Child moves house and starts at new school. This trope is hard to write well because it has been done so many times before. But it’s very useful, because many children’s stories are about friendship, and all stories about friendship must start from a point of loneliness. Everyone is lonely when they move to a new place.
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 Coralinehave 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 young adult stories 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.
CHILDREN MOVE HOUSE BOOKS
Observations from the list below: Many children’s series include one book in which the character moves house. Some authors rely on the moving house storyline time and again. Jean Little is one such author. There are a large number of moving house books entitled simply, “Moving House”.
Strays Like Us is a 1998 middle grade novel by American author Richard Peck. (155 pages)
Peck not only understands the fragile emotions of adolescents, he also knows what kind of characters will pique their interest. In this tender novel, he paints a richly detailed portrait of Molly, a drug-addict’s daughter sent at the age of 12 to live with a great-aunt she has never met. Molly soon discovers others like her in this small town full of secrets.
Strays Like Us is set in The (American) South but is not a Southern Novel as such. This is one of those American stories which could easily be set elsewhere — like lots of ‘midwestern’ stories set in suburbia or small towns. Molly’s story could belong to many kids all over.
This one happens to take place in small town Missouri. The ‘small’ town is significant because of the way gossip works:
“How did the guys find out anyway?”
“Becasue they don’t let you keep a secret in a town like this.”
Although this is like a 1950s utopia in some ways, there is a lot of poverty in this town and turns out to be an snail under the leaf setting. Richard Peck is making a statement about income inequality when he writes:
“There’s things they can do now for what Fred had,” [Aunt Fay] said finally. “But he didn’t have insurance.”
The story opens with Molly up a tree. She is in semi-hiding up here, melding with nature, and although in reality trees are reliant on each other via their root system, the common understanding of tree symbolism is that they stand ‘tall, proud and alone’, like Molly at the beginning of her character arc.
The exact year of this story is unclear — there is mention of computers and microwaves so I believe it is set in the late 1990s, at time of publication. Still, there is a 1950s feel about it. Locals are starting to feel suspicious of strangers, because until this period everyone has known everyone here.
The 1990s was the era of peak fear when it came to AIDS. We heard about it a lot — it was feared in the West unlike anything else, mostly associated with gay sex and illegal drug use and therefore highly stigmatised. Young readers today probably haven’t encountered that attitude in their own milieu, as AIDS has largely left public consciousness in the West, replaced by other fears such as the odd ebola outbreak, or mosquito borne encephalitis.
More clear than the exact year of the setting is the month of each incident. The reader is grounded in time with consistent reference to the month, the holiday event (be it Thanksgiving, Christmas or the beginning of the school year/start of a new one) and the season (whether Molly can hear bees or not and so on). Reference to season is more common in stories for and starring girls.
Spring came in a hurry here, before I knew it. The wind softened, and I felt the year revolving under my feet. Bare branches began to bud, and I remembered the heavy green shade of the trees, last summer when I’d come.
Nature also tends to be important in feminine stories, connected inextricably to the seasons in most ‘storybook’ parts of the world. Richard Peck manages to convey the ‘apparentness’ of this snail under the leaf setting by adding ‘fake grass’:
We stood in a little know beside a patch of fake grass where the casket rested. There weren’t any flowers. Mrs McKinney and Aunt Fay looked smaller than they were, hunched in their winter coats.
Richard Peck also uses a technique which makes any social situation more interesting — he abuts rich and poor people together, linking them inextricably. Molly herself is genetically related to a rich woman, but her whole life she’s lived in poverty. This is a version of a Cinderella rags-to-riches tale. Mrs Voorhees, bed-ridden and hypochondriac despite having married into riches after her first husband died in the grain elevator, shows that money can’t buy happiness — the modern take on the rags-to-riches story.
REVEALS IN THE NARRATIVE OF STRAYS LIKE US
Contains spoilers, of course.
Strays Like Us is a masterclass in drip-feeding information. In a quiet story like this one, these reveals provide the necessary reasons to keep reading.
Molly’s mother is a drug addict
Who is in hospital
And who has checked herself out back in October even though it is now Christmas
Will’s father is not in prison after all, he’s cooped up inside Will’s house with pneumonia
Which turns out to be AIDS
The homeschooled girl Molly meets at the library seems to have the perfect family situation but engages in criminal behaviour when she sets fire to the school
And is badly burned
In chapter 14, the wealthy, lonely woman Molly visits turns out to be her grandmother
Chapter 14 also gives readers and Molly the true extent of her mother’s terribleness. She is trying to use her status as a ‘mother’ to prevent a stint in jail for dealing in dope.
These reveals are in most cases based on lies told to other people, half-truths told to save feelings and stories told to comfort oneself. A lot of middle grade stories ask readers to consider the function of lies versus truth, and this is a good example.
The revelation that Will really does have a father turns out to be a bit of a ‘reversal’ so far as Molly’s concerned. She thought she was like him, but now she realises she’s alone in her predicament. This is possibly the worst thing that Molly can hear right now, just as it’s clear her own mother is not on her way to collect her and in fact has gone AWOL. This is how Richard Peck puts his main character through her paces, doing the worst to her but within the confines of a safe environment.
STORY STRUCTURE OF STRAYS LIKE US
NARRATION AND VIEWPOINT OF STRAYS LIKE US
Written in first person, Molly Moberly looks back to an earlier time in her life. At the time of ‘writing’, she is older and wiser. We are constantly reminded that this is written by an older person looking back. As a narrator, the older Molly is able to hint at differences between what is ‘true’ and what is ‘perceived’ by herself at the time. She is also able to tantalisingly foreshadow the reveals by telling the reader that there are secrets about this snail under the leaf setting waiting to be uncovered.
Will wouldn’t have to pay because of what happened to his dad. That’s what I thought because that’s what I wanted to think.
The Kirkus reviewer describes this form of narration as ‘abrupt and somewhat detached’ and also ‘wistful’ and ‘ingenuous’, showing that when it comes to picking your narrative technique, you simply cannot please everyone. However, Kirkus does admit that the narration ‘gains strength’ as the story progresses.
What do you think?
I’ve done no study on this, but it feels like alliterative names are more common in children’s literature, as well as in light-hearted genre fiction for adults. Molly Moberly, Missouri. This story has dark themes and Molly’s alliterative name — in a very small way — helps remind us somehow that this is a children’s story. Molly’s isn’t the only alliterative name; we also have Brandi Braithwaite and Rocky Roberts.
Molly Moberly has a ‘ghost’ which is revealed to the reader in drips and drabs but quite early on. She has been sent to a new foster home in yet another town because her drug-addicted mother is unable to care for her. Molly needs to find a parental figure. She also needs to let go of her biological mother ever fulfilling that role for her.
Because Molly is scared of rejection, she is disinclined to make friends, ostensibly because she figures she won’t be sticking around long enough to bother making any. When Will from next door introduces himself she treats him badly by rejecting his offer of friendship and hoping he’ll roll off the roof.
Molly has no wish other than to keep her head down, out of trouble, with her new life on hold waiting for her mother to come and get her.
More deeply, she wishes for stability and family.
OPPONENTS AND ALLIES
Will McKinney is a fake-opponent ally. He is in a similar situation to Molly — with precarious family circumstances and a lot going on.
Other opponents are well-meaning, as opponents often can be. Mrs Pringle, the well-meaning full-time mother who gives Molly a pile of clothes is trying to help, but ends up potentially damaging Molly’s sense of self-sufficiency by treating her as a charity case.
Aunt Fay is a true ally, understanding Molly’s emotional needs and giving good advice. Aunt Fay is the motherly figure Molly needs. Aunt Fay is well-developed as a character. When Will’s father dies we are given the hint of an existential crisis when she looks away out her side window at the tombstones and laments her own capacity for keeping the man alive or being able to keep him comfortable.
The cast of demented and sick people in Aunt Fay’s life make for a cast of eccentric and crotchety characters, alternately grateful and annoyed by Molly’s existence. These characters are not fleshed out — we don’t get to know their motivations. They function mostly as thumbnail sketches within Molly’s journey.
Rocky Roberts is a misunderstood villain. Like the disfigured man in Wolf Hollow, he is the handy scapegoat for bad things that happen in this small town.
Nelson Washburn stands for people who cast judgment over others without scrutinising the facts. Brandi Braithwaite, a caricature of a snarky adolescent girl, goes one step further and full-on makes up a story about seeing Rocky Roberts with a can of petrol on the night of the arson. These characters are opponents of ‘the truth’, which is what Aunt Fay stands for, and what her great niece Molly strives towards.
In a post-Pollyanna kind of way, Molly learns to care for herself by first caring for others, looking outside her own situation to see that others have their own problems, even when it appears they are living in a kind of utopia. This is Aunt Fay’s plan, no doubt, rather than Molly’s own idea. But usually in these stories, where a ‘plan’ has been foisted upon them by someone else, about halfway through the main character will switch from being extrinsically to intrinsically motivated. When Molly plays cards with Mrs Voorhees we know she’s switched her mindset. Nobody told her she had to do it — she sees Aunt Fay caring for others and takes her lead.
Aunt Fay models a necessary but uncomfortable confrontation about boundaries by having it out with hypochondriac Edith Voorhees who is sapping too much of her time and emotional energy. This marks the beginning of Molly’s anagnorisis — that things are always in flux:
Why couldn’t [Aunt Fay] go back to being the way she’d been, getting sassed by Mrs. Voorhees and sassing her back? Why did things have to keep changing, even here?
