Pax by Sara Pennypacker Novel Study

Pax Sara Pennypacker quote

Pax is a middle grade novel by Sara Pennypacker about a boy and a fox who embark upon a mythic journey to reunite after Pax is abandoned in the woods. Structurally, Pax is the middle grade equivalent of Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. Though this story is classic mythical structure, there are shades of the Female Mythic Form, as the main character Peter (who happens to be male), thinks and feels his way through his journey rather than engaging in big struggle after swashbuckling big struggle.

MORE ON THE STORY STRUCTURE OF PAX

Pax was only a kit when his family was killed, and “his boy” Peter rescued him from abandonment and certain death. Now the war front approaches, and when Peter’s father enlists, Peter has to move in with his grandpa. Far worse than being forced to leave home is the fact that Pax can’t go. Peter listens to his stern father—as he usually does—and throws Pax’s favourite toy soldier into the woods. When the fox runs to retrieve it, Peter and his dad get back in the car and leave him there—alone. But before Peter makes it through even one night under his grandfather’s roof, regret and duty spur him to action; he packs for a trek to get his best friend back and sneaks into the night. This is the story of Peter, Pax, and their independent struggles to return to one another against all odds. Told from the alternating viewpoints of Peter and Pax.

publisher’s advertising copy

  • From the advertising copy we see there are orphan and part-orphan child(like) characters: Pax has no parents and Peter has no mother.The father is soon dispatched with, too.As it happens, Peter has no grandmother, either. Women have been removed from this story altogether, possibly because a feminine presence adds tenderness and care, whereas these characters are extremely vulnerable and must find their own family. However, Peter eventually meets a mother replacement, and Pax eventually meets the fox equivalent of a girlfriend. These female characters add to the character growth of the male characters, and a little vice versa as well.
  • A mean grandfather is left as Peter’s caretaker, leaving plenty of room for Peter to go off on his own adventure.
  • The toy soldier is symbolic, and features front and centre in chapter one. Toy soldiers juxtapose the innocence of childhood with the awful destruction of war. At the end of the story Peter literally throws the toy away. That’s what he thinks about war.
  • The basic setting: pre-war — the author aims for universality and doesn’t name a war, though I default to WW2.
  • We also learn from the advertising copy that this story is a classic example of mythic structure, about a boy going on a journey with a goal in mind, returning home (or to a new home) a changed person. (Or animal.) He will encounter a series of trials and opponents along his way, finding himself in greater and greater danger until he reaches his ultimate big struggle. Then he will have a anagnorisis.

Advertising copy stops before the middle of the book, not giving too much away. More of the structure is revealed as we read:

  • In the hero’s journey, at about the midpoint the main character really doubles down on their mission (plan + desire). So when Peter overextends himself with exercises at Vola’s, this is that. “It takes a healthy adult four weeks to do what you’re trying to do in one,” Vola tells him. This is evidence of Peter’s extreme determination, almost superhuman.
  • The big struggle scene features ‘mythical’ creatures, coyotes, who are not anthropomorphised at all.
  • Peter’s anagnorisis is that he is actually separate from his pet fox, but because of the bond they shared in the past, they will always be together. The problems with the ending are discussed below.

My description of this story structure sounds a little dismissive, but The Hero’s Journey is a structure that has worked for 3000 years, and continues to be popular in contemporary stories for adults and children alike.

STORYWORLD

Peter comes from a town called Hampton.

The grandfather’s village is a fairytale village north of Hampton, but a highway snaking around a long range of foothills. It is surrounded by woods. All fairytale settings need woods (or forest) on the edges of civilisation. There’s also a road, and Peter will be guided by a map. Pax has been abandoned 300 miles away beside the ruins of an old rope mill, which I guess is a factory which makes ropes. An olde worlde type establishment. 300 miles is a decent distance to put between the boy and his dog — an adult reader (at least) knows from the outset that 30 miles per day is an impossible undertaking. Peter’s going to have to be resourceful and hitchhike or something, otherwise he’ll never make it.

When Is This Story Set?

Peter has access to items of the early 20th century era: He carries a jack knife, not just uses but is reliant upon maps, and food is kept in tins rather than plastic containers. He has no access to technology that might help a modern child out. Though this is about no war in particular, it should put us in mind of the Great Wars of the 20th century. The technology lines up (mostly) with this era.

Before I realised this was set in no year in particular, I tried to do a few sums: Perhaps this is a WW2 story, and the old fox was around for the first world war. No, that’s not possible. Grey foxes live longer than red foxes, but WW1 ended 1918 and WW2 started 1939. Grey foxes live a maximum of 8 years.

It becomes clearer as the story progresses that Sara Pennypacker wants to set this this story in a ‘universal’ time and place. Though to me, a non American, it feels very American, it may not feel that way to an American audience. The baseball, the (Californian) talk therapy, the American vernacular, which I occasionally even looked up. If an American audience doesn’t see how American this is, expecting it to sound universal to everyone, that would be troubling. An interview with School Library Journal shows that Pennypacker very much meant this to sound like it was set in America:

Peter and Pax’s story is set in an undefined time and place—it could be the past or modern day or the near future. It might take place in America but not necessarily. Why did you set your story against this type of backdrop?

I didn’t want to allow readers the comfort of seeing the setting as “another”: another place or another time. My goal was to have readers feel that what happens in the book could happen in their town tomorrow. Because, sadly, it could.

SLJ

Which is great. I mean, Americans need to hear this particular message about war. But from this outsider’s point of view, this is definitely America.

Magic

Whereas ancient mythical journeys often feature real setting magic, the ‘magic’ Pennypacker describes is a feeling rather than a phenomenon:

Peter craned his head to see what [Vola] was making. A handle. She’d brought i a broken hoe, and she was giving it a new handle. A simple thing, and yet it struck him as almost magic. Like his crutches. Before he’d had them, he’d been helpless. Vola had nailed a couple of boards together, and now he could swing over miles of rough country, quick and sure. Magic.

