A quandary for writers of middle grade fiction in particular: By about age 10, regular kids have heard all the insults out there. They may hear far more insulting language than adults do on a daily basis. (Did you get called a poo head at work today? I didn’t.)
Yet if you want to write for middle grade, realistic swearing will never find its way into the hands of your readers. (By upper YA, anything goes.)
By all accounts, Philip Pullman’s Le Belle Sauvage (released 2017) may be something of a watershed moment for children’s literature, as it contains a lot of swearing. Pullman advocates for more naturalistic rendering of child speech, and because he is a superstar, it was up to him to try and get away with it, paving the way for those coming later. He explains his ideology here.
Why is the video below so funny? Partly because what she says is unintelligible, until the the ice bucket gets dumped on her head. Then we know exactly what she’s saying!
Politics of swearing and childhood aside, what do most traditionally published and popular middle grade authors do when they need to depict swearing and insults without using the actual swearing and insults?
THEMATICALLY RELEVENT INSULTS
Newsprints by Ru Xu is a graphic novel in which birds feature heavily. The insults and swears are therefore often bird themed:
Listen here, Humpy Dumpty, you stay off the roof! (Birds… eggs… Humpty Dumpty…)
For the human characters in Newsprints, the insults draw from cultural references such as nursery rhymes/classic literature and implements of the time. This is a steampunk book, where it’s assumed the children of this Victorian-esque era are reading nursery rhymes and Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland.
Get back here, Bugle Brat!
Catch me if ya can, Tweedle Dums!
Still think you can fly, pal? (‘Pal’ sounds like an insult in this context because it’s ironic.)
In Pax, Sara Pennypacker includes a Haitian character whose swear word is dyableman. The child character learns it from the older mentor and starts using it himself. I can’t speak to the power of the word in Haitian Creole, but it translates as ‘damned, deuced, devilish’ — not at all powerful in translation. I’m wary of taking actual words from other languages, especially in a climate of cultural appropriation, but mainly because unless it’s your native language you don’t know the full power of the word.
Fantasy authors can create entirely new languages and therefore entirely new curse words.
YOU MAY ALREADY BE A WINNER BY ANN DEE ELLIS (USA, 2017)
The 13-year-old main character in this novel comes across much younger than she is on the page, and this is no doubt partly down to the author’s choice of language. Olivia Hales has a favourite ‘curse word’ which is ‘dumb bum’. She uses this over and over again — it’s her thing. If the 13-year-olds in your sphere are speaking like this, you’re hanging out in different circles than I am. However, stories are not the real world. We should be prepared to accept some differences. Perhaps the author/publisher decided to youngify (bowderlize?) the voice because the target reading audience is about 10-years-old. An older character uses ‘crap’, but that’s as cussy as it gets.
When Olivia gets really angry, she doesn’t swear. She indirectly threatens violence:
“Did you know a monkey can rip your face off?”
The girl’s eyes got all big and I was like, “Oh yeah. Yours too.” I said to the other secretary.
And then to the other one, “And yours for sure.”
Bart sees me.
I want to throw a car in his face.
It’s interesting what we think it’s okay to expose middle grade readers to. Nothing worse than dumb bum? But threats of violence as used in the real world is okay, so long as they’re hyperbolic. (No fear of someone actually throwing a car in your face.)
At other times the swearing is humorous, in a much-younger-than-13 kind of way:
“I am so sorry my daughter called me a butthead piece of butt face.”
“You scared the earwax out of her is what you did.”
While certain stand-alone taboo curse words are out in this middle grade novel, dismissively sexist language passes the gates. For example, Olivia constantly refers to her father’s love interest as ‘the redhead’, objectifying a woman by metonymically referring to her as a body part. There is also ableist language, but only used indirectly, not by the viewpoint character with whom we are expected to empathise:
There was Carlene and Bonnie and stupid Jared who called me a retard.
I offer this as an argument against publishers and authors removing naturalistic swearing from middle grade fiction. If it’s okay to use sexist and ableist language as used in the real world, why not use stronger yet (counterintuitively) more neutral swear words?
LOVE SUGAR MAGIC BY ANNA MERIANO (2017)
Love Sugar Magic is an own voices novel partly designed to introduce non-Spanish speakers to Mexican culture. The following snippet of dialogue is worded in such a way that the reader learns the Spanish word for cockroach, and also thinks they’ve got new insider knowledge on a good insult:
“Come on cucaracha,” Marisol yelled. She called Leo “cockroach” whenever she wanted to be nasty without getting in trouble for using bad language.
WHEN I REACH YOU BY REBECCA STEAD (2009)
One way to get around swearing, which actually relies on the reader knowing the swear word in the first place:
And as Mom likes to say, that’s a whole different bucket of poop. Except she doesn’t use the word “poop”.
The effect is two-fold:
The author can’t be accused of introducing readers to new language because they won’t know what the mother said unless they already know it.
The young reader feels smart and mature for knowing exactly what the mother really said.
This leads me to my next point, which is why I have a liberal attitude around kids and exposure to swearing: A lot of ‘funny swears’ are very obviously based on real swears. The following chart sounds very American to me — none of these would be used in Australia unless the speaker were making a point of sounding American. A word like ‘bull snot’ is so obviously a ‘safe’ alternative to ‘bull shit’.
But then why is the bodily excretion of snot more acceptable than the bodily excretion of shit?
Interesting though it is, the issue of swearing in children’s literature is sans logic.
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
Milly Molly Mandy is scared of the new teacher because the teacher is strict.
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.
