The Ideology Of Wealth In Stories

Arthur Dixon - The King's Daughter

Wealth brings out the worst in people. This is the overriding message we get from stories in general, be they for children or adults. However, sometimes by working hard a hero can become rich. In a Cinderella story goodness leads naturally to riches. This is thought to be Cinderella’s rightful place — after all, Cinderella is not a rags to riches story. It’s a riches to rags to riches again story. The high born are thought to be worthy due to their superior bloodline.

In an attempt at subversion, characters in some stories are eventually revealed to be nice people despite being rich.

The Pursuit Of Wealth As A Story Goal

Of the three principal preoccupations of adult fiction — sex, money and death — the first is absent from classic children’s literature and the other two either absent or much muted. Love in these stories may be intense but it is romantic rather than sensual, at least overtly. […] Money is a motive in children’s literature, in the sense that many stories deal with a search for treasure of some sort. These quests, unlike real ones, are almost always successful, though occasionally what is found in the end is some form of family happiness, which is declared by the author and the characters to be a “real treasure.” Simple economic survival, however, is almost never the problem; what is sought, rather, is a magical (sometimes literally magical) surplus of wealth.

Alison Lurie, The Subversive Power Of Children’s Literature

A lot of children’s literature is set in a kind of utopia where the characters never have to worry about money. Food is always there. A classic example of that is The Wind In The Willows.

Victor Coleman Anderson, Out of Luck, Life Magazine, July 14, 1921 rich poor divide
Victor Coleman Anderson, Out of Luck, Life Magazine, July 14, 1921
Le Petit diary illustrated, October 30, 1921, unknown illustrator tuberculosis pandemic
Le Petit diary illustrated, October 30, 1921, unknown illustrator tuberculosis pandemic

Storytelling Technique: Rich and Poor Together

One technique writers use to add interest and conflict to a story is to put wealthy and poor people in the same closed arena and force them to interact with each other. You’ll find this is done at some point in almost every TV show. Movies do it too.

However, there are a few political pitfalls to avoid when doing this.

William Balfour-Ker - From the Depths , 1906 rich poor
William Balfour-Ker – From the Depths , 1906

Wealth Versus Poverty In Stories For Adults

  • Annie Proulx makes use of the rich-poor divide a lot. She takes a rural community comprising simple, rural folk with anti-materialistic values and contrasts them with a rich blow-in. For more on that, see below.
  • In Freaks and Geeks, episode four, Lindsay gets her first class culture shock when she visits Kim’s house for dinner. It turns out Kim has invited her only to prove to her parents that she’s responsible and deserves her confiscated car back. Lindsey is shocked by the chaos and by the state of Kim’s house.
  • Katherine Mansfield herself was a daughter of the upper middle class but she tackled the rich-poor divide in several stories, most notably “The Doll’s House” and “The Garden Party“.
  • Angie Thomas writes about race and class in The Hate U Give. Issues of wealth and privilege come to the fore because the main character is at a private school on academic scholarship.
  • The Beverly Hillbillies — The farming Clampett family become suddenly rich when they discover oil in their backyard. This discovery turns a poor family to rich millionaires. They move to Beverly Hills, California. This is a good example of a fish-out-of-water story. These rustic characters clash with the people of one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in America. Rich-poor conflict is useful in Comedies of Manners.
  • Pride and Prejudice is an early example of the Comedy of Manners. No one is poor, exactly — it’s all relative. The Bennett sisters are in danger of becoming poor in future. Their mother’s behaviour is crass in comparison to those of the mega-wealthy.
  • Titanic — both the real story and the various fictionalisations which have emerged since, work well as stories because, when a boat is sinking, it doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor. Everyone goes down with it. This makes for an evergreen metaphor about looking after our planet.
  • Stories with dragons (specifically Northern dragons) are metaphors for how hoarded wealth brings one no joy. Dragons have fiery or poisonous breath. They’re often curiously merry or sardonic because they consider themselves invincible. But they can be beaten or more often outwitted via some weak spot. (Eastern dragons are different beasts altogether — they are magical, influence the weather, are godlike and maternal.)
  • Tomato Red — the love interest with the red hair feels a grave sense of injustice that they live in a mobile shack whereas other people in their town live in mansions. This fuels her desire to get out of that town, and justifies what she does in order to achieve it.
  • Schitts Creek — The Rose family have already lost all their fortune by the time they hit Schitt’s Creek — a hole of a town the father bought the son for a birthday joke. They are now forced to live there among the regular folk. They may have no money but they have brought their rich tastes and attitudes with them. This makes for plenty of conflict.
  • Animal Kingdom — J’s druggie mother dies of an overdose. At seventeen years of age he has only ever known poverty. But now he is taken in by his grandmother and uncles, who are running a criminal empire. These are the sorts of people who leave wads of cash lying around.
  • Nashville — Juliette Barnes is now rich, having earned oodles of money as a country pop singer, but she has come from nothing. She grew up in a trailer park. The writers make sure the audience is taken back there, to explain some of Juliette’s back story. Juliette still has her mother in her life, which allows the audience to see rich and poor rubbing up against each other. Other characters undergo a rags to riches Cinderella story as part of the show.
  • Upstairs Downstairs — Is the ultimate in rich and not rich rubbing up against each other. Downton Abbey is very similar. These shows are about class differences. For some of the characters real destitution is one wrong-doing away. Even the mighty can fall.
  • Coronation Street — Even in a working class Northern town where everyone lives from month to month, we still have characters like Mike Baldwin who owns the factory, or Dev Alahan who owns the corner shop. Though these men are far from fabulously wealthy, there is still enough of a discrepancy in wealth to provide interest.
  • I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore — our modest main characters make a visit to an ostentatious house with massive lawn ornaments under the guise of cops. When the lawn ornaments get broken this provides some catharsis for the audience because these rich people are not good and the main character is very sympathetic.
  • Fargo — our main dude has a rich father-in-law, which causes all sorts of existential male angst, and therefore the impetus to make real money of his own.
  • Lonesome Dove — Clara’s husband has been a successful horse wrangler. Not only this, he married the love of Gus’s life. Larry McMurtry takes us to Clara’s ranch to make sure we get a taste of The Path Not Taken. Could Gus have had all this, if only he weren’t such a wanderer, basically married to Call?
  • Gilmore Girls — This community offers us the full spectrum of wealth (well, right down to middle-class, anyhow). We have Emily and Richard at the top, with all their cronies. Next we have successful small business owners such as the owner of Doose’s market, and eventually Lorelai and Sooki themselves. Then there are the people who work for others.
  • My Summer Of Love — Tamsin is the privately educated daughter home for the holidays in her family mansion while Mona is the working class girl from the pub. A little Yorkshire village is the perfect opportunity for these girls to meet — more so than London, probably — because country villages comprise tiny rows of cottages where the poorest people live, with ticky-tacky but newer cottages where middle-class people live (e.g. Mr Fakenham’s lover), but just beyond the town’s border lie the large homes of England’s aristocracy. Rich girl and poor girl legitimately share the same country road, though one rides a white horse and the other scoots along on a motorbike with no motor.
  • American Honey — Star joins a ‘mag crew’ — a bus load of young people who have been recruited to sell magazine subscriptions across mid-west America. The bus takes them to wealthy suburbs and then to poor suburbs, juxtaposing them. The matriarch of the group is herself from a poor suburb but through psychopathic means has garnered enough money for herself to wear some of the trappings of wealth. She offers commentary on the people who live in these places as she drops her crew off.

