Danny The Champion Of The World by Roald Dahl

Archibald Thorburn, naturalist illustrator - Pheasants

As an English speaking child of the 80s I grew up on a heavy diet of Roald Dahl. Danny The Champion Of The World (1975) stands out in my adult memory my favourite Dahl story, perhaps only bested by the frisson of horror left by The Witches (in which I actually examined my J2 teacher, thinking she might be a witch. Fortunately she didn’t wear gloves, which absolved her.)

I have now, finally, revisited Danny The Champion Of The World as an adult, despite this being one of my favourite childhood reads. Why ‘finally’? I’m loathe to further promote Dahl’s work on the Internet, partly because an entire cottage industry has popped up around the man and the mythology, with teacher resources available, schools full of class sets of his books. My own child’s primary teachers are still teaching Roald Dahl, despite there being many, many better options for a class study.

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Is Animalification A Thing?

man surrounded by rock pigeons

In literature, an object with human characteristics is called ‘personification‘.

Granting an animal human-like characteristics is called ‘anthropomorphism‘. (Anthropo = human being, as in ‘anthropology’. ‘Morph’ = change.)

Both personification and anthropomorphism are types of metaphors.

But what do you call it when it’s the other way round? i.e., when a human being is compared to an animal by virtue of animal characteristics? Reverse personification? Animalification?

Someone on Urban Dictionary notes that fantasy lovers have developed their own lexicon for these things:

ANTHRO

An animal with human-like characteristics. A human with animal-like characteristics can also be called an anthro, but technically they are not. An anthro is, technically, an animal that can: a) walk upright, b) talk, or talk somewhat (AKA has human vocal chords), c) has human features (i.e. a centaur, half human, half horse), d) has the bone structure of a human, with some of its animal counterpart (i.e. a cat-anthro that although looks like a human, can jump like a cat). These characteristics separate anthros from humans with cat ears and tail (or something like that).

It’s common in literature to give a human character animal characteristics, even when the genre is not speculative. For instance, in S.E. Hinton’s That Was Then, This Is Now, one of the main characters is depicted as a lion in preparation for his eventual fate.

We are used to animal idioms in daily life e.g.

  • picky eaters as birds
  • greedy people as pigs
  • thin people as stick insects
  • night owls

In literature, the metaphor may be short-lived e.g. a single observation.

e.g. ‘I love your dress,’ she purred. (Women as cats and birds is cliche in literature.)

As children we get used to picture books where the people are ostensibly animals — they have the heads and bodies of animals but essentially behave like humans. Often there’s no metaphorical reason for this — it’s the ‘hat on a dog’ type humour that children love. Why is Olivia a pig? I have no idea, but it gives Ian Falconer’s illustrations a childlike interest which may not otherwise be there given his limited colour palette and style.

Authors of adult work also make use of people as animals, and can continue animal metaphors across an entire story. It might be limited to a character sketch. Alternatively, character-as-animal may comprise the beef of the story and function as integral to the plot.

EXAMPLES OF PEOPLE DESCRIBED AS ANIMALS

The Human Squirrel

The following examples persist throughout the story and are integral to the story as a whole:

  • The Ratcatcher” by Roald Dahl (short story)
  • Caleb by Gary Crew and Steven Woolman (horror picture book)
  • Mercy Watson Thinks Like A Pig — ironically it is the Animal Catcher who thinks like a pig. Here we have a double layer of animalification, because Francine Poulet is also described as a chicken (the big clue is in her symbolic name).
  • Mercy Watson Fights Crime — Kate diCamillo and Chris Van Dusen do enjoy designing opponents with an animal in mind — in this one the cowboy-wannabe burglar is depicted as a weasel. (I know this from listening to Kate diCamillo talk about the character design in an interview — it’s not over-the-top obvious.)
  • Mr Reginald Peacock’s Day“, a short story by Katherine Mansfield takes the vanity symbolism of the peacock and applies it to a singing teacher.

EXPANDED EXAMPLE

OLDER WOMAN COMPARED TO GREY FIELD MOUSE

Roald Dahl uses a rat in “The Ratcatcher” but mice are considered really quite different from rats. Rats are sinister; mice are more often harmless, vulnerable due to their size, cute. The idiomatic expression ‘timid as a mouse’ doesn’t represent the reality of mice — whenever I’ve had them in the house I’ve been struck by how brazen they are.

Robin Black opens her short story “Tableau Vivant” with real mice, which have come into a house. She then focuses on one (actual) bolshy mouse who won’t leave the house even though it’s no longer winter. Next, we get a thumbnail sketch of the woman who lives in this house. The focus is on her physical resemblance:

Jean Kurek looked a bit like a field mouse herself, with her close-cut gray hair, in her shapeless gray dress—no zippers, no buttons. Stroke clothes. Her appearance was no more or less distinguished than it had been all her sixty-eight years, the most likely description of her a string of negatives. Not really tall or short, you wouldn’t say she’s heavy but she isn’t particularly thin, not ugly, not at all, but not pretty either, her hair is that color that isn’t blond or brown. Arguably, her most striking feature was the absence of any striking feature—though her hair had finally claimed a color, gray.

“Tableau Vivant” a short story by Robin Black from If I Loved You I Would Tell You This

But Black doesn’t stop at the physical resemblance:

Jean had spent a lifetime trying to be inconspicuous, appreciating that nature had given her a good start. As she stepped out from the kitchen now and crunched her way over the garden’s gravel pathways, even the briskness of her pace seemed designed to make her presence as little disruptive as possible, and the arm hanging loose by her side, like something she would soon remember to gather up. [She has lost the use of one arm due to a stroke.]

“Tableau Vivant” a short story by Robin Black from If I Loved You I Would Tell You This

Note that not every aspect of the human character needs to resemble the chosen animal. Mice don’t ‘crunch’ when they walk across gravel, for instance, but they do walk like that, just in their miniature way.

Header photo by Caitlyn Wilson 

Back For Christmas by John Collier

Back for Christmas by John Collier

As soon as I read “Back For Christmas” by John Collier (1939) I thought of Roald Dahl. Sure enough, I google both names in a single search and learn that, for Dahl, among many other male writers, Collier is listed as a heavy influence.

Credit where credit is due, though: Roald Dahl’s two most famous short stories — “Lamb to the Slaughter” is one — was actually plotted by Ian Fleming, of James Bond fame. I learned that listening to the interview between Neil Gaiman and Tim Ferris. (The other Dahl story plotted by Fleming is “Parson’s Pleasure”, about the evil antique dealer.)

Why is that list of Collier-influenced authors entirely male? That’s not to say women haven’t also been influenced by Collier, but this does feel like a very masculine story.

I have a working theory on that. This sort of story, in which a criminal trickster type gets his comeuppance after a twist at the end, is closely related to the tall tale, and the tall tale tradition is very masculine. That begs the question, though.

Why are tall tales so popular with men? Masculine humour tends to be more about establishing hierarchies than feminine humour, and there’s nothing more hierarchical than a character at the top of his profession, beloved among his fictional peers, ending up on his knees in prison (we extrapolate).

This story is admirable partly because of the swift pacing. Notice how Collier takes us across continents with nothing in the way of boring logistical detail. And once the outcome is revealed, story over. Get in, get out, short story writers are told. Collier omits the entire New Situation phase. He can, because he’s given us all the information we need.

I considered saving this story until the Christmas season, but it’s not a Christmasy story at all. It is set three months before Christmas — the gift-giving of Christmas is useful to the plot and that is its function.

If you’re after a heartwarming Christmas story try “The Gift of the Magi“. O. Henry’s story also involves a twist in the tail, but rarely, that twist says something positive about humankind. These two stories fit at each end of a single continuum — optimistic at one end, pessimistic at the other. “The Gift of the Magi” is sort of like a biter-bit inversion story.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “BACK FOR CHRISTMAS”

SHORTCOMING

Mr Carpenter is clearly high on the psychopathic spectrum. At least, that’s how we might fictionally diagnose him today. This isn’t his shortcoming, though. I’m reminded of Kevin Dutton’s proposition in his book The Wisdom of Psychopaths, in which Dutton argues that psychopathy confers certain advantages (for the psychopathic themselves). Top doctors (especially surgeons) can benefit in their work. They don’t tend to have the same fear response as the neurotypical population. The amygdala tends to be under-aroused. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9NSCWW_xRrI

So I’m not going to say that his sociopathy is Mr Carpenter’s shortcoming. His shortcoming is that he doesn’t appreciate his wife. I mean that in several senses of the word: He doesn’t like how organised she is, and he doesn’t realise the extent of her organisation. Her organisational skills annoy him. In one short paragraph we learn that his main beef with her is that he feels she over-schedules his life. (That is her entire job as housewife to a doctor, back in 1939.)

DESIRE

Mr Carpenter, it is suddenly revealed, is moving from England to America. He is taking this opportunity to kill his wife. He wants to start a new life with a new woman. He wants to stay on in America, where he justifiably believes (in 1939) he will never be caught.

OPPONENT

Mrs Carpenter doesn’t realise she is his opponent, but she is.

PLAN

After the murder itself, Mr Carpenter’s plans make up the bulk of the story. The narrator offers a look inside his head. It is a point of pride that I don’t understand how a sociopath thinks, and you probably don’t, either. That’s why this phase of the story is so important.

What makes him think he can get away with this? Why would a man kill his own wife? The interest of the story lies in answering these questions.

BIG STRUGGLE

As in a story like “Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl, the murder happens swiftly and quickly — the story is about what happens after. There is a symbolic Near Death Moment:

He threw himself down in the coal dust on the floor and said, “I’m through. I’m through.”

But no meaningful Anagnorisis follows. This is just him panicking. To find the structural Battle scene, look for the part that comes before the Anagnorisis. Except there is no Anagnorisis in this one. The point of this character is that he is so full of confidence that he never once doubts that he’ll get away with murder.

SELF-REVELATION

Mr Carpenter has no meaningful Anagnorisis, but the twist at the end leads directly to a satisfying Plot-revelation for the reader. (And also for him as a character, though his response is left off the page.)

Comic characters don’t often have anagnorises. That’s part of what makes them funny — their enduring stupidity. This lack of self-awareness is part of what makes “Back For Christmas” a darkly comic tale.

NEW SITUATION

“Back For Christmas” is a good example of a story which lets the reader extrapolate the New Situation.

The title is meaningful, but only at the end. Mr Carpenter will indeed be back for Christmas, but he will have been summoned by police detectives, alerted to the presence of a dead body after the excavators visit the house for a renovation and dig up Mrs Carpenter’s corpse.

FORESHADOWING TECHNIQUES IN “HOME FOR CHRISTMAS”

I’ve written about literary shadowing elsewhere. In stories with surprise endings, the writer must be expert at foreshadowing. There’s a fine line between giving too much versus not enough.

How did Collier do it so masterfully in this story?

First of all, there’s the meaningful, clue-y title, mentioned above.

“He shall be back,” says Mrs Carpenter when we first meet her. She says this before the reader is told how very resourceful and organised she is. If we fully remembered what she had said, we’d know, after getting to know her later, that what she says goes. But we sort of half-forget detail like this. Instead, it all seems to somehow make sense after we learn the ending. (It is significant that every one of their acquaintances believes Mrs Carpenter. They know her much better than we do.) The takeaway writing tip: You can invert parts of the story in this way. Collier could have made the outcome more obvious by FIRST setting Mrs Carpenter up as a reliable type for whom plans always work THEN have her tell everyone (and us) that they definitely WOULD be back for Christmas, but showing us the other way round is the perfect degree of subtle.

“Anything may happen,” says Dr Carpenter in retort. This snippet of dialogue does double duty: The reader fully expects something to happen (as it always does in good stories) and it therefore functions as a suspenseful hook. But it’s also ironic in hindsight, because the ‘anything’ does not line up with Dr Carpenter’s expected outcome. There’s a meaningful gap between what he thinks and what actually happens.

This story would not have worked as well if Collier had left out the backstory of how Mr Carpenter has been ‘trying to scrape out a bin for wine’ and it would not have worked had he left out its addendum: ‘he had told Hermione’. In hindsight, we understand that Hermione saw him scraping out a barrel meaning to put her in it, but her interpretation was different: She thought he was developing an interest in wine, so arranged a renovation of the cellar as his Christmas present. It is important when writing a tale like this to attach a connecting thread of backstory to the simplicity of your poetic justice by explaining exactly how the pieces have come together in this way. It doesn’t take much, as shown here by Collier. It’s done in a single paragraph, embedded into action and forward motion.

There’s also a ticking clock, which Collier uses to divert our attention from this obvious clue about the barrel. The ticking clock is ‘the ringing’ from the friends, who will come back in half an hour.

Imagery works as foreshadowing here, too:

The Doctor was scarcely aware of the ringing as a sound. It was like a spike of iron pushed slowly up through his stomach. It went on until it reached his brain.

This should tell us that the doctor will come to a sorry end, but it doesn’t, directly. And that’s why it still works.

POETIC JUSTICE

Importantly, Mr Carpenter’s plot comes full circle, which gives a sense of ending. Seems simple in post hoc analysis, but it’s important that Collier chose to write such a direct and simple plot: A man buries dead wife in cellar; wife has planned a cellar renovation. The key is in the simplicity of that. This is poetic justice. Readers find poetic justice very satisfying.

Poetic justice is a literary device in which virtue is ultimately rewarded or vice punished in such a way that the reward or punishment has a logical connection to the deed.

This has more to do with the supernatural belief of karma and heavily retribution than with legal justice. Poetic justice is the highly satisfying emotional response we feel when the innocent is vindicated and the guilty punished when the law doesn’t accomplish it.

In modern literature, this device is often used to create an ironic twist of fate in which the villain gets caught up in his/her own trap

Karl Iglesias, Writing for Emotional Impact

In C. S. Lewis’ The Horse and His Boy, Prince Rabadash climbs upon a mounting block during the big struggle in Archenland. When he jumps down while shouting “The bolt of Tash falls from above,” his hauberk catches on a hook and leaves him hanging, humiliated and trapped.

