Matilda by Roald Dahl Novel Study

Matilda is a classic, best-selling children’s book first published in 1988. This story draws from a history of children’s literature such as classic fairytales and Anne of Green Gables.

Matilda was written by Roald Dahl, but significantly improved by a talented editor and publisher, Steven Roxburgh. For half of his writing career, Dahl wrote for adults. When Dahl found publishing success in the children’s book market he stuck with that, but his editors were constantly having to make them more suitable for kids. The happy place where the stories ended up — creepy and scary but in a childlike kind of way, filled a real hole in children’s literature at the time. Children needed scary stories which spoke to our revenge fantasies, our hatred for certain adults in our lives and our trickster instincts.

Charactersiation In Matilda — Pre-edited and Post-edited Comparison

Matilda regularly makes it onto lists ofStrong Female Characters‘. This is vexing because I’ve read almost all of Dahl’s books, as well as the biography by Jeremy Treglown, and Dahl was no feminist. He was sexist, at best. But of course he was. Look at the era and milieu into which he was born. I stop short at calling him ‘misogynist’, but only because ‘misanthropist’ feels like a better descriptor. Does this come through in Matilda, even after heavy editing?

Matilda Wormwood

Dahl’s pre-edited Matilda is no role model, at least not in the sense most adults would hope for. As explained by Jeremy Treglown:

As Dahl would sometimes relate, the original version was not at all like [the published book]. He didn’t say that the main changes were prompted by his editor, or that after the work was done, Dahl picked a fight with him, took the book away from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and left them for good.

In the first draft of Matilda, a copy of which is still in the Dahl files at FSG, the heroine, not unlike Hilaire Belloc’s Matilda, was “born wicked”. She spends the first part of the book inflicting various tortures on her harmless and baffled parents. Only later does she turn out to be clever.

A clarification: ‘strong female character’ should not be conflated with ‘morally upright’. Lists of ‘strong female characters’ should include all kinds of strength, whether a girl uses her strength for good or for evil. If a female character is terrible, she might still be strong. There should be just as many female villains as male villains, in feminism’s next stride towards equal narrative representation. In that case, Dahl’s original Matilda made for a wonderful female villain. Some of the original Matilda character remains, as she uses her high intelligence to play tricks on her stupider parents, and mostly for the fun of it, and for plain and simple revenge. Matilda, like her father, is a trickster character, and the most interesting trickster stories involve trickster opponents to outwit the original tricksters.

If ‘revenge’ is a writer’s main desireline for their main character, it’s very hard to write. The benefit is that it’s very emotional. Everyone can relate to it. But it’s hard to write because it’s a ‘low level’ emotion which doesn’t build.  Dahl got around this by creating an episodic plot, in which the child/ren exact revenge, completing that ‘episode’, but then something even more terrible happens to them.

Miss Trunchbull

Miss Trunchbull is another female villain from this story. Unlike Matilda, The Trunchbull remains villanous. Take a closer look at and it’s clear Dahl does not believe true villainy can co-exist with genuine femininity:

The headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, is characterized much as in the final version of the book, although some details, such as her “shadow of a jet-black moustache” and her dressing in men’s clothes of a military type, were eventually dropped. (Dahl was to base her new appearance on that of the principal of a horticultural school near Thame, where he and his sisters bought plants.)

principal_trunchball

Dahl’s original vision of The Trunchbull is nevertheless used in other more modern stories, such as in ParaNorman. I’m thankful Steven Roxburgh edited out the masculine descriptors. I wish he had also edited out the description of Mrs Wormwood being ‘unfortunately’ fat. Fat phobia in Dahl’s book comes through loud and clear. Readers are encouraged to despise fat characters simply for being fat.