Wealth Versus Poverty In Stories For Children

It’s interesting to see how wealth discrepancy is handled in stories for children. In picture books there is very rarely any social commentary on money. Olivia (by Ian Falconer) lives in a big New York City apartment and must therefore have mega wealthy pig parents, but because she goes through similar dramas as many (white) kids, the reader is not encouraged to mull that one over.

The work of Frances Hodgson Burnett — The phrase ‘rags to riches’ is commonly used to describe an arc in which the main character lives in poverty at the beginning of the story and in wealth by the end. But more commonly in the Victorian era the plot is one in which a disadvantaged person, often a child, is restored to the wealth and positin which are thought to be his/her natural birthright. Even Cinderella isn’t a genuine rags to riches tale — Cinderella must have been at least middle class to begin with or she would not have had those middle class relatives.

Ivy + Bean — Ivy seems to come from a richer family. She has a big bedroom with a craft table set up. Money is not mentioned. It may just be that Ivy’s mother is super organised and particular, and likes to dress her little girl in fancy frocks. But an adult reader assumes some discrepancy in income between the households. Ivy is originally depicted as a prissy, unsympathetic character, but after the first book the two girls realise they have a lot in common and become firm best friends. Not only that, Ivy is revealed to be every bit as devious as Bean. The message: Some kids are rich, others not so much, but they’re all just kids in the end.

Wimpy Kid, Dog Days — Holly Elizabeth Hills is one of Greg’s classmates and also an unrequited love interest. Greg tries to impress her but can’t. Her family is shown to be wealthy, playing on the old folk tales in which lovers are kept apart due to differences in class and status. The sister is portrayed as tyrannical, spoiled and selfish. The message: While being rich doesn’t necessarily make a girl undesirable, the existence of the sister conveys the idea that the riches themselves have contributed to her personality. 

“I have dreams about those shoes. Black high-tops. Two white stripes.”

All Jeremy wants is a pair of those shoes, the ones everyone at school seems to be wearing. But Jeremy’s grandma tells him they don’t have room for “want,” just “need,” and what Jeremy needs are new boots for winter. When Jeremy’s shoes fall apart at school, and the guidance counselor gives him a hand-me-down pair, the boy is more determined than ever to have those shoes, even a thrift-shop pair that are much too small. But sore feet aren’t much fun, and Jeremy comes to realize that the things he has — warm boots, a loving grandma, and the chance to help a friend — are worth more than the things he wants.

Harry Potter — It’s impossible to consider the ideology of wealth in the Harry Potter series without thinking of the rags to riches tale undergone by the author herself. In the Harry Potter universe the Black family is one of the mega wealthy. But Sirius Black was not born wealthy — he inherited 12 Grimmauld Place and this made him rich. He is fairly generous with his wealth. Gilderoy Lockhart is worth quite a bit. Harry Potter himself is also rich, especially for a twelve year old. He has inherited. It is extrapolated that after the series ends Harry goes on to become very rich. The Malfoy family and Bellatrix Lestrange are also wealthy. A lot of these rich characters are intermarried and related, keeping wealth in the family, in aristocratic tradition. The message: You don’t have to be all that great of a person to be born rich, but if you’re good like Harry you may well become rich through hard work, humility and dedication to a cause.

The Hundred Dresses — This book is about a modest, middle-class town whose children are strangers to poverty. Until one day, that is. These days it’s hard to tell the poorest children (in real life) by looking at them — clothing has come down in price and decent chainstore clothing is available cheaply from second hand stores. But in earlier eras clothing was prohibitively expensive and it was easy to tell the poor children at a glance. The message: Don’t judge people on their appearance. There is always more going on than you realise. Show compassion for those less fortunate.

Strays Like Us — Molly Moberly has been poor all her life and is even now living in poverty with a great aunt, but it turns out she has a rich grandmother who will now be her benefactor, of sorts. The grandmother is a lonely hypochondriac who won’t leave her bed. The message: If you have a destitute personality, money can’t buy happiness. You’re better off being modestly poor but mentally well.

Best friends Sofia and Maddi live in the same neighborhood, go to the same school, and play in the same park, but while Sofia’s fridge at home is full of nutritious food, the fridge at Maddi’s house is empty.

POLITICAL ISSUES

  • Disenfranchised people with little power make easy targets.
  • The main character of classic children’s book Heidi is rewarded by material wealth for moral virtue, with the following implicit message: If you are good, wealth will come your way. Ergo, if you’re not wealthy, you obviously are not good enough.

