When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

WHEN YOU REACH ME REBECCA STEAD

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead is ten years old now, published 2009. I’ve seen this middle grade novel described as magical realism, though for knotty political reasons we might prefer to call it fabulism. It is also science fiction and grounded in the real world. It packs a lot into 40k words.

There are many things to admire about When You Reach Me. But I’m not a fan of the title. I keep getting it wrong. (I keep thinking it’s When I Reach You.) It was originally called You Are Here, which I like better. (That would match the cover better, too.)

NARRATION

First, I admire the 12-year-old-ness of it. Take the following passage, which demonstrates the narrator is right there in a 12-year-old’s headspace.

“It’s okay.” I was so grateful that she had something to apologize for that it didn’t really occur to me to think about how it had actually made me feel. But I have thought about it since then. It didn’t make me feel good.

I’ve heard this style of narration was sort of invented by Katherine Paterson. I’ve seen it described as ‘third-person limited omniscient narrative’, which basically means the narrator is looking back on fairly recent incidents. A little time has passed, but not much. They’re still a kid telling the story. We know it’s not an adult looking back telling the story because ‘it didn’t make me feel good’ is a kind of emotionally naive thing to say. An adult would be more articulate about it.

Yet at the same time, the narrator is saying something universal and true.

REBECCA STEAD AND KATHERINE PATERSON

Speaking of Katherine Paterson, Bridge To Terabithia has The Chronicles of Narnia as a possible intertext and When You Reach Me has the very clear intertext of A Wrinkle In Time. Are young readers expected to be familiar with A Wrinkle In Time? A children’s story with a strong intertext must exist as complete in its own right. No knowledge of Madeleine L’Engle’s work is needed here, but those who’ve read it will get more out of this one.

I do think readers who haven’t read and enjoyed Madeleine L’Engle‘s A Wrinkle in Time can enjoy this book, but I would suggest reading L’Engle’s book before picking up this one; it will mean so much more.

Goodreads reviewer who also loved A Wrinkle In Time as a kid

Stead was inspired by Madeline L’Engle’s classic and initially only mentioned it briefly but her editor advised her to make more of it if she wanted to keep it in at all.

Stead was aware that she did not want A Wrinkle in Time to have too big an influence on When You Reach Me. Keeping this in mind, she reread A Wrinkle in Time through the perspective of different characters, which enabled her to develop new connections and ideas in her own work.

Wikipedia

TIME TRAVEL

Even better than reading A Wrinkle In Time, I’d say it’s helpful for young readers to have considered the possibility of time travel. That is the most complex part of this novel. Time is presented as like a book with all the pages filled in. (Actually, the analogy used  in the story is a ring with diamond chips around it.)

Butchering it badly, the idea is this: we simply move through time, but we exist on each page forever. This is a mind-bending concept to consider. Brian Greene, Marcus Chown and other popular science writers are fascinating on this topic.

(I see the potential for fascinating classroom discussions. linked to the science curriculum.)

GENUINE SUBVERSIONS

I also love that Rebecca Stead sets up archetype characters and then subverts them. She doesn’t simply invert them — she properly subverts them. The Alpha Bitch turns out to be human and not that different from the main character. A bully character is set up then dismantled as a nerdy type.

Connected to these subversions: By the conclusion of the novel it is clear that sometime there’s no grand fatalistic reason behind certain actions. The inciting incident, in which Sal is punched in the head, had no good reason behind it. It had a stupid reason behind it. The message, therefore, is that violence is senseless. (Sometimes it really is.)

But here’s what most critics have admired the most: The way all the time travel fits together, and how one clue leads directly to the next in this mystery, science fiction plot. There must be something especially gratifying for readers about that flow-on feeling you get from some stories, even if it’s only subconscious.

CHARACTERS OF WHEN YOU REACH ME

Stead doesn’t introduce the main child character’s name right away. In fact, we’re several chapters in before we know it. This has the effect of turning the main character into the Every Child, in which the readers can easily map themselves onto the fictional proxy.

Eventually we learn her name, at the beginning of chapter three:

  • Miranda — so named because it stands for people’s rights. A standout quirk: Miranda reads and re-reads A Wrinkle In Time. She carries around a battered copy.
  • Mother — Uptight, small (suggesting a nervous disposition), with a large social conscience. She wanted to be a lawyer but works in a lawyer’s office. In this era (she had her daughter in the late 1960s) it was very hard for women to become lawyers. Women were infantalised by the dominant culture. This mother now works in a lawyer’s office. They are not super wealthy, because they do lots of legal work pro bono. (A Save the Cat set up.) Miranda having access to legal help comes in handy later. (If you’d like to ruin children’s books for yourself, take notice of the parents’ profession.) The mother has her own character arc. That she only fits children’s clothes is a telling detail — the mother is childlike. Her constant rejection of the perfectly good, very nice Richard is a sign that she is yet to grow up. By the end of the story the mother is wearing business attire. Richard comments how good she looks. This change of clothing is symbolic of the mother’s own coming-of-age. Since both mother and daughter undergo a character arc, this is what John Truby would call a Double Reversal. You see it in the film Lady Bird, in Pixar’s Frozen, Thirteen and Freaky Friday. (Mother and daughter double reversals are common.)
  • Richard — Mother’s boyfriend of two years, so basically Miranda’s step-father. German. A lawyer, also with a strong social conscience. Stead gives him the quirk of one leg shorter than the other, and a constant reference to this which marks him out as not actually perfect. He sits at the table reading the newspaper (like lots of children’s book fathers) and is more laid back than the mother (like most children’s book parents).
  • Robbie B. — kid at school who says Miranda was named after a kidnapper. (I looked it up — he means Ernesto Miranda.)
  • Belle — owns ‘Belle’s Market’ near Miranda’s house. The produce she sells there isn’t great. Belle is an older friend and mentor to Miranda. Rebecca Stead has populated Miranda’s life with a network of people across the age ranges — probably more age variety than would be typical for a twelve-year-old. But this helps to expand the time. Annie Proulx does the exact same trick in many of her short stories, especially the Wyoming ones. She’ll often open a story about one character by giving us backstory about how he’s the fourth generation to own this land, etc. This is very deliberate on Proulx’s part, as she’s said so in interviews. In short, children’s writers can also achieve this time-expansion thing by including a wide age-range of characters. This has been happening for a long time, with the inclusion of older mentors and grandparents, even as social networks in Western children’s real lives have, on average, shrunk.
  • Sal — Sal and his Mom Louisa live in the apartment below. Sal ‘used to be’ Miranda’s best friend.
  • Louisa — Louisa works in a nursing home.
  • Mr Nunzi — another resident in the apartment block. Smokes, is careless with it.
  • Mrs Bindocker — the neighbourhood busybody who talks a lot. (A Rachel Lynde character.) Even her name sounds like someone speaking quickly. (Maybe it also reminds me of the word ‘spin doctor’.)
  • The Laughing Man — QuackerQuack for short. Or ‘Kicker‘. The local scary guy. I listened to a true crime podcast once about a boy who went missing. One resonant observation: Police should always ask the kids for information. If there’s a weirdo hanging around, it’s likely the kids will know about it even if the adults don’t. When this guy is introduced we don’t know whether he’s going to be an opponent or an ally. Because this is middle grade, I’m going for false opponent who turns out to be an ally. As it turns out, The Laughing Man is a Jesus character in the same way that Leslie Burke is a Jesus character in Bridge to Terabithia, adding to the parallels I see between When You Reach Me and Bridge to Terabithia.
  • The boys by the garage — In a flash back, one of them beats Sal up. Clear bully opponents. The one in the green army coat punches Sal. Later we learn his name is Marcus and he goes to the same school as them.
  • Marcus Heilbruner is not your typical storybook bully. He likes to read books about maths. He believes time travel is possible. His bully characterisation is thereby subverted.
  • Julia — a rich classmate who goes on trips to Switzerland etc. The middle-grade equivalent of an alpha bitch trope. Julia describes her own colouring by referring to her skin and eyes in comparison to foods, which by 2019 is something many women of colour are wishing white people wouldn’t do. (Julia is a girl of colour but she’s been written by a white author.) But how woke were any of us back in the dark ages of 2009?
  • Annemarie — Annemarie’s longtime bestie. But in sixth grade Julia decides to punish Annemarie. Annemarie’s bedroom is covered in pictures of Julia, which reminds me of the Eleanor Estes story — The Hundred Dresses.
  • Alice Evans — the girl who gets picked on most. Gullible but book smart.
  • Dick Clark — the host of the gameshow Winner’s Circle. This is based on a real game show called The Pyramid Game.
  • Mr Tompkin — a teacher at school. Described by Miranda’s mother as a ‘frustrated architect’. The mother is herself a frustrated lawyer, so her thumbnail sketch says as much about her.
  • Wheelie — the school secretary. The students consider her the person who runs the school. She is nicknamed Wheelie because she never seems to get off her castor-wheeled office chair, but simply rolls around. Another quirk of Wheelie: She doesn’t take any shit and she’s precious about people using her stationery, and later, her phone. This adds tension after there’s a ticking clock set-up and Miranda really, really needs to use her notepad, then her phone.
  • Colin — a boy at school who follows Annemarie and Miranda around these days. He is the middle grade romantic interest of Miranda. Miranda wonders if Colin likes her. There’s some non-sexualised touching, like pressing foreheads together. Eventually the reader is rewarded when Colin kisses Miranda.
  • Jimmy — the guy who owns the sandwich place. He hires Colin, Annemarie and Miranda to work for him during their early lunch hour. He’s a schlubby guy but he provides the equivalent of a ‘cafe hub’ (seen in many TV series, especially) where the middle grade kids can legitimately, safely hang out. Well, I doubt this would ever happen in real life. Parents and teachers would be all about the child protection, though I don’t know what it’s like to grow up as a 12-year-old in New York City in the late 1970s. Maybe there really was that much freedom? See also: Lampshading Parental Absence In Children’s Literature. Stead herself has said: “[F]rom age nine, my friends and I were on the streets, walking home, going to each other’s houses, going to the store. I really wanted to write about that: the independence that’s a little bit scary but also a really positive thing in a lot of ways. And I’m not sure that most kids have that today”. This is a good reason why so many contemporary children’s books are set in a time before mobile phones and so-called helicopter parents.
  • Jay Stringer — a kid at school who doesn’t notice anything when he’s reading. Characters like this serve to populate the story authentically. This is why they’re given names, despite being part of the scenery.