Miss Honey

It was the editors who made the Miss Honey character a complete goodie. Dahl’s Miss Honey was more nuanced; she had a gambling habit:

In the second half, nothing in the draft corresponds with the final story as Roxburgh suggested it to Dahl, except that both versions are in the style of Victorian sentimental melodrama and, in both, Matilda is brought face to face with her teacher’s poverty. In the original version, when Matilda’s teacher — called Miss Hayes — learns of her pupil’s secret powers, she makes a confession of her own. A bookie’s daughter, Miss Hayes is a compulsive gambler and has run up debts of 20,000 pounds on the horses. Keen to help, the fascinated Matilda has the idea of using her powerful eyes to fix a race. She practises energetically by knocking over nearby cows and ponies. Meanwhile, Miss Hayes pawns an old ring of her mother’s for 2,000 pounds. The two go off to Newmarket and put the money on a 50:1 outsider. It wins Miss Hayes pockets 100,000 pounds, takes them both home in a taxi, and renounces gambling forever. By now the beginning of the book has been forgotten. Matilda has long ago stopped being naughty, and Miss Trunchbull has disappeared from view altogether.

miss-honey-matilda

EDITING MATILDA

The Importance Of Contrasting Character Values

The structural problems with this enjoyable nonsense must have been easier to identify than their solutions, but Roxburgh saw various new possibilities, both in Matilda’s cleverness and in the clash between Miss Trunchbull and Miss Hayes over educational methods. He realised, too, that the book would have more shape, and Matilda more identity, if Miss Hayes’s values (nature, poetry, etc.) were contrasted with those of her pupil’s parents. It was clear that in some way the young teacher’s predicament should arise out of the situation already established in the early chapters. Within what was usable, there would need to be some cuts, particularly in the Trunchbull scenes and in the duplication between Matilda’s naughtiness and that of her friends Hortensia and Lavender.

Roxburgh put all these points to Dahl. If they proceeded as before, Dahl would incorporate his suggestions into a new draft, on which the editor would offer further comments, having polished and cut as much as his author would tolerate.

Characters’ Moral Ambiguity Wiped Out In Favour Of Good vs Bad

The first stage went fine. Dahl saw the advantages of emphasizing Matilda’s intelligence and enthusiasm for books. Following Roxburgh’s suggestions, he developed a contrastingly boorish home background for her and reduced the episodes of her bad behaviour, turning them into acts of revenge on her illiterate, sexist, and semi-criminal father. The aptly renamed Miss Honey was built up, meanwhile, into an attractive, sweet-natured, and liberally inclined teacher, a much stronger foil to Miss Trunchbull.

We Might Need To Change Emphasis In The Climax

All of this took up considerably more of the book—almost a hundred pages of typescript, to the first draft’s fifty—allowing Miss Honey’s new revelations about the financial and domestic villainy of Miss Trunchbull to come closer to the climax. Here, Matilda’s powers now play a positive, much briefer, and more dramatic role: the exposure of Miss Trunchbull through magical writing on the blackboard.

Avoid Too Much About The Adults — It’s About The Child Hero

All this was Dahl’s next draft. Inevitably there were still roughnesses. There was too much both of Miss Trunchbull and, now, of Matilda’s parents.

Do Your Research On How Modern Schools Operate

The antique school-story idiom (“New scum,” “We’ve seen her at prayers,” “‘Steady on,’ the boy said. ‘I mean, dash it all, Headmistress'”), however reassuring to middle-class British parents, was incongruous in the setting of a contemporary day school and wouldn’t make much sense to American kids. But Roxburgh could put all this to Dahl in person at Gipsy House when they discussed what was needed in the final draft.

The Rest Is History

Except that, as it turned out, this was the final draft. Perhaps because he was increasingly busy at FSG, perhaps (as Dahl complained) because of complications in his private life, but perhaps also because he had been irked to hear that Dahl had been complaining about him at dinner parties with other publishers, Roxburgh’s letter about the new manuscript was not fulsome. “The story holds together and moves along briskly,” he wrote early in October 1987. “I had hoped to read the manuscript one more time before returning it, but Frankfurt [the Book Fair] looms.” He suggested that he might come to Great Missenden on his return, in two weeks’ time, to review the draft, “or whatever”.

Dahl was tired of being put to so much work. And when financial negotiations began, it became clear that there was a way out. In all the editorial discussions about Matilda, Roxburgh had omitted to make sure that Farrar, Straus and Giroux had a contract with Dahl for the book. They didn’t, and Dahl was now quick to demand, through his agent, a full 15 per cent royalty over and above whatever was paid to Quentin Blake. Roxburgh was left with little choice except to agree, but instead of capitulating graciously, he made the mistake of warning Pollinger that he wouldn’t be able to offer such good terms if Farrar Straus were the originating publishers of any future Dahl book.