Next, Aunt Fay has another uncomfortable conversation with the coach when he brings in an injured Will, in a town where people are worried about the blood of the son of the man who just died from AIDS.
“Then talk plain. I do.”
In this way, Aunt Fay is modelling the telling of truth.
Next it’s Molly’s turn to have a big struggle of her own. Chapter 13 (a symbolic number?) describes the conflagration at the high school. This is the outer ‘big struggle’ which symbolises Molly’s internal growth. At the beginning of this chapter she is still keeping her ‘Debbie notebook around’ — though she’s only using the blank pages to keep notes about school, not to write fiction about her mother. The pace quickens as Aunt Fay is challenged with the task of getting Tracy Pringle’s mother to call the ambulance, with the ticking-clock of a badly burned child. Waiting downstairs, Molly realises that this big house is ‘too empty’. It dawns on her that Tracy doesn’t have a father (and that she is therefore not the only ‘stray’). The Pringles’ house appeared at first glance to be a warm house but is in fact cold and unwelcoming.
This is a story about found family, popular in middle grade stories. The message is, “You need to start finding your own people, because those you got lumped with by circumstance aren’t necessarily the best people for you.”
Strays Like Us makes use of the ‘Magical Age Of 12′ principle, in which Molly Moberly is 12 at the beginning of the story, turns 13 partway through it, and this maps exactly with her character arc from ‘naively hopeful’ to ‘realistic and rational’. In tandem, Will goes through the masculine version of coming-of-age, growing tall with a thicker neck and bigger muscles, especially after he loses his father and his grandfather mistakes him for father.
If you do not have a happy ending for the young, you had better do some fast talking.
— Richard Peck
The story ends when Molly is 13 and a half. She’s growing out of childhood pastimes that require getting her hands dirty. The story has followed the course of one full year and the final scene places Molly back up the leafy tree from the opening scene, creating circularity and the sense of an ending.
Something’s happened to summer. It melted away before we knew it.
Summer is of course a metaphor for childhood. The seasonal emphasis in this story has marked Molly’s trials in her journey from childhood to adolescent.
Molly gives the social worker her precious Debbie notebook, no longer precious. She wants Debbie to have it if it gets to her, which is the outer reason for her getting rid of it, but at a psychological level she is letting go of the idea that her birth mother will ever be her real mother.
I loved my mother, and she loved me. She loved me like a rag doll you drag around and then leave out in the rain. I still love her, but I live here.
This middle grade novel offers no neat solution to the social issues presented. This may or may not feel satisfying, depending on what the reader needs from a novel:
The novel settles upon a host of difficult issues and then, indescribably, lets them go: When Will sustains a bloody injury while playing ball, the coach requests that he quit the team because other members are afraid of contracting HIV. Instead of countering this ignorance, Will retreats, and the issue is dropped, with only a few utterances of protest from Aunt Fay. The novel becomes something of a treatise about a generation of children who have been cast aside by their parents; with its compelling premises and Molly’s fragile but tautly convincing voice, it will be seized upon by Peck’s fans, but may leave them longing for more.
A descendent of The Secret Garden, sibling of The Chronicles of Narnia and ancestor to The BFG, Tom’s Midnight Garden is an influential and much-loved book which won the Carnegie Medal.
In Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce the moon is heavily symbolic. Night = day as the fantasy world = the real world. This middle grade novel is an example of low fantasy.
SETTING OF TOM’S MIDNIGHT GARDEN
Real World Connection
The author grew up in Cambridgeshire but calls it Castleford here. This allows her to deviate from reality, placing objects where she likes them. It’s a convenient trick.
For the purpose of some of her fiction, including Tom, Pearce put a creative spin on the Cambridgeshire countryside. Thus, the villages of Great Shelford and Little Shelford became Great Barley and Little Barley. And the major city of Cambridge became Castleford minus the famous university. Oddly, the cathedral city of Ely, which figures prominently in Tom, retained its real name. And running throughout, the omnipresent River Cam became the River Say. Although not specifically mentioned in the book, all indications are that, since the real house and garden were located in Great Shelford, Pearce placed Tom and Hatty’s garden in, or very close to, the renamed Great Barley.
The story has been criticised for romanticising aristocratic England. We are lead to believe it’s a huge shame that the beautiful old mansion has been broken down into flats, but what is the alternative? For plebs to continue to live in servitude, while the aristocratic class live like kings?
The Mysterious Mansion
The aunt and uncle’s house is a large house surrounded by many little ones. We know immediately that this house is ‘different’. Mysterious. We can expect mysteries. It is also old — linked to the past — and was once a mansion but has since been divided into smaller flats. The aunt and uncle’s house lies north of Cambridgeshire, where the author herself grew up and where she set her stories.
Compared to Australians, at least, English readers are quite likely to believe in ghosts. It is therefore no surprise that Tom jumps to this conclusion after going through the portal.
This is a portal fantasy. The fantasy has similar workings to The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe in that a child stumbles upon a door to another world inside the house where they have been sent to escape something going on at home. When they go back to prove their discovery the world has disappeared — this world is meant only for Tom.
The story starts with a case of measles.
Measles have been a problem for humans for centuries. While white people developed some immunity over the centuries, they carried the measles virus to native people around the world and put severe, irreparable dents in their populations. In the 1950s, around 500,000 children a year caught the disease, and about 100 died as a result. It was therefore taken seriously. Tom’s Midnight Garden was published in 1958, and although breakthroughs were already being made at around this time it took another 10 years for children to start being vaccinated in Britain. However, people still weren’t vaccinating their children. As recently as 1988 there were still 80,000 cases of measles a year among children in England, including 16 deaths. This changed when the vaccination was combined into the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine. The number of measles cases dropped significantly after that. But in 1998 there was another hit to the program after some false news emerged that vaccines cause autism. There has been some recovery from this scare, with around 95% of children receiving the vaccination, but there is still a large proportion of children of the 1990s who missed the vaccine and may never have it.
His moral shortcoming is introduced first, though I may be having a different reaction to Tom as an adult reader who is now a mother — Tom doesn’t understand the reason for his being sent away and is in a strop about it. Instead of thinking about how much his brother must be suffering with measles he is completely inward-focussed and laments the loss of the summer he imagined, having fun with his brother climbing the apple tree in the backyard and so on. He fails to say a genuine farewell to his mother, though this is somewhat mutual.
The paragraph about the apple tree in the description of his own backyard tells us Tom’s need: He needs to be close to nature in order to be happy.
Tom’s desire is to stay in his own house and enjoy the freedom of typical summer holidays. Like many stories about children of this age, this is about one boy’s quest for freedom — spiritual if not actual.
Tom’s mother is his first opponent, for wanting something different — she doesn’t want him to catch measles, and I’m sure she doesn’t want to have to look after more than one sick son at a time.
Uncle Alan and Aunt Gwen are opponents simply by virtue of conspiring with his mother to host him at their house.
Once at his aunt and uncle’s house a mysterious character is introduced, though adult readers will recognise The Woman In The Attic trope — “Mrs Barthlomew upstairs” who is the owner of the mysterious grandfather clock which strikes 13 o’clock. She dresses all in black and other adult characters give the impression she’s not to be messed with.
Tom is fighting against his imprisonment. He plans to get around his measles quarantine in any way he can, even if it means never actually leaving the house. For starters he’ll find out the yard is like, even though it’s apparently nothing to write home about.
When he finds the magical garden he confronts his aunt and uncle, who lied to him about their poky little backyard. He realises only he can see it.
Now he needs to find out as much about it as he can.
The mystery deepens as characters emerge on the scene:
Are they ghosts?
Is Tom, perhaps, a ghost in the style of Sixth Sense or The Others? These Dead All Along films are much more recent than this children’s book of course, but they were based on older stories such as “An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge” from 1890 (also an episode of The Twilight Zone). I’m thinking maybe Tom died of the measles and though he thinks he was waving to his brother Peter he was actually waving to the live version of himself? The thing about the Dead All Along trope, once you realise the character is dead all along, everything prior in the story makes more sense. That’s not what happens in this case. The explanation is a bit different.
The big struggle scene is Tom rushing downstairs trying to get through the gate and failing, realising he can never go back.
I’m sure this book is a Rorschach test, with the reader imposing individual meanings onto the text. For me this story is about the end of childhood. You can never go back. But what if you could? You can, of course, but only in your mind.
There is a ‘Scooby Doo’ chapter at the end in which all is explained. Mrs Bartholomew heard Tom screaming her name and summons him up to ‘apologise’, but really she wants to tell him that she is Hatty and Tom was sharing her memories.
In this story, however, the abundant and delicious food is used to show how Tom is stifled. He lies in a ‘snail under the leaf setting’ — safe from harm in the suburbs with people who care for him and his every need met — but for a boy who needs to spread his wings this is a prison.
Aunt Gwen’s cooking was the cause of Tom’s sleeplessness — that and lack of exercise. Tom had to stay indoors and do crossword puzzles and jigsaw puzzles, and never even answered the door when the milkman came, in case he gave the poor man measles. The only exercise he took was in the kitchen when he was helping his aunt to cook those large, rich meals — large and richer than Tom had ever known before.
The Technique of Side Shadowing
For a breakdown of the 3 main types of literary shadowing see here.
Side shadowing lets the reader know how else the story might have panned out. One reason for using this is to offer alternative endings, to ask the reader to consider some sort of theme, like justice, or if the character made the right choice in the end.
