about the app, which came out decades later, soon after the first tablet computers hit the market.Continue reading “The Monster At The End Of This Book”
“Fiction” is a short story by Alice Munro (2009). From the title itself we might expect it to be metafictional. Sure enough, there are constant reminders to consider the role of fiction in our lives.
I will tell you everything, and if I don’t tell you it means I don’t trust you or I have a secret. It doesn’t mean I choose to keep certain things to myself because they are private. Privacy is the endangered species in between two extremes of secrecy and transparency.
Very often we don’t go elsewhere because we are looking for another person. We go elsewhere because we are looking for another self.Esther Perel
The following interview, from 2006, offers some extra insight into the story, and why Munro may have written it. For a few years she owned a bookstore and people used to come in to the store and tell her, as a matter of pride, two things: They don’t read Canadian books and they don’t read fiction. However, she also says that is no longer the case.
I don’t want to map Munro’s fictional Joyce onto Munro herself, but there are some parallels:
Like Joyce, Munro divorced her first husband during the hippie revolution. Though unlike Joyce, Munro explains that ‘everyone was doing it’ during this era and people who didn’t seemed ‘almost apologetic’ for staying together. Joyce does not feel like that at all. She feels grief and anxiety.
COMMENTARY ON THE PLACE OF FICTION IN OUR LIVES
Alice Munro is working on several diegetic levels here, and we receive several messages about the role of fiction: Fiction maps onto real life and helps us to process our own lives. The following two sentences, spanning separate paragraphs, suggest that fiction is more truthful than anything else:
You can’t believe it.
That’s why it’s true.
ON SHORT STORIES IN PARTICULAR
Munro, celebrated short story writer who hasn’t also published novels, offers the following as part of her main character’s close third-person narration:
How Are We to Live is a collection of short stories, not a novel. This in itself is a disappointment. It seems to diminish the book’s authority, making the author seem like somebody who is just hanging on to the gates of Literature, rather than safely settled inside.
It’s impossible not to see that as commentary as from Alice Munro herself.
ON FICTION VS NON-FICTION
First, the set up:
She often remarks that she and Matt are seldom alone together except in bed. “And then he’ll be reading something important.” While she is reading something unimportant.
Later, the reveal:
Joyce’s erudite university professor husband is mildly dismissive of fiction. He prefers to read non-fiction and to have a rant. For him, reading is a dick-waving contest (my words, not Munro’s).
Third, the thematic significance:
Immediately after their brief conversation in bed, Joyce reads fiction which to her becomes non-fiction, thereby showing the husband up to be unfairly critical of fiction.
This is the reader’s own Anagnorisis. This story asks us to consider our own personal relationship to fiction, in fiction’s various forms:
- What are the fictions we concoct about ourselves, and other people’s reactions to us?
- What are the fictions we concoct about others, via imaginary conversations and or half-forgotten settings? (Across her stories, Munro shows that memory is neither fallible nor complete.)
- Why do we take an instant dislike to certain people? Is it because they remind us of our past? Which part of our past? Can we pinpoint it and move past our prejudices?
- How do we read fiction? What role does fiction play in our lives? Alice Munro describes reading itself when she portrays a woman (knowingly) reading fiction who nonetheless layers her own life over top as she reads, synthesising aspects of her own past and present. This is a very interesting example of side-shadowing technique.
The final sentence is a punchy line which lampoons the way in which certain literary types tend to view short stories — as incapable of achieving adequate depths for a reader.
But if you’re here, reading this, you’ll know that’s not the case. What I find remarkable about short stories: Looking back on a short story, say, 10 years after reading it, the images and memories of reading that story are indistinguishable from having read another work of novel length. When it comes to creating imagery, word count is beside the point.
STORYWORLD OF “FICTION”
Like Mad Men, this is a story which starts before the counterculture of the 1960s, and maps the arcs of characters either embracing the new era (Peggy and Jon) or refusing to change until they have to (Don and Joyce).
“Fiction” is about a music teacher, so within the text, Alice Munro gives us a specific piece to set the mood. I learn that the title means “Songs on the Death of Children”, which changes things somewhat for an English speaker. Symbolic, much? This is our narrator putting to rest her memory of a child once associated with a difficult time in her own life.
In the interview above, Alice Munro describes the 1960s countercultural movement as a wave which plunged her back into feeling like an 18-year-old. She was actually 30 at the time. She was raising two daughters and had lost another. By any definition, Munro was an adult. She explains that back then, 30 was a difficult time. She says it’s probably not so difficult anymore. (I’d say it’s shifted up to 40.) Munro seems to feel that the liberating movement that happened in the 1960s is what forced her to grow up: Before then, women weren’t expected to want anything outside marriage and children, and so they didn’t allow themselves to want that.
Having your own independent desires, then, is a vital part of becoming a fully-realised adult, no matter your age.
“Fiction” is divided into two parts. Part One covers the early part of Joyce’s life, focusing on the end of her first marriage and the time immediately following. Part Two skips forward to her subsequent marriage in which we at first would define as happy. But small unhappinesses eventually reveal themselves to us, reassuring us that there’s no such thing as perfect, unadulterated happiness, partly because the past can never be separated from the present. Likewise, fiction can never be fully separated from real life.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “FICTION”
PART ONE OF “FICTION”
Before we were old enough to experience a romantic relationship we learned how cheating works, right? We learned it from Home & Away and from Neighbours, or from Coronation Street, East Enders and endless American equivalents. Here’s how it goes:
- Lots of raw, fully-articulated emotion
- An immediate dissipation of love
- The original relationship ends immediately
- The third party is a demon
- With more social capital than the one who got left behind.
- The cheated-on party is a clear victim
- And life is unilaterally terrible for them
- While the entire community watches on. talking about the broken couple behind their back.
Real break-ups are, of course, far more nuanced and varied.
But is “Fiction” really a story about ‘cheating’? Cheating requires deception, but Jon is up front with Joyce, possibly from the start. He is simply leaving his relationship, albeit for another woman. This is 1960s culture, though it hadn’t been done before, and many did it badly. Still. Jon hasn’t lied. No one can keep another person in a relationship against their wishes. Though I hesitate to use the word ‘cheat’ in Jon’s case, Alice Munro herself uses ‘cheat’, albeit near the end. But because she doesn’t use it in part one, we are encouraged to think about what cheating really means.
Basically, Alice Munro spends part one flipping a lot of the failed relationship tropes I’m bored of seeing in narrative.
Here’s how she flips it:
- Munro creates a husband who leaves his wife for someone else, but this someone has far less social capital (less beauty prestige, less intelligence).
- Joyce does not feel the marriage is instantly over. She works with Jon to get them back on track. She actively encourages him moving in with Edie, thinking this will hasten the end of limerance. But it does not.
- Joyce is devastated, but she experiences a new flush of youth. Not necessarily in a good way — Joyce experiences what has been described as ‘Imaginary Audience‘, which is more typically a feature of the adolescent mindset.
David Elkind coined the term “imaginary audience” in 1967. The basic premise of the topic is that people who are experiencing it feel as though their behaviour or actions are the main focus of other people’s attention. It is defined as how willing a child is to reveal alternative forms of themselves. The imaginary audience is a psychological concept common to the adolescent stage of human development. It refers to the belief that a person is under constant, close observation by peers, family, and strangers. This imaginary audience is proposed to account for a variety of adolescent behaviours and experiences, such as heightened self-consciousness, distortions of others’ views of the self, and a tendency toward conformity and faddisms. This act stems from the concept of ego-centrism in adolescents.Wikipedia
- Yet, despite Joyce’s regression into self-consciousness, and perhaps because of it, Joyce finds herself making a particularly good job of teaching her young music students that year. Sad and devastating as it is, she has a new lease of life:
It was the best recital ever. Everybody said so. They said there was more verve. More gaiety, yet more intensity. The children costumed in harmony with the music they performed. Their faces made up so they did not seem so scared and sacrificial.
- Meanwhile, Munro describes the social milieu of this setting, which reflects a modern reality. Divorce used to be scandalous. Suddenly, in certain enclaves, it wasn’t. Failed relationships would no longer become the focus of the local community.
PART TWO OF “FICTION”
Part Two is a snapshot of Joyce’s life some years later, when she’s semi-happily remarried to a university professor. Why this particular day? Because even when parts of our life seem to close off forever, there’s ‘always something there to remind us’, as Burt Bacharach might write.
But when looking back on former lovers, Alice Munro knows not to stick to the black and white dichotomy covered adequately by pop lyrics — either really good times or really bad.
USING A CHARACTER AS PROXY FOR ANOTHER
It’s a fairly common trick for writers to use unrelated Battles as proxy for the main character’s psychological struggle, and Munro also does this. For example, in “Passion” Munro uses a flaming car crash as proxy for the main character’s psychological struggle to break free from men who are not good for her.
But here, in “Fiction”, Alice Munro one character stands in for another. Who thought, while reading part one, that Edie’s daughter would be the focalising character of part two? She pulls a bit of a switcheroo. We don’t even know, initially, that she’s talking about the unnamed daughter (whose name has been lost to memory).
Munro could have chosen to focus memories on the ex-husband himself. Many writers have done exactly that, and the structure goes like this: Something happens in the past; many years later a memory reminds the main character of that person from the past. The memory might be depicted via flashback.
Instead, Munro pulls focus on a character only peripherally involved in the end days of the first marriage.
And how does Munro give us this filtered memory? Via metadiegetic narrative, as Joyce reads a novel and uses it as palimpsest for her own memories of the past.
Pertains to a secondary narrative embedded within the primary narrative. The secondary narrative can be a story told by a character within the main story or it can take the form of a dream, nightmare, hallucination, imaginary or other fantasy element.
Alice Munro is a master manipulator of time. Much has been written about this particular skill of hers.
In “Fiction”, this skill is in full-flight. Here’s an overview of what she does in Part Two:
- A description of a party. The very first sentence tells us exactly how much time has elapsed; exactly where Joyce is now. (This is a good writing tip in its own right. We sometimes go overboard in ‘show don’t tell’ but Munro knows when to tell. Let’s not shy away from stating things simply for the reader up front: place time, nature of the occasion, what people are doing here.
