Two Weeks With The Queen is an Australian middle grade novel by Morris Gleitzman. My edition is copyrighted 1989, though other places on the web will tell you this book was first published in 1990 or 1991.
I was in Year Seven in 1989. Fast forward to 2021 and my own Year Seven kid is studying this book in their first year of high school. Fair to say, this is a story with longevity.
My kid proudly announced to their English teacher, “This is the first book I’ve read on my own without pictures!” Um, this is true, despite the many, many books in our house, and nothing to be proud of when you’re almost 13, still doggedly attached to graphic novels and comic books, repelled by walls of text. I was wondering which book-without-pictures would crack the seal for my stubborn reader. Well, this is the one that did it. Kudos to Morris Gleitzman.
This post more than any other contains spoilers. Sometimes it’s a spoiler just to know that you’re dealing with an unreliable narrator.
Unreliable narration is a storytelling technique which requires some work on the part of the reader, trying to work out how much of the story is true and how much is subjective, or an outright lie.
The most fallible, most consistently clueless narrator you could hope to meet might be Ford Madox Ford in the novel The Good Soldier (1915).
How To Read Literature Like A Professor
Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
THE UNRELIABLE CONTINUUM
Almost every story fits somewhere on the ‘unreliable continuum’. Let’s exclude omniscient narrators, who we should take at face value, but truly omniscient narration is rare.
I’ve always found the concept of the reliable versus the unreliable narrator peculiar, because I think all narrators are unreliable [laughs]. People tell you what they saw or what they think or what they felt, and they may be telling you the truth, but it might not at all be what someone else saw happen. Like, people always call Humbert Humbert an unreliable narrator. He’s very reliable. He’ll tell you exactly what he thought and felt in a lot of detail. And you also get a very clear sense of what Lolita is experiencing through him. But I don’t think of it as unreliable. I think more in terms, and this sounds really corny, I think more in terms of, Do I care what this narrator thinks and feels? Can he engage me? With students, the problem I see most often is that I don’t get a sense of what their narrators care about. What they want. What matters to them. That’s a bigger issue to me than whether or not they’re reliable in some way.
Far more common is close third person point of view. Harry Potter fans have had fun arguing about how much of his story is objectively true versus how much is subjectively conveyed owing to Harry’s own biases. For example, in The Philosopher’s Stone, Hermione is depicted as ‘annoying’ but as the series progresses, she is no longer so — presumably she has undergone a character arc. But who’s to say that Hermione was ever objectively an irritant? Could it be Harry’s sexist response towards a girly swot who knew more than he did which lead readers to conclude the same?
The following explains, in part, why true omniscient narration may have gone the way of the dodo. It is no longer culturally accepted that there is any such thing as objective truth:
W.G. Sebald once said to me, “I think that fiction writing which does not acknowledge the uncertainty of the narrator himself is a form of imposture which I find very, very difficult to take. Any form of authorial writing where the narrator sets himself up as stagehand and director and judge and executor in a text, I find somehow unacceptable. I cannot bear to read books of this kind.” Seabed continued: “If you refer to Jane Austen, you refer to a world where there were set standards of propriety which were accepted by everyone. Given that you have a world where the rules are clear and where one knows where trespassing begins, then I think it is legitimate, within that context, to be a narrator who knows what the rules are and who knows the answers to certain questions. But I think these certainties have been taken from us by the course of history, and that we do have to acknowledge our own sense of ignorance and of insufficiency in these matters and therefore to try and write accordingly.
For Sebald, and for many writers like him, standard third-person omniscient narration is a kind of antique cheat. But both sides of the division have been caricatured. […]
Even the apparently unreliable narrator is more often than not reliably unreliable. Think of Kazoo Ishiguro’s butler in The Remains of the Day, or of Bertie Wooster, or even of Humbert Humbert. We know that the narrator is being unreliable because the author is alerting us, through reliable manipulation, to that narrator’s vulnerability. A process of authorial flagging is going on; the novel teaches us how to read its narrator.
James Wood, How Fiction Works
WHY USE AN UNRELIABLE NARRATOR?
Unreliable narrators are useful for achieving an epiphany in the reader. Chekhov makes the most of this in his later works, in which the reader has an epiphany while the character goes on without one, unchanging.
The unreliable narrator breaks down into at least three different types:
1. The narrator that purposefully leads you astray
2. The narrator whose view of the world is so strident that by sheer force of will they are attempting to lead you astray
3. The narrator who does not attempt to lead you astray but does by dint of their youth and inexperience: Room, Catcher In The Rye
The Importance of the ‘Ghost’
When creating an unreliable narrator the narrator has to have
2. A reason for keeping this secret/ghost from us.
Somebody else will be trying to expose that secret. Why does this other character want the secret exposed? Without these things going on in your story, you probably don’t need to make use of an unreliable narrator.