The teacher, because Milly Molly Mandy doesn’t want her in her home, but the teacher arrives regardless.
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 battle 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 self-revelations.
The revelation is that Miss Edwards is a regular human. Though this isn’t a self-revelation as such, the lesson teaches Milly Molly Mandy something about humankind, and by extension, this is about herself. Though this is not on the page, it’s clear that Miss Edwards is acting in a certain role while she is at school. This is the first time Milly Molly Mandy has realised that people play roles according to expectations. This links back to how Milly Molly Mandy has been on her best behaviour with a teacher in the house. She, too, has been playing a role.
Sometimes the revelation phase of the story simply means the main character has changed their mind about something. In this case, Milly is sad to see her teacher leave. The valence has flipped from negative to positive.
Milly Molly Mandy needn’t be frightened of Miss Edwards at school because she knows she’s a fully-rounded human and is playing a teacherly role.
Pax is a middle grade novel by Sara Pennypacker about a boy and a fox who embark upon a mythic journey to reunite after Pax is abandoned in the woods. Structurally, Pax is the middle grade equivalent of Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. Though this story is classic mythical structure, there are shades of the Female Mythic Form, as the main character Peter (who happens to be male), thinks and feels his way through his journey rather than engaging in battle after swashbuckling battle.
MORE ON THE STORY STRUCTURE OF PAX
Pax was only a kit when his family was killed, and “his boy” Peter rescued him from abandonment and certain death. Now the war front approaches, and when Peter’s father enlists, Peter has to move in with his grandpa. Far worse than being forced to leave home is the fact that Pax can’t go. Peter listens to his stern father—as he usually does—and throws Pax’s favorite toy soldier into the woods. When the fox runs to retrieve it, Peter and his dad get back in the car and leave him there—alone. But before Peter makes it through even one night under his grandfather’s roof, regret and duty spur him to action; he packs for a trek to get his best friend back and sneaks into the night. This is the story of Peter, Pax, and their independent struggles to return to one another against all odds. Told from the alternating viewpoints of Peter and Pax.
Child moves house and starts at new school. This trope is hard to write well because it has been done so many times before.
Some specific plot elements, or motifs, that we find in children’s novels are not as prominent in the mainstream fiction. The first is coming to a new home. Naturally, this element–connected to the basic motif of dislocation, inherent in all fiction–is present in quite a number of mainstream novels, such as Jane Eyre or Mansfield Park. However, I would state that the new home is more dominant in children’s fiction and also more significant, since the change of setting is a more dramatic event in a child’s life than in an adult’s. The character’s reaction to the change is very revealing.
– The Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Fiction by Maria Nikolajeva
Maria Nikolajeva published that paragraph in 2002 and goes easy on the child moves house trope. Since then, despite every children’s author knowing full well that the child moves house trope — or motif — or whatever you’d like to call it had been done thousands of times before, we get to 2017 and Betsy Bird (librarian and reviewer for School Libarary Journal) has this to say about the state of middle grade literature:
If you read too many middle grade novels in a given year, you begin to sense patterns that no one else can see. In 2017 I’ve started down that path. I’ll give you an example of a particular pattern: The new kid in school. It’s not a new idea for a book (Joseph Campbell would probably tell you that it’s just a variation on the old “A Stranger Comes to Town” storytelling motif) but this year it’s gotten extreme. In book after book authors have hit the same notes. Kid is new. Kid is awkward in the lunchroom (seriously – if I never read another lunch room scene again it’ll be too soon). Kid makes friends with outcasts. Kid triumphs by being true to his or her own self. Simple, right? They blend together after a while, but it’s not the fault of the format. A good book, a really good book, transcends its format. Much of what I’ve read this year has already faded into a fuzzy haze in my brain.
The contributors to TV Tropes have also noticed the moving house trope has become super popular in the last 10 years. The trope New House, New Problems refers specifically to a new family moving into a new home, whereupon strange happenings begin to reveal themselves. It’s not just a middle grade thing — it’s a horror thing.
Who knows what contributed to this trend, but I suspect big hits such as Neil Gaiman’s Coraline have something to do with it. The TV Tropes page also points out that every other Goosebumps book begins with a kid moving to a new house. In YA we have the huge successes of Twilight, 10 Things I Hate About You and Mean Girls, so audiences must love the trope. Writers love it too, because it allows a natural discovery of a new milieu, as our new student discovers how the new environment works, along with readers.
The question is, do young readers like it as much as writers do?
Wolf Hollow (2016) is a middle grade novel by Lauren Wolk. This mid-20th century story is chock-full of symbolism which makes it great for a novel study. Here I focus instead on the writing techniques, for writers of middle grade.
“Wolf Hollow” is a romantic, intriguing name reminiscent of something Anne Shirley would dream up. (Raccoon Creek and the Turtle Stone are other fetching names used in the book.) But unlike the world of (the original) Green Gables, this is no utopia. Instead, Wolf Hollow is an ‘apparent utopia’, where people grow ‘victory gardens‘ and residents are surrounded by nature. There is plenty of hygge — the peeling of apples, the large family table in their big, warm farm house.
By the time we got to the schoolhouse, it was raining in earnest. We three had worn oilcloth ponchos, hoods up, and boots, so we were plenty dry and warm, but many of the other children came in soaked and shivering.
Like many stories with girl main characters, this story is closely connected to the seasons. Notice how the hygge is moderated by details that show this setting is not in fact utopian:
Each season meant a world refashioned inside its stalls and storerooms.
Pockets of warmth in winter, the milk cows and draft horses like furnaces, their heat banked by straw bedding and new manure.
