The Fog by Maclear and Pak

The Fog picture book cover

The Fog is a picture book by written by Kyo Maclear and illustrated by Kenard Pak. This is an example of a story for children that starts out in comical fashion, but you soon realise there’s a horrifying environmental message. The metaphor of fog serves double duty as a symbol of climate change and as a psychological state. Where to from here? The ending offers part of the answer.

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Diary of an Interesting Year by Helen Simpson

Peter Graham - The Grass Crown Headland of a Rocky Shore

Diary of an Interesting Year” by Helen Simpson is a science fiction short story and the final story in her collection In-flight Entertainment. This story is written in diary format and is a critique of the apocalyptic dystopian genre.

“Interesting” of the title is classic understatement. The comedy achieved by the irony and satire in this story is dark.

FEATURES OF THE APOCALYPTIC STORY

Apocalyptic stories tend to focus on the experience of a small group of characters, perhaps on one. This makes use of a particular cognitive bias — we are more saddened by the story of an individual than by the story of a population. When we are unable to feel empathy because the magnitude of disaster is too great, this is called psychic numbing.

THE MYTH OF THE SELF-RELIANT INDIVIDUAL

“Diary of an Interesting Year” critiques the idea that individuals are capable of looking after ourselves, given sufficient willpower, hard work and grit.

  • One reason that isolated characters seem appealing is that, ironically, they are reassuring. They give the comforting impression that anyone could thrive in isolation as they do.
  • The great loners embody an idea of freedom from the vagaries and stresses of social life (e.g. Robinson Crusoe and similar survival stories, often set on islands)
  • Famous hermits, both in real life and in fiction, are always male. They tend to be young, fit and healthy with no family responsibilities to speak of.
  • But even in stories, they are not wholly self-reliant.
  • These stories are often set in the wild. The wild is a source not only of sensory stimulation, but also of interspecies sociality. (Robinson Crusoe had a dog, two cats, some goats and a parrot, and later a human companion.)
  • Real, relentless isolation is not at all romantic. Indeed, it is far worse than the stress of social life.
  • A growing body of psychological evidence indicates that supportive social contact, interaction and inclusion are fundamentally important to a minimally decent human life.

Aeon

How does Helen Simpson subvert and invert the reassuring modern Romanticism we’ve come to expect of apocalyptic tales, even those tales full of death and destruction?

  • The narrator is a woman rather than your typical able-bodied Magyver archetype. This woman is not a shell-like fantasy of a woman but a real woman with real woman problems. She is terrified of pregnancy and cleaning her menstrual rags is one of her tasks. A few writers such as Meg Elison (The Book of the Unnamed Midwife) have put women front and centre in apocalyptic tales, but this is still rare enough to feel like an inversion. (This Reddit thread of comments really highlights the issues writers have writing female main characters in an apocalyptic setting. Many commenters think the main character is overly concerned with women’s issues and generally unlikeable — two accusations rarely if ever levelled at male characters in desperate situations.)
  • In straight apocalyptic tales, members of a group often come together in times of crisis. They do have their own in-group conflicts but those arguments tend to be focused on the here and now of the story, because everything that happened before this terrible moment is rendered insignificant. But in this story, the narrator has a long-standing issue with her older, academic husband — he is always going on about the apocalypse. This continues to irritate her. The same old rift won’t just die because of an apocalypse. Simpson juxtaposes and combines massive, life-and-death problems with the same workaday, run-of-the-mill problems within the same diary entry, ultimately showing that humans find it very difficult to rise above our immediate situations. “Oh, shut up,” says the narrator to her husband. She tells her diary they should put ‘I Was Right’ on his tombstone. Ironically, he does end up dead and death indeed shuts him up, forever. Though “See Saw” by Katherine Mansfield is a very different kind of short story, the characters in Mansfield’s story show the same petty aspect of human nature. But Mansfield achieves this by putting her characters into a utopian setting rather than into a dystopian one.
  • Apocalyptic stories are mythic in structure, either Robinsonnades (mentioned above) or Odyssean (characters go on a journey). In “Diary of an Interesting Year” the characters have no luck staying put. There are very unromantic reasons for this — sewerage overflow is one. So they set out on a journey. In a classic myth narrative, characters will meet stock characters along the way — some will be enemies, others helpers. But in this story there are no helpers. Moreover, enemies aren’t your classic villains, rather, enemies are other desperate people competing for the same scarce resources.

G held me in his shaky arms and talked about Russia, how it’s the new land of milk and honey since the Big Melt. ‘Some really good farming opportunities opening up in Siberia,’ he said through chattering teeth.

  • Although the narrator’s husband has been proven correct about the apocalypse — which is terrible — the diarist narrator wife paints a picture in which he is pleased he is at least correct. This is all he’s got to cling to. In this story, neither the happily deluded nor the Cassandras ‘win’.
  • The husband reminds me of every single character I’ve ever seen on Doomsday Preppers. The assumption behind those shows is that it’s possible to survive with adequate preparation and self-defence. This is a comforting idea for those with the resources. But in “Diary of an Interesting Year” the husband’s vague fantasies of self-sufficiency don’t pan out, because self-sufficiency is very, very difficult.

We met a pig this morning. It was a bit thin for a pig, and it didn’t look well. G said ‘Quick! We’ve got to kill it.’
‘Why?’ I said. ‘How?’
‘With a knife,’ he said. “Bacon. Sausages.’
I pointed out that even if we managed to stab it to death with our old kitchen knife, which looked unlikely, we wouldn’t be able just to open it up and find bacon and sausages inside.
‘Milk, then!’ said G wildly. ‘It’s a mammal, isn’t it?’
Meanwhile the pig walked off.

  • In apocalyptic stories the main character usually rebels against the status quo by exposing its flaws, escaping the world entirely, attempting to take it over, or initiating a new set of rules. But these characters are low on Northrop Frye’s scale of mimetic heroes. At first they seem hapless, until we step back and realise that in the same situation we’d be no better. This is, in fact, the point.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “DIARY OF AN INTERESTING YEAR”

Unlike straight narratives, the satire does not invite reader identification with a ‘hero’ or ‘main character

SHORTCOMING

Everyone’s in a pickle, though women are even more vulnerable than men.

DESIRE

The narrator has no long term desire other than to survive each day. Anything more would turn her into a more noble hero, and she is not that. She is an ordinary person, plucked out of comfortable urban/surburban life in a rich country with no survival skills.

OPPONENT

Everyone is an opponent, though her husband G is not the sort of opponent we’ve come to expect — the long-running issues of their marriage haven’t simply evaporated.

Everyone along the path is an opponent.

She is eventually abducted by M after M kills G.

PLAN

Throughout most of the story, plans don’t turn out. Even the things stories have taught us should be simple turn out to be nigh on impossible. For instance, throwing oneself about to induce termination:

Can’t sleep. Very bruised and scratched after today. They used to throw themselves downstairs to get rid of it. The trouble is the gravel pit just wasn’t deep enough, plus the bramble bushes kept breaking my fall.

Amy Robsart exhibited 1877 William Frederick Yeames 1835-1918
Amy Robsart exhibited 1877 William Frederick Yeames 1835-1918

BIG STRUGGLE

The Battle where the narrator defeats her main enemy is left off the page, presumably because the narrator can’t bear to write about it.

November 7th. It’s all over. I’m still here. Too tired to

ANAGNORISIS

After many abuses, the narrator realises she has the strength to defeat her abductor. This plan works, showing she has experienced a character arc. Using trickery, she is able to kill M. She also arranges things that he kills the baby inside her via another beating.

NEW SITUATION

The story ends with the narrator buries the diary with her dead baby. She continues on her journey. We extrapolate things won’t improve for her. She now has nothing and no one.

John Everett Millais - Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind
John Everett Millais – Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind

Slap Happy Larry Stories

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

Lemon Girl: A movie-length novella by Slap Happy Larry. Everyone is someone else's little psycho.

Header painting: Peter Graham – The Grass Crown Headland of a Rocky Shore

Theodore Mouse Goes To Sea by Michaela Muntean

Theodore Mouse Goes To Sea

Theodore Mouse Goes To Sea is a Little Golden Book first published 1983. The illustrations are by Lucinda McQueen. There is a series of stories about Theodore the Mouse.

I find this particular picture book an unremarkable read, and since I took a close look at The Sailor Dog earlier in the week, it’s worth examining what makes the ‘animal goes to sea’ story by Margaret Wise Brown so much more effective.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THEODORE MOUSE GOES TO SEA

SHORTCOMING

Like a lot of children’s stories, Theodore Mouse starts from a place of boredom. He goes to sea because he wakes up and every day is the same. The only thing that changes is the sea. We infer from that, as does the mouse, that the sea holds great adventure.

The symbolism of altitude is utilised here, with Theodore sitting in a high place (on the roof), gazing as far as his eyes can see, contemplating his adventure. Windows are used in the same way.

Mice as child stand-ins are common throughout children’s literature.

DESIRE

Theodore Mouse wants something to happen. So, like a superhero who sets out to save the world, his desire for something comes from within. Boredom.

This is the narrative used by advocates of screen-free childhoods, based on the theory that if children are deprived of stimulation they will make their own fun.

OPPONENT

Unlike Wise Brown’s story, Theodore Mouse Goes To Sea  is a more classically mythic structure, in which both the environment (the storm) and the ‘human’ pirates form joint opposition. Wise Brown’s story is a parody of the Robinsonnade; this is a straight sea adventure for the preschool set. I’m sure the preschool set doesn’t know that Wise Brown’s book is a parody, which probably makes these two Little Golden Books equal in their eyes. The difference is that the adult co-reader gets more out of Wise Brown’s book.

PLAN

First, Theodore uses his bed and sheets to make a bed and go out to sea.

The bed as ship trope is fairly common in children’s literature (I’ve used it myself, in The Artifacts). Perhaps most famously, it’s used by Margaret Wild and Jane Tanner in There’s A Sea In My Bedroom.

When he comes up against the pirates his plan is to beat the baddies with his pillows.

BIG STRUGGLE

The unintended consequence of beating the pirates with pillows is that the burst open and the baddies become covered in feathers, which humiliates them by making them look like chickens. (Whoever decided ‘chicken’ meant ‘coward’ didn’t once meet a live chicken, methinks. Chickens are the bolshiest animal I know.)

The ‘feather as weapon’ has been utilised since by Australian children’s band The Wiggles. Captain Feathersword has a sword made of feathers. This is acceptable to any gatekeeper of children’s media because no one could possibly be hurt with a feather. The feather as weapon is therefore at the extreme ‘benign’ end of the Chekhov’s Toy Gun continuum.

ANAGNORISIS

The anagnorisis is of the proxy, pathetic fallacy variety.

The sky cleared. The sun shone.

We’re never told what that revelation is, because I don’t think there is one. This is more of a carnivalesque adventure, in which a child character goes off on an unlikely, fantasy adventure away from authority figures, overcomes adversity, then returns to safety. The entire point of such stories is to have fun.