In John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas a concentration camp commander’s son is mistakenly caught up with inmates rounded up for gassing.

In Chris Van Allsburg’s picture book, The Sweetest Fig, a cold-hearted dentist is cruel to his dog and ends up getting his comeuppance.

Guess Who’s Coming For Dinner is a picture book in which a wolf builds a contraption to catch his guests and eat them, but he ends up getting trapped in it himself. His friends end up eating him without knowing.

A lot of Paul Jennings stories end with poetic justice.

I’ve written more about punishment in children’s literature here. A segment of modern book buyers avoid stories in which characters get punished at the end. You can see that by reading consumer reviews — bad behaviour followed by severe punishment is not always seen as suitable for kids. Others take delight in the very same endings.

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Slap Happy Larry Stories

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

Lamb To The Slaughter by Roald Dahl

Lamb to the Slaughter” is one of Roald Dahl’s most widely read short stories, studied in high school English classes around the English speaking world. In this post I take a close look at the structure from a writing point of view. Why has this story found such wide love? What appeals?

STORY STRUCTURE OF LAMB TO THE SLAUGHTER

The ‘main character’ of this short story isn’t clear because this is a story about a scenario, and the characters are required in order to carry out the scenario. The characters are archetypes. However, the story opens with Mary Maloney. We are encouraged to identify with Mary Maloney, and it is Mary who goes through an extensive range of emotions. We end with a conspiratorial relationship with Mary.

SHORTCOMING IN LAMB TO THE SLAUGHTER

Mary Maloney is childlike, as housewives of the mid 20th century often were. Mary is economically and emotionally vulnerable, and she is extra vulnerable because she is six months pregnant. She is unable to simply move on from this relationship, or get a job. Re-partnering will be hard for her, too. This situation encourages the reader to empathise with her plight, even if we don’t agree with her way of dealing with things. Also, readers are like ducklings and we tend to empathise with the character first shown to us. If Dahl had instead described the policeman’s arrival home, starting with him leaving work, turning the difficult situation over in his mind, we might have empathised with him instead.

Mary also has a Virgin Mary association — we don’t think of murderers when we think of ‘Mary’. I guess that’s why when we do get a murderer named Mary, we are intrigued by the story and it becomes lore.

DESIRE

Mary’s desires seem to be right there on the page: She is lonely during the day and home with no adult company, waiting for a scrap of human interaction from her husband after spending the entire day preparing the home for his arrival. But this interaction with her husband is her surface level desire, and points to a deeper desire: to assuage her utter loneliness. This is especially well set up by Dahl, because the very worst thing that could happen to Mary is to be left all alone.

OPPONENT

A simple web: Mary wants to remain married to her husband; her husband wants to leave her for another woman (we guess). Because their desires are in direct conflict, this makes them opponents. Later, the dead husband’s colleagues arrive. Part of what makes this story work: The husband was himself a policeman, so when his colleagues arrive to replace him as new opponents, these men seem like basically the same person to Mary.

Note also the writing trick employed by Dahl — he leaves the exact words of the break-up conversation off the page, instead giving us enough clues to work it out ourselves. This works partly because Mary is so blown-away by this revelation that she wouldn’t be able to take in all the words. This aligns the reader with Mary. It also works for another reason: Break-up sequences are pretty boring for most readers, who have seen the exact same conversation played out time and again in stories. It’s very hard to write a break up scene with any kind of originality, so Dahl just skips it, and trusts us to fill in those blanks. Also, the break-up is not a big part of the story. The Story = what comes after.

A question we might ask ourselves when writing short stories: Which parts of this story have been done so many times before that I can easily skip them? Narrative summary is a useful tool, especially in short stories.

PLAN

When a character snaps and does something crazy, you can’t really argue that there was a plan. Mary only makes her plan later: She didn’t plan to kill her husband, but she does plan to get out of it. She will visit the grocer, then return home to ‘discover him dead’, then get rid of the murder weapon by acting like a grieving wife in shock, then she will encourage the policemen to eat the lamb. This plays out with what I like to call a ‘heist plot’. I just mean that the reader doesn’t know what Mary’s going to do until she does it. Dahl puts the reader in audience inferior position. Reader satisfaction derives from seeing Mary carry out her plan and then get away with it.

Be wary of writing characters who just snap and do something crazy. I have heard judges of short story competitions complain that they see too many of those — perhaps writers are hoping to emulate Lamb to the Slaughter. Why does it work for Dahl? Because a woman snapping is not the story. Stories which end with a character snapping don’t work because:

  1. It’s generally unbelievable that people just snap — people who commit these crimes in real life have a history of violence. And in a short story you don’t have time to get into someone’s entire history, so it’s going to feel unfinished.
  2. It works here because Lamb to the Slaughter is basically melodrama. It’s written with a wry, tongue-in-cheek smile right from the start, and even Mary’s giggling is comical and over-the-top. Lamb to the Slaughter is written in the tall tale tradition.
  3. If a writer concludes a story by having their main character just snap and do something murderous, it feels like the writer can’t think of a more interesting way to finish the story off. ‘And then she killed him’ is akin to ‘And then she woke up and it was all a dream.’
  4. There is already a long history of tales which end in sudden death. Take Fitcher’s Bird, a tale collected by the Brothers Grimm. The final sentence: ‘And since nobody could get out, they were all burned to death’.

BIG STRUGGLE

It’d be easy to think the bit where Mary slaughters her husband is ‘the big struggle scene’, but it’s not, really. There’s no big struggle in that. She comes at him from behind. For storytelling purposes, the big struggle scene comes after a plan has been concocted and mostly carried out. Thus, the ‘big struggle scene’ in this story comprises the sequence in which the policemen hum and ha about whether or not they should go ahead an eat the lamb, with Mary encouraging them to eat. Mary wins that big struggle of words and manners.

ANAGNORISIS

The story ends when Mary giggles to herself from the next room. She has concluded she’s getting away with murder.

NEW SITUATION

The new situation phase is cut off in this story — as it is in many short stories — and left for the reader to extrapolate. We may also conclude that Mary has gotten away with murder.

LITERARY INFLUENCES ON LAMB TO THE SLAUGHTER

Dahl wasn’t the first to shock readers with a cannibalistic yet strangely genteel scene involving a character eating its own kind in a story about duplicity.

The Juniper Tree was one of the tales collected by the Grimm Brothers. In a patrilineal culture, a mother is angry that she and her daughter will inherit nothing while her husband’s son will inherit all. She is soon so overcome with anger that she is possessed by the devil, and eventually shuts the boy in a trunk, luring him with apples. The boy is decapitated. The woman tries to tie it back on with a neckerchief, but then the daughter accidentally knocks it off and believes she’s the one who killed him. The boy ends up in a stew. The father comes home, asks where the son is, and is told that the boy has gone away to stay with relatives for six weeks. The man eats the delicious stew — which he feels is part of him somehow — and throws his son’s bones under the table, which makes me wonder if that’s what men did in those days. (It reminds me of modern casino culture, in which big gamblers — mostly men — simply piss on the casino carpet rather than leave their stations to visit the toilet.) It’s the daughter’s job to tidy up after him. She collects the bones in a silk cloth and buries them under the juniper tree. The boy is reborn into the shape of a bird and the story goes on from there. The boy/bird eventually exacts revenge and kills his mother figure for killing his human form and feeding his flesh to his father. The mother is therefore punished, for letting herself become so angry and scared about becoming old and homeless and letting herself go crazy. Presumably, her daughter escapes this kind of crazy with her youth, and lack of understanding about how the world works. The sister doesn’t know that she, too, may become homeless — she is young and is likely to marry. So the inheritance thing probably doesn’t affect her.

Roald Dahl had a different relationship with retribution. Matilda is an entire middle grade novel made of revenge sequences against her terrible parents and Miss Trunchbull. Dahl certainly enjoyed pranks and tricks and loved to let his characters get away with bad stuff. Lamb To The Slaughter is another revenge tale, but unlike in The Juniper Tree, Dahl’s murdering woman is never punished. Dahl leaves his readers to imagine that her husband fully deserved to die.

The Juniper Tree was collected by the Grimms, but originally written down (in low German) by a painter called Philipp Otto Runge. There’s an entire family of tales in which one parent kills a child, the other eats him. (It’s usually a boy who is eaten.) Though these tales weren’t originally for children, food and death have become linked over the course of children’s literature.

Since sex and death (violence) are intertwined in mainstream stories, it is food and death which are intertwined in stories for children.

for more on that, see Food and Sex in Children’s Literature

Later, in 1857 the Fables of Aesop were translated into Human Nature. Aesop’s Fables had been published many times before this, but until now, readers had not seen them illustrated so adeptly by a well-known comic illustrator of the time: Charles Bennett (1828-1867).

Bennett dressed Aesop’s animals completely and gave them a contemporary mid 1800s setting. The characters are Victorian Londoners, but with animal heads. In order to find the illustrations funny the reader needs to know something about that particular social milieu. It was funny that Bennet turned the Fox in ‘The Fox and the Crow’ into a philanderer and the Crow into a rich widow, for example. Animals dressed in clothes appeal to children and so Grimm’s fairytales and Aesop’s fables became stories for the whole family, and eventually considered ‘children’s stories’. Likewise, Lamb to the Slaughter is not a children’s story, but when I taught high school English, this short story was studied by year elevens.

Aesop’s Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing is dressed as a policeman, taking supper in the basement with the cook, who is a sheep. They are ominously dining on a leg of lamb, and I wouldn’t mind betting Roald Dahl read the Bennett version of the Aesop’s Fables at some point, perhaps during his childhood. I’m sure Bennett’s comic illustrations would have appealed to Roald Dahl anyhow, whose own work was illustrated by famous British comic illustrator of the late 20th century and beyond, Sir Quentin Blake.

Wolf Lamb
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Slap Happy Larry Stories

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

Matilda by Roald Dahl Novel Study

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

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

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

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

Matilda Wormwood

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

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

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

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

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

Miss Trunchbull

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

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

principal_trunchball

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

Miss Honey

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

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

miss-honey-matilda

EDITING MATILDA

The Importance Of Contrasting Character Values

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

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

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

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

We Might Need To Change Emphasis In The Climax

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

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

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

Do Your Research On How Modern Schools Operate

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

The Rest Is History

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

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

[…]

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

Further Storytelling Notes From Matilda

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

Fabulism In Children’s Literature

FABULISM: WHAT IS IT?

In fabulism, fantastical elements are placed in an everyday setting.

It’s called ‘fabulism’ because authors are playing with realism by making use of elements of fable.

For the definition of a fable, see here.

COMMON FEATURES OF FABULIST FICTION

  • ornate
  • Gothic
  • subjective
  • dream-like
  • surreal
  • emphasis on idea or theme
  • settings in other times, places, but not necessarily “historical”
  • exoticism: the extraordinary over the ordinary, the unusual over the usual.
  • doesn’t care about walls, and it doesn’t have constraints, whereas reality has rules, norms and codes of conduct.

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter is a collection of fabulist stories.

COMMON FEATURES OF CHILDREN’S FABULIST FICTION

Looking at the marketing copy and reader descriptions of these books a few tropes are common to this category of books often called ‘magical realism’ or ‘fabulist’:

  • The protagonist often has a super power, which as often as not is the flipside of a shortcoming. Sometimes it’s an original kind of superpower which hasn’t been used by Marvel and you haven’t seen it in fairytales. For example the ability to see words shining above people’s heads.
  • It’s often the sort of magic that lives next door. Or in the kitchen. Or in the shed at the bottom of the garden (Skellig).
  • Moving house is a common introduction to this kind of story. The child used to live in the ordinary world but now the parents have moved them to this island, this rickety house, this dilapidated mansion. In Skellig, Michael’s journey from the security of his early life on Random Road to the precarious and confusing removal to Falconer Road is essentially a maturation from a state of childhood innocence to pre-adolescent experience of self and other, bound together in the greater world of humankind. Random Road was a place of physical security for Michael. He was born there and took its existence for granted. He was the only child and so was the focus of his parents’ love. They provided for his needs, and he had no reason to discover that life could ever be different. It is a kind of Garden of Eden prior to the knowledge of good and evil. In the newly discovered Falconer Road Michael must increase his knowledge of the world. Significantly, this new house has to be remodelled before it becomes comfortable, mirroring Michael’s interior relationship with his environs.
  • Witches/trolls/mermaids etc. exist alongside humans, perhaps living secretly. Their secret lives can be an allegory for some kind of exclusion which happens to groups of people in the real world.
  • Fortune-telling is often a thing.
  • Luck can be a reliable, real thing, influenced by charms and whatnot.
  • Fate is also a thing, but can be thrown off-course by a savvy young protagonist. Related to fate, the moon features large in many fabulist stories.
  • Some stories have an atavistic fable/folklore/legend quality to them, taking modern people back to a time when humans really did believe the world was made of magic. There might be some direct link to the ancient past emphasised in the story e.g. finding something ancient or learning something about history in school or perhaps it’s simply working out some family history. In Skellig we have Archaeopteryx and evoltuion as a way to make Skellig credible. We don’t know what he is or where he came from. But we are reminded that there once was a dinosaur that flew, and evolution can produce many different forms of strange beings. It just may be that Skellig is the last of an ancient species, something akin to an angel. It is also a way to connect his story to the much older story of the evolution of humans and the personal evolution of understanding the ephemeral nature of being.
  • Wish fulfilment in these stories is often about getting a bully back using magical powers. Hence, the school or neighbourhood bully is often the villain of the story (rather than say, dragons, in a work of high fantasy). This is also the wish-fulfilment of a typical superhero story.
  • There is sometimes time travel which affects individuals at the personal (friendship/family) level. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is an example of that. These kids aren’t out to save the world — they’re trying to subvert personal tragedies and relationship breakups.
  • Serious issues such as drug-use and bullying can be made heartwarming by an injection of fabulism.
  • Hence, there’s quite a bit of sickness. Recently dead parents, cancer, rashes, and other horrible life journeys which is made a little easier with magic.
  • They’re quite often set in a real-world big city such as L.A., London or New York City, but can also be set in a realistic little town which mimics a real place. Or they might be set in a deliberately magical sounding place with a poetic name.
  • A character may need to keep their magical powers secret, or magic might be a widely accepted part of the natural setting. Sometimes only the children know about the magic because the adults are too busy to notice it, or wouldn’t believe it even if they were told. Sometimes this can feel contrived. David Almond avoids any sense of contrivance by having Michael engage adults when he recognises his own ignorance. For example, he asks a doctor about arthritis and quizzes a teacher about evolution and shoulder blades, though significantly, he doesn’t talk to them about Skellig. He has Mina — another child — for that.
  • The fabulism in children’s books often creates an atmosphere which feels cosy and snug and whimsical.
  • There is often a ‘wise woman’ or a ‘wise man’ or sometimes a child character is wise beyond their years (e.g. Mina in Skellig, who might also be interpreted as simply mimicking her mother). Other fairytale archetypes can be mapped onto contemporary characters.
  • Fabulism can be a part of any genre — sometimes it’s a mystery, sometimes it’s used to solve a crime, sometimes it’s a story about human relationships.
  • Flying is pretty common.
  • Fog is popular, too. You never know what lies inside the fog. Could  be anything.
  • Orphans are common too, though orphans are common right throughout children’s literature.
  • In a small-town setting, fabulist stories are probably full of eccentric characters with strange powers, habits and hobbies. In a children’s book, these adults are probably quite childlike themselves, whereas ‘regular’ adults have forgotten how to be playful and observant.
  • Perhaps the setting used to be far more magical than it is now, but something happened and now it’s up to the child character to break the curse or to bring full magic back.
  • See this 2006 issue of Through The Looking Glass journal for an entire issue on magical realism.
fabulism shaun tan