However, Pennypacker does delve into some new age mind-meld stuff, in which Peter feels he can sense how much trouble Pax is in.

“Two but not two. Inseparable. So… a couple of nights ago, I was sure that Pax had eaten. I felt it. Last night, I saw the moon, and I knew Pax was seeing it right then, too.”

CHARACTERS IN PAX

Peter

The name Peter has a literary, old-fashioned quality to it e.g. from Peter and the Wolf and many other fables and fairytales throughout history. Peter is also fairly common as a name for contemporary(ish) boys, linking the old with the new.

Also, Peter is The Every Boy. He is basically a good child, exhibiting all of the qualities we hope children to have. He obeys his father, even though the father is asking him to do something terrible. Peter has no real distinguishing features, and his main shortcoming is naivety and vulnerability owing to basically being abandoned.

The book began with character—it was always going to be a sentient animal commenting on human war. In the beginning, though, Peter didn’t have his own narrative—he was merely going to be “the boy” who belonged to my main character. But I saw such richness in inviting him to tell his side that halfway through writing Pax, I opened the book up.

SLJ

We are shown Peter’s caring nature from chapter one, when he shows emotion at having to send his beloved pet fox back into the wild. Though he is crying, this is a rare thing for him, showing that although he is emotional, nor is he a ‘crybaby’. He cries softly and silently, which is an acceptable way for children (and especially boys) to cry, especially in the early part of last century. I argue that Peter is a good role model for caring about others and expressing emotion, which makes this male plot structure feel more feminine once you delve into it.

Peter is also an optimist — a naive optimist — thinking that Pax will be waiting right where they left him, and also that he can walk 300 miles in a week. At the other end of the journey, Peter plans to stay in his old home alone, with no one at all to provide food for the duration of the war. This plan is Peter’s psychological shortcoming, which has an adorable flip side.

Poetic Naming Conventions

Because Peter starts with the letter P, it’s fitting that his ‘spirit animal’ also begins with P. This symbolically links the two characters. Katherine Mansfield also does that in her short story The Garden Party, in which a family is divided by personality, and the characters who are similar in name are also similar in temperament. This is one of those literary conventions which doesn’t carry over into real life, but helps us to understand the character web in a story.

Who knew that a kid and his pet should be inseparable. Suddenly the word itself seemed an accusation. He and Pax, what were they then … separable?

They weren’t, though. Sometimes, in fact, Peter Had had the strange sensation that he and Pax merged.

Like the fox, Peter is also in touch with his full range of senses, including smell. He is impacted by the smell of his horrible grandfather’s kitchen, for instance, which ‘reeks strongly of fried onions’ and which Peter ‘figured the smell would outlive his grandfather’. He also makes good use of his ears, knowing what his grandfather is up to on the other side of the closed bedroom door. He is intuitive, knowing to stay out of the grandfather’s way. In all these ways, Peter is the human version of a fox. He thinks of his anxiety like a snake, linking him further to the animal kingdom.

Peter’s motivation to find Pax is influenced by memory of a baby rabbit killed in his yard after a trap was set up. Rabbits were eating his mother’s tulips. This dead rabbit had a huge effect on him, and though the dead mother seems at first glance like the bigger ‘ghost’/’wound‘, sometimes it’s more minor things that have a greater impact. The death of the baby rabbit to save something like tulips had a huge effect on Peter. The mother’s death, too, is obviously significant in causing Peter to fear death, and especially the death of the fox. But by transferring the death scene from the mother to that baby rabbit, Pennypacker avoids hitting child readers over the head with something completely and utterly maudlin. This is transferred grieving. (For more on this see Death In Children’s Literature.)

(Even the minor characters have their own ghosts — Bristle has a dead sister, for instance, briefly mentioned, but an explanation for why she is so cautious in general.)

In the end it is Peter’s wooden crutch that saves Pax from the coyotes. What’s the symbolism there? Perhaps it’s that loving another creature is a shortcoming, but even if love is a shortcoming, it still conquers all. It was a loving act to let Pax go, taking in a creature with greater needs.

Pax

When animals feature in children’s books, the author must decide the extent of anthropomorphism. Olivia by Ian Falconer is a little girl in a pig’s body. There’s nothing pig-like about her. At the other end of the continuum you have animals who are literally just animals — donkeys eating grass in fields. Then there’s everything in between.

The huge advantage to using a canine creature as a character is the author has good reason to make heavy use of the sense of smell, in a way not usually explored by authors writing about humans (Patrick Suskind’s Perfume is a notable exception, though the heavy emphasis on smell serves to turn the human character into an animal monster.) In Pax, Sara Pennypacker does an excellent job of describing scent, in a synesthesic kind of way, melding scent with emotions and sights and sounds.

We learn in the first chapter that Pax’s main characteristic is ‘loyal’. This is basically a  Boy and His Dog story, even though the dog is actually a fox. Foxes are wild creatures and tend to fear humans, but there are examples of some foxes bonding to humans. If they do bond, they tend to bond to human singular rather than to humans in general, which marks them as different from fully domesticated dogs, who will bond to humans in general so long as they’re properly socialised. Knowing this, it’s clear from the first chapter that Pax has bonded to Peter better than he bonded to the father. This explains why it is easier for the father to let the fox go.

Pax doesn’t talk in words, but he thinks in words. His emotions are every bit as complex as Peter’s emotions. Because Pax is abandoned in the first chapter, the reader immediately feels strong empathy for him. Because Pax doesn’t understand the world, Pennypacker describes objects rather than giving them words. This achieves two things: Pax’s naive voice, and allows the reader to work out a small puzzle What is the blue triangle? A bird. What is the long pole? A rifle (maybe). This puts the reader in reader superior position — a form of dramatic irony. When the reader knows there’s a boy with a rifle we are scared for Pax even though Pax isn’t yet scared for himself.