In spring, swallows fledged from muddy nests wedged in crannies overhead, and kittens fresh and soft staggered between hooves and attacked the tails of tackle hanging from stable pegs.
Come summer, yellow jackets nested in the straw, old oats sprouted through the floorboards, Houdine hens laid eggs in odd places where they might yield chicks, and dusty sunlight striped the air like bridges to somewhere else.
This family has had electricity for a few years, introduced under President Roosevelt. Electricity had already become common in American homes during the 1930s but took longer to reach rural areas. This is one of the things which would’ve set a divide between ‘country kids’ and ‘city kids’(Betty).
Annabelle’s class would have looked something like as depicted above, but because of lack of resources the classroom is overcrowded, so that when everyone turns up most students have to share a seat.
Today, I would learn some arithmetic, no doubt, and a few state capitals, why we fought the wars we fought, what Anne of Green Gables would get up to next, and why I shouldn’t mix bleach with ammonia.
The futility, or the insignificance of war to these country children, is shown in the sentence above. War is listed in the same sentence as far more mundane things, including cosy fiction. The children don’t see the point of war.
Annabelle realises she must do well at school. With two brothers she won’t have the opportunity to run the family farm. She has been told to study hard and get a career. Other girls of that era would have been told to marry well, but expectations were changing rapidly for women both during and after the war.
STORY STRUCTURE OF WOLF HOLLOW
Annabelle is a likeable, ordinary girl. Her weakness is that so far she has lead a happy, sheltered life with no real calamity. At the magical (critical) age of 12 this is about to change.
Her happy, sheltered life exposes her weakness — she doesn’t yet know how to cope with adversity. Over the course of this story she must learn.
Overall, Annabelle wants to be left in peace to go to school and get a career.
In this particular story, Annabelle wants to stop Betty from bullying her and to keep her brothers safe. Later, this morphs into the intense desire for justice — to protect Toby.
Betty is introduced on page 5. As newcomer, she is immediately interesting to both Annabelle and to the reader. We expect things of newcomers. She is a big, tough 14 year old girl from ‘the city’. She’ll be living with her grandparents, the Glengarrys.
Betty is a bit of a stock bully. But when she kills the bird (the inverse of Save The Cat) it becomes clear that she is more sociopathic than your typical middle grade bully. This girl has real issues. Partly to avoid problematic stereotypes, perhaps, Betty is blonde. (In the First Golden Age Of Children’s Literature you rarely met a blonde baddie.)
That said, Betty’s pretty blondness is partly what leads to her getting away with baldfaced lies. Her grandparents don’t believe she is violent and the adults don’t think to question if she really could see Toby on the hill from the belfry. The way adults discriminate based on complexion and pigmentation is brought to the fore when Annabelle asks her father who Hitler does like:
My father thought about his answer. “People with blonde hair and blue eyes,” he said.
“I would assign every lie a color: yellow when they were innocent, pale blue when they sailed over you like the sky, red because I knew they drew blood. And then there was the black lie. That’s the worst of all. A black lie was when I told you the truth. ”
In this way, Betty is the local little Hitler. Like Swallows and Amazons, also set across war time, here we have a novel where the community battles fought by the children in some ways mirror what’s going on in the wider world. Similarly, Betty has targeted Annabelle because she perceives she is rich. One part of the reason for anti-semitism — irrational as it is — has historically been due to the perception that Jewish people accumulate an unfair amount of wealth owing to their sticking together and supporting each others’ businesses.
One sure sign that someone is an anti-Semite is if he agrees with the statement that “Jews have too much power in our country today.
Wolk makes clear exactly where Annabelle’s family sit in the economic hierarchy: as farmers they are neither poor nor rich, but exist outside the urban definition of ‘rich’ or ‘poor’. There is little to spare and the house is Spartan but being an old family with a large farm, they have been able to donate land for the school and church and are therefore rich by many standards.
However, the idea that you can look at someone from the outside and assume things about them is the critical idea here; Annabelle is not rich.
As Betty’s love interest, Andy is the romantic opponent. Andy, like Betty, is often compared to a dog. When he turns up late for school one rainy day he ‘tipped off his hood and shook all over like a dog as he looked around the schoolhouse.’
Annabelle’s parents are excellent parents, in danger of being Mary Sue characters, actually, so to disrupt the harmony at home we have Aunt Lily, another stock character who reminds me of two other fictional characters: Aunt Beryl from Katherine Mansfield’s most famous short stories, and from children’s literature, of Kate DiCamillo’s Eugenia from the Mercy the Pig series.
Aunt Lily is severe like Eugenia but also has a dreamy, romantic, thwarted-desire side to her, depicted with the small but telling detail that Aunt Lily goes to her room for Bible study, but can also be found listening to music and dancing at the end of her bed.
(Interestingly, Aunt Lily is a postmistress, which is the job L.M. Montgomery had, author of Anne of Green Gables. I wonder how closely L.M. Montgomery herself conformed to the severe postmistress trope.)
John and Sarah
Annabelle’s parents are loving and warm. Their response to the bullying situation is quite modern, in fact. An attitude fairly common in earlier eras was that children need to look after themselves, fighting back against bullies. Not so in this situation — when Annabelle tells her parents what’s been going on with Betty they tell her they’ll take care of it and that she should have told them sooner.