[…]

In the United Staes, its publisher was Viking, the hardcover wing of Peter Mayer’s Penguin. Their confidence in the story as it stood was amply justified. No book of Dahl’s ever sold so fast. In Britain alone, half a million paperback copies went across the counter within six months. Stephen Roxburgh’s role, of course, was never acknowledged.

Further Storytelling Notes From Matilda

  • The Wormwoods remind me very much of The Dursleys. I’m not the first to make that observation.
  • Adults who buy children’s books about libraries and a love of reading tend to do well. Of the story apps we’ve published, the one that does the best is the one in which a child develops a love for reading after spending a lot of time in a library. This is a conservative, non-threatening message and no one who reads books really disagrees with it. Roald Dahl went a step further and incorporated a strong anti-TV message, by associating TV viewing with the most despicable characters in the story. Dahl also slipped this message into Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with Mike Teevee and his obsessive pop cultural attitude. I wonder if Dahl watched any TV himself. In any case it was a hypocritical position given that his wife was a film actress and Dahl wrote film scripts.
  • By Northrop Frye’s categorisation, Matilda Wormwood is a romantic character, superior to regular human beings and also to some of the laws of nature.
  • Steven Roxburgh must have understood — even if Roald Dahl himself did not — that Matilda is functioning as an almost superhero. Superhero stories have certain conventions, and that’s why the other characters needed to be unambiguously good and evil, not yin-yang as Dahl created them. Matilda works because of the stark good-bad distinction. This is the same distinction used in The Witches and The BFG.
  • Yet she is not a Mary-Sue goody-two-shoes character. We like her. Part of this must be to do with the fact that she enacts our revenge fantasies. Wouldn’t all of us like to play tricks on the adults who treat us with derision? Even as an adult reader, that feeling is there.
  • Matilda’s small size is brought up time and again. Mice are often anthropomorphised in children’s stories and it works the same way — children identify heavily with small characters. Being small is a shortcoming, but one which can always be overcome by wits.
  • The superpower of telekinesis also serves to propel Matilda Wormwood into the realm of a romantic/superhero character and away from the Mary-Sue archetype.
  • On re-reading this as an adult I am actually pretty surprised at how much of the novel is taken up by the back-and-forth oneupmanship which defines one of Dahl’s other MG novels — The Twits. First Matilda gets the better of her parents, then when she starts school she and the other children get the better of The Trunchbull in a similar series of pranks and punks.
  • Dahl is also a big fan of The Audience Effect to make scenes seem bigger than they would otherwise be. First we have Miss Honey interrogating Matilda, which happens in front of the class. The kindergarten students sit improbably still for this lengthy testing of abilities. A few chapters later we have the forced cake eating scene, which happens on the school stage. Dahl also uses a stage to give The Grand High Witch a platform, and Sophie from The BFG ends up at Buckingham Papers and in the papers.
  • The scene with the cake is disturbing rather than funny, possibly because I’ve seen Se7en, in which the fat man forced to eat dies. Dahl might easily have written a screenplay such as Se7en were he writing in slightly more modern times. When writing for children, this scene has to end in the boy’s favour. Anything else would be far too horrific. See also: How Scary Is Too Scary?
  • When it’s Lavender’s turn to play a trick on The Trunchbull, Dahl is very careful to be explicit about her motivation — she admires the others who’ve played tricks and wants her own turn as hero. We love Lavender’s daring, her inventiveness, and we even get a Save The Cat moment as she provides the newt with extra weed to eat. The first chapter in this sequence starts with a chapter that sets up the trick, and ends with the cliffhanger of class about to start.
  • The Trunchbull is the extreme hyperbolic version of a terrible headmistress — she loathes children. Not only that, she tells them so. But even her raison d’etre is explained: She feels it’s her life’s work to counterbalance the positive feedback children get from their doting parents. She really thinks she’s doing some good in the world.