But in the case of Tom’s Midnight Garden, Philippa Pearce uses side shadowing mainly to reassure us that ‘This is not just your run-of-the-mill ghost story. I know you think you know how this is going to pan out because you’ve read plenty of ghost stories, no doubt. But I’m telling you you’re in for a surprise!”
She achieves that message with the following passage, written using ‘would’. Notice too the metafictive reference to “Tom’s” reading lots of children’s books — when Tom is a stand-in for the child reader:
Tom resolved that, as soon as he was better, he would call on Mrs Bartholomew. True, she was an unsociable old woman of whom people were afraid, but Tom could not let that stand in his way. He would boldly ring her front door bell; she would open her front door just a crack and peer crossly out at him. Then she would see him, and at the sight of his face her heart would melt (Tom had read of such occurrences in the more old-fashioned children’s books; he had never before thought them very probable, but now it suited him to believe): Mrs Bartholomew, who did not like children, would love Tom as soon as she saw his face. She would draw him inside at once, then and there; and later, over a tea-table laden with delicacies for him alone, she would tell Tom the stories of long ago. Sometimes Tom would ask questions, and she would answer them. ‘A little girl called Harriet, or Hatty?’ she would say, musingly. ‘Why, yes, my late husband told me once of such a child — oh! long ago! An only child she was, and an orphan. When her parents died her aunt took her into this house to live. Her aunt was a disagreeable woman…’
So the story, in Tom’s imagination, rolled on. It became confused and halting where Tom himself did not already know the facts; but after all, he would only have to wait to pay his call upon Mrs Bartholomew, to hear it all from her own lips. She would perhaps end her story, he thought, with a dropped of her voice: [old fashioned melodrama based on the oral tradition] ‘And since then, Tom, they say that she and her garden and all the rest haunt this house. They say that those who are lucky may go down, about when the clock strikes for midnight, and open what was once the garden door and see the ghost of that garden and of the little girl.’
Tom’s mind ran on the subject. His cold was getting so much better […]
For me the side shadowing happens at exactly the right moment, as my attention is starting to flag and I’m wondering if I can already predict the ending of this story.
Pearce also makes use of foreshadowing and also backshadowing in this story — an example of backshadowing is the reference to Hatty’s sons dying in The Great War, which she explains is now known as the First World War. This sort of real world detail is knowledge shared between audience and characters.
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.
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.
Visby is a town on the Swedish island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea. It’s known for its well-preserved town wall, a medieval fortification incorporating defensive towers. The town’s many churches include the grand, centuries-old St. Mary’s Cathedral and the medieval ruins of St. Nicolai and St. Karin. The main square, Stora Torget, has cobblestone streets lined with cafes and restaurants.
Where are these Miyazaki films set? Not in Japan but not in Europe, either. The utopian setting of Kiki’s Delivery Service (and several of the other Studio Ghibli films) has the trains, the hilly suburbs and the closeness of the sea but also has the cobbled streets and nooks and crannies of somewhere like Barcelona, with intratext on the signs looking a lot like English with a few flourishes reminiscent of kanji. We are to believe this is another world, a world where magic exists unobtrusively in the real world of the story.
[Studio Ghibli] shot 80 rolls of film in Stockholm and Visby, gathering location images as inspiration for the scenes in Koriko. For the most part, Koriko is composed of images of Stockholm. A side street in Stockholm’s old city, Gamla Stan, is one model. Sweden was the first foreign country Miyazaki ever visited.
Fictional Koriko is, however, much larger than Visby and features buildings and shops with the look of Stockholm.
The original Japanese title (both book and film) means ‘Witch’s Delivery Service’ which was personalised for the English film adaptation. I suspect this is because Western children have a slightly different set of expectations surrounding the witch trope. In the West, witches are the opponents and they are often genuinely scary and dangerous. This is a utopian story, and although Kiki is a witch, there’s not much witchy about her apart from her ability to fly on a broom. She is first and foremost a regular girl.
That said, Japanese mythology is not short on witches, oh far from it. But the scary woman Western children associate with the word ‘witch’ has most often got the word ‘baba’ in it (which loosely translates as ‘old hag’). For instance:
The amazake-babaa, who asks for sweet sake (mirin) and brings disease
The mikaribaba who has one eye — she visits your home and borrows sieves and also human eyes!
The Onibaba — a demonic hag from Adachigahara
Others are more benign and strangely specific:
Hikeshibaba extinguishes lanterns
Sunakake Baba sprinkles sand about
Also, I feel the creators did intend the Western version of the witch. At one point there is lampshading about why the crows are attacking her. Gigi points out that crows used to be witches’ allies. Kiki points out that “That was a long time ago!”
EPISODIC STRUCTURE IN KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE
The subtitle of Kiki’s Delivery Service means something like ‘Various Leapings’. This is an adventure story where Kiki undergoes a single, sustained character arc but it is also somewhat episodic, like Anne of Green Gables and other middle grade books for/starring girls.
Each delivery — and they tend to go a bit wrong — turns into an episode. I imagine these formed chapters in the original book. This affects pacing, of course, because the audience needs to see something’s at stake, and drama must escalate until the denouement. Eventually the ticking clock is used to amp up the tension — Kiki must make a delivery before Tombo comes to pick her up for the party at 6 o’clock. She doesn’t make it, and the audience is invited to share in Kiki’s pain.
MAGIC REALISM IN KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE
Magical realism, in other words. We first see Kiki as she prepares to take off for her one year stint away from home. Via backstory delivered by an old woman (the grandmother?) talking to the mother we learn that witches must spend a year away from home as part of their training. It’s tradition. Kiki is 13 — a transition age in literature as well as in life — and must wait for the right winds and a full moon before taking off. There’s something almost Amish about this tradition and, like many documentaries about Amish communities, we are left with a feeling of hygge.
A GENUINE UTOPIA
The entire homestead is hygge, with healthy vines growing up the sides of a thatched roof house, and a vibrant, healthy garden. This is the dream house as described by Gaston Bachelard, with Kiki’s bedroom on the top floor — a gabled ceiling adding to the cosiness.
It’s the sort of film which inspires diorama enthusiasts to make scenes such as this:
You can even buy wall art like this:
DESIRE AND WEAKNESS
Kiki’s desire line is introduced right away as she rushes inside to tell her mother she’s leaving, having listened to the weather.
Next we get a small insight into her psychological shortcoming — she gazes at herself in a full-length mirror and is disappointed in her dress. Kiki is shown to be overly concerned about the colour of her black dress. This will be her downfall. Modern believers in the nurture theory will also note with interest that the father treats his 13 year old daughter like a toddler — partly for old time’s sake, throwing her up in the air — but also calls her his ‘princess’ (at least in the English dub). Kiki has been nurtured in a way that makes her fussy about clothes.
Kiki also has a practical shortcoming — she isn’t that great at flying. This is a great shortcoming to have as it allows for plenty of nail-biting scenes as she loses control of her stick. It’s made even worse when the mother insists she take the old broom rather than the one she’s been practising on.
AN ODYSSEAN MYTHICAL STRUCTURE
There are three main types of mythic structures and Kiki is of the Odyssean kind, in which a hero (in this case a little girl rather than the usual man) leaves home, encounters a variety of characters, learns more about herself then returns home (or finds a new one). It’s a structure as old as the hills, and popular with audiences worldwide. This explains why this Japanese story is popular with other audiences.
THE CHARACTERS KIKI MEETS ON HER JOURNEY
A shortcoming of the Odyssean structure is that — at least to this modern viewer — it can feel like one damn opponent after another. Then, of course, there’s the big big struggle. It gets a bit ho-hum. Here’s the other thing: in a utopian children’s story there can’t really be any genuine opponents. What have we got instead?
The first opponent is a classic dynamic in a girls’s story — Kiki encounters the snooty, slightly older witch who rejects Kiki as being from the country.
This is swiftly followed by the weather, which the radio said was going to be perfect but turns into a storm. (Later in the story we have a heavy rain — the kind of rain that a Japanese audience is used to, as it rains like that every June during ‘rainy season’.)
The cows who lick Kiki’s foot at first might be angry but turn out to be benign (and humorous). By the way, this is a classic fairy tale trope — hiding in a haycart to escape. A maiden escapes her psychopathic groom in the Bluebeard tale collected by the Grimms — “The Castle Of Murder”. Obviously, this children’s tale is a lot more benign than that.
When Kiki reaches Koriko the townspeople are not friendly. They haven’t seen a witch in many years and don’t know what to make of her. They don’t flat out reject her, either. The overall hostile feeling is symbolised by the policeman, who tells her to be careful flying her broom otherwise it’s a traffic violation.
Tombo — making use of dramatic irony — is instantly attracted to Kiki but Kiki’s main psychological shortcoming comes to the fore and she rejects him as some sort of enemy. Tombo is actually an ally, but a romantic opponent. Middle grade stories often have a romantic subplot — this one is mirrored by the romance betwen Gigi and the white cat next to the bread shop. The ‘romance’ is based on the shared interest of flying, and is really just a deep friendship. The two will only get together after they have been shown to be equals.
It is only after making Kiki suffer through all of this opposition that she gets a lucky break and meets the pregnant owner of a bread shop who takes Kiki under her wing as a not-quite-mother figure (the mythical mentor, to use Joseph Campbell’s terminology). Asono is in danger of becoming a bit too ingratiating, telling Tombo not to phone back (even though Kiki secretly wants him to), but we find out in a subsequent scene that in fact Asono has Kiki’s number — she orchestrates them getting together in the end.
