Dolls serve as comfort; they also creep us out. Which is it gonna be? And how do storytellers utilise their multivalent presence in our lives?
Outside the West, dolls are sometimes a part of supernatural/religious belief. Perhaps the most memorable and oft-utilised by storytellers is the Haiitian vodou usage, which has been heavily simplified for Western audiences. Likewise, the concept of the ‘gwumu’ in Papua New Guinea is complex, and ‘doll’ is a substandard translation:
People describe gwumu as an agency hiding inside the body of another: it may be referred to as a “doll” for example, and an additional idiom I recorded referred to these familiars as “little sisters”. Though gwumu are held to be concealed in the interior of persons, they may nevertheless sometimes be seen as apparitions, especially when they have left the body of a person to hunt.
Body swap stories are as ancient as story itself. Take the British folk tale The Witch-hare of Cleveland. A local witch tells some farmers where to find a hare they can hunt, but warns them not to set a black dog on it. They set a black dog on it, of course. That’s how fairytales work. (Someone tells you not to something, you gotta do it. In fairytale language, this warning is called the ‘interdiction’.) Anyway, the farmers go to apologise and find the poor old witch writhing around with a chunk out of her leg… right where the black dog bit the hare.
Is that a body swap story, or is it a simple transmogrification story? Not clear. The story doesn’t tell us if the farmers still have themselves a juicy hare for dinner.
Whether we’re talking about body swap or transmogrification, why are these tales so popular? Body swap stories are high concept stories, and their popularity endures. Freaky Friday, for example, started in 1976. We keep seeing new versions.
The mother-daughter body swap is relatively ‘safe’ and the moral lesson is clear: When we literally put ourselves in cross-generational shoes, we understand the other’s point of view.
However, when the body swap is cross gender, pitfalls soon reveal themselves. Likewise, as I am finding out, middle grade human-to-pet body swap narratives are also likely to convey problematic gender ideologies.
FREAKY FRIDAY AND ME
When I was ten years old I was a massive writer of fan fiction, though it wasn’t called that then. I rarely finished any story but I was struck by one idea after another. The joy was in the writing, not in the finished product. Sometimes I’d simply write book blurbs with no intention of going any further. One day my teacher found me reading (which was fine — he ran the classroom according to Montessori philosophy), and picked up the little note I’d written to myself. I was using it as a bookmark. The note was mostly written to try out the new green, felt-tipped calligraphy marker I’d gotten for my birthday but I’d written something like: “Write a story about a girl who swaps bodies with her mother.”
“Hmm,” said my teacher, who had read this note despite me wanting to snatch it right back out of his hands. “Have you seen the film Freaky Friday?”
I had not. I told him I had not. This was the late 80s, a long time after the first adaptation (1976) and even longer before the next (1995, 2003). He looked at me suspiciously though, and I felt terrible, as if he had caught me plagiarising someone else’s idea. Perhaps all those times he’d praised my original writing were based on a lie, in his mind.
There’s nothing wrong with letting 10 year olds write fan fiction anyway, imo. Let 10 year olds write whatever they want, even if it’s derivative and unoriginal. The job of a 10-year-old is to revel in the joy of reading and writing.
I think of that shameful interaction each time I come across another body swap story, because they’re so common, no one can really be said to be plagiarising anyone else. The body swap story can be good for conveying all sorts of ‘walk-in-another-person’s-shoes’ didacticism in the most literal of plot lines, so no wonder.
Was Freaky Friday the first major story to do the body swap plot? No — take for example P.G. Wodehouse who wrote a book called Laughing Gas, published 1936. Characters Reggie and Joey inhale laughing gas at a dentist’s office.
Wodehouse may have been inspired by the 1928 story The Master Mind of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs featuring the plot line of brain transplants. At that point in history researchers were experimenting with organ transplantation — and had been doing so, both on animals and humans, in the 18th century. (The first successful transplants didn’t happen until the 1950s.)
Although Freaky Friday was not the first popular story to introduce this plot line but is almost certainly the best known to modern culture because of the film adaptations. The original novel was by Mary Rodgers, published 1972. Rodgers also wrote Freaky Monday and Summer Switch. Due to the success of Rodgers’ first body swap novel, at TV Tropes the body swap plot line is known as the “Freaky Friday Flip”.
A number of the hugely popular series writers for children have utilised the Freaky Friday flip at some point:
The Barking Ghost, Switched and Why I’m Afraid Of Bees by R.L. Stine
Captain Underpants and the Big, Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy Parts 1 and 2 by Dav Pilkey
Airhead by Meg Cabot, of Princess Diaries fame
Freaked Out, a Lizzie McGuire story by Alice Alfonsi
Features Of The Freaky Friday Flip
From TV Tropes:
Typically, the main character achieves a deeper appreciation for the other person’s life.
The Flip often involves characters of different ages, genders, races, or social classes.
Another variation is a protagonist and antagonist switching, which usually involves each trying to undermine the other’s organisation while simultaneously trying to switch back. (See Barking Mad, below.)
Barking Mad is a New Zealand publication by Tom Moffatt, and winner of The Tom Fitzgibbon Award. This story is a body swap story, human swapping with dog.
I never read Strasser’s book in the 1990s but a Goodreads review confirms that I’m right to expect a fraught relationship between brother and sister. I am able to extrapolate the moral lesson as well, because it’s standard in body-swap stories for our main character to ‘find someone’s strengths and use them for good’:
Everything is going well for Jake and his pen pal, until he realizes she is coming to visit. Now he must switch bodies with his big sister, Jessica, who does not like him at all, so that he can cover up a lie that he told his pen pal. Learn what the lie is, how they covered it up, and how the siblings worked together, ending with them actually getting along. This book is a great way to encourage teamwork and finding people’s strengths and using them for good.
Presumably the main character of Strasser’s story continues to do good even after being returned to his own body.
Barking Mad features a bitchy, annoying, girly-swot teenage girl whose younger brother narrates the story of their body swap from his own close third-person point of view. The book begins in a very appealing way, with ‘mad professor’ granddad gone ‘barking mad’ after inventing a body swap device and accidentally inhabiting his dog’s body. The brother and sister find the machine, accidentally swap themselves, and now we have a Gender Bender story which actually kind of replaces the animal story I thought I was buying for my dog-loving middle-grade daughter.
Come Back Gizmo by Paul Jennings (1996)
Barking Mad is basically a 2015 retelling of a hi-lo short novel by Paul Jennings, written almost 20 years earlier.
Come Back Gizmo is one long humiliation gag. And for true humiliation, a (cishet) boy needs a female romantic opponent. The (literal) girl next door is a highly unsympathetic archetype. Jennings uses this exact description in any story with a sexually attractive girl. She is always a white girl and she always looks like this:
Oh, just look at her. Golden hair. Blue eyes. White, white teeth.
Jennings describes Samantha’s cat, though he is also describing Samantha herself, because he has demonstrated in other stories that girls are in one of two categories: classy and cheap:
Samantha is carrying her cat, Doddles. It’s one of those expensive ones with green eyes. It is a classy cat. There is nothing cheap about it.
The reader is given no reason to like this girl, and we don’t know why the boy likes her either. The truth is, he doesn’t like her at all. He is annoyingly drawn towards her because… hormones. And because boys are not encouraged (in fiction as in real life) to see pretty girls as people.
The situation of a boy hopelessly attracted to a girl he wouldn’t otherwise like as a friend draws upon a universal feeling of youthful attraction… perhaps. This might explain the popularity of the trope, in which a boy keeps making a buffoon of himself, especially in front of the girl he likes. (In a warped version of gender equality, there are stories now where girls are also the buffoons in front of hot boys.)
Jimmy assumes (as a universal truth) that Samantha would be interested in him because he ‘doesn’t have a dollar to his name’. The universal truth as presented: Girls like boys who have money. Girls are gold-diggers.
Samantha forges a bargain with Jimmy in exchange for a kiss. The implies a universal ‘truth’ that girls fully understand their own sexual appeal, and will manipulate hapless boys into doing exactly what they want. A secondary universal ‘truth’ is that girls are the natural gatekeepers of sex.
Later, Samantha lies to the ‘little man’ from the SPCA when she insists she had nothing to do with locking the dog in the boot. Implied universal truth: That girls are liars. We might code this as ‘Samantha, this particular character, is a liar’, except this plot point follows on the back of Samantha as sexually manipulative, and the attributes go hand-in-hand. Also, the trope of the manipulative, self-centred, beautiful, sexually alluring and wholly unlikeable girl is a trope we see time and again throughout history.
The most disappointing aspect of Paul Jennings’ body swap dog story: It didn’t even need the romantic subplot bookending each end. The girl exists in the story purely to heighten the humiliation aspect of Jimmy running around naked, scratching fleas, cocking a leg on lampposts.