STORY STRUCTURE OF WHEN YOU REACH ME

Possibly the best-plotted middle-grade book ever written.

— Sam Eddington

There is, quite frankly, a lot of stuff out there to like. So what I have to do here is convey to you just how this book is, pretty much, one of the best children’s books I have ever read.

Betsy Bird

  • Each chapter is headed something like ‘Things That Smell’ or ‘Things You Keep Secret’, which is the structure of the gameshow Miranda’s mother is preparing for. In this way, the mother’s desire to win money at a gameshow is a subplot and structural guide to Miranda’s story — wanting to solve a mystery of notes which seem to come from the future.
  • The chapters are very short, more like micro chapters. There are advantages and disadvantages to doing this. The advantage is that you feel you’re making progress. Structurally, short chapters fit the theme of time as a series of individuated moments. But here’s what one of my Goodreads friends had to say:

I didn’t hate [When You Reach Me], just found it quite hard to read. The chapters are very short which seriously interrupted the flow of the story for me. I understand that this is probably aimed at keeping the interest and attention spans of the target audience (children) but I think it would have been better to extend the chapters and allow the reader the chance to get drawn into the story more.

  • Miranda herself is more of an observer than someone on a hero mission. People around her each have their own desires and plans and she regards her community as a mystery to be solved. Who is the laughing man? Why isn’t her best friend talking to her anymore? Is time travel possible? Why did the bully punch Sal? What is the Queen Bee mean girl planning for her beta? And so on.
  • For the final quarter of the book, the reader is in audience inferior position. We watch Miranda embark upon a mission. She’s in a 1970s assembly, helping Annemarie get to the toilet before she wets herself (a Save the Cat moment which endears her to us). She’s asking Wheelie for paper (we don’t know what for). Miranda has gone from being a fairly passive viewpoint character to being the hero of her own story. This is a subtle but satisfying switch and increases narrative drive as readers head for the climax.

WEAKNESS/NEED

Miranda is the Every Child so her weakness is that she has limited freedoms. These kids have quite a lot of freedom, to my mind, being New York City kids and living in a socially connected neighbourhood.

She’s a mimetic hero — not especially good at many things. She’s no good at cutting sandwiches, no matter how many times she does it. But she’s surprisingly good at making origami frogs. Like regular kids, she is still working out her strengths.

Because Miranda is narrating her own story from the near future, she has a little bit more emotional maturity than she had before, but not much. She is a typical twelve-year-old in all respects.

Miranda has her own minor moral weaknesses.

[Rebecca Stead] tied in parts of her childhood into the novel. Besides the laughing man, she included her primary school, her apartment and a sandwich store where she used to work. Stead also added memories of herself acting mean without reason.

Wikipedia

DESIRE

Mystery desireline: Miranda wants to know who is sending her the postcards.

Romantic subplot: She wants to remain best friends with Sal, the boy in a neighbouring apartment. Unfortunately, he doesn’t feel the same way. This is therefore a story about learning to let go of your crushes.

OPPONENT

Rebecca Stead wastes no time in setting up the mystery, which functions, structurally, identically to an opponent. (The unseen opponent is the person sending the postcards.)

The mystery element of this story has a strong visual motif — that of the knot. Richard likes to untangle knots when he’s working on a difficult lawyer problem. Miranda learns this trick from him. Knots as motif endure throughout the story, alongside keys. Miranda’s mother refuses to give Richard a key to their apartment. In the end she does — two keys — tied together with a knot. In a parallel plot thread, Miranda has solved ‘the key’ to the mystery of the Laughing Man, and the symbolism is (literally) tied up.

A bully hierarchy is set up by the author but eventually subverted.

Miranda is often at low key odds with her mother, who is still quite childlike. Richard, on the other hand, is her emotionally mature ally.

Jimmy is an opponent as well as an ally — he provides a safe space for the kids to hang out and work though there is the subplot of him thinking they stole his two dollar bills.

PLAN

Here’s the thing about mimetic, childlike heroes. Paul Jennings does this too. Kids aren’t great at planning unless they have excellent executive functioning. Kids like Miranda don’t so much go about formulating a plan to solve a mystery. They tend to function as reactionaries. Others have the plans — they react. They are good observers, though, which makes them good storytellers.

So, Miranda gets a postcard, reacts. Gets another postcard, reacts. The plans she does make are not in service of solving the mystery. That’ll resolve itself eventually. Contrast a kid ‘hero’ like Miranda with a single-minded cop like Sarah Linden from The Killing.

BATTLE

Rebecca Stead uses an interesting technique to dilate the pacing of the death scene. She numbers the events sequentially.

I consider the truck death scene the first part of the Battle.

