Moving Molly by Shirley Hughes

Moving Molly may sound like a drug dealer’s handbook but is also a children’s picture book written and illustrated by Shirley Hughes (1981). Shirley Hughes is one of the big name picture book storytellers from my childhood. Another favourite is Dogger. I’ve also analysed Up and Up on this blog.

I know that Shirley Hughes’s illustrations are not for everybody. She has a highly recognisable style, but I haven’t seen much similar in modern picture books, possibly because digital illustration has changed the way illustrators work, and also probably because fashions have changed. When I describe Hughes’s style as ‘grimy’, I do mean it in the best possible way. Her colours are darker than you might expect for a picture book, the hues are almost a bit muddy, and the cross hatching adds life and texture, avoiding the illusion of utopia. The children and adults are not ‘pretty’. The illustration style matches her stories perfectly, because Hughes never gives the message that life is easy and perfect; her stories are set in the real world of children, full of appropriately child-sized struggle.

Continue reading “Moving Molly by Shirley Hughes”

Children’s Literature and Genre

GENRE IN STORIES FOR CHILDREN

Children’s literature is broken down into genres, just as adults’ stories are. But critics of children’s literature differ in how they prefer to categorise the main types of stories for children.

I’ve observed that children’s editors and similar often avoid talking about ‘genre’ when discussing children’s stories. ‘Genre’ is one of those words that needs quote marks around it. Instead, they use different terminology.

REALISM VS FANTASY

John Stephens has said that the distinction between fantasy and realism is ‘the single most important generic distinction in children’s fiction‘. On the other hand, children’s literature academic Maria Nikolajeva doesn’t make that particular distinction, treating ‘all children’s literature as essentiallymythicor at least non-mimetic‘. [Non-mimetic means not even trying to emulate reality.]

MATURATION PROCESS

Nikolajeva describes children’s stories as ‘a symbolic depiction of a maturation process (initiation, rite of passage) rather than a strictly mimetic reflection of a concrete “reality”.’

Arguably the most pervasive theme in children’s fiction is the transition within the individual from infantile solipsism to maturing social awareness’.

John Stephens

See my post on Coming-of-age Stories. (In which there are subcategories and related categories.)

MYTH VS ROMANCE, MIMETIC VS NON-MIMETIC

Northrop Frye writes in terms of ‘myth-to-romance—romance to high mimetic—low mimetic to ironic’.

Carl Jung wrote of ‘harmony-split-split toward wholeness’, part of what he called the individuation process.

Peter Hunt wrote of ‘closed—semi-closed—unresolved’ stories forming the backbone of children’s literature.

The QuesT OR MYTHIC Story

Maria Nikolajeva writes about children’s stories in terms of ‘utopiacarnival-collapse’. Nikolajeva is also careful to provide the disclaimer that whatever may be true for Western stories is not necessarily true when it comes to the structure of stories in other cultures.

Quest stories have a mythic structure. Nikolajeva writes of the Quest Story as a category of its own, if not a genre. Quest stories are stories of growth and maturation (and this is true whether the audience is adult or child).

Maria Nikolajeva notes that ‘a psychological quest for self can be found in many contemporary YA novels, for instance Gary Paulsen’s The Island, a modern Robinsonnade. Examples of a children’s Robinsonnade would be Theodore Mouse Goes To Sea and Sailor Dog.

The Island Gary Paulsen cover

When applied to children’s literature, Nikolajeva prefers the term ‘picnic‘ in place of ‘quest’ because in children’s stories there is often no character development once the children come back to the primary world. For instance, the Pevensie children in the Narnia Chronicles live entire lives, then presumably live again as children when they arrive back in the real world.

GENRE OR CHRONOTOPE?

Academic Maria Nikolajeva does not make a distinction between:

what is normally described as ‘genres’ or ‘kinds’ of children’s fiction: historical fiction, fantasy, adventure, realistic everyday story, or “nonsense” (which I do not believe to be a generic category anyway, but rather a stylistic device). The difference is in setting, or more specifically in chronotope, the organisation of space and time. In my typology, all these texts belong to the same narrative pattern: “semiclosed” in Peter Hunt’s taxonomy, “Odyssean” in Lucy Waddey’s. In Frye’s mythical cycle, the closest description is romance.

(Chronotope is Bakhtin’s terminology.)

QUEST VS PICARESQUE

Rather than genre, Nikolajeva thinks of children’s literature in terms of ‘quest’ and ‘picaresque’.

Quest has a goal; picaresque is a goal in itself. The protagonist of a picaresque work is by definition not affected by his journey; the quest (or Bildungsroman) is supposed to initiate a change. There is, indeed, sometimes a very subtle boundary between ‘there-and-back’ and a definite, linear journey ‘there’, which is best seen in the last volume of the Narnia Chronicles.

Picaresque: relating to an episodic style of fiction dealing with the adventures of a rough and dishonest but appealing hero. An example of a modern picaresque film for adults is Thelma & Louise.

Nikolajeva further categorises children’s fiction into three general forms:

  1. Prelapsarian (when the main characters are unspoiled by ‘The Fall of Man’. The setting tends to be pastoral, secluded, autonomous. The main characters tend to be ensembles. The narrative voice tends to be didactic and omniscient. Time is circular, with much use made of the ‘iterative’ rather than the ‘singulative’. Utopian fiction introduces readers to the sacred e.g. The Secret Garden.)
  2. Carnivalesque (in which the characters temporarily take over from figures of authority and often make mischief, but control their own worlds for a time. See: The Hobbit, Narnia Chronicles, Harry The Dirty Dog. Carnivalesque texts take children out of Arcadia but ensure a sense of security by bringing them back. They allow an introduction to death, which inevitably follows the insight about the linearity of time.)
  3. Postlapsarian (in which a pastoral setting tends to be replaced by an urban one, and collective protagonists are exchanged for individuals. First person point of view is common. Time is linear. The main character knows that time is linear, so death becomes a central theme. Harmony gives way to chaos. The social, moral, political, and sexual innocence of the child is interrogated. These texts exist to introduce children to adulthood and death, and encourages them to grow up, or helps them out with it. In these stories, there is no going back.)

GENRE BREAKDOWN IN CHILDREN’S STORIES

With all that terminology out of the way, I’d like to go back to ‘genre’. Some genres are especially popular with kids.

Crime

Crime is amazingly popular worldwide, for children and adults alike.

Enid Blyton wrote a lot of detective stories (The Famous Five, Secret Seven). Detective stories continue to be popular, and below the upper-MG age group, it’s the subgenre of ‘cosy crime‘, in which the stakes are low. (See Alexander McCall Smith’s The Great Cake Mystery). In the world of children’s books, Nate the Great is known for his:

unflinching resolve in the face of stolen goldfish, absconded cookies, and M.I.A. pets.

A combination of drama and cozy crime is common in children’s literature. Timmy Failure by Stephan Pastis seems to have its main genre as drama, with a sub-genre of crime:

It doesn’t take much reading between the lines to discover that Timmy has real problems: his grades are poor, he’s not very popular, and his single mother is struggling to pay the bills while her new, thuggish boyfriend is making Timmy’s home life unbearable. Investigating a case of a missing Segway with his (imaginary) polar bear business partner makes for a good diversion.