Asono’s husband is a huge, strong man who doesn’t say a word and at first we might wonder if he is an opponent. We first see him from Kiki’s viewpoint as she tries to exit the outhouse one morning. Here’s a bit of Japanese culture worth mentioning: In Japan (with women, for sure), when you’re in the toilet cubicle you are anonymous. No talking to your friends between stalls in malls or any of that business. Don’t try to talk to someone who’s sitting on the can. This scene with Kiki makes more sense if you understand it’s embarrassing for a girl to be seen by a man exiting a toilet. (Girls don’t poop, or something.) However, we soon see this guy wink at Gigi, showing off about how well he can spin buns on a tray. He makes that sign for Kiki’s business — a beautiful creation made of glazed bread. This is a laconic giant with a heart of gold.
Some of the delivery recipients are nice; others are haughty. There is a direct correlation between rich, ostentatious houses and haughty, ungrateful people — another moral lesson. The dopey dog turns out to be an unwitting ally — and a great comic character. (Both horror baddies and comical characters are robotic, acting as if they’re not allowed to deviate from some script. When the big dog delivers Gigi safely outside it’s because he’s been told to and he has no real choice.)
Kiki’s confidante turns out to be a slightly older woman, living on her own, sketching by day. She is more confident than Kiki, both sexually and otherwise. She doesn’t appear to be so friendly at first, making Kiki wait while she finishes her sketch before Kiki can finish her mission. But sometimes people who are not overly friendly turn out to be the best of friends (in romantic plots as well as in friendship ones). It is indeed this older friend who leads Kiki to have her own anagnorisis. After a speech about needing inspiration in order to create, Kiki says, “Maybe I have to find my own inspiration.” There we have it, the character arc. Now she just needs to make good with Tombo.
The snobby, well-dressed girls are mostly opponents inside Kiki’s imagination, as she feels she is not as pretty as they are. Also, they are spending time with Tombo. She wishes she were them, in some ways.
Tombo is probably a nickname, because in Japanese it means ‘dragonfly’. Dragonflies are a common sight in a Japanese summer and if you watch a lot of anime you’ll already have noticed that for a Japanese audience the dragonfly is strongly associated with summer, and laidback atmospheres.
The dragonfly has the most impressive flying mechanics found in all of nature, and human technology has not yet been able to replicate its ability to duck and dive — the tombo has the most exquisite control.
GIGI THE CAT
The cat character serves three main purposes:
His sardonic tone moderates what might otherwise be a saccharine story.
The romantic subplot, which is mirrored by Kiki and Tombo
Symbolically, Gigi is Kiki’s inner voice. We hear via Gigi what Kiki is really thinking even as she tries to remain upbeat and ‘keeping on smiling’, as advised by her witch mother. This explains why Kiki loses the ability to understand Gigi. She has lost a part of herself, in turmoil, unable to express her liking for Tombo, hindered by her own pride (a psychological shortcoming reminiscent of Pride And Prejudice*, in fact).
*Also like in a Jane Austen novel, the heavy rain gives Kiki a cold, which sends her to her (psychological death) bed.
WORK HARD IN ORDER TO FIND YOURSELF
This is the particularly Japanese principle underlying Kiki’s Delivery Service, one which Hayao Miyazaki must like, because he used it in Spirited Away (after pulling himself out of ‘retirement’ to make it… This says something about Miyazaki’s work ethic).
Kiki helps out at every opportunity. She lends a hand in the bakery, she goes above and beyond to help the old woman cook a herring pot pie for her ungrateful granddaughter, and she will go to the ends of the earth before disappointing someone by failing to make a delivery, even when the rewards are little.
This is closely related to the Japanese concept of omotenashi, which basically means ‘hospitality’, but goes much further than that. It refers to the specifically Japanese virtue of paying such close attention to your guest that they want for nothing, all the while expecting nothing in return. (I guess this is related to a Buddhist aspiration to be neither overly happy nor overly sad however things turn out.)
THE SYMBOLISM OF FLIGHT
Flight is very popular in children’s stories and most fantasy will include a spell in the air, through whatever means. In fact, the closer you look, the more likely you will conclude that a successful utopia requires flight.
Here, flight obviously represents freedom. But as in all symbols, the ability to fly can also be symbolic of ‘failure to fly’, or failure to take advantage of one’s freedom. (If anyone flies or falls for too long, Icarus and his imaginary cousins are probably being invoked.)
THE FINAL BIG STRUGGLE
There are a number of battles, culminating in Kiki’s rescuing Tombo as he hangs suspended from the dirigible, which crashes into the clock tower.
This is a welcome girl friendly message — not many Hollywood children’s films star girls, and girl stars don’t often come to the rescue of boys. In Tombo we also have a bit of a ‘manic pixie dream girl’, which is also a change for a Western audience.
The rescue scene follows a ‘riding bitch’ scene which Miyazaki seems to have a penchant for; you know, the bit where the girl gets on the back of a bike and the boy leads the way.
These two scenes combined show us that Tombo and Kiki are equals — they both love flying, each have a lot more to learn about it, each find themselves in perilous situations occasionally, and if only Kiki can admit to herself that she likes Tombo, they’re equally cheerful and fun.
Lately I’ve been reading chapter books with my 8-year-old daughter. We’ve been reading realistic comedy dramas from various American eras, from Ramona Quimby to Junie B. Jones to Judy Moody to Clementine. We’re just starting to (re)delve into the work of Judy Blume.
We’ve also read similar books produced locally such as Philomena Wonderpen by Ian Bone, Billy B. Brown by Sally Rippin and the Violet Mackerel series by Anna Branford.
Many of these stories are great. All of these stories have things to recommend them.
But there is a formula running throughout most chapter books aimed at girls which isn’t doing women any good at all. In fact, in this week heading into the American election, I’m getting pretty cranky about it, because this narrative is having a real world effect.
The chapter book formula concerns the character web, which looks like this:
There are variations on this basic plan, of course.
For instance, the girly-girl might actually be the fake opponent.
Considered together as a corpus, this kind of character in middle grade fiction is saying something quite damaging about a certain kind of girl — the young Hillary Clinton archetype. A non-sympathetic character.
The Mixed Message of Ivy + Bean
An example of that is the relationship between Ivy + Bean. In their case, ‘tomboyish’ viewpoint character Bean mistakes the girly-girl across the road for someone completely uninteresting. But when she takes the time to know her, Bean realises that Ivy is just as scheming as she is, and because of her good-girl appearance they are actually better equipped to carry out their often quite nasty — but always fun — plans. Various parent reviewers criticise this series for its unpunished bad behaviour, but one good thing about the Ivy + Bean series is that the girls learn in the very first book to look behind appearances.
A possibly quite damaging unintended message is that girly-girls are basically presenting a fake image. And unless a girly-girl reveals a more masculine side, she remains unsympathetic. Ergo, true girly-girls are still horrible. This is femme phobic.
The girly-girl opponent of the Philomena Wonderpen series is a girl called Sarah Sullivan, who the reader knows to hate due to her overtly feminine accoutrements. Her matching pink accessories and her pink bag. Then there’s the way she competes against our imperfect hero and ends up winning the literal ‘gold star’ at the end of camp, dished out by an unsympathetic Trunchbull-esque school principal.
Even though Philomena has all the advantages of a magic wand (her father’s Wonderpen), Sarah Sullivan still wins the gold star — mostly through her own hard work, I might add, though she is also a rich girl and dishes out store-bought sweets.
The more successful a woman is, the more pleasure we take in demolishing her and turning her into a two-dimensional villain. Hillary Clinton’s extraordinary success may only be tempting the God of Trainwrecks to make her our biggest and best catastrophe yet.
To dwell upon the ‘fakeness’ of girly-girl opponents, Sarah Sullivan’s ‘store bought’ sweets are depicted by the author in opposition to Philomena’s home-baked treats, and once again, Sarah Sullivan is deemed a ‘fake’, in a way any modern mother should understand implicitly as coming straight from the ad-men trying to persuade us to buy this cookie over that, because it tastes just like a home-baked one, and women are therefore allowed to serve it up. (Because ideally, women are in the kitchen baking genuine cookies, but if we can’t manage that, we must at least make a good attempt at faking it.)
Even in the Clementine series, which I do love, overt markings of femininity are punished. This dynamic is set up in the very first paragraph of the first in the series:
I have had not so good of a week. Well, Monday was a pretty good day, if you don’t count Hamburger Surprise at lunch and Margaret’s mother coming to get her. Or the stuff that happened in the principal’s office when I got sent there to explain that Margaret’s hair was not my fault and besides she looks okay without it, but I couldn’t because Principal Rice was gone, trying to calm down Margaret’s mother.
Clementine, Sara Pennypacker
Since hair (and handbags and high-heels) are strong markers of femininity, Margaret the girly-girl opponent is immediately brought down to size, and the reader is encouraged to despise the hysterical mother who is upset about something so frivolous. Putting aside the fact that actually, cutting someone’s hair is a violation of personhood that women have been talking about for decades and which, from boys and men, is actually really unacceptable.
In the seventh book we see the girly-girl character cut down to size by breaking her ankle after insisting on wearing high heels. And so on and so forth. Not so subtle subtext: Clementine is adorable because she is not like one of those girly-girls. She is basically everything we are encouraged to love in a boyish trickster.
Judy’s girly-girl enemy is Jessica Finch who at least breaks the mould of blonde bitches by having dark hair. (I suspect the dark hair is a symbolic representation of her dark moods.)