SELF-REVELATION

The Self-revelation comes quite early, before the Battle sequence. Miranda has a developmental milestone by realising that she is part of something much bigger. This is achieved by use of what is called The Overview Effect:

Then I sat on the couch and closed my eyes. I pictured the world. I pictured the world millions of years ago, with crazy clouds of gas everywhere, and volcanoes, and the continents bumping into each other and then drifting apart. Okay. Now life begins. It starts in the water, with tiny things, microscopic, and then some get bigger. And one day something crawls out of the water onto land. There are animals, then humans, looking almost all alike. There are tiny differences in color, the shape of the face, the tone of the skin. But basically they are the same. They create shelters, grow food, experiment. They talk; they write things down.

Now fast-forward. The earth is still making loops around the sun. There are humans all over the place, driving in cars and flying in airplanes. And then one day one human tells another human that he doesn’t want to walk to school with her anymore.

I’m sure there’s probably a Heideggerian explanation for this particular developmental milestone, in which children realise they are a part of something bigger. I have previously looked at one of Heidegger’s more famous theories in relation to children’s stories — Being-toward-death. That’s what kids realise they are going to die someday. It’s a pretty common character arc in young adult literature. The magical age of 12 is a time for many such revelations, and Miranda is indeed 12. Now, I have a limited upper capacity for reading about Heidegger, but perhaps someone else can confirm, or write a doctoral thesis on how Rebecca Stead’s work is about children realising that they are a part of something bigger, a.k.a., Being-in-the-world. (I just Googled it. It ain’t been done.)

Back to talking about structure. After the Battle sequence in When You Reach Me we have the mystery part of the plot which comes together. We learn that The Laughing Man has been sent to save Sal from being run over by a bus.

The words ‘book bag pocket shoe’ are revealed as the places where Miranda finds the notes.

Then we learn the big reveal: Who The Laughing Man is, and you probably guessed it before it is revealed (or confirmed) and this makes us all feel very smart.

Just as well, because the time travel part of this book confuses the hell out of me.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

There’s a romantic happy ever after, though not for the main character. She gets her friendship happy ever after, plus the budding romance with Colin.

And for anyone who says you can’t get away with epilogues in middle grade novels, I present to you When You Reach Me as example.

Insults and Swearing In Children’s Literature

insults and swearing

A quandary for writers of middle grade fiction in particular: By about age 10, regular kids have heard all the insults out there. They may hear far more insulting language than adults do on a daily basis. (Did you get called a poo head at work today? I didn’t.)

Yet if you want to write for middle grade, realistic swearing will never find its way into the hands of your readers. (By upper YA, anything goes.)

Is there more swearing in children’s books today? A cursory (ha) glance suggests that’s the case:

Swearing in children’s books, and even in books for teenagers, used to be pure anathema.  SE Hinton’s 1967 young adult novel The Outsiders, for instance, an emotionally-charged account of youthful gangs clashing in Tulsa, features no language more colourful than “Glory!”, “Shoot!” or a very occasional “Hell!”

The Guardian

But define swearing. Even Beatrix Potter, famous now for writing about bunnies in coats, made reference to swearing:

But Benjamin was frightened–
“Oh; oh! they are coming back!”
“No they are not.”
“Yes they are!”
“What dreadful lbad language! I think they have falen down the stone quarry.”
— The Tale of Mr. Tod (1912)

Though we don’t see the bad language on the page, the mention of bad language prompts readers to recall what precisely that bad language might be.

By all accounts, Philip Pullman’s Le Belle Sauvage (released 2017) may be something of a watershed moment for children’s literature, as it contains a lot of swearing. Pullman advocates for more naturalistic rendering of child speech, and because he is a superstar, it was up to him to try and get away with it, paving the way for those coming later. He explains his ideology here.

Why is the video below so funny? Partly because what she says is unintelligible, until the the ice bucket gets dumped on her head. Then we know exactly what she’s saying!

Politics of swearing and childhood aside, what do most traditionally published and popular middle grade authors do when they need to depict swearing and insults without using the actual swearing and insults?

THEMATICALLY RELEVENT INSULTS

Newsprints by Ru Xu is a graphic novel in which birds feature heavily. The insults and swears are therefore often bird themed:

  • Listen here, Humpy Dumpty, you stay off the roof! (Birds… eggs… Humpty Dumpty…)
  • Good goosebumps!

For the human characters in Newsprints, the insults draw from cultural references such as nursery rhymes/classic literature and implements of the time. This is a steampunk book, where it’s assumed the children of this Victorian-esque era are reading nursery rhymes and Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland.

  • Get back here, Bugle Brat!
  • Catch me if ya can, Tweedle Dums!
  • Still think you can fly, pal? (‘Pal’ sounds like an insult in this context because it’s ironic.)

NON-ENGLISH SWEARING

  • In Pax, Sara Pennypacker includes a Haitian character whose swear word is dyableman. The child character learns it from the older mentor and starts using it himself.  I can’t speak to the power of the word in Haitian Creole, but it translates as ‘damned, deuced, devilish’ — not at all powerful in translation. I’m wary of taking actual words from other languages, especially in a climate of cultural appropriation, but mainly because unless it’s your native language you don’t know the full power of the word.
  • Fantasy authors can create entirely new languages and therefore entirely new curse words.

CASE STUDIES

YOU MAY ALREADY BE A WINNER BY ANN DEE ELLIS (USA, 2017)

The 13-year-old main character in this novel comes across much younger than she is on the page, and this is no doubt partly down to the author’s choice of language. Olivia Hales has a favourite ‘curse word’ which is ‘dumb bum’. She uses this over and over again — it’s her thing. If the 13-year-olds in your sphere are speaking like this, you’re hanging out in different circles than I am. However, stories are not the real world. We should be prepared to accept some differences. Perhaps the author/publisher decided to youngify (bowderlize?) the voice because the target reading audience is about 10-years-old. An older character uses ‘crap’, but that’s as cussy as it gets.

When Olivia gets really angry, she doesn’t swear. She indirectly threatens violence:

“Did you know a monkey can rip your face off?”

The girl’s eyes got all big and I was like, “Oh yeah. Yours too.” I said to the other secretary.

And then to the other one, “And yours for sure.”

***

Bart sees me.

I want to throw a car in his face.

It’s interesting what we think it’s okay to expose middle grade readers to. Nothing worse than dumb bum? But threats of violence as used in the real world is okay, so long as they’re hyperbolic. (No fear of someone actually throwing  a car in your face.)

At other times the swearing is humorous, in a much-younger-than-13 kind of way:

“I am so sorry my daughter called me a butthead piece of butt face.”

“You scared the earwax out of her is what you did.”

While certain stand-alone taboo curse words are out in this middle grade novel, dismissively sexist language passes the gates. For example, Olivia constantly refers to her father’s love interest as ‘the redhead’, objectifying a woman by metonymically referring to her as a body part. There is also ableist language, but only used indirectly, not by the viewpoint character with whom we are expected to empathise:

There was Carlene and Bonnie and stupid Jared who called me a retard.

I offer this as an argument against publishers and authors removing naturalistic swearing from middle grade fiction. If it’s okay to use sexist and ableist language as used in the real world, why not use stronger yet (counterintuitively) more neutral swear words?

LOVE SUGAR MAGIC BY ANNA MERIANO (2017)

Love Sugar Magic is an own voices novel partly designed to introduce non-Spanish speakers to Mexican culture. The following snippet of dialogue is worded in such a way that the reader learns the Spanish word for cockroach, and also thinks they’ve got new insider knowledge on a good insult:

“Come on cucaracha,” Marisol yelled. She called Leo “cockroach” whenever she wanted to be nasty without getting in trouble for using bad language.

WHEN I REACH YOU BY REBECCA STEAD (2009)

One way to get around swearing, which actually relies on the reader knowing the swear word in the first place:

And as Mom likes to say, that’s a whole different bucket of poop. Except she doesn’t use the word “poop”.

The effect is two-fold:

  1. The author can’t be accused of introducing readers to new language because they won’t know what the mother said unless they already know it.
  2. The young reader feels smart and mature for knowing exactly what the mother really said.