See: The 15 Greatest Kid Detectives from Huffington Post

Sammy Keyes is described likewise as a:

skillful mix of mystery with a traditional coming-of-age narrative

Like the trend in stories for adults, children’s books now are often described as a blend between one type of story and another in the marketing copy:

Like The DaVinci Code meets From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Chasing Vermeer is chockablock with mind bending puzzles and tantalizing twists that readers will gobble up along with Petra and Calder.

The 15 Greatest Kid Detectives

Daniel Handler’s series All The Wrong Questions is described as…

a pitch-perfect update of the pulp fiction crime novels from the 1930s meant for young audiences.

“Everything’s a mash-up”, or builds on what has come before, sometimes with an ironic knowingness, at least, for older readers who have read the originals:

Mac Barnett’s playful riff on The Hardy Boys makes good fun of skewering the boy-detective genre while still offering a mystery that’s quick-witted and engaging.

Is it true for children’s literature, as it is for Hollywood scripts, that stories must nowadays be a blend of more than one genre?

The Girl Who Could Fly is blurbed as follows:

It’s the oddest mix of Little House On The Prairie and X-Men.

…in acknowledgment of the observation that historical fiction mixed with superhero plotting (which is really a type of myth) is quite unusual.

I’m not convinced that children’s books need to be more than a single genre, for the simple reason that a younger audience has not  yet had the breadth of media exposure to have become sick of single genre stories. Picture books are often a single ‘genre’ most of the time, because they are so short.

It’s certainly true that in children’s literature, publishing goes through phases and evolutions. Everything builds upon what’s come before, and when a straight love story becomes so common that it’s hard to do something new with it, we get another spin.

The Middle Grade Buddy Story

The  ‘buddy movie’ equivalent in MG literature is also pretty popular. The buddy movie is really a mixture of three genres (Action + Love + Comedy), or if it’s a buddy cop movie it’s Action + Love + Crime, and we’re seeing this first kind of genre mashup in series such as Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid, with Greg Heffley as the main character who has a more naive and light-hearted best friend.

The same combination is used in Monster House (the film). Usually, girls form the opponents, and are seen as a different species. This is supposed to result in humour, to a greater or lesser extent.

Though not really a kids’ story due to the advanced age of the narrator, The Wonder Years gives us Kevin Arnold and his best friend Paul. The comedy that results is of a melancholic kind.

Nowadays, the female buddy movie is starting to be made, perhaps because gender-swapping is one easy way to do something a bit different. For example, we have Bullock and McCarthy in It Takes Two. So it follows that we’ll start to see more buddy MG stories with female leads, though there are perhaps still too few stories about female friendship, especially when it comes to comedy. Female friendships and the problems within are almost always treated in dramatic/serious fashion.

Love

Picture books are often about the love between children and their families. In middle grade there is often the hint of a love subplot. In young adult stories, you get the entire range of love story, including sex.

We’re seeing more and more adult genre elements working their way into YA, perhaps because a large proportion of YA is read by adults:

This is not your parents’ Nancy Drew mystery. While there are elements of Nancy and her gang in all mysteries subsequent, the real inspiration I see in the current growing subgenre of what I have dubbed PG-13 Serial Killer Fiction, is the lead character of Veronica Mars, with a hint of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and just a dash of the adult serial killer chaser fiction like James Patterson’s Alex Cross series. Truly, the hunt for mass-murdering sociopaths does not sound like traditional young adult literature, however, I have noted the trend growing in recent years of bringing these tales to the new generation of readers by featuring empowered teenage females with unusual gifts as the foil for the killer. [In true Thriller fashion.]

review of I CAN NOT TELL A LIE BY JOSH NEWHOUSE at Nerdy Book Club

Fantasy

England has produced some of the most outstanding fantasy over the last century or so, whereas America is known for  its realism. This is starting to change.

David Beagley talks about hero fantasy in Lecture 9 of Genres In Children’s Literature, available on iTunes U. He defines fantasy in lecture 10 . In lecture 11 he talks about Harry Potter and defines ‘high fantasy’. In lecture 12 he talks about how teachers and other gatekeepers might go about sorting out the wheat from the chaff.

Nonsense Stories

Maria Nikolajeva offers The 35th of May as an example of a story oft described as ‘nonsense’. ‘This funny, entertaining story has certainly been admired by many readers in many countries, but it has nothing to do with the idea of spiritual growth’. Is there an adult-analogue for the nonsense story? As explained above, nonsense is a stylistic device rather than a genre as such.

War Stories

War-time stories are sometimes treated as a separate genre, in British children’s fiction especially, but Nikolajeva does not consider them separate.

Dystopia

Is dystopia a genre?

Dystopian novels become a genre of their own, in which adults, politicians and leaders are consistently portrayed as deceitful, greedy, vainglorious and wicked. Occasionally, as in Sally Gardner’s Maggot Moon, the dystopia portrays an alternative history – a Fascist 1950s Britain along the lines of 1984. More usually, they are set in the future, against the cataclysms produced by current trends.

Dystopia isn’t new: in my own childhood there were superb writers such as John Christopher, whose Prince in Waiting trilogy should be much better-known. But these futures were the product of natural catastrophe or alien invasion. Now, the darkness and violence of contemporary dystopias is highly politicised. The most famous is Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, in which teenagers are required to fight to death for the ultimate TV reality show. Or, you might say, the ultimate high-school show-down. Plenty of other terrific novels such as Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies, Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses, Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now and Moira Young’s Blood Red Road depict our future as ravaged by science, racism, war, genetic mutation or most credibly, exams.

Amanda Craig, writing about the Third Golden Age of Children’s Literature

Until recently dystopia has been popular in YA. (Editors are recently saying they don’t want to read any more of it.) In the year 2000, Maria Nikolajeva wrote:

Dystopia has been by definition an impossible genre in children’s fiction. However, a recent trend in children’s fiction shows tangible traits of dystopia. We can see forerunners of this trend in post-disaster science-fiction novels, for instance. The Prince in Waiting trilogy, which combines high technology with medieval mysticism. In the trend I am referring to, the dystopian idea is central, the kernel of the story itself, and the interrogation of modern—adult—civilisation in these books is as strong as in Huxley or Orwell. It has taken children’s fiction more than half a century to catch up with adult literature in developing this genre, which contradicts the view of childhood as a vision of a hopeful future. It is amazing that the genre has become so prominent, indeed one of the most prominent genres in British, American, and Australian children’s fiction of the 1990s. An early representative of this trend may be seen in Robert Cormier’s I Am the Cheese, where a ruthless totalitarian society is reflected in a mentally disturbed boy’s mind. In Germany, Gudrun Puasewang has received much attention for her dystopian children’s novels, especially Fall-out, a gloomy post-Chernobyl depiction of a nuclear plant accident.

Dystopia might instead by considered a ‘category of ending‘ (grim rather than happy — the opposite of idyll) rather than a genre per se, with the most popular dystopian YA in 2015 being a blend of action, romance, myth and historical. For more on Dystopian fiction, see this post.

Children’s Stories and Northrop Frye

'Superman' (WB 1978) theatrical poster illustration by Bob Peak

Northrop Frye was a Canadian literary theorist who died in 1991 aged 78. Frye was considered one of the most influential literary theorists of the 20th century. Sometimes his theories applied equally to children’s literature; at other times he was off the mark. One of his theories — The Displacement Of Myth — does not apply well to children’s literature.