THE MYTH OF MERITOCRACY

Institutional classism cannot be confronted without dealing with its accompanying myth of meritocracy, which suggests that if a person has a lower social class than they would like, they can “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” because “anybody can get ahead if they try.” This mentality leads to faulty assumptions that people who have a lot earned it and people who don’t have a lot haven’t tried enough. Debunking this myth presents a challenging dialogue in that it intersects with class privilege, and os those who do have wealth may get defensive that they deserve what they have and have “earned it”.

Reframing Difference in Organisational Communication Studies by Dennis K. Mumby

 My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person, or as a participant in a damaged culture. I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will.

Peggy McIntosh

Q&A With Lani Guinier: Redefining The ‘Merit’ In Meritocracy at NPR    

THE MYTH OF GENTILITY

  A Bluebeard retelling like Rebecca feels outdated now because the entire revelation rests on the ‘surprise’ that a genteel, upper-class member of the aristocracy could possibly be a murderer.   The ship has sailed if you were hoping to tell that kind of story.

WRITE PRIVILEGE AS AN INVISIBLE KNAPSACK

Privilege is typically invisible for those who have it. This phenomenon has been pointed out by many since, but in 1993 Peggy McIntosh came up with the phrase ‘invisible knapsack’ to describe privilege: an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious.

MUST WRITERS ALWAYS ‘PUNCH UP’?

Writers—especially comedy writers—are often told: when mining character for comedy, always punch up.

This bit of advice means, in effect, that the underdog must win. The underdog has the last laugh. Ideally, the poor underdog is also likeable. That papers over a lot.

But in real life, the underdog often loses. What if you don’t want to create comedy? What if you want to create a realist setting in which rich folk often win, precisely because of their resources? What if you need to say something a bit more… true?

Annie Proulx’s short stories make for an excellent case study in how to create a rounded cast of downtrodden characters who neither win nor lose, but who plod along in their lane, no more or less enlightened than the rich bastards who blow in to their natural worlds. Proulx’s fatalistic world view definitely helps her convey the idea that we are all products of our environment, and that wealth or lack thereof is part of what shapes us. Her rugged, harsh landscapes also lead the reader toward an egalitarian view of humankind, in which everyone is the size of the ant in comparison to the mountains and plains, and everyone is therefore equal.

The Beverly Hillbillies gets a pass precisely because the rich milieu is satirised: The culture and society of Beverly Hills is depicted as obsessive and superficial. The locals have an unhealthy obsession with money, social-climbing, and the latest fashions. The Beverly Hillbillies are, in contrast, straight talking honest folks, who never wear a mask. They know exactly who they are, and are therefore happy in themselves, free from pecking-order pressures.

I’ve never given poor people credit for having noble souls, on the pretext that they are poor and only too well acquainted with life’s injustices. But I have always assumed that they would be united in their hatred of the propertied classes. Gegene has set the record straight on that score and taught me this: if there is one thing that poor people despise, it is other poor people.

The Elegance Of The Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery

The psychological effect of poverty is what lasts. You can send in rice to heal them and for energy but beware of giving energy to desperate people. They’re going to use it…. The hunger is bad but then you’d need about nine million therapists, who’d never be equipped anyway.

Frank McCourt on Writing About Poverty

CAPITALISM

Money Lender and Wife
Money Lender and Wife
  • Capitalism – anybody can be rich.
  • Communism – nobody can be rich.
  • Socialism – anybody can be rich but nobody should be poor.
Illustrator John Vassos depicts the sinister life of rich people with beautiful tones.
Illustrator John Vassos depicts the sinister life of rich people with beautiful tones.

ALSO INTERESTING

Header painting: Arthur Dixon – The King’s Daughter

The bestselling, comprehensive, and carefully researched guide to the ins-and-outs of the American class system with a detailed look at the defining factors of each group, from customs to fashion to housing. Based on careful research and told with grace and wit, Paul Fessell shows how everything people within American society do, say, and own reflects their social status. Detailing the lifestyles of each class, from the way they dress and where they live to their education and hobbies, Class is sure to entertain, enlighten, and occasionally enrage readers as they identify their own place in society and see how the other half lives.

Lemon girl young adult novella

READ AT MY OTHER BLOG

A Long Way From Chicago By Richard Peck

A Long Way From Chicago

A Long Way From Chicago by Richard Peck is a Newbery Honor book from 1998, set in the era of The Great Depression. An adult narrator looks back and remembers his wily trickster grandmother. This book is one of the most moving and well-written children’s books I’ve read, at once comical and resonant.

This is the first of a trilogy. The second is A Year Down Yonder. The third is A Season Of Gifts.

Mary Alice remembers childhood summers packed with drama. At fifteen, she faces a whole long year with Grandma Dowdel, well known for shaking up her neighbors-and everyone else. All Mary Alice can know for certain is this: when trying to predict how life with Grandma might turn out . . . better not.

The eccentric, larger-than-life Grandma Dowdel is back in this heart-warming tale. Set 20 years after the events of A Year Down Yonder , it is now 1958 and a new family has moved in next door: a Methodist minister and his wife and kids. Soon Grandma Dowdel will work her particular brand of charm on all of them: ten-year-old Bob Barnhart, who is shy on courage in a town full of bullies; his two fascinating sisters; and even his parents, who are amazed to discover that the last house in town might also be the most vital.
As Christmas rolls around, the Barnhart family realizes that they’ve found a true home, and a neighbor who gives gifts that will last a lifetime.

THE COVER OF A LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO

On all the various covers of A Long Way From Chicago the image of Joey in the plane features strongly. In one of the chapters Grandma finagles Joey a ride on a plane at the country fair but the plane ride itself is very much secondary to the chapter, in which we and the child characters learn the extent of Grandma’s cunning — as well as how tricks can somehow backfire.

So what’s with the centrality of the plane illustration?

Rumours are things with wings, too.

A Long Way From Chicago, p 118

Later in the story, a few years after Joey has ridden in that plane at the circus, Grandma shows him the power of rumour and gossip. It can be used for good, or it can be used for evil. Most often, it’s somewhere in the middle.

