Can you guess which country this “eat-me-when-I’m-fatter” produced this fairytale? I’ll drop some clues:
Goats have historically been very important to this country, for their meat, milk and cheese.
It’s not a fertile country, which is always better for goats than for cattle and sheep.
It’s a land of mountains.
Yes, it’s Norway.
From ca. 1700 until 1850 the human population as well as the number of goats and sheep of this country almost tripled.
The increased pressure on the natural resources worsened the living conditions for people and animals alike.
A characteristic feature of this period was the herding of single flocks by children. During the daylight hours, this was a precaution against predators as well as a way of keeping the animals off the areas meant for the harvesting of winter fodder. At night, the small flocks were in some places gathered in mobile corrals guarded by adults with dogs.
The Three Billy Goats Gruff was first published between 1841 and 1844, when goats were important to survival. The idea of a creature taking the life of a goat was not so far removed from taking the life of a child (due to the resultant starvation).
My childhood version of The Three Billy Goats Gruff was unfortunately — I see now — not a good one. It’s the small format Little Golden Book published in 1982, retold by Ellen Rudin. (The 1980s were chocka block full of retold fairytales.)
Rudin has a good sense of rhythm, and has retained all the things that are fun about this story as a read-aloud, but I feel the point of it is lost.
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE THREE BILLY GOATS GRUFF
This is not clear from the text of the Little Golden Book version, but the goats need to get to the other side of the bridge because there is nothing to eat on their current side. Perhaps if I’d looked at the pictures more carefully as a child I’d have noticed all the rocks on the left, contrasting with the healthy green growth on the right. But I just assumed the goats happened to be standing on a pile of rocks and that the greenish hue of the background was perfectly good grass.
The stakes were much higher than that.
Here is a page from a completely different version, illustrated by Paul Galdeone. “There was very little grass in the valley” offers a clear need in the text (as well as in the illustration.)
Notice these goats looking left. In the vast majority of Western picture books the main characters look right, encouraging the reader to look forward to what’s overleaf.
The three billy goats gruff have to cross the bridge. They’re not doing it for the adrenaline rush.
They desire food.
The troll under the bridge.
Trolls featured prominently in Norwegian myth and legend. They were originally believed to be actual supernatural beings who lived in isolated rocks, mountains, or caves. They lived together in small family units, and were rarely helpful to human beings. Later they became more concretized. They became more evil and although they were often ugly, it was also thought that trolls would walk among us, undetected. Like vampires, they have trouble with sunlight. I suppose this is why the troll in this fairytale lives under a bridge.
Roald Dahl was influenced by such mythology. You’ll find aspects of trolls in some of his stories (along with witches, of course). The Trunchbull of Matilda feels a bit troll-like in her one-sided badness and ugliness. So do The Twits.
One day the littlest Billy Goat Gruff said, “I cannot wait any longer. I am going t cross the bridge and eat the sweet, green grass.”
“We will come, too,” said his brothers. “We will be right behind you.”
This is the most problematic part of the retelling, because it always seemed to me that each goat genuinely attempted to sacrifice the older one in order to save himself. I feel the ‘plan’ should be made clearer here. These brothers are working together strategically rather than looking after self-interests.
“Then I am coming up to eat you!” the troll shouted. And he climbed onto the bridge.
Big Billy Goat Gruff was not afraid.
“I would like to see you try!” he said.
He rushed at the troll and butted him with his horns. The troll fell off the bridge and disappeared, leaving no trace.
Since trolls can’t be exposed to light, the simple act of coaxing the troll out from under the shade of the bridge may have been all that was needed!
For me this story failed, because I had no revelation. I was supposed to realise at the end that these goats had worked together. Instead I wondered why the older goats didn’t spend the rest of their lives holding grudges against the younger ones.
I was supposed to learn that working together can defeat evil.
After that the three Billy Goats Gruff crossed the bridge whenever they liked and ate their fill of sweet, green grass.
And the horrible, mean troll never bothered them again.