Judy Moody marched into third grade on a plain old Thursday, in a plain old ordinary mood. That was before Judy got stung by the Queen Bee. Judy sat down at her desk, in the front row next to Frank Pearl.”Hey, did you see Jessica Finch?” asked Frank in a low voice.”Yeah. So? I see her every day. She sits catty-cornered behind me.”
Judy Moody Gets Famous! by Megan McDonald
‘Cater-cornered’ means to sit diagonally behind someone, but the common pronunciation gives me the feeling that ‘catty’ is supposed to be a sexist pun. (When women are compared to cats it’s because cats don’t ‘fight fair’. They hiss and spit and posture, and will scratch you with their long ‘nails’.)
We are encouraged to hate Jessica Finch because she is the Queen (Spelling) Bee. We are encouraged to root for Judy’s defeating her mostly because Judy is the viewpoint character but also because Jessica’s presentation is ‘perfect’ — she sits up straight in class and doesn’t have a single hair loose from her high ponytail.
We are also encouraged to hate Jessica Finch because she tries hard, much as Donald Trump criticised Hillary for preparing for the second 2016 presidential debate:
“I have spelling posters in my room at home,” said Jessica. “With all the rules. I even have a glow-in-the-dark one.”
“That would give me spelling nightmares. I’ll take my glow-in-the-dark skeleton poster any day. It shows all two hundred and six bones in the body!”
“Judy,” said Mr. Todd. “The back of your head is not nearly as interesting as the front. And so far I’ve seen more o fit today than I’d like.”
Judy Moody Gets Famous! by Megan McDonald
Obviously, our siding with Judy is helped by the fact that both girls were talking but only Judy gets reprimanded by the teacher authority figure.
A positive aspect of the Judy Moody series is that Judy is allowed to express a wider range of emotions, including anger. But mostly she displays spite, and actually ‘moody’ itself is a highly gendered word. Boys are not called moody for displaying the exact same range of emotions. (And yes, I acknowledge there is also a — completely different but still sexist — problem, concerning the narrow range of allowable emotions in boys and men.)
Junie B. Jones
Like Clementine, Junie B. Jones has a loving relationship with her school principal, owing to her pranks being adorable and the principal being a caring type. (In this post I make the case that Junie B. is a fictional representation of an ADHD phenotype child.)
Junie’s girly-girl enemy is Richie Lucille. The reader knows immediately that Lucille is horrible and unsympathetic because she has long blonde hair tied up in a perfect ponytail, whereas Junie B. looks rough and tumble and doesn’t care about neatness. She is also unlikeable because she is rich. (She has unearned power.)
Billy B. Brown
By now it should be clear that messy hair is prerequisite for empathetic girl heroes.
Billie B. Brown has two messy pigtails, two pink ballet slippers and one new tutu.
The Bad Butterfly by Sally Rippin, opening sentence
It’s almost as if the girliness of the ballet outfit has to be neutralised by the messy hair. The messy hair says, “I’m wearing ballet clothes because I’m doing ballet, but don’t let that fool you into thinking I care about what you think of me.”
Billie’s best friend is Jack. Billie and Jack live next door to each other. They do everything together. If Billie decides to play soccer, then Jack will play soccer too.
The Bad Butterfly by Sally Rippin
Rippin avoids much of the ‘girl drama’ by making Billie a ‘guy’s gal’, basically. Billie’s close friendship with a boy elevates her social status.
The only real gender subversion here is that Jack learns ballet just as Billie plays soccer. This is pretty radical and modern, and it’s easy to overlook the other side.
Because once again we have the horrible girly-girl enemy. This girl is called Lola. Once again she is drawn (by illustrator Aki Fukuoka) with her blonde hair in a perfect bun. She closes her eyes and holds her nose in the air, as if no one else matters.
The message for young readers is that being a girl is fine and girls can do anything they want … so long as they are not too much of a girl. This femme phobic message works in silent opposition to the feminist ‘girls (and boys) can do anything’ intent.
Frenemies: A feature of girl fiction but not in books for and about boys
I have also read the Wimpy Kid books and others like it, and it seems the very concept of ‘frenemy’ is specific to books aimed at girls. There is no frenemy in Wimpy Kid — Rowley is a genuine WYSIWYG friend. Fregley is an out-and-out comedic archetype and the girls are somewhat complicated but one-dimensional opponents. These heterosexual boys don’t like the girls as people but they’re starting to feel inevitable adolescent attraction. The most popular books among boy readers are both reflecting and reinforcing a completely different but equally problematic dynamic — a discussion you can find elsewhere.
In fiction aimed specifically at girls, however, we often see frenemy dynamics. This is an outworking of a culture in which the allowable emotional spectrum for girls spans between friendly and neutral. Anger, distaste, disgust is not generally not allowed from girls.
So we have these girls who trick the adults into thinking they’re perfect but actually they are horrible: a sexist variation on the trickster archetype. The reason this is sexist is because the prevalence of these girls suggests, to widely-read kids that:
Only girls are able to pull this particular trick off
Boys are all surface and no depth — boys speak their minds and you always know exactly what you’re going to get.
Girls are basically liars.
The worst girls are the prettiest ones. And by ‘pretty’ I mean the girls with the most feminine accoutrements. The more feminine a girl is, the more likely she is to be fake underneath, in a direct correlation.
Hillary Clinton has a unique talent to make people viscerally angry. Just look at the footage from Trump rallies: supporters carry “Lyin Hillary” dolls hung from miniature nooses, cry “Lock her up” and “Hang her in the streets”, and wear Trump That Bitch T-shirts.
There are plenty of boy tricksters but they are presented in a completely different way.
Boy opponents, for example, arrange to beat someone up, after school, behind the bike sheds, but we aren’t inclined to call him ‘scheming’ for arranging the fight outside the range of adult supervision.
Boys take girls’ dolls, attach them to kite tails and send them sailing into the air, but boys aren’t schemers — they are simply having fun.
The bully-boy characters in children’s stories are not raking in all the academic awards. The fact that girly-girls also know all the answers is one more reason for the readers to despise them. We don’t like women who have all the answers.
The lesson is clear, and has been reiterated in countless hacky comedies about cold, loveless career women ever since. Success and love are incompatible for women. For a woman, taking pride in her own talents – especially talents seen as “masculine” – is a sin that will perpetually cut her off from human relationships and social acceptance. She can be good, or liked, not both. The only answer is to let a man beat her, thereby accepting her proper feminine role.
Feminine Girl Opponents Are Always Brought Down A Peg
When the girly-girl gets water dumped all over her (accidentally on purpose), or her pretty dress covered in ink, the reader is encouraged to revel in schadenfreude. It’s not just that the girl hero manages to come out on top — punishment usually focuses on ruining the very thing that stands for femininity.
Don’t forget that punishing female characters in children’s stories has a long history. Below, the Wicked Witch melts. The Wicked Witch is truly wicked, not just an annoying perfectionist classmate with frilly dresses and bows in her hair:
I would argue that Hilary Clinton irritates people not just because of her gender, but because we simply can’t process her narrative. There are no stories that prepare us for her trajectory through life and, therefore, we react to her as if she’s a disruption in our reality, rather than a person.
We love public women best when they are losers, when they’re humiliated, defeated, or (in some instances) just plain killed.
It Didn’t Start With Ramona Quimby And Susan Kushner
As Doyle explains, this view of femininity goes back as far as Greek mythology and perhaps even back into the Paleolithic era:
Aversion to successful or ambitious women is nothing new. It’s baked into our cultural DNA. Consider the myth of Atalanta. She was the fastest runner in her kingdom, forced men to race her for her hand, and defeated every one of them. She would have gotten away with it, too, if some man hadn’t booby-trapped the course with apples to slow her down, which is presented as a happy ending. By taking away her ability to excel, he also takes away her loneliness. Then, there’s the story of Artemis and Orion: He’s the most handsome hunter in all Greece, and she’s the Virgin Goddess of the Hunt, who’s ready to get rid of the “virgin” portion for him. Until, that is, her jealous brother Apollo tricks her into an archery contest – she’s so proud of her aim that she lets Apollo taunt her into shooting at a barely visible speck on the horizon and, therefore, winds up shooting her lover in the head.
You see it again in the Bible and actually my high school classics teacher had this quote from Pericles on the wall as if it were a maxim to live by:
[I]njunctions against female self-expression or fame are everywhere in ancient history. The Christian New Testament “[suffers] not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man;”Pericles wrote that the greatest womanly virtue was “not to be talked of for good or evil among men”. In the colonial United States and Britain, women who talked too much and started fights were labelled“common scolds” – recommended punishments included making them wear gags or repeatedly dunking them in water to simulate drowning.
Boyish Tricksters Are Heroes; Girlish Tricksters Are Punished
[T]hough Clinton activates the darkest parts of her critics’ sexual imagination, our yearning for her downfall goes beyond even that. It’s not just that her success makes her unattractive or “unlikable”, it’s that, on some level, we cannot believe her success even exists. You hear that disbelief in the frantic insistence of certain Sanders supporters that the primary was “rigged”, simply because Clinton won it. You hear it when Trump sputters that Clinton “should never have been allowed to run”, making her very presence in the race a violation of the accepted order. You can hear it when pundits such as Jonathan Walczak argue that even if Clinton is elected, she should voluntarily resign after one term “for her own good”. (Also, presumably, good for George Clooney, whom Walczak offers up as a plausible replacement.) Even when we imagine her winning, we can’t imagine her really winning. Unadulterated female success and power, on the level Clinton has experienced, is simply not in our shared playbook. So, even when a Clinton victory is right in front of our eyes, we react, not as if it’s undesirable, but as if it is simply not real. And the thing is, it might not be. Or at least, it might only be temporary: the rise before the big, spectacular, sexism-affirming fall.