Pax is (almost literally) an ‘underdog‘. If only he’d been an actual dog, like Peter’s father’s beloved childhood Border Collie, then he’d be allowed to stay with his boy.

It emerges during Peter’s discussion with Vola that Pax as an ironic, symbolic name — Pax means peace (in Latin), yet this is a time of war.

Peter’s Father

The father is not a nasty character, especially when juxtaposed against his own father, who is more of a fairytale villain who emotionally, if not literally, locks his grandson inside his bedroom and provides zero emotional warmth. The father actually does what any reasonable father would do — with good intentions, he wants to return the fox to the wild, where he belongs. This in itself isn’t a terrible thing to do — modern thinking has it that wild creatures do belong in the wild. But Sara Pennypacker has picked a good moral dilemma — once a wild creature has been tamed, should we then return it to the wild, or are we obliged to keep looking after it?

This is a useful trick for writing parents in children’s literature. Quite often, parents are not ill-intentioned, but they are the opponent nonetheless, because their practical-mindedness abuts the emotional choices of the child character. When the moral dilemma genuinely has two sides to it, like this does, it’s all the more interesting.

Peter isn’t close to his father.

Besides, it wasn’t his father he was missing.

This reminds me of a Leonard Cohen line “like your father or your dog just died“, equating the bond a man can have with a dog on a par with that of his father.

For more on Fathers in Children’s Books, see this post.

Characters Met Along The Journey

Bristle

Meanwhile, Pax comes across a vixen who eyes him suspiciously. Pennypacker (ostensibly Pax) soon gives her a name — Bristle — descriptive of both her hair and her approach to him. Is this a bicker-bicker-kiss-kiss romantic subplot? I wonder this because Bristle is described as ‘bright-furred’ and ‘exotic’, the animal equivalent of commentary on a woman’s sexual appeal. She lets him stay the night, but only one night. In the morning there is a post-coital scene (MG literary animal equivalent thereof) when Pax squirms ‘in pleasure at the solid, warm weight of another’s body nestled against his’. It is therefore funny when Pax wakes up more fully and realises he’s nestled up with the vixen’s brother. ‘Pax pulled himself up sharply’. He was obviously expecting the female fox.

Then her runty brother appears, contrasting in playfulness with her ice-queen demeanour. The Female Maturity Principle kicks in as Bristle cautions Runt on the correct way of behaving around strangers.

Bristle eventually becomes Pax’s mentor, showing him how to hunt. She mirrors the character of Vola in Peter’s journey. Except this one has a romantic component — cheek to cheek they groom each other. I might interpret this as friendship, except you’d never get two male characters sitting like this in a children’s book.

Locals Suspicious Of This Outsider

The setting is peopled with thumbnail characters who exist to show Peter how much of an outsider he is.

First, Peter meets a shop owner who is suspicious of him for not being in school. A woman stares at him and he realises how unkempt he looks.

Later, Peter gazes through a fence (Jon Klassen’s addition) at a boy playing baseball, which brings back all sorts of memories. Peter has visited a therapist, which surprises me a little because I didn’t know the history of therapy was that long in America. Where I come from (New Zealand) therapy was (unfortunately) unknown during the war era. Pennypacker does what a lot of writers do when depicting therapists — apparently this therapist always has the stock standard response. Is this because writers don’t actually know what therapists would say in any given situation? Or is this how it feels to everyone visiting a therapist? That you’re being nodded at? I can’t answer that, but I’m reminded of the recent Liane Moriarty novel/limited TV series Big Little Lies, in which therapists said, “Finally! A realistic fictional depiction of therapy!”

In any case, Peter has a short interaction with a hostile boy who doesn’t like this outsider.

Grey

Pax meets an older male fox whose territory he has inadvertently entered. For all her outward hostility, Bristle has warned Pax about him. Pax calls him Grey. But it turns out this old grey wolf isn’t scary for Pax. (Disturbingly, and off the page, why is Grey scary for Bristle?) Grey turns out to be a false opponent. There’s almost some magical realism — it turns out the crows give messages to this old grey wolf. This is how the author lets us know that war is coming in from the west. This old fox spouts environmentalist messages about the destruction of humankind. It’s mostly an anti-war message.

Peter is confronted by a woman whose barn he is sleeping in. More realistically (not narratively) an adult is far more likely to be kind to a vagrant child they find sleeping in their barn, but this is a mythical journey. This kind of hostile woman plays right into a child’s fears that if they were to go out into the world, every single adult they meet would be the worst examples of human kind.  At first meeting, Vola has an inhuman, monstrous quality to her, partly evoked by the wooden leg. However, she does turn into a false opponent-ally, much as the fox has just met. The journeys mirror each other. She helps him with his foot — she happens to have medical knowledge. Like the old grey wolf, this woman has a message about how terrible it is, drafting young people into wars. There are even crows in this scene as there were in Pax’s — their journeys mirror each other’s exactly. Later, Vola turns into a fairy tale witch, offering Peter the tonic with willow bark to act as aspirin. The ‘green paste’ reminds us of witches, too, which is a trope that started with the film adaptation of The Wizard Of Oz. (Before that, they were usually red or orange.)

Eventually, though, Vola is ultimately Peter’s mentor. In a traditional mythic tale, this mentor character is male. Vola is female but apart from plying him with constant food, Vola has masculine traits — her tough attitude, her tool shed. She is a Mr Miyagi character, setting Peter a series of challenges (conditions for staying) to help him grow both spiritually and in skill. Pennypacker isn’t the least subtle about this function for Vola:

“I would have been a good teacher.”

She was right about that. He thought about hwo easily she suggested techniques in his drills without making a bit deal of anything. How she had him watch while she carved, then let him figure out things for himself. How she asked him questions about everything and didn’t answer for him.