Northrop Frye’s Five Stages Of The Displacement Of Myth

Frye treated literature as ‘displacement of myth’. Here are Frye’s stages, in consecutive order, between full-on myth to what we get today:

  1. Characters are gods (superior to both humans and to the laws of nature)
  2. Romantic Narrative (idealized humans who are superior to other humans but not to the laws of nature)
  3. High Mimetic Narrative (humans who are superior to other humans)
  4. Low Mimetic Narrative (humans are neither superior nor inferior to other humans)
  5. Ironic Narrative (characters are inferior to other characters)
northrop frye

(Terminology note: The ‘mimetic modes’ are also known as ‘realism‘. Mimesis basically means ‘copying reality’.)

Examples Of Modern Popular Characters From Each Of Frye’s Five Stages

  1. Superheroes in general, though writers sometimes limit their powers in aid of a more interesting story. Superman is one of the few who actually fits this category because Superman was never meant to be relatable. (Before he was known as Man of Steel he was known as Man of Tomorrow, in a much more optimistic age when it was thought that humankind is making its way closer to the ideal mindset of altruism for altruism’s sake.
  2. The male love interests in Harlequin romances, in which the story ends before more human aspects of his character are revealed.
  3. Walter White and other genius characters who live among us e.g. Marty Byrde of Ozark which seems to be modelled upon Breaking Bad.
  4. Don Draper; the alter egos of secret-identity superheroes. (See: A Psychoanalysis of Clark Kent.)
  5. Mr Bean,

If you try this exercise yourself, you’ll probably find that contemporary stories tend to fall into the bottom two categories. It’s much harder to find genuine examples from the top two tiers in particular. Some have argued a case for more heroics in stories for adults.

The conventions of literary fiction are that the bourgeois hero (more likely the heroine) be vulnerable, prone to shame and guilt, unable to fit the pieces of the larger puzzle together, and on the same banal moral plane as the “average reader”: sympathetic, in other words, someone we can “identify” with, who reflects our own incomprehension of the world, our helplessness and inability to effect change.

an example of why we need to read about amazing characters, in an opinion from Anis Shivani

The Displacement of Myth and Children’s Literature

How does Northrop Frye’s Five Stages map onto children’s literature? According to Frye, children (and animals) fall into the fifth category — children are regarded as inferior. Since almost all children’s literature stars children, this suggests all children’s literature is ironic.

This is not the case.

In fact, the corpus of children’s literature includes characters from each of Frye’s levels. This has been pointed out by specialist of children’s literature, Maria Nikolajeva, in Aesthetic Approaches to Children’s Literature: An Introduction.

Examples Of Children’s Characters From Each Of Frye’s Five Stages

  1. The superhero side of Miles Morales; Christopher Robin who to the toys seems like a God. (This also applies to Andy of Toy Story.)
  2. Edward Cullen and other paranormal love interests in young adult romance; Harry Potter winds up here.
  3. Rory Gilmore types, who is herself the granddaughter of Anne of Green Gables (very smart). That said, Rory Gilmore had been cut down a peg or two in the Gilmore girls revival, and Anne With An E showed a more vulnerable side to Anne Shirley. Perhaps this means a contemporary audience likes to see more ordinary characters?
  4. Laura Ingalls, Tom Sawyer, Ramona Quimby, Henry Huggins and all of these kids’ descendants populating realistic fiction, but who sometimes enter a fantasy world. (That said, entering a fantasy world often in itself denotes ‘chosen ones’.) In YA we have Francesca Spinelli (Saving Francesca), the ensemble stars of Tomorrow When The War Began and other ordinary teens who learn to become self reliant after some kind of adversity.
  5. Greg Heffley, Timmy Failure, Nikki Maxwell and many other stars of middle grade, humorous, illustrated novels starring characters who are mean, dim-witted, accident-prone, or who otherwise feel put-upon due to being the middle child, wearing braces or whatever. We see these characters in cartoons, too e.g. We Bare Bears. Comedy is full of them because these characters are easy to poke fun at. We also have serious YA characters such as Charlie from The Perks of Being a Wallflower, or James Sveck of Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You, who are basically overwhelmed by all the changes happening in their teenage years.

As shown above, children’s literature is as diverse as adult literature when it comes to this particular theory of character. ‘Children’ cannot be lumped into the bottom category. The opinion from Anis Shivani above may in fact mean it’s easier to find heroic characters in children’s stories than in stories for adults.

As a side note, animals can’t be lumped into the ironic category, either. That’s because animals in literature are very often stand-ins for humans.

FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION

The conventions of literary fiction are that the bourgeois hero (more likely the heroine) be vulnerable, prone to shame and guilt, unable to fit the pieces of the larger puzzle together, and on the same banal moral plane as the “average reader”: sympathetic, in other words, someone we can “identify” with, who reflects our own incomprehension of the world, our helplessness and inability to effect change.

an example of why we need to read about amazing characters, in an opinion from Anis Shivani

Roman Mars of the 99% Invisible Podcast has an interesting discussion with the author of a biography of Superman. It’s episode 82. Like me, Roman Mars finds Spiderman a far more interesting character, but as is pointed out, Superman was never meant to be relatable. Before he was known as ‘Man Of Steel’ he was known as ‘Man of Tomorrow’, in a much more optimistic age when it was thought that humankind is making its way closer to the ideal mindset of altruism for altruism’s sake.

This raises an interesting question: Where are we headed? Are humans becoming more kind or more harsh toward others? Steven Pinker thinks we’re getting less violent, for one thing. This is the main argument in his book: The Better Angels Of Our Nature.

A Psychoanalysis Of Clark Kent (from Emory University on YouTube)

Header illustration: ‘Superman’ (WB 1978) theatrical poster illustration by Bob Peak

Neo-Regionalism And Realism In Literature

Grapes_of_Wrath_75

REGIONALISM

“In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect, the extremist form of the backwoods South-Western dialects; the ordinary “Pike-Country” dialect; and four modified varieties of this last”

Huckleberry Finn

Regionalism is an largely American term which refers to texts that concentrate heavily on specific, unique features of a certain region including dialect, customs, tradition, topography, history, and characters. Regionalist writers include Mark Twain and Kate Chopin (The Awakening, 1899), Harper Lee (To Kill A Mockingbird), Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner. Features of regionalist works:



  • Analysis of attitudes characters have towards their community
  • There is generally a narrator, offering a kind of ‘translation’ for the reader (presumed to be from a different region)
  • Dialogue might be written to emulate local dialect, spelled wrongly/informal grammar
  • Regionalist works tend to spend a lot of time painting the setting; plot comes second and is often slower moving than your genre thriller or whatever.
  • Many feed into the fantasy of a hermetic community, sealed off from all that is bad about modernity.
  • Some of these works are purely nostalgic; others attempt to start a national dialogue about a topic.
  • A typical topic might be: how to reconcile the values of the home/neighbourhood with freedom and self-determination?

American Regionalism can be broken down into three separate movements.

  1. The first reached its peak in the 1880s and 1890s
  2. The second in the 1920s and 1930s (Jeffersonian romanticism — depression incited a need for  ‘rootedness’)
  3. Back-to-the-land stories of the 1960s

Realism

Realism overlaps regionalism in many ways. Realism is the literary depiction of life how it is lived. Henry James is an example of a realist writer.