This leads me to my next point, which is why I have a liberal attitude around kids and exposure to swearing: A lot of ‘funny swears’ are very obviously based on real swears. The following chart sounds very American to me — none of these would be used in Australia unless the speaker were making a point of sounding American. A word like ‘bull snot’ is so obviously a ‘safe’ alternative to ‘bull shit’.

But then why is the bodily excretion of snot more acceptable than the bodily excretion of shit?

Tim Hawkins Handbook swears
An image shared in a social media discussion between children’s writers recently, after a writer asked (as someone often asks) for ‘safe’ swears.

When coming up with replacement swears, make sure to find the equivalent number of words. They’re basically half rhymes or like something from the clues of a cryptic crossword e.g. Monday to Friday to replace Mother Fucking (courtesy of Snakes on a Plane).

Interesting though it is, the issue of swearing in children’s literature is sans logic.

An episode of Every Little Thing podcast (F**k yeah, Can Cursing Make You Stronger?) interviews a woman whose job includes replacing profanity in Hollywood blockbusters with tame versions. Children’s writers, I’m sure, would be keen to get their hands on her handbook.

One example from the handbook: Clown flusher to replace Mother fucker, which the podcast conversationalists agree, sounds more offensive — offensive to clowns, at least. And what does flushing mean? The mind is encouraged to think about this, and it doesn’t go to great places.

The Appeal of Milly Molly Mandy

Milly Molly Mandy setting out

Milly Molly Mandy remains one of my mother’s favourite books, but even then it was old. Milly Molly Mandy is in fact the great-grandmother of today’s child readers. I’m not sure how popular these stories are among the contemporary audience, but I can say for sure, Milly Molly Mandy entertained at least two generations of children. I never got into them myself, but I did fall in love with the endpaper hand drawn map. There is something so unbearably hygge about that little village. Even now, I open a Milly Molly Mandy book and I want to go back to that village. I may have been too old by the time I encountered my mother’s book. But the impact was clear. I was ten years old and started making maps for my own made-up stories.

My mother’s version features illustrations with coloured-pencil scribbles. The black and white line drawings do look like a colouring-in book. The Milly Molly Mandy series has been reprinted in various formats and some of those are now colour illustrations — sometimes in pastels, sometimes in the limited palette of 1950s and 60s. I still prefer the black and white.

The illustrations were done by the author herself. I believe Joyce Lankester Brisley was a better draughtswoman than she was a prose stylist, but in the end, her greatest strengths were:

  1. Storytelling (in the voice of an oral narrator). Enid Blyton possessed this exact skill.
  2. Knowing how children occupy their time

Lankester Brisley either surrounded herself with children or remembered in amazing detail the experience of being a child. The children in the Milly-Molly-Mandy stories can be found engaged in tasks such as:

  • Keeping ducks company
  • Making mud by pouring water onto dirt
  • Getting wet in the rain, then flapping and quacking like ducks
  • ‘Mending’ a puddle in the road by throwing twigs into it
  • Making their own little loaves alongside the big family loaf

Milly Molly Mandy hair brushing

Likewise, Lankester Brisley understood the psychology of children:

  • Revelations such as the insight that your strict teacher at school is a normal human being and even has her own mother.
  • The desire to do something very useful, to impress the adults in your life (like making stepping stones on a rainy day, for ladies without rubber boots).

But we know virtually nothing about the author’s life. She was born in 1896 in a small seaside town at the bottom of England called Bexhill-on-Sea. Look at historic photos of Bexhill-on-Sea and apart from the fashions, it’s not so different from taking a Google Earth tour of the town on foot. It remains a town known for its historical significance.

We know that as a young woman her parents divorced, which in those days meant automatic poverty for the woman, especially when the woman is supporting three daughters. The daughters were all trained in art, and perhaps the reason their work made it out into the world is precisely because they were forced to seek out income, having lost their father’s income as a middle-class pharmacist.

Milly Molly Mandy on stage

Joyce died at the age of 82, and 2018 marks the 40th anniversary of her death. Her natal family were big into the Christian Science church. Was Joyce a Christian scientist her whole life? It seems she was, publishing Christian texts along with the more general stories such as Milly Molly Mandy. Did she marry? (Where does the Lankester come from? Her husband’s name?) Did she have children of her own?

In my imagination Joyce was close to her sisters. She died just a few months after one of the sisters, which is either coincidence or a sign of emotional closeness, or both. I imagine Joyce was active in the church and perhaps taught Sunday school, so if she didn’t have children of her own, I imagine she saw many children regardless.

NARRATIVE VOICE OF MILLY MOLLY MANDY STORIES

The stories are written in conversational, oral storyteller style with plenty of parenthetical asides, as if the storyteller has forgotten to explain one bit, but they’re shoving it in now to clarify.

However, each story absolutely includes the seven minimum steps of a complete and satisfying story. In fact, Lankester Brisley is often very clear about these steps, whether she knew them consciously or not. Modern stories for a young reader tend to be less obvious about where the steps occur. I think this is partly because contemporary books are expected to entertain adult co-readers as well as children themselves, and adults have seen far more story. (To be fair, even today’s children have been exposed to far more stories than children of the 1920s were.)

Milly Molly Mandy and little friend Susan

STORY STRUCTURE OF MILLY-MOLLY-MANDY GETS TO KNOW TEACHER

WEAKNESS/NEED

Milly Molly Mandy is scared of the new teacher because the teacher is strict.

DESIRE

It has been arranged that the new teacher stay with Milly Molly Mandy’s family for a few nights until she gets herself sorted with accommodation. Milly Molly Mandy does not want this.

This is an example of a desire not to have something. To cast it the other way around: Milly Molly Mandy wants the freedom to be her normal carefree house while in her own home. School is school; home is home.

OPPONENT

The teacher, because Milly Molly Mandy doesn’t want her in her home, but the teacher arrives regardless.

PLAN

Milly’s plan is to be on her best behaviour and to impress the teacher. Ultimately, the character of Milly Molly Mandy is a good little girl, serving well as a model for behaviour. But what makes her real, and what keeps the character away from didacticism, is her ‘imperfect’ psychology. Milly has doubts, fears and anxieties like every other child, but despite all that, she does her best.

BATTLE

There is no traditional Battle sequence in this cosy story, but we have the proxy conflict of the baking scene in which teacher is cast as the inverse of everything Milly Molly Mandy thought she was.

Ultimately, teacher is wearing Mother’s apron, which casts her firmly in the role of someone familiar and knowable. Moreover, by learning how to make turn-overs, the teacher is cast in the role of student — a complete and utter inversion for Milly. Billy Blunt says, “Fancy a teacher playing with dough!” The children now realise that teacher was once a child, too. She is all the human things at once — a complete person.

This battle takes place entirely in Milly’s head as she makes her own (failed) dough creations alongside.

SELF-REVELATION

Child characters more often have revelations about life in general than self-revelations.

The revelation is that Miss Edwards is a regular human.  Though this isn’t a self-revelation as such, the lesson teaches Milly Molly Mandy something about humankind, and by extension, this is about herself. Though this is not on the page, it’s clear that Miss Edwards is acting in a certain role while she is at school. This is the first time Milly Molly Mandy has realised that people play roles according to expectations. This links back to how Milly Molly Mandy has been on her best behaviour with a teacher in the house. She, too, has been playing a role.

Sometimes the revelation phase of the story simply means the main character has changed their mind about something. In this case, Milly is sad to see her teacher leave. The valence has flipped from negative to positive.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Milly Molly Mandy needn’t be frightened of Miss Edwards at school because she knows she’s a fully-rounded human and is playing a teacherly role.