A SHORT LIST OF FABULIST CHILDREN’S BOOKS

This isn’t a list that I’ve personally read. I’m just not this well-read. It’s a collection from various places across the web — books which have been designated ‘magical realism’ by others. I’m going with the word fabulism because it’s probably best if we leave the word ‘magical realism’ to work by Latin American authors writing about colonisation.

AKATA WITCH by Nnedi Okorafor —  Born in New York, but living in Aba, Nigeria, twelve-year old Sunny is understandably a little lost. She is albino and thus, incredibly sensitive to the sun. All Sunny wants to do is be able to play football and get through another day of school without being bullied. But once she befriends Orlu and Chichi, Sunny is plunged in to the world of the Leopard People, where your worst defect becomes your greatest asset. At some point she sees the future in some flames. She has to work hard to avoid this future. Together, Sunny, Orlu, Chichi and Sasha form the youngest ever Oha Coven. Their mission is to track down Black Hat Otokoto, the man responsible for kidnapping and maiming children. Sunny has to overcome the killer with powers stronger than her own.

ANIMAL FARM by George Orwell — This allegory of a downtrodden society of overworked, mistreated animals, and their quest to create a paradise of progress, justice, and equality is one of the most scathing satires ever published. As we witness the rise and bloody fall of the revolutionary animals, we begin to recognize the seeds of totalitarianism in the most idealistic organisation; and in our most charismatic leaders, the souls of our cruelest oppressors.

BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE by Kate DiCamillo — The summer Opal and her father, the preacher, move to Naomi, Florida, Opal goes into the Winn-Dixie supermarket—and comes out with a dog. A big, ugly, suffering dog with a sterling sense of humour. A dog she dubs Winn-Dixie. Because of Winn-Dixie, the preacher tells Opal ten things about her absent mother, one for each year Opal has been alive. Winn-Dixie is better at making friends than anyone Opal has ever known, and together they meet the local librarian, Miss Franny Block, who once fought off a bear with a copy of WAR AND PEACE. They meet Gloria Dump, who is nearly blind but sees with her heart, and Otis, an ex-con who sets the animals in his pet shop loose after hours, then lulls them with his guitar. Opal spends all that sweet summer collecting stories about her new friends and thinking about her mother. But because of Winn-Dixie or perhaps because she has grown, Opal learns to let go, just a little, and that friendship—and forgiveness—can sneak up on you like a sudden summer storm.

THE BFG by Roald Dahl — Captured by a giant! The BFG is no ordinary bone-crunching giant. He is far too nice and jumbly. It’s lucky for Sophie that he is. Had she been carried off in the middle of the night by the Bloodbottler, the Fleshlumpeater, the Bonecruncher, or any of the other giants – rather than the BFG – she would have soon become breakfast. When Sophie hears that they are flush-bunking off in England to swollomp a few nice little chiddlers, she decides she must stop them once and for all. And the BFG is going to help her!

BIGGER THAN A BREAD BOX by Laurel Snyder — Perhaps a descendent of Five Children and It,  A magical breadbox that delivers whatever you wish for—as long as it fits inside? It’s too good to be true! Twelve-year-old Rebecca is struggling with her parents’ separation, as well as a sudden move to her Gran’s house in another state. For a while, the magic bread box, discovered in the attic, makes life away from home a little easier. Then suddenly it starts to make things much, much more difficult, and Rebecca is forced to decide not just where, but who she really wants to be.

BOUNTY HUNTER by S.J. Hollis — What do you do when your magic makes you a target? Run. Fight. Die. 14-year-old Kai Koson had nothing to do with the apocalypse, thank you very much. He was just a baby the day a coven of blood witches ripped a hole in the universe and the demons fell screaming from the sky. Earth and its magic perished. Witchkind was hunted and annihilated.  Now, because he was born a witch, Kai must spend his life running and fighting for survival. Even his own uncle seems determined to abandon him. With nothing left to lose, Kai runs away and joins a team of galactic bounty hunters. But instead of providing an escape, it sets Kai on a path that will destroy everything he believes about himself and the apocalypse, transforming him into the most wanted teenager in the galaxy.

BREADCRUMBS by Anne Ursu — Once upon a time, Hazel and Jack were best friends. They had been best friends since they were six, spending hot Minneapolis summers and cold Minneapolis winters together, dreaming of Hogwarts and Oz, superheroes and baseball. Now that they were eleven, it was weird for a boy and a girl to be best friends. But they couldn’t help it – Hazel and Jack fit, in that way you only read about in books. And they didn’t fit anywhere else. And then, one day, it was over. Jack just stopped talking to Hazel. And while her mom tried to tell her that this sometimes happens to boys and girls at this age, Hazel had read enough stories to know that it’s never that simple. And it turns out, she was right. Jack’s heart had been frozen, and he was taken into the woods by a woman dressed in white to live in a palace made of ice. Now, it’s up to Hazel to venture into the woods after him. Hazel finds, however, that these woods are nothing like what she’s read about, and the Jack that Hazel went in to save isn’t the same Jack that will emerge. Or even the same Hazel. Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” Breadcrumbs is a story of the struggle to hold on, and the things we leave behind.

THE BOY WHO CLIMBED INTO THE MOON by David Almond — There are some strange ideas floating around in Paul’s apartment block. There’s Mabel, who now calls herself Molly and whose brother hides under a paper bag. Then there’s Clarence, the poodle who thinks he can fly. But the strangest notion of all is Paul’s. You see, Paul believes that the moon is not the moon but a great hole in the sky. And he knows that sausages are better than war. How on earth (or not) will he find out if he is bonkers or a genius? With a few equally bonkers (or genius) helpers and a very long ladder, that’s how! From a master of magical realism and a celebrated artist comes another delightfully outrageous expedition.

CAVE OF JOURNEYS by Penny Ross — Join fourteen-year-old Sarah and her eleven-year-old brother Mattie as they journey one hundred years back in time. As they enter a magical cave Sarah, Mattie and their grandfather are mysteriously transported from Iceland in 2011. They arrive in New Iceland, near Gimli, Manitoba. The year is 1911. While exploring, they meet a fourteen-year-old Cree boy named Willow Walker and his First Nations family. The three adventurers stumble upon the CAVE OF JOURNEYS. This magical place records the chapters of humankind through picture writing. Sarah, Mattie and Willow Walker meet an ancient oak tree who recruits them to retrieve original stories of Canadian history. Their whirlwind adventure in a flying canoe takes them to four locations. The youth rush to visit Elders entrusted to guard rock paintings at sites throughout the Canadian Shield. They have four days to accomplish their goal in a race against time. CAVE OF JOURNEYS, a juvenile fiction novel, combines legend with fantasy. Similar to Alice in ALICE IN WONDERLAND the youth face real issues in a world that combines enchantment and fantasy with reality. Is this world, with oversized creatures, wise Elders and a talking tree real? Is Willow Walker real? Or is it all part of a world where legends abound? Join Sarah, Mattie and Willow Walker on their journey as they discover stories rich in the culture and traditions of Cree, Icelandic and Ojibwe people.

CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY by Roald Dahl — Magic is uncovered in the real world after a reclusive chocolatier allows five lucky children into his factory in a sorting contest to find out who should inherit his wealth.

CULLOO by Murielle Cyr — Tough and resourceful Tala will be 13 soon, and no one will tell her what to do. On one fateful day in the forest, however, she has to find her endangered father and protect her young brother from a trio of murderous poachers. All the while, she and her brother may have to face the forest’s legendary keepers—the deceptively playful characters known as the Stone People, and a giant, black bird known and feared as Culloo.

FIVE CHILDREN AND IT by E. Nesbit — The five children find a cantankerous sand fairy, a psammead, in a gravel pit. Every day ‘It’ will grant each of them a wish that lasts until sunset, often with disastrous consequences.

THE GIVER by Lois Lowry —  Perhaps the grandmother of A Tangle Of Knots (2013), this haunting story centers on Jonas, who lives in a seemingly ideal, if colorless, world of conformity and contentment. Not until he’s given his life assignment as the Receiver of Memory does he begin to understand the dark, complex secrets behind his fragile community.

THE GRAVEYARD BOOK by Neil Gaiman — After the grisly murder of his entire family, a toddler wanders into a graveyard where the ghosts and other supernatural residents agree to raise him as one of their own. Nobody Owens, known to his friends as Bod, is a normal boy. He would be completely normal if he didn’t live in a sprawling graveyard, being raised and educated by ghosts, with a solitary guardian who belongs to neither the world of the living nor of the dead. There are dangers and adventures in the graveyard for a boy. But if Bod leaves the graveyard, then he will come under attack from the man Jack—who has already killed Bod’s family…

THE GREAT UNEXPECTED by Sharon Creech — This is a story of pairs-of young Naomi and Lizzie, both orphans in present-day Blackbird Tree, USA, and of Sybil and Nula, grown-up sisters from faraway Rooks Orchard, Ireland, who have become estranged. Young Naomi Deane is brimming with curiosity and her best friend, Lizzie Scatterding, could talk the ears off a cornfield. Naomi has a knack for being around when trouble happens. She knows all the peculiar people in town – like Crazy Cora and Witch Wiggins. But then, one day, a boy drops out of a tree. Just like that. A strangely charming Finn boy. And then the Dingle Dangle man appears, asking all kinds of questions. Curious surprises are revealed-three locked trunks, a pair of rooks, a crooked bridge, and that boy-and soon Naomi and Lizzie find their lives changed forever.

HILDAFOLK by Luke Pearson — This is Hilda’s ‘folktale‘.Hildafolk presents a terse tale of the precocious, blue-haired child, Hilda — and essentially just follows her around for a couple of days as she plays and explores and draws. Hilda lives in a mountainous hills-are-alive-with kind of setting and, as she is a child, has few responsibilities beyond staying out of Deep Trouble. Her current interests include reading about the different varieties of local trolls and scribbling in her sketchbook. Her companion is a blue-coated fox with adorable little antlers and her house is visited frequently and to her annoyance by a small man made of wood. Hildafolk‘s story, while slight, exhibits a sense of humour that keeps even the book’s darker moments from infringing too deeply on its sense of place.

HOLES by Louis Sachar — Stanley Yelnats is under a curse. A curse that began with his no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather and has since followed generations of Yelnatses. Now Stanley has been unjustly sent to a boys’ detention center, Camp Green Lake, where the boys build character by spending all day, every day digging holes exactly five feet wide and five feet deep. There is no lake at Camp Green Lake. But there are an awful lot of holes. It doesn’t take long for Stanley to realize there’s more than character improvement going on at Camp Green Lake. The boys are digging holes because the warden is looking for something. But what could be buried under a dried-up lake? Stanley tries to dig up the truth in this inventive and darkly humorous tale of crime and punishment—and redemption.

HOUR OF THE BEES by Lindsay Eager — While her friends are spending their summers having pool parties and sleepovers, twelve-year-old Carolina — Carol — is spending hers in the middle of the New Mexico desert, helping her parents move the grandfather she’s never met into a home for people with dementia. At first, Carol avoids prickly Grandpa Serge. But as the summer wears on and the heat bears down, Carol finds herself drawn to him, fascinated by the crazy stories he tells her about a healing tree, a green-glass lake, and the bees that will bring back the rain and end a hundred years of drought. As the thin line between magic and reality starts to blur, Carol must decide for herself what is possible — and what it means to be true to her roots. Readers who dream that there’s something more out there will be enchanted by this captivating novel of family, renewal, and discovering the wonder of the world.