  • Rejection of social mores and traditions
  • No wish to hide the unpleasant/socially unacceptable
  • The flip side of realism is romanticism, in which characters and events are dramatized, idealized, and exaggerated

NEO-REGIONALISM

In a modern global community there is no longer the wish to read quaint regionalist stories and revel in their quaint customs. Audiences are better travelled and, if not, at least more worldly. Neo-regionalism emerged in the late 20th century as a response to that.  The world wide web undoubtedly had something to do with it. From the 1950s critics would describe a work as ‘romantic localism’ or ‘sentimental’ or ‘nostalgic’, and didn’t mean it in a good way. Writers started to shy away from regionalism. It is thought to be missing important perspectives, politically naive. While characters of regionalist stories were often depicted with realistic harshness, they weren’t necessarily afforded dignity and their culture wasn’t fully understood. This was called ‘the literary equivalent of a drive-by shooting’ by John Ed Peace. Others considered it scapegoating aka. psychosocial projection.

Is any sin greater, in the parishes of literary fiction, than sentimentality? Novelists pride themselves on using artifice to get at the truth, but sentimentality is all falseness, emotion over-boiled by grandiosity of expression and served up rank and limp. “Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel,” James Baldwin wrote in his essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” blasting “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” “The wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart.” To engineer synthetic emotions for cheap effect is bad enough; even worse, Baldwin says, is the sentimentalist who believes her own schlock, confusing the imitation of emotion for emotion itself.

The New Yorker, 2015

Regionalism remained popular with audiences long after it started to annoy critics. That’s how we ended up with Faulkner, Edna Ferber, John Steinbeck and similar in the mid century. Newer examples include Larry McMurtry, Wallace Stegner (West), Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor (South).

So now we have a more sophisticated version of regionalism.

Authors such as Barbara Kingsolver, Bobbie Ann Mason, Richard Russo, Russell Banks and Howard Frank Mosher, Cormac McCarthy, Pam Houston, David Guterson, Kent Haruf, Kathleen Norris, Louise Erdrich, Walter Mosley and Mary Swander are described as neo-regionalist. Neo-regionalist settings stretch from the Maine hinterlands (e.g. Carolyn Chute) to the Texas borders (e.g. Cormac McCarthy). This list could go on for ages. See for example my analysis of The Half-Skinned Steer by Annie Proulx.

Authors of neo-regionalist stories write of:

  • hardscrabble farms
  • second-growth forests
  • struggling towns
  • There’s still plenty of description of setting — weather, sky, terrain, buildings etc.
  • The best books of this type balance a sense of ‘the purposeful earth’ with a sense of purposeless drudgery
  • The most literary neo-regionalist books tend to juxtapose a romantic attachment to locality with rootless alienation and something like rooted cosmopolitanism. Perspective is widened.

Neo-regionalism transcends the stigma of the older regional writing. These authors remind us that these hardscrabble landscapes are no less “national literature” than fiction set and written elsewhere.

ROMANTIC (ORIGINAL) REGIONALISM IN MODERN WORKS

This continues to be written though it is not considered Literary with a capital L. An example is Jim the Boy by Tony Early (2000).

  • These stories use many of the local colour techniques of the 19th century in the telling of the story
  • Will probably be set in that early 19th century era as well, but not necessarily.
  • We’ll be shown the impact of the larger world into the local scene e.g. a railroad being built in the town/introduction of electricity. These technologies won’t necessarily be presented as a good thing.
  • The readers are assumed to themselves be outsiders, bringing their own perspectives with them to the text. This assumes that the people being written about aren’t literary enough to even be reading.
  • Characters will  probably be living with poverty.
  • Relations among the specific populations represented are less important than the meaning they have as markers in other debates, about poverty, about violence, child abuse etc. None of the characters themselves will be articulate enough to say anything important about these things. Also, there’s a suggestion that these horrible things happen to poor, regional people, turning family violence into a regional issue rather than a human one, say.

Babysitter’s Club Novel Study

It would be easy to dismiss The Babysitter’s Club as an outdated storyline aimed at channeling girls into careers in childcare, turning them into good little obedient baby-machines and not much else. However, never judge a book by its title, right? (Because a lot of the time authors don’t choose their own titles anyhow.) And I’d never actually read a copy.

After hearing The Babysitters Club series is was recently reissued as ebooks I decided to actually read one, for the first time in my life. You’d think I’d have read a number of the series already because I was nine years old when the first book, Kristy’s Great Idea was published, and therefore in exactly the right demographic.

My Own Backstory With Babysitter’s Club

In year six a school friend invited me to her house for a playdate and I was impressed to see that she owned the entire series. Her parents had bought her a weekly subscription and they had arrived in the mail. My Trixie Beldens and Famous Fives and Secret Sevens remained incomplete on my bookshelf — not only that, some were hardbacks, some were paperbacks — my books just didn’t look as neat as these super attractive pastel-coloured spines lined up in all their complete numerical order. In hindsight I don’t know if it was the stories I coveted but the books as works of art.

And those covers! Now that Photoshopped images are ubiquitous, those photo-realistic depictions of happy-looking American adolescents were an unusual sight in graphic design back then. It’s easy to forget that. I have memories of gazing at those covers marveling at how the pictures fit somewhere between photo and paintings. What skill, I thought, to be able to paint like that!

Ann M. Martin

Unlike the authors of other series of the 80s, such as Sweet Valley High and the never-die Nancy Drew, the author of The Babysitter’s Club is a real woman and that is her real name. Given Martin’s high work output, and the generic sounding everyname, I had wondered if she were a group of authors contracted to write a few books each. But no, Ann M. Martin obviously cares very much about her work — as much as any other authors writing under their own name.

As for the books themselves, I’m pleased to report that yes, they have dated (in a good way) and no, they are not the least bit sexist. In fact, they’re a damn sight better than a lot of the series being published now. If you can pick up a series of Babysitter’s Club cheap second hand and give them to your middle school daughter, you’ll be doing good.

*I have since handed my second-hand Babysitter’s Club books to a friend whose son loves them. Yes, son. He read them all voraciously at age 8.

BABYSITTER’S CLUB #1: KRISTY’S GREAT IDEA

Kristy is responsible for looking after her little brother David Michael, but so are her two older brothers. Likewise, we learn that while Kristy refuses (initially) to babysit for her mother’s man-friend, one of her older brothers has already volunteered. So right from the outset, babysitting is not portrayed as a task for girls. Kristy knows her own mind, and will not be railroaded into doing something she doesn’t want to. The brothers are possibly more pliable than she is.

Kristy’s mom (who is divorced) “likes the fact that she can support us so well.” The mother has a ‘very good job at a big company in Stamford’… ‘but she still feels guilty‘. This reminds me of feminist conversations that would have been happening back then, before the 90s kicked in, and everyone assumed women had achieved equality now, so most people stopped writing things like this ‘out loud’. In the mid-eighties, divorced families were more of an oddity too. This sort of family situation is a lot more common today, and more young readers will identify with antagonistic feelings towards a parent’s new partner. I would add that this book is looking a bit too Brady Bunch at this point, because Kristy seemed to bond with her step-father-to-be quite easily in the end. I hope there will continue to be real-life blended-family issues in following stories.

The girls are inventive. First, there’s the Babysitter’s Club itself, which is spurred by Kristy herself. Their inventiveness is an historic kind; the girls have already worked out a way of communicating between the houses at night using torches. This is the sort of detail which dates the book, but not in a bad way.