The car Joey loves to drive, not coincidentally, is called a ‘terraplane’ (a vehicle that ‘flies’ across terrain). The terraplane was a type of automobile produced by the Hudson Motor Company, previously called Essex. This particular type of car was designed to be more affordable, for families.

The Terraplane automobile A Long Way From Chicago
The Terraplane automobile

The Terraplane and I were becoming as one.

Historically literate readers will be keenly aware that Joey will come of age just as WW2 breaks out. I read this story without really acknowledging that fact, but in the final chapter we realise it is so, and of course he wants to fly planes. The experiences of his childhood summers with Grandma have lead to his wish to be a fighter pilot.

For more see The Symbolism Of Flight In Children’s Literature.

NARRATION AND TRUTH

The boy narrator is Joey Dowdel, a first person storyteller. His sister is Mary Alice Dowdel, two years younger. 

Because there is a full year elapsing between each story, the children change a lot. While each summer with Grandma teaches Joe something elemental about life, a lot of the change happens off the page, in the way that kids of that age change a lot year by year, regardless of what they’re doing.

The ageing of the children is the thread propelling the story forward in a linear direction. This line gives shape to the separate incidents taking place each summer. Without this narrative thrust the incidents would suffer the same problem as any journey story — the various characters and incidents would seem disconnected and the story as a whole would seem scattered.

Is this a coming-of-age story, then? Yes, but only insofar as any story about kids this age is a coming-of-age story. But this story isn’t about Joey and it’s not much about Mary Alice, either. Like The Great Gatsby, this is a bystander narrator entering a community and the star of this story is the grandmother he spends summers with. Eventually, the grandchildren learn all the tricks of their grandmother, picking people’s shortcomings to do what they feel is good in the community.

Truth is a popular topic when it comes to middle grade literature, and the same applies here. When you were little you were told to never lie. But now you’re in middle childhood you’re starting to realise that good people lie for good reasons. Look and learn. That’s what’s happening in this book.

The choice of narration is an excellent vehicle for this kind of theme:

“Are all my memories true? Every word, and growing truer with the years.”

This is a twisted spin on unreliable narration — Joey is old enough now to have a deeper understanding of the things he experienced as a child. Whereas we might expect old Joe’s memory for exact details to have faded somewhat, we are to trust his general interpretation of events, and the wisdom he brings to this long-ago story.

“We knew kids lie all the time, but Grandma was no kid, and she could tell some whoppers. Of course the reporter had been lied to big time up at the cafe, but Grandma’s lies were more interesting, even historical. […] What little we knew about grown-ups didn’t seem to cover Grandma.”

“[The ghost — actually cat — in the coffin] was a story that grew in the telling in one of those little towns where there’s always time to ponder all the different kinds of truth.”

SETTING OF A LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO

When these scenes take place it is always August — the hottest time of the year.

That first summer it is 1929.

THE WIDER WORLD

This is the America of:

  • Al Capone, Bugs Moran
  • The St Valentine’s Massacre
  • Prohibition — alcohol is banned, which achieves little but serve to make bootleggers rich.
  • Joey and Mary Alice’s family in Chicago has no car telling us they don’t need one due to living in a city but also that they’re from an ordinary middle class family.  By 1931 the Great Depression hasn’t yet ‘bottomed out’ but is heading that way.

THE COUNTRY/CITY DIVIDE

In Chicago there are characters such as the real life John Dillinger, who robbed banks with two female accomplices. Richard Peck makes reference to these in part to contrast Chicago with this small town.

John Dilinger as mentioned in A Long Way From Chicago

Once in the country, Joey is the ingenue narrator, describing the town as an outsider. (This is a useful trick because readers are also outsiders.) Joey tells us that back then, Chicago has an ‘evil’ reputation.

  • Prairie chickens can still be seen waddling about
  • Horses are still common in the rural towns, though the rich family in town drives a Hupmobile.  
  • Fireworks — baby-wakers, torpedoes, bigger one is called a Cherry bomb
  • Snowball bushes grow in Grandma’s yard, which later come in handy for breaking a fall. I doubt they’re all that soft to land on, but they certainly have that image.
  • Grandmother lives in a small town ‘the railway tracks cut in two’. We know how sleepy and unexciting it is because we are told that people stand out under their verandahs to see the train pass by. This town is somewhere between Chicago and St. Louis.
  • “The Coffee Pot was where people went to loaf, talk tall, and swap gossip.” Story arenas need some local meeting place for the community. Gilmore girls also has a coffee house, as does Twin Peaks, Friends, 13 Reasons Why and many other stories about a community of people. Especially cosy stories. 
  • There is a local Holy Rollers church — ragtime and tambourines in the church at night. A Holy Rollers church refers colloquially to Christian churches of the Pentecostal or Holiness type — the kind where there is a lot of singing, standing up, moving about and falling down. It can be used derisively but has also been reclaimed by members of these churches themselves. There’s also the more staid United Brethen Church, where they have the rummage sale.
CHARACTERS IN THIS STORYWORLD

Fictional small towns where nothing much usually happens almost always have a town gossip. Effie Wilcox is the town gossip in A Long Way From Chicago, “whose tongue is attached at the middle and flaps at both ends.” Cosy mysteries need town gossips because the (usually old ladies) who solve the mysteries don’t have easy ins at the local police station (though they’re often related somehow to a copper.) Likewise, kids benefit hugely from a town gossip — being kids, their main insight into the adult world comes from hearing adults talk. A variety of mysteries happen in each of these chapters and I initially expected Effie Wilcox to feature more prominently, but as it happens, Grandma herself somehow has her own ear to the ground.

Wolf Hollow also has a town gossip, as does Anne of Green Gables, in Rachel Lynde.

Also like Anne of Green Gables, A Long Way From Chicago features  a mouse in the food (milk, though planted). This must have been a reasonably common occurrence in rural areas before fridges and modern housing. The grandmother is a trickster archetype — a common character archetype beloved by audiences. She’s getting up to tricks like a character out of a Roald Dahl novel, putting the mouse in the milk. I’m reminded of The Twits.