THE INDIAN IN THE CUPBOARD by Lynne Reid-Banks — At first, Omri is unimpressed with the plastic Indian toy he is given for his birthday. But when he puts it in his old cupboard and turns the key, something extraordinary happens that will change Omri’s life for ever.  For Little Bull, the Iroquois Indian brave, comes to life

JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH by Roald Dahl — When James accidentally drops some magic crystals by the old peach tree, strange things start to happen. The peach at the top of the tree begins to grow, and before long it’s as big as a house. When James discovers a secret entranceway into the fruit and crawls inside, he meets wonderful new friends—the Old-Green-Grasshopper, the dainty Ladybug, and the Centipede of the multiple boots. After years of feeling like an outsider in his aunts’ house, James finally found a place where he belongs. With a snip of the stem, the peach household starts rolling away—and the adventure begins!

JOPLIN, WISHING by Diane Stanley — Fifth grader Joplin Danforth discovers the broken pieces of a beautiful platter in her grandfather’s house and decides to fix it. Once repaired, the surface of the platter reveals the image of a young girl beside a lake. Joplin, who is quite lonely, wishes that she could be friends with the girl in the picture or at least have a friend at school. And to her surprise, her wishes come true. Joplin befriends a boy named Barrett and Sofie, the girl from the platter. Sofie reveals that she’s been trapped for hundreds of years, forced to grant wishes to whoever owns the magical platter. Joplin and Barrett agree to help Sofie escape her curse, and the three set off to find a way to take Sofie 400 years into the past back to her Dutch village.

KARLSSON-ON-THE ROOF by Astrid Lindgren — Imagine Smidge’s delight when, one day, a little man with a propeller on his back appears hovering at the window! It’s Karlson and he lives in a house on the roof. Soon Smidge and Karlson are sharing all sorts of adventures, from tackling thieves and playing tricks to looping the loop and running across the rooftops. Fun and chaos burst from these charming, classic stories.

KEEPER by Kathi Appelt — To ten-year-old Keeper the moon is her chance to fix all that has gone wrong … and so much has gone wrong. But she knows who can make things right again: Maggie Marie, her mermaid mother, who swam away when Keeper was just three. A blue moon calls the mermaids to gather at the sandbar, and that’s exactly where Keeper is headed – in a small boat. In the middle of the night, with only her dog, BD (Best Dog), and seagull named Captain. When the riptide pulls at the boat, tugging her away from the shore and deep into the rough waters of the Gulf of Mexico, panic sets in and the fairy tales that lured her out there go tumbling into the waves. Maybe the blue moon won’t sparkle with mermaids and maybe – Oh, no … “Maybe” is just too difficult to bear. Maggie has a porte-bonheur hanging around her neck (a lucky charm). 

THE LITTLE PRINCE by Antoine de Saint-Exupery — Moral allegory and spiritual autobiography, The Little Prince tells the story of a little boy who leaves the safety of his own tiny planet to travel the universe, learning the vagaries of adult behaviour through a series of extraordinary encounters. His personal odyssey culminates in a voyage to Earth and further adventures.

THE LOST THING by Shaun Tan — a boy finds a lost machine walking around and escorts it home.

MATILDA by Roald Dahl — A child prodigy finds she has telekinetic powers. She uses these to overcome a monstrous teacher and escape from her horrible parents.

MIRROR MIRROR by Gregory Maguire — The year is 1502, and seven-year-old Bianca de Nevada lives perched high above the rolling hills and valleys of Tuscany and Umbria at Montefiore, the farm of her beloved father, Don Vicente. There she spends her days cosseted by Primavera Vecchia, the earthy cook, and Fra Ludovico, a priest who tends to their souls between bites of ham and sips of wine. But one day a noble entourage makes its way up the winding slopes to the farm – and the world comes to Montefiore. In the presence of Cesare Borgia and his sister, the lovely and vain Lucrezia – decadent children of a wicked pope – no one can claim innocence for very long. When Borgia sends Don Vicente on a years-long quest to reclaim a relic of the original Tree of Knowledge, he leaves Bianca under the care – so to speak – of Lucrezia. She plots a dire fate for the young girl in the woods below the farm, but in the dark forest there can be found salvation as well.

MY DAD’S A BIRDMAN by David Almond — Lizzie and Dad live in a rainy town in the north of England. Jackie Crow is Lizzie’s father, who sees himself as a ‘Birdman’, someone who can fly with man-made wings just like a bird. He eats bugs, makes wings, and doesn’t do normal adult things at all. Lizzie is a young girl who takes on the mother figure in the household, looking after her father (who is perhaps dealing with depression after the loss of his wife). It is an endearing story of unconditional love, juxtaposed with the humorous and larger than life characters of Mr Poop and Auntie Doreen. The novel follows their journey as things start to change while preparing their wings for ‘The Human Bird competition’ to be held at the River Tyne near where they live. This book is marketed to appeal to Roald Dahl fans but is nothing like the same kind of disturbed that Dahl’s books are.

NIGHTINGALE’S NEST by Nikki Loftin

NINTH WARD by Jewell Parker Rhodes — Twelve-year-old Lanesha lives in a tight-knit community in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. She doesn’t have a fancy house like her uptown family or lots of friends like the other kids on her street. But what she does have is Mama Ya-Ya, her fiercely loving caretaker, wise in the ways of the world and able to predict the future. So when Mama Ya-Ya’s visions show a powerful hurricane—Katrina—fast approaching, it’s up to Lanesha to call upon the hope and strength Mama Ya-Ya has given her to help them both survive the storm.

THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE by Neil Gaiman — Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn’t thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she’d claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy. Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.

THE SECRET GARDEN by Frances Hodgson Burnett — When orphaned Mary Lennox comes to live at her uncle’s great house on the Yorkshire Moors, she finds it full of secrets. The mansion has nearly one hundred rooms, and her uncle keeps himself locked up. And at night, she hears the sound of crying down one of the long corridors. The gardens surrounding the large property are Mary’s only escape. Then, Mary discovers a secret garden, surrounded by walls and locked with a missing key. One day, with the help of two unexpected companions, she discovers a way in. Is everything in the garden dead, or can Mary bring it back to life?

A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS by Lemony Snicket — “I’m sorry to say that the book you are holding in your hands is extremely unpleasant. It tells an unhappy tale about three very unlucky children. Even though they are charming and clever, the Baudelaire siblings lead lives filled with misery and woe. From the very first page of this book when the children are at the beach and receive terrible news, continuing on through the entire story, disaster lurks at their heels. One might say they are magnets for misfortune. In this short book alone, the three youngsters encounter a greedy and repulsive villain, itchy clothing, a disastrous fire, a plot to steal their fortune, and cold porridge for breakfast. It is my sad duty to write down these unpleasant tales, but there is nothing stopping you from putting this book down at once and reading something happy, if you prefer that sort of thing.” Fate follows these children like a real creature. That’s part of what makes it seem magical.

SKELLIG by David Almond — Unhappy about his baby sister’s illness and the chaos of moving into a dilapidated old house, Michael retreats to the garage and finds a mysterious stranger who is something like a bird and something like an angel.

A SNICKER OF MAGIC by Natalie Lloyd — Midnight Gulch used to be a magical place, a town where people could sing up thunderstorms and dance up sunflowers. But that was long ago, before a curse drove the magic away. Twelve-year-old Felicity knows all about things like that; her nomadic mother is cursed with a wandering heart. But when she arrives in Midnight Gulch, Felicity thinks her luck’s about to change. A “word collector,” Felicity sees words everywhere—-shining above strangers, tucked into church eves, and tangled up her dog’s floppy ears—-but Midnight Gulch is the first place she’s ever seen the word “home.” And then there’s Jonah, a mysterious, spiky-haired do-gooder who shimmers with words Felicity’s never seen before, words that make Felicity’s heart beat a little faster. Felicity wants to stay in Midnight Gulch more than anything, but first, she’ll need to figure out how to bring back the magic, breaking the spell that’s been cast over the town . . . and her mother’s broken heart.

SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES by Ray Bradbury

THE STRANGE AND BEAUTIFUL SORROWS OF AVA LAVENDER by Leslye Walton —

SUMMER OF THE MARIPOSAS by Guadalupe Garcia McCall

TANGLE OF KNOTS by Lisa Graff — In a slightly magical world where everyone has a Talent, eleven-year-old Cady is an orphan with a phenomenal Talent for cake baking. But little does she know that fate has set her on a journey from the moment she was born. And her destiny leads her to a mysterious address that houses a lost luggage emporium, an old recipe, a family of children searching for their own Talents, and a Talent Thief who will alter her life forever. However, these encounters hold the key to Cady’s past and how she became an orphan. If she’s lucky, fate may reunite her with her long-lost parent.

Lisa Graff adds a pinch of magic to a sharply crafted plot to create a novel that will have readers wondering about fate and the way we’re all connected.

TEETH by Hannah Moskowitz — Be careful what you believe in. In this allegorical, kafkaesque story, Rudy’s life is flipped upside-down when his family moves to a remote island in a last attempt to save his sick younger brother (cystic fibrosis). With nothing to do but worry, Rudy sinks deeper and deeper into loneliness and lies awake at night listening to the screams of the ocean beneath his family’s rickety house. Then he meets Diana, who makes him wonder what he even knows about love, and Teeth, who makes him question what he knows about anything. Rudy can’t remember the last time he felt so connected to someone, but being friends with Teeth is more than a little bit complicated. Teeth is a merman. He soon learns that Teeth has terrible secrets. Violent secrets (including sexual abuse). Secrets that will force Rudy to choose between his own happiness and his brother’s life. There are many parallels between this book and “The Metamorphosis”.

THROUGH THE WOODS by Emily Carroll — a graphic novel of short stories similar to Neil Gaiman and Grimms’ Fairytales. There are old stories with coaches, horses and corsets as well as more modern tales. Something is wrong in each of the stories and you can’t finish until you figure out exactly what it is. The effect is haunting.

THE TIGER RISING by Kate DiCamillo — Walking through the misty Florida woods one morning in that un-nameable book-time of before now and after World War II, twelve-year-old Rob Horton is stunned to encounter a tiger – a real-life, very large tiger – pacing back and forth in a cage. What’s more, on the same extraordinary day, he meets Sistine Bailey, a girl who shows her feelings as readily as Rob hides his. As they learn to trust each other, and ultimately, to be friends, Rob and Sistine prove that some things – like memories, and heartaches, and tigers – can’t be locked up forever.The Tiger Rising follows Rob, a sixth grade boy, whose mother has recently died of cancer, now living in a motel with his father, quietly paralysed by grief. Rob is an outcast at school, bullied by thugs, overlooked by adults, and teased for a skin condition that has resulted from his own suppressed grief. His misunderstood rash, however irritating, proves to be his saviour as he’s sent home from school indefinitely, for fear of spreading it to his fellow classmates, who are oh-so-deserving of something virulent.  And then, inexplicably, there is a Tiger. In the woods behind the motel Rob finds the cage, the great orange beauty stalking back and forth in its tiny enclosure, alone and breathtakingly out of place. Rob is enthralled, a sense of wonderment and elation brought back to his life that was stuffed down into his “suitcase of not-thoughts” with the loss of his mother. Rob’s only friend, Sistine, a new girl in town, full of outrage and her own personal loss, is brought in on the secret of the Tiger. Sistine wants to set it free but Rob can’t bear to see it go.

TRUE BLUE SCOUTS OF SUGARMAN SWAMP by Kathi Appelt — Raccoon brothers Bingo and J’miah are the newest recruits of the Official Sugar Man Swamp Scouts. The opportunity to serve the Sugar Man—the massive creature who delights in delicious sugar cane and magnanimously rules over the swamp—is an honor, and also a big responsibility, since the rest of the swamp critters rely heavily on the intel of these hardworking Scouts. Twelve-year-old Chap Brayburn is not a member of any such organisation. But he loves the swamp something fierce, and he’ll do anything to help protect it. And help is surely needed, because world-class alligator wrestler Jaeger Stitch wants to turn Sugar Man swamp into an Alligator World Wrestling Arena and Theme Park, and the troubles don’t end there. There is also a gang of wild feral hogs on the march, headed straight toward them all. The Scouts are ready. All they have to do is wake up the Sugar Man. Problem is, no one’s been able to wake that fellow up in a decade or four…

TUCK EVERLASTING by Natalie Babbitt — Doomed to – or blessed with – eternal life after drinking from a magic spring, the Tuck family wanders about trying to live as inconspicuously and comfortably as they can. When ten-year-old Winnie Foster stumbles on their secret, the Tucks take her home and explain why living forever at one age is less a blessing that it might seem. Complications arise when Winnie is followed by a stranger who wants to market the spring water for a fortune.

TUMBLE & BLUE by Cassie Beasley — There’s a legend about a golden alligator named Munch who appears every 100 years during the red moon and grants good luck to anyone brave enough to ask. One night in 1817, he’s found by two people at the same time and the luck splits down the middle. Good fortune seems to skip a generation for the descendants of the two: Some live out wonderful lives, while others are cursed. Tumble Wilson and Blue Montgomery, the youngest descendants of the original two, decide to take fate into their own hands and undo the terrible mistake their ancestors made.

UGLIES by Scott Westerfeld — Tally is about to turn sixteen, and she can’t wait. In just a few weeks she’ll have the operation that will turn her from a repellent ugly into a stunning pretty. And as a pretty, she’ll be catapulted into a high-tech paradise where her only job is to have fun. But Tally’s new friend Shay isn’t sure she wants to become a pretty. When Shay runs away, Tally learns about a whole new side of the pretty world— and it isn’t very pretty. The authorities offer Tally a choice: find her friend and turn her in, or never turn pretty at all.

THE WITCHES by Roald Dahl — This is not a fairy-tale. This is about REAL WITCHES. Real witches don’t ride around on broomsticks. They don’t even wear black cloaks and hats. They are vile, cunning, detestable creatures who disguise themselves as nice, ordinary ladies. So how can you tell when you’re face to face with one? Well, if you don’t know yet you’d better find out quickly-because there’s nothing a witch loathes quite as much as children and she’ll wield all kinds of terrifying powers to get rid of them.