The Grandmother Genre Of Modern Unreliable Narration
Look to gothic literature.
Our modern imperilled (or seemingly imperilled) female protagonists calls to mind the gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe and her heirs. From Emily St. Aubert, the heroine of Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, who is kept prisoner in an Italian castle, to the narrator of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaperwho is confined to a room with bad interior decorating, these women have to sort out the mysteries of their situations to find the truth. Jane Eyre has to find out who’s in the attic. The second Mrs. de Winter has to figure out what happened to her predecessor, Rebecca.
Trapped in a duplicitous world, is it any wonder that they retreat into their own versions of reality? Jane Eyre admits to opening “my inward ear to a tale that never ended—a tale my imagination created, and narrated continuously.” The narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper begins to see figures in the walls. The second Mrs. de Winter is so insecure (maybe because she doesn’t get a name!) she believes Mrs. Danvers’ version of the truth and misreads her husband’s feelings about his dead wife.
The gothic tradition started something which has continued to this day: A gender imbalance in unreliability. When women are constantly utilised as unreliable, women become intertwined with liars. There is a long history of disbelieving women.
For centuries the testimony of women has been held up to scrutiny and frequently dismissed on the grounds that our biology makes us prone to neurosis, hysteria, irrational subjectivity, and that our judgment can’t be trusted. It’s also a favourite cliche of fiction and drama: the heroine who is repeatedly told by men that she is imagining things, until she starts to question her own sanity. McGowan has repeatedly used the word “gaslighting” of her treatment by men in the industry, a term taken from the 1944 film Gaslight, in which a husband attempts to convince his wife she is going mad in order to cover up his own criminal activity.
It’s curious, then, that in our more enlightened times, when women are no longer routinely incarcerated as hysterics, that we should remain so obsessed with the idea of the female narrator who can’t be relied upon to know her own mind, or even what she saw from the window of her train or apartment. The obvious example is Paula Hawkins’s multimillion-selling The Girl on the Train, in which the narrator’s judgment was impaired by her drink problem. There’s SJ Watson’s bestseller Before I Go to Sleep, which also became a blockbuster film and features a female narrator convinced that something sinister is going on in her marriage, but who struggles to prove it because she suffers from memory loss.
Reader cheating. Producing a result (a surprise, a deduction, an unexpected denouement) without having given the reader a fair opportunity to foresee the result. For instance, having a detective deduce the murderer based on evidence the author has willfully concealed from the reader is reader cheating. (Example: a point of view character who knows things and acts on them but lies in internal narrative so as to distract the reader.) (CSFW: James Patrick Kelly)
The Wolf’s Story: What Really Happened to Little Red Riding Hood by Toby Forward, an example of a picture book in which the pictures tell a different story.
The True Story Of The Three Little Pigs byJon Scieszka and Lane Smith
Seriously, Cinderella Is SO Annoying!: The Story of Cinderella as Told by the Wicked Stepmother by Trisha Speed Shaken — from the perspective of the stepmother and stepsisters who accuse her of being an insipid little twit
My Cat, the Silliest Cat in the World by Giles Bachelet — the words tell a story about a cat but the pictures show that the ‘cat’ is actually an elephant.
Dear Mrs. LaRue: Letters From Obedience School by Mark Teague — has two stories — the black and white imaginings of a dog narrator which match his melodramatic letters home, compared to coloured illustrations depicting ‘the truth’. (There’s a whole series of them.)
Poor Puppy by Nick Bruel — “Poor, poor Puppy. Poor, poor, poor, poor, poor Puppy!” The book then becomes a counting/alphabet book to demonstrate that Puppy isn’t really poor—in fact he has many playthings at his disposal
Emma Kate by Patricia Polacco — That adorable Emma Kate has an imaginary friend. They walk to school together every morning and sit together in class. They sleep over at each other’s houses and do their homework side by side. They even have their tonsils out and eat gallons of pink ice cream together. The twist is that the stuffed elephant is imaginary but looks to be inspired by an item in the “real” friend’s possession.
Green Wilma by Tedd Arnold — Green Wilma is about a girl who wakes up green. Her mother is fussy because she doesn’t feel as thought a green child should go to school. When Wilma gets on the bus the ruckus begins. In art her classmates think its pretty cool to be green. And again more ruckus. She is hungry and finds that flies are what she desires the most. When she spots one on the teachers nose the chase is on. Again, more ruckus. The fly eventually leads her to Millers pond. She jumps in after it and comes face to face with a hungry fish. She immediately wakes up from her dream and relaizes that she is still a little girl and the entire dream was fantasy.