THE THREE FISHING BROTHERS GRUFF BY BEN GALBRAITH
Ben Galbraith is a Kiwi illustrator who says on his blog that he’s ‘quite colour blind’, which kind of backs up my theory that colour selection is far more scientific than successful artists like to make us think, and that it can be learned. (There are also tools to help artists out like Adobe Kuler and that picker thing you get in Illustrator etc.)
The art in this book is an appealing mixture of textures and collage. Sometimes this art style can look too digital, but it’s done well here. I like the humour of a boat called ‘the cod’s wallop’. If I had a boat I might call it that. The author is a keen fisherman, and this comes through in the story. The New Zealand way of speaking and its sea setting also comes through quite strong, and the issues about over-fishing aren’t specific to New Zealand, but remind me of the problems I see on any episode of Coast Watch. It was an inspired choice to set the story in ‘Bay of Plenty‘ and in ‘Poverty Bay‘, which are not only allegorical names but are actually real places.
I remember the day Roald Dahl died. I was in Year 7. I remember sitting at my desk, and where that desk was positioned in the classroom, thinking about how Roald Dahl had died.
Lots more important historical figures died during the 80s and 90s but I don’t remember many of those days. But everyone of a certain age remembers where they were when they heard Roald Dahl had died. Amirite?
Politically correct parents can try force feeding their kids with sugary tales but as Roald Dahl knew – what really excites a child’s appetite is the grotesque, the subversive, and the sinister.
– Christopher Hitchens
Here, Hitchens uses the term ‘politically correct’ as an insult. I have found as I head into middle age that the people who use this term as an insult often wish for an earlier time where they didn’t have to watch what they said. These people are disproportionately heterosexual, able-bodied white men.
Something tells me Roald Dahl would have also found the term ‘politically correct’ quite revolting. What would he have been like to sit next to at a dinner party, I have wondered.
Now that The BFG has had a remake, Roald Dahl is having a bit of a comeback moment, though he never really went away. Jeremy Treglown published a biography about Roald Dahl, which you might consider skipping if you’re in love with Boy and Going Solo. Treglown offers a more ‘real’ story of Dahl.
Roald Dahl’s work wasn’t always illustrated by Quentin Blake.
Dirty Beasts, for example, was originally illustrated by a young woman new to the field, Rosemary Fawcett. The edition she illustrated is now out of print. Jeremy Treglown explains the story in his biography of Roald Dahl:
To one British critic, Russell Davies, “the buzz of misanthropy from Roald Dahl grows stronger.” Candida Lycett Green [another British children’s author] rightly said there was nothing new about this mood: she saw the first poem, in which a pig forestalls its destiny by turning on the farmer and eating him, as a version of the macabre, much earlier story “Pig”, in which a boy brought up as a vegetarian ends up in an abattoir. She thought that Dahl’s imagination was well illustrated by Rosemary Fawcett: “The nastiness of her pictures is exceptional.” This was meant as a compliment, but not everyone saw things this way. There couldn’t be a bigger contrast than between Quentin Blake’s benignly funny sketches and the giddying, lurid, surrealistic images Rosemary Fawcett produced. Her cover picture sets the tone: a child in bed with a teddy bear, both of them bug-eyed with terror at the sight of something positioned above and behind the viewer’s head. It is the perspective that is often most violent in these images–that, and the colors. For “The Tummy Beast,” Fawcett threw the greedy child over so that he is somehow flying, upside down, all chubby knees and protruding eyeballs, beneath a gaudy tableful of purple and mauve blacmanges and ice creams. And in “The Porcupine” the reader is made to peer, as if through a keyhole, onto a murky scene, lit by a single lamp, in which a goggling dentist waves his gigantic pointed pincers over the little girl’s much spiked rump.
Fawcett does more than justice to Dahl’s ferocity, but not to his humor or his underlying traditionalism. Dahl himself hated the drawings. He said he couldn’t face giving the book to any of his relations and offered to incinerate all the unsold copies and dance around the bonfire. Many of the British reviews warned that Fawcett’s pictures would give children nightmares, and this was the general opinion in the States, where the children’s librarians were in full squeamish cry: “Sadistic, predictable and unfunny”; “From stem to stern this is a gross, course [sic] unpleasant book.” The edition didn’t sell badly in Britain, but although, according to Murray Pollinger, Tom Maschler swore by Fawcett’s work, the illustrations were unpopular with Continental publishers. Revolting Rhymes, meanwhile, had sold over 100,000 copies in Britain alone. So Fawcett’s Dirty Beasts was eventually allowed to go out of print, and Quentin Blake was brought back in for the new edition.