But the parents — owing to their goodness — are also opponents, in a way, because in any healthy parent-child relationship, the parents will never be completely on your side. Annabelle doesn’t want to worry them with her Betty issues so she hides the problems she is having. And here’s a storytelling problem — perhaps a problem for the modern child — “Why doesn’t Annabelle simply tell an adult immediately?” “Tattle-tales and ‘dirty dobbing’ weren’t part of my own school culture, but in the last 10-20 years schools have largely instituted zero tolerance for physical violence and I’m fairly confident that most children would tell an adult if they were left with a black welt. Wolk explains in several different places why Annabelle won’t tell her parents. First it’s because she’d like to deal with her own problems on her own — which is actually a rule for protagonists in children’s literature:
I wanted to see if she was a barker or a biter.
At the beginning of chapter four:
My mother gave me a funny look as I stood at the back door the next morning, readying myself, before setting off for school. When she said, “Something wrong, Annabelle?” I nearly told her about Betty. It wold have been a relief to put the whole thing in her hands.
But although there were only apples and potatoes, beets and a few winter squash left to bring in, and although she, of all women on earth, was capable and strong, I had it in mind to spare her this particular battle. I’d thought it through: If i told her, she’d have to go to her friends, the Glengarrys, and tell them that their granddaughter was a hooligan, something they surely already knew but would not want to hear from a neighbour.
And despite the fact that she’d been able to fix nearly every broken thing in our lives, my mother could not promise me that Betty would not come at me again, even angrier — or worse, go after my brothers — if I tattled on her.
I had learned what incorrigible meant. A scolding was not going to change anything, and so far Betty hadn’t done anything to deserve more.
Finally, however, Annabelle does tell her parents. This occurs after the third Betty incident, in fact, making use of the Rule of Three In Storytelling.
We are not immediately sure whether Toby has a dark side to him. He doesn’t want any food, but what does he want?
I’m reminded of the Galloway character in the Jennifer Lawrence film Serena, in which a weird dude walks around in an almost supernatural way. In the adult film the character didn’t work. Partly because of the Galloway character in my opinion, who is two-dimensional and not that interesting. He is two-dimensional precisely because we don’t know what he wants.
Lauren Wolk avoids this pitfall. Toby is introduced with a backstory in chapter three, after Annabelle’s first encounter with Betty. He soon proves his goodness to us, however, when he quietly intervenes in a bullying incident. (A true Save The Cat moment.)
Wolk sets up a mystery. Although this is not a mystery novel per se, there are mystery detective elements as Annabelle sets about on her own fact-finding missions, determining of her own accord whether Toby could be seen from the belfry, and if Betty was even up there at the time of the rock incident.
The climactic incident, after the wire trap, after the lost eye, is when Betty and Toby both go missing. This happens Chapter 12, about p120 out of 290pp. A little less than halfway through.
Because this is a story retold by a storyteller narrator, after a distance of many years, the self-revelation is given to us at the very beginning, and even used on the yellow version of the book cover:
(The first chapter is actually bookended by these two sentences.)
When it is clear that Aunt Lily believes Betty’s story that Toby pushed her into the hole in the ground, Annabelle realises that some people will believe anything so long as it suits their own preconceived view. She realises that there are good lies and bad lies — that the world is not black and white.
By the end of the story Aunt Lily has realised that she was quick to judge Toby. Of course, Aunt Lily’s self-revelation is a lesson to the reader not to judge hastily.
This story has a classic fugitive arc. In children’s literature it’s often another child or an animal that the child rescues and nurtures. Courage The Cowardly Dog takes in the Hunchback of Notre Dame in The Hunchback Of Nowhere. In the case of Wolf Hollow, Annabelle is also harbouring a grown man in the hayloft. (Since this is literary and not horrorcomedy, the author did well not to make this sound creepy. I’m not sure it would work so well if it were set in 2017.) Haylofts are thought to be nurturing, comfortable places to sleep. At least, it’s always the case in stories.
“The loft will be fine,” he said. “It smells good up there. And I like the doves.”
I’m not sure about reality, though. I imagine it would feel scratchy and probably full of ticks. Here in Australia — snakes. However, a bed of hay is a common feature of utopian (or apparent-utopian) stories.
An a fugitive arc the goodie eventually proves their goodness to the public. In this case Toby had to get into the hole and rescue the girl he supposedly harmed.
The problem with grotesques, though, is that in stories they don’t get happy endings. Experienced readers will have expected this as soon as we learned about Toby’s hand. It was inevitable from the set up that Toby would be shot.
However, it was not so inevitable that Betty died. The author avoided melodrama and achieved mimesis by having Betty die undramatically of systemic infection.
We can extrapolate that life will go on as before, but Annabelle is now an adult, or closer to it. That makes Wolf Hollow a coming-of-age story. Annabelle has been drawn into an adult world and there’s no going back. Aunt Lily may or may not be a tad kinder.
In America, lying can never be an act of caring. We find it hard to accept that lying would be protective, this is an unexamined idea. In some countries, not telling, or a certain opaqueness, is an act of respect.
Annabelle’s best friend Ruth is a dark-haired, red-lipped, pale girl with a quiet voice. We know immediately that she is not the star of the story. Such girls do not star in middle grade fiction. (They may find themselves viewpoint characters.) Instead, this girl loses an eye. I’m reminded of Mary and Laura from the Little House On The Prairie series. Laura is the spirited girl with gumption and attitude; Mary is expendable (plot wise) and sure enough, Mary too becomes blind. (The fact that Mary Ingalls became blind in real life is beside my point. It’s possible Mary’s subdued ‘personality’ was emphasised to fit how she became, by necessity, after losing her sight, and her freedom.)