Olivia Saves The Circus by Ian Falconer — Olivia is a wonderfully unreliable narrator, and this one is a great example in which Olivia the pig tells a tall story. When all of the performers at the circus are out sick with ear infections, it’s up to Olivia to save the day! That’s no problem for Olivia, of course, because she knows how to do everything. From lion taming to trampoline jumping, unicycling to tight-rope walking, Olivia is the ultimate performer (according to Olivia). Olivia is supposed to be telling her classmates about her holidays and spins a tale which revolves around her single-handedly substituting all artists and clowns and animal tamers of a huge circus show, because the entire performing staff suffered from an ear inflammation and – certainly – because Olivia already knew how to do these things.
When I Went To The Library
Make Way For Ducklings by Robert McCloskey — “Some of the purest examples of irony are found in children’s literature, which often needs to allow a child— or the child’s proxy, an animal — to see the world through limited eyes, while alerting the older reader to this limitation. In Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings, Mr. and Mrs. Mallard are trying out the Boston Public Garden for their new home, when a swan boat (a boat made to look like a swan but actually powered by a pedal-pushing human pilot) passes them. Mr. Mallard has never seen anything like this before. McCloskey falls naturally into free indirect style: “Just as they were getting ready to start on their way, a strange enormous bird came by. It was pushing a boat full of people, and there was a man sitting on its back. ‘Good morning,’ quacked Mr. Mallard, being polite. The big bird was too proud to answer.” Instead of telling us that Mr. Mallard could make no sense of the swan boat, McCloskey places us in Mr. Mallard’s confusion; yet the confusion is obvious enough that a broad ironic gap opens between Mr. Mallard and the reader (or author). We are not confused in the same way as Mr. Mallard; but we are also being made to inhabit Mr. Mallard’s confusion.
Examples Of Unreliable Narration From MG Fiction
Probably because truthful children of this age are upheld as morally better people, unreliable narrators in middle grade stories are a bit harder to find. I’m sure it’s to do with the lack of pictures, too. The ironic distance between text and pictures creates unreliable in picture books, whereas the pictures in ‘illustrated books’ serve to help reading comprehension.
Diary Of A Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney — Greg is an unreliable narrator as well as not a great role model. This is attractive to kids. Greg is similar to Bart Simpson or Dennis the Menace in that young readers know exactly what Greg is meant to be. They’re not going to hold him up as a role model. (That said, my daughter has tried to get away with things because Greg does them!)
Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made by Stephen Pastis, in the Wimpy Kid tradition
Millicent Mee, Girl Genius — the Asian-American female version of Timmy Failure
Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead
Fortunately, The Milk by Neil Gaiman — a father goes out for milk. When he arrives home he spins a tall story for his children about what happened while he was out.
Examples Of Unreliable Narration From Film
The Usual Suspects
American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis — Patrick Bateman is a psychopath living the high life in 1980s Manhattan. He is also a murderer who tortures and rapes. But when Bateman tries to confess to these crimes, he is told he didn’t commit any. So is he a psychopath or does he have some sort of schizophrenic disorder?
Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk — later adapted for film. This is one of those stories that can definitely be ruined because the reversal is massive. We eventually realize that Durden isn’t our narrator’s new best friend — he’s his cooler, crazier alter-ego.
The Killer Inside Me directed by Michael Winterbottom was widely panned by critics for its almost unbearable violence against women. You see the main man violently abusing women, then the women would turn around and smile and seem to want it. For people who already have enough violence in their real life, this is indeed unwatchable. For those who can make it to the end of the film, it turns out to have an anti-violence message, because we learn that the violent killer has only been imagining in his own mind that the women are somehow enjoying his violence. This film is an interesting study into how much a writer can or can’t get away with when trying to write a story ‘against’ something, but for most of the story seems to be ‘for’ it.
Examples Of Unreliable Narration In Novels For YA And Older
The Turn Of The Screw by Henry James — The reader doesn’t know if this is a ghost story or not. The story is the self-reported manuscript of a governess who comes to take care of two orphans, Miles and Flora, at a country house in Essex. After she arrives at the estate, the governess encounters the ghosts of two former employees who have died. She’s the only person who can see the ghosts, but she’s convinced that they’re real. Is this a ghost story or a portrait of a woman’s mental breakdown? This trick whereby the reader isn’t sure if a character is a ghost or not was used by Robert Cormier many years later in In The Middle Of The Night.
Here Lies Daniel Tate— Daniel is a magnetic, talented, and desperate con artist who has stumbled into the scam of a lifetime. Assuming the identity of long missing boy, Daniel Tate, he is no longer at the mercy of the foster care system, and gains the security of a home and a family that loves him. But he soon discovers his new home is more sinister than it seemed on the surface…and the Daniel he has replaced might not be missing at all.
Lolita— Can make the reader feel empathy for a pedophile, which makes us examine how much of Humbert Humbert is inside us, and also makes us realise that even badly behaved people are not all bad. People who do bad things are not monsters — they walk among us.
Life of Pi by Yann Martel — Is Pi adrift on a lifeboat with those animals or is he stranded with other humans, with the animals being allegory?