There’s no doubt about it; they wanted a young woman because she was cheap. Blake was already fetching good money and had a good job as an illustration lecturer. Also in those days — even more than today — men were paid more than women for the same work.
I’m sad to find very little about Rosemary Fawcett on the Internet these days, which may mean, sadly, that when her illustrations were completely replaced by those of Quentin Blake, she may have become too dispirited to pursue in the picturebook industry. (I know that’s how I would have felt, at least for a while.) I can’t find another work illustrated by a Rosemary Fawcett.
Or perhaps she got married and continued an ‘illustrious’ career under another name? This is something I’d love to know. What happened to the talented Rosemary Fawcett, whose wonderful work was ill-suited to Dahl’s creepy rhymes through no fault of her own?
Gross-out books are frequently classed as ‘trash‘ and rarely win the big awards, perhaps partly because they sell so well.
Gross-out books fall into the category of ‘carnivalesque’. In academic terms, these gross-out books might be called ‘carnivalesque-grotesque’.
Carnivalesque-grotesque narratives directly address the personal and sociocultural anxieties induced by knowledge of the vulnerability of both the individual and the social bodies. Vulgar, obscene and taboo-breaking forms of comedy in popular culture are neither a modern nor a culturally specific phenomenon. The presence of grotesque humour has been noted in youth culture, in particular, for at least the last few hundred years.
Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature
Howard Suber dates such stories from a much earlier time:
[Gross-out humour is] a tradition that goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks. In Greek theatrical celebrations, there would be a cycle of three tragedies, followed by a satyr play or other comedy in which fart jokes, feces-throwing, giant erections, and bosoms were all incorporated in a way that would make any fourteen-year-old male die with laughter. […] While lots of tragedies were preserved, hardly any complete raunchy Greek comedies survive to this day. Even Aristotle’s book on comedy, which was the companion to his work on tragedy, was allowed to disappear from the face of the earth.
— Howard Suber, The Power of Film
Daniel then says that Bakhtin’s work has revealed the use-value of grotesque texts for medieval and Renaissance popular culture and Maria Tatar backed this up. In short, gross-out humour crosses time and culture. Why is it popular today?
The continuing appeal of this type of narrative attests tot he problematic cultural construction of body functions and fluids as abject and disgusting, the importance of the inside/outside dualism in both individual and social psyches, and the psychological and social need to overcome abjection in order that society can function normally.
The Aldi Revolting Rhymes Controversy
If you were a child reader in the eighties perhaps you remember this book with this cover — I was also gifted the sequel, Dirty Beasts and derived much enjoyment from both books at about age 8. I have clear memories of reading these poems to me parents, who laughed and laughed, and I felt so much pride at my performance it was as if I’d crafted these poems myself. That said, I was always a little wary of them. In one of the poems one of the young heroines ‘pulls a pistol from her knickers’ and I remember that line perplexed me: What is the obsession with little girls’ knickers? I wondered. Why are girls’ knickers more inherently funny than boys’ underpants, which are never mentioned? I wasn’t able to put it into words, but I was certainly aware of feminist issues even as an eight-year-old girl. The answer of course, to my unasked question: Girls’ knickers are more funny because girls are taught more body shame, so by exposing a female’s under garments you are exposing her basic humanity and opening her up as vulnerable and powerless, despite everything else she has achieved. This is actually the stuff that underpins rape culture.
Much more recently Aldi Australia offered Revolting Rhymes as a weekly special buy and parents about my age flocked to the store and bought this classic for their own children, only to get home and realise that culture has changed a bit since the 80s, and some weren’t too happy about the word ‘slut’, which has changed irreversibly in meaning. (Did people in the 80s still remember its original meaning though — in which slut refers to a slovenly woman who can’t keep the house clean?)
There was of course the usual backlash against Aldi after they made the decision to stop selling the books, with consumers criticising ‘censorship’ from do-gooders.