NEW SITUATION

One of the main human desires/needs is to be taken seriously by our peers. Theodores is richly rewarded in this regard. He sits on the roof with all his mousy peers, who listen wrapt as he tells his tales of adventures at sea.

The mythic structure of this tale, as well as this particular ending, make this a typically masculine story, though the mice friends do help him to put his bed back in his bedroom, which lends a co-operative (traditionally feminine) vibe. Wise Brown’s book is masculine in some ways — Sailor Dog is a ‘real’ sailor only once he’s wearing the masculine sailor uniform. But Wise Brown hasn’t used a masculine story structure — her big struggle scene is not the point.

The illustrations in Theodore Mouse Goes To Sea are very functional but otherwise unremarkable. There is an unnamed little friend who accompanies Theodore — the bird — a common illustrator trick to add extra narrative to the story. Apart from that, these illustrations are completely hygge, which is probably why they were chosen — a scary illustrator would turn the pirate rampage into something terrifying.

Slap Happy Larry Stories

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

Lemon Girl: A movie-length novella by Slap Happy Larry. Everyone is someone else's little psycho.
Home » Robinsonnade

The Sailor Dog by Margaret Wise Brown

The Sailor Dog cover

The Sailor Dog by Margaret Wise Brown is a Little Golden Book classic, first published 1953. After the success of Mister Dog, Wise Brown and Garth Williams were paired by the publisher the following year.

The Sailor Dog is basically a Robinsonnade for the preschool set. The Robinsonnade is an adventure story which takes place in a static place, like an island. For more on that, see this post. And for more about the role of islands in storytelling see this one.

ILLUSTRATIONS OF THE SAILOR DOG

Kirkus Reviews described Garth Williams‘ illustrations as ‘sagacious’: having or showing keen mental discernment and good judgement; wise or shrewd.

What is it about Williams’ illustrations that made them so wise?

As many illustrators have emulated since, he includes little side stories, including characters who aren’t mentioned in the text. The snail on the frontispiece illustration is crawling towards the viewer. There’s another identical snail behind, though the body of that one is concealed. This seems to be a deserted island, but is actually teeming with life, though to the newcomer it is hidden.

The second illustration, of the dogs in the car, reminds me very much of the work of Richard Scarry — both men lived at almost exactly the same time. Williams and Scarry both had the knack of drawing detailed illustrations in an era before photographic reference material was so readily available. It is therefore all the more impressive that Williams is able to draw a submarine, sailboat, lighthouse and whatnot. All the same, these are ‘storybook’ versions of such things. The submarine has an American flag waving on the front — the same gag used by The Beatles when they recorded Yellow Submarine in 1966. (Why the subterfuge when you plan to announce your presence?)

Other little ironies include a duck holding a red umbrella and sitting near the water (don’t ducks like water?). On the ship, Scuppers has a bed pan under his bed. Not sure if this is such a great idea for a ship. (We don’t find out what happened to its presumable contents after Scuppers got all caught up in that storm!)

Scuppers himself looks very cute sleeping in his bed, and again later, across pine branches, more like a man than a dog this time. Scuppers becomes increasingly human-like as the story progresses, which was a point not lost on Williams at all — this is part of his arc, culminating in the illustration below, when he puts on clothes:

Scupper's new suit

I write more about this particular image in a post Still Images In Picture Books, in which characters seem to pose for the camera. Most often, this is because the reader is introduced to the character, but this image performs a different function.

Interestingly, Garth Williams doesn’t care too much about continuity — not in the way modern illustrators do. The snails at the beginning are not the same colour as the snails on top of the treasure chest. That’s fine — they’re simply different snails. The lighthouse at the beginning is not the same lighthouse as the one on the closing image — again, fine — they’re different light houses. All the same, I think the modern trend is to maintain a smaller setting within a picture book. Certainly my own instinct would be to illustrate the same snails, the same lighthouse.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE SAILOR DOG

Scuppers the dog has an irresistible urge to sail the sea. His little gaff-rigged sailing boat hardly looks seaworthy, with colorful patches on its sails. Though not a luxurious boat, Scuppers keeps it neat and “ship-shape.” He has a hook for his hat, his rope, and his spyglass. Unfortunately, Scuppers gets shipwrecked after a big storm. Being a resourceful dog, he soon makes a house out of driftwood.

Wikipedia

Eventually, Scuppers repairs his ship and sails away, arriving at a seaport in a foreign land. The street scene is straight from a canine Kasbah. There are lady dogs dressed in full-length robes with everything but their eyes, paws, and tails covered, balancing jars on their heads. Scuppers needs new clothes after all his travels. He tries on various hats and shoes of different shapes and colors.

Life at sea soon calls Scuppers back to his boat. After stowing all his gear in its right place, he is back “where he wants to be — a sailor sailing the deep green sea.”

SHORTCOMING

Scuppers proves himself comically adept in this inversion of a Robinsonnade tale, so he doesn’t have a shortcoming or a need. In that, he is identical to Mister Dog. But he does have a problem, which is all we need to start a story, especially a picture book. His problem is that he wants to be a sailor, but he’s not a proper sailor (yet). In order to be a proper sailor, he’ll need sailing experience.

DESIRE

He wants to be a sailor.

OPPONENT

There is no anthropomorphised opponent in this story, because Margaret Wise Brown does her own thing, always. Instead, the opponent is simply the storm.

If there’s any kind of mythic narrative in which a human opponent is absent, it is the Robinsonnade. The very essence of a Robinsonnade is ‘man alone’, at least for a large part of the story. This makes these stories difficult to write. If there’s no villain, what will you use for your human-interest opposition? For longer works, ‘nature as opposition’ is never enough on its own to create a fascinating character web.

PLAN

First Scuppers builds a house. This speaks directly to the hygge nature of picture books. When my daughter was a preschooler I noticed that in her play (whether with a dollhouse or in computer games like Terraria), the first tasks she set herself involved making herself a bed. Then, when disaster struck (it always did), her character-self could retreat to the safety of home.

This need for security is depicted in fantasy. I remember at about the age of ten writing my own Robinsonnade (not that I knew that word). It was called “Fruitiful Island” and not much happens except my main character is shipwrecked onto an island which turns out to be a bounty of delicious goods. (I didn’t realise the value of narrative conflict back then and the story languished, half-finished, but a fulsome utopia in my own mind.)

The enduring popularity of The Sailor Dog tells me I’m not the only one with the shipwrecked on an island fantasy, in which we build our lives again from scratch, taking pleasure and pride in our own efforts.

Scuppers building

If he could build a house, he could mend the whole ship.

I find this line hilarious. One could say exactly the same thing of Robinson Crusoe, who made such a fine old life for himself on his island, why the hell couldn’t he build himself a ship to get on out of there, if he had so many skills?

Scupper fixes the boat

Instead, Crusoe sat around and waited for an English ship to appear — the colonialist’s equivalent of the woodcutter in a Little Red Riding Hood tale, as retold by a pair of patriarchal brothers.

In short, Scuppers is far more self-determined than Robinson Crusoe ever was. That seems to be the way of it for children’s characters. Writers can create adult characters for adults who sit around and wait for things to happen to them before springing into action, but if you’re writing child characters for a child audience, they’ll probably be up-and-at-em from the get go. Adults are mullers; children are doers.

BIG STRUGGLE

We might assume in a Robinsonnade that the Battle scene happens against the backdrop of the big storm which gets Scuppers shipwrecked in the first place. This would indeed make for wonderful pathetic fallacy. But the shipwreck is not the main thing:

Next morning he was shipwrecked. Too big a storm blew out of the sky. The anchor dragged, and the ship crashed onto the rocks. There was a big hole in it.

That’s as close as Margaret Wise Brown gets to a Battle sequence. But for this story, it’s more of a ‘means of transport’, getting Scuppers to the island.

In a classic Robinsonnade narrative, the Battle happens on the island, as the hero fights for his life, trying to find food, coming close to starvation and whatnot. This aspect of the Robinsonnade is the most interesting for an adult audience. We see the hero slowly lose his grip in Castaway, starring Tom Hanks. In Castaway, the hero almost loses himself.

But in a Margaret Wise Brown story, Scuppers had no problems on the island. He sleeps, he mends his own ship, he sails back into civilisation. Scuppers has literally zero problems surviving on the island. This is part of the gag above. This is what makes The Sailor Dog a parody of the Robinsonnade rather than a true Robinsonnade. It works as a story because the elements are all there — the emphasis is simply skewed.

ANAGNORISIS

The Anagnorisis is that Scuppers is a proper sailor now. He’s survived a shipwreck, made a life for himself on a (semi-)deserted island, and now he’s wearing sailor clothes to boot. The scene in which Scupper hangs all his new sailor clothes on his hook is the Anagnorisis scene.

Of course, the audience must have the world knowledge to know what a sailor’s uniform looks like. Perhaps a modern audience needs this pointed out. In 1953 I suspect the sight of men in their defence force uniforms were far more common around the world.

NEW SITUATION

And here he is where he wants to be—
a sailor sailing the deep green sea.

The story actually closes with his song. The song underscores the character arc, in case we missed it:

I am Scuppers the Sailor Dog—
I’m Scuppers the Sailor Dog—
I can sail in a gale
right over a whale
under full sail
in a fog.

and so on. The second verse is funnier, but I recommend you get your hands on the book.

Happy Valley Season One Storytelling

Happy Valley promotional poster

I’m picky these days about crime fiction, because so much of it revolves around the plot of a raped and murdered woman. In the worst of these stories, the audience is encouraged to participate in the sadomasochistic pleasure of the killer. Even in the best, it’s worth examining our cultural fixation on these stories, and the conflation of sex with violence in various aspects of real life.

Happy Valley is a British limited crime series with two seasons of six episodes each — a novelistic approach rather than episodic a la The Bill or CSI. The viewer must watch it from beginning to end in the right order to get the full impact. Like many others, the plot revolves around the rape of an offscreen young woman and her subsequent suicide; the onscreen murder of a beautiful young police officer and the abduction; rape and drugging of yet another young white woman. Exactly the sort of thing I’ve learned to avoid, but for a few differences:

First, Happy Valley stars Sarah Lancashire as police sergeant and main character Catherine Cawood. I feel I’ve grown up with Sarah Lancashire because she was playing the young bimbo Racquel in Coronation Street back when I lived in NZ, with Coro playing three evenings a week in a Coro fanatic household. Lancashire was a bit wasted in that, so I was pleased to see she went from strength to strength after leaving Coronation Street. If Sarah Lancashire chooses to do something, there’s something worthy in the story.

Second, Happy Valley is written by a middle-aged woman, born 1963. Not by a writing team, either, though every writer has help at some level. Like Vince Gilligan and Breaking Bad (who eventually got a writing room), this is one woman’s singular vision and that made it less likely producers and writers with more status had come in and mucked with it.

