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
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 weakness. 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 storyworld. 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.
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 storyworld 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.
For fans of Into The Woods by John Yorke, The Enormous Crocodile is an example of a story which mirrors itself perfectly.
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.) Continue reading “The Enormous Crocodile by Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake”
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 people, dishing out advice to help the protagonist get through the story. Teachers can be mentors, opponents, fake opponents, or very much background characters. In YA, teachers can also be love opponents. Continue reading “Teachers In Children’s Literature”
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 it 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, this 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.)
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.
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.)
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 storyworld 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.
A lot of the humour comes from the juxtaposition between the fairytale storyworld 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.
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 storyworld and humour, we are not expected to work too hard to understand what is going on.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Where there is a river there is symbolism. At least, in stories.
Water is central to children’s and young adult literature as motif and metaphor: In Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Esperanza Rising, two characters are in a relationship described as being separated by a wide, difficult-to-cross river; in The LoraxDr. Seuss warns us to protect our environment by planting a truffula tree seed and enjoins us to “Give it clean water. And feed it clean air”; and the poetry of Langston Hughes uses water in its various forms to compare the complexities of race to a deep river, to characterize a lost dream as a “barren field frozen with snow,” and to call on us all to re-imagine and reclaim the American dream, saying that “We, the people, must redeem/ The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.”
The flow of a river is a force outside human control (at least, before the days of civil engineering). Crossing a river is unexpectedly treacherous. It’s a common way for trampers (hikers) to die in my home country of New Zealand. Rivers rise suddenly and without warning. In early modern England, it was more common than you might imagine to die while collecting water. After childbirth, alongside burning to death in a fire, falling into a body of water (including wells) was a peril for women in particular. When I researched my own family tree, I discovered a great, great uncle had died young while trying to cross a river with horses. Perhaps you’d find similar. Sure as eggs, at least someone adjacent to your ancestry line has come to grief in a river.
Roald Dahl created Wonka’s factory as a symbolic forest. Sitting mysteriously just outside Charlie’s town, nobody is able to enter this forest and get past the mighty beast. This metaphorical forest, we discover, is full of all the perils of a fairytale forest — poisonous berries, tests to see if you’re good or bad, dangerous creatures and a treacherous (chocolate) river. Note the juxtaposition: Something so sweet but so dangerous.
Willy Wonka’s river reminds me of the famous river of flowers in the Netherlands.
More happily, perhaps, an opponent can be defeated by throwing him/her into the river.
In a comedic journey, the danger of a river can be inverted. In The Big Honey Hunt a father and son hide in safety from a swarm of angry bees whose honey they are trying to plunder. In this case, the loveable main characters are saved by the river.
River As Symbol Of Fertility
In ‘hygge‘ picture books there will probably be a gentle river nearby.
Below we have an Australian picnic scene. Even in the dry landscape of Australia, a river is necessary for a truly cosy outdoors experience.
The river is an essential element in what humans consider beautiful. As art philosopher Denis Dutton once wrote, ‘beauty is in the culturally conditioned eye of the beholder’. Beauty comes in many forms, depending on your cultural conditioning. But there is another, deeper, widely shared part of humanity in which we widely agree — at a very deep level — on what makes a beautiful environment. No surprise: it includes a body of water. Water is so important to life that the nearby presence of water is soothing and reassuring — and indeed necessary — to us. You’ll find discussion of this at the 7:10 mark in the TED talk below.
(If you were wondering what else makes for a beautiful landscape: a tree on a savannah that forks near the ground — so that we can easily scramble up it — and a path that meanders into the distance towards some kind of shoreline.)
River As Metaphor For Time
Time is nothing like a river. No one fully understands how time works, but astrophysicists tell us it is nothing like a ladder, road, tide or thread. All of these things and more have been used in stories as a metaphor for time, because that is how we perceive it. We humble, Earth-bound humans can manage a few different but related metaphors: Are we bystanders on the edge of the river, watching time go past, or are we bobbing in the water? That’s another question, dealt with differently by different authors.
Back to the example above. There comes a moment in every comedic adventure when the picture book writer must indicate that a whole heap of other things happened/a whole heap of time passed and EVENTUALLY… Here we have another scene from The Big Honey Huntby Stanley and Janice Berenstain in which father and son have embarked on their fruitless honey-collecting mission. The river symbolises time, as reinforced by the text.