There are other cultural references which set these stories firmly in the 80s, with references to G.I. Joe and Sesame Street, but I’m pretty sure a lot of these childhood icons are still about. At any rate, the cultural shock for a modern kid reading a story from the 1980s would be no more stark than that of a little New Zealand kid reading these same stories back when they were new. I still have no idea what a fudgesicle or a jawbreaker is. (Hello, Internet. Turns out a jawbreaker is a gobstopper. A fudgesicle is a chocolate icecream popsicle.)

“Mary-Ann and I ran home together.” For me this was a lovely scene of two adolescent girls enjoying the last of their childhood. Very soon I expect they will stop running, and become more aware of the expectations of ladyhood. I had a flashback of running along under the covered-way at my own very large high-school when a group of boys older than me yelled something disparaging about the fact that I was running instead of walking. I stopped running after that, having learnt that very day that high school girls do not run. (Also, cool people in general do not run. They don’t even walk. Cool people swagger, and make space on the footpath for no one.)

These 12 year old girls are never late for a job. This is spelled out, and is one example of how Kristy is a good role model for adolescent readers. Via the running of the Babysitters’ Club, readers learn the basics of  business management: how to run meetings, members of a board, dealing with interpersonal issues, in-coming and outgoing expenses… This series would be a good introduction for any kid with aspirations of starting her own small company. A criticism might justifiably be: The teaches our kids to be little capitalists. But then, isn’t that what they’re expected to be? Economically self-sufficient?

Fashion has changed a lot and the descriptions of clothing is entertaining. Claudia is held up as the goddess of fashion with her ‘short, very baggy lavender plaid overalls, a white lacy blouse, a black fedora, and a red high-top sneakers without socks… I felt extremely blah compared to her.’

Claudia’s older sister Janine has an IQ of 196, and is quite an annoying character. I can’t think of many examples in school stories in which the nerdy genius character is female — it’s more often a male trope: ‘Her second best friend is her computer.’

So I only read one, but if the stories continue in that fashion, I would be perfectly happy for my daughter to take a liking to them when she’s older.

RELATED LINKS

The Babysitter’s Club: Idea And Phantom from Beauty And The Armageddon

Graphic Novels Aren’t Just Comic

12 Facts About The Babysitter’s Club from BuzzFeed

The Baby-Sitters Club: The Things You Notice Reading as an Adult from Beauty and the Armageddon

The Babysitter’s Club at TV Tropes

Ann M. Martin is still writing books. (Not Babysitter’s Club books.)

I need to insert an apostrophe. Does that missing apostrophe bother you, too? (It bothers me in the same way that the title Gilmore girls does not capitalise Girls.) Anyhow, there are internet discussions on this.

If you’re into 80s fashion and derive pleasure from learning what the members of the Babysitter’s Club were wearing during their suburban adventures then you might check out Buzzfeed’s Definitive Ranking Of Babysitters Club Cover Outfits (and they even put in an apostrophe for you).

Upside-down Knitting In Picturebook Illustration

School Library Journal (Betsy Bird) posted an article about knitting as depicted in picture books — so often the knitting needles are coming out the top, whereas if you’ve ever knitted in real life you’ll know that the needles come out below the hands.

This is a wonderful observation, and once you’ve noticed it you’ll see it all over the place.

illustration by Takeo Takei
illustration by Takeo Takei, dating from the 1920s, Japan
Governess by Louis Wain (1860-1939)
Governess by Louis Wain (1860-1939)
DEVINEZ L'ALPHABET (1868--colored version, 1978) Théophile Schuler knitting
DEVINEZ L’ALPHABET (1868–colored version, 1978) Théophile Schuler
Midnight glove knitter in 1958. Al Parker,1906–1985 knitting
Midnight glove knitter in 1958. Al Parker,1906–1985
Georgios Iakovidis (1853 - 1932) knitting
Georgios Iakovidis (1853 – 1932) In this painting gran has taken a break from her knitting.

OTHER INSTANCES IN WHICH REALISM IS MODIFIED

Raindrops

There are instances, however, where a realistic portrayal of nature isn’t necessarily warranted. Raindrops are actually round when falling from the sky, but in the collective imagination a raindrop is, well, ‘tear drop’ shaped. Where does the teardrop shape even come from? Probably from the leg of moisture coming off a droplet as seen when running down a surface such as a cheek.

Raindrop
round droplet from Midnight Feast
round droplet from Midnight Feast

See also: Animating A Droplet Of Water

Big Walking Legs

You don’t see this so much in modern books, but it seems children of yesteryear marched everywhere. Could all of that marching in school have carried over into real life?

weird walking

Manic-Enthusiasm

I can’t find the credit for this image and it may be a pie advertisement for all I know. But we haven’t really seen these facial expressions since the 1970s Ladybird books.

manic enthusiasm

SEE ALSO

Sewing, Spinning and Weaving in Art and Illustration

Slap Happy Larry Stories

I put this analysis into practice when writing my own short stories.

Lemon Girl: A movie-length novella by Slap Happy Larry. Everyone is someone else's little psycho.
Home » realism

Dogger by Shirley Hughes

Dogger cover

I don’t remember seeing a pristine copy of Dogger, ever. Our own copy as a child had been cancelled from a local library and was covered in yellowing sellotape. I still have that copy. Many years later, this is one of my six-year-old daughter’s favourite books. It is also the number one favourite book of the now 13 year old who waits at the same bus stop. In short, Dogger by Shirley Hughes is a timeless classic. What makes it so good?

PLOT OF DOGGER

The plot of this story is surprisingly complex, though 100% pulled off by Shirley Hughes: A boy goes with his mother to pick up his big sister from school, loses his precious toy dog, then when he goes back to school the following day for the fundraising fair, he sees the dog for sale at a toy stall. Before he can buy the dog back a little girl buys Dogger and takes off with him.

Meanwhile, Davey’s big sister Bella has won a beautiful big teddy. She manages to persuade the little girl to swap Dogger for the big teddy. That night in bed Dave expresses his gratitude to his big sister and his big sister says she didn’t have any room for any more teddies anyhow. All is well with the world.

WONDERFULNESS OF DOGGER

What impresses me is how easily young readers are able to grasp this slightly complex story. What did Shirley Hughes do that a novice writer might forget to do? First of all, the importance of Dogger is established for the reader. Dogger is introduced before any of the characters are introduced.

Next, the full page of illustrations which show Dave tenderly caring for his dog. (I also love this because there are few examples of little boys caring for ‘dolls’ in children’s stories without it somehow being ironic or a reason for being bullied.)

Next the reader has to see that Dave took Dogger to school. Note that the reader is both told and shown the way Dave ‘pushed Dogger up against the railings to show him what was going on’. As small as these details seem, this is the sort of thing that readers absorb subconsciously. We know on subsequent readings that this is how Dave lost Dogger. (By dropping him, or something.) Not only is Dogger’s presence underscored in both the text and in the illustration, the sentence about Dogger being pushed up to the fence is the last sentence on that page. Sentences which come last inevitably carry the most weight.

Next is the scene in which the ice-cream van pulls up. Bella is excited and the children are bought two ice-creams, which Dave must share. Not only has the fictional Dave been distracted — the young reader has been, too. We are now fed detail which is important in the moment: ‘Joe didn’t have a whole ice-cream to himself because he was too dribbly.’ Apart from providing a lovely distraction to both character and reader, this detail is just the sort of thing a child like Dave would remember. ‘Joe kicked his feet about and shouted for more in-between licks.’ I love the phrase ‘in-between licks’ — a neologism coined by a youngster, because to him it is a thing.