Vola

In the initial scene with Vola, Pennypacker shows us an interesting trick MG writers do to first amp up the danger of a situation, then defuse it completely. Peter has thought that Vola might kill him. But then Vola explains that the bladed tools are for wood carving. Vola even lampshades the biases the reader shares along with Peter (since we’re seeing her through Peter’s close third person point of view). There needs to be a name for this — kind of like Chekhov’s gun but a gun which turns out to be a toy gun. Let’s call it Chekhov’s Toy Gun.

In narrative it is dangerous to be a hero’s best friend/sidekick. Grey gets attacked in place of Pax, which would be too hard for readers to bear (tragedy layered upon tragedy) and would also break an unwritten rule of mythic storytelling. The hero doesn’t die at the midpoint of the story. Not normally. When G.R.R. Martin wrote The Red Wedding, he shocked the audience because he was breaking some established norms.

Next Runt dies. These deaths signify just how close to death Pax is himself. At this point I am starting to predict the ending: Clues point to a reuniting at the end, but I’m guessing Pax will be injured. That would symbolise how they’ve both been damaged by this experience and will never be the same again.

I was so lost, I needed to find out all the true things about myself. The little things to the biggest of all: what did I believe in at my core?

— Vola

Pennypacker uses the wisdom of children to even up this relationship a little. Vola doesn’t just teach Peter about resilience — Peter challenges Vola for failing to reintegrate into society after coming back from a harrowing war in which she killed a man (Vola’s big ghost). This is a scene you’ll see in Hollywood movies too: the part where friends have an argument in front of the audience, to let the audience in on each of their motivations.

Vola eventually explains that she is part Haitian, part Italian (though if you’d looked up her favourite curse word already you’ve already worked that one out). Her name Vola is Italian for ‘fly’. The trope of comparing women to birds has a long history in literature, though the adult Vola is somewhat unbirdlike — strong and grounded and therefore an ironic moniker. She also doesn’t know how to ‘fly’ — stuck in her cabin with PTSD. For more on the symbolism of flight in literature, see here.

When they get to town, Pennypacker is very obvious about what their outing means for Vola’s character development:

[Peter] looked behind him at the four crude pine creates the marionettes were packed in, strapped to the back. Peter hoped they didn’t remind Vola of coffins. Her amazing puppets were going to live now. Really live, out in the real world, not just exist to perform as some kind of penance.

This is Pennypacker talking about Vola, using her puppets as proxy.

The Coyotes

The coyotes are the mythical monster, not at all anthropomorphised — the evil that descends upon a village threatening friend and foe alike. The coyotes are used for the big big struggle scene in which Peter reunites with Pax.

Other Obstacles Met Along The Journey

Opponents aren’t always human — in a mythical journey a lot of them will be environmental and plain bad luck.

Peter

  • The fact that Peter forgot to pack a torch and can’t see in the dark
  • Blisters on his heels
  • Stepping in cold swamp water because he doesn’t want to risk turning on the torch (an obstacle also used by R.L. Stine in How I Got My Shrunken Head)
  • A broken bone in his foot

Pax

  • a thunderstorm (this is beautifully written)
  • lack of drinking water
  • lack of food
  • war — the road where he needs to wait has been blocked by war vehicles

IDEOLOGY OF PAX

In Love, Two Characters Become One

The bond between a boy and his canine pet cannot be broken, under any circumstance. A boy’s dog/fox is like the flipside of himself — like a spirit animal — and this bond can be so strong that they are basically the same being. Pennypacker emphasises this time and again, with a near-magical telepathy between Peter and Pax. When Peter confides this telepathy to Vola she doesn’t laugh at him — she congratulates him, telling him how lucky he is. So one message in this story is that if you love someone a real lot, you meld into the same creature. That is true love. This makes Pax a love story, not much different from love stories for adults between two humans.

(Note that love is different from romance.)

War Is Terrible

This runs throughout the book and is not at all novel as an idea in literature. It is the only idea about war running through modern Western literature.

You’re In Charge Of Your Own Destiny

Pennypacker makes use of the symbolism of miniatures with the scenes about the marionette and other puppetry. This is using Peter as god, putting him in charge of his own destiny, which is the reason Vola made him do this task in the first place — he needs to learn to ‘take control of his own life’ rather than letting things happen to him.

Each Person Has A True Self

And it’s just a matter of finding it. This juxtaposes against another psychological theory in which humans are a product of their environment and rather than there being ‘one true self’, there are multiple versions of the self. We change according to circumstance, and we change a lot more over the course of our lifetimes than we realise, moulded by our particular circumstances. This latter view is the more popular in modern psychology, but literary, classic-sounding children’s books such as this one are more inclined to stick with the older view.

CHAPTER ENDINGS

Take a look at any Goosebumps novel and you’ll see each chapter ends in an obvious cliffhanger.  In a literary novel like this one, the cliffhangers are not so obvious but they’re there all the same, making the reader anxious for the characters’ safety. For instance, Chapter 31 ends with the non-climactic sounding ‘He turned back for the clearing’. But the reader knows that Pax is in danger of being shot even though Pax doesn’t realise this himself. The cliffhanger is there but more subtle. And it requires a little work on the part of the reader.

THE ENDING

I was slightly wrong about the ending — Pax himself is physically well — it’s his replacement, Bristle, who has the big bleeding gash and the missing leg.

Which leads to another ideological concern, as explained by this Goodreads reviewer:

[I WANTED PETER TO GET HIS FREAKING FOX BACK. But no. He decides Pax is better off in the wild and instead Peter takes home Runt to care for him since Runt got his back legs blown off. But I. am. so. mad. It’s like saying that a bond between pet-and-human is replaceable. WHEN IT’S NOT. I would lose a piece of my soul if my precious pup died or got lost or just wasn’t there for me anymore. So all I can think of is losing my dog as Peter lost Pax for the 2nd time at the end of the book. AND IT’S NOT OKAY. It wasn’t one of those “bittersweet” endings. It downright BROKE ME and I’m not okay. Sure Pax didn’t die (small miracles) but he kind of died in my heart and I don’t I don’t I don’t like this. I FEEL LIKE CRYING.