 

Pax by Sara Pennypacker Novel Study

Pax Sara Pennypacker quote

Pax is a middle grade novel by Sara Pennypacker about a boy and a fox who embark upon a mythic journey to reunite after Pax is abandoned in the woods. Structurally, Pax is the middle grade equivalent of Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. Though this story is classic mythical structure, there are shades of the Female Mythic Form, as the main character Peter (who happens to be male), thinks and feels his way through his journey rather than engaging in battle after swashbuckling battle.

MORE ON THE STORY STRUCTURE OF PAX

Pax was only a kit when his family was killed, and “his boy” Peter rescued him from abandonment and certain death. Now the war front approaches, and when Peter’s father enlists, Peter has to move in with his grandpa. Far worse than being forced to leave home is the fact that Pax can’t go. Peter listens to his stern father—as he usually does—and throws Pax’s favorite toy soldier into the woods. When the fox runs to retrieve it, Peter and his dad get back in the car and leave him there—alone. But before Peter makes it through even one night under his grandfather’s roof, regret and duty spur him to action; he packs for a trek to get his best friend back and sneaks into the night. This is the story of Peter, Pax, and their independent struggles to return to one another against all odds. Told from the alternating viewpoints of Peter and Pax.

— publisher’s advertising copy

Continue reading “Pax by Sara Pennypacker Novel Study”

Child Moves House Trope In Middle Grade Fiction

Child moves house and starts at new school. This trope is hard to write well because it has been done so many times before.

child moves house

Some specific plot elements, or motifs, that we find in children’s novels are not as prominent in the mainstream fiction. The first is coming to a new home. Naturally, this element–connected to the basic motif of dislocation, inherent in all fiction–is present in quite a number of mainstream novels, such as Jane Eyre or Mansfield Park. However, I would state that the new home is more dominant in children’s fiction and also more significant, since the change of setting is a more dramatic event in a child’s life than in an adult’s. The character’s reaction to the change is very revealing.

The Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Fiction by Maria Nikolajeva

Maria Nikolajeva published that paragraph in 2002 and goes easy on the child moves house trope. Since then, despite every children’s author knowing full well that the child moves house trope — or motif — or whatever you’d like to call it had been done thousands of times before, we get to 2017 and Betsy Bird (librarian and reviewer for School Libarary Journal) has this to say about the state of middle grade literature:

If you read too many middle grade novels in a given year, you begin to sense patterns that no one else can see. In 2017 I’ve started down that path. I’ll give you an example of a particular pattern: The new kid in school. It’s not a new idea for a book (Joseph Campbell would probably tell you that it’s just a variation on the old “A Stranger Comes to Town” storytelling motif) but this year it’s gotten extreme. In book after book authors have hit the same notes. Kid is new. Kid is awkward in the lunchroom (seriously – if I never read another lunch room scene again it’ll be too soon). Kid makes friends with outcasts. Kid triumphs by being true to his or her own self. Simple, right? They blend together after a while, but it’s not the fault of the format. A good book, a really good book, transcends its format. Much of what I’ve read this year has already faded into a fuzzy haze in my brain.

Betsy Bird, SLJ

The contributors to TV Tropes have also noticed the moving house trope has become super popular in the last 10 years. The trope New House, New Problems refers specifically to a new family moving into a new home, whereupon strange happenings begin to reveal themselves. It’s not just a middle grade thing — it’s a horror thing.

Who knows what contributed to this trend, but I suspect big hits such as Neil Gaiman’s Coraline have something to do with it. The TV Tropes page also points out that every other Goosebumps book begins with a kid moving to a new house. In YA we have the huge successes of Twilight, 10 Things I Hate About You and Mean Girls, so audiences must love the trope. Writers love it too, because it allows a natural discovery of a new milieu, as our new student discovers how the new environment works, along with readers.

The question is, do young readers like it as much as writers do?

 

Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk Novel Study

Wolf Hollow cover with night sky and a huge yellow moon

Wolf Hollow (2016) is a middle grade novel by Lauren Wolk. This mid-20th century story is chock-full of symbolism which makes it great for a novel study. Here I focus instead on the writing techniques, for writers of middle grade.

Though moons tend to be massive in children’s books, this would have to be the most massive I’ve seen in a while!

I have previously taken a close look at a lesser-known picturebook called Wolf Comes To Town. Wolf Hollow is the literary, middle-grade version of that book in some ways.

Word count of Wolf Hollow is 60,000. Originally written as an adult book, marketed and edited as a children’s book.

STORYWORLD

West Pennsylvania, 1943, autumn. We’re told the year right away. It’s immediately clear that this is a war-aftermath story.

APPARENT UTOPIA

“Wolf Hollow” is a romantic, intriguing name reminiscent of something Anne Shirley would dream up. (Raccoon Creek and the Turtle Stone are other fetching names used in the book.) But unlike the world of (the original) Green Gables, this is no utopia. Instead, Wolf Hollow is an ‘apparent utopia’, where people grow ‘victory gardens‘ and residents are surrounded by nature. There is plenty of hygge — the peeling of apples, the large family table in their big, warm farm house.

By the time we got to the schoolhouse, it was raining in earnest. We three had worn oilcloth ponchos, hoods up, and boots, so we were plenty dry and warm, but many of the other children came in soaked and shivering.

SEASON

Like many stories with girl main characters, this story is closely connected to the seasons. Notice how the hygge is moderated by details that show this setting is not in fact utopian:

Each season meant a world refashioned inside its stalls and storerooms.

Pockets of warmth in winter, the milk cows and draft horses like furnaces, their heat banked by straw bedding and new manure.

In spring, swallows fledged from muddy nests wedged in crannies overhead, and kittens fresh and soft staggered between hooves and attacked the tails of tackle hanging from stable pegs.

Come summer, yellow jackets nested in the straw, old oats sprouted through the floorboards, Houdine hens laid eggs in odd places where they might yield chicks, and dusty sunlight striped the air like bridges to somewhere else.

TECHNOLOGY

This family has had electricity for a few years, introduced under President Roosevelt. Electricity had already become common in American homes during the 1930s but took longer to reach rural areas. This is one of the things which would’ve set a divide between ‘country kids’ and ‘city kids’ (Betty).

SCHOOL
The school house of Wolf Hollow probably looked like this
Alfred Eisenstaedt, Mining Town, Pennsylvania, April, 1943

Annabelle’s class would have looked something like as depicted above, but because of lack of resources the classroom is overcrowded, so that when everyone turns up most students have to share a seat.

Today, I would learn some arithmetic, no doubt, and a few state capitals, why we fought the wars we fought, what Anne of Green Gables would get up to next, and why I shouldn’t mix bleach with ammonia.

WAR

The futility, or the insignificance of war to these country children, is shown in the sentence above. War is listed in the same sentence as far more mundane things, including cosy fiction. The children don’t see the point of war.

FEMINISM

Annabelle realises she must do well at school. With two brothers she won’t have the opportunity to run the family farm. She has been told to study hard and get a career. Other girls of that era would have been told to marry well, but expectations were changing rapidly for women both during and after the war.

STORY STRUCTURE OF WOLF HOLLOW

WEAKNESS/NEED/PROBLEM

Annabelle is a likeable, ordinary girl. Her weakness is that so far she has lead a happy, sheltered life with no real calamity. At the magical (critical) age of 12 this is about to change.

Her happy, sheltered life exposes her weakness — she doesn’t yet know how to cope with adversity. Over the course of this story she must learn.

DESIRE

Overall, Annabelle wants to be left in peace to go to school and get a career.

In this particular story, Annabelle wants to stop Betty from bullying her and to keep her brothers safe. Later, this morphs into the intense desire for justice — to protect Toby.