The caveat in chapter books is that ‘tomboyish’ girls, like boys, can also get away with anything. It’s the particularly feminine way of being that is not acceptable.
This is where I give a shout out to the Violet Mackerel series by Anna Branford.
Violet is kind, inquisitive, creative, understanding, thoughtful and loyal. The author avoids the girly-girl frenemy dynamics and instead focuses on Violet’s relationship with her hippie family and to the natural world around her. Her ‘opponent’ might be her mother, who meets a friend at the mall and bores Violet talking about the price of petrol, for instance. The conflict is not contrived. We do still have, though, a teenage girl snarker in Nicola, the older sister.
Admittedly, this makes for quieter plots with less Bestseller appeal.
Illustrator Elanna Allen dresses Violet in practical clothing and Violet sometimes has quite neat hair, other times quite messy. The covers of this series are not heavily pink, which I find ironic given the pinkness of all the other books implicitly criticising pinkness.
Fancy Nancy is another interesting case because this is a character who embraces all of those feminine accoutrements vilified in most chapter books.
For pedagogical reasons, I’m sure, these books also teach young readers ‘fancy words’, which Nancy uses with full explanations for the young readers. In other words, there are many ways of being fancy, and one of those ways is to be smart.
There are also lots of standalone books about different kind of girls, but it’s the bestselling series which are the most widely read and therefore the most influential.
Real World Consequences of the Female Maturity Formula In Storytelling
I have previously written about the way in which girls and women in popular stories are consistently portrayed as ‘the only sensible’ one in the room. Typically, the girl is more of a swot, more organised, more witty than the ‘everyday boy’. We see it all sorts of narrative for both adults and children:
Everybody Loves Raymond (the long-suffering wife)
Harry Potter (Hermione)
Calvin and Hobbes (Suzie)
Big Nate series (Gina, and also the female teacher Mrs Godfrey, who is far more studious about doing her actual job as teacher than the laid back Mr Rosa.)
At first glance, to the uninitiated, this might seem like sexism indeed… but against men. After all, isn’t it good for women’s rights that women are consistently smarter than the men?
These women are the sidekicks, not the heroes. They start and end the story as sensible; the character arcs happen to the men. You can’t be the hero of a story unless you undergo some sort of character arc. This makes men the main characters of the stories.
These women are motherly. When the only role for the girl is the motherly type, we end up thinking that’s the only role she’s good for.
While these motherly types are allowed smart comebacks (a la Suzie from Calvin and Hobbes), they are are often limited to sarcasm. As often as not they are in fact completely humourless, adding to the cultural stereotype that ‘women just aren’t funny’. This sensible, parental role suits the straight ‘man’ more than it suits the funny ‘guy’.
But more disturbing than any of these points are the very real political consequences, as described below at a feminism and linguistics blog, in a discussion about the recent English election:
One answer to that question invokes the concept of the ‘glass cliff’. In politics as in business, women are more likely to be chosen as leaders when an organisation is in serious trouble and the risk of failure is high. In that connection it’s interesting to recall one of the phrases used about Nicola Sturgeon last week—‘the only grown-up in the room’. Since then, other women, including Theresa May and, in the wider European context, Angela Merkel, have also been described as ‘grown-up(s)’. Though the term itself isn’t gendered, I’m beginning to think the metaphor is: it’s a reference to the most culturally familiar and acceptable form of female authority, that of adult women over children. When the men are responding to a crisis by throwing their toys out of the pram, it’s time for Mummy to sweep in and clean up their mess.
So whenever the girl character swoops in to save the boys with her book learning and smart ideas (a la Monster House, Paranorman, Harry Potter), what we’re really seeing is the Glass Cliff effect.
We might also call it the Happy Housewife view of female politicians:
I have heard many women (and some men) say that they want to see more women in power because women would make the world a better place, lift the tone of parliaments and be all-round kinder to the planet. Some go all quasi-spiritual on me, wittering on about female energy and our goddess-given nurturing nature. This has always struck me as the happy housewife model of leadership, where female leaders whiz around cleaning up the men’s mess, leaving the world all sparkly, clean and sweet smelling. It sounds like it’s a compliment but, in fact, it is a burden.
Jane Caro, after the first 2016 Trump-Clinton debate
This view dictates that women must be better than men before they can aspire to leadership, that they must offer something special and different or they have no right to take the top job. Frankly, it sets us up for failure because it sets a higher standard for female leaders than for their male counterparts.
Please don’t mistake this for ‘girl power’. And definitely look out for it in your own country’s politics.
A New Vision For Chapter Book Series Aimed At Girls
Could we change the character web template and still engage young readers? Here’s what I’d love to see:
More imagination when it comes to dreaming up opponents. Perhaps this is where fantasy shines. Fantasy, unlike realistic drama, is open to all sorts of monsters, ghosts and ghouls and does not need the girly-girl frenemy/enemy. However, as number 2 in the Ivy + Bean series shows (The Ghost That Had To Go), fantastic imaginings can be included even in realistic fiction.
More complex boy characters. I’d like to kill the stereotype that girls are fake and wily while boys are shallow and simple and unencumbered by complex social difficulties. If writers think they’re reflecting realities, by exaggerating them for comedic effect they are also reinforcing them. Is it possible to model good relationships while still including sufficient tension between characters? (Don’t tell me that these stories shouldn’t be didactic, because they already are.)
In real life, girly girls are not usually the enemy. The girl with the neat hair is probably sitting quietly in the corner doing her work. I know it’s tempting to write only about the Clementine/Ramona/Junie B. wreckers of this world because these girls are propelled into action by their very nature, but there is an invisible majority of girl readers out there whose compliance and hard work are not only invisible, but actively punished throughout children’s literature. Let’s change that. Because it’s affecting how the actual world is being run.
Each of these pairs represents a perceived dichotomy of girlhood: the girly girl versus the “tomboy”.
While I use the word “tomboy”, the speech marks indicate my disdain for the very concept. A girl who likes rough-and-tumble and dressing for practicality is no less of a girl. The word itself upholds a narrow notion of what it means to be a real girl.
This is the very political position taken by many popular modern writers of chapter books and middle grade novels. Publishers and readers love it, right now. This upturns the now offensive political position of earlier children’s stories; until very recently, if girls were depicted in children’s books at all, they were the minor characters — the inevitable sisters and mothers and giggly schoolyard opponents. Even books for girls and about girls actively encouraged domesticity in their young readers, preparing them for their futures as mothers and housewives by returning them safely to the home, if they ever left home at all.
Modern literature for girls is mostly the inverse of that. Modern girls read about girls doing brave, adventurous and amazing things. It’s a truism that the most interesting kidlit characters are proactive, sometimes naughty, often cheeky. Imperfect and relatable, in other words. Sometimes they are average kids in every way (oftentimes ‘underdogs’); other times they have a special super power.
I don’t just mean ‘super power’ in the fantasy sense. Modern heroines of kidlit might be a Hermione trope — good at school work and often annoying in girly kinds of ways, but useful to the boys in their quest for self-knowledge due to her extensive knowledge on a subject, which must take place (rather boringly) off the page, since swotting requires many hours of solitude.
What It Means To Be A ‘Girly-Girl’
Upholder of social rules (a la ‘Tattletale May’ from the Junie B. Jones series)
Feels the need to look pretty and also judges others on their appearance
Good at memorisation
Well-behaved in school, sometimes a teacher’s pet.
Helps the mother at home and is often the ‘mother’s pet’
Aligns self with adults who have conservative, old-fashioned attitudes about a child’s place: Children should be seen and not heard.
Fearful, anxious temperament
No sense of humour, though she may develop a sense of humour/how to have fun if she ‘learns’ it from tomboy types
What It Means To Be A ‘(Tom)Boy’
Breaks the social rules. Is sometimes punished, other times rewarded
Dresses for practicality rather than to look pretty, and is interested in other people for what they can do rather than what they look like. Non-judgemental.
Tasks such as rote memorisation are rejected due to their boringness.
Misbehaves in school. Has trouble sitting still. Drawn to movement.
Is mischievous at home and is often in conflict with the mother, aligning self with the father (who may often be absent)
Aligns self with adults who are open-minded, kid-friendly and even tempered and fair
Open to adventure; unafraid of consequences; brave
Keen sense of humour
Typical Character Web Of A Chapter Book For Modern Girls
Opponent 1: The Girly-girl, and perhaps her posse of proto-mean girls.
This opponent highlights the rambunctious nature of our tomboy main character, and she will often get the tomboy into hot water using subversive tactics. But she will ultimately be punished. This punishment will ‘serve her right’ for her extreme femininity. She’ll be grossed out or she’ll get her clothing dirty despite having a distaste for germs or she’ll have a wardrobe malfunction or her beautiful hair will get pulled or ruined in some way. Although the opponent in a character web is designed to highlight a shortcoming in the main character, the girly-girl mainly serves to highlight the tomboy’s strengths.
Opponent 2: The Boy
The boy opponent is often on the edge of boy-dom himself as we rarely see him with all of his buddies. He is drawn to the tomboy girl without seeming to help himself, and he often tries to attract the girl’s attention with silly tricks or bravado. The relationship between the boy and the tomboy main character is a proto-love story. As is true for romantic comedies for adults, the tomboy and the boy must start out as rivals, and learn over the course of the story that they actually have a lot in common. This boy will often live nearby. He has probably known the tomboy for a while, and the beginning of the series marks the beginning of their friendship arc.