- The first sentence feels omniscient, but the point of view quickly switches to that of Joyce. Opinions of these people are filtered via Joyce. Where Joyce wouldn’t know the names, we get pronouns (another interesting technique).
- Through all this description, we have felt that Joyce is talking personally to us — newcomers to this world and to this party. It is soon revealed that she is talking to a neighbour who, like us, doesn’t know this cast of characters. In the plot, the neighbour has been invited so they won’t complain about the noise, but an outsider is very useful to Alice Munro, narratively.
- Various character sketches: first Joyce views herself as an outsider, again, showing that she hasn’t shaken the egocentrism which dominates her life.
- Next, a funny description of a cantankerous old woman who can’t be pleased, though Munro never writes full comedy characters. We really do believe these people might exist. She partly achieves this with the line ‘Sally does not seem to mind the deprivation’, which puts to bed any conflict a lesser writer might use to ‘heighten the tension’.
- Description of the group of young people, which juxtaposes youth against age. Munro has done this by bifurcating her story into two parts (Joyce young; Joyce old), and she continues the dichotomy here at the micro level.
- Introduction of Christie — a peripheral character who Joyce feels strongly about. At first she feels negatively. She doesn’t like the look of her.
- The kitchen scene is an excellent example of conflict that tends to happen in kitchens, where there are always plenty of props. We are reminded, as Joyce is herself, that she is now old. (The interview above reveals that Alice Munro had heart surgery and has been advised against dietary cholesterol: ‘Few of the devilled eggs were eaten anyway. Old-fashioned. Too much cholesterol.’)
- Via Joyce’s conversations we get hints that Joyce is ‘not in her right mind’. Munro is preparing the reader. Joyce will soon slip into that space between reality and dreamspace.
- A few days later, Joyce passes a bookstore, sees the girl she dislikes on a poster, goes into the store, buys the book. She feels she’s seen Joyce before and doesn’t immediately realise it was at the party.
- With Joyce in the bookstore, Munro says a few things about people’s general attitude towards fiction and short stories. (Mentioned above)
- Joyce reads the book in bed. Beside her, Matt is dismissive.
- Joyce finds space on her own over a cup of tea downstairs.
- Now a flashback to what we might at first think is Joyce’s own childhood. The word ‘she’ leaves us discombobulated. There’s no obvious antecedent. This melds Joyce into the child.
- After a few paragraphs, it becomes clear that Joyce is reading a fictional character in a book, mapping it onto the real life character from her distant past, and melding that child into herself. This is quite a trick Munro has pulled.
- Munro makes Joyce put the book down so the narrator can describe what’s happening, exactly. She also gives Joyce a drink of brandy, to encourage her journey into the depths of memory, where reality blurs with fiction.
- Munro reveals the hook which made Joyce think of the child from long ago: The author of the book is called Christie, and Edie’s child is called Christine.
- Prompted by a scene in the book (probably), Joyce imagines herself in idealised form, again egotistically. She is the inspirational, perfect teacher, taking Edie on a day out for ice-cream.
- Together they look out to sea. Looking out to sea tends to be highly symbolic in stories. (See “The Wind Blows” by Katherine Mansfield.)
- The imaginary child tells imaginary Joyce that she likes her bedroom, but doesn’t like how dark it is outside, which takes the reader back to the opening of this story in part one, as we see Joyce driving home after a day teaching music, allured by the rectangles of warm light juxtaposed against the dark of the forest.
- Joyce once again puts the book down. In this way, Munro takes us in and out of Joyce’s head. Now we’re observing her in the kitchen. Munro says another thing about fiction, this time modern fiction: It’s trendy now to foreshadow horror and do the worst to beloved characters.
- Fully aware that she is imagining things as well as remembering them, Munro explains which parts of Joyce’s memories are actual memories; which she thinks might be invented. The way she writes it, in that succession of incomplete sentences, feels stream-of-consciousness and exactly how memory works.
- This section, of melding memory to fiction, is explaining a hole that was left out of the plot of part one: The exact night Jon said goodbye to Joyce and Joyce handed over the keys to her own house to her ex-husband and his new lover and stepchild. We deduce as readers that this was such a painful moment for Joyce that she rarely allows herself to think on it. Even now, thinking on it, she sees herself from an onlooker’s point of view — the child, looking out of the window.
- This is where Joyce has to end her imaginings. The narrator describes that Joyce can’t fill in the gaps after that because she has left (on the ferry) and doesn’t know how the day-to-day life looked with Jon and Edie and the child.
- The paragraph beginning ‘But something happens’ is about Joyce and the child equally. You can read most of it as about both. This is where Joyce has her revelation: ‘she realizes that she no longer thinks of that time as a cheat … she was glad of it’.
- A flash forward to Friday, and back to the mundane. She has bought a box of chocolates, presumably to give to the author, who offered Joyce a kind of therapy via her fiction. But this depth of emotion is shattered, in a darkly comic way, when the owner of the bookstore announces that only books bought in this store may be autographed here, and that an anthology is not acceptable.
Header painting: Philip Calderon – Broken Vows
Earlier this month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story. Earlier this week I looked closely at Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen’s Sam and Dave Dig A Hole to show how this classic story structure can be turned upside down, ironically. Today ‘s story is The Really Ugly Duckling.
The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales is a metafictional picture book from 1992, by Jon Scieska and illustrated by Lane Smith. It’s a collection of very short stories, but I’m only going to look at one. Like other tales in the book, The Really Ugly Duckling is a re-visioning of the classic fairy tale The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen. To get the gag, the reader is meant to know the original tale, otherwise it’s not so funny.
The Really Ugly Duckling shows writers can break the rules of narrative and create surprise. In this case, Jon Scieszka omits the bit that normally comes after the Big Battle. The fancy word for this part is ‘denouement’. In seven step story structure, the denouement is the final two steps.
If you aren’t going to write the last two steps, you need a good reason, other than, ‘I got sick of this story and called it quits’. Usually, these stories with an abrupt ending aim to make the reader laugh.
There are terms to describe these kinds of stories.
- If the story ends right before the big big struggle, it’s called a Bolivian Army ending. (The name comes from classic movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. We never get to see the main characters die.)
- If someone’s been spinning a long-winded, really boring story with lots of pointless detail and then refuses to finishes it off to make you groan, it’s called a Shaggy Dog story. These stories are pretty good and hold your attention. They’re designed to disappoint.
- A Shaggy Dog story is also known as the Feghoot. A feghoot is described as a short-short story (300 words on average, although 500-word examples exist), ending in a pun or a punchline that is pretty obviously the only reason for the story’s existence. The telling detail in a Feghoot is the groan emitted by the reader/listener when he hits the punchline. A Shaggy Dog tale is more likely to be known as a Feghoot if it’s in written form.
- Related to the Shaggy Dog story is the Shaggy Frog story. Unlike the Shaggy Dog story, the Shaggy Frog story goes absolutely nowhere.
The Really Ugly Duckling is too short to be a Shaggy Dog story, and there’s no expectation of a big big struggle, so it’s none of those exactly. Instead it simply has No Ending. If there’s a subcategory, it’s Aborted Arc. In other words, there’s no character arc. We expect one, of course, but it has been abandoned.
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE REALLY UGLY DUCKLING
WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?
At first we’re introduced to the entire family. If you read the really old fairytales, like those transcribed by Charles Perrault, you’ll find that before the story even starts we get a rundown of the main character’s family history, and it’s not even brief. The Charles Perrault version of Sleeping Beauty goes into a whole heap of family stuff we don’t need to know. This re-visioning uses the tradition, sticking pretty closely to it for the first paragraph. So far, so good. We have an ugly duckling, the most interesting character in this otherwise unremarkable family of ducks.
What’s wrong with them?
He’s ugly. Based on a human world, being ugly means you’ll be shunned in this community.
WHAT DOES THE UGLY DUCKLING WANT?
He’s looking forward to growing up. He’s obviously read the original fairytale (like us) so he is comforted by the fact that he’s only temporarily ugly. The illustration shows that he’s not worried about looking ugly. He’s smiling as everyone watches on.
But we want him to grow up to be beautiful. The Hans Christian Andersen original is basically a revenge tale. “I used to be ugly, but ha ha, look at me now!” The Ugly Duckling is the original makeover trope.
Ugliness in itself wouldn’t be a problem if peeps (and cheeps) weren’t so judgey.
WHAT’S THE PLAN?
To grow up and become beautiful. In the meantime, don’t care. This subverts the characterisation of the original duckling, who cared a lot what others thought of him.
Turn the page and you get massive font, suggesting a shouty argument:
Well, as it turned out, he was just a really ugly duckling. And he grew up to be just a really ugly duck. The end.
There is no big struggle within the story itself.
WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?
Nothing, but we readers learn we’ve been tricked. That’s the thing about postmodern picture books like this one. The reader is very much part of the story. The characters talk to us. It is likely us who changes rather than the fictional characters.
HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON
It won’t! It really won’t.
As you can see, Jon Scieszka created a gag by chopping off the last three steps of your typical story.
He subverted our expectations, using our ‘intertextual’ knowledge of the Hans Christian Andersen original.
It’s a decent gag.
The writers of SpongeBob Squarepants like it too:
Foucault uses the term “heterotopia” to describe spaces that have more layers of meaning or relationships to other places than immediately meet the eye. In general, a heterotopia is a physical representation or approximation of a utopia, or a parallel space (such as a prison) that contains undesirable bodies to make a real utopian space possible.thanks, Wikipedia.
That last clause makes zero sense to me. The article gets more impenetrable from there.
After taking a close look at what the concept means, I’m reminded of when I was teaching. Teachers would refer to ‘the real world’ as if it were somewhere else. In ‘the real world’ people don’t get 12 weeks of holiday. In ‘the real world’ you don’t get a fixed but safe salary every two weeks. Like some sort of wild creature taking risks real world people have to run their own businesses or something.
But then I had a job with public service. I noticed that people who work for the public service also talk about everyone else is if everyone else is ‘the real world’. Council workers do it, too. I now realise that teaching, like few other jobs, really is ‘the real world’. In a school you’re dealing with whatever (delight and) trouble comes through the door — family issues, medical issues, car crashes, rape, imprisonment and physical assault on top of the day-to-day actual teaching and paperwork.