In truth, the word ‘slut’ is representative of the much wider gender problems in this particular gross-out books, and even modern gross-out books have their issues.
Carolyn Daniel points out in her academic work Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature that gross-out books are written for children, especially boys, and writing about bums is almost licence to print money. I think this is rather overstating the case — if you’ve ever read a really bad example of a gross-out book, written by someone who thinks that all you have to do is write a whole heap of the most disgusting stuff you can imagine, you’ll see that the best-selling gross-out books do still have plots, and plots are never easy no matter the genre, otherwise everyone would be a bestseller.
Since Daniel’s criticism was published (2006) she would not be surprised to see the continuing success of the Andy Griffiths series The Day My Bum Went Psycho, which I have to admit, is surprisingly clever as a spoof given the title. Until I picked it up I wondered how on earth it was possible to write an entire novel that could live up to the cover image:
It’s even a TV series now. The book is basically a spoof of a war story, and manages dual audience humour, which only readers familiar with war story tropes would understand. I’m no fan of the book myself, and my daughter lost interest, but I can see the appeal. As you can see, I’m one of the conflicted.
Have We Made Up Our Minds About These Books? Really?
The Andy Griffiths books are probably found on the shelves of every public Australian school library. So a friend of mine was confused when her then six-year-old daughter, having just finished reading The Day My Bum Went Psycho, get into big trouble — along with a group of friends — when they were taken to the computer lab for research and did a google search for ‘worlds biggest bum’. It seems we’re all a bit confused about what is okay and isn’t okay for kids. “Oh no! They’re googling bums! Butt it’s okay, everyone’s got a bum…Bums are perfectly natural But what if the parents find out about this and we get into serious trouble! Also, Andy Griffiths! And at least the boys are reading something.”
Attitudes To Gross-out Books
One popular argument: As long as my boys (in particular) are reading, I don’t care what they’re reading.
Addendum: If kids are enjoying reading it must be good for them, both for their emotional health and for their decoding skills. Also, reading trash is a gateway to reading good literature when they get round to it.
A counter argument: Funny, light, popular books can still be harmful. Reading bad books is perhaps even worse than watching a lot of high-quality TV.
I’m inclined to go with the latter, not because I think kids are already gross enough and don’t need bad behaviour encouraged (I don’t believe it works like that) but because the messages under the surface are actually more powerful than the top layer of story. This is exactly why all the award winning books are heavy on metaphor.
Are There Good Things To Come Out Of Gross-out Books?
Can the grotesque images in carnivalesque texts contain any subversive potential at all? According to Kristeva they can: such narratives are able to “lay bare, under the cunning, orderly surface of civilizations, the nurturing horror that [socio-cultural systems] attend to pushing aside by purifying, systematizing, and thinking.” In other words, for children, carnivalesque-grotesque material can reveal what adults are trying to suppress and it makes a move toward deconstructing sociocultural systems and laying bare their values.
Problems With Gross-out Books
what these narratives do not reveal is the underlying misogynistic discourse that form the basis for such systems and values and, in fact, I think they may work (perhaps through the jouissance they evoke) to normalize such discourses.
Daniel uses Fungus the Bogeyman as an example, but this is not a book I’d like to delve too deeply into because my adult self is easily repulsed by such stories.
Bakhtin also thinks the problem with subversive humour is that at first glance it’s all ‘Look how subversive and transgressive we are’, but when you look a little more closely it’s all about preserving the social norm.
These stories are actually pretty moralistic:
Laughter itself…arguably stems from a culturally derived sense of humor and grotesque humor is, therefore, a licensed affair. … there are norms that define what is funny, that determine the “domain of the laughable and ridiculous.” These norms…demand that “mockery take such a form that it reveals its limits and thereby pays homage to that which is mocked.” … one of the most important functions of the carnivalesque children’s text is its didacticism, confirming through a dialectic of high and low aesthetics what is considered eternal and transcendent and what is temporal and material. Children’s carnivalesque texts are … transgressive of such things as social authority [and] received paradigms of behaviour and morality but by transgressing them they also confirm them. “Carnivalesque texts, by breaking boundaries, explore where they properly lie.”