I was very interested to see what Sally Wainwright had done with the stale old trope of dead girls. Wainwright is a native of Yorkshire herself, so I expected her to get the setting right. She has worked as a bus driver in a town like this. She knows it.

In short, this crime show is different from the rest. Happy Valley is what stories look like when women are afforded the opportunity to write stories for and about women. Though I have no interest in writing adult crime fiction myself, there are writer tricks to take away from this crime, drama genre blend.

CHARACTERISATION OF CATHERINE

In some ways, Catherine is no different from many, many cops we’ve seen on screen before. She’s Jimmy McNulty from The Wire — changed by the dangers of the job into someone who has been affected by a cognitive shift something like The Overview Effect. Like an astronaut who has seen Earth’s vulnerability from the distance of a space shuttle, these cops have seen death itself. As a consequence, they have no time for the hierarchical bullshit that goes down among the police department and affiliated departments (in Catherine’s case, with the corrupt councillor, buying himself leeway to use hard drugs). Like McNulty, Catherine has little respect for her superiors at work — made worse by the fact she used to be a detective herself nine years earlier.

Sergeant Catherine Cahill is also typically flawed in her personal relationships. This, we assume, is partly to do with the hard shell she’s had to develop as part of the job. This shell was cemented with the death of her daughter, nine years ago, when job and family collided in the most terrible way.

Psychological shortcoming

Catherine is prone to obsession. She can’t draw a line between job and personal life, but this happened to her. She didn’t exactly choose it. The audience understands this clearly and we empathise. This, too, is a classic cop show shortcoming.

Moral shortcoming

Catherine twists the balls of a young man who may or may not have joked about her young, dead colleague. She sexually assaults him, in other words. She breaks into a house illegally. As she says to her sister, this doesn’t make it legal just because she’s a copper. To get to the truth she changes the story a little bit (we surmise), with the official report saying Ashley’s property looks like it’s been broken into. It had, sure, but also by Catherine herself. Is this a moral shortcoming? No, the audience sees it as a strength. The writer made sure to put us in audience superior position. We not only forgive Catherine for breaking the rules; we are rooting for her to break them further. She comes so close to saving the young woman early in the season. Audiences also love a trickster. The takeaway point here: If you want to create a hero who breaks the rules, it’s a good idea to show the audience more than you’re showing the character. I’ve written much more about empathy in this post, but as these tricks relate specifically to Catherine:

Catherine is an underdog. As she tells her sister, she gets to do all the cleaning up, but is not let into the big picture. This makes her job harder. We see enough of her bosses to know that they’re okay people but not as dedicated as she is. Catherine knows people. She remembers petty criminals from years back. The men she works under have no clue what’s going on at the street level. Scenes such as the one with the councillor refusing a breath test show how abuse is an everyday part of the job, compounded when her boss suggests she drop it, which is completely at odds with Catherine’s morality. Catherine holds people accountable. An underdog hero doesn’t start out wanting to save the world from evil — that would be a superhero — underdogs start the story responding to some strife, of which they are the victim. At some point in the story there will have to be a switch in attitude, though, when they become proactive rather than reactive. This switch happens very early in the series as Catherine learns from her ex-husband journalist that Tommy Lee Royce is out.

Catherine’s admirable qualities are drip fed to us. This makes us feel like we’re slowly getting to know her, and she’s better even than we thought. For this, the writers keep us in audience inferior position. We’re shown situations and left to fill in the blanks. For instance, we don’t know the journalist she meets in the street is her ex-husband, but when we’re shown they have an ‘amicable’ relationship, this shows emotional maturity. We learn the backstory of Catherine’s daughter and how she took on the baby despite losing the rest of her family, because it was the right thing to do. It is revealed only much later that she used to be a detective, but stood down to sergeant to focus more on family — an attribute many women will relate to. She cares about the sister’s friend at the mission and tracks her down, making sure she’s not trying to escape from domestic abuse. In this she’s like a dog with a bone. Tenacious. We like tenacious people who buckle down and do their jobs, especially if people’s lives are on the line.

Catherine’s shortcomings are also drip fed to us; the way she takes her inner turmoil out on her grandson and son. We are not shown the shortcomings until we’ve been given a reason for the shortcoming. This is important when creating a sympathetic character.

Catherine is smart but not a Sherlockian genius. This is the Goldilocks zone for likeability. “Are we being thick?” asks her sister in the kitchen, piecing together what the audience already knows. This scene is a remarkably adept masterclass in realism, by the way. “The first thing you learn as a copper is don’t make assumptions.” Catherine is high mimetic on Northrop Frye’s hierarchy of heroes. She’s just a bit stronger and smarter than most of us.

Catherine’s achievements are hard-won. She also doesn’t care about them. She’s no brown-noser. (Why do we hate brown-nosers? Because they sell their own morality upstream whenever they see a short-term personal advantage.)

Catherine is the ultimate in self-sacrifice for the greater good, coming face-to-face with death. The writers put her in physical danger in the harrowing scenes of episode four, but this is followed by a spiritual death in the final two episodes in which she resumes smoking cigarettes, falls into depression and is unpleasant to her family.

Catherine only pushes back as hard as she herself has been pushed. She’s loyal. She does throw in her stripes, literally, then gets right back on the job to save the day.

Catherine is a good mediator. We love good mediators. If you’re writing a hero police officer and you’re not showing the audience their mediation skills, you’re missing an opportunity, perhaps. We see Catherine in mediation, with her grandson’s school principal, and in the opening playground scene. We also see how she uses her humanity to open up on these occasions.

Something extra: This is where a middle-aged mother as writer really stands out — Catherine is absolutely exhausted by her various duties of care. When the young officer becomes bamboozled by the bully councilman, Catherine gives her a lecture on being strong in future. She’s just had to go in and do someone else’s job, because she’s too young to do it, frankly. “I’m not your mother,” Catherine says, brutally, fatally. We really want Catherine to back down as the young woman leaves her office. We really want her to say, “You’re not really shit at your job.” At the same time, we understand that Catherine simply does not have shoulders wide enough to be everybody’s mother. The exhausting work of nurture is something any lead parent can relate to, whether this is the mother or the father; in our society, it’s mostly the mother, and with elderly parents it’s usually the daughter. It’s exhausting and mostly thankless. And if you happen to be good at it, you’ll be unduly called upon at work as well as at home. Overall, I suspect Catherine’s inability to parent her young charges at work is an attribute more empathetic to women than to men. Helen Garner created a similar dynamic in her novel The Spare Room, and has said in interviews that men have responded completely differently from women to the text, with far less empathy towards the woman who is irritated by her caring responsibilities.

CATHERINE’S STRUGGLE PHASE AND ANAGNORISIS

The big struggle phase of a story can encompass various distinct stages. Catherine is taken to the brink of death, first physically, next psychically. But we pretty much know she’s going to pull through, right? Not just because we’ve seen her dogged determination, and because we know she’s been this low before, but because we’ve been primed to expect this from our fictional heroes:

The degeneration plot: A character changes for the worse from a protagonist who was at one time sympathetic and full of ambition to some crucial loss which results in their utter disillusionment. They then have to choose between picking up the threads of their life and starting over again or giving up their goals and ambitions altogether. If they choose the former course we have what may be termed the resignation plot. But since I only know of one such plot: Uncle Vanya. Chekhov seemed obsessed with how a character can live after all their hopes, dreams and goals have been shattered.

Morality-Redemption — Manchester By The Sea, Story Grid Editor Roundtable podcast

That’s a quote from Norman Friedman, who made a comprehensive typology of plot in the mid 20th century. Friedman might call season one of Happy Valley a ‘degeneration plot’, in which an attractive main character changes for the worse after a major crisis. Walter White is another example of that, though Catherine and Walt live on different sides of the law.

CHARACTER WEB

Happy Valley is a story about family as much as it is about detective work set in and around a police station.

Because Happy Valley is a screen production and not a novel, sister and confidante Clare is a vital character. It is through Catherine’s conversations with Clare that we get to understand her motivations: Why she is sleeping with her ex-husband; why she’s interested in pursuing Tommy Lee Royce, and what she hopes to achieve. We also get backstory — in one sentence we understand that Catherine has taken Clare in to live with her partly because Clare lives with alcohol addiction. Clare knows Catherine better than anyone, and Clare is able to sum up Catherine for us, cluing us into her obsessive, driven nature in which her mental health is affected. Clare is also useful because she does volunteer work at The Mission, which puts her right inside another, related subculture of the town, rubbing shoulders with people fresh out of prison. This is an important advantage in a story where the characters are a topiary of interrelationships — small towns are good for this — everyone knows everyone, and Catherine demonstrates her interpersonal expertise over and over to demonstrate this. A plot like this one does rely on the audience truly believing that everyone knows everyone in this town.

The Men Of Happy Valley

The men of Happy Valley form a hierarchy of awful to not awful, but still not great. Together, this character ensemble says something important about the way we, as a society, sit back and let things happen. I believe this relates back to the title. It’s not simply an ironic title. I mean, it’s that, too. This valley does not seem happy. It’s also about how certain people think everything is fine, and they’re happy to sit back and watch awful things play out before them.

At the top of that chain (or the bottom) we have Tommy Lee Royce, who looms in women’s lives as a (for most of us) hypothetical rapist and murderer — the bogeyman from scary fairytales; the person who makes us lock our doors and walk with keys between our fingers. Tommy Lee Royce borders on a horror trope. In horror, the monster just will not die. They rise from the dead time and again; Tommy loses three litres of blood, probably needs stitches, yet here he is, walking around, strong enough to manage a child abduction. Tommy is not punished with death. That’s what he begs for in the end, but there are fates worse than death and Catherine is determined to follow through. (Also, there’s series two to come.)

Ashley Cowgill is one rung down — Ashley is able to dehumanise a young woman to the point he’s happy to see her murdered. In bad company, Ashley comes to the party. He is punished with death.

Lewis Whippey is part of this culture of dehumanisation, but is ultimately unable to participate in it fully, horrified by the rape. Nor does he have the power to stand against it, unwilling to take any personal hit to make the world a better place.  Ashley is smaller and younger and less criminally experienced. These men, too, are familiar.

Kevin Weatherill — had his family life panned out differently — could easily have been drawn into the incel movement, feeling that life has been unkind to him. His wife, despite living with MS, does not feel that way because unlike Kevin, she hasn’t been conditioned into entitlement.

Nevison Gallagher is the flip side of Kevin. Nev has no reason to examine his masculinity because he has everything a man is praised for. He’s rich and the head of a successful business, with a stable family and a beautiful home. He is also emotionally underdeveloped compared to his wife Helen; he has spent his entire life focusing on work. Even his young adult daughter has more compassion for others than he does. Nev has never been rewarded for showing empathy; it’s no surprise he has very little of it. He has been richly rewarded for his business ruthlessness, in fact.