Expressed in few words, the realisation that Dogger has gone dawns slowly on Dave, which avoids the need for that dreaded word ‘Suddenly’. The slow realisation fosters more empathy, somehow:

At tea-time Dave was rather quiet.

In the bath he was even quieter.

At bed-time he said:

“I want Dogger.”

But Dogger was nowhere to be found.

The look on Dave’s face is a mixture of bewilderment and distress.

Next we see a variety of scenes in which the whole family looks for Dogger. Something I learned from writing The Artifacts is that both child and adult readers of picture books very much expect the adult caregivers to be kind people. The fact that the whole family is prepared to look for Dogger shows that Dave is cared for by a loving family.

This painting by Mary Dawson Elwell (1874-1952) East Yorkshire reminds me of the scene above out of Dogger.
This painting by Mary Dawson Elwell (1874-1952) East Yorkshire reminds me of the scene above out of Dogger.

Whatever other calamity has befallen him, this is fundamental, and important when writing marketable picture books for the youngest children. The kindness of Bella is introduced here when she spends time looking through her toy box, then lends Dave one of her own stuffed toys.

Now that the story is set up, Shirley Hughes makes good use of the rule of three, with a sequence of three embedded into another sequence of three. The family goes to the fair:

There was a Fancy Dress Parade.

(Turn the page)

[1] Then there were Sports, with an Egg-and-Spoon Race—

[2] a Wheelbarrow Race

[3] and a Fathers’ Race.

Bella wins a race

Bella wins first price in a raffle

Then Dave comes to the toy stall, which kicks off another sequence of three. After seeing Dogger for sale he is thwarted in his attempts to get Dogger back:

The lady isn’t listening to Dave trying to explain

He doesn’t have quite enough money to buy him back

When he tries to find his mother and father he can’t find them in the crowd.

Each of these events will evoke a lot of empathy for Dave. Three is a perfect number of obstacles, because by the third obstacle the reader is clear that getting Dogger back is going to be no simple matter. (After all, that would make for a lesser story.)

So Bella saves the day, and the reader is taken back to the bedroom we saw at the beginning of the story.

This makes for a perfectly circular plot and an excellent bedtime story. Bella is turning somersaults, endearingly, and reassures Dave that she didn’t like that big teddy anyway because ‘his eyes were too staring’. Again, this is a beautiful use of childlike vocabulary, and the reader is left with warm feelings towards both Bella and Dave. The wordless final image shows the bedroom from the very same angle as the first view of the bedroom, with both children fast asleep. Dave is cuddling Dogger.

Note that at no stage did an adult jump in to save the day. Nor was an adult unrealistically cold — the lady at the toy stall genuinely didn’t understand what Dave was trying to tell her. This is a beautiful example of a story about an everyday event and everyday children. Although a possible moral might be, ‘Be nice to your brothers and sisters,’ Hughes avoids painting Bella as some sort of self-sacrificing do-good character by having her say that she never really liked the big teddy anyway.

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION OF DOGGER

An aspect I appreciate about Shirley Hughes’ illustrations is that they have an ‘everyday griminess’ to them. The children’s bedroom is ‘lived in’, with toys and clothes strewn onto the floor. The homes of Hughes’ characters are the sorts to have overflowing baskets of laundry sitting on the floor, the dishes waiting to be done, toys lying around to be stepped on. Reading this story as an adult, it’s reassuring to see my own house depicted in literature, and the thing about child readers is they tend to love their own homes and don’t aspire for Pinterest levels of perfection.

Hughes’ characters, too, have a ‘homely’ look to them. Even the faces of the children are rendered with inky lines that almost makes them look like old people. Hughes was definitely not a part of the new media trend, in which it is thought that children are drawn irresistibly towards characters with big eyes. What stands out to me reading this story from 1977, the height of second wave feminism, is that the character of Bella — apart from her feminine name and use of ‘her’ — looks no different from a boy. Comparing Bella to modern depictions of girlhood in picture books, today’s young readers are used to the convention that girls must look a certain way: They’ll probably be wearing an article of clothing that is pink. If represented by animals, the female animals will have heavier eyelashes, redder lips or a bow on their head. Yet apart from pink pyjamas, Bella is dressed androgynously — her femaleness is not important to the story — she is first and foremost a kindly older sibling, and I really appreciate this about the character.

As a counterpoint, the little girl with the bow in her hair and the dress behaves like a spoilt brat, with no empathy for Davey who has lost his precious toy. This little girl is a Spoilt Brat Trope, drawn to pretty and new things, and therefore assuaged with the promise of owning a brand new teddy bear. It does concern me slightly that the spoilt brat trope is usually a girl dressed like this which — Bella notwithstanding — can sometimes morph into femme phobia. This is a minor concern.

Shirley Hughes is especially adept at drawing complicated, crowded scenes from a birds’ eye perspective. She demonstrates her skills here by offering readers a view of the fair from above. I’m not sure why birds’ eye views of scenes are so intriguing, but it may partly because children see the world only from a very short position. Seeing more, even from the shoulders of a parent, is a novelty.

The passing of time is often depicted in words, even in picture books: After dinner, before bed, and indeed that technique is utilised here: ‘Now and again Dave and Bella’s mum said that Dogger was getting much too dirty./One afternoon Dave and Mum set out to collect Bella from school.’ But Shirley Hughes also makes use of the visual chronotope, in which the reader sees several scenes, like different frames in a film reel, and is expected to understand that these are not the same-looking characters doing different things, but the very same characters depicted at different times. Below is a visual chronotope of Dave playing with Dogger, quickly establishing to the reader how very important this toy is to his young owner.

Notice, too, the use of an inset image. This is a useful technique to be aware of when needing to create stories for print books, in which stories must fit onto exactly 32 pages. But there’s more to it than that. The inset image of Dave washing his dog links the idea to the mother hanging Dogger on the washing line. Like a paragraph explaining a single idea, this page depicts the single idea of Dogger being washed.

The Best Of Fred by Rupert Fawcett, Headline Book Publishing, London 1998
The Best Of Fred by Rupert Fawcett, Headline Book Publishing, London 1998

SEE ALSO

If you enjoy the illustrations of Shirley Hughes, you may like to check out watercolours by John Lovett, Australian artist.

John Lovett - Australian  watercolor
John Lovett – Australian watercolor

If you enjoy the loose watercolour work of Shirley Hughes, check out illustrator Victor Ambrus, whose village below reminds me somewhat of a Shirley Hughes high angle view, as seen in many of her picture books.

Victor Ambrus village
Victor Ambrus village

Slap Happy Larry Stories

I put this analysis into practice when writing my own short stories.

Lemon Girl: A movie-length novella by Slap Happy Larry. Everyone is someone else's little psycho.
Home » realism

Realism In Fiction For Children

WHAT IS REALISM?