WEETZIE BAT by Francesca Lia Block — Set in L.A.,  Weetzie Bat, her best friend Dirk and their search across L.A. for the most dangerous angel of all …true love. There are sporadic tears in the gauze curtain through which we can glimpse the darker and seedier side: there are hints that a friend of a friend found out they had AIDS, someone’s close relative dies from a drug overdose. in Weetzie’s world, everyone finds their ideal matches, ready-made with the same cutesy nicknames that she and her best friend came up with when they were even younger and sillier, everyone lives together on their own without any trouble or financial worry, and even an impulsive and ill-devised baby-making scheme involving a threesome with a best friend and his significant other can turn out hunky-dory. Weetzie is quirky without depth. There’s no road map here for dealing with any of the problems she does encounter because she never deals with them. She denies her problems or ignores them until a convenient magical solution manifests itself or else she runs away from them, and the other characters aren’t really much more than pretty shiny accessories.

WHEN YOU REACH ME by Rebecca Stead — By sixth grade, Miranda and her best friend, Sal, know how to navigate their New York City neighborhood. They know where it’s safe to go, like the local grocery store, and they know whom to avoid, like the crazy guy on the corner. But things start to unravel. Sal gets punched by a new kid for what seems like no reason, and he shuts Miranda out of his life. The apartment key that Miranda’s mom keeps hidden for emergencies is stolen. And then Miranda finds a mysterious note scrawled on a tiny slip of paper. The notes keep coming, and Miranda slowly realizes that whoever is leaving them knows all about her, including things that have not even happened yet. Each message brings her closer to believing that only she can prevent a tragic death. Until the final note makes her think she’s too late.

WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON by Grace Lin — A wondrous story of happiness, family, and friendship. A fantasy crossed with Chinese folklore, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is a timeless adventure story in the classic tradition of The Wizard of Oz. In the Valley of Fruitless Mountain, a young girl named Minli spends her days working hard in the fields and her nights listening to her father spin fantastic tales about the Jade Dragon and the Old Man of the Moon. Minli’s mother, tired of their poor life, chides him for filling her head with nonsense. But Minli believes these enchanting stories and embarks on an extraordinary journey to find the Old Man of the Moon and ask him how her family can change their fortune. She encounters an assorted cast of characters and magical creatures along the way, including a dragon who accompanies her on her quest.

A YEAR WITHOUT AUTUMN by Liz Kessler — On her way to visit her best friend, Autumn, Jenni Green suddenly finds she’s been transported exactly one year forward in time. Now she discovers that in the year that’s gone by, tragedy has struck and her friendship with Autumn will never be the same again. But what caused the tragedy?

YOU CAN’T SHATTER ME by Tahlia Newland — Sixteen-year-old, Carly, is set to become top of her art class until bully-boy, Justin, gives her a vicious payback for standing up for one of his victims. Her boyfriend, karate-trained nerd, Dylan, wants to smash the guys face in, but a fight at school means suspension, losing his chance at school honors and facing a furious father. Carly is determined to find a more creative solution to her problem, but will she sort it out before Dylan’s inner cave man hijacks him and all hell breaks lose? Justin might be a pain, but his harassment leads to a deepening of Dylan and Carly’s romance, and Carly finds an inner strength she didn’t know she had. The magical realism style provides a touch of fantasy in an otherwise very real story that offers heart-warming solutions to bullying. You Can’t Shatter Me is food for the soul.

ZERO by Christina Collins — about a girl who believes the answer to her problems lies in speaking zero words a day

The Enormous Crocodile by Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake

For fans of Into The Woods by John Yorke, The Enormous Crocodile is an example of a story which mirrors itself perfectly.

The Enormous Crocodile by Roald Dahl Quentin Blake

THE PAIRING OF QUENTIN BLAKE AND ROALD DAHL

For those of us who grew up reading Roald Dahl in the 1980s, it’s impossible to separate the author from his enduring illustrator, Quentin Blake. It’s easy to forget that at first Dahl was paired with a few different illustrators before Quentin Blake. (Rosemary Fawcett is one illustrator whose career may have been ruined by Dahl’s dislike of her macabre illustrations, which is a bit rich.)

Sir Quentin Blake As Dahl’s Antithesis

Educated at Cambridge, where he read English at Downing College under F.R. Leavis, Blake is a gentle, reflective man, in many ways Dahl’s antithesis. There seems to be no malice in him, and the generosity of his sense of humor made him hesitate over some of the first Dahl stories on which he worked. However, he says that The Enormous Crocodile became pleasant enough to draw  “once it had been toned down by its editors,” although Blake didn’t find it particularly striking. And although he found the next book, The Twits, “very black”, its extreme changes of style gradually grew on him.

Why Was The Pairing Initially Problematic?

On Dahl’s side, one obstacle was financial. He wanted the best illustrator but, as with the earlier notion of approaching Sendak [who refused to illustrate for a set fee, instead demanding a fee plus ongoing royalties], was reluctant to sacrifice more of his royalties than he had to. Bob Gottlieb wanted Blake’s drawings for the American editions, but Knopf’s contract with Icarus [the company Dahl set up to avoid paying much tax] promised Dahl 15 percent, and Dahl argued that the illustrator should be paid over and above that. From the publisher’s point of view, this was outrageous […]

How Blake’s Illustrations Complement Dahl’s Words

Despite Dahl’s restlessness, it was clear to most readers that Quentin Blake’s amiable drawings were an excellent complement to his writing. They helped to unify what was in the late 1970s and early ’80s a varied output, and they softened the way the books spoke to a child’s worst prejudices and fears.

{In The Twits Blake] depicts ugliness much as a child would: huge nostrils and gaping teeth sketched flat onto the face, hair a mass of bristly scribbles, fingers a bunch of bananas. And where the words are at their most microscopically disgusted—for instance, in the description of the morsels of old food lodged in Mr. Twit’s moustache—Blake supplies a detached, comic-book diagram, with arrows marked “cornflake” and “tinned sardine”.

He was similarly adroit in his handling of George’s Marvellous Medicine. Here, the earlier book’s connubial malice is replaced by frank ageism, most memorably in the depiction of the grandmother, her small mouth puckered up “like a dog’s bottom.” It is on her that the restless eight-year-old George experiments with his homemade size-altering potion. Like The Twits, this knockabout horror story owes something to a circus act or a Punch and Judy show: George “really hated that horrid old witchy woman. And all of a sudden he had a tremendous urge to do something about her. Something whopping… A sort of explosion.” But again Blake lightens things by visually reminding the reader both how small George is and, as he wanders around the house looking for ingredients for his medicine, how lonely and innocent. His actions come across as prompted more by curiosity than cruelty.

— from the Roald Dahl biography by Jeremy Treglown

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE ENORMOUS CROCODILE

Symmetry matters more to writers of fiction than readers consciously perceive.

— David Lodge

The Enormous Crocodile is an example of a story which mirrors itself. So, the second half of the story is basically a reflection of the first half. For younger readers than Dahl’s usual audience, this is also a story which builds upon itself. Sequences are repeated with just a few details changed each time. This sort of story can be quite boring for a parent to read if not done really well. The purpose is to provide scaffolding so the child can make good guesses about the change in details, feeling smart for having done so. Repetition also provides comfort of course, which is how Dahl gets away with writing a story about the gory potential deaths of children.

SHORTCOMING

The story opens to dialogue between two crocodiles. They are nameless crocodiles — the only salient detail are their size and therefore their hierarchy. So we have the ‘Enormous Crocodile’ and the ‘Notsobig One. Dahl owes a lot to Aesop in this story. Readers are already primed to expect the small creature to win, especially since the big one is so full of himself.

He needs to eat, that’s true. But the Enormous Crocodile also has a psychological need to show off.

“I’m the bravest croc in the whole river,” said the Enormous Crocodile. “I’m the only one who dares to leave the water and go through the jungle to the town to look for little children to eat.”

DESIRE

He wishes to prove his courage and eat a child. The Notsobig one tells us what children really taste like (not so good to a crocodile), but the Enormous Crocodile wants to prove himself right. He also has the reputation for being the stupidest croc on the whole river. So he wants to put that idea to rest, too.

OPPONENT

His opponent is not the Notsobig Crocodile, who exists in the story only for the purposes of drawing the main character out. This allows the author/narrator to show and not tell.

The opponents are the characters who stand in the way of him achieving his goal. In turn we have all the animals he meets in his trek across the jungle, presented backwards (in mirror image) over the second half of the journey.

PLAN

“I have secret plans and clever tricks,” repeats the Enormous Crocodile as he comes across each of the jungle animals.

Readers are left in suspense to find out what these are. They delight readers as the crocodile tries comical tricks.

BIG STRUGGLE

Each animal steps in to save the children, but how does Dahl achieve escalation? This is a requirement when there is a sequence of big struggles. He uses the size of the animals. So, in the end we get the massive elephant whose strength finishes him off.

ANAGNORISIS

Since in this story the main character dies, there is no anagnorisis to be had.

NEW SITUATION

On Earth, everything goes on as before.

The_Enormous_Crocodile_first_edition

Teachers In Children’s Literature

Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes - School is Out

Teachers in children’s stories can be mentors, opponents, fake opponents, or very much background characters. In young adult literature, teachers can (problematically) be love opponents.

Why is it that English, drama and music teachers are most often recalled as our mentors and inspirations? Maybe because artists are rarely members of the popular crowd.

Roger Ebert

A BRIEF HISTORY OF TEACHERS IN CHILDREN’S STORIES

THE EARLIEST TEACHERS IN STORIES

The teacher archetype is related to the traditional ‘wise old man’ and ‘wise old woman’ archetype seen in many older stories. The teacher is the modern equivalent of these characters, dishing out advice to help the main character get through the story.

TEACHERS IN BOOKS FOR YOUNGER READERS

Most picture books are today published for preschoolers, and in stories which include schools, the function of the story is to reassure preschoolers that school will be a happy, welcoming and nurturing place, full of fun and joy, where new friends will be made. The teachers are most often smiling and welcoming, as almost all teachers of kindergarten children are in real life.

In books from the First Golden Age of Children’s Literature featuring girls, the main characters who become teachers learn to humanise their childhood images. (See Anne of Green Gables, Little House on the Prairie). The good teacher has no faults. The bad teacher has no redeeming qualities.

In the 1970s and 80s, fictional teachers who broke convention tended to leave their jobs/get dismissed at the end of the story, but today’s non-conformist teachers tend to be a bit more successful in staying in their jobs.

TEACHERS IN YOUNG ADULT FICTION

In young adult novels published before 1980 favourable treatment of teachers outnumbered the unfavourable.

Contemporary young adult literature sometimes juxtaposes a ‘good’ teacher against a ‘bad’ one, enforcing a good/bad binary view. Other young adult novels challenge this binary and achieve subversion, or even humanise the teacher.

Modern young adult novels feature more successful non-conformist teachers. Teachers who rebel against norms are seen as the most favourable.

Iconic teachers in films often leave their schools at the end of the movie, sometimes without wanting to go. But modern iconic film teachers are more likely to keep their jobs.

MCLAREN’S THREE TEACHER ARCHETYPES

Education theorist Peter McLaren said in 1988 that the ideal teacher plays the part of the ‘liminal servant’.  Less effective teachers fit the mould of the ‘hegemonic overlord’ or ‘entertainer’.

In the first two roles students are spectators and don’t participate. The knowledge they gain is outside lived experience. These classrooms will look like teachers pretending to teach and students pretending to learn.

The Entertainer Teacher

a propagandist or evangelist for dominant cultural, economic or ethical interests. Suppresses individuality and conditions students for sameness.

The Hegemonic Overlord Teacher

Information is transmitted perfunctorily, like it’s a bit of food pushed under a cell door. This teacher follows lessons strictly and mordantly by the book, and not interested in student empowerment. Standout example: The Trunchbull in Matilda by Roald Dahl

The Liminal Servant Teacher

The ideal. Empowers students to question domination and their own assigned places. Students respond with immediacy or purpose and are the primary actors within the ritual of instruction. This is student-based learning. Students will be involved, emphasis will be off the chalk-and-talk. Teachers remove obstacles to let students let through active questioning of dominant ideologies. Lessons will be in a flow state with students totally involved. These teachers are social activists and spiritual directors. The teacher is a co-participant or co-creator. Standout example: Mrs. Sauceda in The Jumping Tree by René Saldaña, Miss Honey in Matilda. (The self-sacrificing, inspirational teacher who almost martyrs herself for the sake of the students is heroic but not sustainable in a long-term teaching career.)

OTHER TEACHER ARCHETYPES

The Kindly But Frustrated Teacher
Ramona's teacher

Think of Ramona Quimby’s middle-aged teacher, who is obviously a kind-hearted person but who is regularly exasperated by Ramona’s failure to conform. This is usually a female teacher, perhaps in her 40s or 50s, who we are to imagine has been dealing with children over many, many years.

‘Mrs’ from the Junie B. Jones series is also a kindly but exasperated type.

The Kindly But Beginner Teacher
Ramona's young teacher
Miss Binney from Ramona The Pest

Ramona’s first teacher, however, is brand new to the school. Miss Binney. Miss Binney’s lack of experience leads to a different kind of comedy. The kindergarten children, most notably Ramona and Howie, misinterpret Miss Binney’s words which leads to chaos. Had Miss Binney been a more experienced teacher she would have made Ramona the wake-up-fairy, but instead she picked the goody-two-shoes who needed nothing in the way of encouragement to behave well.

For the dual audience we have Edna Krabapple who is a more cynical version again.