  • Comedy comes from watching little Eric spell ‘what’ wrong three times, each time getting it more wrong than before. Comedy also comes from The Trunchbull refusing to admit she was ever small or ever a baby. This character humour is relatable because children find it hard to imagine the adults in their lives as children themselves. When I first started school my father told me m teacher didn’t have a home, that she slept in the cupboard, and I half believed him. Eric gets his ears stretched — slapstick comedy. The final gag in the chapter is a reveal that Miss Trunchbull has worked our Matilda’s father is a crook and has sold her a lemon. The reader was in audience superior position on that one, so feels satisfying. This also ups the stakes for Matilda, because not only does Miss Trunchbull hate children, she especially hates Matilda’s father. This is the cliffhanger of “The Weekly Test”.
  • In “The First Miracle” the reader is still in audience superior position — we know there’s a newt and guess that Miss Trunchbull is about to swallow it. Now the pleasure comes from waiting for the other shoe to drop.
  • As you might have guessed, the newt incident spans three chapters, making use of the Rules of Threes in storytelling. Importantly, the newt is saved. And Miss Trunchbull doesn’t swallow the newt — Dahl makes use of the telekinesis he has already set up. Matilda simply knocks the glass of water over so that the scary-looking creature tips out. Miss Trunchbull ends defeated, sending the children out into the yard, which she thinks is a punishment but is absolutely no punishment at all. The children are clear winners.
  • As Matilda walks down the path towards Miss Honey’s cottage and they recite the poem, I realise Miss Honey and Matilda are a Miss Stacey and Anne Shirley pair of kindred spirits. Anne of Green Gables has been hugely influential, and has influenced Matilda.
  • Dahl uses allusions to fairytales when describing Miss Honey’s home — as in a classic fairytale such as Hansel and Gretel, the path starts off looking cosy and inviting but the atmosphere changes as they enter ‘the forest‘. Miss Honey herself is a fairytale figure — a rags to riches, put-upon figure. Basically a Cinderella trope who has gone from upper middle class to outwardly middle class but living in poverty.
  • Miss Honey’s story is a chapter of hypodiegetic narration — “Miss Honey’s Story” makes it no surprise that we’re going to hear all about Miss Honey’s backstory. The big reveal at the end (though I’m sure a few young readers will have guessed) is that Miss Trunchbull is the name of the abusive aunt who killed her father and rewrote his will in her own favour, keeping Miss Honey as an indentured worker. Right out of a fairytale. We also see indentured slavery in tales such as Rumpelstiltskin.
  • Modern writers have trouble getting parents out of the picture. In real life, caregivers always know where their children are these days, unless there’s some dark abuse and neglect. So writers need children who are orphans or foster children or who disobediently abscond on some important mission. Even in the 1980s the freedom of childhood was starting to disappear. Dahl doesn’t have this issue with Matilda because her parents don’t care where she is. Yet he lampshades her absence anyhow. She’s been at Miss Honey’s house all afternoon but Matilda tells Miss Honey that they won’t care.
  • The final trick on Miss Trunchbull uses that feeling you get when you’re a kid and you learn your teacher’s first name. You feel you have something on them.
  • Why does Dahl take Matilda’s power of telekinesis away from her at the end? Probably because it has done its work for the story and leaving it there might suggest more in the series to come. Or, there’s a risk Matilda might continue to use it but for bad reasons. When your life is perfect you don’t need superpowers. Also, readers conservatively value hard work. She’s already been blessed with genius, now she’ll have to use her brains to make her way in life, just like the rest of us plebs. Taking away her powers puts her on the same level as the reader (in a way).
  • Dahl makes use of a ticking clock technique in the final chapter as Miss Honey and Matilda rush to ask if Matilda can live with Miss Honey rather than escape the police in Spain.
  • The final sentence of the book must be quite disturbing for a child reader — the image of your family zooming away forever. But the wonderful flip side is that Matilda will be much better off.