There is a spectrum of how real-world a story feels. At one end we have naturalism, all the way through to about ‘speculative realism’, after which we’re in speculative fiction realm:

  1. NATURALISM — This term is often used interchangeably with realism, but if you want to talk about realism as a group of terms, naturalism is at the MOST realistic of these different types of realisms. Basically, any hint of romanticism is completely stripped away. The subject is neither idealised nor flattered. God is also kept out of it. The tone is generally pessimistic. Realism/naturalism emerged in the 1800s. Sometimes the difference between naturalism and realism depends on the subject matter. In realism the main focus is on the middle class and its problems. Naturalism often focuses on poorly educated or lower-class characters, and on themes involving violence and the taboo.
  2. SOCIAL REALISM — ‘Kitchen sink realism’. Draws attention to the middle class and its problems. Use the term ‘social realism’ when you want to be clear that you’re not talking about naturalism.
  3. SURREALISM — Describes the ‘super real’. See this post for more.
  4. MAGICAL REALISM — Lately there is a movement among Latinx people from South America to keep the term magical realism specifically for South American writers using magical realism to write stories about the South American experience of colonisation. The argument is that another word exists which we can use for every thing else — fabulism. While I have some sympathy for this view, literary gurus point out that magical realism did not begin in South America, and there are many reasons for making use of magical realism in storytelling. I don’t know. I’d be happy to call it fabulism myself, if people knew I meant the same thing as ‘magical realism’, only not from South America. Here is a list of fabulist children’s books. Fabulism is especially popular in literary middle grade fiction, and I’ve noticed literary agents and editors are constantly on the hunt for it, and keep complaining that true examples of magical realism rarely cross their desk.
  5. ‘DIRTY’ REALISM — This is a concept coined by the Granta Magazine guy, who is actually an American who moved to England. So the term is used in England, whereas Americans might call it ‘minimalism’. Dirty realism describes a specifically North American way of writing in which the author focuses on the seedier, mundane, nasty bits of everyday life. A lot of these writers are white men — Richard Ford, Cormac McCarthy, Raymond Carver. But there are also some women. Take Carson McCullersAnnie Proulx. When you find dirty realism in a short story, it’s often called Kmart Realism.
  6. METAPHYSICAL REALISM — There is a reality independent of humans’ conscious perceptions of it. The world is as it is and what humans think of it is irrelevant. If this describes your worldview, here’s your metaphysical realist card.
  7. SPECULATIVE REALISM — Okay, so are we still talking about realism now? This is a term suggested by a guy called Ramón Saldívar (an American professor and author) to describe work which is a hybrid between speculative genres and any of the different levels of realism. In children’s literature, the book American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang is a contender for speculative realism. American Born Chinese is an experiment in discussing minority racial identity through metaphor made possible through genre blending. The experiment leaves us ultimately with a parallel between a monkey god from folklore and a young adult American-born-Chinese in a realistic context. For more on that, see here.

REALISM IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

Bear in mind, children’s literature is a recent form of literature and emerged with the establishment of realism.

Many of the notes below are from Professor David Beagley, La Trobe University, Genres In Children’s Literature: Lecture 13: Realism In Fiction For Children, available on iTunes U

REALISM FOR MIDDLE GRADE READERS

Set reading for this lecture: Bridge To Terabithia and The Naming of Tishkin Silk

My Girl (the film) is an interesting work to contrast with Bridge To Terabithia because the plot is very similar, and is about a girl and boy the same age. But the intended audience is adult.

Helicopter Man is another example of realism, aimed at upper primary school rather than high school aged reader.

Throughout the 20th century, British children’s literature is thought to have produced better and more lasting classic fantasy series than North America, which has leaned towards realism for longer.

Right around middle school, the fun books suddenly disappeared. Dreary realism replaced fantasy.Read Hatchet. Read ShilohRead Sounder. Read The House of Dies DrearRead about kids in the Great Depression, whose dogs always die. Read about the gruesome fact of slavery. Read about Anne Frank in the attic. Today, class, we’ll be reading a graphic novel! […] it’s called Maus. No wonder I kept my nose buried deep in Dragonlance novels and The Collected Calvin & Hobbes. Eventually I accepted that the mark of serious, grown-up books was joy turning into woe. Merry old Gatsby is really a huge fraud who bites it in a swimming pool and no one cares but his neighbour. The end. Jake Barnes is living it up in Paris with Brett Ashley, but he got injured in the war and they can’t have sex, so… the end. The older I got the more books seemed to skip the joy part altogether—they just went from woe to more woe. The Joads are starving in the Great Depression so they head West but find that everyone else is starving too and then somebody dies in the back of a truck… the end. Frank and April Wheeler are hopeful suburbanites who dream of moving to Paris but then she gets pregnant and dies trying to give herself an abortion. The end!

Why Children’s Books Matter

There is a certain kind of magic about realism in middle grade books, which is not magical at all, and not magical realism, either, but magic.

I think there’s a kind of kid for whom an adventure based in realism — even if it’s stretched almost to the breaking point of plausibility — is so much more satisfying than pure fantasy. Because I knew for sure that I was never going to end up communing with a gang of bugs inside the pit of a ginormous peach — and I loved that book, I did. I loved the Narnia books, too, and the Wrinkle in Time series. But I had a special fondness for stories that could actually happen. Which explains, I think, something about the plot of One Mixed-Up Night. It is certainly unlikely that two kids would spend the night alone in a massive Swedish furniture store. But it is not impossible. And I had spent enough time listening to my son Ben and his best friend Ava leafing through the IKEA catalogue to know that having the run of the place was high on their list of fantasies. Were they ever going to spend a semester at Hogwarts? Of course not. But IKEA! That was an actual place where we actually went. What if they ditched their parents? What if that stylish and birch-patterned world became their oyster? I mean, it wasn’t likely to happen. But it could…

Catherine Newman
HIGH SCHOOL READERS

Realism tends to be aimed at the high school reader. It began in earnest with J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye (1951). Be wary of conflating ‘social realism’ with ‘universal realism’:

In a 2009 BBC article, it’s mentioned that The Catcher in the Rye is unique in “the way in which a young affluent white male has come to stand for a universal experience of adolescence.” I don’t think it’s unique – I think it’s what society has forced the “universal experience” to be. Opinions and experiences of minorities are attributed to being that of the minority group. What if Holden was a girl? At least part of her angst would be attributed to some sort of weak womanly temperament, or her period. What if Holden was poor? Would he have even been able to get the money to go back to New York? What if Holden was a POC? Had a disability? Was gay?

No, he couldn’t be anything but a white, middle class, teenage boy, because he would’ve had more issues to deal with along with phony people.

Starchy Thoughts

This tentpole novel has been followed by work from authors such as:

  • S.E. Hinton
  • Robert Lipsyte
  • Paul Zindel
  • Richard Peck. Peck sometimes writes realism, sometimes historical realism (e.g. The River Between Us), sometimes realism with a humorous, exaggerated touch (e.g. A Long Way From Chicago), sometimes he writes fantasy (e.g. his mouse stories).
  • Norma Klein lived from 1938 to 1989 and wrote about ‘the things real kids cared about’.
  • M.E. Kerr couldn’t find an agent for her realistic stories so became her own agent. She ended up with a lifetime award for her contributions to children’s literature. She wrote under a variety of different pen names.
  • Norma Fox Mazer and Harry Mazer. Norma lived between 1931-2009. The husband/wife couple had four children and were teacher/writers.  Although they both wrote the same sort of thing, they didn’t work together. Each has their own books. Harry was born in 1925 and died recently, in 2016.
  • Robert Cormier. The Chocolate War initiated a new level of excellence in young adult literature but also unleashed a storm of controversy. (Cormier didn’t intend a YA audience, actually. He wrote it for a general audience and it was marketed as YA.) Gatekeepers felt the subject matter was too dark. Cormier followed up with I Am The Cheese and After The First Death, in the same vain, ignoring the naysayers. He continued to get darker over the 26 years of his writing career. He definitely influenced other authors, who started to do the same.