The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin — the female narrator has PTSD after a car accident that killed all her friends.
Liar by Justine Larbalestier — it’s right there in the title.
The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger
Atonement by Ian McEwan — Briony Tallis is unreliable because she is only 13 years old and doesn’t understand how the world works.
Dangerous Girls by Abigail Haas
If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson
Dead To You by Lisa McMann
Perks Of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn — Amy and Nick Dunne is an example of not one but two unreliable narrators. The stand out example of modern unreliable narration.
The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins — the other standout adult psychological suspense novel of our time.
In A Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware
The Woman In Cabin 10, also by Ruth Ware
The Widow’s House by Clare Goodman — a couple moves into a deteriorating estate in the Hudson Valley, hoping to revitalize their marriage and careers. However, shortly after moving in, the wife, Clare, begins having visions of strangers walking their property and she starts to hear wailing. Could the house be haunted, or is it all in Clare’s mind?
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz — Oscar De León is an overweight, sci-fi loving Dominican kid growing up in Paterson, New Jersey. But the narrator is his best friend, Yunior de las Casas. Yunior acts as an omniscient narrator, populating the story with details that he couldn’t have known and admitting that he changed some names between “drafts.”
Notes On A Scandal by Zoe Heller — Barbara Covett is a lonely history teacher who jumps at the chance to be friends with Sheba, the new art teacher at her school. Barbara falls in love with Sheba but Sheba is heterosexual and not interested. Feeling rejected, this affects Barbara’s ability to remove herself from the situation and report reliably. Barbara paints Sheba as manipulative, but we eventually realise Barbara is her equal in that characteristic.
The Remains Of The Day by Kazuo Ishiguro — Stevens is the head butler of Darlington Hall. He is loyal, precise and hard-working but his blindness to the world is a brilliant example of dramatic irony. He can’t see the slow demise of the great house where he works. Nor can he acknowledge his feelings for a fellow servant.
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters — The story would have been easier to tell from third person point of view, so why does Sarah Waters choose to write it from the point of view of the family doctor? I believe it’s because he’s the murderer, writing the story down to try and absolve himself.
To celebrate the 10 year anniversary of Once by Maurice Gleitzman, an Australian middle grade novel by one of our best known children’s book authors, I’m going to take a close look at it using the 7-step story structure which applies to pretty much everything from advertisements to picture books to novels.
The Redemptive Power Of Literature
This is also a story about the Redemptive Power of Literature, about how creating your own stories in the midst of terror can get you through tough times. This is a common theme in MG fiction and it sells pretty well, perhaps because people buying the bulk of books love stories which are about the greatness of books. (Our picture book app The Artifacts is another example, as is The Amazing Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore app by Moonbot Studios.) We know that Felix’s family is ‘Good’ because they owned a bookshop. The mother cared more about books than about clothes, which is what the former bookshop has become since it was taken over by Nazi Germans. (Subtext: Books = depth of emotion, clothes = surface/superficiality/image.) The boy whose family now owns his old book shop even used to wipe his bogeys on the pages of books, which is a concise way of building an ignorant, uncouth character who we know not to identify with. The nun who shelters Felix, too, is a book lover who never had anything bad to say about a book.
On the other hand, books which glorify books can sound a bit insular and twee — Felix has been a big reader, but the downside of this attribute is also shown; Felix learned how to tell if something is dead out of a book, yet he has no street smarts. He’s all knowledge, no clues.
Necessary Prior Knowledge
The reader needs to know the very basics of WW2 — that Nazis killed Jews in Poland. Even then, younger readers without this knowledge will travel through the story with the same level of naivety of Felix, and undergo an historical revelation at the same time Felix discovers the truth. In other words, young readers will respond differently to this book depending upon this prior knowledge.
Once by Morris Gleitzman is an excellent example of a MG story with an unreliable narrator. The reader is given enough information within the first few chapters to know that Felix is a Jewish boy living in Poland during the Nazi era and his life is in danger. Poor, naive Felix knows something fishy is going on but he hasn’t got his facts quite right: he thinks the Germans are after his Jewish parents because they don’t like the books they sell in their shop. He doesn’t know about the plan to rid the world of Jews.
The book is written from the first person point of view and in the present tense. The linguistic trick which is repeated: Every chapter opens with the titular word ‘Once’. Maria Nikolajeva, when writing about children’s literature in From Mythic To Linear: Time In Children’s Literature breaks prose in children’s books into two distinct categories according to the treatment of time:
1. The iterative — In an iterative sentence, it is assumed that whatever is happening has always happened and will continue to keep happening.