Daniel Cahill, Catherine’s estranged son, is eventually revealed to be psychologically wounded from the aftermath of his sister’s rape and murder. He feels unappreciated, and Catherine has lashed out. We are given enough of his backstory to understand why he might feel rejected. He reminds his mother that dead Becky was not perfect. Then he demonstrates his extra layer of misogyny, which he has plucked from the water we’re all swimming in: that his sister was complicit in her own downfall. “She was asking for it,” he says, multiple times, knowing how that upsets Catherine, but also choosing to believe it himself. This is exactly the attitude Catherine would have been battling against when she first joined the police force, and which hasn’t gone away yet.

Richard  Cahill is one of the more empathetic men of Happy Valley, though hapless. He’s moved on to a new relationship with a woman significantly younger, sort of, and can’t accept his grandson without Catherine’s help. The younger, subsequent partner is nevertheless a match for his emotional maturity, because he won’t grow up. Now Catherine remains Richard’s emotional rock and a bit of a mother figure when it suits him. We know this has never been a give and take relationship, emotionally. By the end of season one Catherine has realised this anew, and rejects Richard’s offers of emotional support, which he achieves via sex. He doesn’t know how else to do it. A beautiful example of mansplaining is written into the script when Richard finally takes Catherine’s advice to write about the drug crisis in the valley. Excited at everything he has just learnt from a few days of research, he calls Catherine while she’s working at her own job to tell her all about it. From his side, he just wants someone to talk to, but Catherine responds curtly; she is overfamiliar with the dynamic in which a woman is ignored, and then a man swoops in, runs with her idea and — we all know — it will be Richard’s name on the credit. Richard proves he hasn’t been listening, or he hasn’t respected Catherine’s expertise. So often, ‘good men’ only start to listen — really listen — to women once they’re in the middle of their own personal crisis. For Richard, it’s the crisis of losing his job.

The male colleagues at the police station are another variety of people you’d likely find in a workplace. The most relatable (and frustrating) is the boss who is an okay person but isn’t especially good at getting the job done. He’s ‘nice’. But sometimes switches to ‘boss mode’ when challenged, and then you realise he’s not so nice after all.

These men are all very different from each other, but is any single one of them truly ‘good’?

I’m just going to throw this out there because, as far as provocative truth bombs go, it’s been ticking away for too long.

The universal male decency we keep hearing about is largely a myth.

Sure, most men might not be bad. But it takes more than ‘not being bad’ to be ‘actually good’.

Clementine Ford, “What does it mean to be a good man?”

No doubt the fictional Richard, Daniel, and even Kevin, would consider themselves decent men. But what are they standing against? What is it they’re actually doing to make the world a better place for those with less privilege, or even to just to stop it from sliding into awfulness?

Apparently all it takes to be considered a ‘decent bloke’ is to take an each way bet at doing nothing — nothing to perpetuate oppression, and nothing to stop it.

Clementine Ford, “What does it mean to be a good man?”

This attitude, that being NOT SEXIST is the same as being ANTI-SEXIST is common to all forms of bigotry:

I haven’t been able to muster much optimism for what feels like forever, so a friend asked if I’m at least heartened by the mainstream noise over child detention. The answer is “not really.” I thought for a while about why I feel that way, and I think it comes down to the mistaken feeling (mostly white) people seem to have that not-bigotry is the same thing as anti-bigotry. See, I think that as long as those two things are getting confused, we’re going to continue to see the stage set for more and more drastic abuse, because it lets dehumanization slip by. Not-bigotry is having POC friends. It’s putting up signs that “all are welcome here.” It’s believing that your beliefs alone are part of a multigenerational groundswell that will make bigotry fade because of population math. Anti-bigotry is, among other things, acknowledging targeted oppression. Realizing that burying the who and why of those targeted allows the conversation to ignore underlying and systemic issues, which guarantees further abuse. That, I think, is why so many people who see themselves as progressive are (mostly unknowingly) arguing against children in cages but accepting families in cages as a reasonable solution. I tweeted recently that when the conversation moved into the national dialogue, it went from “brown children” to “children.” Why is the latter more effective in inspiring outrage? Who made the choice to drop the specificity? People are feeling like there’s a moment here, and it’s terrifying to me that the accepted “progressive” narrative is whitewashed; it affirms that POC need to be viewed non-racially to garner sympathy. The obsession with Trump, his family, and his administration as the be-all, end-all of these atrocities is another variable: it says to me that public derision for a singular figure also needs to be present to generate this outcry.

@NoTotally

THE BEAUTIFUL CIRCULAR ENDING

As Happy Valley opens in episode one, Catherine Cawood grabs a fire extinguisher from a corner shop and marches towards a young man high on skunk, perched on play equipment threatening to set himself on fire. There’s gallows humour in this scene. He isn’t dangerous — he is pathetic. We learn later via dialogue that Catherine had to spray him because he had no idea how close he was to lighting himself up. This scene is also an excellent way for the audience to get to know Catherine quickly; not only do we see her cool, collected and experienced; she tries to talk the young man down by giving him a snapshot of her own life. “My name’s Catherine Cawood, I’m forty-seven, divorced, my daughter’s dead and my son won’t talk to me.” (I’m paraphrasing, but it’s that memorable.)

It’s easy to forget that scene, and we’re almost meant to. But we are reminded of it later in episode six. Another young man — or possibly the very same one — is on the same playground, convinced after smoking weed while watching Peter Pan that he is surrounded by crocodiles. Catherine is exhausted. She’s had a near-death experience by this stage, and when she learns he ‘might skin his knees if he falls off’, she slams the phone down. She walks out. She can’t be dealing with this inconsequential crap. That’s the takeaway point for the audience, but there’s another reason for this seemingly unrelated scene.

Because when we get to the penultimate scene of the season, in which Tommy Lee Royce tries to set himself on fire along with his eight-year-old son, it’s suddenly clear why we saw these earlier scenes with the young man on the playground. There are villains and then there are Villains. The everyday job of a copper in Happy Valley is dealing with drug addicts who are themselves victims in a way. By juxtaposing the young man on the playground (child’s play, literally) with the evil of Tommy Lee Royce, we see the distinction that Catherine has always made — this young man who raped her daughter is not like the others. The writers reminded us subtly of the opening playground scene by showing us another very similar right before the showdown on the boat. The first time I watched this series I didn’t even notice what had been done — a perfectly circular series ending. Two young men threatening to set themselves on fire, but under completely different circumstances. It doesn’t even feel like repetition, partly because the first time Catherine sprayed a man with foam happened off-stage. Now we get to see her do it for Real. It feels poetic and cathartic both.

It’s worth noting, too, that stories about women are more likely to be circular in shape than stories about men, which are linear; a hero goes on a journey, starting in one place, ending in another. But Catherine never leaves town. This is a Robinsonnade in which the hero stays ‘on her island’ to fight evil on the home front.

A NOTE ON THE ENDING OF SEASON TWO

Season One ends on a triumphant note. The audience experiences catharsis as she wrestles with the moral dilemma of whether to murder the villain. We’re pleased for her that she’s able to restrain herself, because that would be a very bad ending for Catherine.

Season Two ends with parallels to the film Silence of the Lambs. Shawn Coyne likes to think of narrative in terms of External and Internal, a categorisation he applies to genre, character arc and desire. Here’s what he has to say about Silence of the Lambs:

External Climax Scene

In The Silence of the Lambs, the external climax scene of the global Story is Clarice Starling killing Buffalo Bill. So for his resolution scene(s), Harris does not dwell on the external Storyline. There isn’t a big recap of the action from Starling’s FBI colleagues…we already know what happened. The external climax is firmly established—Buffalo Bill is dead and Starling killed him.

Instead Harris focuses on the internal change to Starling after she attains her conscious object of desire. The resolution scenes do not go over her being patted on the back etc. reviewing exactly how she figured out everything and found Buffalo Bill’s lair. It ends with Starling accepting the fact that she did not get her subconscious object of desire (safety and protection and rewards from an esteemed social institution). We watch her settle into a new worldview shift. She’s moved from blind belief in the righteousness in strict hierarchical law and the order of institutions (FBI) to disillusionment. Even though the External Genre has moved from negative to positive (the killer is dead), Starling’s view of the world has gone from naively positive to justified negative.

Coyne, Shawn. The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know (p. 194). Black Irish Entertainment LLC. Kindle Edition.

Similarly, by the end of Happy Valley season two, Catherine has defeated the villains — Tommy Lee Royce, his co-conspirator victim, and the police officer who has made some terrible decisions. She has solved the mystery of the local serial killers All get their just desserts, with collateral damage. These plots have lead Catherine to wonder about why people become the way they are — are they born evil? The final scene shows an outwardly happy scene of Catherine’s family walking across a grassy hill. Her grandson is happy, talking animatedly about a dog, but the look on Catherine’s face tells us she’s not happy. What is she thinking? Everything that’s happened tells us exactly what she’s thinking: Is her grandson going to turn out like his rapist biological father? Will she end up killing him and trying to kill herself, like the mother she just rescued? Like that of Clarice Starling, Catherine’s External Genre moved from negative to positive (the various killers are dead), but Catherine’s view of her grandson (and of human nature) has gone from wavering to permanently negative.

WEAKNESSES OF HAPPY VALLEY

I remain a little unconvinced on several points, partly to do with the supporting actors, I suspect.

Though I accept the cool reserve of certain English classes, I don’t believe the Gallaghers’ muted reactions to their daughter’s kidnapping. There’s something to be said for keeping tears off ‘the page’ — if the character cries, the audience does not. We do see the PTSD of Catherine, with flashes of her dead daughter in the back seat, and the high-pitched fainting precursor, and the muted ambient talking all around her as she copes with terrible news. These editing effects afford believable insight into her psychology. But these tricks are not utilised with the other characters, because they are not the main characters. This is a really hard balancing act, and there may be a cultural difference in my reaction. (I’m not British.)

I accept that the Cahill household was in chaos at the time of Ryan’s abduction by Tommy, but I didn’t really buy that two eight-year-old boys would be given free reign until five o’clock in the afternoon. I’d believe this of the eighties, or of children with really compromised caregivers, but that’s certainly not the culture where I live. Eight is about two to four years too early for that level of freedom.

Home » Robinsonnade

Children’s Literature and Genre

GENRE IN STORIES FOR CHILDREN

Children’s literature is broken down into genres, just as adults’ stories are. But critics of children’s literature differ in how they prefer to categorise the main types of stories for children.

I’ve observed that children’s editors and similar often avoid talking about ‘genre’ when discussing children’s stories. ‘Genre’ is one of those words that needs quote marks around it. Instead, they use different terminology.

REALISM VS FANTASY

John Stephens has said that the distinction between fantasy and realism is ‘the single most important generic distinction in children’s fiction‘. On the other hand, children’s literature academic Maria Nikolajeva doesn’t make that particular distinction, treating ‘all children’s literature as essentiallymythicor at least non-mimetic‘. [Non-mimetic means not even trying to emulate reality.]