Bad Ass Teachers
  • Mad-Eye Moody would be the straightest example. Both, the real Moody, even though he never gets a chance to actually be a badass while a teacher, and the fake Moody, who manages to do a great job of impersonating a badass.
  • Dumbledore gets special mention, as the one and only time he rebuked Professor Umbridge was when she started physically attacking one of his students. And the one and only time he ever got angry with Harry Potter was when Harry thoughtlessly suggested that Dumbledore was leaving the school unprotected. There is also his Unstoppable Rage when a bunch of Dementors showed up at a Quidditch match.
  • As does McGonagall. Mess with her, and you get a disapproving glare. Mess with one of her students or colleagues, and she takes four Stunners to the chest at age seventy and bounces back with only a walking stick to show she was hospitalized for a month.
  • Then, for an encore, she and Slughorn help an Auror take on TOM RIDDLE HIMSELF and live to tell about it.
  • Let’s not forget Severus Snape. He was a spy for Dumbledore, could fly without a broom, and during his spying days he lied to Voldemort’s FACE for years. And he was an innovator, too. He is in fact the Half-Blood Prince who was behind a number of innovative—and sometimes nasty—spells. And when he actually does teach, once you get past his Jerkass-ness, he is focused; he teaches with a purpose.
  • Miss Wilson in the Chalet School series. Leading a group of kids to safety through a secret passageway, with a gang of angry Nazis in hot pursuit? I’d say that’s pretty Badass. Doubles as a Mama Bear moment.
  • Mr McCarthy in Me And Earl And The Dying Girl is covered in tatts and for part of the story we think he eats soup with drugs in it. He has the appearance of a badass teacher but is actually pretty conventional, just with a smart-alec comeback for whatever his students say to him.
The Stern Teacher

Minerva McGonagall from Harry Potter. So strict that she tends to subtract more points from her own students when they do wrong because she holds them to higher standards. Madame Hootch is another, mostly forgotten example from Harry Potter. Since her subject (broom-flying) is so dangerous, the penalty for breaking rules in her class is expulsion. Not point loss or detention. Expulsion.

(Subversion: Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie subverts the trope all to hell, specifically the “tough but fair” part. Miss Brodie deliberately designates one of her girls as a “stupid” victim, marking her for life. She’s a charming, intelligent, and vivacious fascist.)

In Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie (1974) we have Ms Desjardin. If you’ve seen either of the film adaptations you’ll notice the teacher from the book is more hardened than as played on screen.

She slapped Carrie smartly across the face. She hardly would have admitted the pleasure the act gave her, and she certainly would have denied that she regarded Carrie as a fat, whiny bag of lard. A first-year teacher, she still believed that she thought all children were good.

Downright Nasty Teachers

The teacher characters in the Captain Underpants series, however, are rarely nice. In fact, they’re downright nasty, with school principal Mr Krupp playing the role of villain (along with Professor Tinkletrousers and many others).

‘Most of the teachers I had in elementary school, or primary school, and in high school were very vicious and cruel people,’ says Pilkey. ‘However, there are some good grownups in the Captain Underpants series and that’s the parental figures.’

Dave Pilkey, author of Captain Underpants, from interview at ABC

Principal Trunchbull of Matilda, reputedly used by Roald Dahl as a surrogate for all the cruel tutors he had over the years. Her treatment of children, as Matilda deduces, is deliberately so extreme and outlandish that no kid’s parents will believe the truth even on the off chance any child got up the courage to tell.

Captain Lancaster in Danny, the Champion of the World is a more realistic example. He’s obviously based on one of Roald Dahl’s actual teachers, Captain Hardcastle, described in his autobiography Boy.

It’s bad enough is you have a Sadist Teacher, but misery ensues if you have a Sadist (Vice) Principal who doesn’t just kick you around, but he kicks all the students. That’s right, meet Vice Principal Nero who runs a boarding school in A Series of Unfortunate Events. Not only he was generally mean to the students and tortured them with hours of awful violin playing, but he also had a bunch of outrageous and stupid punishments: For example, if you went to the office building and you weren’t an adult you’d have to eat your food without a fork and knife. And if you missed a class or got there late you weren’t allowed to have a glass from which to drink, you had to lick your milk from the tray. And if you didn’t go to see him play his violin, he’d force you to buy him candy and watch him eat it. I don’t want to even think what would happen if you’d skip a class.

Lucy Maud Montgomery’s heroines almost always fall victim to this teacher. Probably the worst offender was Miss Brownell, of Emily of New Moon. She takes Emily’s manuscripts in class and reads Emily’s poems to the rest of teh class in a mocking voice, with snide comments, occasionally accusing Emily of passing off other authors’ works as her own. When Emily refuses to apologise for writing poetry in class, Miss Brownell comes to New Moon and tries to convince Emily’s guardian to force the girl to kneel to Miss Brownell and apologize.

Mrs. Gorf in the first book of Louis Sachar’s Wayside School series turns her students into apples when they do anything wrong. This includes sneezing in class. The students manage to outsmart her by forcing her to turn them back into humans and tricking her into turning herself into an apple, which Louis then unknowingly eats.

Wendy Nogard in Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger is a more subtle (but even more insidious) example: while she appears to be a sweet, considerate teacher, she uses her mind-reading abilities to humiliate and turn her students against each other—all without ever compromising her “nice teacher” facade. An example of this is when, during a homework-checking session, she deliberately calls on the one student who has the incorrect answer for each question, and using the resulting slew of wrong answers to retract her promise of no homework for that day. Every student ends up hating all the others for being idiots who cheated him/her out of a homework-free afternoon, even though in reality none of them missed more than two questions on the assignment.

Sexual Interest Teacher

Though more common in YA, we also have teachers such as Miss Edmunds in Bridge To Terabithia by Katherine Paterson:

The somewhat unconventional and controversial music teacher, whom Jesse greatly admires. She invites Jess to go to the Smithsonian Museum, which leads Leslie to go to Terabithia by herself. As a result, Leslie is alone when she falls from the rope and drowns. She is played by Annette O’Toole in the 1985 film and Zooey Deschanel in the 2007 film. In the 1985 film, Mrs. Edmunds seems to take the role of Mrs. Myers. She tells Jess the story of a relative dying after Leslie dies instead of Mrs. Myers, and she, instead of Mrs. Myers, gives the homework assignment of watching a show on television.

Terabithia Teacher

Zooey Deschenel also plays the Hippie Teacher.

From Holes, we have Miss Katherine, whom many of the townfolk was after. (From the Hot Teacher page at All The Tropes) Another hippie teacher would be Barbara Finney from The Cat Ate My Gymsuit by Paula Danziger.

Falling in love with your teacher is a solid way for a writer to keep lovers apart for the entire length of a story. This is harder and harder these days, where in real life at least romance is permissible across cultural, socio-economic and geographic boundaries. People can sleep with each other without much in the way build up. The student-teacher relationship recreates the 1700s erotics of abstinence Jane Austen depicted so well (and which, more recently, Stephenie Meyer utilised in her vampire series.)

In Pretty Little Liars, a hot young teacher dates one of his students before he realises she’s one of his students. Somehow they continue this romance, meeting alone in his classroom, without anyone noticing.

TEACHERS IN REALISTIC NOVELS

The realistic novel “emphasises truthful representation of the actual”. ‘Realistic’ fiction supposedly corresponds closely with the real world. In a realistic novel, readers bring an expectation that representations of humanity will somewhat mimic real, rounded humans.

When teachers in realistic novels are presented in an unrealistic way, this undermines the realism of the story.

GOOD TEACHER/BAD TEACHER IN MODERN YOUNG ADULT LITERATURE

The more favourably depicted teachers help students develop their identities and resist dominant and oppressive educational paradigms; the less favourably perceived teachers often represent the authority against which the adolescents and good teachers rebel.

Beyond a Good Bad Binary

Mostly, teachers are adults who get in the way of adventure and independence, so the author uses teachers as background furniture then disappears them.

If you meet a bunch of teachers on your first day in the new school, only pay attention to the one who puts you in a group project with a handsome stranger. You’ll never see the rest again.

@broodingYAhero

YOUNG ADULT NOVELS MAKING USE OF THE GOOD/BAD BINARY

  • Anne of Green Gables — Miss Stacey replaces an ineffective, uninspiring, authoritarian male teacher who plays (inappropriate) favourites.
  • The Teacher’s Funeral by Richard Peck (2004) — set in 1904. Weaker teacher Myrt Arbuckle dies, succeeded by the more effective Tansy Culver.
  • Scat by Carl Hiaasen (2009) — Similar to The Petition, students assume teachers who mark hard must be bad teachers. Hiaasen inverts reader expectations of a good/bad dichotomy, in which the demanding teacher, Mrs Bunny Starch, is the effective one. In contrast, Dr Wendell Waxmo is a comedic caricature of an unqualified, eccentric substitute. He is basically an extreme Entertainer Teacher archetype.
  • The Sledding Hill by Chris Crutcher (2005) — English teacher Mr. Sanford Tarter represents the hegemonic overlord type. Mr. Tarter intrudes excessively in the life of Eddie. The other English teacher in The Sledding Hill, Ms. Ruth Lloyd gives students choice and power. Crutcher’s own ideology is no doubt influenced by the fact that his books have been widely banned by Mr Tarter types. Chris Crutcher’s coaches fall into good and bad categories. The good coaches let kids figure out what they need for themselves and provide them with backup to let them make their own discoveries.
  • Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (1999) — Mr Freeman is a shamanistic archetype and gifted artist who models what he expects of students and exposes the reality of the institutional power structure. But Mr Neck the social studies teacher is bigoted and unprofessional.
  • The Petition by Anne Schraff (2001) — Mr Pedroza is the best teacher and initially seems like a hegemonic overlord but turns out to be a false opponent ally and liminal servant. In contrast, Ms Corey is both Entertainer and Hegemonic Overlord. Schraff subverts archetypes by challenging the reader’s first impressions of these teachers. The young, relatable funny teacher who gives out easy grades is proven to be the less effective teacher. Superficial niceness covers bigotry.

The problem with the good/bad binary in a realistic novel is that teachers are dehumanised. Humans are more nuanced. Characters such as Matilda’s Trunchbull are clear comedic archetypes, but in a realistic novel, shouldn’t the characters be presented realistically to achieve the effect they’re going for?

MOVING BEYOND THE BINARY

The most interesting characters are not morally binary at all. To that end, some authors assign good and bad attributes to the same teacher.

  • Standing Up to Mr. O by Claudia Mills (1998) — the biology teacher Mr. O’Neill embodies all three of McLaren’s models depending on the moment.
  • No More Dead Dogs by Korman (2000) — The teacher changes from mixed good/bad to good, and has their own character arc alongside the students, with the effect of humanising teachers for readers. Everyone’s attitudes change for the better. This is achieved via narration from various perspectives including the teacher’s own journal entries and memos to himself.

AMERICAN TV TEACHERS

Many of the most memorable TV teachers are single women. There was a time only about 50 years ago when teachers were expected to give up work after getting married.

There have been fewer shows set in a tertiary institution but there is a lead woman lecturer in How To Get Away With Murder. There are even fewer women. Unlike most shows starring a teacher, this one isn’t a ‘family show’.

There are far more female high school teachers/administrators in real life than there are on screen.

Room 222 is from the 1960s. It was huge in America back then — a 30 minute sitcom. These were years where most houses only had one TV in them so everyone was watching it. It was made by the creator of the Mary Tyler Moore show, which is perhaps better remembered. Denise Nicholas was Liz McIntyre, an educated woman well-respected by her peers. She plays a counsellor. There’s also a student teacher who became a permanent character. Room 222 had a more diverse cast than many shows today.

Friday Night Lights stars Connie Britton. This is a sexist environment set in a football oriented community. She is the school counsellor and at times called actual counsellors to ask them how they’d advise on tricky issues. This show, like The Waltons, gives a family with young teens plenty to talk about.

There was a TV show in the 80s called Fame, based on the film, about a dance teacher and her students.

Square Pegs – a 1980s time capsule. Sarah Jessica Parker is in it.

Good Morning Miss Bliss — about a fictional high school in Indianapolis. The show was renamed Saved By The Bell and lost Miss Bliss. It just didn’t work.

DeGrassi Junior High morphed into DeGrassi High – teens don’t want to watch anything with ‘junior’ in the title. It focused pretty realistically on teen life. There is a teacher who is lesbian. This was breakthrough stuff in the late 80s.

In the 90s there weren’t as many female authority figures on TV.

Moesha was a quality sitcom which featured an African American cast. Her step mother played the principal.

The Bionic Woman — a teacher with supernatural powers. It aired in the 1970s and was a spin off from the Six Million Dollar Man, itself a breakthrough hit. Jamie Summers is the lead character – a tennis pro turned teacher who was injured in a sky-diving accident. Jamie is a government agent going undercover to complete all sorts of assignments to repay the favour of keeping her alive bionically. In her spare time she teaches classes on a military base in California.

Freaks and Geeks — Bill loves Bionic Woman and dresses up as her for Halloween. Freaks and Geeks features a number of teachers, though the memorable ones are all male. This was typical for the 1990s. There’s the male hippie counsellor, the jock P.E. teacher and the mean bald guy.

FURTHER READING

Header painting: Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes – School is Out

Carrie Storytelling Techniques

carrie film poster

This is a remake of a 1976 movie based on Stephen King’s 1974 (breakout) novel, Carrie. Critics don’t like this new one much. The criticism is mostly that the remake was unnecessary because the first adaptation was so good. The original has a slower, more sinister pace and the main thing the reboot did was to add the social media dimension and some modern SFX. However, Carrie is — unfortunately — a timeless story of high school exclusion and bullying.

PREMISE OF CARRIE

A shy girl, outcasted by her peers and sheltered by her religious mother, unleashes telekinetic terror on her small town after being pushed too far at her senior prom. (In the book it’s called the Spring Ball — a lot of the slang/words have been updated.)

SENTENCE BEHIND THE STORY OF CARRIE

Your own powers can be the end of you.

I don’t believe the designing principle of this film is its main strength. Instead it makes an emotional promise: Watch this film and you will be thrilled and entertained. It possibly aims to sadden. (I don’t feel saddened by this remake.)