This feeling that everyone else is ‘the real world’ and you yourself are living in some sort of insulated bubble is quite widespread, and I wonder if any group of professionals do in fact consider themselves The Real World. I suspect even emergency department nurses are prone to this feeling, working at night when everyone else is perceived to be asleep, and on the side of the bed where you are expected to be calm and helpful rather than show your human side.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE WORD HETEROTOPIA
Heterotopia is based on the concept of utopia.
- The Greek ‘u’ bit at the beginning of utopia means ‘not’.
- The ‘topia’ part means ‘place’.
So if utopia means a place that is not — a place which doesn’t actually exist — heterotopia means a place that is different. The word ‘utopia’ has been around since 1516 thanks to Thomas More. The word ‘utopia’ is a bit confusing, actually, because it was based on a Greek pun. Of course, the pun got totally lost in translation. So in Thomas More’s pun, utopia meant both ‘place that is not’ and ‘good place’. (ou-topos vs. eu-topos). In modern everyday English, when we say ‘utopia’ we’re generally referring to the good place.
Heterotopias differ from these ‘good’ utopias because they allow for the inherently unpredictable nature of human contexts to disrupt this space.
The word heterotopia has only been around since 1967, thanks to Michel Foucault, who was giving a lecture to students of architecture at the time.
The sorry truth is, Foucault made this word up, explained it a bit, and then left it alone. At least he wasn’t making any puns. Maybe he confused his own self as he was explaining it. BUT he said just enough to make a lot of us want to know more, and others have said a lot since. Some have picked up the word and ran with it.
Let’s look at the concept of heterotopia from a perspective I can sink my teeth into — children’s literature and pop culture.
WHY WAS HETEROTOPIA INVENTED IN THE 20TH CENTURY?
Heterotopia is a 20th century concept because it best describes 20th century life and beyond.
In the Middle Ages there was a hierarchic ensemble of places when it came to humans here on Earth:
- sacred places and profane places
- protected places and open, exposed places
- urban places and rural places.
In cosmological theory, there were:
- the super-celestial places (as opposed to the celestial)
- the celestial place was in its turn opposed to the terrestrial place.
(Galileo put an end to that. Galileo’s new theories made people realise the universe was way bigger than they’d thought. They also separated ‘time’ from ‘the sacred’, but that separation still hasn’t happened entirely with the concept of ‘space’.)
HETEROTOPIA IN A NUTSHELL
- Heterotopia is a ‘real world utopia’. A utopia has no real place. A utopia is a ‘perfect version’ of a real place — a society turned upside down. But heterotopias are fundamentally unreal.
- The mirror is a kind of utopia. (It is a placeless place.) The mirror is also a kind of heterotopia as well as a utopia. The mirror does exist in the reality of your bathroom. But while the person you see in the mirror is real, the image in the mirror is unreal. The mirror is the ultimate link between the real and the unreal. That’s why mirrors are so fictionally interesting.
- A heterotopia, similar to a utopia, is a kind of ‘unreal’ space.
- Time works differently in a heterotopia.
- Heterotopias have a system of opening and closing that both isolates them and makes them penetrable. In general, the heterotopic site is not freely accessible like a public place. Either the entry is compulsory, as in the case of entering a barracks or a prison, or else the individual has to submit to rites and purifications.
- A heterotopia is a place that represents society, but in a distorted way which calls to mind particular idealised aspects of the culture.
- Heterotopias attempt to encourage transition from a space of chaotic governance and leadership to a mapped, organised one.
EXAMPLES OF REAL WORLD HETEROTOPIAS AND ANALOGUES FROM CHILDREN’S LITERATURE
Every culture has the concept of a heterotopia: privileged, sacred and forbidden places reserved for certain people.
There are ‘crisis hetereotopias’, where you find adolescents, menstruating women (See Menstruation In Fiction), pregnant women, women in general, the elderly. We have fewer of these ‘crisis heterotopias’ in modern society. It’s considered not-nice to lock people away when we don’t want to deal with them.
We still have boarding schools and many countries have the military service for young people.
Hogwarts is a well-known example. Harry Potter’s boarding school is a heterotopia because it is both separate from but also intimately connected to the world beyond its walls. Zooming in on more specific spaces within the Harry Potter universe we have some even better examples of heterotopias:
- 12 Grimmauld Place, the ancestral home of the Black family, located in the Borough of Islington, London, in a Muggle neighbourhood
- The tent that Harry, Ron and Hermione share in book seven
- The Room of Requirement is a space within the place of the school proper. Itonly appears when a person is in great need of it. The room is thought to have some degree of sentience, because it transforms itself into whatever the witch or wizard needs it to be at that moment in time, although there are some limitations. For example, it cannot create food, as that is one of the five Principal Exceptions to Gamp’s Law of Elemental Transfiguration. It is believed that the room is Unplottable, as it does not appear on the Marauder’s Map, nor do its occupants, although this could simply be because James Potter, Remus Lupin, Sirius Black, and Peter Pettigrew never found the room.
Those two spaces exist in the margins of safety and danger. There are shifts from order to disorder, from safety to danger. The idea J.K. Rowling is pushing forth is that young adults can be powerful when it comes to opposing the abuses that permeate the spaces in our own world. What the trio does in Hogwarts does not stay in Hogwarts. The teenagers go against authority, learning the limits of their own power. For this they need to operate in a fictional space which is part fantasy, part real-world.
Train And Steamships
Many children’s stories still feature steam trains even though most modern kids have never ridden one in their lives. The steam train, or the ship (offered as an example by Foucault himself) are especially good as heterotopias because they operate like alternative worlds. They are kind of like a portal in a portal fantasy, One obvious reason to linger in a portal is to give an audience the enjoyment of being transported to another world. Another reason is to make sure the audience doesn’t zone out for a moment and lose track of where they are. But there are other reasons.
See also: The Symbolism of Trains
When the fantasy portal is something like a train or a ship, this gives the writer some space and time to:
- Establish the logic of this new universe
- To subvert it
- To have it clash with the logic of the existing, real world universe.
(In the real world, the ship which inspired the film Pirate Radio (2009) existed in a kind of heterotopia, able to broadcast non-classical music due to floating outside the reach of the rule makers.)
The boat is a floating piece of space, a place without a place, that exists by itself, that is closed in on itself and at the same time is given over to the infinity of the sea and that, from port to port, from tack to tack, from brothel to brothel, it goes as far as the colonies in search of the most precious treasures they conceal in their gardens, you will understand why the boat has not only been for our civilization, from the sixteenth century until the present, the great instrument of economic development… but has been simultaneously the greatest reserve of the imagination. The ship is the heterotopia par excellence. In civilizations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates.Foucault
Pirate stories set on ships are likewise heterotopic.
In the past the ‘honeymoon trip’ had the purpose of removing a young woman from society so that she could lose her virginity elsewhere (out of sight, out of mind — because everyone’s always been scared of young female sexuality). So the honeymoon destination is a kind of heterotopia, without geographical markers.
The honeymoon destination is the closest real world analogue I can think of for the portal fantasy that takes a character (and her sidekick) away to a fun and fabulous land where children can eat as much as they like of whatever they like and get up to other carnivalesque mischief. After all, in children’s literature food is basically sex.
Libraries and Museums
A 20th century heterotopia. Time works differently here because in these places time never stops ‘building up and topping its own summit’.
A lot of children’s books feature libraries — probably because children’s authors are huge fans of books. For instance, A Series of Unfortunate Events contains memorable libraries.
Cinemas and Theatres
Juxtaposition is very important when it comes to the importance of a heterotopia. Cinemas and theatres are heterotopic because they are capable of juxtaposing “in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible”. There’s the audience, sitting comfortably in their chairs, juxtaposed with whatever mayhem’s going on on the screen or stage.
These are sites of temporary relaxation.
The theater brings onto the rectangle of the stage, one after the other, a whole series of places that are foreign to one another; thus it is that the cinema is a very odd rectangular room, at the end of which, on a two-dimensional screen, one sees the projection of a three-dimensional space.Foucault
Drag queen cabarets are especially good examples of heterotopias because the men dressed as ‘women’ are not mimicking real women at all, but a particular kind of ideal woman, with exaggeratedly feminine attributes. They caricature feminine traits. What is the raison d’etre of kikis and drag queen cabarets? The kinder interpretation: Drag queens highlight the ways in which femininity is a performance. And through a misogynistic lens: by highlighting that femininity is a performance, women are seen to be performative, duplicitous and basically liars when we put on ‘masks‘ such as make-up, and dress to make our legs look longer and so on.
In children’s books there are few (if any) drag queen cabarets — this is considered adult entertainment. But we do often get a form of cross-dressing. This is most often done to disempower boys by comparing them to girls, long considered a lesser gender. This is not a form of heterotopia but a kind of gag. There is a drag performance in the movie version of Coraline — not a gender transgressive one but one performed by the two women who live together next door. (Are Miriam Forcible and April Spink cis women? I like to think they are not.)
Whenever a character in a story visits the cinema or the theatre and watches fiction on the stage, this might (or might not) be metafictional, depending on whether the author calls attention to the fact that, Hey, look, this character is watching a play and you’re reading a book about them watching a play.
Perhaps the oldest example of these heterotopias that take the form of contradictory sites is the garden. We must not forget that in the Orient the garden, an astonishing creation that is now a thousand years old, had very deep and seemingly superimposed meanings. The traditional garden of the Persians was a sacred space that was supposed to bring together inside its rectangle four parts representing the four parts of the world, with a space still more sacred than the others that were like an umbilicus, the navel of the world at its center (the basin and water fountain were there); and all the vegetation of the garden was supposed to come together in this space, in this sort of microcosm. As for carpets, they were originally reproductions of gardens (the garden is a rug onto which the whole world comes to enact its symbolic perfection, and the rug is a sort of garden that can move across space). The garden is the smallest parcel of the world and then it is the totality of the world. The garden has been a sort of happy, universalizing heterotopia since the beginnings of antiquity (our modern zoological gardens spring from that source).Foucault
Since heterotopias represent a society’s idealised version of reality, each culture has its own raison d’etre. Japanese gardens are all about balance, because balance is important to Japanese people. French gardens are made of straight lines whereas English gardens mimic the irregularity of nature (with the emphasis on ‘mimic’). Gardens are attempts to recreate an ideal, utopian nature.