If you notice more realism coming out of America, that’s because realism in children’s literature is largely American, whereas a lot of the most beloved fantasy comes out of Britain.

Australia has its own examples of realism in children’s literature. Australian literature for adults tends to be described as ‘gritty realism’. Take Helen Garner for instance, or the work of Christos Tsiolkas, who sometimes writes about young adulthood. The TV adaptation of Barracuda has a distinctly YA feel about it — more so than the novel upon which it is based.

The Valley Between by Colin Thiel is about the author’s own life, growing up in the Barossa Valley.

For more examples of realistic books themselves, search for Books in the category ‘Real Life’ e.g. at the Reading Matters website.

ACADEMIC READING ON REALISM IN CHILDREN’S BOOKS

Only Connect. Sheila Egoff died in 2005 but was an enthusiast for the proper intellectual consideration of children’s literature. Being Canadian, she had a huge impact in Canada. (A Canadian literature prize has been named after her.)

John Foster, Ern Finnest, Maureen Nimon: Australian Children’s Literature, an Exploration Of Genre and Theme, 1995 looks at family stories and the ‘problem’ novel.

Perry Nodelman’s book The Hidden Adult is about adults who read children’s literature without reminiscing, for the reading experience. Nodelman looks at what the adults can find in the children’s literature and the serious intellectual ideas that are there for children to discard.

See also Literature and the Child and Give Them Wings, by Maurice Saxby. Most general books about children’s literature include a chapter about realism.

From Romance To Realism by Michael Cart was published 1996. The author is an expert in YA literature.

THE INNER AND OUTER REALITIES OF REALISM

In a binary, the two things represented each require the other. For example, evil needs good. Light needs darkness. Each defines the other.

There is an ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ reality. In realism, this idea of the inner world and outer world revolves very much around you as the reader. Whereas primary and secondary worlds are based around the text itself, inner and outer realities rely on the reader and what the reader knows about him or herself. Your inner reality is yours. No one can take it from you. Others can influence it, but only if you let them. The outer reality is anything you share with family, friends, people you know — the settings in which you find yourself, the actions that happen to you, the noises you hear, the dialogues you have with other people.

Fiction on the realism spectrum aligns the inner and outer realities and exposes them. In our real life interactions we rarely get a glimpse at the inner realities of other people because sharing inner realities depends on a lot of trust. But in a book you can share someone else’s inner reality — how they think, what they want, why they choose to do the things that they do.

THE INNER AND OUTER REALITIES OF FANTASY

In fantasy we start with the fantasy but then move strongly from the probable to the extraordinary. The extraordinary dominates. In fantasy, the inner reality is best related to the probable (primary world). The fantasy is related to the outer world.

In fantasy, a character’s outer reality is the focus of the story. A fantasy story is not so much about the actions of the fantasy world, but about the ideas that we have in our probable world. All fantasy works describe reality.

You’ll still read ‘probable’ and ‘extraordinary’ elements in a realist story, but in realism, readers will be able to imagine encountering these problems themselves. (Maintain the distinction between ‘possible’ and ‘probable’. In a realist story, something isn’t necessarily ‘probable’, but it must be ‘possible’.)

FEATURES OF A REALIST STORY

In a realist story, something must happen to disrupt the ordinary. This something must not leave the realm of likelihood. Characters have to be the sort of people you could know in real life.

The setting must be somewhere you could go. Bridge To Terabithia takes place an hour of two’s drive from Washington DC. The town in which they live may not be a real town, but it feels familiar. (Lovettsville, Virginia?)

The plot itself is often character driven.

But if the story is too mundane the reader is going to wonder what the point is. The Famous Five are a good example: These stories are now very dated. How come these kids are always on holidays? How do kids this age get so much freedom? Even young readers are now used to the realist tradition and have come to expect mimesis unless the setting is obviously fantastic.

Realist books can be didactic (not in a negative sense) in that we can ‘vaccinate’ our children by giving them a little dose of hardship in a fictional environment where they still have the safety of coming back out of the story. But this can lead to books which are so heavily didactic that they are a sermon: This is the way you ought to feel/behave, and if you don’t, the problem lies with you, the reader.

The problems in the stories must not be solved by adults. In fact the adults are quite often the cause of the problem, especially in YA. If not the direct cause, adults are opponents, setting the boundaries, setting the situations, causing the situation or by keeping information to themselves, leading to the children to jump to conclusions.

rugrats
Rugrats’ problems are caused by the adults. The plots are based upon the misinterpretation by the babies of what the adults say.

Plot: The sequence and plot structure of a realist story is pretty much the same as a fantasy story. That’s because all stories share an underlying basic structure.

The Hero: The main character is often a lonely outsider. A child hero might be new at a new school or looking for a friend or something like that. These stories are often formed around separation of some kind.

Theme: Justice is another common idea explored in realist fiction. What’s right? How do we decide what’s right? A big subset of the justice idea is, “When is it okay to lie?

Voice: Realist stories are dramatic, but not melodramatic.

Tiff and the Trout is an Australian story set in Mount Beauty (not called that in the story). The main character’s parents are splitting up. The father is a mountain person and the mother is a beach person. This symbolises their separation and Tiff is caught between. This story is neither melodramatic nor especially traumatic. There is one moment where the mum’s new boyfriend takes her fishing. She almost drowns. Apart from that, it’s ordinary, everyday stuff but is a very good exploration and discovery of how Tiff feels, not how the parents feel. In the end Tiff must choose which of her parents she goes to live with.

Endings: There is also a reasonably positive resolution, but not necessarily happy-ever-after. Characters are able to move on.

POSSIBLE PROBLEMS WITH REALISTIC STORIES

Representation

If a reader hasn’t experienced a situation herself, the plot may feel a little bit exotic. ‘That’s not really going to happen to me’. The author can also accidentally promote stereotypical attitudes. In the case of Josie Alibrandi, it might be easy for readers to conclude, ‘This is how all people of Australian Italian background behave’. Likewise, when reading Parvana’s Journey, if would be easy to assume girls in Afghanistan are all like that.

In Looking For X, the main character’s brothers are both autistic. The girl tries to find another homeless person who witnessed something that happened so that her mother can keep the boys. Is that a little too far from a reader’s experience? Are all Canadian homeless people like this one?

Currency

When including modern slang/attitudes/brand names and so on, these things will date quickly compared to details in completely made up fantasy worlds. 15 years ago Specky McGee was a popular Australian series, but now the footballers mentioned in the stories are all retired. How current to make a realistic story? [Dated stories can make for very interesting historical documents.]

CONTROVERSIES THAT ONLY SEEM TO AFFECT REALISTIC CHILDREN’S BOOKS

How ‘problematic’ must the problem be? If a story is about sexuality or drugs or other grim realities, do the readers really need to know all about that just yet?

Perhaps this is because children tend to emulate the behaviours of viewpoint characters in books:

The findings from the study reinforce the idea that young children have an easier time exporting what they learn from a fictional storybook to the real world when the storybook is realistic. The leap from a fictional human to a real one is simply smaller than the leap from an anthropomorphic raccoon to a human.