Paper Fury

There are many picture books in which a dog dies and the story ends with a kid getting a new one. These are not considered the best of the best of the Dead Dog books. I’m not sure why the same ending is so well accepted in this case. Perhaps because Pennypacker isn’t obvious about what happened. At first I wondered which dog was which. Or perhaps we accept this story because in general it’s very well written.

Here’s Sara Pennypacker talking to School Library Journal about writing the ending. As in many children’s books, mirroring the end with the beginning affords readers a sense of closure. Bear in mind, there are two types of closure.

It does something else, too — it gives some circularity to what is otherwise a very linear story. This boy is going to bond with this other animal and the cycle will continue, over and over, throughout the ages.

The ending was set early on. I was walking in the woods, and it just came to me in a bolt: the ending image needed to be the same as the image that set the plot in motion—although it would have a completely different meaning for both Pax and Peter the second time and would show how each character had grown.

SLJ

But because Pax has Bristle, this is a happy ending love story for Pax.

How Children’s Books Teach Kids To Despise Hillary Clinton

richie-lucille
Hillary Clinton in middle grade fiction
hillary

Lately I’ve been reading chapter books with my 8-year-old daughter. We’ve been reading realistic comedy dramas from various American eras, from Ramona Quimby to Junie B. Jones to Judy Moody to Clementine. We’re just starting to (re)delve into the work of Judy Blume.

We’ve also read similar books produced locally such as Philomena Wonderpen by Ian Bone, Billy B. Brown by Sally Rippin and the Violet Mackerel series by Anna Branford.

Many of these stories are great. All of these stories have things to recommend them.

But there is a formula running throughout most chapter books aimed at girls which isn’t doing women any good at all. In fact, in this week heading into the American election, I’m getting pretty cranky about it, because this narrative is having a real world effect.

The chapter book formula concerns the character web, which looks like this:

chapter-book-character-web_1000x696

There are variations on this basic plan, of course.

For instance, the girly-girl might actually be the fake opponent.

Considered together as a corpus, this kind of character in middle grade fiction is saying something quite damaging about a certain kind of girl — the young Hillary Clinton archetype. A non-sympathetic character.

The Mixed Message of Ivy + Bean

ivy-and-bean

An example of that is the relationship between Ivy + Bean. In their case, ‘tomboyish’ viewpoint character Bean mistakes the girly-girl across the road for someone completely uninteresting. But when she takes the time to know her, Bean realises that Ivy is just as scheming as she is, and because of her good-girl appearance they are actually better equipped to carry out their often quite nasty — but always fun — plans. Various parent reviewers criticise this series for its unpunished bad behaviour, but one good thing about the Ivy + Bean series is that the girls learn in the very first book to look behind appearances.

A possibly quite damaging unintended message is that girly-girls are basically presenting a fake image. And unless a girly-girl reveals a more masculine side, she remains unsympathetic. Ergo, true girly-girls are still horrible. This is femme phobic.

Philomena Wonderpen

Readers are encouraged to despise the girly-girl pinkness of the opponent but the book covers are largely pink.
Readers are encouraged to despise the girly-girl pinkness of the main opponent but the book covers are largely… pink.

The girly-girl opponent of the Philomena Wonderpen series is a girl called Sarah Sullivan, who the reader knows to hate due to her overtly feminine accoutrements. Her matching pink accessories and her pink bag. Then there’s the way she competes against our imperfect hero and ends up winning the literal ‘gold star’ at the end of camp, dished out by an unsympathetic Trunchbull-esque school principal.

Even though Philomena has all the advantages of a magic wand (her father’s Wonderpen), Sarah Sullivan still wins the gold star — mostly through her own hard work, I might add, though she is also a rich girl and dishes out store-bought sweets.

The more successful a woman is, the more pleasure we take in demolishing her and turning her into a two-dimensional villain. Hillary Clinton’s extraordinary success may only be tempting the God of Trainwrecks to make her our biggest and best catastrophe yet.

Sady Doyle

To dwell upon the ‘fakeness’ of girly-girl opponents, Sarah Sullivan’s ‘store bought’ sweets are depicted by the author in opposition to Philomena’s home-baked treats, and once again, Sarah Sullivan is deemed a ‘fake’, in a way any modern mother should understand implicitly as coming straight from the ad-men trying to persuade us to buy this cookie over that, because it tastes just like a home-baked one, and women are therefore allowed to serve it up. (Because ideally, women are in the kitchen baking genuine cookies, but if we can’t manage that, we must at least make a good attempt at faking it.)

Fakeness as an attribute of hyper-feminine characters is very much related to the ‘women are basically liars’ trope, which has a long and damaging history.

Clementine

Even in the Clementine series, which I do love, overt markings of femininity are punished. This dynamic is set up in the very first paragraph of the first in the series:

I have had not so good of a week. Well, Monday was a pretty good day, if you don’t count Hamburger Surprise at lunch and Margaret’s mother coming to get her. Or the stuff that happened in the principal’s office when I got sent there to explain that Margaret’s hair was not my fault and besides she looks okay without it, but I couldn’t because Principal Rice was gone, trying to calm down Margaret’s mother.

Clementine, Sara Pennypacker 

Since hair (and handbags and high-heels) are strong markers of femininity, Margaret the girly-girl opponent is immediately brought down to size, and the reader is encouraged to despise the hysterical mother who is upset about something so frivolous. Putting aside the fact that actually, cutting someone’s hair is a violation of personhood that women have been talking about for decades and which, from boys and men, is actually really unacceptable.

In the seventh book we see the girly-girl character cut down to size by breaking her ankle after insisting on wearing high heels. And so on and so forth. Not so subtle subtext: Clementine is adorable because she is not like one of those girly-girls. She is basically everything we are encouraged to love in a boyish trickster.