Heterotopia is also about the side-by-side, the near and far, and simultaneity.
Botanical gardens in particular are driven by the desire to reconstitute the whole world in a walled enclosure.
The golf club is a kind of massive, over-manicured garden — another example of heterotopia. Malcolm Gladwell did an excellent podcast on American golf clubs, and how taxpayers are all paying for them even though they are accessible by very few.
A cemetery is a heterotopia because the tombs form a sort of ideal town for the deceased, each placed and displayed according to social rank. Our local graveyard divides people according to religion — we have protestants on one side, Catholics on the other. The odd atheist (I assume) is over by the fence, as far as possible away from the religious folk. This represents some sort of idealised town, in which people of different/no faiths don’t have to deal with each other.
Also, a cemetery gives the illusion to its visitors that their departed relatives still have an existence and status, symbolised by the stone of their tomb. This is a simulated utopia of life after death, but it is also a representation of the real world, where things like your religion and status — as described briefly on your tombstone — actually matter.
Take the strange heterotopia of the cemetery. The cemetery is certainly a place unlike ordinary cultural spaces. It is a space that is however connected with all the sites of the city, state or society or village, etc., since each individual, each family has relatives in the cemetery. In western culture the cemetery has practically always existed. But it has undergone important changes. Until the end of the eighteenth century, the cemetery was placed at the heart of the city, next to the church. In it there was a hierarchy of possible tombs. There was the charnel house in which bodies lost the last traces of individuality, there were a few individual tombs and then there were the tombs inside the church. These latter tombs were themselves of two types, either simply tombstones with an inscription, or mausoleums with statues. This cemetery housed inside the sacred space of the church has taken on a quite different cast in modern civilizations, and curiously, it is in a time when civilization has become ‘atheistic,’ as one says very crudely, that western culture has established what is termed the cult of the dead.
Basically it was quite natural that, in a time of real belief in the resurrection of bodies and the immortality of the soul, overriding importance was not accorded to the body’s remains. On the contrary, from the moment when people are no longer sure that they have a soul or that the body will regain life, it is perhaps necessary to give much more attention to the dead body, which is ultimately the only trace of our existence in the world and in language. In any case, it is from the beginning of the nineteenth century that everyone has a right to her or his own little box for her or his own little personal decay, but on the other hand, it is only from that start of the nineteenth century that cemeteries began to be located at the outside border of cities. In correlation with the individualization of death and the bourgeois appropriation of the cemetery, there arises an obsession with death as an ‘illness.’ The dead, it is supposed, bring illnesses to the living, and it is the presence and proximity of the dead right beside the houses, next to the church, almost in the middle of the street, it is this proximity that propagates death itself. This major theme of illness spread by the contagion in the cemeteries persisted until the end of the eighteenth century, until, during the nineteenth century, the shift of cemeteries toward the suburbs was initiated. The cemeteries then came to constitute, no longer the sacred and immortal heart of the city, but the other city, where each family possesses its dark resting place.Foucault
Cemeteries are a good example of how time is different in a heterotopia. In a cemetery humans have met with broken time — starting at the time of death.
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
[Fairgrounds are] marvelous empty sites on the outskirts of cities that teem once or twice a year with stands, displays, heteroclite objects, wrestlers, snakewomen, fortune-tellers, and so forth.Foucault
Disney World is the ultimate real world heterotopia. The characters are really nice to visitors not because Donald Duck is best friends with every visitor but because friendliness and photo opportunities are the service parents have paid for. The place is open only to those with enough money to enter — poverty and beggars are absent. The ‘city’ itself is a miniaturised version of an idealised world. For more on Disney World as the ultimate heterotopia see this article.
Although this describes Disney World it applies equally to malls:
Stephen Fjellman explains in Vinyl Leaves that the ‘magic’ of Disney World is actually a cognitive overload associated with decontextualization. ‘Cognitive overload’ simply means that the visitors’ senses are constantly overloaded by stimuli: music, stories, animatronics, cute characters, pretty buildings, rides, simulations and more. The visitor is overwhelmed and loses part of his capacity to discriminate information or think.Philosophy Now
In our local mall we have:
- Booths in the middle of the ‘street’ with salespeople trying to sell you mobile phone plans, insurance and do your taxes, depending on the time of year
- The sub-heterotopia of a children’s entertainment arena, again different depending on the time of year. Before Christmas you can pay for the simulated intimacy of a photo with Santa. During school holidays you can be tied up to bungee ropes and jump and flip up as high as the third level of the mall. For younger kids we have mechanical horses which ‘run’ if you rock them the right way.
- Music which is different depending on the store
- Smells — some unintended, like the chemicals coming out of the nail salon; others intentional, such as the smell of baking coming out of the gourmet bakery.
- Lighting which highlights some features over others
- Massive advertisements, often of semi-naked women, always young and either smiling or seductive.
- A help desk which supposedly caters to your every need, including telling you where to find things and dealing with misplaced items, like a patient mother
- Tiny cars with flags on the top, so toddlers can imagine the mall is a city
- Balloons with ‘Westfield’ written on them, simulating a party atmosphere
- Mechanical animals, which take you to an imaginary other world if you put two dollars in the slot.
While malls are the ultimate shopping heterotopia, individual shops do their best to emulate the exclusivity of their stores — the very definition of ‘brand’.
Quite recently, a new kind of temporal heterotopia has been invented: vacation villages, such as those Polynesian villages that offer a compact three weeks of primitive and eternal nudity to the inhabitants of the cities. You see, moreover, that through the two forms of heterotopias that come together here, the heterotopia of the festival and that of the eternity of accumulating time, the huts of Djerba are in a sense relatives of libraries and museums. for the rediscovery of Polynesian life abolishes time; yet the experience is just as much the,, rediscovery of time, it is as if the entire history of humanity reaching back to its origin were accessible in a sort of immediate knowledge.Foucault
Like a permanent vacation village, the gated community is a phenomenon of the 21st century. In America, the same companies running prisons are guarding gated communities.
The ‘trailer park’ or the ‘mobile home community’ is a compulsory form of gated community — made compulsory due to poverty.
Rapunzel lives in the ultimate gated community. Rapunzel is the ur-Story of any overprotected girl who has lost freedom to move around her environment due to real or perceived danger.
Harlen Coben’s novel Safe was adapted for TV, starring Michael C. Hall, Michael C. Hall’s mish-mashed, weird-ass British accent, and a gated community which may not be so safe after all.
There are even heterotopias that are entirely consecrated to these activities of purification -purification that is partly religious and partly hygienic, such as the hammin of the Moslems, or else purification that appears to be purely hygienic, as in Scandinavian saunas.Foucault
In a children’s book the tree house can function as a kind of religious space, letting in only those who perform the ritual of a password (e.g. Enid Blyton’s The Secret Seven). In The Three Investigators the boys have a caravan in one of their uncles’ scrapyard.
The first wave of colonization in the seventeenth century, of the Puritan societies that the English had founded in America and that were absolutely perfect other places.
Jesuit colonies that were founded in South America: marvelous, absolutely regulated colonies in which human perfection was effectively achieved. The Jesuits of Paraguay established colonies in which existence was regulated at every turn. The village was laid out according to a rigorous plan around a rectangular place at the foot of which was the church; on one side, there was the school; on the other, the cemetery-, and then, in front of the church, an avenue set out that another crossed at fight angles; each family had its little cabin along these two axes and thus the sign of Christ was exactly reproduced. Christianity marked the space and geography of the American world with its fundamental sign.
The daily life of individuals was regulated, not by the whistle, but by the bell. Everyone was awakened at the same time, everyone began work at the same time; meals were at noon and five o’clock-, then came bedtime, and at midnight came what was called the marital wake-up, that is, at the chime of the churchbell, each person carried out her/his duty.
Thirteen-year-old Kyra has grown up in an isolated community without questioning the fact that her father has three wives and she has twenty brothers and sisters, with two more on the way. That is, without questioning them much—if you don’t count her secret visits to the Mobile Library on Wheels to read forbidden books, or her meetings with Joshua, the boy she hopes to choose for herself instead of having a man chosen for her.
But when the Prophet decrees that she must marry her sixty-year-old uncle—who already has six wives—Kyra must make a desperate choice in the face of violence and her own fears of losing her family forever.
Brothels and colonies are two extreme types of heterotopia.Foucault
In YA fiction featuring the heterotopias of brothels we have Naked by Stacey Trombley, Dime by E.R. Frank and Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys, among others.
There are others, on the contrary, that seem to be pure and simple openings, but that generally hide curious exclusions. Everyone can enter into these heterotopic sites, but in fact that is only an illusion—we think we enter where we are, by the very fact that we enter, excluded. I am thinking for example, of the famous bedrooms that existed on the great farms of Brazil and elsewhere in South America. The entry door did not lead into the central room where the family lived, and every individual or traveler who came by had the right to open this door, to enter into the bedroom and to sleep there for a night. Now these bedrooms were such that the individual who went into them never had access to the family’s quarter the visitor was absolutely the guest in transit, was not really the invited guest. This type of heterotopia, which has practically disappeared from our civilizations, could perhaps be found in the famous American motel rooms where a man goes with his car and his mistress and where illicit sex is both absolutely sheltered and absolutely hidden, kept isolated without however being allowed out in the open.
For children, a hotel doesn’t have to be a sex destination in order for it to function as a getaway.
IS HETEROTOPIA A USEFUL CONCEPT FOR TALKING ABOUT CHILDREN’S LITERATURE?
The word is probably more useful for architects than for students of literature, because it describes the function of a real world fictional place such as a Spanish garden or a games room. The truth is, every story with elements of realism features a heterotopia. Some sort of closed arena is a requirement for a story, after all.
The word is still useful for students of literature and here’s why:
[Disneyland] is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyper-real and of simulation.Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulations (1981)
Certain kinds of stories, including many children’s stories, are likewise presented as imaginary in order to make us believe the rest is real. Yet the very existence of these stories draws attention to the fact that the ‘real world’ is pretty fucking far from ‘real’. We’re actually living in a simulcrum of reality. I’m wearing a graduation gift that is a $300 dress ring, and it looks like it might be a lot more expensive than it is. Outside I have planted natives which I hope will look like they’re self-sown, if I can get them to establish.