2. The singulative — In a singulative sentence, it is assumed that whatever is happening happened in this one story.
Whereas the iterative is associated with the phrase ‘Once upon a time’ (there lived three bears in a cottage…), by truncating this fairytale opening to ‘Once’, Gleitzman plunges the reader straight into the singular — the events in this book happened one time, to one boy. Yet the fairytale quality is still there: This happened long ago. The storyteller narrator is now much older, and is deliberately toying with us, letting us in on the joke of the dramatic irony.
It’s therefore a great choice to switch to the present tense after the single, past tense sentence that opens every chapter. A story written by an unreliable narrator — but one who has since learned the truth — would have no reason not to simply tell the reader the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. But the present tense voice is youthful, it takes the narrator himself right back to 1942, and the reader now feels as if the boy is telling us the story rather than the hypothetical old man who is a famous author running a cake shop in 1983. Whereas the opening sentence of each chapter is quite long, the present tense voice is almost staccato, and reads like a Paul Jennings story, with mostly very short sentences.
There is also a thematic reason for the word ‘Once’, which has its counterpoint on the dedication page:
For all the children whose stories have never been told.
In other words, this particular story only happened once to this one boy, but this sort of story has happened so many times over the course of history that the ‘once’ becomes an ironic counterpoint.
On the inside of the back cover we read:
Everybody deserves to have something good in their life. At least once.
This is truncated from the part where Barney buys Felix some secondhand books with three precious turnips and justifies them by saying everybody deserves something good in their life at least once.
There is a juxtaposition between the dire situation of Hitler’s eugenics regime and the voice of our narrator which, because of his naivety, feels justified.
The Main Character
Felix is immediately likeable, which is important in a character who is basically clueless. This is like the MG equivalent of a picture book like Rosie’s Walk — he’s walking around in extreme danger of being shot but narrowly avoids it at every turn.
Likeable child heroes stand up for other children. We see Felix do just that in the opening pages. Likeable heroes are generally the underdog, which is also by far the most common stock character in comedies for adults, too. We like to see underdogs get into and out of scrapes. On the road, he even saves a girl by carrying her on his back. Boys are even more likeable if they rescue girls than if they rescue other boys — a narrative we also saw in the aftermath of 9/11, which Susan Faludi points out in her book Terror Dream, became the dominant narrative — male firefighters saving women and children — and plunged America back into a mindset which glamorised the gender dynamic of the 1950s that exists mostly in our collective imagination.
Felix becomes even more likeable as we see that Zelda, the little girl he has rescued, behaves like a spoilt brat, with some stock brat behaviours such as sticking out her bottom lip, being ungrateful to Felix who has saved her, and turning Felix’s story around to be about her. She complains about Felix’s smelly hat, as prissy girls do.
An audience also loves trickster characters. There’s an element of Felix getting away with something by pretending to be an orphan when he’s not. (At least, he thinks he’s pretending, and we hope so, too.)
Seven Step Story Structure of Once
As in the best MG stories, the shortcoming/need, desire and opponent are all established within the first few pages.
Felix is naive. This is going to endanger his life, because if he knew what was good for him, he’d stay where he is, sheltered in the Catholic orphanage in the mountains of Poland. Naivety is a pretty common shortcoming in MG heroes.
In order to live a good life, Felix must learn the truth of his situation.
The inciting incident happens on the first page. Felix finds a whole carrot floating in his soup. He takes this as some sort of sign from his parents. He will break out of the orphanage, go back to his house in the village and find his parents working in their bookshop.
He finds that when he gets to the bookshop his parents are no longer living there.
The big struggle is often a three part affair: gate, gauntlet, visit to death.
The gate scenes happen as the two children walk to the city, where they come across death and destruction everywhere. The image of the dead old lady is resonant, especially since Felix wants to carry her on his back as well as Zelda but doesn’t have the capacity.
There is a really clear gauntlet scene as the children walk into the city. There are soldiers lining the street and Gleitzman paints a really clear picture:
The wide streets are dirty and the tall buildings, five levels high some of them, have all got Nazi flags hanging off the balconies and out of the windows. Army trucks and tanks are parked everywhere and lots of soldiers are standing around telling each other foreign jokes and laughing.
Then there is an actual gate:
We’re heading for a big brick wall right across the street. That’s a very strange place to build a wall. There’s a gate in the wall with soldiers guarding it and the people ahead of us are going through the gate.
The visit to death is where Felix has the revelation that things are much worse than he thought:
What was that noise?
Everyone is screaming.
Over by the wall two people are lying on the ground bleeding.
Zelda is taken away from Felix at gunpoint and he winds up on the ground. This is a clear ‘visit to death’.
He is saved by a large man in ‘scuffed’ attire. This reminds me of stories such as the Grimm Brothers’ version of Little Red Riding Hood in which a large man rides in to save the child from the beast. It’s generally a good idea to have kids find their own way out of trouble, but in a situation such as this that would be unrealistic. Also, the young hero’s entire desire is to find his parents and save them. Being saved by a large man emphasises how powerless he really is compared to how much he thinks he can achieve. He thinks that if only his parents hadn’t put him in an orphanage he would have been able to save them somehow.