It also makes an intellectual promise to a modern audience: Watch this and you’ll learn of a different, slightly off-kilter world than this.

Horror films require us to face the unknown — they allow us to face our fears and put them into context. They shape our belief system, and provide a safe space to explore. Carrie was notable for being one of the few to broach the topic of menstruation which, 40 years later, is still somewhat taboo. There is nowhere near as much menstruation in children’s literature as there are girls dealing with it in real life, outside a few standout books from authors such as Judy Blume.

GENRE BLEND OF CARRIE

drama, horror

The horror genre is one of the most highly symbolic forms (along with Westerns and science fiction). The origin of the horror in this story comes from demonic forces. Another example of this kind of horror is The Exorcist. Other horrors might come from whatever lies beyond death (Dracula) or from humans daring to fool around with nature (Frankenstein). Those are the big three.

Interestingly, the genre of the 1976 adaptation is simply ‘horror’ according to IMDb. This remake must have been aiming for a bit more character development with the addition of ‘drama’.

The horror film is a genre aimed largely at pubescent and adolescent youth — the same people who love to scream on roller coasters and look for out-of-control sensations elsewhere in their lives. Attracting people who are not part of this constituency is often difficult. The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby did so by dealing with families in a serious way — something the mostly young audience for horror films isn’t especially interested in seeing.

— Howard Suber

I don’t think Carrie manages to deal with family matters in any serious way. The mother is not a rounded character. This feels all horror, not much drama.

The Female Gothic

Stephen King’s Carrie is a descendent of the Female Gothic, invented by writers such as Anne Radcliffe, Mary Shelley and Charlotte Bronte.

Features of the Female Gothic Novel:

  • Gothic texts are based upon Medieval society.
  • Following a Gothic Bildungsroman-esque plot, the Female Gothic allowed its readers to graduate from adolescence to maturity along with its heroine. 
  • The readers of these novels didn’t lead very thrilling lives — many restrictions — this was their outlet
  • The Female Gothic is about the suppression of female sexuality, or challenges the gender hierarchy and values of a male-dominated culture.
  • The natural cause of terror is not the supernatural, but rather female disability and societal horrors: rape, incest and the threatening control of the male antagonist.
  • The female protagonists pursued in these texts are often caught in an unfamiliar and terrifying landscape, delivering higher degrees of horror.
  • The end result, however, is the explained supernatural, rather than terrors familiar to women such as rape or incest, or the expected ghosts or haunted castles.(For example, the female protagonist will think there’s a ghost in the dungeon but when she gets down there it’s actually a real man wanting to rape her.)

In Stephen King’s variety of the Female Gothic, we have an out-and-out evil boy pulling strings behind the scenes, but female characters feature as all shades of good/bad.

STORYWORLD OF CARRIE

Symbolism

Many horror films could correctly be called “supernatural films” but this might reveal more than we care to acknowledge about the religious origins of so much horror.

— Howard Suber

She was alone with Momma’s angry God.

The blue light glared on a picture of a huge and bearded Yahweh who was casting screaming multitudes of humans down through cloudy depths into an abyss of fire. Below them, black horrid figures struggled through the flames of perdition while the Black Man wat on a huge flame-colored throne with a trident in one hand. His body was that of a man, but he had a spiked tail and the head of a jackal.

— Stephen King, Carrie

The setting of Carrie is very recognisable as our own but King includes supernatural elements.

Night journeys are a common element seen throughout Gothic literature. They can occur in almost any setting, but in American literature are more commonly seen in the wilderness, forest or any other area that is devoid of people. A prom, always held after dark, provides the perfect reason for a night journey.

Fantasy Elements

Stephen King writes what some have called ‘supernatural realism’. We might call it ‘magical realism‘ but I think ‘supernatural realism’ is a better descriptor. Carrie is set in the real world but there are supernatural elements. Carrie has the power of telekinesis and might be an ancestor of Roald Dahl’s Matilda in a sense. This is a world in which anything could happen.

There is a bit of a gothic vibe going on in this story, with the blue, cottage-like house looking peachy from the outside but once we get inside we’re shown cupboards used as prison, a dark and stifling atmosphere and a ‘mad woman in the attic’.

Era

The film is set in the USA in a mainly white suburban town in Maine called Chamberlain but the film is shot in Ontario. Here’s the house. Note that the creators of the remake decided to keep a general 1970s vibe in the setting — it’s also fitting that Carrie’s mother would have little money and therefore have to drive a car from that era. The original novel starts in 1966 and the main events happen 1979.

She continued to walk down the street toward the small white house with the blue shutters. The familiar hate-love-dread feeling was churning inside her. Ivy had crawled up the wests side of the bungalow (they always called it the bungalow because the White house sounded like a political joke and Momma said all politicians were crooks and sinners who would eventually give the country over to the Godless Reds who would put all the believers of Jesus—even the Catholics—up against the wall), and the ivy was picturesque, she knew it was, but sometimes she hated it. Sometimes, like now, the ivy looked like a grotesque giant hand ridged with great veins which had sprung up out of the ground to grip the building. She approached it with dragging feet.

Deaths In Schools

By the 1970s there had already been enough mass executions in American schools due to gun violence for the fear of a blood bath at a prom to be based upon a real, deep-seated fear. There have been many more school shootings since then. Unfortunately the terror of Carrie’s loner rampage still feels all too real.

STORY STRUCTURE

King wrote the novel as epistolary, using a combination of letters, news clippings, magazine articles, and passages from books. Sometimes when an epistolary story is adapted for screen some of that form is maintained, often with use of a storyteller narrator (the person who wrote the letters). But because I hadn’t read the book before watching the movie it was a bit of a surprise to find it was an epistolary novel. There’s nothing left of that. The reason for the epistolary form must have been to create a sense of realism for the reader.

SHORTCOMING

The desire to be known, to be seen, and to be powerful in your own sphere is a common desire in both real people and in the fictional realm. This particular desire seems to be having a moment in the West. The promotional material for the Carrie reboot reminds me very much of the posters which came out for Breaking Bad around the same time. Carrie and Walter White have the same psychological need.

Carrie’s problem is that she is an out-and-out social outcast. High schools are a great arena to show social exclusion — Vince Vaughn even sent Walter White back to school and made him the butt of some teenagers’ jokes in the pilot episode as they mock him washing cars — there’s something about mockery you get at school that stays with you your whole life, even when you engage your logical adult brain and realise your high school opponents had their own issues which had nothing to do with you.

The epistolary form of King’s novel allows for a variety of opinions on Carrie, leaving the reader with no ‘true’ impression of what she really looked like (and consequently, who she really was.) Described by the narrator as ugly, fat and blemished, she is described later as ‘pretty’. Carrie herself considers herself repulsive, especially her face, covered in blackheads and clusters of pimples. These various accounts of Carrie add to the gossipy, unreliable nature of the retelling:

Narrator’s description of Carrie, close-third-person viewpoint through the eyes of the girls in the changing room
Opinion of a minor character Stella Horan
From Tommy’s point of view Carrie is ‘far from repulsive’.

Carrie’s psychological shortcoming is that she needs to belong somewhere. She is totally alone in the world. Like any teenager (or adult), she wants to fit in.

Found written repeatedly on one page of a Ewen Consolidated High School notebook owned by Carrie White:

Everybody’s guessed/that baby can’t be blessed/’til she finally sees that she’s like all the rest….

— Stephen King, Carrie

In this movie adaptation she has been homeschooled until very recently, which is how the screenwriters get around the weird fact that Carrie doesn’t know what periods are. It’s hard for a modern audience to believe a 16 year old girl could not know anything about that. Stephen King had to lampshade that one quite heavily in his 1976 novel, especially since in the novel Carrie has been attending school all along.

At Ewan High School Carrie is shown hiding behind a pile of books, sneaking around as if hoping to become invisible.

Psychological overlay is an element connected to how characters within an American Gothic novel are affected by things like the night and their surroundings. In Carrie’s case, Carrie’s menstruation is connected to everyone’s general fear of blood. Blood symbolism can be seen throughout the film, culminating famously in the big struggle scene. 

Does Carrie have a moral shortcoming? Is she treating others badly? A fairytale victim character like this doesn’t need to show us that she is a fully rounded human being with flaws — Carrie is not a normal human being anyhow. She’s kind of the second coming, perhaps from the devil. In the films, at least, Carrie does not demonstrate any moral shortcomings. She is a Gothic Good Girl. (The virginal character in a Female Gothic.)

DESIRE

Carrie wants to go to the ball. This is intimately connected to her psychological shortcoming of course — her need to be part of something.

OPPONENT

King has used a number of character archetypes from the gothic novel to create his setting:

  • Virginal maiden – young, beautiful, pure, innocent, kind, virtuous and sensitive. Usually starts out with a mysterious past and it is later revealed that she is the daughter of an aristocratic or noble family. (Carrie)
  • Older, foolish woman (Mrs White)
  • Hero (Sue)
  • Tyrant/villain (Chris and her boyfriend)
  • Bandits/ruffians (the cast of school girls who mock Carrie rather than standing up for her)
  • Clergy – always weak, usually evil (not present in the film adaptation — the clergy is the invisible force behind the uber-Christian Mrs White). In the novel we do have a modified ‘clergy’ stand-in in the form of Mr P. P. Bliss:

Mr. P.P. Bliss, who had written this hymn and others seemingly without number, was one of Momma’s shining examples of God at work upon the face of the earth. He had been a sailor and a sinner (two terms that were synonymous in Momma’s lexicon), a great blasphemer, a laugher in the face of the Almighty. Then a great storm had come up at sea, the boat had threatened to capsize, and Mr. P. P. Bliss had gotten down on his sin-sickly knees with a vision of Hell yawning beneath the ocean floor to receive him, and he had prayed to God. M. P.P. Bliss promised God that if He saved him, he would dedicate the rest of his life to Him. The storm, of course, cleared immediately.

Brightly beams our Father’s mercy
From his lighthouse evermore
But to us he gives the keeping
Of the lights along the shore

All of Mr. P. P. Bliss’s hymns had a seagoing flavour to them.

Stephen King, Carrie

The watchful eye of the clergy is symbolised by the picture The Unseen Guest:

She walked up the hall and put her coat in the closet. A luminous picture above the coat hooks limned a ghostly Jesus hovering grimly over a family seated at the kitchen table. Beneath was the caption (also luminous): The Unseen Guest

— Stephen King, Carrie

On the other hand, the teachers at the school might be seen as the modern equivalent of the Gothic clergy, in charge of the virgin’s life, seeking counsel.

Carrie’s mother might as well be a mythical monster or a fairytale witch. The (semi) realistic setting allows us to read her as a woman with mental health challenges but her archetype predates such knowledge. American Gothic novels in particular tend to deal with a “madness” in one or more of the characters and carry that theme throughout the novel. In his novel Edgar Huntly or Memoirs of a Sleepwalker, Charles Brockden Brown writes about two characters who slowly become more and more deranged as the novel progresses. King’s novel The Shining is also about Descent Into Madness. Non-King examples include Sunset Boulevard, Black Swan, Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing and Apocalypse Now.

What Carrie lacks in complexity, Stephen King makes up for in his web of her opponents. In Carrie’s classmates we see all shades of bullying, from the out-and-out evil, dark-haired girl (Chris Hargensen) to the blonde* girl who wants to do the right thing but ends up making Carrie’s life worse (Sue Snell). Even the teacher (Miss Desjardin) has excellent intentions but inadvertently makes Carrie’s life worse by setting in action the suspension of Chris Hargensen, who because of this plots the blood in a bucket incident.

*In the novel Sue has dark hair.

King apparently wrote this book inspired by catty bitches he knew from school and from teaching high school. So I don’t kid myself that King is particularly sympathetic to the teenage girl at this point in his writing career. But in contrast to the ‘women are catty bitches’ reading, King turns Chris into a bullied victim herself. Her boyfriend is truly bad; if she hadn’t had sex with him he planned to rape her; later, he does in fact rape her.

but it had all begun to slip out of her hands, and it made her uneasy. If she had not given in willingly on Monday, he would have taken her by force.

Chris is punished, partly for her willingness to have sex, partly for her short skirt and also, partly, for being really mean to people.

There are lots of people—mostly men—who aren’t surprised that I asked Tommy to take Carrie to the Spring Ball. They are surprised that he did it, though, which shows you that the male mind expects very little in the way of altruism from its fellows.

Here King is kinder on men.

Carrying the pails back to the trunk, his mind made a dim, symbolic connection. Pig blood. That was good. Chris was right. It was really good. It made everything solidify.

Pig blood for a pig.

The bad boys are playing a different, more basic game. The menstruation connection is from the girls; the boys think they’re simply insulting Carrie by comparing her to an animal.

MYSTERY

As we get to know the opponents and what they are capable of, we are also introduced to a mystery: What is the exact nature of Carrie’s newfound superpower? 

Revelation is important in any story containing a mystery. (TV writers call them ‘reveals’.) But a story doesn’t have to be ‘mystery’ or ‘detective’ genre to contain a mystery element. Part of this story’s dynamic is to have Carrie find out/realise something that’s been true (latent) for some time: That she is a witch, and has inherited her powers from her grandmother. The story’s momentum comes from the finding out, and during the big struggle sequence we will see the full extent of Carrie’s superpowers. 

Much Gothic literature also includes a mystery of some kind. For instance, Jane Eyre has his first wife in the attic. Rebecca’s new husband Maxim went and killed his first wife in a re-telling of Bluebeard. Notice that these Gothic mystery novels are also named after the female leads.

King’s novel tells us near the beginning that Carrie has the powers of telekinesis, so the mystery there is in waiting to see how she’s going to use it.