The boy highlight’s our tomboy heroine’s unpleasant tendency to be mean for mean’s sake. This is a Pride and Prejudice sort of thing going on; the tomboy dislikes the boy simply because he is a boy. But she comes round to his way of thinking because this boy is basically fun.
Opponent 3: An Adult
This will be a parent (almost always the mother — fathers tend to be fun), a teacher (an old-fashioned, grumpy type who doesn’t seem to like children), or a neighbour person (a cranky neighbour who won’t let kids onto the lawn or a shopkeeper who thinks kids only thieve).
These adults highlight the tomboy heroine’s inability to conform to an old-fashioned ideal; that children should be seen and not heard. But mainly these adult opponents highlight the child’s resilience, daring, bravery and ability to think themselves out of trouble. Our heroine seems jovial and full of the joys of life against these dour characters whose main concern is doing housework, rote memorisation, and boring daily routine.
In a regular character web, each opponent is in opposition to each other. That’s not always the case for the girly-girl and the teacher/mother figure, who are one and the same person. But sometimes, in the slightly more complex books, the adult is an ally as much as an opponent, and can see through the ingratiating tendencies of the underhanded girly-girl.
Which opponent comes out looking worst in most of these stories?
The girly-girl, of course. While the boy character is generally a secret ally-opponent, and the adults are often as kind as they are ignorant of kidland politics, the girly-girl has no redeeming qualities. However, she is sometimes redeemed by the end of the book/series. Usually it’s because she’s learned something from the tomboy, or she has realised that dressing in pretty clothes and focusing on image is leading to her downfall.
The tomboy main character far less often learns anything useful from our girly-girl. On a surface level, the tomboy does not start dressing in pink, realising that pink is okay after all. She doesn’t grow her hair long or start to take more pride in her appearance.
One exception to this — though it’s a young adult novel rather than a chapter book — is a story by Joyce Carol Oates, Big Mouth and Ugly Girl. Stories like these inevitably become prone to all of the problems involved in the ‘makeover’ trope. It’s an almost impossible line for authors to walk.
However, in the best books of this kind, the tomboy character does learn something from the girly-girl. She generally learns kindness, which comes about from learning that there are depths to this annoying representation of walking-femininity, and that even girly-girls should be treated as rounded people. This requires a more fleshed-out subplot, where the reader, alongside the tomboy heroine, gets to see another side of the girly-girl. Sometimes the girly-girl has problems at home — absent parents, most often, who give her pretty dresses to try and compensate for their lack of parental attention. This is a lesson for parent co-readers as much as it is for young readers.
However, when a girly-girl is suddenly presented as dimensional due to basic neglect, what does this say about obvious outworkings of femininity? Girly accoutrements, however they’re handled, are generally indicators that something is going terribly wrong with that girl.
A Brief History Of Tomboys Versus Girly-Girls
LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE SERIES
Our viewpoint character is Laura Ingalls: brave, adventurous, outdoorsy. Laura despises being cooped up inside and has to be coaxed into doing her school work. When the family moves into town she longs to be back on the prairie. Lacking a boy in the family, Laura is consistently profiled as ‘her father’s daughter’, whereas Mary is cut from the same cloth as the mother. This even extends to the colour of their hair; Laura has brown hair like her father, while Mary has blond hair like their mother.
Mary also contrasts as the feminine flipside of a prairie daughter: Mary is studious, prone to anxiety and never misbehaves. When Mary ultimately becomes blind after a bout of scarlet fever, her feminine virtues are only heightened. Now, she is resigned to a life of sewing inside, and having others describe things to her — living secondhand.
For most of the series, Mary and Laura are flipsides of a girl, but in the third Laura book On The Banks Of Plum Creek, a new character is introduced who represents not just the flipside to country girls (a rich townie) but also provides an even more exaggerated, and this time toxic, version of what femininity can mean. Nellie Oleson’s obsession with cleanliness and pretty dresses is evident when she visits Laura and Mary at their modest prairie home. She criticises their home by saying she didn’t want to wear her best dress to a country party. The reader is encouraged to condemn Nellie for such rudeness. Inevitably, the reader also condemns Nellie for her rejection of the country and also for her obsession with dresses. As unpleasant as Nellie is for other reasons, we learn to associate a love for fashion with vacuousness and image obsession.
Yet there is a line. We see time and again throughout the Little House series how overjoyed Laura and Mary are to be getting new dresses. Laura’s new dresses are simple, however, and she is at one point overjoyed to be getting a new dress made of brown fabric, when she’d been expecting Mary’s hand-me-down. The author encourages the virtue of gratitude, but the focus on clothing has the — perhaps unintended — consequence of denigrating ostentatiousness in female dress. Girls and women must take care of their appearance, but not too much.
THE RAMONA QUIMBY SERIES
[Ramona] represents the kind of girl who has not been subdued by adults or the world in general.”Twentieth-Century Children’s Writers cites Ramona’s “spunk, her impermeable but often ambivalent bond to Beezus, and her unsurpassed creativity… (Cleary) never sacrifices Ramona’s integrity or intelligence.
— Librarian Kathleen Odean
Compared to Laura Ingalls, who nonetheless conforms to feminine standards of the time (even buckling down, against her nature, to be a future teacher), Ramona Quimby is a revolutionary character, and Beverly Cleary’s mischievous little girl marked a new era in realistic middle grade novels.
Ramona can never live up to standards set by her older sister Beatrice.
But Beatrice is still not a particularly girly girl. For that trope we have the ‘exaggerated Beatrice’: Susan Kushner, who is punished for her feminine accoutrements by Ramona, who just can’t seem to help pulling her golden curls. Readers are invited to take enjoyment in Ramona’s mischief, because Ramona is the viewpoint character after all, but also because Susan is not a nice girl, and the prettiness of Susan marks her out as such. From this character, readers learn that prettiness in girls is associated with meanspirited-ness, lack of originality and underhandedness:
Susan is portrayed as being somewhat snobby and overachieving; in the book of her debut, her beautiful curls become the object of Ramona’s fascination and lead to the girl’s suspension from kindergarten for pulling the curls out of curiosity. In the following book, set a year later, Susan copies a stereotypically-designed wise paper bag owl designed by Ramona during an arts and crafts session, which is destroyed by an enraged Ramona after Susan is praised by the entire classroom for her work. She is depicted as a typical perfectionist; well-behaved in class, calm, and hard-working, as opposed to Ramona’s active imagination and unintentionally troublemaking personality. However, she is a bit of a snob, exaggerating the pain felt after Ramona tugged her curly hair in Ramona the Pest for attention. Also, she did copy Ramona’s work.
Once again, we have a girly-girl who is easily upset by uncleanliness, and which an older reader might pick up as the first signs of an eating disorder:
In the final book of the series, [Susan] refuses a slice of cake during Ramona’s birthday celebration claiming that it is probably unhygienic and eating an apple instead, but soon afterward she confesses, in tears, her lifelong strive for perfection among adults, and her relationship with Ramona Quimby seems to improve afterward. In the same book, it is revealed that her parents tell Ramona to “be nice”.
THE CLEMENTINE SERIES BY SARA PENNYPACKER
In the name of upending gender stereotypes, she might be the opposite of what readers expect from a girl. Clementine is great at math and nothing else school related. Clementine shows clear signs of ADHD, something far more often diagnosed in boys. This makes Clementine a great kidlit character — she doesn’t think too much before acting, and this gets her into trouble. She sees the world differently and is often perplexed. The illustrations of Clementine by Marla Frazee depict Clementine as a Ramona Quimby sort of girl — back in the second wave of feminism, when girls wore their hair short and their mothers chose clothes for their many pockets and durability. Clementine is shown most often in the midst of action, which is what makes Marla Frazee such a great choice of illustrator for the Clementine series — she is super good at it.
Margaret is constantly ‘punished’ for her interest in feminine accoutrements. Insofar as long hair marks a girl out as a proud owner of femininity, she is ‘christened’ into Clementine’s more masculine world when Clementine gives her a haircut, which happens near the beginning of the first book.
In the seventh book of the series, Completely Clementine, Margaret insists on wearing high heeled shoes to a fancy event and ends up breaking her ankle.
IVY AND BEAN
More than any other cover I’ve seen, this graphic design highlights a girly-girl and a ‘tomboy’ girl as flipsides of the same character. I believe this cover highlights the intention of this category of modern stories marketed at girls: That there is more than one way to be a girl. You can have fun whether or not you like to wear pink dresses.
This series works a bit differently from those above, though ultimately, the result is the rejection of extreme femininity.
Bean — our viewpoint character — lives across the street from a girl who wears pretty dresses and seems to behave perfectly. Since Bean is nothing like that, she decides she wants nothing to do with this girly-girl, despite her mother’s suggestion she go and introduce herself. Naturally, the two end up meeting inadvertently and they hit it off. The rest of the series focuses on the adventures these two firm friends have together.
Does Bean realise that girly-girls aren’t so bad after all? No. She (and the reader) realises that although Ivy looks like a girly-girl, she’s as adventurous, imaginative and naughty as Bean. Older readers especially will notice that Ivy comes from an economically advantaged home and that she is an only child, which explains why Ivy is dressed up like she is. The subtext is that well-off parents of only-girls are inclined to treat them as dolls, and if these little girls want to have real fun, they must reject their parents’ limitations by pairing up with a ‘tomboy’ kid like Bean.
Book eight in the series shows readers that even girls who like to wear pink and pretty dresses can have lots of fun.