It’s worth noting that later, in the dire situation in the train, on their way to the Death Camp, it is indeed Felix who saves everyone, though inadvertently. He literally saves the day with his book of stories by generously donating the notebook as toilet paper, which he tries to hang on a bolt of the wall, then realises the boards are rotten and they can all escape. The other take home point there is that the earlier big struggle scene wasn’t actually the most dire. Gleitzman really does get our hero into the worst situation before he comes good.
In the face of evidence everywhere, Felix eventually works out what has probably happened to his parents. There is no single epiphany — we see his psychological slump when he doesn’t want to tell the other children he meets up with his stories. They have a fairytale quality and he feels they’re irrelevant and pointless in the face of such doom. But he doesn’t lose hope entirely. When Barney tells Felix his parents might not ever be found, Felix is sure he is wrong.
There is an audience reveal near the end of the story too — Zelda’s parents are actually Polish Nazis who have been killed by the Polish resistance for being turncoats. This revelation adds some much needed gray area into a story about war. The problem with war stories is that the audience always roots for the hero. The enemy appears in ‘long shots’ — like the nemesis in superhero stories the enemy tends to be outright evil, and never victims of the same circumstance.
This part of the story has been truncated for the purpose of leaving the reader uncertain about Felix and Zelda’s future. “At least we get to choose,” Felix says, of the decision to either jump from the moving train or not. Likewise, the readers get to choose our own ending, and just enough detail is given about the cake shop scenario (an example of side shadowing) that readers can choose that as the story’s reality if they want to. When the story leaves off, however, Zelda and Felix are in the middle of nowhere, having jumped from a death camp train during wartime and Zelda is injured.
A further note on the ending: Just before the last third of the story we are encouraged to believe that Felix is not going to find his parents, but we’re fairly confident Barney the kind dentist will step in to be the parental figure. When Barney heads off towards the Death Camp with a pocket full of syringes this alternative ending we’ve been asked to consider makes the actual ending so much more sad. A similar technique is used in many tragedies, for example in the film Million Dollar Baby. In the hospital Maggie and Frankie discuss going to live in a cabin somewhere in the woods where Frankie will be able to immerse himself in his books while looking after Maggie. Because this alternative ending has been posed, Maggie’s death seems all the more of a shock. The story craft lesson here: In order to get the most emotion out of a sad ending, make sure you pose an alternative, happy ending first, whether this is done overtly (as in the dialogue of Million Dollar Baby), or subtly, as books are better able to do.
And a further note on the character of Barney: This is a rare example of a an adult male who displays emotion.
“I can feel Barney’s tears falling on me. For a while he doesn’t say anything, just strokes my head.”
This is great to see in a children’s book since they aren’t seeing it on the screen. As Howard Suber (film expert) quite rightly points out about movies:
Three kinds of people are allowed to express fear: children, women and men who will come to an unfortunate end. In all three cases, fear is a shortcoming that either requires someone else to do the job or is a kind of fatal flaw.
Howard Suber, writing about film (also in 2006)
Although Once reads like a standalone book, it is actually the first of a four part series. So readers do in fact get to know what happens to Felix and Zelda next.
TITLES RELATED TO ONCE
For more related titles to different books, see Value Packed Book Talks by Lucy Schall
The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World by E. Konigsburg
The Lost Childhood by Yehuda Nir
In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer by Irene Gut Opdyke with Jennifer Armstrong.
Historical fiction for young people…follows in the footsteps of the adult historical novel, the only difference being that it often chooses a hero of its readers’ age, who has a mentality and psychology close to those of our children and teenagers.
Thaler, 2003, Understanding Children’s Literature
The belief in historical fact qua fact is if anything stronger [in children’s historical fiction than in children’s historical non-fiction] … Historical fiction for children acts as history improved, a superior replacement for the real but flawed thing. The genres are starting to trade places. History is offering possibilities, while fiction offers certainty…history is undercutting the authority of narrative while historical fiction still clings to it, asserting itself as more real than fact because it is a better story…The change in historical fiction has been the embrace of relativity, the idea that someone else is going to see a different part of the past, but history begins to suggest the possibility of complete subjectivity — that no one is seeing the past quite right and that the stories will not match up.
Stevenson, 2003, Understanding Children’s Literature
A brief history of historical fiction for children
The following are notes from Genres In Children’s Literature: Lectures 15 & 16: Historical Realism, available on iTunes U.
Historical fiction began with Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832). He is most famous for Waverley, The Heart of Midlothian and Ivanhoe.
Historical fiction for children has always needed to find favour with book buyers — parents, librarians and teachers.