MATURATION PROCESS

Nikolajeva describes children’s stories as ‘a symbolic depiction of a maturation process (initiation, rite of passage) rather than a strictly mimetic reflection of a concrete “reality”.’

Arguably the most pervasive theme in children’s fiction is the transition within the individual from infantile solipsism to maturing social awareness’.

John Stephens

See my post on Coming-of-age Stories. (In which there are subcategories and related categories.)

MYTH VS ROMANCE, MIMETIC VS NON-MIMETIC

Northrop Frye writes in terms of ‘myth-to-romance—romance to high mimetic—low mimetic to ironic’.

Carl Jung wrote of ‘harmony-split-split toward wholeness’, part of what he called the individuation process.

Peter Hunt wrote of ‘closed—semi-closed—unresolved’ stories forming the backbone of children’s literature.

The QuesT OR MYTHIC Story

Maria Nikolajeva writes about children’s stories in terms of ‘utopiacarnival-collapse’. Nikolajeva is also careful to provide the disclaimer that whatever may be true for Western stories is not necessarily true when it comes to the structure of stories in other cultures.

Quest stories have a mythic structure. Nikolajeva writes of the Quest Story as a category of its own, if not a genre. Quest stories are stories of growth and maturation (and this is true whether the audience is adult or child).

Maria Nikolajeva notes that ‘a psychological quest for self can be found in many contemporary YA novels, for instance Gary Paulsen’s The Island, a modern Robinsonnade. Examples of a children’s Robinsonnade would be Theodore Mouse Goes To Sea and Sailor Dog.

The Island Gary Paulsen cover

When applied to children’s literature, Nikolajeva prefers the term ‘picnic‘ in place of ‘quest’ because in children’s stories there is often no character development once the children come back to the primary world. For instance, the Pevensie children in the Narnia Chronicles live entire lives, then presumably live again as children when they arrive back in the real world.

GENRE OR CHRONOTOPE?

Academic Maria Nikolajeva does not make a distinction between:

what is normally described as ‘genres’ or ‘kinds’ of children’s fiction: historical fiction, fantasy, adventure, realistic everyday story, or “nonsense” (which I do not believe to be a generic category anyway, but rather a stylistic device). The difference is in setting, or more specifically in chronotope, the organisation of space and time. In my typology, all these texts belong to the same narrative pattern: “semiclosed” in Peter Hunt’s taxonomy, “Odyssean” in Lucy Waddey’s. In Frye’s mythical cycle, the closest description is romance.

(Chronotope is Bakhtin’s terminology.)

QUEST VS PICARESQUE

Rather than genre, Nikolajeva thinks of children’s literature in terms of ‘quest’ and ‘picaresque’.

Quest has a goal; picaresque is a goal in itself. The protagonist of a picaresque work is by definition not affected by his journey; the quest (or Bildungsroman) is supposed to initiate a change. There is, indeed, sometimes a very subtle boundary between ‘there-and-back’ and a definite, linear journey ‘there’, which is best seen in the last volume of the Narnia Chronicles.

Picaresque: relating to an episodic style of fiction dealing with the adventures of a rough and dishonest but appealing hero. An example of a modern picaresque film for adults is Thelma & Louise.

Nikolajeva further categorises children’s fiction into three general forms:

  1. Prelapsarian (when the main characters are unspoiled by ‘The Fall of Man’. The setting tends to be pastoral, secluded, autonomous. The main characters tend to be ensembles. The narrative voice tends to be didactic and omniscient. Time is circular, with much use made of the ‘iterative’ rather than the ‘singulative’. Utopian fiction introduces readers to the sacred e.g. The Secret Garden.)
  2. Carnivalesque (in which the characters temporarily take over from figures of authority and often make mischief, but control their own worlds for a time. See: The Hobbit, Narnia Chronicles, Harry The Dirty Dog. Carnivalesque texts take children out of Arcadia but ensure a sense of security by bringing them back. They allow an introduction to death, which inevitably follows the insight about the linearity of time.)
  3. Postlapsarian (in which a pastoral setting tends to be replaced by an urban one, and collective protagonists are exchanged for individuals. First person point of view is common. Time is linear. The main character knows that time is linear, so death becomes a central theme. Harmony gives way to chaos. The social, moral, political, and sexual innocence of the child is interrogated. These texts exist to introduce children to adulthood and death, and encourages them to grow up, or helps them out with it. In these stories, there is no going back.)

GENRE BREAKDOWN IN CHILDREN’S STORIES

With all that terminology out of the way, I’d like to go back to ‘genre’. Some genres are especially popular with kids.

Crime

Crime is amazingly popular worldwide, for children and adults alike.

Enid Blyton wrote a lot of detective stories (The Famous Five, Secret Seven). Detective stories continue to be popular, and below the upper-MG age group, it’s the subgenre of ‘cosy crime‘, in which the stakes are low. (See Alexander McCall Smith’s The Great Cake Mystery). In the world of children’s books, Nate the Great is known for his:

unflinching resolve in the face of stolen goldfish, absconded cookies, and M.I.A. pets.

A combination of drama and cozy crime is common in children’s literature. Timmy Failure by Stephan Pastis seems to have its main genre as drama, with a sub-genre of crime:

It doesn’t take much reading between the lines to discover that Timmy has real problems: his grades are poor, he’s not very popular, and his single mother is struggling to pay the bills while her new, thuggish boyfriend is making Timmy’s home life unbearable. Investigating a case of a missing Segway with his (imaginary) polar bear business partner makes for a good diversion.

See: The 15 Greatest Kid Detectives from Huffington Post

Sammy Keyes is described likewise as a:

skillful mix of mystery with a traditional coming-of-age narrative

Like the trend in stories for adults, children’s books now are often described as a blend between one type of story and another in the marketing copy:

Like The DaVinci Code meets From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Chasing Vermeer is chockablock with mind bending puzzles and tantalizing twists that readers will gobble up along with Petra and Calder.

The 15 Greatest Kid Detectives

Daniel Handler’s series All The Wrong Questions is described as…

a pitch-perfect update of the pulp fiction crime novels from the 1930s meant for young audiences.

“Everything’s a mash-up”, or builds on what has come before, sometimes with an ironic knowingness, at least, for older readers who have read the originals:

Mac Barnett’s playful riff on The Hardy Boys makes good fun of skewering the boy-detective genre while still offering a mystery that’s quick-witted and engaging.

Is it true for children’s literature, as it is for Hollywood scripts, that stories must nowadays be a blend of more than one genre?

The Girl Who Could Fly is blurbed as follows:

It’s the oddest mix of Little House On The Prairie and X-Men.

…in acknowledgment of the observation that historical fiction mixed with superhero plotting (which is really a type of myth) is quite unusual.

I’m not convinced that children’s books need to be more than a single genre, for the simple reason that a younger audience has not  yet had the breadth of media exposure to have become sick of single genre stories. Picture books are often a single ‘genre’ most of the time, because they are so short.

It’s certainly true that in children’s literature, publishing goes through phases and evolutions. Everything builds upon what’s come before, and when a straight love story becomes so common that it’s hard to do something new with it, we get another spin.

The Middle Grade Buddy Story

The  ‘buddy movie’ equivalent in MG literature is also pretty popular. The buddy movie is really a mixture of three genres (Action + Love + Comedy), or if it’s a buddy cop movie it’s Action + Love + Crime, and we’re seeing this first kind of genre mashup in series such as Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid, with Greg Heffley as the main character who has a more naive and light-hearted best friend.

The same combination is used in Monster House (the film). Usually, girls form the opponents, and are seen as a different species. This is supposed to result in humour, to a greater or lesser extent.

Though not really a kids’ story due to the advanced age of the narrator, The Wonder Years gives us Kevin Arnold and his best friend Paul. The comedy that results is of a melancholic kind.

Nowadays, the female buddy movie is starting to be made, perhaps because gender-swapping is one easy way to do something a bit different. For example, we have Bullock and McCarthy in It Takes Two. So it follows that we’ll start to see more buddy MG stories with female leads, though there are perhaps still too few stories about female friendship, especially when it comes to comedy. Female friendships and the problems within are almost always treated in dramatic/serious fashion.

Love

Picture books are often about the love between children and their families. In middle grade there is often the hint of a love subplot. In young adult stories, you get the entire range of love story, including sex.

We’re seeing more and more adult genre elements working their way into YA, perhaps because a large proportion of YA is read by adults:

This is not your parents’ Nancy Drew mystery. While there are elements of Nancy and her gang in all mysteries subsequent, the real inspiration I see in the current growing subgenre of what I have dubbed PG-13 Serial Killer Fiction, is the lead character of Veronica Mars, with a hint of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and just a dash of the adult serial killer chaser fiction like James Patterson’s Alex Cross series. Truly, the hunt for mass-murdering sociopaths does not sound like traditional young adult literature, however, I have noted the trend growing in recent years of bringing these tales to the new generation of readers by featuring empowered teenage females with unusual gifts as the foil for the killer. [In true Thriller fashion.]

review of I CAN NOT TELL A LIE BY JOSH NEWHOUSE at Nerdy Book Club

Fantasy

England has produced some of the most outstanding fantasy over the last century or so, whereas America is known for  its realism. This is starting to change.

David Beagley talks about hero fantasy in Lecture 9 of Genres In Children’s Literature, available on iTunes U. He defines fantasy in lecture 10 . In lecture 11 he talks about Harry Potter and defines ‘high fantasy’. In lecture 12 he talks about how teachers and other gatekeepers might go about sorting out the wheat from the chaff.

Nonsense Stories

Maria Nikolajeva offers The 35th of May as an example of a story oft described as ‘nonsense’. ‘This funny, entertaining story has certainly been admired by many readers in many countries, but it has nothing to do with the idea of spiritual growth’. Is there an adult-analogue for the nonsense story? As explained above, nonsense is a stylistic device rather than a genre as such.

War Stories

War-time stories are sometimes treated as a separate genre, in British children’s fiction especially, but Nikolajeva does not consider them separate.

Dystopia

Is dystopia a genre?

Dystopian novels become a genre of their own, in which adults, politicians and leaders are consistently portrayed as deceitful, greedy, vainglorious and wicked. Occasionally, as in Sally Gardner’s Maggot Moon, the dystopia portrays an alternative history – a Fascist 1950s Britain along the lines of 1984. More usually, they are set in the future, against the cataclysms produced by current trends.

Dystopia isn’t new: in my own childhood there were superb writers such as John Christopher, whose Prince in Waiting trilogy should be much better-known. But these futures were the product of natural catastrophe or alien invasion. Now, the darkness and violence of contemporary dystopias is highly politicised. The most famous is Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, in which teenagers are required to fight to death for the ultimate TV reality show. Or, you might say, the ultimate high-school show-down. Plenty of other terrific novels such as Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies, Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses, Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now and Moira Young’s Blood Red Road depict our future as ravaged by science, racism, war, genetic mutation or most credibly, exams.