The Ivy and Bean series shows girls that wearing pink dresses means you can still have fun, but you must nevertheless reject other aspects of traditional, stereotypical femininity, such as aligning yourself with adults, behaving perfectly at all times and feeling anxious when trying new things.
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.
Animal Land, Margaret Blount
In some ways it can be compared to Charlotte’s Web, but Charlotte’s Web continues to be more widely known.
The story shares commonalities with E.B. White‘s Charlotte’s Web by contrasting with a large part of children’s literature in the sense of occasional use of advanced vocabulary, a willingness to include adult themes, and talking animals.
Why is The Mouse and His Child not more widely read today? Townsend explains that The Mouse And His Child is clearly North American but has, for some reason, been far more popular in Britain, where it is regarded a classic. Some people speculate it’s due to ‘hygiene’ — that picking toys out of the dump isn’t clean.
That said, the book has been reprinted and re-illustrated
And made into a film back in 1977
And the Japanese are well-known for a love of cleanliness, and it’s not unknown there:
The original edition was illustrated by Russell Hoban’s wife, Lillian. There is a distinctly Disney feel about it. Lillian Hoban is perhaps best known for her I-Can-Read illustrations for the Arthur series.
Arthur Levine commissioned illustrator David Small to do the artwork for their updated edition in 2001. These illustrations remind me more of Sir Quentin Blake, but with close attention to shade and tone which adds a slightly noir feel.
What is the story about?
The mice are searching for the things that people want: happiness, a family, a home, self-winding freedom, from their bright morning in the toy shop at Christmas to their ending on a birdhouse platform by a railway line, near the town dump. There is a glimpse of shining perfection as the toys — the mice, elephant, seal and doll’s house that come so largely to the story — wait on the shop counter to be sold. The mice dance in a circle when wound.
To be bought is to be born. For four years the mouse father and son dance under the Christmas tree, always put away in their box until, pounced on and broken by a cat, they are thrown away. Repaired by a tramp who can only make them walk straight, they follow an endless road, tramps themselves, finding their way into a place like Cannery Row only far more sinister — the town dump ruled by the exploiting bandit Manny Rat, the underworld king who wears a greasy dressing-gown and lives in an old TV set.
Animal Land, Margaret Blount
Influences And Intended Audience
Hans Andersen with the clockwork nightingale and lead soldier, Kingsley with the fate of the lost doll, Collodi with the strange quest of the puppet who wanted to be a boy — all tell of the strange quest of the puppet who wanted to be a boy — all tell of the human sadness of toys, which is something that adults see, and one wonders if children really enjoy The Mouse and His Child. As an adult it is impossible to read it unmoved.
Animal Land, Margaret Blount
Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and His Child (1967), about the quest of a pair of linked toys to find a home and be self-winding, is a multi-layered book, accessible at more than one level. It can be read by children quite simply as a story of the adventures of clockwork toys, and by adults as a haunting human progress. The pathos of a toy’s life — the decline from freshness, beauty and efficiency toward the rubbish dump, the rusting of bright metal, the rotting of firm plush — is the pathos of human life transposed. The mouse and his child are loving people, totally interdependent. There are clear allegorical meanings — any child can understand the longing to be self-winding — and strong, often funny, sometimes savage satire, though some of this may be beyond the grasp of children. Manny Rat, who rules the rubbish dump and deals with recalcitrant toys by consigning their innards to the spare parts can, is a splendid villain.
John Rowe Townsend, Written For Children
Motifs, Symbols, Satire
Likeness to the human world is both satiric and symbolic. The mice are sent to rob a bank by the rat; the chipmunk behind the counter pushes ‘the alarm twig’ and a badger guard eats the rat. The mice get involved in a territorial war between shrew armies with big struggle cries of ‘ours’ and ‘onwards’; weasels casually eat the shrews; owls catch the weasels. A recurrent motif is an old empty dogfood tin with a picture of a dog in a chef’s cap carrying on a tray another dog in a chef’s cap. The mouse father’s heart is his clockwork centre. He has patience, courage, sad endurance. The child, with less clockwork, has room for dreams of family and home — ‘I want the elephant to be my mama and the seal to be my sister and I want to live in the beautiful house.’ In their hopeless quest, the mice somnambulate through impossible tasks, like Tess in the potato field. They pace the Crows’ stage in an incomprehensible play…they are harnessed by the muskrat to a saw device for felling a tree, which takes all the winter, they fall to the bottom of a pond. Their physical disintegration is a persistent theme. When they do at last find the doll’s house its fate has been that of many real ones. It has been ravaged by fire and ‘become in its romantic ruined state a trysting place for young rat lovers, then a social and athletic club.’
Animal Land, Margaret Blount
The Significance of ‘Wind-up’ In Wind-up Toys
Maria Nikolajeva writes, ‘The very idea of a windup toy is repetition, predestination, things going on forever. Another aspect is absence of change and free will.’ If the mice were to dance Christmas after Christmas, however, there would be no story. So although the adults have an idea of what children might enjoy, the children (or child characters) are wrong. When the mouse child breaks the rules, this is a step away from circularity (and from the iterative language). Everything that happens after the mouse child is expelled from paradise is tragic but necessary. The message seems to be that linearity is preferable to circularity:
“There is no going back,” said the father…we cannot dance in circles anymore.
The Mouse and His Child
The Doll’s-house Symbolism
The doll’s house is inhabited by wonderful papier-mâché models talking in scraps of newsprint, and is an enviable mansion with every detail exact, one of those American country houses whose adjectival accompaniment is always ‘decaying’ and ‘Southern’ as if they have to end up in Tennessee Williams land. And indeed, this one decays and suffers as doll’s houses, and some real ones, often do.
Animal Land, Margaret Blount
Manny Rat is your archetypal rag-and-bone man, which rats often are in children’s books with personified animals:
The rat is hideously real, always foraging, exploiting everything it meets, using old clockwork toys to fetch and carry, mending them just enough to keep them going like abused and broken-down horses, running sordid sideshows that offer and give nothing, and taking his profit from their wretched owners, miserable beetles and crickets.
Margaret Blount, Animal Land
Jungian critics have fun with this novel. There is an obvious erotic subtext, ‘especially in the rivalry between the mouse father and Manny rat, and the elephant’s open aversion for Manny, who has, we might say, raped her.’
Maria Nikolajeva uses this book as an example of a book which breaks away from the idyll established in the beginning. Take note of what Nikolajeva refers to as ‘iterative’ time:
The Mouse and His Child is most often referred to as toy fantasy. However, I would like to show that […] it depicts an attempted, successful or not, to break away from idyll, which is often expressed by the change in temporal pattern of the novel from circular to linear. The Mouse and His Child starts with a perfect image of childhood, a doll house, a self-sufficient world existing wholly in the cyclical time:
…the dolls never set foot outside it. They had no need to; everything they could possibly want was there … Interminable-weekend-guest dolls lay in all the guest room beds, sporting dolls played billiards in the billiard room, and a scholar doll in the library never ceased perusal of the book he held … In the dining room, beneath a glittering chandelier, a party of lady and gentleman dolls sat perpetually around a table…
It was the elephant’s constant delight to watch that tea party through the window…
The chief supporting characters in this strange nightmare are ‘Frog’, a figure of destiny who inhabits an old glove and makes his way with herbal remedies and fortune telling, a philosophic muskrat, a terrapin who is a thinker, scholar and playwright, two crows who run an experimental theatre company, a kingfisher and a bittern, both helpful characters represented as do-it-yourself expert and a solitary bachelor fond of fishing.
Animal Land, Margaret Blount
Other interesting things about this book are that it’s very much about eating and being eaten up, even though the toys themselves can’t and don’t need to eat (nor do they wish to become human, unlike in The Velveteen Rabbit, for instance).
The Velveteen Rabbit makes a good counterpoint here:
Because these characters are toys, death is treated differently, too.They cannot die, which means the story takes place over many more years than your typical children’s story. ‘…all these violent deaths do not affect the toys, just as “adult” deaths most often do not affect children. […] The author introduces a special kind of death for the toys, which they go through, as ritual prescribes, three times. Since death, for toys, unlike all other deaths in the story, is reversible, they are reborn like the returning gods.‘ Notice that after each destruction and resurrection the mice reemerge with new qualities.
The happy ending does not dispel the lingering sadness of the clockwork pair, the father doomed to travel forward through the world and the son (who is joined to him) backwards. Helpless when they are not wound up, unable to stop when they are, they are fated like all mechanical things to breakage, rust and disintegration as humans are to death.
The path of every toy is always downwards. Though they share with humans apparent death (by smashing) and strange resurrections (by mending), they do not, like humans, have a high noon. The Velveteen Rabbit (Marjery Williams, 1912) has once again the them of the toy made real and immortal by love. The Rabbit is quite new. Bright and plushy he comes to the Boy at the top of a Christmas stocking, at the peak of his physical perfection, and ‘for at least two hours the Boy loved him.’
Animal Land, Margaret Blount
The Mouse and His Child As An Influential Mouse Book
Margaret Blount compares the mouse of this book to others that have followed since:
Mice who do stand out for their individuality and sheer strength of character sometimes appear in other settings; The Mouse and His Child of the unforgettable endurance are really toys and not mice at all; the great Reepicheap is a Talking Beast, one of many; Stuart Little is notable for being a social misfit and Tucker, of The Cricket In Times Square, outstanding for his untidy antique collection and his hidden riches.
‘Key words’ in storytelling is a slightly wider-ranging way to describe the motif.
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.