FOOD

They eat things like green beans and fatback for dinner followed by layer cake. For breakfast: pancakes and corn syrup, fried ham and potatoes and onions. See also: The Evolution Of Fictional Breakfasts.

Nehi is a type of orange pop sold for a nickel a bottle. There are also grapettes, Dr Peppers. 

nehi orange soda

Lack of refrigeration affects what they can eat. Food is home cooked and homegrown, especially at Grandma’s house, as she abhors spending money.

ENTERTAINMENT
  • Mary Alice is reading The Hidden Staircase by Carolyn Keene (a Nancy Drew mystery novel). The Nancy Drew stories are themselves mysteries, and Mary Alice’s interest in helping people out may have influenced her decision to harbour a runaway.
  • Tom Mix movies — an American actor well-known for his cowboy movies. Westerns were popular at this time — it wasn’t until after the world wars that Westerns turned into anti-Westerns.
  • Skipping ropes, skipping chants about presidents, puzzles of famous people. 
  • Tap dancing is popular with girls due to Shirley Temple.
DIALECT

Some of it is regional, some owing to the era.

  • Working like bird dogs
  • You’uns instead of y’all.
  • Throwed instead of thrown
  • Lit running means ‘started running’
  • Chilrun
  • Pecks of potatoes
  • Dagnab it
  • Stir yer stumps
  • ‘Specialty house’ equals a privy equals an outside toilet
  • Skin to the church and get their maw and paw.
  • One of the characters is called ‘Miz’, which at first looks like an unnecessary call to attention of the woman’s unmarriageability, but it’s no such thing — at that time in that part of America women were called ‘Miz’ So-and-so, and it was simply a respectful generic used traditionally. This applied to the American South and places like St Louis.

Family means what you need it to, here. Though Aunt Puss is no blood relation of Grandma’s, the grandchildren are, yet Grandma does not acknowledge to Aunt Puss that they are her own.

TIME

Peck’s treatment of time in this novel borrows from the Gothic tradition.

There are still people alive in this story who fought in the Civil War. It is clear from The River Between Us that Richard Peck’s reason for writing for children (or at least part of it), is to connect young readers to generations they’ve just missed out on knowing. As an older writer, this is something he can do for us. 

In A Long Way From Chicago, Aunt Puss exists as a link to this earlier era. Aunt Puss has dementia and hasn’t noticed the passing of time. She thinks Grandma, Joey and Mary Alice are all the same age.

This does something for the reader’s appreciation of time. A Long Way From Chicago was first published in 1998, so the young reader is about 3 generations younger than Joey, 5 younger than Grandma and 6 younger than Aunt Puss.

But here we all are, each of us a child at some point, each of us connected by this story. Scholars would use the word ‘chronotope’ to describe the treatment of time in literature. Below we have a good explanation of why the Gothic chronotope is particularly well suited to coming-of-age stories like Peck’s:

The Gothic chronotope is often a place, very often a house, haunted by a past that remains present. As a child grows, more and more experiences, good and bad, displace into memory, forming the intricate passages where bits of his or her past get lost, only to re-emerge at unexpected times. The child’s mind becomes a crowded, sometimes frustratingly inaccessible place at the same time as his or her body morphs in uncomfortable ways. […] Gothic motifs of the uncanny are particularly apt for the metaphorical exploration of the vicissitudes of adolescent identity. The uncanny emerges in the adolescent novels they explore to both highlight change and trigger it. It becomes a complex metaphor for the transition the characters undergo with respect to their place in their families and their family history. […] the Gothic also offers fertile ground to explore beyond the conventions of the family to the adolescent’s place in larger social and cultural constellations of identity The results can affirm psychological models of development of they can open those models of development up to scrutiny and critique.

The Gothic In Children’s Literature: Haunting The Borders

The expedition into the past is further extended in the Centennial Summer chapter, when the town lives in the past for a week and dresses in old-fashioned clothes. This is when Joey meets the very old man who apparently fought in the Mexican War. Joey can hardly believe it — the Mexican War was so long ago. Joey himself will be fighting in a war when he gets older. These experiences, where he meets people who have lived through similar events before him, will contribute to his understanding of why he is fighting.

STORY STRUCTURE OF A LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO

This novel could be considered a series of interconnected short stories. I wasn’t surprised to read that the first chapter began as a short story, but Richard Peck realised he could get a lot more mileage out of Grandma Dowdel, so continued writing. Because each chapter is a short story in its own right, it’s possible to break down the structure of each one separately — each has its own desire/plan/big struggle/self revelation sequence. Instead I’ll make some general observations.

SHORTCOMING

Grandma Dowdel comes across — at first — as a misanthropist. She keeps to herself, doesn’t seem to have any friends in town and is so good at lying and tricking that she seems to be on the sociopathic spectrum. Her mistrust of people seems her main shortcoming, shown in the first chapter by the Cowgill boys picking on her as a target, first shooting her letterbox, next hoping to steal her gun.

DESIRE

Grandma Dowdel is gradually revealed to be not a misanthropist but a kind-hearted person who fights for the little guy. She is probably something like INTJ on the Myers-Briggs.

Grandma wants to make the world a better place. At least, her little town. She does not want glory for doing so — she wants to be left alone to do her good deeds. These deeds in themselves give her purpose. Her reasons for doing these things come from within. Unlike the vast majority of rural Americans at that time, Grandma Dowdel is wholly unconnected to the local (Holy Roller) church.

Although Grandma is the main character of interest in this story, Joey himself undergoes the classic ‘doubling down of desire’ that you often see in stories when the main character is required to do something against their will. Joey does not want to spend summers with his grandmother in hillbilly county.

Is Illinois really hillbilly country?

‘Hillbilly’ towns are found in Appalachia (Upstate New York, Western Pennsylvania, East Central and Southeastern Ohio, Western Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama).

However, another hillbilly region could be considered people residing in the Shawnee Forest region of Southern Illinois, or the Illinois Ozarks as they are called, and also South Central Missouri. This area starts around Rolla then heads southwest to Springfield and south into the Northern 2/3 of Arkansas.