Judy Moody

jessica-finch

Judy’s girly-girl enemy is Jessica Finch who at least breaks the mould of blonde bitches by having dark hair. (I suspect the dark hair is a symbolic representation of her dark moods.)

Judy Moody marched into third grade on a plain old Thursday, in a plain old ordinary mood. That was before Judy got stung by the Queen Bee. Judy sat down at her desk, in the front row next to Frank Pearl.”Hey, did you see Jessica Finch?” asked Frank in a low voice.”Yeah. So? I see her every day. She sits catty-cornered behind me.”

Judy Moody Gets Famous! by Megan McDonald  

‘Cater-cornered’ means to sit diagonally behind someone, but the common pronunciation gives me the feeling that ‘catty’ is supposed to be a sexist pun. (When women are compared to cats it’s because cats don’t ‘fight fair’. They hiss and spit and posture, and will scratch you with their long ‘nails’.)

We are encouraged to hate Jessica Finch because she is the Queen (Spelling) Bee. We are encouraged to root for Judy’s defeating her mostly because Judy is the viewpoint character but also because Jessica’s presentation is ‘perfect’ — she sits up straight in class and doesn’t have a single hair loose from her high ponytail.

We are also encouraged to hate Jessica Finch because she tries hard, much as Donald Trump criticised Hillary for preparing for the second 2016 presidential debate:

“I have spelling posters in my room at home,” said Jessica. “With all the rules. I even have a glow-in-the-dark one.”

“That would give me spelling nightmares. I’ll take my glow-in-the-dark skeleton poster any day. It shows all two hundred and six bones in the body!”

“Judy,” said Mr. Todd. “The back of your head is not nearly as interesting as the front. And so far I’ve seen more o fit today than I’d like.”

Judy Moody Gets Famous! by Megan McDonald

Obviously, our siding with Judy is helped by the fact that both girls were talking but only Judy gets reprimanded by the teacher authority figure.

A positive aspect of the Judy Moody series is that Judy is allowed to express a wider range of emotions, including anger. But mostly she displays spite, and actually ‘moody’ itself is a highly gendered word. Boys are not called moody for displaying the exact same range of emotions. (And yes, I acknowledge there is also a — completely different but still sexist — problem, concerning the narrow range of allowable emotions in boys and men.)

the-many-moods-of-judy-moody

Junie B. Jones

junie-b-jones-by-barbara-park

Like Clementine, Junie B. Jones has a loving relationship with her school principal, owing to her pranks being adorable and the principal being a caring type. (In this post I make the case that Junie B. is a fictional representation of an ADHD phenotype child.)

Junie’s girly-girl enemy is Richie Lucille. The reader knows immediately that Lucille is horrible and unsympathetic because she has long blonde hair tied up in a perfect ponytail, whereas Junie B. looks rough and tumble and doesn’t care about neatness. She is also unlikeable because she is rich. (She has unearned power.)

richie-lucille

Billy B. Brown

the-bad-butterfly

By now it should be clear that messy hair is prerequisite for empathetic girl heroes.

Billie B. Brown has two messy pigtails, two pink ballet slippers and one new tutu.

The Bad Butterfly by Sally Rippin, opening sentence

It’s almost as if the girliness of the ballet outfit has to be neutralised by the messy hair. The messy hair says, “I’m wearing ballet clothes because I’m doing ballet, but don’t let that fool you into thinking I care about what you think of me.”

Billie’s best friend is Jack. Billie and Jack live next door to each other. They do everything together. If Billie decides to play soccer, then Jack will play soccer too.

The Bad Butterfly by Sally Rippin

Rippin avoids much of the ‘girl drama’ by making Billie a ‘guy’s gal’, basically. Billie’s close friendship with a boy elevates her social status.

The only real gender subversion here is that Jack learns ballet just as Billie plays soccer. This is pretty radical and modern, and it’s easy to overlook the other side.

Because once again we have the horrible girly-girl enemy. This girl is called Lola. Once again she is drawn (by illustrator Aki Fukuoka) with her blonde hair in a perfect bun. She closes her eyes and holds her nose in the air, as if no one else matters.

The message for young readers is that being a girl is fine and girls can do anything they want … so long as they are not too much of a girl. This femme phobic message works in silent opposition to the feminist ‘girls (and boys) can do anything’ intent.

Frenemies: A feature of girl fiction but not in books for and about boys

I have also read the Wimpy Kid books and others like it, and it seems the very concept of ‘frenemy’ is specific to books aimed at girls. There is no frenemy in Wimpy Kid — Rowley is a genuine WYSIWYG friend. Fregley is an out-and-out comedic archetype and the girls are somewhat complicated but one-dimensional opponents. These heterosexual boys don’t like the girls as people but they’re starting to feel inevitable adolescent attraction. The most popular books among boy readers are both reflecting and reinforcing a completely different but equally problematic dynamic — a discussion you can find elsewhere.

In fiction aimed specifically at girls, however, we often see frenemy dynamics. This is an outworking of a culture in which the allowable emotional spectrum for girls spans between friendly and neutral. Anger, distaste, disgust is not generally not allowed from girls.

So we have these girls who trick the adults into thinking they’re perfect but actually they are horrible: a  sexist variation on the trickster archetype. The reason this is sexist is because the prevalence of these girls suggests, to widely-read kids that:

  1. Only girls are able to pull this particular trick off
  2. Boys are all surface and no depth — boys speak their minds and you always know exactly what you’re going to get.
  3. Girls are basically liars.
  4. The worst girls are the prettiest ones. And by ‘pretty’ I mean the girls with the most feminine accoutrements. The more feminine a girl is, the more likely she is to be fake underneath, in a direct correlation.

Hillary Clinton has a unique talent to make people viscerally angry. Just look at the footage from Trump rallies: supporters carry “Lyin Hillary” dolls hung from miniature nooses, cry “Lock her up” and “Hang her in the streets”, and wear Trump That Bitch T-shirts.