The Fourth Golden Age of Children’s Literature

the-fourth-golden-age-of-childens-books

America is hugely influential in the children’s book world. America exports a lot of children’s books and imports very few.

That, of course, has contributed to this mess.

See my notes of Dan Hade’s talk on this topic: Branding And The Impact Of The American Export

What Will The Next 5-10 Years Bring?

We’re just coming out of a period of dystopia. Publishers are saying they never want to read another grim world because they’ve read too much of it. Now, that’ll partly be because they’re living in one. So I predict a return to hygge. To the comforting and cosy — genuine utopias rather than apparent utopias.

walkiing-dead-tweet

Publishers of young adult literature probably won’t have as much patience with the anti-hero either, unless that anti-hero is a girl. (We’ve not seen many of those, and she wouldn’t remind everyone of Trump.)

Remember Enid Blyton? The healthy kids (who don’t need Obamacare), the safe adventures, the celebration of imagination. We’ll see a return to The Second Golden Age Of Children’s Literature but without the racism and sexism.

That’s because around the world, writers, especially children’s book writers and illustrators, are left-leaning people. So a Trump Presidency won’t change the overwhelmingly left-leaning ideology which shines through in children’s books these days.

However, another way of depicting hygge is to create nuclear families in which the apron-wearing mother stays home and the father goes out to work — men saving the world, in other words. We’ll see those, too. Mad Men for toddlers.

#WeNeedDiverse Books

Trump’s racism and sexism may actually lead to better representation in children’s books,  because Trump’s leadership will lead to the widespread use of language we all understand to talk about these things. Trump will make sure we all know the true meaning of misogyny, backlash, sexual assault, false equivalence, and what racism really looks like.

In short, no thinking person looking at America can plausibly deny that racism and sexism isn’t a thing, and those who wonder how we got to here might start taking a closer look at the influence of children’s media.

Fantasy vs Realism

Traditionally Britain has been the home of the most excellent children’s fantasy, but we’re about to see that matched well-and-truly by America, who has always been better at realism. We may see a lot of science fiction too, because it’s somewhat comforting to be transported off the Earth even if it is only by book.

We’ll also see surrealism, with quiet digs at the state of the world which only the adults in a dual audience readership will fully appreciate. Bully cats with hair like Donald Trump, that kind of thing. Trump will create a brand new literary trope. He may even cause a comeback of aptronyms (symbolic names).

There are common wish fulfilment fantasies in children’s literature, and one is ‘to be bigger than one’s enemies’. We’ll see quite a bit of that from both right and left leaning authors.

The Girl Title Trend In Children’s Books

The girl title trend in publishing is interesting because it is popular despite some pushback against using the word ‘girl’ to refer to grown-ass women.

Author Emily St John Mandel wrote this week about why so much of the bestselling fiction this year has ‘girl’ in the title.

  • It’s an evolution on all those titles from a few years ago which emphasise a woman’s relationship to a man. The [X’s] Daughter/Wife and so on.
  • Book titles are like book covers — not decided by authors but by marketing departments.
  • This ‘girl’ trend probably started with the phenomenal success of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and marketing departments are hoping to replicate that success.
  • There may be something about ‘girl’ that promises a character arc (with the ‘girl’ becoming a ‘woman’, regardless of the fact she’s already a woman in years at the beginning of the story.)
  • I am slightly disturbed by the stat that when men write books with girl in the title the girl is significantly more likely to be dead by the end of the story than when the book is written by a woman. This leads to the question: Are male authors more likely to kill characters of any gender than female authors, or do best-selling male authors take a particular pleasure in killing off girls?

Those are my takeaway points but the entire article is well worth a read.

Basically, books with girl in the title tell the reader that this is a ‘psychological thriller about middle class white women with jobs’.

girl title tweets

The Girl Title In Kids’ Books

This book impresses me about as much as the UN’s decision to appoint Wonder Woman as its gender equality ambassador, even as the UN itself haemorrhages women in leadership roles.

the-big-book-of-girlpower

Contrast with the ‘boy version’ of the book, reinforcing for everyone that when girls have power it’s ‘girl power’, but boy power is the unmarked version.

the-big-book-of-superpowers

It may be 2016, but be very suspicious about books for young readers which emphasise gender on the cover.

YA titles are a slightly different matter.

Girl Titles In YA

The basic criticism of all those adult novels with girl in the title is about the infantalisation of women. This isn’t an argument when it comes to YA characters who are, indeed, minors.

While Mandel’s article looks only at books marketed at an adult audience, I wondered if those bestselling adult thrillers were influencing marketing decisions in the YA department.

On the Barnes and Noble list of bestselling YA 2016 (so far) we have a standout collection of titles about kings and queens, with a not-insignificant number of covers which are quite obviously hoping to attract Stieg Larsson crossover audiences. When a YA book has ‘girl’ in the title in 2016, it’ll probably be a gritty crime thriller.

dragon-tattoo-cover_472x700 the-girl-from-everywhere_462x700

The word ‘gone’ in the Heidi Heilig cover will also appeal to the Gone Girl audience. (About fifty percent of YA readers are adult women.)

moth-girls-cover

This book doesn’t have ‘girl’ in the title but the cover design is very reminiscent of ‘Gone Girl’. Same font, perhaps?