In response to this argument I’ve heard ‘both sides’ rebuttals: Sure, the girl is a manipulative liar, but the boy really is made to look stupid in this. Surely that’s not sexist now? I mean, the girl AND the boy are presented in a bad light. In fact, if anything, it’s reverse sexism!
That’s how the argument goes. But it doesn’t hold water, because
If you flipped the genders the gag in this story wouldn’t work (ie. it would just be weird and uncomfortable, seeing a girl run around naked in front of the entire neighbourhood)
For this exact reason: we objectify the bodies of girls
Therefore a girl’s naked body cannot be funny; her body is always viewed through a sexual lens. Only boys have the privilege of running around naked without being viewed via a sexual gaze.
And I suppose this is why we don’t get many body swap stories in which girls swap bodies with their dogs. Girls sometimes get werewolf stories instead, which is etymologically interesting: ‘Were’ means ‘man’. The female ‘werewolf’ is a very recent development in storytelling. The etymologically correct term for a female werewolf would be wifwolf, but that means ‘wife wolf’. It’s not exactly liberating to be described only in relation to a man, especially since the entire genre of werewolf stories are about ‘breaking free of constraints’, which explains why werewolf is now coded as a gender free term.
Quantum Leap was a 1980s American TV show. In each episode, main character Sam Beckett finds himself in someone else’s body. He is there to solve a crisis in their lives. This is a surprisingly earnest show, and oftentimes Sam dresses as a woman without playing it for laughs. Despite regular lighthearted moments, nothing about the tone of an episode suggests we should laugh at Sam when he dresses his masculine actor’s body in a woman’s one-piece bathing costume, for instance.
Despite the earnestness, Quantum Leap again exemplifies why it is nigh on impossible to write a gender-swap body swap story without relying on sexist stereotypes. In the clip below, the male chauvinist boss who comes onto his much younger secretary gets his comeuppance. On the surface, this is a send up of what we now call toxic masculinity.
But when proving to this guy that he’s ‘really’ a man, Sam ‘proves’ it by offering to demonstrate how he can throw a baseball. This doesn’t work as ‘proof’ unless the audience believes girls can’t throw baseballs.
Your Name (2016)
Your Name avoids much of the ickiness of a brother-sister body swap that we saw in Barking Mad. (Insofar as the characters know) they don’t know each other. Writers nevertheless rely on some stereotyped ideas about how boys and girls are different:
When transplanted into the girl’s body, the teenage boy develops a bit of an obsession with feeling her boobs. (Stereotype: Boys are obsessed with sex and will take any opportunity to be sexual with a girl.)
When transplanted into the boy’s body, the teenage girl is absolutely terrified at the thought of dealing with someone’s penis. (Stereotype: Girls are terrified of the penis/sex with boys. At least, sympathetic girls are. Bad girls are driven by it.)
I occasionally agree with Germaine Greer, and I agree when she writes:
The truth is … that female fearfulness [of the penis] is a cultural construct, instituted and maintained by both men and women in the interests of the dominant, male group. The myth of female victimhood is emphasized in order to keep women under control, so that they plan their activities, remain in view, tell where they are going, how they are getting there, when they will be home. The myth of female victimhood keeps women ‘off the streets’ and at home, in the place of most danger.
The atmosphere of threat that women feel surrounded by is mostly fraudulent.The sight of a man exposing his genitals causes fear; the man who exposes ‘himself’ is almost always rewarded by the sight of submissive behaviour as women passing by avert their eyes and hasten their steps. Submissive behaviour may be what such a man can exact by no other means. In the case of flashing, the proper response would seem to be hilarity and ridicule, to deny the flasher his kick. A middle-aged woman used to enjoy trotting around Cambridgeshire villages naked under an army great-coat. ‘What do you think of that then?’ she would say to surprised shoppers, as she held the coat open. ‘Very nice, dear,’ they would say. In [some] law women are deemed incapable of indecent exposure. A woman’s body signifies nothing; a man’s body, or rather the attachment to a man’s body, signifies power over life and death.
To complain to police is to reinforce the flasher’s belief in his penis’s magical power to amaze and appal. In truth the man standing with his pants down is extremely vulnerable, not least through the thin-skinned genitalia themselves.
Though they don’t know each other, Mitsuha and Taki find themselves occasionally trading bodies, a mix-up that seems to have something to do with an approaching comet, though neither can quite figure out what. So they decide to make the most of it, and in the process find they’re improving each others’ lives. Mitsuha, in Taki’s body, is bolder with Miki, even setting up a date that Taki then nervously has to make good on. Taki takes more chances as Mitsuha than Mitsuha would ever take on her own. They leave notes for each other. They develop a rapport. They begin an odd, but oddly functional, relationship in which they never meet but know each other better than anyone else. And then Mitsuha disappears.
It’s here that Your Name transforms from a sweet, sort-of romantic comedy into an X-Files-ish mystery. It’s also at this point that the film becomes a little less compelling. After spending so much time on Mitsuha and Taki’s relationship, Shinkai’s film isn’t quite as assured when they’re on their own. Still, the emotions keep it moving, to say nothing of the visuals. Shinkai lets the drama play out against sumptuous landscapes — be it the hills around Itomori or the streets of Tokyo — unforgettable places he fills with passionate, searching characters haunted by a happiness that eludes them and a loneliness they’re not sure they can ever overcome — even if they suspect they have a soulmate chosen by the stars themselves. By the time Your Name reaches its moving finale, the Next Big Thing tag doesn’t seem quite enough for Shinkai. He’s arrived already.
Personality Swap — the characters’ personalities are swapped but their minds stay where they are meant to be. It will often involve similar tropes to transformation stories (such as Gender Bender) as this is essentially two of these in one, with the addition of confusion resulting from the transformations being into other known characters.
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.)
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.
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.
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. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6yMiUq7W_xI
(I see the potential for fascinating classroom discussions. linked to the science curriculum.)
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. Both mother and daughter undergo a character arc. You see this 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 — Quacker — Quack 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.
MarcusHeilbruner 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.
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.
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.
Miranda is the Every Child so her shortcoming 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 shortcomings.
[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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Anagnorisis 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.
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.)
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:
Storytelling (in the voice of an oral narrator). Enid Blyton possessed this exact skill.
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
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.
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.)
STORY STRUCTURE OF MILLY-MOLLY-MANDY GETS TO KNOW TEACHER
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.
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.
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 big struggle takes place entirely in Milly’s head as she makes her own (failed) dough creations alongside.
Child characters more often have revelations about life in general than anagnorises.
The revelation is that Miss Edwards is a regular human. Though this isn’t a anagnorisis 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.
Readers want to know early on the age of a main character in a children’s book. In a (non-illustrated) book, we don’t have a visual before us. So character age is one of the most important things we need to know up front.
How and when to convey that bit of information?
I took a look at character age and how this boring but necessary bit of information is introduced in various children’s books I happen to be reading lately.
EXAMPLE ONE: JUST PUT IT OUT THERE, EARLY AS POSSIBLE
A great example of that is a Richard Peck novel called Unfinished Portrait of Jessica. (This isn’t one of Peck’s more enduring novels — it’s out of print, in fact.) Here’s the opening paragraph:
Not even fourteen yet. I was still days away from fourteen, and they were plodding, icebound days. A hard frost patterned every pane of the window. In the December blackness outside, ice groaned on the lake. Farther south, where Lake Shore Drive curves, Michigan Avenue had begun to glitter with the white pinpoint lights of Christmas.
Although Richard Peck puts the age information out there with no mucking around, he nevertheless has done it seamlessly. It feels seamless because we hardly even notice it. The age of the character merges into the setting — another example of information that many readers need early. By the time we’ve finished reading that paragraph we’re thinking about the beautiful description of the setting, but we’ve almost subconsciously taken in the age of the character as well. This paragraph doubles as an example of ‘hiding it’, in the same way ‘said’ is hidden as a dialogue tag. Readers don’t even notice it, but need it there for clarity.
The Littlest Bigfoot by Jennifer Weiner is a much newer children’s novel and opens like this:
On a clear and sunny morning in September, a twelve-year-old girl named Alice Mayfair stood in the sunshine on the corner of Eight-Ninth Street and Fifth Avenue in New York City and tried to disappear.
So much packed into one opening sentence:
Time of year
Age of main character
Her full name
Exact GPS location
A hint about her psychology
EXAMPLE TWO: MENTION GRADE AT SCHOOL BUT NOT EXACT AGE
If the reader knows your character’s year at school, you know their approximate age. Writers still need to mention their character’s grade level of course, so don’t exactly skirt the problem. However, grade level is slightly easier to slip in naturally.