Annabelle’s younger brothers, age 9 and 7, are repeatedly portrayed as existing in the world of childhood, in stark contrast to Annabelle who at age 12 is just starting to encounter adult problems such as prejudice and injustice. Henry and James run around gleefully, eat without self-consciousness and must be protected as the children they still are.
For a while, being included in these conversations had made me feel tall. Now I was ready to be eleven again and back up in bed like my brothers.
Other characters exist to flesh out the town and contribute to the plot — the kindly German man despised by town locals, the gossipy Annie Gribble. (Annie Gribble is somehow an onomatopoeic name. Perhaps because it contains the ‘gr’ consonant cluster, in common with ‘grumble’.)
Annie Gribble lived in a small house that we passed on our way to market. I’d only been there once, to drop off a bushel of peaches at canning time, but she’d invited us in for a glass of lemonade, my father and me, and I’d been fascinated by the switchboard that dominated her front room like a loom strung with thin black snakes.
With the snake simile in final position of that thumbnail character sketch, we are left with a very clear impression of Annie Gribble. She is not to be trusted.
The constable is a kindly fellow, big and strong, but not as good at detective work as Annabelle.
By the end of Wolf Hollow it’s clear that these minor characters were fleshed out for a reason. Annie Gribble is a very handy archetype to have in a story, for narrative purposes. As the town gossip she is an omniscient eye. In Anne of Green Gables we have Rachel Lynde who performs a similar purpose.
It is explained that Wolf Hollow no longer has wolves but used to be the place where wolves were trapped and shot. There were deep pits dug there, which the wolves would fall into. Another story with wolf in the title but not in the storyworld is “The Wamsutter Wolf” by Annie Proulx.
It is immediately clear that the character of Toby is the personification of a wolf — a wild creature roaming around suspiciously, misunderstood by humans. It is no surprise when something bad happens to him. The history of the wolves has foreshadowed the calamity which befalls the human-wolf. To be clear, there is nothing supernatural about this story. It’s not a werewolf tale. But this feels like a place of fantasy laid upon a real-world setting — the symbol web and the ‘evil’ newcomer and the poetic place names lend this feeling. Toby is compared to a farm dog numerous times throughout the story.
When Betty is found the ‘hunt’ for Toby intensifies.
‘Hollow’ is a great word.
We might think of it romantically, as we are encouraged to do in Gilmore girls with the name ‘Stars Hollow’ — a genuine utopia, separate from the ills of the world by virtue of its being in a bit of a ‘hole’ (which has completely different connotations).
More generally, ‘hollow’ means ‘having a hole or empty space inside’. This describes the townspeople who so easily discriminate against those who are different from themselves.
It is eventually revealed that two of the three guns Toby hauls around are broken. ‘Hollow’ weapons, hollow threats — symbols of how Toby looks dangerous but actually isn’t.
Plot wise, it is significant that Betty falls into a literal hole in the ground. This is of course a form of retribution, and readers are encouraged to examine our own glee, especially when it’s revealed how close Betty came to death.
Toby’s scarred and deformed hand is a distinguishing feature eventually used to prove his real identity. This trope is used to comic effect by Daniel Handler in A Series of Fortunate Events, with the tattoo of an eye on Count Olaf’s ankle.
It is significant that Toby’s hand is disfigured because the author is making use of the Red Right Hand trope.
Toby is a Grotesque (and grotesques often have Red Right Hands). A grotesque is ugly on the outside but good on the inside. (Or if they’re bad, it’s because they’ve been treated badly.) But because of his “Red Right Hand”, the townspeople (as well as the readers) have been trained to see Toby as evil. There are good deformities and bad deformities, and having a deformed hand is not a good one, in literature.
Though most people probably think of the Nick Cave song these days, the term originated in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Before that, there are references to red hands in the Bible. Toby is clearly a Jesus figure — ostracised by many for his difference, an aesthete, a long beard, a carpenter, intrinsically good, loves children.
In any case, the history of storytelling has taught us that characters with red hands might be supernatural and also very, very bad. So when Toby turns out to be a good guy, Lauren Wolf has subverted reader expectations, and hopefully the self-revelation for the reader is: Don’t judge people at first sight.
Another novel, for slightly older readers perhaps, deals with questions of right and wrong, appearance vs reality. Big Mouth and Ugly Girl by Joyce Carol Oates.
Kiki’s Delivery Service is a Studio Ghibli film released in 1989. This film was always popular in Japan but — though it’s hard to remember now — Studio Ghibli films didn’t take off in the West until 1997 with the release of Princess Mononoke.
BASED ON A POPULAR JAPANESE CHILDREN’S BOOK
Kiki’s Delivery Service is based on a novel published in 1985 by Eiko Kadono. Kiki’s Delivery Service is Kadono’s best known work. Like L. Frank Baum, she really only had this one big hit and wrote lesser known sequels which are lesser known. (There are 6 in the series altogether.) As of 2017, Kadono is 81 years old.
Hayao Miyazaki is 76. The film therefore has the combined sensibilities of a Japanese pair of artists born around the time of the World Wars. This affects both the setting and the sentiment.
“Just follow your heart and keep smiling,” advises the mother before Kiki sets off. This feels like not only a distinctly Japanese thing to say, but also an especially feminine aspiration, though probably applied to everyone in Japan born after the war.
STORYWORLD OF KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE
Where are these Miyazaki films set? Not in Japan but not in Europe, either. The utopian storyworld of Kiki’s Delivery Service (and several of the other Studio Ghibli films) has the trains, the hilly suburbs and the closeness of the sea but also has the cobbled streets and nooks and crannies of somewhere like Barcelona, with intratext on the signs looking a lot like English with a few flourishes reminiscent of kanji. We are to believe this is another world, a world where magic exists unobtrusively in the real world of the story.