Moth Girls is a YA thriller. The book tells the story of Mandy, and her friends Petra and Tina. Petra and Tina had gone into an old local house years before and never been seen again. Mandy is only around because she refused to go in with them.

american_girls

In case the American Girl series with the expensive dolls springs immediately to mind, this new publication is a YA crime thriller focusing on a 15-year-old who runs away to Los Angeles to live with her D-list actress sister. The sisters are based on the Manson sisters, who the author researched heavily.

This book is marketed across the pond as My Favourite Manson Girl. So, same book, different English speaking cultures, both with girl in the title.

my-favourite-manson-girl

If I Was Your Girl breaks the mould. This isn’t a crime/thriller but a realistic coming-of-age novel about a transgender girl by a transgender woman.

if-i-was-your-girl-cover

This Goodreads question gave me a chuckle:

if-i-were-your-girl

What will 2017 look like for YA?

I predict more books about transgender because there is a need there, and those books are highly likely to indicate gender in the title or title graphic somehow.

Mandel is hoping adult titles will evolve to include woman in place of girl, and offers an example of that starting to happen. But we’ll have to wait and see, I guess.

Why You Can’t Get Your Hands On That Old Book You Remember From Childhood

In the early 1980s, to encourage aggressive sales, the U.S. government raised the taxes charge on goods left in warehouses at the end of each year. As applied to books, this meant that publishers could no longer afford to keep large numbers of titles on their backlists (the still-available books published in previous years). Books that had been in print for decades suddenly became unavailable. Now, only those titles that still sell well remain in print for very long.

The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Nodelman and Reimer

(Add it to the list of other reasons you already are sure to know about.)

A sobering panel discussion on the gendered nature of book covers

A sobering panel discussion on the gendered nature of book covers from earlier in 2015 can be found here at The Wheeler Center’s website.

As was noted by someone on the panel, “It starts with children’s books.”

 

Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown

Goodnight Moon is an American picturebook classic, and is of particular interest because who would’ve thunk it? Margaret Wise Brown had a talent for creating odd-duck prose which went down a treat (and still does) with the preschool set. But is this book only of value for toddlers? Never.

PARATEXT

In a great green room, tucked away in bed, is a little bunny. “Goodnight room, goodnight moon.” And to all the familiar things in the softly lit room to the picture of the three little bears sitting on chairs, to the clocks and his socks, to the mittens and the kittens, to everything one by one the little bunny says goodnight.

In this classic of children’s literature, beloved by generations of readers and listeners, the quiet poetry of the words and the gentle, lulling illustrations combine to make a perfect book for the end of the day.

Continue reading “Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown”

Should America Import More Children’s Books?

Should America import more children’s literature from other countries?

Everything we do to, with, and for our children is influenced by capitalist market conditions and the hegemonic interests of ruling corporate elites. In simple terms, we calculate what is best for our children by regarding them as investments and turning them into commodities.

– Jack Zipes, Sticks and Stones

Podcast freely available on iTunes U (episode 44)

 

Is children’s literature art?

On one hand, a work of kidlit is a work of art: literary art, graphic art. On the other hand it’s a commodity. It’s something that is produced to be sold. And if it doesn’t sell, things like that won’t be produced in the future because children’s books exist in part for someone to make a profit.

Children’s Literature Is Middle Class

Children’s literature didn’t exist until children existed. Intellectually we had an idea that there was such a thing as children. We usually point to the 18th C as the time when that shift began: the beginnings of public education and things like that which we usually associate with childhood. Hade likes to qualify that, saying that it assumes a certain kind of child. For kidlit to exist, there has to be somebody who has the money to purchase it, there has to be somebody who can read it, and there has to be somebody who has the time to read. So we’re looking for a kid who can read, has money and has leisure time. This suggests that kidlit is a middle class phenomenon. As middle classes emerge we see children’s books emerge.