Amanda Craig, writing about the Third Golden Age of Children’s Literature

Until recently dystopia has been popular in YA. (Editors are recently saying they don’t want to read any more of it.) In the year 2000, Maria Nikolajeva wrote:

Dystopia has been by definition an impossible genre in children’s fiction. However, a recent trend in children’s fiction shows tangible traits of dystopia. We can see forerunners of this trend in post-disaster science-fiction novels, for instance. The Prince in Waiting trilogy, which combines high technology with medieval mysticism. In the trend I am referring to, the dystopian idea is central, the kernel of the story itself, and the interrogation of modern—adult—civilisation in these books is as strong as in Huxley or Orwell. It has taken children’s fiction more than half a century to catch up with adult literature in developing this genre, which contradicts the view of childhood as a vision of a hopeful future. It is amazing that the genre has become so prominent, indeed one of the most prominent genres in British, American, and Australian children’s fiction of the 1990s. An early representative of this trend may be seen in Robert Cormier’s I Am the Cheese, where a ruthless totalitarian society is reflected in a mentally disturbed boy’s mind. In Germany, Gudrun Puasewang has received much attention for her dystopian children’s novels, especially Fall-out, a gloomy post-Chernobyl depiction of a nuclear plant accident.

Dystopia might instead by considered a ‘category of ending‘ (grim rather than happy — the opposite of idyll) rather than a genre per se, with the most popular dystopian YA in 2015 being a blend of action, romance, myth and historical. For more on Dystopian fiction, see this post.

The Plot Of Dog Days by Jeff Kinney

Diary Of A Wimpy Kid Dog Days cover

Some have said that the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books have no plot, including Jeff Kinney himself. Is this really true? If so, the perennially popular Wimpy Kid series defies a ‘law’ of storytelling — a first of its kind.

Yesterday I read another book from the Wimpy Kid series and decided Dog Days story has a ‘meandering plot’.

Today I take a close look at a random Wimpy Kid book from my daughter’s shelf to see what people really mean when they say Jeff Kinney’s books have ‘no plot’.

STORY STRUCTURE OF DOG DAYS

How Events Are Connected

The scenes in a Wimpy Kid story are made up of events in the present (on the day of writing), events of the recent past (the last few days) or flashbacks from weeks/months/years ago.

One event in the present can spark an event in the past, providing a natural segue. Where there is no natural segue, Greg writes a new entry under a different day of the week.

  • PRESENT: Mother insists Greg goes outside to play because Greg is in his room by himself under a blanket.
  • RECENT PAST: Greg goes to country club with Rowley where a girl they invited ditches them
  • FLASHBACK: Greg complained to Mr Jefferson about the fruit smoothies and other things but after complaining was uninvited to the country club
  • Greg’s mother makes him go to the local pool, which is a comedown from the country club.
  • FLASHBACK: Being terrified of the hairy naked men in the changing room
  • PRESENT: Greg learns the family can’t afford to go to the beach this year.
  • FLASHBACK: Last year he wouldn’t go into the surf because he realised sealife uses the sea as their toilet. He did enjoy a ride called the Cranium Shaker.
  • PRESENT: Mother says they’ll have a fun holiday at home hanging around the local area. Greg is looking forward to his birthday and the final Lil Cutie comic running in the paper.
  • ONGOING PRESENT: Argues with father about sleeping hours, screen time.
  • PRESENT: Greg’s photo album, with big gaps in it due to him not being the first born. “I’ve learned that photos aren’t an accurate record of what happened in your life, anyway.”
  • [Segue = Manny and mother seashell photo opportunity] FLASHBACK: Watching the same thing happen to his little brother, Greg realises mother bought seashells, buried them at the beach then took photos of Greg ‘finding’ them.
  • [New thread] Mother takes Greg to get haircut at a salon where old ladies get theirs done. Greg gets addicted to soaps.
  • [Segue = tabloids at the hairdresser] Grandmother isn’t using the phone because she read in a tabloid that they erase the memory of the elderly.
  • RECENT PAST: Mum has been throwing out grandmother’s tabloids but Greg has been reading them before they get thrown out.
  • PRESENT: At the hair salon, Greg had a long wait.
  • RECENT PAST: The old ladies who work there have been gossiping to him.
  • PRESENT: Mother interrupts story about Mr Peppers and Greg never gets to hear the end.
  • PRESENT: Greg is now hooked on soap operas. Mother tells Greg to invite Rowley over. They go to the basement and riffle through Rodrick’s stuff. They find a horror film. They’ve never seen one before so Greg arranges for Rowley to stay the night.
  • FLASHBACK: Last summer the boys had a sleepover in the basement. Rowley slept next to the boiler room because Greg is scared of it. They got spooked. This gag is a minor ghost story in which Greg tries to persuade his parents the house is haunted. But it was only one of Manny’s dolls.
  • RECENT PAST: Last night (it’s more feasible that Greg is writing his diary the day following a sleepover) the move was about a muddy murdering hand which walks. They spent the rest of the night in the bathroom with the lights on and were found this morning by Mr Heffley.
  • PRESENT: Yesterday mum gave Greg a lecture on horror movies. She has decided to start a reading club, which isn’t supposed to be a punishment but to Greg it is. This morning a few neighbourhood boys turned up.
  • FLASHBACK: When Greg was 8 years old he borrowed a book from the library but is now terrified of the librarian because he’s sure he owes thousands in fines for losing it.
  • PRESENT: This time it’s only Greg and Rowley at the book club.
  • FLASHBACK: About a book with a scantily clad woman on the cover which Greg has read, and the book doesn’t have any women in it.
  • PRESENT: Greg is the only one left in his mother’s book club.
  • RECENT PAST: Greg hasn’t been able to get through his assigned reading because he’s distracted by the thought of the muddy hand coming to get him.
  • and so on

This structure of scenes does make the plot seem in complete disarray (or ‘plotless’) but if you take away all the flashbacks and asides, there is a linear progression from ‘beginning of summer’ to ‘end of summer’. This is a Robinsonnade in the sense that Greg doesn’t go anywhere — unlike The Long Haul he is ‘marooned’ at home for much of it.

SHORTCOMING

I’m pretty sure Greg Heffley is on the psychopathic spectrum. His creator Jeff Kinney has said he never meant Greg to be a role model, but looking at the way he treats his friends, family and neighbours — he has no affinity to any of them. Not even to the dog who comes to stay. That personality trait leads to the inciting incident…

Without knowing (or caring) who has to pay for it, Greg and Rowley rack up a huge fruit smoothie at the country club snack bar, where Rowley’s father is a member. The reader sees him doing this, and like Greg, we pay no mind as to who is paying for all these drinks.

Some authors would introduce the issue of payment near the start, but in this story a lot of extraneous gags happen before we even realise this will be a problem. We are, however, shown within the first few pages that Greg has been drinking fruit smoothies.

DESIRE

On the first page we see that Greg only wants to sit inside under a blanket and play computer games all summer.

OPPONENT

As usual, the main opponent is Greg’s mother, who says it’s ‘not natural’ for boys to be spending so much time alone in their room. So she forces him out of the house.

PLAN

Greg plans to mooch of Rowley’s family’s country club membership while enjoying all the accoutrements of a lavish lifestyle, despite not really liking Rowley all that much. His unreliable, ironic narration has him complaining about the girl who ditched him and Rowley for the better-looking lifeguard. “The lesson I learned is that some people won’t think twice about ditching you, especially when there’s a country club involved.”

BIG STRUGGLE

Another reason this story feels without structure is because we’re mostly used to a structure which builds to some sort of climax. This is achieved partly by a series of big struggles which (in most stories) build in intensity until the big, final showdown where the hero comes close to death. There’s nothing like that in this book. Greg has many, many small big struggles but these don’t lead to anything massive. The whole point of these events in Greg’s empty summer is to demonstrate the wide-open, goal-less days in the Every Boy’s summer.

ANAGNORISIS

Turns out this is essentially a story about a father/son relationship. But in Greg Heffley style, the deep and meaningful messages found in serious literature is parodied. Greg doesn’t learn much at all:

I guess some people would say that hating a comic is a pretty flimsy foundation for a relationship, but the truth is, me and Dad hate LOTS of the same things.

Me and Dad might not have one of those close father-son relationships, but that’s fine with me. I’ve learned that there is such a thing as TOO close. [An image of Rowley on the toilet talking to his father at the vanity.]

NEW SITUATION

The holiday is ‘pretty much over’ when Mrs Heffley finishes the photo album. This final montage of the photo album is a one-image per gag rundown of each incident, but from the mother’s point of view. This provides some ironic distance between the mother and son’s version of events, and highlights the unreliable nature of Greg’s narration. We are reminded that the mother, too, only has a small part of the story of her son’s summer to document as she hasn’t the foggiest idea about all that goes on.

THE PLOT SHAPE OF DOG DAYS

Dog Days is far from plotless. If it appears plotless that is because it’s an example of a ‘meandering’ story structure, in which one event leads to flashbacks and asides. The hero has a desire, but it is not intense. He covers a great deal of territory in a haphazard way and he encounters a number of characters from different levels of society. Ulysses and Alice and Wonderland are well-known examples of the meandering plot, which foregrounds other aspects of story over the desire, plan and big struggle of the main character.

Dog Days is also a spoof on ‘serious literature’ of the sort put on summer reading lists by gatekeepers of children’s literature such as teachers and mothers. This is depicted by Mrs Heffley’s book club idea. If serious literature is meant to add to a child’s life, Greg’s summer is full of ‘mind-rotting’ activities eschewed by concerned adults such as playing video games, watching soaps, imbibing gossip at the beauty salon and reading trashy comics. No matter what Mrs Heffley tries to do to enrich her son’s life, Greg finds a way of turning even a trip to the pool into something ‘as bad as’ a horror movie.

The message of this book is that there is no message. Father and son remain united only by their common dislike of a comic, in which Jeff Kinney lampoons the mawkish comic strips often found in 20th century American newspapers. The epiphany, likewise, is that there is no substantial epiphany. In this respect (and this respect only), Dog Days is similar to Annie Proulx’s “The Half-skinned Steer” — another upending of a common mythic story structure.

By the way, do you  know why ‘dog days’ refer to the hottest days of summer (in America)? Here in Australia we don’t even use that term, and here’s the reason why.

Storytelling Tips From Kings Of Summer (2013)

Sometimes when you find out a story used to be called something different right up until the marketing team stepped in, the original name can offer extra insight. Kings of Summer was originally called “Toy’s House”. The main character is called Joe Toy, and I did spend a bit of time wondering if this is a symbolic name. The boys build themselves a house in the woods and set about pretending that they’re living off the grid. And it really is a pretence, because all the while they’re using a sum of stolen money to buy roast chickens from a nearby fast food restaurant.