When The Tiger Who Came To Tea leaves the house, the young reader’s attention is drawn to the fact that their real life is bound by certain rules and expectations. Foucault considered heterotopias escapes from authoritarianism, much like the carnivalesque settings in picture books. Subsequent thinkers have expanded his original meaning. Hetereotopias can also be dystopias, in fiction as in real life.
Children’s literature in general is very concerned with truth. Middle grade fiction in particular is read at a time when children are learning not only to lie, but when it is okay to lie. The concept of heterotopia is useful when considering the difference between reality and a shiny veneer which is not genuine at all. Is this expensive boarding school your parents have sent you to really all that great? Does this teacher in charge of your welfare really have your best interests at heart? Do the ‘popular’ kids in your class have real friends, or does popularity really mean ‘social status’? Is this world created for you by adults anything like the world you’ll be thrown into once you enter adulthood?
All children — at least, all well-cared-for children — live in a heterotopia, where they are protected from certain news stories, from the full spectrum of adult sexuality, from toxic food choices and their own bad decisions. The best coming-of-age stories — not the ones solely concerned with losing one’s virginity — are at their base about a young person realising the extent to which they’ve been living inside a heterotopia, and how much they’re willing to come out of it.
Heterotopia is also a useful concept when talking about the ‘Disneyfication‘ of children’s stories. This has been going on for more than half a century, and is an interesting look into how the West thinks of childhood.
It is also useful for getting a handle on your own personal philosophy of children’s literature. To what extent are you comfortable with people/children living in multiple levels of reality? Do you think that when children read magical stories like Harry Potter this affects their real-world understanding of science? At what age should children be exposed to what? If we allow privileged child readers to remain in the heterotopia we have created for them will this affect how they identify with people less privileged than themselves?
Also, the words used to describe “non-realistic” narratives have not been specific enough. Academics were overlapping different words and using them interchangeably. This was no good. Take the word ‘fantasy’ itself. Different scholars call it a ‘genre’, a ‘style’, a ‘mode’, or a ‘narrative technique’. Believe it or not, people have big arguments about this. When describing children’s literature in particular, anything that’s not realistic is generally called either ‘fantasy’ (for long works) or ‘fairy tale’ (for short ones). This distinction is pretty useless really. Fairy tales and fantasy may seem related at a surface level, fairy tales came out of myth and have roots in archaic society. But fantasy is definitely a product of modern times. Heterotopia can be useful when talking about concepts related to modern fantasy stories, especially those with no portal. Portal fantasy most often has just the two distinct worlds — the ‘real world’ and the ‘fantasy world’ through the looking glass or whatever. But modern fantasy often involves a multitude of ‘secondary’ worlds. Traditional fantasy is all about simplicity, stability and optimism, whereas modern fantasy can explore reality in a much more complex fashion, emphasising uncertainty and ambiguity. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series is a good example of this kind of fantasy.
Perhaps it might be especially useful for talking about fabulism, magical realism, and especially the typical modern child’s relationship with computer games. The word ‘spaces’ is often used to describe the imaginary worlds of computer games but we might use ‘heterotopia’ to be more specific.
Islands in children’s literature are often considered a heterotopia — both a fantasy portal and a fantasy destination rolled into one.
From a distance the prison might be an out-of-town shopping mall, Texas Homecare, Do It All and Toys ‘R’ Us. There’s a creche at the gate and a Visitors’ Centre, as it might be for Fountains Abbey or Stonehenge. Reasoning that I am a visitor myself, I big struggle across the windswept car park but when I put my head inside I find it full of visitors of a different sort, the wives and mothers (and very much the children) of the inmates, Birds of a Feather territory, I suppose. At the gate proper I’m frisked, X-rayed, my handprints taken, and am then taken through a series of barred gates and sliding doors every bit as intimidating as the institution in Silence of the Lambs.Alan Bennett from Untold Stories
Heterotopian Studies, an entire website
THE RIVER BETWEEN US STORYWORLD
There are historical notes in the back of The River Between Us but unless you’ve been through the American education system and already know quite a bit about the Civil War and the history of New Orleans, I’d recommend flipping to that first.
- July 1916 is the wrapper time
- North America
- Starts in St Louis, South Illinois. The family lives on Maryland Avenue in the West End. See: Maryland Avenue today. (Peck tends to center his stories in Illinois, and most often in Southern Illinois.)
- Cars are a big deal to a young boy because unlike today you don’t see them any old where. “It was a big thing to drive a car out of town.” They’re not yet very reliable so preparation for a long trip is important. For example, cracking a raw egg into the radiator so it would hard-boil and seal any leaks. Fuel is to be strapped onto the car itself because there aren’t many fuel stations around yet. Only the upper middle class can afford them (hence the narrator is the son of a doctor). You have to crank it up and the windshield isn’t up for city driving. There are a lot of flat tyres — four in one day is not unusual.
- This is the story of a journey. Stories with rivers are generally about journeys. See: The Symbolism Of The River In Storytelling.
- Baseball is important. The local team is called The Browns (and was only later the Baltimore Orioles).
- World War I is raging across Europe. Americans know it’s just a matter of time before they get caught up in it. They anticipate restrictions on travel once that happens.
- ‘The War’ just as often refers to the Civil War
- Grand Tower is a ghost town. There never was much to it but showed some progress after the Civil War, with a saddle factor, cigar plant, gun shops, brick works. There’s a hill called Devil’s Backbone. (These days it’s a park.)
- The grandparents’ house is like going back in time, with the metonym of a black iron range standing for the earlier era.
- More on River Symbolism
- 1861 is the flashback story within a story.
- The American Civil War started in 1861 and lasted until 1865. The war officially began April 12 in Charleston. The big struggle at Port Sumter marked a turning point in the Civil War, when secessionists started to lose. Until then, escaped slaves could be sold back to the south.
- Food is lacking in variety, especially in the winter. Mother makes a dish called ‘scrapple’ made from cornmeal and shredded pork off the neck bones. You slice of bits of it to fry in lard. For a fancy occasion you might fry it in butter.
- Coffee is expensive and a luxury but the family drinks sassafras tea. (Root beer is made from the root of this tree.) These days it’s thought to be carcinogenic to drink it regularly.
- In Southern Illinois the town was divided between north and south sympathies. By law black people aren’t even allowed in the state, although ‘everyone ignores this’. The fact that the law exists speaks to the levels of racism.
- People commonly keep a sick drawer (to put medicines etc.) and a ‘death drawer’ (where they keep a sheet and clothes to be buried in). Very morbid sounding to the modern reader, but evidence that death is on people’s minds a lot more than it is today. People expected death, but at any moment.
- After the Battle of Bull Run, this little town is ‘solid’ for the North. (Anti-slavery, with President Lincoln.)
- Louisiana and New Orleans developed a ‘three caste’ system from the Caribbean. Mixed-parentage people were recognized as a distinct group, neither “White” nor “Black”. The history of slavery in Louisiana is a bit different. Under Spanish rule almost 2,000 slaves were freed. Most of them ‘self-purchased’ or were purchased by black relatives. Some were freed by lovers or fathers. With dwindling numbers of slaves to do the work, the numbers were augmented by mixed-race refugees from Haiti. They were called libres. Many were light-skinned. They were generally artisans and tradesmen. A few even became wealthy planters and slaveowners themselves. Under Spanish rule these gens du couleur formed militia companies and sometimes helped recapture runaway slaves. That’s how a three-caste system came about.
STORYTELLING TECHNIQUE IN THE RIVER BETWEEN US
Howard writes in first person, an elderly adult looking back on his early life. This is apparent from the first sentence: “They don’t make them like that anymore.”
Chapter two switches from the grandson as a young man to his great aunt, Tilly.
The narration has metafictional elements such as, “If life was a storybook, that would have been the night Noah left us for the war.” Peck is obviously conscious of the need to avoid tying up the narrative in too neat of a package — ironically, that would read like a contrived, made-up story and pull us out of realism. In this way, metafictive elements in narration can sometimes add to the realism of a story rather than detract from it.
CAST OF CHARACTERS IN THE RIVER BETWEEN US
WRAPPER STORY CHARACTERS
- Howard Leland Hutchings
- 15 years old in 1916, so born just before the turn of the century. Published in 2003, the narrator would hypothetically be 104 at time of publication.
- Younger brothers, twins, five years old: Raymond and Earl
- Has grown up ‘thinking the whole world is paved’
Howard’s Father, Doctor William Hutchings Jnr
- Father is a doctor, never seen without a necktie.
- Works long hours — a 6 and a half day week
- Self-made man (Bill Gates would disagree. Bill Gates refuses to call himself a self-made man in acknowledgement of his own privilege. Likewise, this son of a doctor had white middle class male privilege). That said, his own father was not rich. Doctors in poor towns were paid in fish and vegetables often.
- Originally from Grand Tower on the other side of the Mississippi River
- Lived through the Civil War
Howard’s Mother, Mrs Hutchings
- Born and raised in St Louis
- Does not like her husband’s family
- Does not go on the trip, is not part of the story.
CIVIL WAR STORY CHARACTERS
Grandpa William Hutchings Snr
- “Waxy with age, trapped by years in his chair but alive behind his eyes”
Tilly Hutchings (nee Pruitt)
- In 1916 she is a little old lady who wears an apron, wrinkled like a walnut
- Youthful movements and build
- Tilly’s mother takes in Delphine Duval and her companion Calinda
- In 1861 she is 15 years old, which makes her 70 in the framing story.
- She will later marry William Hutchings (the town doctor) and give birth to Howard’s father.
- Grandma Tilly’s twin brother
- Missing an arm by his 70th birthday.
- Marries Delphine
Although Delphine initially comes across as a Blanche Dubois type, her strength amazes and inspires everyone when the war begins to take its toll. Even the twins’ mother blossoms from Delphine’s proximity (“She put some starch in my spine,” Tilly’s mother says). These relationships cement and then reverberate throughout the novel. A showboat’s arrival on the Mississippi, and Tilly and Delphine’s trip to the big strugglefront in search of Noah, occasion further revelations about Delphine and Calinda’s background as well as fascinating details of the complex New Orleans society.Publishers Weekly
- Bedridden as an elderly woman, about 70 years old
- Always stout
- Smells of lavender, violet eyes, associated with the colour purple
- French. “Her accent came and went.”