The gentrification of comic books

We never used to talk about certain kinds of books in academia because they were not considered proper kinds of literature. Comic books are a good example. They weren’t allowed in the classroom, considered vulgar, things that an educator wouldn’t want to encourage. We’ve seen some shift in how the profession understands children’s literature. We’ve moved somewhat away from the idea that we are purveyors of the very best the culture has to offer to looking at what kids actually spend their time reading, and they do spend a lot of time reading comic books. The comic book has become high art.

300 is a filmed version of a graphic novel by Frank Miller, the story of the 300 Spartans in a big struggle. Hade recommends it for being quite different. Lots of blood, but computer generated blood. These things existed for quite a while but became increasingly popular in part because they’ve been taken on by Japanese culture. There are 100s and 100s of manga, and large bookstores have sections devoted to the form.

American Born Chinese won a major award from the American Library Association.

We’re now seeing graphic novels trickling down to younger audiences. Babysitters Club and Goosebumps were big in the 80s. School librarians had to wonder about whether to spend money on books of inferior literary quality but which would be read. What was the purpose of a school librarian? Today there is a reissue of the Babysitters Club and Goosebumps as graphic novels.

The Medium Is The Message

It does matter what the medium is. Getting a story through TV is different from getting it through a book. You process the story differently. You understand it differently, and this is going to have an effect. This is a trend that’s not going away and it will be interesting to see how that develops.

The Impact of the Internet On Children’s Reading

The young consumer is still reading, but the type of reading is changing. The web accelerates everything. It’s not only that you get it now, but that you want it now, and expect it now. So many other forms of storytelling are so compressed: Commercials are stories. A 15 story commercial can now tell a story in 15 seconds, and kids see 1000s of these. Is a kid going to slog through page after page of a novel to get something you could get in 15 seconds? (Yes, Harry Potter breaks the rules.)

Young people are still learning plenty of skills. It still takes skill to read a comic book. They have their own conventions. A successful comic book is a technical masterpiece. But these are not the skills we’re testing in schools. There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence from teachers that children find it more difficult to visualise. It makes a lot of sense that this would be the case because almost all of our stories are accompanied by pictures these days. Picturebooks are the most common form, and there’s frequent illustration in chapter books, more than a generation ago. What does that mean if a kind of thinking is no longer being exercised by our brain? We’re talking about the ability to imagine, here, being able to visualise something that is presented to you in print.

The Impact of Big Publishing Corporations

Scholastic calls itself the largest publisher in the world. On the Scholastic page [perhaps not anymore?] the consumer can search for ‘Popular Brands’. What we once knew as ‘books’ are now ‘brands’. (See more about Scholastic Brands.) A brand is some bit of standalone meaning that when you hear it, it evokes something in you that the company hopes you will identify with. Nike is a brand, and they work very hard to get people to associate the name Nike with certain kinds of feelings, ‘Just Do It’. We don’t sell cars anymore based on them being better cars than somebody else’s cars, but according to the lifestyle they promise, and the virtues the brand carries. It’s startling to hear children’s book companies refer to books as brands, creating a commercial relationship. The beauty for the company is that it doesn’t matter what the container for the brand is. It can be a children’s book but it can also be a toy. It can be clothing, games, personal items such as toothbrushes, food… Clifford The Big Red dog throws up hundreds and hundreds of products apart from books associated with it. Again, the medium matters. This changes the way we relate to the story. The story, in effect, or the t-shirt or the toy, become in the companies’ words ‘cross-promotional’. Everything becomes an advertisement for everything else. The goal is to trigger desire in a Clifford loving fan to accumulate as much Clifford stuff as they can.

In the age of marketing, toys serve a new function: they are the templates through which children are being introduced into the attitudes and social relations of consumerism. […] We have granted to marketers enormous powers to meddle in the key realms of children’s culture — the peer group, fantasy, stories and play.

– Stephen Kline, 1993

30 years ago we had scores of publishers publishing books for children, indie publishers. They produced quite a variety of stuff. Today the scene is dramatically different. The vast majority of books are produced by a small handful of corporations who have business interests in other areas besides publishing — Viacom, Disney etc.

Disney constructs childhood so as to make it entirely compatible with consumerism.

Smoodin, 1994

Giroux on Disney

What once was a very diverse business has now collapsed into something that doesn’t show quite the diversity. Where once you maybe had 12 publishing houses each with a different editorial staff, those publishers have amalgamated to make one editorial staff with one kind of decision being made. 80% of the books that SLJ reviews come from 8 companies. They get most of the books that the profession says are the best.