The work of Charlotte M. Yonge (1823-1901) is a great place to start for examples of ethics and accurate research and pious, morally upright behaviour. For example, The Little Duke (1854)
Overt didacticism is no longer the aim of modern children’s historical fiction — rather, it’s meant to teach children about the past as well as entertain.
More recently, publishers were under the impression that children did not like, read or buy historical fiction so for a long time there was very little of it published.
The American duology about Octavian Nothing by M.T. Anderson is a stand-out example of excellence in historical children’s literature, published 2006.
The advantages of historical fiction over non-fiction
The reader is able to empathise with a particular character caught in that time and place.
Fiction can portray what ordinary life was like, rather than focusing on the politics and big struggle fields. This allows for the inclusion of women in history, who were genuinely excluded from the history-book-making events, even though fully invested and involved in society.
Young readers can learn that the difficulties of adolescence are universal, not just across cultures but across times.
The following are notes from a lecture by David Beagley, La Trobe University, available on iTunes U.
The past is a foreign land. They do things differently there.
In Australia: Jackie French, who started off writing humorous books but more recently deal with historical realities.
The three types of historical story
1. A bit of the scenery is historical.
2. Fictionalised history. The time period is the key thing. The plot is fictional.
3. Real events and people, with another story slipped into the cracks between.
Historical fiction can be more real than realistic fiction.
Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes is a biographical story because Sadako was a real person. So many elements of any story are determined by the setting chosen by the story. Authenticity is essential. If a story is set in the past, we have records. Other people can see how accurate the details are, from the clothing worn by the characters to the food they eat.
The concerns expressed in historical fiction will be different from those expressed in modern works. For example, environmental concern is a modern concern.
A book is often a child reader’s a first contact with a historical situation.
A problem encountered by authors can be lack of information about the era. This is an issue encountered by authors such as Jean M. Auel.
Blacklock’s Pankration was published at a time when drug cheating in the Olympics was starting to make headlines. We have no evidence that this was a problem in the early history of the Olympics, when this story is set.
The Ramose series by Carol Wilkinson looks at Egyptian Pharoahs with all the inter-family feuding is detailed in the tombs, so the author does have a responsibility to make sure it does not contradict the evidence that we do have.
Historical fiction must be balanced with the fact that history is real but fiction is not. Historical fiction must be ‘realistic’ if not ‘real’. The reader must believe the story could have occurred, not that it did.
When historical facts take centre stage, a difficulty for the writer is keeping the prose from reading like an encyclopedia. Another difficulty is that English language has changed a lot across the centuries — more than most people would guess — and so the writer must invent some sort of hybrid English which avoids obvious uses of modern language, while guesstimating which words are going to be acceptable as shared by an earlier era.
Australian Examples Of Historical Fiction
Tangara is an Australian historical novel set in Tasmania. A white farm girl encounters an Aboriginal girl.
Ruth Park’s Playing Beatie Bow is set in the slums Sydney in the late 1800s.
My Place is a picturebook by Nadia Wheatley, originally published in 1988 but since rewritten (2008). The reader is taken back to the same place in Sydney, in ten year jumps. (2008, 1998, 1988…1788).
Our Australian Girl (like Our American Girl), My Story, etc. are series which depict fictional characters in real historical situations.
The Time-Slip Technique
A common technique employed by authors of historical fiction is the ‘time slip’. Hitler’s Daughter, Playing Beatie Bow and Tangara all make use of this technique. A character from the present world of the story has a bridge to an earlier time. This makes for a kind of (portal) fantasy story.
It’s important that the reader identifies with the main character, so that the reader is interested enough to learn about the historical parts. The aim is for the readers to feel as if the story is happening to them.
Historical fiction is relevant to young readers because history has contributed to our very existence, and has contributed to our culture.
Evaluating A Work Of Historical Fiction
Are events consistent with what we know of the historical era?
Gladiator is one of the worst films for historical inaccuracies. Even his name is inverted. The Romans never put personal names first. Caesar Julius, not the other way around. Women weren’t seen in the Colosseum. There were no outed left-handed people. Left-handed people were burned. There was no letter ‘u’ — they used ‘v’. Paper wasn’t invented so there wouldn’t have been leaflets. Horses had no saddles and no stirrups. There were no Rhode Island Red chickens. There was no welding. Some of the helmets were Anglo-Saxon. Certainly no wrist watches and jet trails across the sky, and no girls wearing jeans.
1. Of the characters who are meant to represent people from that era, are they realistic representations?
Some time in the future, what if people thought of Home and Away or My Kitchen Rules as a guide to how we all lived?
2. Is the reader able to visualise the setting?
If the characters don’t have glass in the windows, how does that affect their daily lives? How do people store their meat without refrigeration?