It is vital to clarify that sociocultural taboos exist because of social and psychological fears concerning the abject/grotesque functions of the body. The fears exist because of misogynist individualistic cultural discourses that define the abject. These discourses define the abject as as an intrinsically maternal/feminized concept. The ability to recognize the abject is … “a condition of individual needs to recognize the abject and to suppress it, to achieve repressed or unspeakable condition. However, while the abject can be recognized and suppressed, it cannot ever be fully obliterated, but always “hovers at the borders of our existence, threatening the apparently settled unity of the subject with disruption and possible dissolution. … Grotesque narratives…work conservatively to justify the taboo status of the abject and to confirm the otherness of the maternal/female body. They are not, therefore, radically transgressive/subversive but, rather, serve patriarchal hegemonic interests.
Obviously, with an abstract passage like that, you need some examples.
Returning to Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes, Daniel takes Dahl’s version of Goldilocks (click for full version) as an example:
The language used in grotesque narratives for children is generally not coarse and abusive (unlike their own texts) because it is written and licensed by adults. Stories written for them in these genres often contain language that might be categorized as within the realms of mild taboo, designed to titillate, rather than shock. The language itself reinforces adult authority–children all know plenty of abusive language (as their play-rhymes clearly show) but its very absence from their literature didactically reinforces the taboo. Roald Dahl directly refers to this in his version of “Goldilocks” in which the little girl, he suggests, is a less than pleasant character. She has just sat upon and broken baby bear’s chair:
A nice girl would at once exclaim
“Oh dear! Oh heavens! What a shame.”
Not Goldilocks, she begins to swear
She bellows, “What a lousy chair.”
And used one disgusting word
That luckily you’ve never heard
(I dare not write it, even hint it
Nobody would ever print it)
It is interesting to note Dahl’s judgement upon that “nice girls” say and to see how he frames his protagonist by implying that her abusive language is so foul that it is unprintable. She is therefore definitely not a nice girl and is deemed to be abject. The readers are nice, however, because Dahl tells them that they have “never heard” the offending word. As the word is not mentioned this is a pretty safe bet. The text explicitly and implicitly signals suitable language for children’s use. Carnivalesque texts for children often include playful intrusion by the narrator as Dahl’s does. This draws attention to the social forces which…determine the relationship between signs and things, reinforcing what is socially desirable with regard to cultural and linguistic mores. Furthermore, the reader is thus suddenly and deliberately situated outside the text, by the narrator’s intrusion, and so is discouraged from empathizing with the protagonist. Indeed, the reader is encouraged to disapprove of Goldie’s language, to take the culturally legitimate stance, to be mildly amused but also shocked, to be be ultimately disapproving and condemning. Dahl uses the technique again to condemn Goldilocks, once more reinforcing the condemnation with mention of the abject. Goldilocks has climbed into baby bear’s bed with her shoes on:
Most educated people choose
To rid themselves of socks and shoes
Before they clamber into bed
But Goldie didn’t give a shred
Her filthy shoes were thick with grime
And mud and mush and slush and slime
Worse still, upon the heel of one
Was something that a dog had done
I say once more, what would you think
If all this horrid dirt and stink
Was smeared upon your eiderdown
By this revolting little clown
Here the narrator directly addresses readers and seeks their opinion (“what would you think?”). In employing this tactic, Dahl further distances readers from Goldilocks, refusing to allow identification with and implicitly condemning her activity and power. Dahl’s work is openly didactic, reinforcing his personal notions of appropriate behavior for girls. This is cleverly achieved through his undoubted wit, word play, and by stretching the limits of the taboos he is ultimately reinforcing.
It’s important to add that this is just one example of the misogyny that runs right through the gross-out category of books for children. Think of the short stories of Paul Jennings and count the number of female characters. When you do find female characters in gross-out books, what are they doing? Are they breaking stereotypically female roles or are they transgressing them.
R.L. Stine uses visceral descriptions in his books for a middle grade audience. Who does the shrieking and who does the saving in the R.L. Stine books? Are girls punished for becoming powerful and active saviours?