What does that mean for us? These companies operate internationally, and something that we are painfully unaware of is we [Americans] don’t import books into this country, unless they’re from Britain or fantasy or a picture book. Anything else doesn’t get in. We are, however, a huge exporter of books. A lot of this trade takes place at the Bologna Book Fair. Almost all the children’s book publishers gather in the world gather in Bologna. There are also toy companies and movie companies — Sesame Street, Hasbro, all looking for something they can buy, something that will become the next big commercial thing.

While this isn’t something that affects us [Americans] directly, there are some implications of us being large exporters of books while not importing much.

America Exports A Lot But Doesn’t Import Much

This wasn’t always the case, partly to do with technology barriers.

Before 1800, the American colonists depended on Britian for most of the books they owned and read. Bookseller-printers living in the colonies and their successor states faced daunting technical, financial and legal barriers to the formation of a book culture independent from that of England. In the 1720s, when young Benjamin Franklin worked in the Philadelphia print shop of Samuel Keimer, North America lacked even a single type foundry, and type imported from England came at considerable cost. When Keimer’s stock of letters proved insufficient — “out of sorts,” in the terminology of the trade — to meet the shop’s workload, it fell to his nimble assistant to improvise a method for molding type with which to increase their stock. Because the colonies had so few paper mills of their own, much of the paper needed for printing had likewise to be imported from England, and paper remained the single greatest production cost for books and other publications well into the first half of the nineteenth century. Most printer’s inks, another costly commodity, also had to be imported.

— Minders of Make-Believe, Leonard S. Marcus

A lot of American children’s books are about going to bed. (eg Goodnight Moon) This book works in a culture where the child has its own room and is expected to leave the company of adults in order to go to bed. Much of the rest of the world works differently. Children go to bed with their mothers, brothers and sisters. There’s no problem with abandonment, because it’s not an issue.

So into Taiwan, they get Goodnight Moon. This book is designed for Western audiences. This puts a pressure on a long accepted practice that maybe had some things going for it that Americans have missed, like maybe abandoning a three year old isn’t the right thing to do. Maybe it’s more nurturing to lie down with the three year old until the three year old goes to sleep.

Who buys children’s books and where they buy them matters.

Up through the middle 1980s most books were bought by librarians for libraries. It wasn’t until the mid 80s that this shifted from libraries to bookstores.

  1. Libraries didn’t have much money anymore.
  2. Money shifted to the general population. Parents buy differently from a librarian. This isn’t a put-down; it’s just a fact. There were a lot of different places in America to buy books, and each of those places had a different person stocking the shelves.

Today if you want to buy a children’s book, they are occupying less and less floor space in some stores. There are only a few big chains left from which to buy these books. So what? Maybe there’s nothing wrong with this. But what you don’t have anymore is someone in the store who knows books. Very few people go to work at Barnes and Noble and see that as a long term career move. They’re there and then they’re moving on, especially the people assigned to the children’s department. So you no longer have that kind of expertise. The expertise exists with the customer. So Barnes and Noble needs books that sell themselves, because there’s no longer a human being to sell them. What kind of books sell themselves?

  • Brands.
  • Celebrity authors.
  • Series books.

Those kinds of books sell themselves. But if you’re that author who’s written that quirky little novel it just may not be discovered.

One last twist on that: Because almost all the books sold in bookstores are sold in Barnes and Noble or [formerly] Borders you now have a handful of people who have a lot of say in what kinds of children’s books are put in front of the public.

Not Censorship, Exactly: Business Decisions

17 Things I’m Not Allowed To Do Anymore is a book about the new super safe environment children live in. This book is not available in the major book stores. They decided it would encourage children to misbehave and will in the long run hurt business, so it’s not there. Simon and Schuster is probably making arrangements with the remainder house to dump the copies they’ve already printed. There’s no chance that this will be a commercial success. They will be sold only as ‘remainders’ at a very low price. You can buy it at the Barnes and Noble online site; you just won’t find it in the store.

American Girls is the closest thing we have to the ‘lifestyle brand’ for kids. It tries to work its way into every aspect of your life, which is why you can buy music at Starbucks.

Related: “Second Only To Barbie: Identity, fiction and non-fiction in the American Girl Collection”.