We never learn the age of Greg Heffley, but we do know he’s in the sixth grade. Importantly, Greg is a Bart Simpson character — year after year he’s still in the sixth grade. This means Greg can never celebrate his birthday on the page, because then readers might start thinking, hey, if Greg can have birthdays, why isn’t he getting any older? For the exact same reason, Jeff Kinney skirts around Greg’s precise age. (If you’re super interested in this kind of thing, you can do some calculations and learn that Greg’s birthday is June 18th.)
I think that Greg will be an unhappy adult. Luckily, he’ll never get there, because he’s going to be stuck in middle school forever.
What’s more important than Greg’s exact age: His age in relation to other characters. That’s what we really want to know, right? Greg is older than Rowley, which is important because he’s closer to puberty, and all the attitudes that go along with. Rowley is clearly a more childlike character. It is also significant that Greg is the middle child, at a disadvantage when it comes to his bully big brother, but also lacking the ‘cute’ advantage of his baby brother.
The first book in The Ella Diaries series, Double Dare You, opens with two pages about why the main character is writing a diary. Page three tells us Ella’s age via her grade. At the same time, the author tells us what time of year this is. Interestingly, this book is not tied to the seasons. This is possibly so that it will appeal to a Northern Hemisphere market, who aren’t as used to a school year which starts at the end of January.
I’m going into Grade 5 this year (starting tomorrow) and Dad says Grade 5 was the best year of his life.
Meredith Costain, Double Dare You
EXAMPLE FIVE: LET THE PICTURES TELL YOU
Pretty much all picture books fall into this category. Picture books rarely mention details such as age because the reader can tell from the illustration. But this can also apply to illustrated MG.
EXAMPLE FOUR: HINT AT IT
Exact age is super important to the middle grade audience but less so by the time readers get to high school.
The Chocolate War opens with a description of a male character playing rugby and getting concussed, but for the first few pages it could be an older, professional player for all we know. The Goob’s youth is explained on the second page of story:
‘How tall are you, Renault?’
‘Five nine,’ he gasped, still fighting for breath.
‘One forty-five,’ he said, looking the coach straight in the eye.
‘Soaking wet, I’ll bet,’ the coach said sourly.
We now have the image of a gangly teenager. Age isn’t all that important in The Chocolate War, which is all about dominance and hierarchy. Is comes secondary to that.
EXAMPLE FIVE: SAY IT OUTRIGHT BUT SPURRED BY SOMETHING ELSE
The main character of When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead is twelve years old. We don’t learn her name until chapter three. We learn her age in the context of Miranda reading A Wrinkle In Time. Someone asks the first person narrator main character what the book is about:
I thought for a second. “It’s about a girl named Meg—her dad is missing, and she goes on this trip to another planet to save him.”
“And? Does she have a boyfriend?”
“Sort of,” I said. “But that’s not really the point.”
“How old is she?”
“Twelve.” The truth is that my book doesn’t say how old Meg is, but I am twelve, so she feels twelve to me. When I first got the book I was eleven, and she felt eleven.
The first Ice Wolves book by Amy Kaufman waits until page 18 before saying this:
Dusk was falling, and they both knew it was time to hole up for the night. It wasn’t a good idea for twelve-year-olds to be out after nightfall.
Elementals: Ice Wolves by Amy Kaufman
But we have the feeling of twelve-year-olds long before that. And we know the main characters are twins. And the age of twelve is really common in this category of children’s book, so it’s a fair bet they’re twelve anyway.
EXAMPLE SIX: KEEP IT SECRET
In a long-running series like Babymouse, the characters never age. Yet book 18 in the series is called Happy Birthday Babymouse — the perfect birthday gift for Babymouse enthusiasts and no doubt an excellent marketing decision. (This book also includes reference to their Squish series — obviously marketed at the boy audience, of which a proportion have been trained to avoid anything with pink on it. I have always suspected this, and here I have it confirmed, as the Squish character reads Babymouse’s birthday invitation and says “I wonder if I have to wear pink.” An arrow points to Squish, coloured pink to fit in with the Babymouse graphic design and the arrow label says ‘It’s much greener than Babymouse!’)
I imagine Jennifer and Matthew Holm were faced with a minor storytelling problem: How to write a birthday book in which we never know the main character’s age? Age is important to kids.
They scoot round this problem with a page that breaks the fourth wall:
Narrator: Next day. […] I’ve always wondered about something, Babymouse. Babymouse: What? Narrator: How old are you? Babymouse: Huh? Narrator: You never say in the books. Babymouse: Books? What books? Narrator: Maintaining the mystery, I see.
I Kill Giants is an American comic book written by Joe Kelly, illustrated byJ. M. Ken Niimura. The comic series is now ten years old. This post is about the 2017 film adaptation, directed by Anders Walter. The guy who wrote the comic also wrote the screenplay. I watched it on Netflix last night with my ten-year-old daughter and trust me when I say, this is a film for the tween-adolescent crowd — a reality which is always reflected in IMDb scores (which are not graded by ten year olds, and certainly not by ten-year-old girls). That’s why it gets a paltry 6.2.
I’m interested in this film regardless, because last week I happened to be reading Disturbing The Universe by Roberta Seelinger Trites, who takes the philosophy of Heidegger — particularly his concept of ‘Being-toward-death’ — and points out that this view of life/death is perfect to describe pretty much every young adult novel. (Or film, I’ll add.) I updated my Death In Children’s Literature post last week to reflect that lightbulb moment (thanks to Trites) and it just so happens I’ve spent the following Saturday evening watching the perfect example of a Heidegger YA movie. It’s like Joe Kelly read Heidegger (or Trites) before sitting down to compose I Kill Giants.
FTR, I don’t honestly believe that’s how creativity happens — these things are ‘in the air’. Storytellers absorb the ideas, reshuffle, re-vision, and (re-)produce old ideas using original character webs and new settings. I’ve done it myself. I can apply Heidegger’s philosophy to stuff I wrote before I’d even heard of the guy, let alone the concept. We’re all products of some big ur-Culture.
I’m especially interested by these concepts which are ‘in the air’, unnamed until someone names them — a philosopher, a literature professor, a writer in interview. It’s only then that patterns start to reveal themselves. Covert ideologies come to the fore — some of them hugely problematic. I have no major political beef with I Kill Giants; I’m interested in this children’s story because I am a reformed Goth it makes for an excellent primer in Heidegger and death. Buckle in.
What is Being-toward-death?
No point me re-inventing the wheel. This idea is as old as humanity itself — we can go back at least as far as Confucius. Hard to know what that guy actually said but apparently he once said, “We all have two lives, the second one starts when you realise you only have one.” This is another way of expression the developmental stage in which we realise, at a gut level, that we too are going to die.
Heidegger came later.
The Guardian Australia published a series on death back in 2009 (death hasn’t changed much since then — it’s still perfectly relevant). In Part 6, Simon Crichley wrote about Heidegger’s concept of death.
I would recommend that article before delving into the Wikipedia explanation of Heideggerian terminology. (You know it’s gotten serious when the name of the philosopher has been turned into an adjective.) There’s always the source material itself, of course, which I don’t plan to read.
If you prefer to listen, Episode 100 of the Philsophize This podcast is about Heidegger. (They transcribe their podcasts.) The next two are about Heidegger as well — the first one is about how he fits into the wider study of philosophy. His teacher was a pretty influential guy in his own right — a mathematician who turned into a philosopher. The teacher was all about certainty and truth, and how do you know what’s certain? He was right into cognitive biases, which we’re hearing a lot more of today in books such as Mistakes Were Made, But Not By Me. Heidegger took issue with a lot of what his teacher said. Basically, Heidegger wanted to dig down further and define some very basic concepts which had been glossed over. In order to do this, he had to invent his own words — not because he was being a poser, but because of genuine linguistic holes.
Here’s my own work-in-progress bullet-point summary of Being-toward-death:
German philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote a book which in English translates to Being and Time.
Heidegger contributed a number of different/related ideas to philosophy: Dasein (being), attitudes towards technology (‘Ready-to-hand’), a definition of the concept of ‘World’, and so on.
The one I’m interested in here is the concept of ‘Being-toward-death’. German loves capitalisation, so you can capitalise the ‘B’ in ‘Being-toward-death’ if you want. Or not, because it’s English too, now. (Minor grammatical point.) The German is Sein zum Tode.
In a nutshell: Being = time and time is finite. The reason Heidegger’s words are hyphenated is because you can’t have one without the other. There’s no ‘being’ without then dying and vice versa. (This applies to all of Heidegger’s terms which end up hyphenated in English.)
Until we understand that we’re all going to die, we are unable to appreciate the time we do have.
(Can you think of a subculture of people who think a lot about that? I can. Goths. The Goth is the ultimate Being-toward-death philosopher.)