OPPONENT

Betty

Betty is introduced on page 5. As newcomer, she is immediately interesting to both Annabelle and to the reader. We expect things of newcomers. She is a big, tough 14 year old girl from ‘the city’. She’ll be living with her grandparents, the Glengarrys.

Betty is a bit of a stock bully. But when she kills the bird (the inverse of Save The Cat) it becomes clear that she is more sociopathic than your typical middle grade bully. This girl has real issues. Partly to avoid problematic stereotypes, perhaps, Betty is blonde. (In the First Golden Age Of Children’s Literature you rarely met a blonde baddie.)

That said, Betty’s pretty blondness is partly what leads to her getting away with baldfaced lies. Her grandparents don’t believe she is violent and the adults don’t think to question if she really could see Toby on the hill from the belfry. The way adults discriminate based on complexion and pigmentation is brought to the fore when Annabelle asks her father who Hitler does like:

My father thought about his answer. “People with blonde hair and blue eyes,” he said.

“I would assign every lie a color: yellow when they were innocent, pale blue when they sailed over you like the sky, red because I knew they drew blood. And then there was the black lie. That’s the worst of all. A black lie was when I told you the truth. ”

Steve Martin

In this way, Betty is the local little Hitler. Like Swallows and Amazons, also set across war time, here we have a novel where the community battles fought by the children in some ways mirror what’s going on in the wider world. Similarly, Betty has targeted Annabelle because she perceives she is rich. One part of the reason for anti-semitism — irrational as it is — has historically been due to the perception that Jewish people accumulate an unfair amount of wealth owing to their sticking together and supporting each others’ businesses.

One sure sign that someone is an anti-Semite is if he agrees with the statement that “Jews have too much power in our country today.

Mark Weber

Annabelle is not Jewish, though she does have brown hair and brown eyes. (A ‘Betty and Veronica’ dichotomy.) She comes from a WASPish family.

Wolk makes clear exactly where Annabelle’s family sit in the economic hierarchy: as farmers they are neither poor nor rich, but exist outside the urban definition of ‘rich’ or ‘poor’. There is little to spare and the house is Spartan but being an old family with a large farm, they have been able to donate land for the school and church and are therefore rich by many standards.

However, the idea that you can look at someone from the outside and assume things about them is the critical idea here; Annabelle is not rich.

Andy

As Betty’s love interest, Andy is the romantic opponent. Andy, like Betty, is often compared to a dog. When he turns up late for school one rainy day he ‘tipped off his hood and shook all over like a dog as he looked around the schoolhouse.’

Aunt Lily

Annabelle’s parents are excellent parents, in danger of being Mary Sue characters, actually, so to disrupt the harmony at home we have Aunt Lily, another stock character who reminds me of two other fictional characters: Aunt Beryl from Katherine Mansfield’s most famous short stories, and from children’s literature, of Kate DiCamillo’s Eugenia from the Mercy the Pig series.

Wolf Hollow and Mercy Watson share a character trope of the skinny, elderly spinster

Aunt Lily is severe like Eugenia but also has a dreamy, romantic, thwarted-desire side to her, depicted with the small but telling detail that Aunt Lily goes to her room for Bible study, but can also be found listening to music and dancing at the end of her bed.

(Interestingly, Aunt Lily is a postmistress, which is the job L.M. Montgomery had, author of Anne of Green Gables. I wonder how closely L.M. Montgomery herself conformed to the severe postmistress trope.)

John and Sarah

Annabelle’s parents are loving and warm. Their response to the bullying situation is quite modern, in fact. An attitude fairly common in earlier eras was that children need to look after themselves, fighting back against bullies. Not so in this situation — when Annabelle tells her parents what’s been going on with Betty they tell her they’ll take care of it and that she should have told them sooner.

But the parents — owing to their goodness — are also opponents, in a way, because in any healthy parent-child relationship, the parents will never be completely on your side. Annabelle doesn’t want to worry them with her Betty issues so she hides the problems she is having. And here’s a storytelling problem — perhaps a problem for the modern child — “Why doesn’t Annabelle simply tell an adult immediately?” “Tattle-tales and ‘dirty dobbing’ weren’t part of my own school culture, but in the last 10-20 years schools have largely instituted zero tolerance for physical violence and I’m fairly confident that most children would tell an adult if they were left with a black welt. Wolk explains in several different places why Annabelle won’t tell her parents. First it’s because she’d like to deal with her own problems on her own — which is actually a rule for protagonists in children’s literature:

I wanted to see if she was a barker or a biter.

At the beginning of chapter four:

My mother gave me a funny look as I stood at the back door the next morning, readying myself, before setting off for school. When she said, “Something wrong, Annabelle?” I nearly told her about Betty. It wold have been a relief to put the whole thing in her hands.

But although there were only apples and potatoes, beets and a few winter squash left to bring in, and although she, of all women on earth, was capable and strong, I had it in mind to spare her this particular battle. I’d thought it through: If i told her, she’d have to go to her friends, the Glengarrys, and tell them that their granddaughter was a hooligan, something they surely already knew but would not want to hear from a neighbour.

And despite the fact that she’d been able to fix nearly every broken thing in our lives, my mother could not promise me that Betty would not come at me again, even angrier — or worse, go after my brothers — if I tattled on her.

I had learned what incorrigible meant. A scolding was not going to change anything, and so far Betty hadn’t done anything to deserve more.

Finally, however, Annabelle does tell her parents. This occurs after the third Betty incident, in fact, making use of the Rule of Three In Storytelling.

Toby

We are not immediately sure whether Toby has a dark side to him. He doesn’t want any food, but what does he want?

I’m reminded of the Galloway character in the Jennifer Lawrence film Serena, in which a weird dude walks around in an almost supernatural way. In the adult film the character didn’t work. Partly because of the Galloway character in my opinion, who is two-dimensional and not that interesting. He is two-dimensional precisely because we don’t know what he wants.

Wolf Hollow and Serena share the trope of the suspicious town wanderer

Lauren Wolk avoids this pitfall. Toby is introduced with a backstory in chapter three, after Annabelle’s first encounter with Betty. He soon proves his goodness to us, however, when he quietly intervenes in a bullying incident. (A true Save The Cat moment.)

PLAN

Wolk sets up a mystery. Although this is not a mystery novel per se, there are mystery detective elements as Annabelle sets about on her own fact-finding missions, determining of her own accord whether Toby could be seen from the belfry, and if Betty was even up there at the time of the rock incident.

BATTLE

The climactic incident, after the wire trap, after the lost eye, is when Betty and Toby both go missing. This happens Chapter 12, about p120 out of 290pp. A little less than halfway through.

SELF-REVELATION

Because this is a story retold by a storyteller narrator, after a distance of many years, the self-revelation is given to us at the very beginning, and even used on the yellow version of the book cover:

Wolf Hollow cover with writing
The year I turned twelve I learned how to lie. The year I turned twelve, I learned that what I said and did mattered.

(The first chapter is actually bookended by these two sentences.)

When it is clear that Aunt Lily believes Betty’s story that Toby pushed her into the hole in the ground, Annabelle realises that some people will believe anything so long as it suits their own preconceived view. She realises that there are good lies and bad lies — that the world is not black and white.

By the end of the story Aunt Lily has realised that she was quick to judge Toby. Of course, Aunt Lily’s self-revelation is a lesson to the reader not to judge hastily.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

This story has a classic fugitive arc. In children’s literature it’s often another child or an animal that the child rescues and nurtures. Courage The Cowardly Dog takes in the Hunchback of Notre Dame in The Hunchback Of Nowhere. In the case of Wolf Hollow, Annabelle is also harbouring a grown man in the hayloft. (Since this is literary and not horror comedy, the author did well not to make this sound creepy. I’m not sure it would work so well if it were set in 2017.) Haylofts are thought to be nurturing, comfortable places to sleep. At least, it’s always the case in stories.