Sady Doyle

Boy Tricksters, Girly-girl Tricksters

There are plenty of boy tricksters but they are presented in a completely different way.

Boy opponents, for example, arrange to beat someone up, after school, behind the bike sheds, but we aren’t inclined to call him ‘scheming’ for arranging the fight outside the range of adult supervision.

Boys take girls’ dolls, attach them to kite tails and send them sailing into the air, but boys aren’t schemers — they are simply having fun.

The bully-boy characters in children’s stories are not raking in all the academic awards. The fact that girly-girls also know all the answers is one more reason for the readers to despise them. We don’t like women who have all the answers.

The lesson is clear, and has been reiterated in countless hacky comedies about cold, loveless career women ever since. Success and love are incompatible for women. For a woman, taking pride in her own talents – especially talents seen as “masculine” – is a sin that will perpetually cut her off from human relationships and social acceptance. She can be good, or liked, not both. The only answer is to let a man beat her, thereby accepting her proper feminine role.

Sady Doyle

Feminine Girl Opponents Are Always Brought Down A Peg

When the girly-girl gets water dumped all over her (accidentally on purpose), or her pretty dress covered in ink, the reader is encouraged to revel in schadenfreude. It’s not just that the girl hero manages to come out on top — punishment usually focuses on ruining the very thing that stands for femininity.

Don’t forget that punishing female characters in children’s stories has a long history. Below, the Wicked Witch melts. The Wicked Witch is truly wicked, not just an annoying perfectionist classmate with frilly dresses and bows in her hair:

the W. W. Denslow illustration of the first edition (1900) of The Wizard Of Oz

I would argue that Hilary Clinton irritates people not just because of her gender, but because we simply can’t process her narrative. There are no stories that prepare us for her trajectory through life and, therefore, we react to her as if she’s a disruption in our reality, rather than a person.

We love public women best when they are losers, when they’re humiliated, defeated, or (in some instances) just plain killed.

Sady Doyle

It Didn’t Start With Ramona Quimby And Susan Kushner

You can probably tell which girl is the enemy in this adaptation of a Beverly Cleary classic. At least we get to see the girl behind Susan eventually.
You can probably tell which girl is the enemy in this adaptation of a Beverly Cleary classic. At least we get to see the girl behind Susan eventually.

As Doyle explains, this view of femininity goes back as far as Greek mythology and perhaps even back into the Paleolithic era:  

Aversion to successful or ambitious women is nothing new. It’s baked into our cultural DNA. Consider the myth of Atalanta. She was the fastest runner in her kingdom, forced men to race her for her hand, and defeated every one of them. She would have gotten away with it, too, if some man hadn’t booby-trapped the course with apples to slow her down, which is presented as a happy ending. By taking away her ability to excel, he also takes away her loneliness. Then, there’s the story of Artemis and Orion: He’s the most handsome hunter in all Greece, and she’s the Virgin Goddess of the Hunt, who’s ready to get rid of the “virgin” portion for him. Until, that is, her jealous brother Apollo tricks her into an archery contest – she’s so proud of her aim that she lets Apollo taunt her into shooting at a barely visible speck on the horizon and, therefore, winds up shooting her lover in the head.

Sady Doyle

You see it again in the Bible and actually my high school classics teacher had this quote from Pericles on the wall as if it were a maxim to live by:  

[I]njunctions against female self-expression or fame are everywhere in ancient history. The Christian New Testament “[suffers] not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man;”Pericles wrote that the greatest womanly virtue was “not to be talked of for good or evil among men”. In the colonial United States and Britain, women who talked too much and started fights were labelled“common scolds” – recommended punishments included making them wear gags or repeatedly dunking them in water to simulate drowning.

Sady Doyle

Boyish Tricksters Are Heroes; Girlish Tricksters Are Punished

[T]hough Clinton activates the darkest parts of her critics’ sexual imagination, our yearning for her downfall goes beyond even that. It’s not just that her success makes her unattractive or “unlikable”, it’s that, on some level, we cannot believe her success even exists. You hear that disbelief in the frantic insistence of certain Sanders supporters that the primary was “rigged”, simply because Clinton won it. You hear it when Trump sputters that Clinton “should never have been allowed to run”, making her very presence in the race a violation of the accepted order. You can hear it when pundits such as Jonathan Walczak argue that even if Clinton is elected, she should voluntarily resign after one term “for her own good”. (Also, presumably, good for George Clooney, whom Walczak offers up as a plausible replacement.) Even when we imagine her winning, we can’t imagine her really winning. Unadulterated female success and power, on the level Clinton has experienced, is simply not in our shared playbook. So, even when a Clinton victory is right in front of our eyes, we react, not as if it’s undesirable, but as if it is simply not real. And the thing is, it might not be. Or at least, it might only be temporary: the rise before the big, spectacular, sexism-affirming fall.

Sady Doyle

The caveat in chapter books is that ‘tomboyish’ girls, like boys, can also get away with anything. It’s the particularly feminine way of being that is not acceptable.  

#NotAllChapterBooks

Violet Mackerel

 
This is where I give a shout out to the Violet Mackerel series by Anna Branford.
 

violet-mackerel

Violet is kind, inquisitive, creative, understanding, thoughtful and loyal. The author avoids the girly-girl frenemy dynamics and instead focuses on Violet’s relationship with her hippie family and to the natural world around her. Her ‘opponent’ might be her mother, who meets a friend at the mall and bores Violet talking about the price of petrol, for instance. The conflict is not contrived. We do still have, though, a teenage girl snarker in Nicola, the older sister.

Admittedly, this makes for quieter plots with less Bestseller appeal.

Illustrator Elanna Allen dresses Violet in  practical clothing and Violet sometimes has quite neat hair, other times quite messy. The covers of this series are not heavily pink, which I find ironic given the pinkness of all the other books implicitly criticising pinkness.

Fancy Nancy

fancynancy

Fancy Nancy is another interesting case because this is a character who embraces all of those feminine accoutrements vilified in most chapter books.