In order to really understand the finitude of life (ie. death) Heidegger broke it down into four different little epiphanies:
Death is non-relational. When standing before death you cut off all relations to others. You can’t really understand death by seeing others die — you have to understand that you, yourself — yes, you — are also going to die. This has since been contested, notably by Edith Stein and Emmanuel Levinas. The fear of losing someone can be worse than the fear of dying yourself — because then you’re the one who has to deal with the grief and the mourning.
Death is certain. There’s no getting out of it. No matter how good you are, no matter how many brassicas you eat.
Death is indefinite. So, you’re definitely going to die, but you don’t know how long you’ve got left. We could die this afternoon, overnight in our sleep. It can happen ANY TIME.
Death is not to be ‘outstripped’. (That’s probably a bad translation.) What the hell does that mean? Death is important. It overshadows everything else. This is what Heidegger meant when he famously came out with this first-glance bullshite: death is the “possibility of impossibility”.
Once you get all that about death, then you are in a state of Being-toward-death. You are free to live authentically.
Being-toward-death in I Kill Giants
At first I Kill Giants reminded me of Donnie Darko for a slightly younger audience — an adolescent loner, who lives in a community, is battling something supernatural and ‘crazy’, which no one else can see — the giants who circle the island. She is completely preoccupied with this mission. The task of killing giants causes great anxiety but also gives Barbara a superiority complex. In a story of this variety, about the possible delusions of the ‘village crazy’, we can expect a big reveal. This kind of reveal is binary in essence for we learn one of the following:
Either the hero is proven right. This is what happens in Donnie Darko. Donnie was correct about the weird thing happening in his town. Everyone else is ignorant.
Or the hero is revealed to be legit crazy. This is what happens in I Kill Giants. I should be careful about use of the word ‘crazy’, except that’s the accusation levelled against Barbara within the setting, and the word contains all the baggage it’s meant to.
The audience and Barbara receive this revelation at the same time (unless you predicated it somehow — I suspected but couldn’t be sure). The guidance counsellor tells Barbara, “Your mother needs to see you.” Then we learn there’s a woman-in-the-attic plot mildly reminiscent of Jane Eyre — Barbara’s mother has been upstairs in bed (probably cancer) and Barbara has simply refused to see her. Instead, her giant killing activities are an unhealthy displacement activity — unhealthy because this activity is a genuine delusion which is affecting her life.
The giant is about as metaphorical as metaphors get: Even my ten-year-old got it, though didn’t know the word ‘metaphor’; the giant stands in for ‘fear of death’, and/or mental illness in all its different forms — perhaps depression, perhaps anxiety. Bad feelings, in any case. Anticipation of grief. Dread, in other words.
Barbara has not been dressed up as a Goth (the movement has kind of moved on), but she is the modern equivalent. Barb is a bit of a scene kid, has her own style designed to stand out, but at the same time hopes to be invisible. The rabbit ears, as she explains to the new girl, represent her spirit animal. She has no respect for authority — only ‘respect’ in the sense that teachers work hard. She doesn’t respect someone just because of their position. She treats her school psychologist badly. (This is her moral shortcoming.) But first, the setting.
Setting and Being-toward-death
To hammer home the metaphors for its adolescent audience, this story is set on an island. Islands can mean various things in story but the most obvious one is ‘isolation’. Even when surrounded by love ones, we all go into that dark night alone. Death is a supremely lonely experience. The specific island chosen in this story happens to be Long Island.
When Barbara is taken home to Sophia’s house and find herself upstairs, she becomes upset. Obviously, there’s all this symbolism to do with houses — I wrote a post on that too — and Barbara is not only forced to remember her mother sick in bed at her own home, but ‘upstairs’ is itself closer in altitude to our notion of Heaven.
What era is this set? Technology usually gives us a clue. Until the older sister’s smartphone rings, this story could happily exist in the Stranger Things universe, back in 1980. It helps that those big frame glasses have come back into fashion — our young protagonist wears 1980s frames which are actually very modern. But apart from that mobile phone, this story could actually be set in 1980. The story opens with a joke between squabbling brothers — one criticises the other’s hair. They both have the exact same hair — an out-dated — or perhaps timeless — cut similar to Moss’ in The I.T. Crowd. Barbara is into Dungeons and Dragons, which kicked off in the 1970s, and plays a starring role in Freaks and Geeks — this is the game that eventually unites the main Freak with the Geeks. Freaks and Geeks is set in 1980.
Because I Kill Giants feels like a 1980, 2017 combo, this makes it ‘vaguely contemporary’. But add in the folklore of the giants, and Barbara’s explanations of the giant ur-story, and now the storytellers have achieved ‘timeless’. What does Heidegger say about time? That’s pretty interesting. In order to understand the finality of death, we do need to understand the concept of eternity. In our modern culture (not all cultures are like this, by the way), we think of time in terms of present-past-future but Heidegger considered this a mistake. In order to understand the meaning of your own life (and death) you need to understand your place within eternity — how are you different from others of your generation? From someone living 10,000 years ago? In a story which deals with the concept of death, the storytellers will very often aim for that feeling of timelessness in the setting. I Kill Giants is an excellent example of that.
Then there’s the weather, which relates to season. The majority of the story takes place in a kind of in-between season — autumn? I’d have to watch it again to be sure it’s not set in spring. Autumn would be more in line with popular symbolism — ‘autumn years’ and all that, but it happens to be tornado season. The incoming tornado is a classic example of pathetic fallacy, and not more more can be said that Seelinger Trites hasn’t said already:
3 recurring patterns in YA literature
DEATH OCCURS ONSTAGE — Whereas in MG novels death tends to happen off stage, reported back by characters, YA novels make the death far more immediate. We’re often right there for the death.
DEATH IS UNTIMELY, VIOLENT AND UNNECESSARY — Whereas MG novels tend to kill off the elderly and parental figures, YA novels kill the young.
TRAGIC LOSS OF INNOCENCE — When the YA character first understands the finality of death, at first it seems really tragic. But before they came to their acceptance of death they were ready for a fall. They overcome tragic vulnerability, avert catastrophe and transform the tragedy of their own mortality into some level of triumph. In this way, the YA novel isn’t so different from The Little Match girl, who came to terms with death (okay, died) but everything was okay actually.
Character and Being-toward-death
Goth characters make good main characters in stories which explore the concept of Being-toward-death.
Barbara is a loner bordering on misanthropist. This is her presented as her main psychological shortcoming, as well as her moral shortcoming, because she’s not very nice to the new girl. She needs to learn to connect with people. This hooks into this idea that death is a lonely experience, or to use Heidegger’s terminology: non-relational. “When standing before death you cut off all relations to others.” Heidegger also wrote about how everyone is connected, in a Buddhist kind of way which he didn’t call Buddhist.
Addendum to that point: Barbara’s fear of death is fear of her mother’s death. In this respect, the philosophy of the storytellers is more in line with more modern critics who argue death of another can be as scary as death of yourself.
The anthropomorphised character of Grief (the giant) is massive because “Death is not to be outstripped.” Barbara does understand the enormity of Death at the beginning of the story — but the understanding is limited to her delusional self. She has yet to snap back into reality. This story wouldn’t have worked so well if she’d turned Death into, say, a fairy or a goblin. Giants are huge just as Death overshadows everything.
There are a number of separate Battle scenes in the big struggle sequence of I Kill Giants — as is pretty usual in storytelling. We have a big struggle between non-family peers (the bullies are basically the giant, too — Barbara has drawn inspo from the bully scenes*). There’s the conflict within the family, in which the older sister is trying to hold things together. The sister also provides a reflection character in which she shows her difficult emotion to others, but unlike Barbara the sister’s dealing with the real emotion, not with a fantasy. There’s the conflict with the kind and well-meaning adult who is an opponent simply because her goal is different (the school psychologist — who has a surprising amount of time to spare for Barbara, but hey, this is a fantasy school). Then there’s the Big Battle scene with the Big, Bad Baddie — the fantasy of the fight with the giant, who isn’t real, but for story purposes he is. All of these big struggle scenes are of course proxy for the main big struggle — the entirely internal, non-big struggle — Barbara’s refusal to see her mother… and to confront death.
There are several key scenes in which we see Barbara coming to terms with death: In one of the first she meets her psychologist’s baby and says, “He’s going to die. We’re all going to die!” Then she runs off like the little Goth that she is. That’s pretty much Heidegger, word-for-word. “Death is certain.” Barbara has at some point had that part of the Self-Revelation regarding death. Hey, it was a rough day.
Then there’s the part where the giant tells Barbara, “I haven’t come for your mother. I’ve come for you.” This is a major, on-the-page anagnorisis — an absolutely typical anagnorisis, content-wise, in an adolescent story about death: Your mother is going to die soonish, but you’re going to die, too. You won’t know when. I’ll be lurking here, waiting. The giant tells her that every living thing must die. This is a concept you won’t find in stories aimed at adults. As Roberta Seelinger Trites has pointed out, this is specific to the developmental stage of being adolescent.