[Studio Ghibli] shot 80 rolls of film in Stockholm and Visby, gathering location images as inspiration for the scenes in Koriko. For the most part, Koriko is composed of images of Stockholm. A side street in Stockholm’s old city, Gamla Stan, is one model. Sweden was the first foreign country Miyazaki ever visited.
Fictional Koriko is, however, much larger than Visby and features buildings and shops with the look of Stockholm.
Kate DiCamillo has this to say about Harriet The Spy: “Not too long ago, I remembered that I read and loved Harriet the Spy [as a kid], and so I went back to it as the adult me, with some trepidation. … And it’s even better and more subversive than I remembered. It’s basically a primer on how to be a writer.”
If you’ve seen the modern film adaptation and not read the book, it’s easy to forget that Harriet was a very unusual character for her time. She was wearing boys’ clothing long before it was acceptable to do so. You won’t find that in other books from this era.
I was just fascinated by Harriet’s notebook—her impulse to write, her adventures. Literally spying on people, going up in that dumbwaiter, observing life, and then writing it down. It just seemed like the whole point of life, you know? Here was a kid who wrote about something real.
I think, as a young lesbian, I was also picking up on this heroine as a lesbian character. But, you know, she was a child—there’s no way to really say that Harriet is a lesbian. As I got older, I was curious about [the book’s author] Louise Fitzhugh, and I eventually found out that, yes, [Fitzhugh] was gay. It was something about [Harriet]…she was not interested in boys, she was not interested in dresses, she had zero interest in the things the girls in the other books I was reading were interested in. I think that’s what I was picking up on. Harriet was all about her work.
As Margaret Blount says, The Mouse and His Child defies classification, and is therefore of interest to critics and children’s literature enthusiasts:
Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and His Child (1969) is such a strange, haunting and distinguished book that it is very difficult to classify. It is about toy mice, yet the clockwork father and son move through a world in which small animals act out human dramas.
‘Key words’ in storytelling is a slightly wider-ranging way to describe the motif.
Key words, phrases, taglines, and sounds [have] the potential to carry special meaning, symbolically or thematically, the way a symphony uses certain instruments, such as the triangle, here and there for emphasis. The trick to building this meaning is to have your characters say the word many more times than normal. The repetition, especially in multiple contexts, has a cumulative effect on the audience.
— John Truby, Anatomy of Story
John Truby is a screenwriting guru, so obviously his focus is on key words as the audience hears them in dialogue.
James Wood, whose speciality is adult literature, recognises the same technique on the page, and how it relates to real life:
We all know people in real life who […] use a series of jingles and tags and repetitive gestures to maintain a certain kind of performance.
— James Wood, How Fiction Works
At TV Tropes, you’ll find an entry for ‘Arc Words‘: Words or a phrase that appears throughout the story as an Arc or as a Motif.
Likewise, the arc phrase is employed by many authors of middle grade fiction.
Examples Of Key Words In Middle Grade Fiction
In Once by Morris Gleitzman the arc phrase word involves the word Once, which was introduced — most obviously — as the title.
Everybody deserves to have something good in their life. At least once.
Barney said that everybody deserves to have something good in their life at least once. I have. More than once.
Related to arc phrases are ‘catch phrases’.
The hero of Once is in a dire situation — he is a Polish kid in the Nazi era, dodging murder at every turn. It would be easy for this story to turn into a sob story, so Gleitzman has him use the phrase, “You know how…” whenever he’s telling the reader something terrible about his life. This is more of a character tic than a motif.
The first example occurs at the third sentence of the book, and these situations he describes only get more and more dire:
You know how when a nun serves you very hot soup from a big metal pot and she makes you lean in close so she doesn’t drip and the steam from the pot makes your glasses go all misty and you can’t wipe them because you’re holding your dinner bowl and the fog doesn’t clear even when you pray to God, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the Pope and Adolf Hitler?
That’s happening to me.
Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce is a middle grade novel which was written concurrently with the screenplay. My point is that the book was written by an experienced writer of screenplays. Naturally Cottrell Boyce made use of all he knew about screenplays when writing the middle grade novel.
In Millions, the first person storyteller narrator repeats the phrase, “To get X about it…”
Judy Moody (series written by Megan McDonald) has a catch phrase — I don’t know if it’s a regional dialect but I’ve never heard it before: “Rare!” My seven-year-old started using this word only after reading it in Judy Moody, though she did use it in the general way rather than in the Judy Moody way, as an exclamation.
Joan Aiken’s raven, Mortimer, squawks “Nevermore!” in reference to the classic poem, which is funny because the stories are slapstick humorous whereas the poem is gothic horror. Apart from making squawk type sounds this is the only word he knows. Aiken adroitly contrives a surprising number of occasions in which he can use it.
Unintentional Pop Culture Spoofing
Chances are that looking back on your childhood experience of reading Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series, you remember ‘lashings of‘ in reference to the picnics — lashings of cream, lashings of butter, lashings of ginger beer. If you happen to re-read those books the word ‘lashings’ doesn’t actually appear all that often. But for some reason it stuck! Helped along by Comic Strip Presents… Five Go Mad In Dorset parody. ‘Lashings’ became part of pop culture mostly as a derisive comment on Blyton’s unimaginative prose, I suspect (she could pump these out one per week). I’m sure this spoof does the popularity of the series no harm.
If Enid Blyton had belonged to a critique group, or had she been more of a stylist, her (over)use of the word ‘lashings’ may have been edited out. But as Blyton’s ‘lashings’ demonstrates, even unintentional overuse of a word can become part of its enduring popularity.