- Has says she has a rich aunt in St Louis but it is later revealed that there is no aunt.
- By the end of chapter four it’s clear she’s a fantasist who, like Jacqueline Wilson’s Tracy Beaker and Richard Peck’s own Molly Moberly in Strays Like Us, has grand delusions about where she comes from and who her female relatives are.
- Also like Molly Moberly’s real grandmother, she has taken to her bed in her old age.
- From New Orleans, Louisiana
- Says her grandmother one of Les Sirenes — beauties who fled the slaves’ uprising on the island of Saint-Domingue years and years ago. Grandmother took her mother to Cuba then New Orleans. Father is Monsieur Jules Duval
- She cannot marry white men because there’s a Spanish and French law against it. However New Orleans customs are different — instead of marrying these women the white men set them up in houses. Daughters are brought up by their mothers and expects to find a white gentleman of her own under a similar arrangement. These women are called quadroons.
- “We free people live on a kind of island, lapped by a sea of slavery.”
- Younger sister of Tilly who hallucinates. She sees ghosts of the past as well as visions of the future.
- In 1861 she is 12 but looks 10
- Wispy hair (to match her visions)
- Small statured
- Keeps chickens — her wispy hair is somewhat ‘feathery’ itself
- Died of diphtheria after the Civil War at the age of 17
- Delphine’s black companion (free person of colour)
- ‘Her eyes trust no one’
- Has the same eyes as Delphine (the first hint that they are half-sisters)
- Not just in skin colour — Calinda is in other ways the mirror reflection of Delphine. “While Delphine would starve in a pantry, Calinda would thrive in a wilderness.”
- As well as being the reflection character for Delphine, she is also a companion for Cass. Cass looks like a ‘scrawny, pale reflection of Calinda, including the tignon, tied in a tidy knot’.
- Makes money by making pralines and selling them to passengers on passing ships.
- Calinda wears a tignon because in 1786 a law was passed which required black women to cover their hair. Intended to keep black women in their place, it was also a fashion statement for black women themselves. Today it is worn as a celebration of Afro-American culture.
- Real name CoinCoin, an ancient name
- Calinda is named after a dance from the Caribbean.
- Calinda and Cass together lend a touch of fabulism to the text, with their ability to predict the future and sense the past.
TREATMENT OF VIOLENT CONTENT IN A STORY FOR YOUNG READERS
Without graphic description, Peck does not shy away from the horrors of war, nor how it divided the families and friends of Grand Tower. Peck’s finely tuned writing makes plausible the ways in which these characters come together, putting their human concerns ahead of their political interest.Publisher’s Weekly
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE RIVER BETWEEN US
This is a story within a story: The road trip in the present world of the story and the stories told about Howard’s father’s childhood.
Who is the main character? Well, this is two stories really but the story as told by Tilly is the main one. The wrapper exists for the function of connecting these people to modern readers: Peck is emphasising that this story happened only three or four generations ago (which is actually terrifying in today’s political climate).
In fact this is a story within a story within a story. This is Howard narrating Tilly narrating the love story of Delphine and her twin brother Noah. But it is also the mythical journey Tilly herself makes to locate her brother after he’s gone off to war. Who is the main character? To answer that question, “Who changes the most, not in circumstance but in psychological growth?” That would be Noah and Tilly both. Richard Peck has made them twins to provide both a male and female experience of one bit of the Civil War.
The Pruitts are poor and therefore must suffer the social cost of harboring the young women off the boat — they need their rent money.
Noah no doubt has naive, heroic visions of being a war hero, and probably also wants to impress Delphine by being a big man.
Tilly’s big disadvantage is her gender. The mother’s ghost is that she has already lost a husband, so losing a son would double her grief. Being a woman herself, she needs Tilly less for chores.
Noah wants to fight but more deeply he wants to be a Man.
Tilly, like her mother, wants to keep Noah at home and to protect their home and hearth. When the mother sends her on a mission this is a female version of the Hero’s Journey.
The Seceshs are the villains in this story — the ‘monster’ stand in — the overriding fearsome opponent. But in this particular setting, a purple area, there are plenty of locals who are fighting against the Yankees and the women who visit the house to cast judgement on harboring the girls from New Orleans provide a more local opponent, given faces.
Noah’s mother does not want him to fight, providing the well-meaning opponent. The mother shows herself to be a fairly despicable mother to Tilly, though, when she falls into a heap and tells her she only cares about the brother, not her. This mother is a completely different kind of mother-opponent to each twin.
In a more stereotypical story, Delphine would be an opponent to Tilly. There are many stories about girls — one rich, one poor — pitted against each other as opponents, but Peck has created a more nuanced frilly girl in Delphine by letting her add to the Pruitts’ life with the introduction of different foods and nice things.
Noah joins the war but his plans to fight to the end fall short when he loses a limb.
Tilly takes Delphine on her journey to find Noah and refuses to go back home until she’s found him, as instructed by their mother.
Tilly shows us some pretty shocking images. The big struggles taking place around this time all over America are off the page — we’re shown the aftermath.
At this point the story switches back to that of Howard. He realises the reason for the visit — Great Aunt Delphine is dying. We learn Cass is dead and buried, in an overgrown graveyard. She died of diphtheria a year after the war.
This tells us that the war’s casualties included more than just men dying heroically in big struggle. With war there is always a lot of other death too — for unromantic reasons such as this.
Another revelation: Noah is Dr Williams’ father, not the old Dr Hutchings. Great Aunt Delphine is actually Howard’s grandmother, not his great aunt, in a revelation similar to the one used in Strays Like Us.
We learn that Calinda had to leave town because her skin was too dark to stay. We don’t know what happened to her — symbolic of how there is nothing in the historical records about what happened to the Quadroom women of New Orleans after the Civil War.
The rest of the family stays in the White town and has lived here in this big house together all these decades. Old Mr Pruitt is buried in the graveyard though not next to Cass. Old Mrs Pruitt was buried in the river.
I had expected Delphine would have married Noah but we learn they never married. Peck does this to let the character of Delphine retain her tradition of never marrying a white man (even though the law itself was passed by white men).
Howard is allowed to drive the car some of the way home. Howard, too, is now a man because he knows his own family history. Howard’s father tells Howard he’ll be joining the war if it begins. The reader knows it did begin, so we can extrapolate that Dr Hutchings went off to war.
Howard mentions a ‘daughter with giant violet eyes’, a detail so specific we might imagine Howard does have such a daughter and that’s who he’s telling this family history to.
Daniel Handler wrote the teleplay (as well as the books) to the Netflix adaptation of A Series Of Unfortunate Events. The author’s voice and politics come through loud and clear.
Handler loves wordplay, and is not shy of delivering a ‘moral lesson’ on the difference between ‘literally’ and ‘figuratively’. Words and their meanings are consistently explained, but because Klaus, at least, already knows what the words mean, the young viewer does not feel condescended to. The joke is almost always on Count Olaf. Handler also has a keen handle on the most common storytelling tropes in children’s literature, and makes fun of them whenever he can. Lemony Snicket is on the side of the child.
In the books the storyteller is hidden from view, but for the television series Lemony Snicket is portrayed in the form of Patrick Warburton, whose formal dress juxtaposes with the humorous positions he is placed in: sitting on a lifesaver’s chair, coming out of a sewerage hole in the middle of the street and so on. See: The Role Of Storytellers In Fiction.
A Series Of Unfortunate Events is famously metafictive, in which a character called Lemony Snicket warns children that this is going to be a terrible, horrible tale and they’d best turn away. Tongue-in-cheek reverse psychology. This advice is taken to its metaphorical limit in the TV series, in which the theme song advises us to ‘look away, look away!’ Then we have all the eye imagery — the viewfinder views, Count Olaf’s gaze through the peep hole (the first the Baudelaire children see of him), his eye tattoo and so on.
The cinematography of the Netflix TV series seems influenced by the films of Wes Anderson, both in symmetry and in colour. An audience knows to expect quirky from this style, and dark humour. (It was filmed in British Colombia, Canada, and you may recognise an actor or two from Orphan Black.)
The brother and sister Baudelaire children stand in for ‘The Everychild’. They do not have all that much in the way of personality, aside from being inherently good and kind and well-behaved. There are differences between them — while I read Klaus as an autist, Violet is a comically Pollyanna character, determined to make the most of the situation when she asks Klaus to come across the worst predicament he’s ever encountered in his reading, then concludes they are not so badly off. Again, this is Daniel Handler making fun of the character trope that girls and boys in popular children’s stories are expected to be ‘nice’ and ‘good’. This doesn’t matter — we have Count Olaf for the laughs. In fact, all of the surrounding characters have more quirks and personality than Violet and Klaus, who, like the child audience, are newcomers to the situation and are to be read as ‘normal’.
The baby has magic super powers — she can chew things to pieces, and even create entirely new objects simply by using her four teeth. Her baby language is treated as if it’s an entirely different language, which only her siblings and surprising other characters are able to understand to the exclusion of everyone else. The baby’s words are subtitled in a font from the silent film era.
This setting is an example of Magic Realism. It also has steampunk elements, not so different from the Spy Kids series, in which our child heroes are expert at building contraptions. These expertise are first shown as a means of them having fun (retrieving the perfect skimming stone from the ocean), but of course these skills come in handy later, to get themselves out of dire trouble.
“It’s only scary because of the mist,” Klaus says metafictively, as Mr Poe (surely named after the horror writer?) approaches them on the beach to deliver terrible news. See: Fog Symbolism.
A lot of the humour comes from the juxtaposition between the fairytale setting and very modern problems. For instance, when Hook-Handed Man ruins an old-fashioned typewriter (because he has hooks for hands) he asks for IT support. When Count Olaf says Violet will be marrying him ‘in an hour’ he upends a giant hourglass which he can’t remember the name of. This is making use of the classic ‘ticking clock’ storytelling device, often used to heighten suspense, but when the timer runs out nothing happens, except for Count Olaf losing face by returning through the trapdoor of the attic to explain that, actually, he bought the thing online and he didn’t know the sand went through so quickly so the children will have to turn it over a few times.
Handler is a master of irony, and there is irony in every scene and in a large proportion of the dialogue. For example, the Baudelaire children are at first taken to Mr Poe’s family — an archetypal cosy house with both parents, full of children and a well-coiffed mother in an apron who at first appears to be the epitome of a caring 1950s housewife.