After learning the original name I realised this is basically a Doll’s House Story, in which characters play out a scenario in a form of play that becomes quite serious.

GENRE BLEND OF THE KINGS OF SUMMER

comedy, drama >> coming-of-age, adventure story

I will call this ‘quirky comedy’.

TAGLINE OF THE KINGS OF SUMMER

Why live when you can rule?

Bear in mind that this is a tagline, not a theme. A theme is not posed as a question but rather as a declarative sentence.

SENTENCE BEHIND THE STORY OF THE KINGS OF SUMMER

Unlike the tagline and marketing copy the writers’ designing principle is never made public, so I am guessing here. I bet it goes something like:

A boy learns that he can’t hasten the onset of manhood by rejecting society and the people who are closest to him.

SETTING OF THE KINGS OF SUMMER

This is a heavily symbolic setting. First we have the whole fairytale-esque symbolism of the forest thing going on. We just know anything taking place in the middle of the woods ain’t going to be a walk in the park.

The soundtrack to the film also gives us a clue about interpreting this setting. The song “Land Trunt” (played over the Game Night scene) for instance has a spaghetti Western vibe to it — this explains both the choice of ethnicity of the Italian tagalong kid and also the way the boys feel about their mission. They are cowboys, pioneers, opening up their own Wild West. Other music on the soundtrack is gangsta, e.g. “Pickpocket. These boys are finding out who they are. One moment they’re cowboys; the next they’re gangsters.

The bird house — either stolen by or constructed by the boys, I can’t remember — has an obviously misaligned entrance, symbolising the ‘Tim Burton’ off-kilter world these boys have constructed for themselves on a larger scale. A bird couldn’t live in this house, and they won’t be able to survive in theirs.
At first the boys enjoy the immense beauty of nature and we are taken along for the ride, enjoying the colours of sunset and the freedom of the wilderness stretching every which way (except in the opposite direction, straight back to the golf club and the fast food joint, comically).
These characters build like men and have fun like children, symbolised by the slide they must have nicked from a playground.
The window to the loft seems to be a rear window from a scrap yard or something.
Bonfires usually put an audience in mind of ‘rejection’. We think of book-burning, flag-burning and so on.
“Taking the plunge”. This particular scene reminded me of Alex Garland’s The Beach. Leo DiCaprio stars in the film adaptation — another Robinsonnade story in which characters remove themselves from society and live Lord of the Flies style with nothing but themselves (oh, and disease) as opponents.
My eight-year-old daughter found the letterbox hilarious. “Why on earth do they need a letterbox?” she asked. It exists purely for comedy, of course. These boys say they don’t want anyone to find them out there, but they invite society right in. Like their rickety house, their real desires are completely misaligned with their overt desires.
Their roof, like their entire plan, has a few holes in it.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE KINGS OF SUMMER

There are 3 main types of adventure stories — two of them are very old. The first is the Odyssean structure, in which a character goes on a long journey, meets a bunch of opponents and returns home a changed person. (Or maybe they find a new home.) This kind of story is about 3000 years old.

The second is the Robinsonnade, so named after Robinson Crusoe of course, in which a character doesn’t go anywhere but spends most of the story holed up somewhere — maybe it’s an island, maybe it’s a cabin in the woods — and the opponents are right there with him (it’s usually a him). This kind of story is as old as Robinson Crusoe.

Kings of Summer is — you guessed it — a Robinsonnade.

SHORTCOMING

Similar to Nadine, the main character of The Edge of Seventeen, Joe is a significantly flawed character.

Joe needs to become a man. This is to be pretty much expected when watching coming-of-age films starring boys. It’s clear how much pressure there is on boys to

  1. Not be women
  2. Not be gay
The facial hair Joe manages to sprout while in the woods is an attempt at wild masculinity. Failing to grow a full beard, he keeps the moustache.

The problem is, while Joe has a few skills — plenty for his age — he certainly doesn’t have the wherewithal to leave civilisation behind. I am reminded of an interview I listened to with Jon Kraukauer, who wrote the 1996 biography of Christopher McCandless, Into The Wild. An enduring question most people have after either watching the film or reading the biography: Did Chris mean to die in the wild? Kraukauer thinks no. As a young man he himself did all sorts of reckless things as an intrepid rock climber and if you read his book about rock climbing (Into Thin Air) you’ll see that he came close to death himself. Kraukauer describes the mindset of certain young men who do these things — they really do believe they’re invincible. He argues that McCandless really did not mean to die in the wild. I believe the fictional character of Joe Toy (who is frolicking in the woods as if it’s his personal ‘toy’ playground) is a Chris McCandless/Jon Krakauer type of teenage boy: Full of swag and bravado and disdain for society.

The masculinity theme of the story is introduced near the beginning of the film when Joe has his t-shirt ripped off him by a gang of anonymous corridor bullies. Instead of expressing nervousness or admiration for Joe’s naked torso she nonchalantly offers him one of her t-shirts. It is clear that Kelly does not consider him a love interest. This is symbolised by the fact that he’s wearing a girly pastel yellow t-shirt with a rainbow on the front — and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the rainbow is a gay symbol.

The character of Biaggio is a purely comic character who exists not only to make jokes and (at one point) give the audience a hilarious fright, but is also Joe’s reflection character: Biaggio is of small build, does not grow a beard in the wild and has no problem declaring that he is has no gender.

Biaggio, pretending to be a character in some kind of war movie

This is a kid who is completely at home with who he is. Baggio is the Fregley from Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, who is similarly immune to the huge pressures of adolescence. Greg Heffley is another boy character who is concerned with becoming a Man, which means finding his role in the masculine pecking order, aiming for as high as possible.

Fregley from Diary of a Wimpy Kid

DESIRE

It’s not immediately clear what Joe wants. Well, it’s clear that he does not want to be living at home with his father, who annoys the hell out of him but this is not an active desire. It gradually dawns on the audience what Joe is planning with his friends. He is berated by his father for leaving ‘tools’ on the driveway. What’s he using the tools for? Turns out he’s building a house in the woods. Meanwhile, his best friend Patrick has a father who has a comically great habit of knocking on the wall of the den, saying there should be a stud in there. It’s only clear in hindsight that these boys have quite a bit of carpentry knowledge, and it has come from at least one of the fathers.

OPPONENT

  1. The parents
  2. The best friends
  3. Kelly — Joe’s love opponent
This scene at the police station is a great comedic scene which serves to highlight the different characters of the parents. The parents themselves are friendly opponents.
Kelly, Joe’s love opponent. The audience knows she’s the love opponent from the get-go, no least because she is blonde and pretty. Also nice, with no distinguishing personality traits.

PLAN

We see the boys carrying out the plan rather than discussing it. This has been going on for a while before the story starts. They’ve been magpie-ing a variety of items — stealing from playgrounds, construction sites and people’s houses — in order to build their own sharehouse in the woods. They plan to move there as soon as it’s liveable. They will hunt for their own food and spend the rest of their days living apart from society, free from the pressures of home, school and work.

BIG STRUGGLE

There are two main struggles in this story:

  1. The interpersonal struggle, between the two best friends
  2. The struggle against nature, with the snake inside the house

The interpersonal big struggle comes about because of a girl. They both like this good-looking girl, who ends up choosing Patrick over Joe. Since Joe has a sense of entitlement about ‘getting the girl’, he can’t accept this. In his mind, he likes her more and he therefore deserves her. There is a big fight (an actual fisticuffs) between the boys and a seemingly irreparable rift. Joe declares that he needs to be left alone, and for a while, he is. He goes full wildman, obviously having run out of money for the precooked roast chickens (we learned exactly how much money was taken during the police station scene with the parents — it was under $300). He even ends up murdering a rabbit and skinning it, throwing away his “Living In The Wild” handbook, realising that there is no substitute for experience. This is a symbolic moment too: “There’s no preparation for adulthood like plain old teenager/life experience”.

The big struggle scene between the boys has been foreshadowed by a montage of scenes showing us how these characters are spending their time in the woods: A lot of time is spent playing childlike, competitive games.

Then of course there is the snake scene.

I watched this with my Australian-born husband who laughed and said, “A snake would never behave like that.” That’s true, but the thing is, sometimes writers of stories need ‘nature’ to make a strike. They did it in Jaws (even though sharks don’t hunt people). Larry McMurtry did it in Lonesome Dove with the impossible and infamous cottonmouth incident, killing one river-crosser and impressing upon the audience that nature can and will kill them off one by one. More recently we have Andy Weir’s The Martian, in which the main character is subjected to a horrific dust storm and must therefore leave his spaceship. In fact, horrific dust storms can’t happen on Mars because of its lack of atmosphere. If something hits you on Mars, it’s like being bashed with feathers. Weir has been criticised for this incident in an otherwise quite scientifically accurate story, and has said numerous times that he needed ‘nature to strike first’.

Snakes, sharks, storms… Writers across the generations have taken our natural fears and anthropomorphised them into beasts with intent to kill us. Fans of mimesis in storytelling need to put that aside in order to enjoy narrative. However, a comedy such as this one is over-the-top ridiculous in places, and just like the cheesy lines of Desperate Housewives, they can get away with more because of the knowingly satirical setting they’ve created. Kings of Summer never really strives for scientific accuracy and so we don’t expect it.

ANAGNORISIS

In the vast majority of stories the hero’s overall change moves from slavery to freedom. This doesn’t happen in this particular story — the hero’s plan for total and complete freedom is totally foiled — not least because he doesn’t really want it. (He wants a girlfriend, not to live like Chris McCandless.) At the end of the story Joe’s father advises him not to hurry to become a man. Joe has moved from slavery to freedom, back to slavery (for now). This is a comic tragedy.

NEW SITUATION

We know that Joe will eventually have some of the freedom he craves — he just has to get a few years older, then he’ll be off to college like his older sister. The subplot of the relationship between the older sister and her father has given us a clue that Joe will never be completely free from his family.

The final scene shows us the state of Joe’s friendship with his best friend. Meeting each other at the lights (significantly, the parents are in the drivers’ seats), they give each other the middle finger, but in comedic, playground fashion. We can guess that these guys are still friends, but their friendship has shifted for good. Now that his best friend has ‘got the girl’, they have left true boyhood irrevocably behind, and for a while they’re in that in between stage, sometimes childlike, sometimes behaving like adults.

The Hunchback Of Nowhere Courage The Cowardly Dog

“The  Hunchback of Nowhere” is an episode from the first season of Courage The Cowardly Dog. As ever, this modern re-visioning takes inspiration from a wide history of storytelling, including from The Bible.

THE HUNCHBACK OF NOWHERE

Any adult viewer will know immediately that this is inspired at least partly by The Hunchback of Notre Dame, though the writers can’t expect a young audience to know this. Instead, they have to come up with a story which is complete in its own right while also nodding to the earlier story. A lot of viewers may have seen the 1996 film, however, which was only a few years old when this episode of Courage came out in 1999. The Hunchback of Notre Dame was having another moment.