“The loft will be fine,” he said. “It smells good up there. And I like the doves.”

I’m not sure about reality, though. I imagine it would feel scratchy and probably full of ticks. Here in Australia — snakes. However, a bed of hay is a common feature of utopian (or apparent-utopian) stories.

In the utopian world of Kiki’s Delivery Service, Kiki and Gigi sleep on a bed of hay and wake up to find they’re in someone’s breakfast.

An a fugitive arc the goodie eventually proves their goodness to the public. In this case Toby had to get into the hole and rescue the girl he supposedly harmed.

The problem with grotesques, though, is that in stories they don’t get happy endings. Experienced readers will have expected this as soon as we learned about Toby’s hand. It was inevitable from the set up that Toby would be shot.

However, it was not so inevitable that Betty died. The author avoided melodrama and achieved mimesis by having Betty die undramatically of systemic infection.

We can extrapolate that life will go on as before, but Annabelle is now an adult, or closer to it. That makes Wolf Hollow a coming-of-age story. Annabelle has been drawn into an adult world and there’s no going back. Aunt Lily may or may not be a tad kinder.

In America, lying can never be an act of caring. We find it hard to accept that lying would be protective, this is an unexamined idea. In some countries, not telling, or a certain opaqueness, is an act of respect.

Esther Perel

FURTHER CHARACTER NOTES

Ruth

Annabelle’s best friend Ruth is a dark-haired, red-lipped, pale girl with a quiet voice. We know immediately that she is not the star of the story. Such girls do not star in middle grade fiction. (They may find themselves viewpoint characters.) Instead, this girl loses an eye. I’m reminded of Mary and Laura from the Little House On The Prairie series. Laura is the spirited girl with gumption and attitude; Mary is expendable (plot wise) and sure enough, Mary too becomes blind. (The fact that Mary Ingalls became blind in real life is beside my point. It’s possible Mary’s subdued ‘personality’ was emphasised to fit how she became, by necessity, after losing her sight, and her freedom.)

Annabelle’s younger brothers, age 9 and 7, are repeatedly portrayed as existing in the world of childhood, in stark contrast to Annabelle who at age 12 is just starting to encounter adult problems such as prejudice and injustice. Henry and James run around gleefully, eat without self-consciousness and must be protected as the children they still are.

For a while, being included in these conversations had made me feel tall. Now I was ready to be eleven again and back up in bed like my brothers.

Townspeople

Other characters exist to flesh out the town and contribute to the plot — the kindly German man despised by town locals, the gossipy Annie Gribble. (Annie Gribble is somehow an onomatopoeic name. Perhaps because it contains the ‘gr’ consonant cluster, in common with ‘grumble’.)

Annie Gribble lived in a small house that we passed on our way to market. I’d only been there once, to drop off a bushel of peaches at canning time, but she’d invited us in for a glass of lemonade, my father and me, and I’d been fascinated by the switchboard that dominated her front room like a loom strung with thin black snakes.

With the snake simile in final position of that thumbnail character sketch, we are left with a very clear impression of Annie Gribble. She is not to be trusted.

The constable is a kindly fellow, big and strong, but not as good at detective work as Annabelle.

By the end of Wolf Hollow it’s clear that these minor characters were fleshed out for a reason. Annie Gribble is a very handy archetype to have in a story, for narrative purposes. As the town gossip she is an omniscient eye. In Anne of Green Gables we have Rachel Lynde who performs a similar purpose.

SYMBOL WEB

Wolves/Dogs

It is explained that Wolf Hollow no longer has wolves but used to be the place where wolves were trapped and shot. There were deep pits dug there, which the wolves would fall into. Another story with wolf in the title but not in the storyworld is “The Wamsutter Wolf” by Annie Proulx.

It is immediately clear that the character of Toby is the personification of a wolf — a wild creature roaming around suspiciously, misunderstood by humans. It is no surprise when something bad happens to him. The history of the wolves has foreshadowed the calamity which befalls the human-wolf. To be clear, there is nothing supernatural about this story. It’s not a werewolf tale. But this feels like a place of fantasy laid upon a real-world setting — the symbol web and the ‘evil’ newcomer and the poetic place names lend this feeling. Toby is compared to a farm dog numerous times throughout the story.

When Betty is found the ‘hunt’ for Toby intensifies.

Hollow

‘Hollow’ is a great word.

We might think of it romantically, as we are encouraged to do in Gilmore girls with the name ‘Stars Hollow’ — a genuine utopia, separate from the ills of the world by virtue of its being in a bit of a ‘hole’ (which has completely different connotations).

More generally, ‘hollow’ means ‘having a hole or empty space inside’. This describes the townspeople who so easily discriminate against those who are different from themselves.

It is eventually revealed that two of the three guns Toby hauls around are broken. ‘Hollow’ weapons, hollow threats — symbols of how Toby looks dangerous but actually isn’t.

Plot wise, it is significant that Betty falls into a literal hole in the ground. This is of course a form of retribution, and readers are encouraged to examine our own glee, especially when it’s revealed how close Betty came to death.

See also: Punishment in Children’s Literature.

But when Annabelle has her final idea she has it at the Turtle Stone, which is at a high point. In stories, characters have revelations in high places. Like Moses in the Bible.

See Also: The Symbolism Of Altitude

Toby’s Hand

Toby’s scarred and deformed hand is a distinguishing feature eventually used to prove his real identity. This trope is used to comic effect by Daniel Handler in A Series of Fortunate Events, with the tattoo of an eye on Count Olaf’s ankle.

It is significant that Toby’s hand is disfigured because the author is making use of the Red Right Hand trope.

Toby is a Grotesque (and grotesques often have Red Right Hands). A grotesque is ugly on the outside but good on the inside. (Or if they’re bad, it’s because they’ve been treated badly.) But because of his “Red Right Hand”, the townspeople (as well as the readers) have been trained to see Toby as evil. There are good deformities and bad deformities, and having a deformed hand is not a good one, in literature.

Though most people probably think of the Nick Cave song these days, the term originated in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Before that, there are references to red hands in the Bible. Toby is clearly a Jesus figure — ostracised by many for his difference, an aesthete, a long beard, a carpenter, intrinsically good, loves children.

In any case, the history of storytelling has taught us that characters with red hands might be supernatural and also very, very bad. So when Toby turns out to be a good guy, Lauren Wolf has subverted reader expectations, and hopefully the self-revelation for the reader is: Don’t judge people at first sight.

RELATED

Another novel, for slightly older readers perhaps, deals with questions of right and wrong, appearance vs reality. Big Mouth and Ugly Girl by Joyce Carol Oates.

 

Storytelling Tips From Kiki’s Delivery Service

Kiki’s Delivery Service is a Studio Ghibli film released in 1989. This film was always popular in Japan but — though it’s hard to remember now — Studio Ghibli films didn’t take off in the West until 1997 with the release of Princess Mononoke.

Opening scene from Kiki's Delivery Service
Children’s books often begin with a child looking out a window, about to embark upon a journey. Kiki does something similar, but she gazes up into the sky.

BASED ON A POPULAR JAPANESE CHILDREN’S BOOK

Kiki’s Delivery Service is based on a novel published in 1985 by Eiko Kadono. Kiki’s Delivery Service is Kadono’s best known work. Like L. Frank Baum, she really only had this one big hit and wrote lesser known sequels which are lesser known. (There are 6 in the series altogether.) As of 2017, Kadono is 81 years old.

Hayao Miyazaki is 76. The film therefore has the combined sensibilities of a Japanese pair of artists born around the time of the World Wars. This affects both the setting and the sentiment.