The One Big Lie Per Story
I have a theory that the more transgressive children’s stories are in the gross-out sense, the more carefully they stick to stereotypically gender roles. I’ve certainly seen this at work in movies, and it applies equally to the most mind-bending sci-fi and fantasy. It’s almost as if there’s a rule of writing: The more the audience is expected to travel on a highly imaginative journey, the more closely authors stick to a 1950s version of society — expecting readers to imagine both a completely different planet and one in which women are not cooking everyone’s breakfast is almost too much to expect.
First, I remember my father buying it for me in Paper Plus. I was in attendance. He thought I wouldn’t notice, then snuck it into my santa sack.
Second, it was very unusual for my father to buy any books at all.
Third, this was a whole-family read and I remember reciting it theatrically with my parents laughing and laughing. For some reason I’m under the dining-room table as I’m doing this and it’s a fine summer’s day.
I hadn’t opened the book since about 1986, even though I still own my original copy and even though I have carried it from house to house throughout my nomadic years.
It’s funny how things age, isn’t it? This week Aldi seems to have scored a swag of Roald Dahl books and is selling them slightly cheaper than you’d expect as a Special Buy. Someone who has better memories of Revolting Rhymes than I do — or perhaps someone who has picked this book up for the first time ever — subsequently commented on Aldi’s Facebook page that this book contains the word ‘slut’. And now the book has been pulled from Aldi’s shelves. Next follows journalistic descriptions of consumer ‘outrage’, because this is children’s literature we’re talking about here, and this is how things go.
This debacle reminds me of the companion volume to Revolting Rhymes, Dirty Beasts, which I took to school one day for my (very conservative, vest-wearing, monk-living Christian teacher) to read after lunch. If I’m honest, my 9-year-old self had been looking forward to Mr Bayley saying the phrase, ‘And dropped a cow pat on his head!’ as the conclusion to The Cow. Instead, my teacher slammed the book shut and returned it to me with a grim and disappointed expression on his face. I’d been expecting the entire class to laugh at the final line, to pat me on the back and tell me what a wonderful book I’d chosen. I’d been expecting Mr Bayley to read many more poems from Dirty Beasts during our after lunch calming session, but instead he launched us straight into arithmetic, and I remember the disgusted look on Paul Hamlyn’s face as he said, ‘Why did you choose such a short one?’
I wasn’t allowed to pick the after lunch reading material again that year, and it wasn’t just a teacher-enforced thing.
I wonder what Mr Bayley would have done if I’d instead brought my copy of Revolting Rhymes and asked him to read the story with the ‘slut’? The sorts of people who are accusing the world of going PC mad!! are keen to point out that the original meaning of ‘slut’ is of an unkempt, untidy, slovenly woman, and that Roald Dahl did not intend the other more modern meaning which refers to a woman who has too much sex, according to some culturally defined standard. Being old-fashioned if not old, it’s likely my Mr Bayley would have been quite happy to read that one, being ignorant (perhaps) of its other meaning. I’ll never know.
Others chuckle and point out that any Scandinavian translation of a children’s book will end with the word ‘Slut’, since in Danish and Norwegian ‘Slut’ means simply ‘The End’. Our story app Midnight Feast has been translated into Danish, and until I received the translation I hadn’t realised this. I’ll admit enjoying a cheap chuckle. As an argument for the wanton usage of ‘slut’ in children’s literature, though, this oddity of language doesn’t stand up, since when Danish people read Midnight Feast, they read ‘The End’. They’re not encouraged to think of women in a sexual and disparaging way.
ALDI’S DECISION IS NOT ACTUALLY CENSORSHIP
One thing I’d like to point out amid all this discussion of ‘censorship’ — Aldi pulled Revolting Rhymes from its stores upon receiving a complaint — is that this is not ‘censorship’ at all. Censorship comes from government, and when Aldi, or any other company decides not to sell something, that company is simply making a ‘business decision’.
‘POLITICALLY CORRECT’ DOES NOT EQUAL ‘CONSERVATIVE’.