Continuing down that line, for the typical adult viewer, I’d say the New Situation phase of this movie is a little — well, a lot — too hokey. For the bulk of the film Barbara is confronting all four stages of Heidegger’s Being-toward-death — literally a minute later, after a cut to a new school year, new, summery-lighting, we’re watching a completely different character in the same body, standing confidently in class telling everyone about her summer and how everything was great. A subsequent scene shows Barbara telling her psychologist that death is not to be feared. Perhaps this is true — it’s a very common ideology in story — but it’s okay for death to still be sad, right? We see melancholy in the final scene as Barbara sleeps in her mother’s now-empty bed, but the emotional flip after the anagnorisis phase is too heavily juxtaposed. Do characters need to change in a story? Yes, in a dramatic arc they do. The question is how much. Barbara has gone from fearing death to the point where she couldn’t live an authentic life (symbolised by residing in a fantasy world) to an almost mystical acceptance of death as a Good Thing. I’m not quite on board with that scope of change. I don’t buy it for one thing; the bigger problem is, I don’t even want that as an aspiration in a sympathetic character. Instead, Barbara has veered from one brand of crazy to another, and I don’t believe that was the intention.
*By the way, the bully scenes don’t strike me as especially realistic — these girls are too old to be engaging in slamming-against-locker, grab-around-the-throat, surround-on-the-beach type stuff. That’s not to say it never happens like that — this kind of bullying looks like something to an outsider, which is why it’s so appealing on screen, even when bullying has typically become far more covert and insidious by the developmental stage otherwise depicted.
Takeaway Points for Children’s Writers
My ten-year-old enjoyed I Kill Giants because despite the heavy subject matter — the grief around a dying mother — this story conforms more to middle grade fiction than to contemporary YA:
Death happens off the page. In YA it often happens right there in front of us.
Death happens to an older generation — the mother. In YA, death tends to happen to same-age peers; in MG, it’ll be a parent, grandparent or something the same age.
Before telling stories about death, what are our own feelings about it? What’s the end-game, emotionally? For our characters, for our young audience, for us? Helen Garner is an Australian author who writes for adults, but I like what she has to say about her novel The Spare Room: There are many ways of dealing with death. You’ll see every scenario play out in real life, and complete denial is one way of dealing with death. People do it every single day, folks. There are people who will die this afternoon, who should probably know they’re going to die, but they continue to deny it. And then they die. And that was okay, too. Where do you stand on that? Would that be an acceptable ideology in a children’s book? (If your answer is yes, you’d be breaking a long, established pattern!)
The invention of cameras was a boon for storytellers. Writers and film directors have this new narrative tool — in the shape of a camera — which allows them to play around with perspective, to use as a metaphor and as a way to explore death. (No kidding. Read on!)
THE CAMERA FIEND TROPE
Some characters use a camera. These characters love their camera. They’ll have the device with them everywhere they go and they’ll use it well, usually sticking it in the most unwelcome of places – they’ll take the most inane pictures they can, record everything they see or all of the above (maybe even at the risk of life or limb). Something embarrassing happens? They’ll snap a shot. Important plot event? They caught it on tape. You can always expect this character to wear their camera on their sleeve for any important or non-important moment that may arise, probably becoming uncomfortable without the object at near. It’s possible that they derive some kind of strange pleasure from watching people, though its best not to get into that.
Why have photography hobbyists become such a popular trope, especially in young adult novels?
Photography affords YA novelists an opportunity to explore the relationship between agency, death and discourse. […] Novels that employ photography create many opportunities for characters to explore metaphorically the relationship between subject and object, betwween acting and being acted upon.
Seelinger Trites works with the theory that death and narrative structure are linked.
[Many YA] novels employ photographing protagonists as metaphors for the relationship between power and agency. The metaphor of the camera bestowing upon the photographer a sense of empowerment based on the communicative abilities of photographs occurs often in literature.
Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe
As examples, Seelinger Trites analyses the following:
A Summer to Die by Lois Lowry (1977)
Witch Baby by Francesca Lia Block (1991)
Spite Fences by Trudy Krisher (1994)
Now that cameras are ubiquitous, it’s no surprise photography has become increasingly common in stories for YA. More modern examples (created after Seelinger Trites wrote Disturbing The Universe):
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl — the viewpoint character makes experimental short movies — Lowry’s A Summer To Die sounds like it might have been the mother of Jesse Andrews’ novel. Both are about teenagers standing nearby as another teenager dies.
The Secret History Of Us by Jess Kirby — the viewpoint character has lost her memory in an accident. Photographic evidence helps her to work out the mystery of what happened to her and provokes the return of certain memories.
The Girl With Glass Feet by Ali Shaw — a love story about a shy photographer and a girl who is slowly turning into glass.
Hold Still by Nina LaCour — photography is a means of expression for Caitlin, functioning kind of like a diary
Flash Burnout by L.K. Madigan — When Blake snaps a picture of a street person for his photography homework, he never dreamed that the woman in the photo was his friend Marissa’s long-lost meth addicted mom. The flash is especially metaphorical: “You got too close to the subject. So the flash overexposed her.”
Seelinger Trites explains that photography has a specific function in YA, and the pattern is repeated. The camera is a ‘metaphorical representation for achieving agency’. When you’re on the snapping side of the camera you are no longer the object. You’re in control. You’re the one doing the observing, the judging. In a photography narrative, the main character becomes more and more aware of their own agency. That’s the character change.
Pictures are important not so much in and of themselves but for what they teach the adolescent, especially as they become repeated artifacts that allow the character to witness the same scene during several different points in her or his development.
Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe
[The] need to recognize one’s own agency is a central pattern of adoleescent literature; we achieve adulthood more comfortably if we recognize that we have some control over the various subject positions we occupy than if we feel entirely like objects, pawns, in other people’s movements. But conversely, maturity also depends on our ability to maintain, when necessary, an object position, for we are all objects of the cultural forces that constantly shape us. Again, the relationship between subjecta nd object is a fluid one, but gaining an increased understanding of one’s power as an acting subject is inevitable during maturation.
Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe
SUSAN SONTAG ON CAMERAS
In 1977, Susan Sontag produced a collection of essays On Photography. It’s pretty famous. Points especially relevant to YA:
In their ubiquity and passivity, photographs can become a source of aggression.
Cameras can create a sense of vicariousness that may also sanction the photographer’s nonintervention in painful issues.
For characters who take pictures instead of becoming involved, photography can become a source of complicity, a way to approve tacitly that which they may not otherwise be able to change.
Cameras serve to both empower and disempower adolescents’ agency.
CAMERAS IN MIDDLE GRADE FICTION
Until recently, regular kids didn’t have access to cameras. Now every adult carries a camera in their pocket and we give our older models to our kids. Kids take photos now. Perhaps this is part of the reason photography as a metaphor has come down into MG.
Though this novel wasn’t originally written for children, the camera plays a starring role in Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk, in which the town vagabond is entrusted with a camera which has been won — along with a lifetime’s supply of film — by the main character’s family. When I read this story I assumed the camera had been included for the sake of the plot, even though the setting is based on the author’s own grandparents’ farm, but as it turns out they really did win a lifetime’s supply of photos after the war, when film and development was very expensive. In Wolf Hollow Toby is a what TV Tropes refers to as a ‘camera fiend’.
The reason I assumed the camera was a plot device is because it’s a very good one. When a story is written using anything other than an omniscient viewpoint, a camera can offer insights and evidence concerning happenings outside the realm of the characters’ knowledge. In this MG novel, the camera isn’t really used as part of the main character’s change to someone with agency, but as part of the mystery plot. Mystery writers must come up with various ways their young characters can solve mysteries — talking to adults, keeping watch from the shadows and finding evidence such photos are common tricks.
CAMERA AS TRUTH-TELLER
It is generally assumed in story that the camera does not lie. While this has been true until recently, that’s changing. We’re yet to see many stories come through — at least for younger children — which make use of the fact that photos can be easily doctored by anyone with appropriate software. I predict ‘fake news’ as a huge theme in YA fiction in the coming years.
CAMERA AS SOURCE OF AGGRESSION
There are definitely camera as gun elements to Wolk’s Wolf Hollow, in which Toby is hunted as wolf while he in turn is only as dangerous as a camera, shooting nothing more than photos.
In Surfacing, Margaret Atwood also uses the camera as a stand-in for a gun. It’s handy that in English the word ‘shoot’ is used for both taking a photo and using a gun. Cameras are a recurring motif throughout Atwood’s work.