The Ozarks and Appalachia are what make up the primary region of “hillbilly” country. Note that hillbillies are therefore not exclusive to the South, as they reside in a good chunk of Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Upstate New York.

But sure enough, when we get to almost the middle of the book, both he and his sister have changed their mind. They now both actively want in on these adventures with Grandma:

I don’t think Grandma’s a very good influence on us,” Mary Alice said. It had taken her a while to come to that conclusion, and I had to agree. It reconciled us some to our trips to visit her. Mary Alice was ten now. I believe this was the first year she didn’t bring her jump rope with her. And she no longer pitched a fit because she couldn’t take her best friends, Beverly and Audrey, to meet Grandma. “They wouldn’t understand,” Mary Alice said.

We weren’t so sure Mother and Dad would either. Since we still dragged our heels about going, they didn’t noticed we looked forward to the trip.

A Long Way From Chicago, Page 61 (out of 148 pages total)

This change in desire is marked with the odd snippet of dialogue in which Joey accidentally comes out with regional dialect.

In each chapter Richard Peck sets up the desire without telling us that’s what he’s doing. For instance, in The Phantom Brakeman the story opens with Joe and Mary Alice at The Coffee Pot enjoying a Nehi soda. We’re told these drinks cost exactly a nickel. We’re also told how hot it is, and that there’s no air-conditioning, and just plunging one arm into a barrel of water provides relief. Later, when Joe is asked to do something for a nickel, it’s very clear to us just how much Joe wants that drink. We didn’t know that the heat of summer and the price of the drink were going to be significant — at the time it seems like Peck is simply setting the scene.

OPPONENT

Everyone in town is against Grandma Dowdel.

There is the town gossip, the Cowgill boys in the second chapter, the policemen who want to keep drifters out of town, whereas Grandma wants to provide them with a good feed. Then there’s the comical opponent Rupert Pennypacker, who has made an excellent gooseberry pie.

“The Day Of Judgement” chapter also has Joey wanting something badly for the first time — to go for a ride in the plane at the Country Fair. He really wants his grandmother to win the pie competition because then he’ll have the opportunity.

PLAN

Each chapter is a new summer and a new vignette in which Grandma comes up against someone and wins the big struggle by hard work and wits.

Grandma is described as ‘a little grey shape, mouselike’. Mice are smart tricksters themselves. They may be depicted in children’s books as weak and helpless — most often as child stand-ins — but Richard Peck takes the reality of the mouse here when he compares the grandmother to one. Mice are small but they are very brave, and extremely resourceful. They’ve learnt to thrive around people, living on the edge of civilisation. The mouse is an extended metaphor for the grandmother.

As well as mice, Grandma is also associated with gooseberries. Being a sour fruit, the gooseberry is a motif for Grandma’s general demeanour. When Grandma dresses up for the fair, this is the human equivalent of adding sugar to a gooseberry pie to make it palatable.

This is Hillbilly county and from what I learnt reading Hillbilly Elegy, Grandma works by ‘Hillbilly justice’. She’ll lie, thieve, threaten, trick and practise hard to get what she wants. Since the law has their own selfish agenda, she’ll happily take things into her own hands.

BIG STRUGGLE

While each chapter has its own big struggle, the big struggles do not ascend in any approximation to a dramatic arc. Peck has used a variety of big struggle scenes, including slapstick falling from a window to threats with actual guns, but often it takes a less deadly tone.

ANAGNORISIS

Joey realises that he wants to become a fighter pilot, that his sister is growing into a woman, that things change even though children don’t want them to.

NEW SITUATION

Joey sees his grandmother (perhaps for the last time?) as his army train zooms past her house in the middle of the night. She has lit up her house like a Jack-o-lantern even though she is normally really stingy with lighting.

The full meaning of the title now becomes clear. “A Long Way From Chicago” refers to all the international places Joe will visit via plane during the war.

Lemon girl young adult novella

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The River Between Us by Richard Peck

THE RIVER BETWEEN US STORYWORLD

The River Between Us cover
This cover gives no indication of the intended audience. Nor does it show that this is the story of a family. Anyone would think Noah were the star, and the faceless woman in the background the stereotypical love interest. This is one of my least favourite children’s book covers.

There are historical notes in the back of The River Between Us but unless you’ve been through the American education system and already know quite a bit about the Civil War and the history of New Orleans, I’d recommend flipping to that first.

  • July 1916 is the wrapper time
  • Summer
  • North America
  • Starts in St Louis, South Illinois. The family lives on Maryland Avenue in the West End. See: Maryland Avenue today. (Peck tends to center his stories in Illinois, and most often in Southern Illinois.)
  • Cars are a big deal to a young boy because unlike today you don’t see them any old where. “It was a big thing to drive a car out of town.” They’re not yet very reliable so preparation for a long trip is important. For example, cracking a raw egg into the radiator so it would hard-boil and seal any leaks. Fuel is to be strapped onto the car itself because there aren’t many fuel stations around yet. Only the upper middle class can afford them (hence the narrator is the son of a doctor). You have to crank it up and the windshield isn’t up for city driving. There are a lot of flat tyres — four in one day is not unusual.
  • This is the story of a journey. Stories with rivers are generally about journeys. See: The Symbolism Of The River In Storytelling.
  • Baseball is important. The local team is called The Browns (and was only later the Baltimore Orioles).
  • World War I is raging across Europe. Americans know it’s just a matter of time before they get caught up in it. They anticipate restrictions on travel once that happens.
  • ‘The War’ just as often refers to the Civil War
  • Grand Tower is a ghost town. There never was much to it but showed some progress after the Civil War, with a saddle factor, cigar plant, gun shops, brick works. There’s a hill called Devil’s Backbone. (These days it’s a park.)
  • The grandparents’ house is like going back in time, with the metonym of a black iron range standing for the earlier era.
  • More on River Symbolism
  • 1861 is the flashback story within a story.
  • The American Civil War started in 1861 and lasted until 1865. The war officially began April 12 in Charleston. The big struggle at Port Sumter marked a turning point in the Civil War, when secessionists started to lose. Until then, escaped slaves could be sold back to the south.
  • Food is lacking in variety, especially in the winter. Mother makes a dish called ‘scrapple’ made from cornmeal and shredded pork off the neck bones. You slice of bits of it to fry in lard. For a fancy occasion you might fry it in butter.
  • Coffee is expensive and a luxury but the family drinks sassafras tea. (Root beer is made from the root of this tree.) These days it’s thought to be carcinogenic to drink it regularly.
  • In Southern Illinois the town was divided between north and south sympathies. By law black people aren’t even allowed in the state, although ‘everyone ignores this’. The fact that the law exists speaks to the levels of racism.
  • People commonly keep a sick drawer (to put medicines etc.) and a ‘death drawer’ (where they keep a sheet and clothes to be buried in). Very morbid sounding to the modern reader, but evidence that death is on people’s minds a lot more than it is today. People expected death, but at any moment.
  • After the Battle of Bull Run, this little town is ‘solid’ for the North. (Anti-slavery, with President Lincoln.)
  • Louisiana and New Orleans developed a ‘three caste’ system from the Caribbean. Mixed-parentage people were recognized as a distinct group, neither “White” nor “Black”. The history of slavery in Louisiana is a bit different. Under Spanish rule almost 2,000 slaves were freed. Most of them ‘self-purchased’ or were purchased by black relatives. Some were freed by lovers or fathers. With dwindling numbers of slaves to do the work, the numbers were augmented by mixed-race refugees from Haiti. They were called libres. Many were light-skinned. They were generally artisans and tradesmen. A few even became wealthy planters and slaveowners themselves. Under Spanish rule these gens du couleur formed militia companies and sometimes helped recapture runaway slaves. That’s how a three-caste system came about.