We soon learn, however, that not all is well in the suburbs and she is in fact unwelcoming, taking obvious and great pleasure in the publicity she is able to garner for her own family via this tragic event.
Later that night, her children ask the Baudelaires how they managed to kill their parents, presumably because they’re hoping to do the same. The following morning we see just how small and ‘cosy’ the Poes’ house really is. Small-minded people live in very small houses — ‘cramped’, more than ‘cosy’, as first suggested by the dining table scene.
This ironic tone pairs very nicely — like a great pair of serif/sans serif fonts — with the fact that much of the dialogue is in fact ‘on the nose’. The plot itself is signposted. While we are busy enjoying the setting and humour, we are not expected to work too hard to understand what is going on.
Daniel Handler is firmly on the side of the child audience.
Mr Poe: “I know you must be nervous about living with a guardian. I know how I was when I was your age.”
Klaus: “We’re all different ages.”
The joke is repeated again later when another clueless adult — Count Olaf — talks about how much he loved cupcakes when he was ‘their age’. Again, Klaus repeats, “But we’re all different ages.” As is the child audience. More proof that in Daniel Handler’s writer’s mind, the Baudelaire children stand for The Audience In General. Also, we are not to believe adults who use the annoying phrase, “When I was your age”.
When Klaus expresses dismay at Count Olaf’s having a tattoo of an eye on his ankle (not to mention all the obvious eyeball paraphernalia about the house), the very reasonable and politically correct Violet advises her brother, as well as the audience, that tattoos are simply a decorative pigmentation of the skin and do not mean the person wearing them is bad. This stands in stark contrast with much characterisation from The First Golden Age Of Children’s Literature in particular, in which we were actively encouraged to judge baddies based on what they look like.
A mystery is introduced when the children find a strange object hidden in the rubble of their family home.
Cinderella is the ur-tale behind A Series Of Unfortunate Events. We have poor orphans who have lost their caring and excellent real parents and who are sent to live in a big house which is emotionally bereft. They are forced to endure terrible hardships, though not of the realworld kind — that would be too cruel and not at all for children — cleaning and scrubbing and cooking and always failing to win approval. Basically an exaggerated form of how generally-cared-for children feel when they’re feeling a bit sorry for themselves.
Why is it not more tragic that the parents (apparently) die in a terrible fire right at the beginning of the story? Because we don’t know the parents. The history of children’s literature (particularly American children’s literature) is chock full of orphans. If we don’t get to know them, their deaths are not sad per se, rather the plight of the children is the sad thing. See: Why So Many Orphans In Children’s Literature?
The dark, empty mansion belonging to Count Olaf is contrasted with the inverse living right across the road — Justice Strauss who is not the slightest bit evil, has a garden full of blossoms, a beautiful big library and is a very caring person. Extreme evil against extreme nice. Comic characters are often 2D and that’s just fine. These are dream houses, to use the terminology of Gaston Bachelard, so of course they have stairs, basements and attics. See: Symbolism Of The Dream House.
When the camera pans from Justice Strauss’s house to Count Olaf’s gothic mansion the camera follows a blue bird flying happily. Unfortunately, in the middle of the street, a raven swoops down and kills it. A raven in storytelling probably puts you in mind of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, among many others. The raven is a metaphor for death, understood by young audiences and jaded ones alike.
It’s such a shame the Baudelaire children can’t live with Justice Strauss, and we are made to feel it keenly. This regret is underscored by her declaration that she’s just bought a new food processor, but who does she think she’s kidding because “I have no mechanical skills whatsoever”. Since we already know the children are expert mechanics, they would obviously be a great fit. Moreover, she has no way of cutting up the baguette, which the baby is excellent at doing with her teeth.
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE GREAT FUSILLI
The Great Fusilli is the last Courage story of season one and it is fitting that the creators have made a work of metafiction — in other words, the audience is reminded that they are watching a TV show.
Courage: That it’s up to him to save the day despite being an ordinary dog
Muriel: That she is oblivious and trusting and just a little prone to fancy
Eustace: That he is easily persuaded by the promise of riches (among many other faults, this one is often his downfall, as it is here.)
Eustace wants to save Muriel and Eustace from the suspicious magician who has come to the house to make his owners stars.
We see the opponent in the very first scene, driving down a long road to Nowhere. There is a long history of travelling circuses (and gypsies) and because they come to town for a short time then leave, we are to be suspicious of them.
He parks right outside the Bagges’ house and tries to persuade Courage that he belongs on the stage. Courage is immediately suspicious when the masks of the Fusilli logo switch suddenly from happy to sad.
The Great Fusilli is not what he seems and this is conveyed in various ways.
- The canned laughter not only pokes fun at other cartoons which rely on it, but show that this character is quite happy to live in non-reality, where an imaginary audience is as good as a real one.
- The logos are masks. Masks are used equally in horror and comedy, which is why it’s no surprise to find them used so frequently in a horror comedy. A mask isn’t necessarily a literal mask — we saw Courage dress up as a bunny rabbit in an earlier episode in order to lure a predatory opponent and this was another example of a ‘mask’. (Another oft-talked about mask is when Dustin Hoffman dresses up as a woman in the film Tootsie.)
- He is a crocodile. With the concept of ‘crocodile tears’ we have been primed to think of crocodiles as tricksters.
It is eventually revealed that The Great Fusilli is a carnivalesque character whose ambition is to have fun. This should come as no real surprise, since he is named after a type of pasta. (The second part of his name sounds like ‘Silly’ in English, which helps.)
“What do I do now?” we often hear Courage say at the moment where he must come up with his plan.
Courage’s plan is always first to talk and reason. Since he is a dog this never works.
He goes along with The Great Fusilli, giving the audience an opportunity to see Courage tap dance and so on. We’ve seen other characters do this, for example Chihiro in Spirited Away. Going along with the opponent’s wishes is a type of plan, though perhaps not much used in the West because writers are mostly under the influence of Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey. Going along with an opponent’s plan is never part of that deal.
We don’t know what The Great Fusilli’s plan is until near the end. We only know that he’s up to no good.
We get a clue when we see the other puppets (from Courage’s point of view) and then the three empty but labeled hooks, much like graves waiting to be filled in.
The Great Fusilli — via magical ribbons dropping out of the mouths of the masks — turns Eustace and Muriel into puppets on strings. He has great fun playing with him. This was his plan.
This is where the metafictional part comes in — he has set up the stage to resemble the Bagges’ living room. The characters say exactly what they would normally say, only they’re being pulled by strings.
Courage covers himself in powder first, and inadvertently scares The Great Fusilli, who naturally assumes Courage is a phantom. This was not Courage’s plan (we are told from his face).
There’s obviously some Phantom of the Opera influence coming through here. The original novel was partly inspired by historical events at the Paris Opera during the nineteenth century and an apocryphal tale concerning the use of a former ballet pupil’s skeleton in Carl Maria von Weber’s 1841 production of Der Freischütz. So there’s a long tradition of European phantomy things in operas.
The Great Fusilli jumps to his death over the balcony, although he’s not really dead. Death is not the worst thing that could happen to this opponent who craves fame. The worst thing for him is to be left all alone in the middle of Nowhere, performing to an imaginary audience. So that’s what the writers have happen.
In short, if you want to dish out just desserts for an opponent in a children’s story, and also want to avoid death, the way to manage it is to work out their greatest shortcoming, ham it up, then do that to them. It can be as silly as you like. So if you had a character obsessed with cheese you could trap them in a glass room surrounded by cheese on the moon, for instance.
Since this is a metafictional story the audience has it ‘revealed’ (in a fashion) that this entire thing has been made by people behind the scenes. This feels like an homage to them.
The metafictional part doesn’t end. So the series comes to an end with Courage pulling the strings of Eustace and Muriel as they sit in their rocking chairs, safe in their own living room.
“The things I do for love!” Courage announces to the camera — one of his catch phrases.
If this series had not been renewed for another three seasons it would have made a fitting end. Fortunately there are plenty more Courage stories to come.
Since this episode feels like an homage to the creators of Courage I’ll take the opportunity to screenshot just one of the end credits, as a reminder to all of us writing for children just how much effort goes into a great children’s story. The head writer is David Steven Cohen. Cohen has more recently been working on Arthur, Little People and Space Racers.
Also take a look at the number of storyboarders involved in Courage The Cowardly Dog:
In the “King Ramses’ Curse” episode of Courage the Cowardly Dog we have three plagues — since storytelling loves The Rule Of Three — and the plagues comprise a mixture of ancient and comically modern curses.
This horror comedy for children takes inspiration from ancient holy texts such as found in the Bible and in the Quran.
In the Bible we have The Ten Biblical Plagues, also known as The Plagues of Egypt.
In the Quran there is also mention of a plague and it’s pretty similar except it happens all at once.
Ramses II ruled as pharaoh, or king, of ancient Egypt from 1279 to 1213 BC, the second longest reign in Egyptian history. He was the third king of the 19th dynasty, during the New Kingdom. Ramses, also spelled Ramesses or Rameses, was a highly popular ruler, and under him Egypt enjoyed great prosperity.
STORY STRUCTURE OF KING RAMSES’ CURSE
Muriel and Eustace are obliviously going on with their lives inside their house in the middle of Nowhere.
Courage sees a crime happening right outside his window but is unable to stop Eustace from getting himself involved.
To go back a bit, this episode opens with the story of the baddies. Two creatures (cats? mice?) have stolen an ancient engraved stone tablet. In a scene out of a heist movie a helicopter (or something similar) is on their trail. There’s an ominous black trail following them. We later realise this is a swarm of locusts.
In a scene out of (and possibly inspired by) Fargo (1996) the creatures bury the stone near the side of the road. They’re being terrorised by this thing following them and will come back for it later.
The camera pans to reveal that all this has happened, quite literally, outside Eustace and Muriel’s house.
We never hear from these criminals again. They are a classic case of a McGuffin in storytelling. They exist only to get the story going and then they disappear.
Courage wants to know what’s going on outside his front window. In typical pet dog fashion, he takes great interest in whatever’s going on outside while his owners go about their own day obliviously.
Eustace wants to be rich. Not because his needs are particularly great, but because he likes the power that goes along with it.