“Just follow your heart and keep smiling,” advises the mother before Kiki sets off. This feels like not only a distinctly Japanese thing to say, but also an especially feminine aspiration, though probably applied to everyone in Japan born after the war.

STORYWORLD OF KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE

photo of real landscape which inspired Kiki's Delivery Service

location of the inspiration for Kiki's Delivery Service setting
Visby is a town on the Swedish island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea. It’s known for its well-preserved town wall, a medieval fortification incorporating defensive towers. The town’s many churches include the grand, centuries-old St. Mary’s Cathedral and the medieval ruins of St. Nicolai and St. Karin. The main square, Stora Torget, has cobblestone streets lined with cafes and restaurants.

Where are these Miyazaki films set? Not in Japan but not in Europe, either. The utopian storyworld of Kiki’s Delivery Service (and several of the other Studio Ghibli films) has the trains, the hilly suburbs and the closeness of the sea but also has the cobbled streets and nooks and crannies of somewhere like Barcelona, with intratext on the signs looking a lot like English with a few flourishes reminiscent of kanji. We are to believe this is another world, a world where magic exists unobtrusively in the real world of the story.

[Studio Ghibli] shot 80 rolls of film in Stockholm and Visby, gathering location images as inspiration for the scenes in Koriko. For the most part, Koriko is composed of images of Stockholm. A side street in Stockholm’s old city, Gamla Stan, is one model. Sweden was the first foreign country Miyazaki ever visited.

Fictional Koriko is, however, much larger than Visby and features buildings and shops with the look of Stockholm.

THE TITLE

Kiki's Delivery Service Japanese Book Cover
This early cover gives quite a different feel, doesn’t it?
Kiki's Delivery Service updated Japanese book cover
The series has since been reissued. This is number six. A completely different vibe again, with Kiki now looking coquettishly at the audience in a slightly self-conscious, sexualised pose.

Continue reading “Storytelling Tips From Kiki’s Delivery Service”

Harriet The Spy

Harriet the spy cover

Kate DiCamillo has this to say about Harriet The Spy: “Not too long ago, I remembered that I read and loved Harriet the Spy [as a kid], and so I went back to it as the adult me, with some trepidation. … And it’s even better and more subversive than I remembered. It’s basically a primer on how to be a writer.”

Related Links

1. Origin Stories: Harriet the Spy from Persephone Magazine

2. Harriet The Spy Mix Tape from Flavorwire

3. 14 Ways “Harriet The Spy” Totally Messed You Up from Buzz Feed

4. Harriet the Spy: The most unlikable hero in children’s lit from Salon

5. Harriet and I from The Horn Book

If you’ve seen the modern film adaptation and not read the book, it’s easy to forget that Harriet was a very unusual character for her time. She was wearing boys’ clothing long before it was acceptable to do so. You won’t find that in other books from this era.

6. Alison Bechdel loved Harriet the Spy as a kid:

I was just fascinated by Harriet’s notebook—her impulse to write, her adventures. Literally spying on people, going up in that dumbwaiter, observing life, and then writing it down. It just seemed like the whole point of life, you know? Here was a kid who wrote about something real.

I think, as a young lesbian, I was also picking up on this heroine as a lesbian character. But, you know, she was a child—there’s no way to really say that Harriet is a lesbian. As I got older, I was curious about [the book’s author] Louise Fitzhugh, and I eventually found out that, yes, [Fitzhugh] was gay. It was something about [Harriet]…she was not interested in boys, she was not interested in dresses, she had zero interest in the things the girls in the other books I was reading were interested in. I think that’s what I was picking up on. Harriet was all about her work.

The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban

This middle grade novel features talking animals, especially mice, toys and doll’s houses. The Mouse and His Child is no Velveteen Rabbit, however.

The Mouse and His Child

As Margaret Blount says, The Mouse and His Child defies classification, and is therefore of interest to critics and children’s literature enthusiasts:

Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and His Child (1969) is such a strange, haunting and distinguished book that it is very difficult to classify. It is about toy mice, yet the clockwork father and son move through a world in which small animals act out human dramas.

— Animal Land, Margaret Blount

Continue reading “The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban”

Key Words And Phrases in Middle Grade Fiction

keywords

‘Key words’ in storytelling is a slightly wider-ranging way to describe the  motif.

Key words, phrases, taglines, and sounds [have] the potential to carry special meaning, symbolically or thematically, the way a symphony uses certain instruments, such as the triangle, here and there for emphasis. The trick to building this meaning is to have your characters say the word many more times than normal. The repetition, especially in multiple contexts, has a cumulative effect on the audience.

— John Truby, Anatomy of Story

John Truby is a screenwriting guru, so obviously his focus is on key words as the audience hears them in dialogue.

James Wood, whose speciality is adult literature, recognises the same technique on the page, and how it relates to real life:

We all know people in real life who […] use a series of jingles and tags and repetitive gestures to maintain a certain kind of performance.

— James Wood, How Fiction Works

At TV Tropes, you’ll find an entry for ‘Arc Words‘: Words or a phrase that appears throughout the story as an Arc or as a Motif.

Likewise, the arc phrase is employed by many authors of middle grade fiction.

Examples Of Key Words In Middle Grade Fiction

In Once by Morris Gleitzman the arc phrase word involves the word Once, which was introduced — most obviously — as the title.

Everybody deserves to have something good in their life. At least once.
Barney said that everybody deserves to have something good in their life at least once. I have. More than once.

Related to arc phrases are ‘catch phrases’.

The hero of Once is in a dire situation — he is a Polish kid in the Nazi era, dodging murder at every turn. It would be easy for this story to turn into a sob story, so Gleitzman has him use the phrase, “You know how…” whenever he’s telling the reader something terrible about his life. This is more of a character tic than a motif.

The first example occurs at the third sentence of the book, and these situations he describes only get more and more dire:

You know how when a nun serves you very hot soup from a big metal pot and she makes you lean in close so she doesn’t drip and the steam from the pot makes your glasses go all misty and you can’t wipe them because you’re holding your dinner bowl and the fog doesn’t clear even when you pray to God, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the Pope and Adolf Hitler?
That’s happening to me.

Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce is a middle grade novel which was written concurrently with the screenplay. My point is that the book was written by an experienced writer of screenplays. Naturally Cottrell Boyce made use of all he knew about screenplays when writing the middle grade novel.

In Millions, the first person storyteller narrator repeats the phrase, “To get X about it…

Judy Moody (series written by Megan McDonald) has a catch phrase — I don’t know if it’s a regional dialect but I’ve never heard it before: “Rare!” My seven-year-old started using this word only after reading it in Judy Moody, though she did use it in the general way rather than in the Judy Moody way, as an exclamation.

Joan Aiken’s raven, Mortimer, squawks “Nevermore!” in reference to the classic poem, which is funny because the stories are slapstick humorous whereas the poem is gothic horror. Apart from making squawk type sounds this is the only word he knows. Aiken adroitly contrives a surprising number of occasions in which he can use it.

Unintentional Pop Culture Spoofing

Chances are that looking back on your childhood experience of reading Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series, you remember ‘lashings of‘ in reference to the picnics — lashings of cream, lashings of butter, lashings of ginger beer. If you happen to re-read those books the word ‘lashings’ doesn’t actually appear all that often. But for some reason it stuck! Helped along by Comic Strip Presents… Five Go Mad In Dorset parody. ‘Lashings’ became part of pop culture mostly as a derisive comment on Blyton’s unimaginative prose, I suspect (she could pump these out one per week). I’m sure this spoof does the popularity of the series no harm.

If Enid Blyton had belonged to a critique group, or had she been more of a stylist, her (over)use of the word ‘lashings’ may have been edited out. But as Blyton’s ‘lashings’ demonstrates, even unintentional overuse of a word can become part of its enduring popularity.