PLAN

“Wait. Just wait. Let me talk. You want me to ask Carrie White to the Spring Ball. Okay, I got that. But there’s a couple of things I don’t understand.”
“Name them.” She leaned forward.
“First, what good would it do?” And second, what makes you think she’d say yes if I asked her?”
“Not say yes! Why–” She floundred. “You’re… everybody likes you and–“
“We both know Carrie’s got no reason to care much for people that everybody likes.”
“She’d go with you.”
“Why?”
Pressed, she looked defiant and proud at the same time. “I’ve seen the way she looks at you. She’s got a crush. Like half the girls at Ewen.”
He rolled his eyes.
“Well, I’m just telling you,” Sue said defensively. “She won’t be able to say no.”
“Suppose I believe you,” he said. “What about the other thing?”
“You mean what good will it do? Why… it’ll bring her out of her shell, of course. Make her…” She trailed off.”
“A part of things? Come on, Suze. You don’t believe that bullshit.”
“All right,” she said. “Maybe I don’t. But maybe I still think I’ve got something to make up for.”

In King’s story it’s not Carrie who has the plan. In fact, Carrie is a co-star at best. Despite the character of Carrie carrying the title of the work, and huge images of the actress emblazoned across the posters, the person who undergoes the character arc is Sue Snell who, like the majority of empathetic readers following along, wants to do something to help the outcast underdog. However, we don’t see quite enough of Sue in this film adaptation to rightly call her the main character. Both these girls are the stars — mirror images of each other in many ways:

  • Carrie is an outcast/Sue is popular
  • Carrie is lacking in confidence/Sue is full of confidence
  • Sue has Tommy for a boyfriend/Carrie goes to the ball with him but knows he is very much not her boyfriend
  • Carrie starts the book with blood between her thighs/the book ends with blood between Sue’s

It is Sue who comes up with The Plan that sets the plot in motion. She will offer her popular boyfriend to Carrie as a companion to the ball. This is of course a condescending gesture and Carrie can see right through it — the only way any girl would offer her boyfriend to another girl for an important life event like this is because she knows she’s no competition whatsoever. However, the plan works. It is undermined by Chris and her pig-killing guy friends.

BIG STRUGGLE

In the book, Stephen King puts the entire big struggle sequence into a section called ‘Part Two’. It comprises almost half of the book.

Carrie and Tommy at the ball in a brief moment of bliss. As in many high school stories, the outcast female character undergoes a makeover.

The sequence beginning with the bucket of blood on Carrie’s head. The blood in the bucket sequence is of course the set piece of this film and even if you forget every other scene, this is the bit which eventually enters pop culture. In fact, you probably know this scene even without ever watching the film or reading the book. Part of what makes this so successful is the build up, in which we see Chris as a puppeteer, literally pulling the strings (but of the bucket) from above, as a symbol of omniscient evil against good. (Her own abusive boyfriend is using Chris as his puppet, and also as his non-consenting sex doll.)

Structurally speaking, I’m guessing this is the part which could have posed the biggest hurdle for the writer(s). Miraculous survivals are elements within American Gothic literature in which a character or characters will somehow manage to survive some feat that should have led to their demise. The problem is, with Carrie’s anger-fuelled telekinesis, Carrie is all powerful. She can stop an oncoming car and murder people without even touching them. This superpower means the opponent is fully at her mercy. Sure, the revenge is sweet to watch, but when a character is so much more powerful than their opponent this makes for a boring blood bath.

To create a satisfying big struggle sequence, King gave Carrie two separate big struggles, one after the other with a quiet moment in the middle:

  1. The big struggle on stage against everyone at school
  2. The big struggle against her mother, who has been proven to be a formidable monster and who stabs her quietly in the back.

Sue watches as the house is destroyed. The house can be considered a character in the story, or at least an extension of the women who live there. (In Gothic novels the setting is always a character in itself.)

The cold, heartless house turns to rubble. The difference between this shot and the blue weatherboard house is important. The setting is greatly influential in Gothic novels. It not only evokes the atmosphere of horror and dread, but also portrays the deterioration of its world. The decaying, ruined scenery implies that at one time there was a thriving world. At one time the abbey, castle, or landscape was something treasured and appreciated. Now, all that lasts is the decaying shell of a once thriving dwelling.
Sue watches the house being destroyed, and Mrs White with it, in the basement.

ANAGNORISIS

In the book, this marks the beginning of Part Three. I’m guessing King thinks (or thought) in terms of three act structure as a writer.

We see Sue Snell see her gazing at Carrie’s headstone. Her voiceover says, “You can only push someone so far before they break.” This is her revelation. It’s an anti-bullying message at its heart.

NEW SITUATION

Interestingly, we are shown the new situation before we’re shown Sue’s anagnorisis. Usually it’s not that way around. We know that she is pregnant with a girl and from the court scene we know that most of her friends are dead. We can extrapolate that Sue will give birth to a girl, and we might even wonder if Carrie has done something to that girl to imbue her with witchy superpowers, in the style of Rosemary’s Baby (1968).

This isn’t how the book ends. Somewhere else, a woman called Amelia Jenks is pregnant with a baby who turns out to have witch powers. It is implied that Tommy gets Sue pregnant, but the final scene is bookended with blood — Sue gets her period (which may actually be a miscarriage).

Storytelling Notes On A Series Of Unfortunate Events (2017)

Unfortunate Events Netflix
Daniel Handler wrote the teleplay (as well as the books) to the Netflix adaptation of A Series Of Unfortunate Events. The author’s voice and politics come through loud and clear.

Handler loves wordplay, and is not shy of delivering a ‘moral lesson’ on the difference between ‘literally’ and ‘figuratively’. Words and their meanings are consistently explained, but because Klaus, at least, already knows what the words mean, the young viewer does not feel condescended to. The joke is almost always on Count Olaf. Handler also has a keen handle on the most common storytelling tropes in children’s literature, and makes fun of them whenever he can. Lemony Snicket is on the side of the child.

In the books the storyteller is hidden from view, but for the television series Lemony Snicket is portrayed in the form of Patrick Warburton, whose formal dress juxtaposes with the humorous positions he is placed in: sitting on a lifesaver’s chair, coming out of a sewerage hole in the middle of the street and so on. See: The Role Of Storytellers In Fiction.

This is the fist scene in which Lemony Snicket tells us to look away. We are put in mind of film noir (which is not a genre by the way, more a stylistic descriptor invented by critics).

Storyteller as ghostly lifeguard

A Series Of Unfortunate Events is famously metafictive, in which a character called Lemony Snicket warns children that this is going to be a terrible, horrible tale and they’d best turn away. Tongue-in-cheek reverse psychology. This advice is taken to its metaphorical limit in the TV series, in which the theme song advises us to ‘look away, look away!’ Then we have all the eye imagery — the viewfinder views, Count Olaf’s gaze through the peep hole (the first the Baudelaire children see of him), his eye tattoo and so on.

The cinematography of the Netflix TV series seems influenced by the films of Wes Anderson, both in symmetry and in colour. An audience knows to expect quirky from this style, and dark humour. (It was filmed in British Colombia, Canada, and you may recognise an actor or two from Orphan Black.)

Two point perspective as a train rolls past a static camera

The reflection of the old mansion allows the viewer to see both the children’s expressions as well as what they are saying goodbye to.

I’m guessing the clouds have been digitally manufactured in this distinctively storybook scene.

The brother and sister Baudelaire children stand in for ‘The Everychild’. They do not have all that much in the way of personality, aside from being inherently good and kind and well-behaved. There are differences between them — while I read Klaus as an autist, Violet is a comically Pollyanna character, determined to make the most of the situation when she asks Klaus to come across the worst predicament he’s ever encountered in his reading, then concludes they are not so badly off. Again, this is Daniel Handler making fun of the character trope that girls and boys in popular children’s stories are expected to be ‘nice’ and ‘good’. This doesn’t matter — we have Count Olaf for the laughs. In fact, all of the surrounding characters have more quirks and personality than Violet and Klaus, who, like the child audience, are newcomers to the situation and are to be read as ‘normal’.

The baby has magic super powers — she can chew things to pieces, and even create entirely new objects simply by using her four teeth. Her baby language is treated as if it’s an entirely different language, which only her siblings and surprising other characters are able to understand to the exclusion of everyone else. The baby’s words are subtitled in a font from the silent film era.

This setting is an example of Magic Realism. It also has steampunk elements, not so different from the Spy Kids series, in which our child heroes are expert at building contraptions. These expertise are first shown as a means of them having fun (retrieving the perfect skimming stone from the ocean), but of course these skills come in handy later, to get themselves out of dire trouble.

“It’s only scary because of the mist,” Klaus says metafictively, as Mr Poe (surely named after the horror writer?) approaches them on the beach to deliver terrible news. See: Fog Symbolism.

“It’s only scary because of the mist.”

A lot of the humour comes from the juxtaposition between the fairytale setting and very modern problems. For instance, when Hook-Handed Man ruins an old-fashioned typewriter (because he has hooks for hands) he asks for IT support. When Count Olaf says Violet will be marrying him ‘in an hour’ he upends a giant hourglass which he can’t remember the name of. This is making use of the classic ‘ticking clock’ storytelling device, often used to heighten suspense, but when the timer runs out nothing happens, except for Count Olaf losing face by returning through the trapdoor of the attic to explain that, actually, he bought the thing online and he didn’t know the sand went through so quickly so the children will have to turn it over a few times.

Handler is a master of irony, and there is irony in every scene and in a large proportion of the dialogue. For example, the Baudelaire children are at first taken to Mr Poe’s family — an archetypal cosy house with both parents, full of children and a well-coiffed mother in an apron who at first appears to be the epitome of a caring 1950s housewife.

We soon learn, however, that not all is well in the suburbs and she is in fact unwelcoming, taking obvious and great pleasure in the publicity she is able to garner for her own family via this tragic event.

Later that night, her children ask the Baudelaires how they managed to kill their parents, presumably because they’re hoping to do the same. The following morning we see just how small and ‘cosy’ the Poes’ house really is. Small-minded people live in very small houses — ‘cramped’, more than ‘cosy’, as first suggested by the dining table scene.

 

“I know he’s very eager to meet you and he’s employed as an actor so you know his excitement is genuine.”

This ironic tone pairs very nicely — like a great pair of serif/sans serif fonts — with the fact that much of the dialogue is in fact ‘on the nose’. The plot itself is signposted. While we are busy enjoying the setting and humour, we are not expected to work too hard to understand what is going on.

“Chop chop, Baudelaires. Now that I’ve found you a suitable guardian I’m going to take you to your new home before banking hours begin.”

Daniel Handler is firmly on the side of the child audience.

Mr Poe: “I know you must be nervous about living with a guardian. I know how I was when I was your age.”
Klaus: “We’re all different ages.”

The joke is repeated again later when another clueless adult — Count Olaf — talks about how much he loved cupcakes when he was ‘their age’. Again, Klaus repeats, “But we’re all different ages.” As is the child audience. More proof that in Daniel Handler’s writer’s mind, the Baudelaire children stand for The Audience In General. Also, we are not to believe adults who use the annoying phrase, “When I was your age”.

When Klaus expresses dismay at Count Olaf’s having a tattoo of an eye on his ankle (not to mention all the obvious eyeball paraphernalia about the house), the very reasonable and politically correct Violet advises her brother, as well as the audience, that tattoos are simply a decorative pigmentation of the skin and do not mean the person wearing them is bad. This stands in stark contrast with much characterisation from The First Golden Age Of Children’s Literature in particular, in which we were actively encouraged to judge baddies based on what they look like.

A mystery is introduced when the children find a strange object hidden in the rubble of their family home.

Cinderella is the ur-tale behind A Series Of Unfortunate Events. We have poor orphans who have lost their caring and excellent real parents and who are sent to live in a big house which is emotionally bereft. They are forced to endure terrible hardships, though not of the realworld kind — that would be too cruel and not at all for children — cleaning and scrubbing and cooking and always failing to win approval. Basically an exaggerated form of how generally-cared-for children feel when they’re feeling a bit sorry for themselves.

The parents are not actually dead. We are reassured of this at the end of the first episode.

Why is it not more tragic that the parents (apparently) die in a terrible fire right at the beginning of the story? Because we don’t know the parents. The history of children’s literature (particularly American children’s literature) is chock full of orphans. If we don’t get to know them, their deaths are not sad per se, rather the plight of the children is the sad thing. See: Why So Many Orphans In Children’s Literature?

The dark, empty mansion belonging to Count Olaf is contrasted with the inverse living right across the road — Justice Strauss who is not the slightest bit evil, has a garden full of blossoms, a beautiful big library and is a very caring person. Extreme evil against extreme nice. Comic characters are often 2D and that’s just fine. These are dream houses, to use the terminology of Gaston Bachelard, so of course they have stairs, basements and attics. See: Symbolism Of The Dream House.

This is all we see of the Baudelaire children’s house before it is razed to the ground — a wonderful, warm library (and no parents in sight).

When the camera pans from Justice Strauss’s house to Count Olaf’s gothic mansion the camera follows a blue bird flying happily. Unfortunately, in the middle of the street, a raven swoops down and kills it. A raven in storytelling probably puts you in mind of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, among many others. The raven is a metaphor for death, understood by young audiences and jaded ones alike.

Blue bird, and blue sky on the sunny side of the street.

Raven swoops in front of Count Olaf’s mansion

Count Olaf himself is birdlike, watching the children from his bird’s eye view in the belfry.

Count Olaf ‘welcomes’ the children to his home.

It’s such a shame the Baudelaire children can’t live with Justice Strauss, and we are made to feel it keenly. This regret is underscored by her declaration that she’s just bought a new food processor, but who does she think she’s kidding because “I have no mechanical skills whatsoever”. Since we already know the children are expert mechanics, they would obviously be a great fit. Moreover, she has no way of cutting up the baguette, which the baby is excellent at doing with her teeth.

meeting Justice Strauss

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Performative Metafiction: Lemony Snicket, Daniel Handler and The End of A Series of Unfortunate Events