For pedagogical reasons, I’m sure, these books also teach young readers ‘fancy words’, which Nancy uses with full explanations for the young readers. In other words, there are many ways of being fancy, and one of those ways is to be smart.

There are also lots of standalone books about different kind of girls, but it’s the bestselling series which are the most widely read and therefore the most influential.

Real World Consequences of the Female Maturity Formula In Storytelling

Salma from Paranorman
Salma from Paranorman

I have previously written about the way in which girls and women in popular stories are consistently portrayed as ‘the only sensible’ one in the room. Typically, the girl is more of a swot, more organised, more witty than the ‘everyday boy’. We see it all sorts of narrative for both adults and children:

  • Everybody Loves Raymond (the long-suffering wife)
  • Harry Potter (Hermione)
  • Calvin and Hobbes (Suzie)
  • Big Nate series (Gina, and also the female teacher Mrs Godfrey, who is far more studious about doing her actual job as teacher than the laid back Mr Rosa.)
  • Toy Story
  • Black Books (Fran, when it suits the plot)
  • The I.T. Crowd (Jen, when it suits the plot)
  • The Simpsons (Marge and Lisa)
  • Futurama (Leela)
  • etc.

At first glance, to the uninitiated, this might seem like sexism indeed… but against men. After all, isn’t it good for women’s rights that women are consistently smarter than the men?

No.

  • These women are the sidekicks, not the heroes. They start and end the story as sensible; the character arcs happen to the men. You can’t be the hero of a story unless you undergo some sort of character arc. This makes men the main characters of the stories.
  • These women are motherly. When the only role for the girl is the motherly type, we end up thinking that’s the only role she’s good for.
  • While these motherly types are allowed smart comebacks (a la Suzie from Calvin and Hobbes), they are are often limited to sarcasm. As often as not they are in fact completely humourless, adding to the cultural stereotype that ‘women just aren’t funny’.  This sensible, parental role suits the straight ‘man’ more than it suits the funny ‘guy’.

But more disturbing than any of these points are the very real political consequences, as described below at a feminism and linguistics blog, in a discussion about the recent English election:

Powerful women are resented in a way their male equivalents are not; the more authoritative a woman sounds, the less likeable a lot of people (both men and women) will find her. But you might think the current situation calls that analysis into question. If we’re so uncomfortable with women taking charge, how have we ended up in a situation where women are the most credible challengers for the top jobs in British politics?

One answer to that question invokes the concept of the ‘glass cliff’. In politics as in business, women are more likely to be chosen as leaders when an organisation is in serious trouble and the risk of failure is high. In that connection it’s interesting to recall one of the phrases used about Nicola Sturgeon last week—‘the only grown-up in the room’. Since then, other women, including Theresa May and, in the wider European context, Angela Merkel, have also been described as ‘grown-up(s)’. Though the term itself isn’t gendered, I’m beginning to think the metaphor is: it’s a reference to the most culturally familiar and acceptable form of female authority, that of adult women over children. When the men are responding to a crisis by throwing their toys out of the pram, it’s time for Mummy to sweep in and clean up their mess.

language: a feminist guide

For more on this topic but from an American perspective, listen to Slate’s Double X Podcasts: The Powerfrause Edition, in which Angela Merkel, like Theresa May, also swooped in to power after a German political crisis.

So whenever the girl character swoops in to save the boys with her book learning and smart ideas (a la Monster House, Paranorman, Harry Potter), what we’re really seeing is the Glass Cliff effect.

We might also call it the Happy Housewife view of female politicians:

I have heard many women (and some men) say that they want to see more women in power because women would make the world a better place, lift the tone of parliaments and be all-round kinder to the planet. Some go all quasi-spiritual on me, wittering on about female energy and our goddess-given nurturing nature. This has always struck me as the happy housewife model of leadership, where female leaders whiz around cleaning up the men’s mess, leaving the world all sparkly, clean and sweet smelling. It sounds like it’s a compliment but, in fact, it is a burden.

Jane Caro, after the first 2016 Trump-Clinton debate

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This view dictates that women must be better than men before they can aspire to leadership, that they must offer something special and different or they have no right to take the top job. Frankly, it sets us up for failure because it sets a higher standard for female leaders than for their male counterparts.

Please don’t mistake this for ‘girl power’. And definitely look out for it in your own country’s politics.

EDIT: Fast forward to 2019 and see Elizabeth Warren become the new Hillary Clinton.

A New Vision For Chapter Book Series Aimed At Girls

Could we change the character web template and still engage young readers? Here’s what I’d love to see:

  1. More imagination when it comes to dreaming up opponents. Perhaps this is where fantasy shines. Fantasy, unlike realistic drama, is open to all sorts of monsters, ghosts and ghouls and does not need the girly-girl frenemy/enemy. However, as number 2 in the Ivy + Bean series shows (The Ghost That Had To Go), fantastic imaginings can be included even in realistic fiction.
  2. More complex boy characters. I’d like to kill the stereotype that girls are fake and wily while boys are shallow and simple and unencumbered by complex social difficulties. If writers think they’re reflecting realities, by exaggerating them for comedic effect they are also reinforcing them. Is it possible to model good relationships while still including sufficient tension between characters? (Don’t tell me that these stories shouldn’t be didactic, because they already are.)
  3. In real life, girly girls are not usually the enemy. The girl with the neat hair is probably sitting quietly in the corner doing her work. I know it’s tempting to write only about the Clementine/Ramona/Junie B. wreckers of this world because these girls are propelled into action by their very nature, but there is an invisible majority of girl readers out there whose compliance and hard work are not only invisible, but actively punished throughout children’s literature. Let’s change that. Because it’s affecting how the actual world is being run.
A soap advertisement from recent history. This is what middle grade authors are trying to work against, collectively hoping to subvert the message that beauty trumps brains. However, inversion does not equal subversion.