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 following examples persist throughout the story and are integral to plot:

  • 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.)

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.

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.

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