I’m surprised at Aldi’s decision, but perhaps I shouldn’t be. Aldi continues to demonstrate ultra conservative attitudes. When pink dolls and dollhouses are on special at Aldi, there is a big sign up saying ‘Girls’ Toys’. Trucks and aeroplanes are labelled ‘Boys’ Toys’. Mothers’ Day each year is preceded with sales of cosmetics and scrapbooking equipment. Right now we’re heading full-throttle towards Father’s Day, and this week you’ll find garage tools and leather work gloves on the Special Buys table. None of this is coincidental. Despites exclamations to the contrary, Aldi cares not one jot about political correctness. Hell, Aldi calls all manner of different green unidentifiable-by-white-people vegetables ‘Asian greens’, like Asians are likewise one big indistinguishable conglomerate of leaf-eating people. Aldi care only about customers buying as many products from Aldi as possible, cashing in on impulse purchases if at all possible, in which case the customer needn’t do any more thinking than absolutely necessary. When Aldi accidentally stocks a children’s book containing the word ‘slut’ in a derogatory fashion and then receives a single complaint, it really only takes a single complaint, because if the movers and shakers at Aldi knew that word was in the book then they wouldn’t have bought a truckload of them in the first place. A children’s book containing the word ‘slut’ goes against Aldi’s conservative principles.
ETYMOLOGY ISN’T AN ARGUMENT, EITHER
Here’s the thing: whether you do or don’t read this collection to your own children or to your own class of students, it’s kind of irrelevant to talk about the ‘original use’ of a word, because language changes, and I’m going to go out on a limb and say that here in Australia, in 2014, the word ‘slut’ no longer refers to an unkempt, slovenly woman, but is instead a cringe-inducing, violent word which is used to try and keep women, especially young women wearing low-cut fashions, in line.
CULTURE, AS WELL AS CHILDREN’S LITERATURE, EVOLVES, AND THAT’S A GOOD THING
I have a liberal attitude towards use of taboo language, partly because I think that liberal use of bad words saps them of their power, which is actually a good thing. When I’m ready to have a discussion with my daughter about the meaning of ‘slut’, then I might be happy to read her Revolting Rhymes. Roald Dahl, along with Enid Blyton, was my favourite author when I was in primary school. But honestly, that’s because I wasn’t exposed to much else. My own six-year-old has access to a far wider range of reading material, not only because children’s publishing has flourished in the last 30 years but also because I’m an enthusiastic curator of literature myself. For some strange reason, my daughter isn’t interested in Enid Blyton or Roald Dahl, at least, not yet. Without looking at the colophon, she is always drawn to the newer stories. But this isn’t strange at all.
Roald Dahl’s use of the word ‘slut’ may indeed have been innocent (I doubt it). I’m going to let this one word stand as a symbol for the entire body of Dahl’s work. I’m happy we’re having this cultural conversation. I’m not writing all of Dahl’s work off, not by any means, but let’s not forget that Roald Dahl was a man of his time, and though his personal ideologies died with him, his work lives on.
Should Aldi have pulled these books from its shelves? Probably not. The book has just received a big shot of publicity, like it needs it. Should Aldi still be stocking the work of Dahl and Richard Scarry (with Scarry’s outdated, heavily gendered division of labour) to the exclusion of newer bulk purchases of children’s books with modern, less problematic ideologies?
Good riddance to Revolting Rhymes; bring us instead Zita the Spacegirl. Bring us bulk-purchased award- winning modern classics less then 10 years old. Bring us box sets of the Lunchlady series and Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Let’s support the publishing industry instead of reminiscing about times of yore, before the world had Gone PC Mad.
The only time you truly become an adult is when you finally forgive your parents for being just as flawed as everyone else.
— Douglas Kennedy
It is partly a children’s book convention that you write from the kids’ point of view, so you cannot be entirely fair to the parents as well. If you are going to write about children of twelve and thirteen who have totally understanding and marvellous parents, there’ll be nothing to write about.
— Gillian Rubenstein
The subject of mothers is apparently very sensitive for Peter [Pan]: “Not only had he no mother, but he had not the slightest desire to have one. He thought them very over-rated persons”. This is rather a puzzling statement, since Peter’s desire is to have Wendy as his mother. But the desire is extremely ambivalent, and the Lost Boys can only speak of mothers in Peter’s absence, “the subject being forbidden by him as silly”. “Now, if Peter had ever quite had a mother, he no longer missed her. He could do very well without one. He had thought them out, and remembered only their bad points.” We know that Peter ran away the day he was born, because he heard his parents talk about what he was to be when he became a man, which was not his intention: “I don’t want ever to be a man…I want always to be a little boy and have fun”.