Note that when we say ‘camera as gun’ we are talking about the invasive nature of cameras. When you have a camera pushed into your face without your consent, and when the photos of you are seen by others without your consent, this is invasive.
It is a superstition of many Real Life religions and cultures that cameras and photography are harmful, with many believing that being photographed may steal their soul and taking great pains to avoid it (This is ostensibly the Soul Jar variant of the Phantom Zone Picture).
Absent from classic fairy tales: Cameras. Tales as collected by Grimm are not about self-reflection. Characters don’t grow. They exist as archetypes. Fairy tales are told by an unseen omniscient narrator, avoiding the more modern narrative tricks.
But there is a fairytale camera equivalent, I believe, and that is the mirror. When Snow White’s mother asks the mirror to educate her on the fairest in the land, she knows and we know that it is telling her the truth. (Mirrors aren’t known for their diplomacy, and nor are cameras.)
In Northern Lights (The Golden Compass), Philip Pullman creates a fantasy world with a palimpsest of our real world — Oxford, Whitehall, Lapland, Berlin. Accordingly, he includes fantasy elements which are connected to real world technologies. Early in the story we see the Scholars — with Lyra hidden in the wardrobe — showing what Pullman calls ‘photograms‘ from an expedition to the North. These photograms are in black and white, in keeping with the olde worlde feel of Oxford and the patriarchal set up depicted. Some of the photos from the expedition have been developed using the normal emulsion, but some of them have been developed using ‘special emulsion’. This reveals a different landscape altogether — the Scholars and Lyra can now see a hidden city, existing in a world separate but connected from our own.
A photogram is not something entirely made up by Pullman. It is a picture produced with photographic materials, such as light-sensitive paper, but without a camera. How do you take a photo without a camera, you might ask? By placing objects directly onto the surface of a light-sensitive material such as photographic paper and then exposing it to light.
Later the word ‘photogram’ was used to refer to the earliest photographs. The word has now fallen out of use.
In fantasy, a variety of tools can be used for the purpose of seeing into a parallel, magical world. In The Spiderwick Chronicles, Holly Webb invents a ‘seeing stone’ which allows the main characters to see hobgoblins in the garden.
CAMERAS IN THE HORROR GENRE
The trope in which cameras reveal what the eye cannot see is used heavily in the horror genre. The camera which can see paranormal activity is a type of magical camera, reminiscent of the fairy tale magic mirror.
For instance, in the film Insidious, a medium and her crew come to a haunted house, and by putting different ‘magical’ filters on the camera they are able to see scary, ghostly creatures hovering behind the boy, getting closer and closer until finally they are right inside him, inhabiting his body.
In one shot we see a picture of the sympathetic father but through the lens of the camera we learn he has been possessed by this hideous creature:
Insidious is not a particularly original horror film but it does what it does very well, making an excellent job of evoking a nightmare. Once the father is in the other world — the world we’ve been shown glimpses of via the camera in the familiar world — there is no longer any need for the camera as such, but that doesn’t mean cameras are not of influence. As he wanders around the scary mansion he finds gothic and grotesque creatures who stand (almost perfectly) still, as if their photograph has been taken and now that’s all that’s left of them.
Here he examines a woman who stands completely still in the middle of ironing in a 1950s version of his living room, except when she blinks and scares the living daylights of both him and the audience.
CAMERA AS BOOKEND NARRATIVE
Though The Blair Witch Project is also a horror, it uses the camera differently. This film tells the story of characters who have been killed. We know at the beginning of the story that they are dead, which adds suspense and intrigue from the start. This lets us sit through the slightly unpleasant and somewhat boring experience of watching unedited footage as three film students pack for a hike in the woods, asking each other about film and equipment etc. The ‘unfound (and unedited) footage’ story provides the narrative reason why anyone knows what happened.
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 favourite 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
From the advertising copy we see there are orphan and part-orphan child(like) characters: Pax has no parents and Peter has no mother.The father is soon dispatched with, too.As it happens, Peter has no grandmother, either. Women have been removed from this story altogether, possibly because a feminine presence adds tenderness and care, whereas these characters are extremely vulnerable and must find their own family. However, Peter eventually meets a mother replacement, and Pax eventually meets the fox equivalent of a girlfriend. These female characters add to the character growth of the male characters, and a little vice versa as well.
A mean grandfather is left as Peter’s caretaker, leaving plenty of room for Peter to go off on his own adventure.
The toy soldier is symbolic, and features front and centre in chapter one. Toy soldiers juxtapose the innocence of childhood with the awful destruction of war. At the end of the story Peter literally throws the toy away. That’s what he thinks about war.
The basic setting: pre-war — the author aims for universality and doesn’t name a war, though I default to WW2.
We also learn from the advertising copy that this story is a classic example of mythic structure, about a boy going on a journey with a goal in mind, returning home (or to a new home) a changed person. (Or animal.) He will encounter a series of trials and opponents along his way, finding himself in greater and greater danger until he reaches his ultimate big struggle. Then he will have an anagnorisis.
Advertising copy stops before the middle of the book, not giving too much away. More of the structure is revealed as we read:
In the hero’s journey, at about the midpoint the main character really doubles down on their mission (plan + desire). So when Peter overextends himself with exercises at Vola’s, this is that. “It takes a healthy adult four weeks to do what you’re trying to do in one,” Vola tells him. This is evidence of Peter’s extreme determination, almost superhuman.
The big struggle scene features ‘mythical’ creatures, coyotes, who are not anthropomorphised at all.
Peter’s anagnorisis is that he is actually separate from his pet fox, but because of the bond they shared in the past, they will always be together. The problems with the ending are discussed below.
My description of this story structure sounds a little dismissive, but The Hero’s Journey is a structure that has worked for 3000 years, and continues to be popular in contemporary stories for adults and children alike.
SETTING OF PAX
Peter comes from a town called Hampton.
The grandfather’s village is a fairytale village north of Hampton, but a highway snaking around a long range of foothills. It is surrounded by woods. All fairytale settings need woods (or forest) on the edges of civilisation. There’s also a road, and Peter will be guided by a map. Pax has been abandoned 300 miles away beside the ruins of an old rope mill, which I guess is a factory which makes ropes. An olde worlde type establishment. 300 miles is a decent distance to put between the boy and his dog — an adult reader (at least) knows from the outset that 30 miles per day is an impossible undertaking. Peter’s going to have to be resourceful and hitchhike or something, otherwise he’ll never make it.
When Is This Story Set?
Peter has access to items of the early 20th century era: He carries a jack knife, not just uses but is reliant upon maps, and food is kept in tins rather than plastic containers. He has no access to technology that might help a modern child out. Though this is about no war in particular, it should put us in mind of the Great Wars of the 20th century. The technology lines up (mostly) with this era.
Before I realised this was set in no year in particular, I tried to do a few sums: Perhaps this is a WW2 story, and the old fox was around for the first world war. No, that’s not possible. Grey foxes live longer than red foxes, but WW1 ended 1918 and WW2 started 1939. Grey foxes live a maximum of 8 years.
It becomes clearer as the story progresses that Sara Pennypacker wants to set this this story in a ‘universal’ time and place. Though to me, a non American, it feels very American, it may not feel that way to an American audience. The baseball, the (Californian) talk therapy, the American vernacular, which I occasionally even looked up. If an American audience doesn’t see how American this is, expecting it to sound universal to everyone, that would be troubling. An interview with School Library Journal shows that Pennypacker very much meant this to sound like it was set in America:
Peter and Pax’s story is set in an undefined time and place—it could be the past or modern day or the near future. It might take place in America but not necessarily. Why did you set your story against this type of backdrop?
I didn’t want to allow readers the comfort of seeing the setting as “another”: another place or another time. My goal was to have readers feel that what happens in the book could happen in their town tomorrow. Because, sadly, it could.
Which is great. I mean, Americans need to hear this particular message about war. But from this outsider’s point of view, this is definitely America.
Whereas ancient mythical journeys often feature real setting magic, the ‘magic’ Pennypacker describes is a feeling rather than a phenomenon:
Peter craned his head to see what [Vola] was making. A handle. She’d brought i a broken hoe, and she was giving it a new handle. A simple thing, and yet it struck him as almost magic. Like his crutches. Before he’d had them, he’d been helpless. Vola had nailed a couple of boards together, and now he could swing over miles of rough country, quick and sure. Magic.
However, Pennypacker does delve into some new age mind-meld stuff, in which Peter feels he can sense how much trouble Pax is in.
“Two but not two. Inseparable. So… a couple of nights ago, I was sure that Pax had eaten. I felt it. Last night, I saw the moon, and I knew Pax was seeing it right then, too.”
CHARACTERS IN PAX
The name Peter has a literary, old-fashioned quality to it e.g. fromPeter and the Wolfand many other fables and fairytales throughout history. Peter is also fairly common as a name for contemporary(ish) boys, linking the old with the new.