To celebrate the 10 year anniversary of Once by Maurice Gleitzman, an Australian middle grade novel by one of our best known children’s book authors, I’m going to take a close look at it using the 7-step story structure which applies to pretty much everything from advertisements to picture books to novels.
The Redemptive Power Of Literature
This is also a story about the Redemptive Power of Literature, about how creating your own stories in the midst of terror can get you through tough times. This is a common theme in MG fiction and it sells pretty well, perhaps because people buying the bulk of books love stories which are about the greatness of books. (Our picture book app The Artifacts is another example, as is The Amazing Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore app by Moonbot Studios.) We know that Felix’s family is ‘Good’ because they owned a bookshop. The mother cared more about books than about clothes, which is what the former bookshop has become since it was taken over by Nazi Germans. (Subtext: Books = depth of emotion, clothes = surface/superficiality/image.) The boy whose family now owns his old book shop even used to wipe his bogeys on the pages of books, which is a concise way of building an ignorant, uncouth character who we know not to identify with. The nun who shelters Felix, too, is a book lover who never had anything bad to say about a book.
On the other hand, books which glorify books can sound a bit insular and twee — Felix has been a big reader, but the downside of this attribute is also shown; Felix learned how to tell if something is dead out of a book, yet he has no street smarts. He’s all knowledge, no clues.
Necessary Prior Knowledge
The reader needs to know the very basics of WW2 — that Nazis killed Jews in Poland. Even then, younger readers without this knowledge will travel through the story with the same level of naivety of Felix, and undergo an historical revelation at the same time Felix discovers the truth. In other words, young readers will respond differently to this book depending upon this prior knowledge.
Once by Morris Gleitzman is an excellent example of a MG story with an unreliable narrator. The reader is given enough information within the first few chapters to know that Felix is a Jewish boy living in Poland during the Nazi era and his life is in danger. Poor, naive Felix knows something fishy is going on but he hasn’t got his facts quite right: he thinks the Germans are after his Jewish parents because they don’t like the books they sell in their shop. He doesn’t know about the plan to rid the world of Jews.
The book is written from the first person point of view and in the present tense. The linguistic trick which is repeated: Every chapter opens with the titular word ‘Once’. Maria Nikolajeva, when writing about children’s literature in From Mythic To Linear: Time In Children’s Literature breaks prose in children’s books into two distinct categories according to the treatment of time:
1. The iterative — In an iterative sentence, it is assumed that whatever is happening has always happened and will continue to keep happening.
2. The singulative — In a singulative sentence, it is assumed that whatever is happening happened in this one story.
Whereas the iterative is associated with the phrase ‘Once upon a time’ (there lived three bears in a cottage…), by truncating this fairytale opening to ‘Once’, Gleitzman plunges the reader straight into the singular — the events in this book happened one time, to one boy. Yet the fairytale quality is still there: This happened long ago. The storyteller narrator is now much older, and is deliberately toying with us, letting us in on the joke of the dramatic irony.
It’s therefore a great choice to switch to the present tense after the single, past tense sentence that opens every chapter. A story written by an unreliable narrator — but one who has since learned the truth — would have no reason not to simply tell the reader the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. But the present tense voice is youthful, it takes the narrator himself right back to 1942, and the reader now feels as if the boy is telling us the story rather than the hypothetical old man who is a famous author running a cake shop in 1983. Whereas the opening sentence of each chapter is quite long, the present tense voice is almost staccato, and reads like a Paul Jennings story, with mostly very short sentences.
There is also a thematic reason for the word ‘Once’, which has its counterpoint on the dedication page:
For all the children whose stories have never been told.
In other words, this particular story only happened once to this one boy, but this sort of story has happened so many times over the course of history that the ‘once’ becomes an ironic counterpoint.
On the inside of the back cover we read:
Everybody deserves to have something good in their life. At least once.
This is truncated from the part where Barney buys Felix some secondhand books with three precious turnips and justifies them by saying everybody deserves something good in their life at least once.
There is a juxtaposition between the dire situation of Hitler’s eugenics regime and the voice of our narrator which, because of his naivety, feels justified.
The Main Character
Felix is immediately likeable, which is important in a character who is basically clueless. This is like the MG equivalent of a picture book like Rosie’s Walk — he’s walking around in extreme danger of being shot but narrowly avoids it at every turn.
Likeable child heroes stand up for other children. We see Felix do just that in the opening pages. Likeable heroes are generally the underdog, which is also by far the most common stock character in comedies for adults, too. We like to see underdogs get into and out of scrapes. On the road, he even saves a girl by carrying her on his back. Boys are even more likeable if they rescue girls than if they rescue other boys — a narrative we also saw in the aftermath of 9/11, which Susan Faludi points out in her book Terror Dream, became the dominant narrative — male firefighters saving women and children — and plunged America back into a mindset which glamorised the gender dynamic of the 1950s that exists mostly in our collective imagination.
Felix becomes even more likeable as we see that Zelda, the little girl he has rescued, behaves like a spoilt brat, with some stock brat behaviours such as sticking out her bottom lip, being ungrateful to Felix who has saved her, and turning Felix’s story around to be about her. She complains about Felix’s smelly hat, as prissy girls do.
An audience also loves trickster characters. There’s an element of Felix getting away with something by pretending to be an orphan when he’s not. (At least, he thinks he’s pretending, and we hope so, too.)
Seven Step Story Structure of Once
As in the best MG stories, the weakness/need, desire and opponent are all established within the first few pages.