—From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature by Maria Nikolajeva
Frances Spufford writes that characters in fairytales are symbols.
A character in a story exists in particular before it exists in general. A wicked stepmother is a woman before she is a symbol of what a child might fear in motherhood. The story of Snow White therefore says things about gender, and the encounters of daughter, stepmother, father and lover, before it can become a picture of a psychological process.
What narks me tremendously is people who pretend they’re writing for young children and they’re really writing to get laughs from adults. There are too many of those about. I refuse to believe that Carroll wrote Alice for that little girl. It’s much too complex for that.
– Roald Dahl, writer
I think there’s a horrendous movement of people who think there’s a formula: “let’s draw everyboyd in party hats”, but really they’re appealing to adults while the children are actually bored.
Flight is amazingly common in children’s stories. Several other motifs should be considered symbolically similar:
floating — e.g. by holding onto helium balloons, levitating by magic or by supernatural means
going up onto a high place, such as a roof or a tree(house) — Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton’s tree house series are mega bestsellers in Australia
hovering — a subgenre in African American books
leaping and jumping — In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s fourth book for children, On The Banks Of Plum Creek, Laura and Mary jump with unrestrained joy off a stack of hay (until they’re told not to by their father). This contrasts with later chapters in the book where the outdoorsy Laura finds it difficult to concentrate in class, where she is required to sit still, restrained like a caged creature.
Christopher Vogler has this to say about how flight doesn’t always mean actual flying:
Fairy tales include a chase that involves a whimsical transformation of objects, known as the magic flight motif. In a typical story a little girl escapes from the clutches of a witch with the help of gifts from animals she’s been kind to. The girl throws down the gifts one by one in the witch’s path and they magically transform into barriers that delay the witch. A comb becomes a thick forest that slows the witch while she gobbles it up. A scarf becomes a wide river which she has to drink.
Joseph Campbell gives several illustrations of magical flights, and suggests the motif stands for a hero’s attempts to stall the avenging forces in any way possible, by throwing down “protective interpretations, principles, symbols, rationalizations, anything…(to)…delay and absorb” their power.
What the hero throws down in a chase may also represent a sacrifice, the leaving behind of something of value. The little girl of the fairy tales may find it hard to part with the lovely scarf or comb given by the animals. Heroes of movie adventures sometimes have to decide what’s really important, and toss money out the window to slow their pursuers and save their lives. Campbell cites the extreme example of Medea. Escaping with Jason from her father, she had Jason cut up her own brother and toss his pieces into the sea to delay the pursuit.
– The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters
FLOATING = FLYING
When considering flight as a metaphor, include floating. As John Truby writes in his review of Avatar, ‘In the history of utopias, the single most important quality is floating or flying. Think of the floating tea party in Mary Poppins, Harry Potter playing Quidditch on his broomstick, or the floating house in Up.’
A good picture book example of floating can be seen in Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak, in which Ida floats backwards out the nursery window, then floats through the fantasy landscape as if she’s underwater. Gravity works differently in this imaginary world of hers, in which her little sister was kidnapped by goblins.
Truby points out that if a fantasy world is to be successful on a grand scale, it must have the qualities of a utopia.
The assumption that as readers we necessarily must identify with some character in the story we are reading has been seriously questioned by contemporary literary theory. Children’s writers have successfully subverted identification by creating a variety of repulsive, unpleasant characters with whom no normal human being would want to identify.
– Maria Nikolajeva in The Rhetoric Of Character In Children’s Literature
There’s been quite a bit in the press this month about expectations of likability in novels for adults:
And I do like the word ‘subversion’ in reference to some of the most popular fiction for children. I had two favourite authors as a child: One was Enid Blyton (for the fantasy) and the other was Roald Dahl. I have to admit, that was probably partly for the subversion of likable characters.