Also, Peter is The Every Boy. He is basically a good child, exhibiting all of the qualities we hope children to have. He obeys his father, even though the father is asking him to do something terrible. Peter has no real distinguishing features, and his main shortcoming is naivety and vulnerability owing to basically being abandoned.
The book began with character—it was always going to be a sentient animal commenting on human war. In the beginning, though, Peter didn’t have his own narrative—he was merely going to be “the boy” who belonged to my main character. But I saw such richness in inviting him to tell his side that halfway through writing Pax, I opened the book up.
We are shown Peter’s caring nature from chapter one, when he shows emotion at having to send his beloved pet fox back into the wild. Though he is crying, this is a rare thing for him, showing that although he is emotional, nor is he a ‘crybaby’. He cries softly and silently, which is an acceptable way for children (and especially boys) to cry, especially in the early part of last century. I argue that Peter is a good role model for caring about others and expressing emotion, which makes this male plot structure feel more feminine once you delve into it.
Peter is also an optimist — a naive optimist — thinking that Pax will be waiting right where they left him, and also that he can walk 300 miles in a week. At the other end of the journey, Peter plans to stay in his old home alone, with no one at all to provide food for the duration of the war. This plan is Peter’s psychological shortcoming, which has an adorable flip side.
Poetic Naming Conventions
Because Peter starts with the letter P, it’s fitting that his ‘spirit animal’ also begins with P. This symbolically links the two characters. Katherine Mansfield also does that in her short story The Garden Party, in which a family is divided by personality, and the characters who are similar in name are also similar in temperament. This is one of those literary conventions which doesn’t carry over into real life, but helps us to understand the character web in a story.
Who knew that a kid and his pet should be inseparable. Suddenly the word itself seemed an accusation. He and Pax, what were they then … separable?
They weren’t, though. Sometimes, in fact, Peter Had had the strange sensation that he and Pax merged.
Like the fox, Peter is also in touch with his full range of senses, including smell. He is impacted by the smell of his horrible grandfather’s kitchen, for instance, which ‘reeks strongly of fried onions’ and which Peter ‘figured the smell would outlive his grandfather’. He also makes good use of his ears, knowing what his grandfather is up to on the other side of the closed bedroom door. He is intuitive, knowing to stay out of the grandfather’s way. In all these ways, Peter is the human version of a fox. He thinks of his anxiety like a snake, linking him further to the animal kingdom.
Peter’s motivation to find Pax is influenced by memory of a baby rabbit killed in his yard after a trap was set up. Rabbits were eating his mother’s tulips. This dead rabbit had a huge effect on him, and though the dead mother seems at first glance like the bigger ‘ghost’/’wound‘, sometimes it’s more minor things that have a greater impact. The death of the baby rabbit to save something like tulips had a huge effect on Peter. The mother’s death, too, is obviously significant in causing Peter to fear death, and especially the death of the fox. But by transferring the death scene from the mother to that baby rabbit, Pennypacker avoids hitting child readers over the head with something completely and utterly maudlin. This is transferred grieving. (For more on this see Death In Children’s Literature.)
(Even the minor characters have their own ghosts — Bristle has a dead sister, for instance, briefly mentioned, but an explanation for why she is so cautious in general.)
In the end it is Peter’s wooden crutch that saves Pax from the coyotes. What’s the symbolism there? Perhaps it’s that loving another creature is a shortcoming, but even if love is a shortcoming, it still conquers all. It was a loving act to let Pax go, taking in a creature with greater needs.
When animals feature in children’s books, the author must decide the extent of anthropomorphism. Olivia by Ian Falconer is a little girl in a pig’s body. There’s nothing pig-like about her. At the other end of the continuum you have animals who are literally just animals — donkeys eating grass in fields. Then there’s everything in between.
The huge advantage to using a canine creature as a character is the author has good reason to make heavy use of the sense of smell, in a way not usually explored by authors writing about humans (Patrick Suskind’s Perfume is a notable exception, though the heavy emphasis on smell serves to turn the human character into an animal monster.) In Pax, Sara Pennypacker does an excellent job of describing scent, in a synesthesic kind of way, melding scent with emotions and sights and sounds.
We learn in the first chapter that Pax’s main characteristic is ‘loyal’. This is basically a Boy and His Dog story, even though the dog is actually a fox. Foxes are wild creatures and tend to fear humans, but there are examples of some foxes bonding to humans. If they do bond, they tend to bond to human singular rather than to humans in general, which marks them as different from fully domesticated dogs, who will bond to humans in general so long as they’re properly socialised. Knowing this, it’s clear from the first chapter that Pax has bonded to Peter better than he bonded to the father. This explains why it is easier for the father to let the fox go.
Pax doesn’t talk in words, but he thinks in words. His emotions are every bit as complex as Peter’s emotions. Because Pax is abandoned in the first chapter, the reader immediately feels strong empathy for him. Because Pax doesn’t understand the world, Pennypacker describes objects rather than giving them words. This achieves two things: Pax’s naive voice, and allows the reader to work out a small puzzle What is the blue triangle? A bird. What is the long pole? A rifle (maybe). This puts the reader in reader superior position — a form of dramatic irony. When the reader knows there’s a boy with a rifle we are scared for Pax even though Pax isn’t yet scared for himself.
Pax is (almost literally) an ‘underdog‘. If only he’d been an actual dog, like Peter’s father’s beloved childhood Border Collie, then he’d be allowed to stay with his boy.
It emerges during Peter’s discussion with Vola that Pax as an ironic, symbolic name — Pax means peace (in Latin), yet this is a time of war.
The father is not a nasty character, especially when juxtaposed against his own father, who is more of a fairytale villain who emotionally, if not literally, locks his grandson inside his bedroom and provides zero emotional warmth. The father actually does what any reasonable father would do — with good intentions, he wants to return the fox to the wild, where he belongs. This in itself isn’t a terrible thing to do — modern thinking has it that wild creatures do belong in the wild. But Sara Pennypacker has picked a good moral dilemma — once a wild creature has been tamed, should we then return it to the wild, or are we obliged to keep looking after it?
This is a useful trick for writing parents in children’s literature. Quite often, parents are not ill-intentioned, but they are the opponent nonetheless, because their practical-mindedness abuts the emotional choices of the child character. When the moral dilemma genuinely has two sides to it, like this does, it’s all the more interesting.
Meanwhile, Pax comes across a vixen who eyes him suspiciously. Pennypacker (ostensibly Pax) soon gives her a name — Bristle — descriptive of both her hair and her approach to him. Is this a bicker-bicker-kiss-kiss romantic subplot? I wonder this because Bristle is described as ‘bright-furred’ and ‘exotic’, the animal equivalent of commentary on a woman’s sexual appeal. She lets him stay the night, but only one night. In the morning there is a post-coital scene (MG literary animal equivalent thereof) when Pax squirms ‘in pleasure at the solid, warm weight of another’s body nestled against his’. It is therefore funny when Pax wakes up more fully and realises he’s nestled up with the vixen’s brother. ‘Pax pulled himself up sharply’. He was obviously expecting the female fox.
Then her runty brother appears, contrasting in playfulness with her ice-queen demeanour. The Female Maturity Principle kicks in as Bristle cautions Runt on the correct way of behaving around strangers.
Bristle eventually becomes Pax’s mentor, showing him how to hunt. She mirrors the character of Vola in Peter’s journey. Except this one has a romantic component — cheek to cheek they groom each other. I might interpret this as friendship, except you’d never get two male characters sitting like this in a children’s book.
Locals Suspicious Of This Outsider
The setting is peopled with thumbnail characters who exist to show Peter how much of an outsider he is.
First, Peter meets a shop owner who is suspicious of him for not being in school. A woman stares at him and he realises how unkempt he looks.
Later, Peter gazes through a fence (Jon Klassen’s addition) at a boy playing baseball, which brings back all sorts of memories. Peter has visited a therapist, which surprises me a little because I didn’t know the history of therapy was that long in America. Where I come from (New Zealand) therapy was (unfortunately) unknown during the war era. Pennypacker does what a lot of writers do when depicting therapists — apparently this therapist always has the stock standard response. Is this because writers don’t actually know what therapists would say in any given situation? Or is this how it feels to everyone visiting a therapist? That you’re being nodded at? I can’t answer that, but I’m reminded of the recent Liane Moriarty novel/limited TV series Big Little Lies, in which therapists said, “Finally! A realistic fictional depiction of therapy!”
In any case, Peter has a short interaction with a hostile boy who doesn’t like this outsider.