Hunched postures are associated with congenital conditions as well as poor nutrition, probably due to poverty. In The Secret Garden, Colin has an irrational fear of becoming a hunchback. This is probably because he’d been spending his time in bed reading, and he was reading Gothic literature. The character with the hunched back is a stock figure of Gothic horror.

Two Beggars, Adriaen Matham, after Adriaen Pietersz. van de Venne, 1620 - 1660
Two Beggars, Adriaen Matham, after Adriaen Pietersz. van de Venne, 1620 – 1660

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE HUNCHBACK OF NOWHERE

Taking a break from the hero’s journey and Robinsonnade structures of previous episodes, this is a carnivalesque story as seen in many picture books. There is no big struggle sequence in a carnivalesque story. Instead we have a whole lot of fun, though it can look precarious in parts. There is no real opponent in this story either, apart from Eustace who we already know to be his own worst enemy.

SHORTCOMING

This story opens with a shot of the rain pelting down.

raining-in-nowhere

We’ve had thunder storms a plenty in Nowhere but we haven’t seen much rain. Once again the story opens at night time, with a cute but ugly character going from door to door hoping for some shelter.

Rain is often used in comedy (and in genre fiction) as pathetic fallacy, in which rain equals sadness, sunshine equals happiness, and so on.

As Elizabeth Lyon says in her book Manuscript Makeover, readers are like ducklings; we fall in love with the first character we ‘see’. The same is true for the screen. (It’s clear the writers of Courage know this really well — a later episode features a duckling falling madly in love with the otherwise unloveable Eustace.)

The writers of Courage have opened with an opponent before, for example with the fox who wants to make Cajun Granny Stew, and this makes the opponent less scary for a young audience. Here we need genuine affection for the Hunchback in order for the rest of the story to work. So we see him as an outsider. He is recast as a modern hobo.

A square of light from inside emphasises the darkness without — squares of light are also used to 'imprison' characters on the screen.
A square of light from inside emphasises the darkness without — squares of light are also used to ‘imprison’ characters on the screen.
Here we see the Hunchback on the other side of a door.
Here we see the Hunchback on the other side of a door.
And here we have a high angle view, making the Hunchback look small and powerless.
And here we have a high angle view, making the Hunchback look small and powerless.
The next thing done to help the audience identify with the Hunchback is to have him look in the window. Like the audience, he is observing the Bagges going about their routine. He is the audience as much as we are.
The next thing done to help the audience identify with the Hunchback is to have him look in the window. Like the audience, he is observing the Bagges going about their routine. He is the audience as much as we are.

DESIRE

Eustace wants Courage to fetch his raincoat from the barn.

Courage wants Eustace to let the Hunchback stay. He says to the camera (because Eustace can’t understand him speaking English), “Why can’t he stay in the attic at least?”

The Hunchback wants to avoid getting wet.

OPPONENT

Eustace. Had Muriel opened the door to the Hunchback there would have been no story. Muriel is accommodating by nature.

PLAN

The Hunchback takes refuge in the Bagges’ barn.

Courage has found a friend so he intends for the Hunchback to stay until it’s no longer raining, keeping him safe from the grumpy, uncharitable Eustace.

Eustace plans to annoy the Hunchback and insult him until he leaves.

BIG STRUGGLE

Instead of a big struggle sequence there is a play sequence in the barn. The barn is the Nowhere equivalent of the Notre Dame Cathedral because it allows for great contrast between high and low places — the highest point of the barn is really quite high, and we are reminded of this fact numerous times via high angle and low angle contrasting shots.

low-angle-shots
low-angle-shot

We find lots of high-low juxtaposition in stories about social inequality, which is very much what we have in the Hunchback story.

In this carnivalesque story we have scenes right out of an actual carnival/circus, with Courage and his new friend swinging like circus performers and playing tunes with the set of bells the Hunchback has brought with him.

The play scene includes plenty of tension because of the risk of falling from the high swing and also because Eustace comes into the barn demanding to know why Courage still hasn’t retrieved his raincoat as he was asked.

swinging

There is a comical game of shadow puppetry using a torch, in which Courage and the Hunchback make all sorts of improbable shapes using only their hands (even funnier because Courage has three stubby fingers.)

hunchback-torch
playing-shadow-puppets

The play scene isn’t quite enough to make a complete story, however, and the writers know this. There is a big struggle of wits at the breakfast table the next morning after Muriel invites the Hunchback for a pancake breakfast. “Any friend of Courage is a friend of mine.”

muriels-pancake-breakfast

Eustace doesn’t want this and insults the Hunchback. Pleased to have a ‘voice’ at last, Courage writes notes to the Hunchback, who gets at Eustace’s most self-conscious feature — his baldness. Eustace stamps out in a huff.

The third part of the big struggle happens on the barn roof, in which the roof is a domestic stand-in for a cliff in the natural world. Courage and the Hunchback are up there playing a concert to the appreciative Muriel, who is perfectly happy to listen to them under the cover of her umbrella below.

rooftop-concert
eustace-appears-through-the-belfry
eustace-and-hunchback-on-roof

ANAGNORISIS

Eustace has a anagnorisis (which won’t last, naturally) when the Hunchback pranks him. Eustace has been pranking Courage all along with his scary tricks, especially throughout this episode. Noticing this, the Hunchback gives Eustace a taste of his own medicine. Anyone watching realises immediately that Eustace can give it but he can’t take it.

In stories, revelations often happen in high natural places. Hey, it even happens in the Bible.

eustace-mask
barn-cliff
eustace-falls
Eustace falls from grace and literally falls from the roof. But he’s all right. He is able to get up again slowly.

When the Hunchback says goodbye he pulls out a huge bell. Why does he do this, apart from the laugh? Throughout this story the Hunchback has been a more powerful version of Courage due to his being able to talk and also outwit Eustace by scaring him with his very own face. The Hunchback is saying he has won on behalf of Courage, with his identical but much smaller bell. (The bell = voice.)

big-bell-little-bell

NEW SITUATION

The Hunchback says he hopes to find other kind people on his travels.

hunchback-walks-away

The Demon In The Mattress Courage The Cowardly Dog

the-demon-in-the-mattress

In “The Demon In The Mattress” episode of Courage The Cowardly Dog we have the full moon, the midnight ‘witching’ hour and a comic horror story about possession.

midnight-witching-hour

The idea of an evil mattress is of course horror fantasy, but comes from the real world mistrust we have about sleeping on other people’s beds. Here in Australia it’s not even legal to sell a secondhand mattress. (The word secondhand itself is out of fashion.)

When sleeping in cheap joints (and even sometimes in expensive ones) we worry about bed bugs. Horror stories are always making the most of our deepest anxieties. Comic horror stories tend to pick the more trivial ones… like fear of creepy crawlies inside mattresses.

full-moon-opening

Colour

Colour is used in this episode as the story changes in tone.

purple-house
green-bedroom
courage-digging-hole

Demonic Possession

Demonic possession is the belief that individuals can be possessed by malevolent preternatural beings, commonly referred to as demons or devils. Obsessions and possessions of the devil are placed in the rank of apparitions of the evil spirit among men. It is obsession when the demon acts externally against the person whom it besets, and possession when he acts internally, agitates them, excites their ill humor, makes them utter blasphemy, speak tongues they have never learned, discovers to them unknown secrets, and inspires them with the knowledge of the obscurest things in philosophy or theology.

Wikipedia

The oldest mention of possession is Sumerian, but modern horror stories tend to draw most heavily from Christian traditions. Traditionally it was believed that people possessed are possessed by the Devil. The Devil is a fallen angel.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE DEMON IN THE MATTRESS”

The episodes in which opponents come to the house, this farmhouse in the middle of Nowhere, are similar to a Robinsonnade, in which there is an island. The drama in a Robinsonnade comes from the characterisation and interpersonal conflict. There’s not much characterisation here, of course. Mainly gags and horror tropes. In any case, the Bagge family don’t even need to leave their house — like a police station in a crime show, trouble just walks in the door.

SHORTCOMING

As usual, and this never changes, Courage is just a dog and no one believes him when things go wrong.

As for the inciting incident/need of Muriel, this is established right away when she points out that a whole lot of springs are poking out of their mattress.

springs

DESIRE

When Courage listens to the other end of the phone, he realises the mattress vendors are no good. They’ve ‘been waiting for your call’. He wants to save Muriel from the baddies.

Muriel wants a new mattress.

OPPONENT

We first see a shot of the opponents’ lair. A couple of small creatures scuttle past.

opponents-lair

The mattress delivery guys turn up in a medieval chariot.

mattress-delivery

They appear to be some kind of rodent pair. They have special contempt for Courage, hissing at him as they walk into the house. They know Courage is the only one who suspects them of mal-intent.

PLAN

As ever, Courage first tries to warn Muriel, then when the possession happens he tries to tell Eustace.

And, as ever, he checks things out thoroughly before diving in. Here he is peering inside the window.

courage-looking-in-window

It’s clear by now that the family computer is the domestic equivalent of a sage. Courage asks the ‘sage’ how to get rid of a demon and then Eustace is able to read the print out. The plan is for Eustace to dress up in a floaty gown and memorise a chant.

consulting-the-computer

As is common in children’s comedy, it is funny that Eustace (a man) is demeaned by dressing him in female clothing.

BIG STRUGGLE

The big struggle sequence turns the house into an ominous shade of chartreuse. A green mist comes out of the bed and takes hold of Muriel. She loses her head. She is talking in a deep male voice. But the possessed Muriel is not truly horrific. She conceals something beneath the covers and we find out it’s a tray of tea (rather than a dismembered body part, say.)

horrific-tray-of-tea
possessed-muriel

The writers of Courage The Cowardly Dog like to make use of childhood games in the big struggle sequence. We’ve already seen a game of handball/squash and a food fight. Here the possessed Muriel has a thumb wrestle with Courage to settle the score.

thumb-wrestling
eustace-chanting
white-flag

ANAGNORISIS

In the end only Courage can save Muriel. Eustace isn’t saying the magic spell correctly. Courage digs a hole in the yard until he comes across the floating gown, then puts it on himself and turns Muriel back into Muriel.

Unfortunately, in this ‘never-ending’ or ‘repeating’ story, Eustace ends up possessed though his own ineptitude. Muriel hits on on the head with a rolling pin which she seems to carry everywhere. (It breaks in two.) Courage rolls him firmly inside a mattress in a second short big struggle. Eustace, in this episode, is rather a tragic figure and we feel sorry for him.

eustace-inside-a-mattress

NEW SITUATION

“We don’t want your special mattress,” Muriel says angrily into the receiver. She tells the creatures to come and pick it up for a refund.

Eustace is taken away by the pissed off rats.

Muriel and Courage sleep together on the couch downstairs, which Muriel declares is very comfortable.

watching-tv-on-the-sofa

But we know Eustace will make it back in time for the next episode…