River As Symbol Of Inevitability
Related to the concept of time is ‘inevitability’. Annie Proulx opens her short story “On The Antler” by describing an old man nearing the end of his life. As a young man he never liked to read:
But in the insomnia of old age he read half the night, the patinated words gliding under his eyes like a river coursing over polished stones: books on wild geese…
— “On The Antler” by Annie Proulx
A river picks its path and there’s nothing individuals can do to stop it from running its course. This theme is expanded upon over the rest of the story. A few years ago my hometown of Christchurch suffered a series of hugely damaging earthquakes. Two houses, side-by-side: One totally ruined, the other with barely any damage at all. My cousin used that phrase to describe the phenomenon: ‘It picks its path’. Earthquakes, like rivers, lend themselves to personification.
River As Life Itself
In literature as in life, cities and towns often spring up on riverbanks, seemingly brought to life by the river’s movement. The source of the river, typically small mountain streams, depicts the beginnings of life and its meeting with the ocean symbolises the end of life.
The river is one of my favourite metaphors, the symbol of the great flow of Life itself. The river begins at Source, and returns to Source, unerringly. This happens every single time, without exception. We are no different.
– Jeffrey R. Anderson, from The Nature of Things: Navigating Everyday Life with Grace (Balboa Press, 2012)
In The Story About Ping the river has various meanings but most of all this is the story of one duck’s mythic journey towards death and back again. The river as character arc.
(Roads snaking through a landscape work in the same way.)
As a boundary, the river is sometimes used to show the difference between civilisation and those outside it. In fairy tales, the forest is used in a similar way. In medieval Europe, outlaws really were banished to the parts where ‘civil’ people did not venture. There needed to be some sort of geographical marker to delineate law from outlaw — rivers and edges of forests were good for that.
The river has also been used as a symbolic passageway into the heart of the jungle and as a descent into the primitive nature of humanity. (Especially The Amazon and The Congo.)
As an example of a Fractal Plot, Alison offers Crossing The River by Caryl Phillips (1993). Significantly, the shape of the plot itself is like a river with many tributaries. The story is ‘four discrete narratives, but with no one narrator binding them. Instead, the book is polyphonic, taking the points of view of four characters and delivering them in different styles: letters, diary entries, mixtures of third person and first. Yet the stories all grow from a single seed: an original form of “intercourse” between white and black.’ The story begins with an original sin (the “shameful exchange” between white and black). Each part of the book juxtapose against each other, ‘in concept rather than causality’. This is all spurred by what happens in the prologue (so don’t anyone be making any blanket rules about how prologues are useless).
This story is framed at the other end by an epilogue. The father speaks to his lost children in the language of fractals’ by talking about how they’re broken off limbs of a tree. Then he continues the fractal theme by talking about selling his children “where the tributary stumbles and swims out in all its directions to meet the sea”.
Main point being, in a fractal story (also known as branching, among other names), you may well find the river used symbolically, to underpin the narrative structure as well as the themes.
Shaun Tan has this to say about the word as applied to his work:
I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the term ‘surrealism’, despite often using it as a shorthand to introduce my own books. I don’t have a strong interest in dreams per se, or the irrational, the way the capital-S Surrealists championed so brilliantly. I’m more interested in some kind of equivalent to reality, in itself quite rational and meaningful but just different to what we might be expecting. Perhaps post-colonial societies have a special feeling for weirdness that is not actually surrealism but to do with something far more conscious, just unresolved or hard to reconcile — a problem of reality.”
Considering The Rabbits, for example, Tan suggests that the psychological upheaval of the collision between European visitors and Aboriginal landowners is almost impossible to represent accurately. “I certainly have no capacity to do so myself, but at least I can indicate something of the impossibility of the task through some strange drawings.”
The author also says that the term ‘magical realism’ is more fitting when describing Tan’s work, even though it’s a word more often used to describe writing.
This is another word for absurdist humour. Features of surrealist humour:
The juxtaposition of unlikely things
Non-sequiturs (means ‘does not follow’ in Latin). The converse of a non-sequitur is a cliche, because a non sequitur is something the audience hasn’t seen before.
Just when we think we can make sense of something the story shatters our logic, showing us that logic is useless
Spike Milligan is an example of a surrealist comedian:
George Orwell’s assertion that “whatever is funny is subversive” was never truer than in the case of Spike Milligan. He did not invent surrealistic radio comedy – nor did he ever claim to – but he opened up the medium with his uncluttered anarchic vision, and his influence since the early 1950s has been vast.
This is why Roald Dahl wanted Spike Milligan to play Wonka in Charlie And The Chocolate Factory:
[Dahl’s] “ideal casting was Spike Milligan,” a surrealist actor. Dahl’s dismissal of his novels’ filmic adaptations are justified — he did write the source material, after all. Yet, with major studios like Paramount Pictures backing and distributing films with a young girl blowing up like a blueberry and evil witches turning children into rats, the Dahl films are already notably more surreal than their Home Alone-esque counterparts.