Pax meets an older male fox whose territory he has inadvertently entered. For all her outward hostility, Bristle has warned Pax about him. Pax calls him Grey. But it turns out this old grey wolf isn’t scary for Pax. (Disturbingly, and off the page, why is Grey scary for Bristle?) Grey turns out to be a false opponent. There’s almost some magical realism — it turns out the crows give messages to this old grey wolf. This is how the author lets us know that war is coming in from the west. This old fox spouts environmentalist messages about the destruction of humankind. It’s mostly an anti-war message.
Peter is confronted by a woman whose barn he is sleeping in. More realistically (not narratively) an adult is far more likely to be kind to a vagrant child they find sleeping in their barn, but this is a mythical journey. This kind of hostile woman plays right into a child’s fears that if they were to go out into the world, every single adult they meet would be the worst examples of human kind. At first meeting, Vola has an inhuman, monstrous quality to her, partly evoked by the wooden leg. However, she does turn into a false opponent-ally, much as the fox has just met. The journeys mirror each other. She helps him with his foot — she happens to have medical knowledge. Like the old grey wolf, this woman has a message about how terrible it is, drafting young people into wars. There are even crows in this scene as there were in Pax’s — their journeys mirror each other’s exactly. Later, Vola turns into a fairy tale witch, offering Peter the tonic with willow bark to act as aspirin. The ‘green paste’ reminds us of witches, too, which is a trope that started with the film adaptation of The Wizard Of Oz. (Before that, they were usually red or orange.)
Eventually, though, Vola is ultimately Peter’s mentor. In a traditional mythic tale, this mentor character is male. Vola is female but apart from plying him with constant food, Vola has masculine traits — her tough attitude, her tool shed. She is a Mr Miyagi character, setting Peter a series of challenges (conditions for staying) to help him grow both spiritually and in skill. Pennypacker isn’t the least subtle about this function for Vola:
“I would have been a good teacher.”
She was right about that. He thought about hwo easily she suggested techniques in his drills without making a bit deal of anything. How she had him watch while she carved, then let him figure out things for himself. How she asked him questions about everything and didn’t answer for him.
In the initial scene with Vola, Pennypacker shows us an interesting trick MG writers do to first amp up the danger of a situation, then defuse it completely. Peter has thought that Vola might kill him. But then Vola explains that the bladed tools are for wood carving. Vola even lampshades the biases the reader shares along with Peter (since we’re seeing her through Peter’s close third person point of view). There needs to be a name for this — kind of like Chekhov’s gun but a gun which turns out to be a toy gun. Let’s call it Chekhov’s Toy Gun.
In narrative it is dangerous to be a hero’s best friend/sidekick. Grey gets attacked in place of Pax, which would be too hard for readers to bear (tragedy layered upon tragedy) and would also break an unwritten rule of mythic storytelling. The hero doesn’t die at the midpoint of the story. Not normally. When G.R.R. Martin wrote The Red Wedding, he shocked the audience because he was breaking some established norms.
Next Runt dies. These deaths signify just how close to death Pax is himself. At this point I am starting to predict the ending: Clues point to a reuniting at the end, but I’m guessing Pax will be injured. That would symbolise how they’ve both been damaged by this experience and will never be the same again.
I was so lost, I needed to find out all the true things about myself. The little things to the biggest of all: what did I believe in at my core?
Pennypacker uses the wisdom of children to even up this relationship a little. Vola doesn’t just teach Peter about resilience — Peter challenges Vola for failing to reintegrate into society after coming back from a harrowing war in which she killed a man (Vola’s big ghost). This is a scene you’ll see in Hollywood movies too: the part where friends have an argument in front of the audience, to let the audience in on each of their motivations.
Vola eventually explains that she is part Haitian, part Italian (though if you’d looked up her favourite curse word already you’ve already worked that one out). Her name Vola is Italian for ‘fly’. The trope of comparing women to birds has a long history in literature, though the adult Vola is somewhat unbirdlike — strong and grounded and therefore an ironic moniker. She also doesn’t know how to ‘fly’ — stuck in her cabin with PTSD. For more on the symbolism of flight in literature, see here.
When they get to town, Pennypacker is very obvious about what their outing means for Vola’s character development:
[Peter] looked behind him at the four crude pine creates the marionettes were packed in, strapped to the back. Peter hoped they didn’t remind Vola of coffins. Her amazing puppets were going to live now. Really live, out in the real world, not just exist to perform as some kind of penance.
This is Pennypacker talking about Vola, using her puppets as proxy.
The coyotes are the mythical monster, not at all anthropomorphised — the evil that descends upon a village threatening friend and foe alike. The coyotes are used for the big big struggle scene in which Peter reunites with Pax.
Other Obstacles Met Along The Journey
Opponents aren’t always human — in a mythical journey a lot of them will be environmental and plain bad luck.
The fact that Peter forgot to pack a torch and can’t see in the dark
Blisters on his heels
Stepping in cold swamp water because he doesn’t want to risk turning on the torch (an obstacle also used by R.L. Stine in How I Got My Shrunken Head)
A broken bone in his foot
a thunderstorm (this is beautifully written)
lack of drinking water
lack of food
war — the road where he needs to wait has been blocked by war vehicles
IDEOLOGY OF PAX
In Love, Two Characters Become One
The bond between a boy and his canine pet cannot be broken, under any circumstance. A boy’s dog/fox is like the flipside of himself — like a spirit animal — and this bond can be so strong that they are basically the same being. Pennypacker emphasises this time and again, with a near-magical telepathy between Peter and Pax. When Peter confides this telepathy to Vola she doesn’t laugh at him — she congratulates him, telling him how lucky he is. So one message in this story is that if you love someone a real lot, you meld into the same creature. That is true love. This makes Pax a love story, not much different from love stories for adults between two humans.
(Note that love is different from romance.)
War Is Terrible
This runs throughout the book and is not at all novel as an idea in literature. It is the only idea about war running through modern Western literature.
You’re In Charge Of Your Own Destiny
Pennypacker makes use of the symbolism of miniatures with the scenes about the marionette and other puppetry. This is using Peter as god, putting him in charge of his own destiny, which is the reason Vola made him do this task in the first place — he needs to learn to ‘take control of his own life’ rather than letting things happen to him.
Each Person Has A True Self
And it’s just a matter of finding it. This juxtaposes against another psychological theory in which humans are a product of their environment. Rather than there being a ‘one true self’, there are multiple versions of the self. We change according to circumstance, and we change a lot more over the course of our lifetimes than we realise, moulded by our particular circumstances. This latter view is the more popular in modern psychology, but literary, classic-sounding children’s books such as this one are more inclined to stick with the older view.
Take a look at any Goosebumps novel and you’ll see each chapter ends in an obvious cliffhanger. In a literary novel like this one, the cliffhangers are not so obvious but they’re there all the same, making the reader anxious for the characters’ safety. For instance, Chapter 31 ends with the non-climactic sounding ‘He turned back for the clearing’. But the reader knows that Pax is in danger of being shot even though Pax doesn’t realise this himself. The cliffhanger is there but more subtle. And it requires a little work on the part of the reader.
I was slightly wrong about the ending — Pax himself is physically well — it’s his replacement, Bristle, who has the big bleeding gash and the missing leg.
Which leads to another ideological concern, as explained by this Goodreads reviewer:
[I WANTED PETER TO GET HIS FREAKING FOX BACK. But no. He decides Pax is better off in the wild and instead Peter takes home Runt to care for him since Runt got his back legs blown off. But I. am. so. mad. It’s like saying that a bond between pet-and-human is replaceable. WHEN IT’S NOT. I would lose a piece of my soul if my precious pup died or got lost or just wasn’t there for me anymore. So all I can think of is losing my dog as Peter lost Pax for the 2nd time at the end of the book. AND IT’S NOT OKAY. It wasn’t one of those “bittersweet” endings. It downright BROKE ME and I’m not okay. Sure Pax didn’t die (small miracles) but he kind of died in my heart and I don’t I don’t I don’t like this. I FEEL LIKE CRYING.
There are many picture books in which a dog dies and the story ends with a kid getting a new one. These are not considered the best of the best of the Dead Dog books. I’m not sure why the same ending is so well accepted in this case. Perhaps because Pennypacker isn’t obvious about what happened. At first I wondered which dog was which. Or perhaps we accept this story because in general it’s very well written.
Here’s Sara Pennypacker talking to School Library Journal about writing the ending. As in many children’s books, mirroring the end with the beginning affords readers a sense of closure. Bear in mind, there are two types of closure.
It does something else, too — it gives some circularity to what is otherwise a very linear story. This boy is going to bond with this other animal and the cycle will continue, over and over, throughout the ages.
The ending was set early on. I was walking in the woods, and it just came to me in a bolt: the ending image needed to be the same as the image that set the plot in motion—although it would have a completely different meaning for both Pax and Peter the second time and would show how each character had grown.