We have already seen the supernatural opponent — it appeared first as a curlicued shadow across the bonnet of the thieves’ car.
We see it more fully after Eustace decides to keep the tablet for himself.
The much weaker and more more comical opponent here is Eustace.
Courage has seen the thieves bury something so he brings it inside to show Muriel and Eustace. He also knows that there’s something fishy and scary about the tablet because etchings keep disappearing from it. A screenshot serves to foreshadow what’s going to happen in the episode, though the viewer doesn’t really have time to examine them.
It just so happens that on the TV there is a million dollar reward for the return of this ancient stone. Eustace plans to hand it in, collect his reward and buy garden chairs.
Another character turns up. In the Courage stories we often end up meeting the characters who have first appeared on TV. This man is here to collect donations for some archeological society. Donations of a million dollars mean a free tote bag. It wasn’t necessary for the plot for this guy to turn up but it fleshes out the story by adding another opportunity for interaction and also a good gag about charity culture. The other thing that happens when a character off the Bagges’ TV turns up in real life: The line between TV and reality is blurred, or perhaps it is demolished, in a metafictive sense. The audience is very aware that this is a story.
If Eustace won’t give the tablet back (and we know he won’t), the supernatural being will initiate three plagues.
- The house fills up with water. (A flood.) Courage saves the day by swimming from the attic to the basement and pulling out the plug. (The house has comically been turned into a bathtub.)
- The house fills with muzak. Again Courage saves everyone by finding the gramophone and smashing it with his baseball bat.
- A plague of locusts heads straight for the house. There’s no way Courage can stop this one.
After a battle scene in which Eustace is swinging Courage around, Courage returns the tablet to the supernatural being outside. Eustace does this, but when he thinks everything is over, and the being has run ‘out of ammo’ having used up his three plagues, he retrieves it. This time the locusts return and eat up half the house leaving it — as baddies often do throughout the series — in a completely unliveable state.
Meanwhile, another big struggle scene is going on in the kitchen. I assume Muriel is going on a baking frenzy as a way of coping with stress. Both Muriel and the kitchen and also the house get more and more frazzled/destroyed as the montage goes on. Muriel’s signature weapon is her rolling pin, so the oversized rolling pin is a symbol of big struggle.
Notice, too, that she is frying fish. I’m guessing this is a Christian symbol.
The view is through the removal of the so-called ‘fourth wall’. We don’t normally see Muriel’s kitchen from this point of view.
There is no helping Eustace, whose plans for new garden chairs have moved on to include spark plugs and other material goods.
We have a wonderful high angle shot of the house, which is now a bomb site.
Eustace — being his usual avaricious self — has refused to hand over the tablet and is now entombed somewhere in Egypt. Muriel wonders where he’s got to.
“The Lost Thing” is an Australian postmodern picture book by Shaun Tan.
Interestingly, the flap copy manages to describe the theme in a metafictional kind of way:
I guess you want to know what this book is about, just by reading this cover flap. Fair enough too; time is short, lives are busy, and most smart, thinking people have better things to do than stand around looking at picture books about some big red thing being lost in a strange city…
This is basically a critique of people wandering through life not noticing things.
The narrator’s parents are too busy keeping up with current events. This reminds me of a Freakonomics podcast Why Do We Really Follow The News?
tl;dl: We follow the news to seem smart. We follow news for entertainment, treating politics like a kind of sport. But does following news really make you smarter, or do you just seem smarter? Are you following the right amount of news, or is your interest in current events perhaps leaving you without time for the small things in your immediate surrounds?
The final page is again metafictive: “And don’t ask me what the moral is.” This is a nod to the fact that children’s books are expected to have morals (even though the best and latest ones don’t at all.)
Readers will bring their own meanings to this story. I’m inclined to see stories as metaphors for autism. The boy’s massive collection of bottle tops is one clue, as is the fact that he is able to notice things others don’t. He’s offered a sign and “I can’t say I knew what it all meant.” There is a popular view of autism as illness, in which an autistic child is expected to learn to fit in with allistics in order to get on in life. Social skills can indeed be learned, but only at the expense of losing that highly individual part of yourself.
More widely, this could be a story about any child with an unusual worldview who, by social conditioning, is gradually forced into adult conformity.
The first person narrator is ‘the every child’ — at the moment in children’s literature the every boy is white, and a boy, not a girl.
Unusually for children’s book narrators, this is a knowing adult looking back at an incident from his childhood with somewhat renewed insight. This kind of narrator is more often encountered in adult fiction (about childhood experiences) and is probably the thing that makes this story feel like a crossover book. Like other work from this artist, The Lost Thing is not a children’s book, per se. It’s more of an art artifact, or a coffee table book.
I say ‘somewhat renewed insight’ because the narrator admits on the very first page that he has forgotten a lot of stories so he’ll just tell this low-key one instead.
Pete is your stoner sage archetype who ‘has an opinion on everything’. (He seems a bit stoner because he puts ‘man’ at the ends of his sentence.) I’m thinking Harris Trinsky from Freaks and Geeks. TV Tropes calls this the Erudite Stoner.
Some stories subvert the trope. You might have some stoner dishing out advice that’s counterproductive. (E.g. Little Miss Sunshine.)
What’s Shaun Tan done here? While Pete’s advice isn’t total nonsense, it feels about as deep as a Facebook meme. Tan is definitely spoofing the archetype: “He paused for dramatic effect”.
The parents are a boring middle-aged couple who are depicted staring at the TV. The message here is that when we become absorbed in media we stop noticing things going on around us, even though they’re really obvious. And the red thing is, ironically, really obvious. It’s huge. It’s red. When you (the reader) look at that thing you can’t help but wonder what it’s for and what it does.
SETTING OF THE LOST THING
This world is a bit steampunk. It’s full of contraptions that we don’t recognise (including the lost thing itself.)
This is a world from perhaps the 1980s, when intriguing people and advice could be garnered from the back pages of a newspaper. (I’m probably the last generation to know what sorts of things were found there.)
The television is the old cathode ray tube type which is way more fun to draw than a plasma screen, and which is dying a slow death in picture books. (For various reasons I chose to draw a CRT TV in my own picture book app Midnight Feast, even though it’s set in the near future. So I understand this completely.)
The following image is Tan’s re-imagining of a famous Australian painting by artist Jeffrey Smart. “The Cahill Expressway” painting was influential in 1960s Australia. Forty years later Shaun Tan has used a pastiche of this picture to convey a sense of bleakness.
And here’s the 1959 Smart painting, called “The Cahill Expressway”:
This painting has been the inspiration for many Australian artists, and there is even a collection of short stories, all inspired by the painting. (The book is called Expressway.)
I wonder if Smart’s painting was even influential for Colin Stimpson (though Stimpson is not Australian) when he wrote and illustrated Jack and The Baked Beanstalk.
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE LOST THING
The boy as every child means that the shortcoming/need is cast upon the reader: We are all too busy fitting in to notice little things (and also, probably, very big things!) that are right under our noses. We need to stop and look at world. This is metafictive in a less obvious way; picture books require readers to slow down and study the pages in a way no other medium really does. You won’t be able to read this picture book properly unless you linger on the illustrations.
The boy wants to know more about this big red thing, and know that it’s happy and safe.
The natural opponent is wider society, disinclined to look after the odd things that don’t fit anywhere. This ‘society’ is personified by the parents, who need the Lost Thing pointed out, and even when it’s pointed out, they take no real interest in it.
He brings it home and houses it in the shed, but he’s worried his parents are going to find it.
So when he happens upon an advertisement in the back of the newspaper he goes on a mission to find out where this thing fits in.
The big struggle is the mythic journey that the boy must embark upon after he finds the sign with the squiggly arrow. It’s a battle finding out where the Lost Thing fits because he has to work it out himself.
The anagnorisis is symbolised with a literal door open, and a big red button. The boy learns that there is a whole other world full of non-conforming things right behind the boring veneer of society.
The unhappy ending is that this boy is an adult now and can hardly remember any of the amazing things he knew of as a child.
The idea that adults don’t pay enough attention once we monotropically become sophisticated workers with specialised skills is not new since the smartphone, in case you were wondering. It’s an old idea and I doubt it’s going anywhere soon.
The following illustration is from 1966.
This Book Just Ate My Dog is a great example of both. Part way through the story the reader is yanked out of it, reminded in no uncertain terms that this thing they’re holding… yeah, it’s a book. It’s a physical object. **SPOILER ALERT** The dog disappears into the gutter. I have seen little kids find this hilarious. My eight-year-old still follows the instructions.
The main point of a toy/single joke book like this is to entertain, but there also seems to be another reason for it: It’ll be something to do with familiarising children with books as objects. When the child plays with a book there is now a ‘friendship’ between literature and child.
I expect adult designers of any kind will find this gag pretty funny too, since designing double spreads for print requires some forethought to prevent images disappearing into that pesky old crack.
Apart from the metafictive element, this book design lends the story a modern feel:
- The font choice. This is a square, sans serif font more often seen on websites rather than in children’s books, which if anything tend to mimic historical printing processes rather than mimic the internet. Not only that, but the exact same font is used for the title and the body.
- The font colour. It’s orange. Like, bright orange. The book feels more like high-quality advertising material than like picturebooks you’ve seen before.
- This is about a girl and her dog. The boy turns up to save the day but is unable to do anything. I’ll say that again in case it didn’t sink in: a GIRL and her dog. Most children’s literature featuring a special relationship between a dog and a child star a BOY. Sure, this isn’t the only girl/dog story. It’s not the first. It’s just disproportionate. Modern stories are far more likely to star girls than 20th century ones.
STORY STRUCTURE OF THIS BOOK JUST ATE MY DOG
Who is the main character in a metafictive book? In this case it’s the reader. But this only happens after a switch. The original main character is Bella.
Does Bella have a shortcoming? She doesn’t know that books can eat dogs.
She wants to rescue her dog from the gutter of the book.
The book itself.
After various parties come to the rescue but themselves get stuck inside the book, Bella decides to go in herself.
This is where the protagonist switches to the reader, who must physically turn the book and shake it.
A page turn will give readers the illusion that they have saved the day with these ridiculous actions.
Everything is as it was before except for one hilarious thing: The second half of the dog’s body is on upside down.