STORYTELLING TECHNIQUE IN THE RIVER BETWEEN US

Howard writes in first person, an elderly adult looking back on his early life. This is apparent from the first sentence: “They don’t make them like that anymore.”

Chapter two switches from the grandson as a young man to his great aunt, Tilly.

The narration has metafictional elements such as, “If life was a storybook, that would have been the night Noah left us for the war.” Peck is obviously conscious of the need to avoid tying up the narrative in too neat of a package — ironically, that would read like a contrived, made-up story and pull us out of realism. In this way, metafictive elements in narration can sometimes add to the realism of a story rather than detract from it.

CAST OF CHARACTERS IN THE RIVER BETWEEN US

WRAPPER STORY CHARACTERS

Narrator, Howard

  • Howard Leland Hutchings
  • 15 years old in 1916, so born just before the turn of the century. Published in 2003, the narrator would hypothetically be 104 at time of publication.
  • Younger brothers, twins, five years old: Raymond and Earl
  • Has grown up ‘thinking the whole world is paved’

Howard’s Father, Doctor William Hutchings Jnr

  • Father is a doctor, never seen without a necktie.
  • Works long hours — a 6 and a half day week
  • Self-made man (Bill Gates would disagree. Bill Gates refuses to call himself a self-made man in acknowledgement of his own privilege. Likewise, this son of a doctor had white middle class male privilege). That said, his own father was not rich. Doctors in poor towns were paid in fish and vegetables often.
  • Originally from Grand Tower on the other side of the Mississippi River
  • Lived through the Civil War

Howard’s Mother, Mrs Hutchings

  • Born and raised in St Louis
  • Does not like her husband’s family
  • Does not go on the trip, is not part of the story.
CIVIL WAR STORY CHARACTERS

Grandpa William Hutchings Snr

  • “Waxy with age, trapped by years in his chair but alive behind his eyes”

THE PRUITTS

Tilly Hutchings (nee Pruitt)

  • In 1916 she is a little old lady who wears an apron, wrinkled like a walnut
  • Youthful movements and build
  • Tilly’s mother takes in Delphine Duval and her companion Calinda
  • In 1861 she is 15 years old, which makes her 70 in the framing story.
  • She will later marry William Hutchings (the town doctor) and give birth to Howard’s father.

Noah Pruitt

  • Grandma Tilly’s twin brother
  • Missing an arm by his 70th birthday.
  • Marries Delphine

Delphine Duval

Although Delphine initially comes across as a Blanche Dubois type, her strength amazes and inspires everyone when the war begins to take its toll. Even the twins’ mother blossoms from Delphine’s proximity (“She put some starch in my spine,” Tilly’s mother says). These relationships cement and then reverberate throughout the novel. A showboat’s arrival on the Mississippi, and Tilly and Delphine’s trip to the big strugglefront in search of Noah, occasion further revelations about Delphine and Calinda’s background as well as fascinating details of the complex New Orleans society.

Publishers Weekly
  • Bedridden as an elderly woman, about    70 years old
  • Always stout
  • Smells of lavender, violet eyes, associated with the colour purple
  • French. “Her accent came and went.”
  • Has says she has a rich aunt in St Louis but it is later revealed that there is no aunt.
  • By the end of chapter four it’s clear she’s a fantasist who, like Jacqueline Wilson’s Tracy Beaker and Richard Peck’s own Molly Moberly in Strays Like Us, has grand delusions about where she comes from and who her female relatives are.
  • Also like Molly Moberly’s real grandmother, she has taken to her bed in her old age.
  • From New Orleans, Louisiana
  • Says her grandmother one of Les Sirenes — beauties who fled the slaves’ uprising on the island of Saint-Domingue years and years ago. Grandmother took her mother to Cuba then New Orleans. Father is Monsieur Jules Duval
  • She cannot marry white men because there’s a Spanish and French law against it. However New Orleans customs are different — instead of marrying these women the white men set them up in houses. Daughters are brought up by their mothers and expects to find a white gentleman of her own under a similar arrangement. These women are called quadroons.
  • “We free people live on a kind of island, lapped by a sea of slavery.”