Felix is naive. This is going to endanger his life, because if he knew what was good for him, he’d stay where he is, sheltered in the Catholic orphanage in the mountains of Poland. Naivety is a pretty common weakness in MG heroes.
In order to live a good life, Felix must learn the truth of his situation.
It has been more than 3 years since his parents left him in the orphanage and his great desire is to be reunited with them.
The opponents are the Nazis, not that Felix knows this. However, the reader knows this, which is enough.
The inciting incident happens on the first page. Felix finds a whole carrot floating in his soup. He takes this as some sort of sign from his parents. He will break out of the orphanage, go back to his house in the village and find his parents working in their bookshop.
He finds that when he gets to the bookshop his parents are no longer living there.
The battle is often a three part affair: gate, gauntlet, visit to death.
The gate scenes happen as the two children walk to the city, where they come across death and destruction everywhere. The image of the dead old lady is resonant, especially since Felix wants to carry her on his back as well as Zelda but doesn’t have the capacity.
There is a really clear gauntlet scene as the children walk into the city. There are soldiers lining the street and Gleitzman paints a really clear picture:
The wide streets are dirty and the tall buildings, five levels high some of them, have all got Nazi flags hanging off the balconies and out of the windows. Army trucks and tanks are parked everywhere and lots of soldiers are standing around telling each other foreign jokes and laughing.
Then there is an actual gate:
We’re heading for a big brick wall right across the street. That’s a very strange place to build a wall. There’s a gate in the wall with soldiers guarding it and the people ahead of us are going through the gate.
The visit to death is where Felix has the revelation that things are much worse than he thought:
What was that noise?
Everyone is screaming.
Over by the wall two people are lying on the ground bleeding.
Zelda is taken away from Felix at gunpoint and he winds up on the ground. This is a clear ‘visit to death’.
He is saved by a large man in ‘scuffed’ attire. This reminds me of stories such as the Grimm Brothers’ version of Little Red Riding Hood in which a large man rides in to save the child from the beast. It’s generally a good idea to have kids find their own way out of trouble, but in a situation such as this that would be unrealistic. Also, the young hero’s entire desire is to find his parents and save them. Being saved by a large man emphasises how powerless he really is compared to how much he thinks he can achieve. He thinks that if only his parents hadn’t put him in an orphanage he would have been able to save them somehow.
It’s worth noting that later, in the dire situation in the train, on their way to the Death Camp, it is indeed Felix who saves everyone, though inadvertently. He literally saves the day with his book of stories by generously donating the notebook as toilet paper, which he tries to hang on a bolt of the wall, then realises the boards are rotten and they can all escape. The other take home point there is that the earlier battle scene wasn’t actually the most dire. Gleitzman really does get our hero into the worst situation before he comes good.
In the face of evidence everywhere, Felix eventually works out what has probably happened to his parents. There is no single epiphany — we see his psychological slump when he doesn’t want to tell the other children he meets up with his stories. They have a fairytale quality and he feels they’re irrelevant and pointless in the face of such doom. But he doesn’t lose hope entirely. When Barney tells Felix his parents might not ever be found, Felix is sure he is wrong.
There is an audience reveal near the end of the story too — Zelda’s parents are actually Polish Nazis who have been killed by the Polish resistance for being turncoats. This revelation adds some much needed gray area into a story about war. The problem with war stories is that the audience always roots for the hero. The enemy appears in ‘long shots’ — like the nemesis in superhero stories the enemy tends to be outright evil, and never victims of the same circumstance.
This part of the story has been truncated for the purpose of leaving the reader uncertain about Felix and Zelda’s future. “At least we get to choose,” Felix says, of the decision to either jump from the moving train or not. Likewise, the readers get to choose our own ending, and just enough detail is given about the cake shop scenario (an example of side shadowing) that readers can choose that as the story’s reality if they want to. When the story leaves off, however, Zelda and Felix are in the middle of nowhere, having jumped from a death camp train during wartime and Zelda is injured.
A further note on the ending: Just before the last third of the story we are encouraged to believe that Felix is not going to find his parents, but we’re fairly confident Barney the kind dentist will step in to be the parental figure. When Barney heads off towards the Death Camp with a pocket full of syringes this alternative ending we’ve been asked to consider makes the actual ending so much more sad. A similar technique is used in many tragedies, for example in the film Million Dollar Baby. In the hospital Maggie and Frankie discuss going to live in a cabin somewhere in the woods where Frankie will be able to immerse himself in his books while looking after Maggie. Because this alternative ending has been posed, Maggie’s death seems all the more of a shock. The story craft lesson here: In order to get the most emotion out of a sad ending, make sure you pose an alternative, happy ending first, whether this is done overtly (as in the dialogue of Million Dollar Baby), or subtly, as books are better able to do.
And a further note on the character of Barney: This is a rare example of a an adult male who displays emotion.
“I can feel Barney’s tears falling on me. For a while he doesn’t say anything, just strokes my head.”
This is great to see in a children’s book since they aren’t seeing it on the screen. As Howard Suber (film expert) quite rightly points out about movies:
Three kinds of people are allowed to express fear: children, women and men who will come to an unfortunate end. In all three cases, fear is a weakness that either requires someone else to do the job or is a kind of fatal flaw.
— Howard Suber, writing about film (also in 2006)
Although Once reads like a standalone book, it is actually the first of a four part series. So readers do in fact get to know what happens to Felix and Zelda next.
TITLES RELATED TO ONCE
For more related titles to different books, see Value Packed Book Talks by Lucy Schall