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

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The Fourth Golden Age of Children’s Literature

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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.

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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’.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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This Goodreads question gave me a chuckle:

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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.)