Cass Pruitt

  • Younger sister of Tilly who hallucinates. She sees ghosts of the past as well as visions of the future.
  • In 1861 she is 12 but looks 10
  • Wispy hair (to match her visions)
  • Small statured
  • Keeps chickens — her wispy hair is somewhat ‘feathery’ itself
  • Died of diphtheria after the Civil War at the age of 17

Calinda Duval

  • Delphine’s black companion (free person of colour)
  • ‘Her eyes trust no one’
  • Has the same eyes as Delphine (the first hint that they are half-sisters)
  • Not just in skin colour — Calinda is in other ways the mirror reflection of Delphine. “While Delphine would starve in a pantry, Calinda would thrive in a wilderness.”
  • As well as being the reflection character for Delphine, she is also a companion for Cass. Cass looks like a ‘scrawny, pale reflection of Calinda, including the tignon, tied in a tidy knot’.
  • Makes money by making pralines and selling them to passengers on passing ships.
  • Calinda wears a tignon because in 1786 a law was passed which required black women to cover their hair. Intended to keep black women in their place, it was also a fashion statement for black women themselves. Today it is worn as a celebration of Afro-American culture.
  • Real name CoinCoin, an ancient name
  • Calinda is named after a dance from the Caribbean.
  • Calinda and Cass together lend a touch of fabulism to the text, with their ability to predict the future and sense the past.

TREATMENT OF VIOLENT CONTENT IN A STORY FOR YOUNG READERS

Without graphic description, Peck does not shy away from the horrors of war, nor how it divided the families and friends of Grand Tower. Peck’s finely tuned writing makes plausible the ways in which these characters come together, putting their human concerns ahead of their political interest.

Publisher’s Weekly

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE RIVER BETWEEN US

This is a story within a story: The road trip in the present world of the story and the stories told about Howard’s father’s childhood.

Who is the main character? Well, this is two stories really but the story as told by Tilly is the main one. The wrapper exists for the function of connecting these people to modern readers: Peck is emphasising that this story happened only three or four generations ago (which is actually terrifying in today’s political climate).

In fact this is a story within a story within a story. This is Howard narrating Tilly narrating the love story of Delphine and her twin brother Noah. But it is also the mythical journey Tilly herself makes to locate her brother after he’s gone off to war. Who is the main character? To answer that question, “Who changes the most, not in circumstance but in psychological growth?” That would be Noah and Tilly both. Richard Peck has made them twins to provide both a male and female experience of one bit of the Civil War.

SHORTCOMING

The Pruitts are poor and therefore must suffer the social cost of harboring the young women off the boat — they need their rent money.

Noah no doubt has naive, heroic visions of being a war hero, and probably also wants to impress Delphine by being a big man.

Tilly’s big disadvantage is her gender. The mother’s ghost is that she has already lost a husband, so losing a son would double her grief. Being a woman herself, she needs Tilly less for chores.

DESIRE

Noah wants to fight but more deeply he wants to be a Man.

Tilly, like her mother, wants to keep Noah at home and to protect their home and hearth. When the mother sends her on a mission this is a female version of the Hero’s Journey.

OPPONENT

The Seceshs are the villains in this story — the ‘monster’ stand in — the overriding fearsome opponent. But in this particular setting, a purple area, there are plenty of locals who are fighting against the Yankees and the women who visit the house to cast judgement on harboring the girls from New Orleans provide a more local opponent, given faces.

Noah’s mother does not want him to fight, providing the well-meaning opponent. The mother shows herself to be a fairly despicable mother to Tilly, though, when she falls into a heap and tells her she only cares about the brother, not her. This mother is a completely different kind of mother-opponent to each twin.

In a more stereotypical story, Delphine would be an opponent to Tilly. There are many stories about girls — one rich, one poor — pitted against each other as opponents, but Peck has created a more nuanced frilly girl in Delphine by letting her add to the Pruitts’ life with the introduction of different foods and nice things.

PLAN

Noah joins the war but his plans to fight to the end fall short when he loses a limb.

Tilly takes Delphine on her journey to find Noah and refuses to go back home until she’s found him, as instructed by their mother.

BIG STRUGGLE

Tilly shows us some pretty shocking images. The big struggles taking place around this time all over America are off the page — we’re shown the aftermath.

ANAGNORISIS

At this point the story switches back to that of Howard. He realises the reason for the visit — Great Aunt Delphine is dying. We learn Cass is dead and buried, in an overgrown graveyard. She died of diphtheria a year after the war.

This tells us that the war’s casualties included more than just men dying heroically in big struggle. With war there is always a lot of other death too — for unromantic reasons such as this.

Another revelation: Noah is Dr Williams’ father, not the old Dr Hutchings. Great Aunt Delphine is actually Howard’s grandmother, not his great aunt, in a revelation similar to the one used in Strays Like Us.

NEW SITUATION

We learn that Calinda had to leave town because her skin was too dark to stay. We don’t know what happened to her — symbolic of how there is nothing in the historical records about what happened to the Quadroom women of New Orleans after the Civil War.

The rest of the family stays in the White town and has lived here in this big house together all these decades. Old Mr Pruitt is buried in the graveyard though not next to Cass. Old Mrs Pruitt was buried in the river.

I had expected Delphine would have married Noah but we learn they never married. Peck does this to let the character of Delphine retain her tradition of never marrying a white man (even though the law itself was passed by white men).

Howard is allowed to drive the car some of the way home. Howard, too, is now a man because he knows his own family history. Howard’s father tells Howard he’ll be joining the war if it begins. The reader knows it did begin, so we can extrapolate that Dr Hutchings went off to war.

Howard mentions a ‘daughter with giant violet eyes’, a detail so specific we might imagine Howard does have such a daughter and that’s who he’s telling this family history to.

Lemon girl young adult novella

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Strays Like Us by Richard Peck Storytelling Tips

Strays Like Us is a 1998 middle grade novel by American author Richard Peck. (155 pages)

Peck not only understands the fragile emotions of adolescents, he also knows what kind of characters will pique their interest. In this tender novel, he paints a richly detailed portrait of Molly, a drug-addict’s daughter sent at the age of 12 to live with a great-aunt she has never met. Molly soon discovers others like her in this small town full of secrets.

Publisher’s Weekly starred review
Continue reading “Strays Like Us by Richard Peck Storytelling Tips”

Realism In Fiction For Children

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.