3. Is the narrator authentic?
Regardless of mode of narration (external/internal) the narrator is an imagined person in that historical situation, so must sound historically authentic. This is problematic because language changes a lot over time, so modern English speakers wouldn’t be able to understand Old English. So the narration must be an approximation. Do characters speak to people in authority the way they would have? Beagley uses the term ‘Gadzookery’ to describe language which is meant to sound old without being a natural replication. [I would add ‘pirate-speak’ to that. Pirates didn’t really speak the way we think they do.]
The TV adaptation of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries is set in 1920s Australia, but all the characters in this series have very similar accents. This wasn’t the case in 1920s Australia, in which there was a significant distinction between how the upper classes and the working classes spoke. The upper classes sounded English. The working class sounded unabashedly so, with different word usage and a vastly different accent. This distinction wouldn’t sit well with an Australian audience, but can jar with people who know a bit about
Problems with balancing modern expectations of good stories against historical realities
For example, do we have a modern feminist character set in Roman times arguing for women’s rights? Beagley argues that this simply didn’t happen. [I argue that we can’t prove it didn’t, though feminist action obviously didn’t get them anywhere, so authenticity depends on the conclusion of the story.] A good example of characters acting out of accordance with their time period is the BBC production of Robin Hood. The role of women was very much out of kilter with the history of the time. In the TV series Maid Marion was a rival for Robin Hood.
David Beagley, La Trobe University, available on iTunes U
Is our view of history manipulated by story? One power of story: To present a particular emotional, partisan and one-sided view. When we read a novel we are used to the idea of having a single protagonist as a key element in the story. We empathise with the main character; this is the convention of story.
What happens when we read a story in which the MC is on the ‘other side’?
E.H. Carr is a leading historiographer: He studies how we record history. In What Is History he says that history is a conversation between the present and the past. Therefore we can learn from the past and apply it to the present. In regards to the Aboriginals, for instance, what was seen as an achievement in the past may later be seen as a failure.
Is considered one of the great heroes. But the British called him the ‘little corporal’.
This is a British comedy series only about 10 years old. The same attitude towards Napoleon is conveyed, centuries later.
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
All history writing is selective, be it fiction or non-fiction. We can look at Greek archaeology for instance and learn things about the Olympic games. Or we can read a book like Dyan Blacklock’s. The past is being continuously reconstructed by the present, and it keeps changing. What we see as definite points of history will continue to be reconsidered as time goes on.
Erik Haugaard, a Danish children’s writer said something like: When you write a story that takes place in times gone past you are free. Your readers will accept your tale more easily due to less prejudice. But you’d think you’d be more limited. You can’t make things up about the past as a setting. Children of the past are freer in historical novels. They don’t need to go to school or stop at traffic lights, so in that sense there is a freedom allowed in historical settings. It was easier to remain unnoticed.
Benedict Arnold acted as an agent and a spy. He argued that he was simply doing his duty as a citizen of Britain. Was he a hero or was he a traitor by not going along with the revolution? Fidel Castro is another historical character who can be considered both a hero and a traitor, depending on which side you’re on. Ned Kelly is a good Australian example. The author of historical fiction has to pick a side or decide these moral questions, even if the aim is remain neutral.
Beagley mentions at this point a book by Christobel Mattingley: No Guns For Asmir. Asmir, like Sadako, was a real person. This one is set in Sarajevo.
Definition of Hagiography
Hagiography originally meant the story of a saint. When we use this word today we’re generally talking about writing which makes out a person from the past was wonderful.
With Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, the author does not take sides, mainly because it avoids the key question: Should the atomic bomb have been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? However, indirectly the question is there the whole time. Eleanor Coerr simply gives us the story of a small girl, who begins the story as a healthy school girl keen to make her family proud by running in a relay team. The conversations she has with her mother are fabricated because that was never recorded. Also, the conversations would have been in Japanese. Authors must make up what was not recorded, but include that which was: We all know a bomb was dropped, so that part is not the fictional part. The answer that you come up with regarding the morality of war is your own answer. You are required to make that decision yourself.
Or, is it therefore avoiding the question? Neither child nor adult readers might not be ready to face that one.
Historical works which ask difficult questions
Another book which similarly raises awkward questions is Hitler’s Daughter. Adolf Hitler is generally seen as a bad person. But what if he had a daughter called Heidi, who he kept sheltered during the war? Heidi spends most of the story waiting for her father to come and visit. He is very important. He doesn’t see her much but shows obvious affection, trying to keep her safe. This is a brilliantly constructed story.
I Am David and The Silver Sword (both about child refugees)
The Midnight Zoo by Sonya Hartnett
Diary of Anne Frank about the Holocaust
Maurice Gleitzman’s trilogy of Once (2006), Then, and Now
The Book Thief by Markus Zuzak
Divine Wind by Garry Disher — Set in the seaside town of Broome in northwestern Australia, it opens in 1946, when Hart Penrose—son of a pearl lugger and a race-conscious Englishwoman—begins looking back at his complicated relationship with Mitsy Senosuke, daughter of Japanese immigrants.