The Dark by Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen

The Dark is a picture book written by Daniel Handler, illustrated by Jon Klassen. A boy faces his fear of the dark in an archetypal dream house.

The Dark cover

WHAT HAPPENS IN THE DARK?

As usual I’ll break the narrative down according to John Truby’s seven essential elements, which seem to apply to everything from advertisements to novels. Picture books are great for studying this structure, because it’s often made so very plain. You can sometimes even lift direct quotes to illustrate the steps:

Weakness/Need

Psychological Weakness: “Laszlo was afraid of the dark.”

In children’s books, characters don’t need a moral weakness. (In other words, a child character doesn’t have to be treating anyone else badly in order for us to find them a sufficiently interesting and engaging character.)

Desire

On the first page we can see what Laszlo desires: He is playing with his toy cars in peace and solitude on the floor, so he obviously wants to continue doing that without being afraid of anything.

Opponent

The Dark. “The dark lived in the same house as Laszlo”. Normally the opponent has to be another human or monster, but here the dark is anthropomorphised, and might as well be a monster: ‘Sometimes the dark hid in the cupboard’. Daniel Handler spends quite a bit of time describing this monster and what it does.

Plan

Lazlo’s trick for keeping the dark out of his bedroom is saying hello to it during the day.

Until the phrase ‘But one night’ the entire book is written in the iterative. Now we see the switch to the singulative.

lazlo's bedroom

Battle

But when the bulb on the night-light burns out (we assume at this point), the dark does come into his room. The dark challenges Laszlo to visit it in the basement, which requires a scary trip down several flights of stairs. (Why he doesn’t just turn that torch on and use it as his night-light I’m not sure. I don’t think we’re meant to think that’s a possibility, though I have to admit it bothers me some — I think it’s a minor weakness in the plot.)

Self-revelation

Laszlo’s self-revelation comes in the form of a lecture, delivered by the author, meant for the young reader. There’s a very Roald Dahl feel to it, because Dahl used to do the same thing (for example in The Twits, when the reader gets a — rather hypocritical — lecture about not judging people based on what they look like):

The Twits beauty

In The Dark we have:

You might be afraid of the dark, but the dark is not afraid of you. That’s why the dark is always close by.

Young readers are then told that every scary thing with dark insides is actually necessary and useful and, ‘without the dark, everything would be light, and you would never know if you needed a lightbulb’, which is of course the far more humorous thing to say rather than, ‘without the dark you wouldn’t get a good night’s sleep’, and is very Daniel Handler.

We assume Laszlo has achieved this revelation on his own without the help of a narrator, and now the open drawer in the basement looks like a smiling face. He has realised there is nothing at all to be afraid of.

The dark can be kind, helpful even.

The Dark, written by Lemony Snicket and illustrated by Jon Klassen, shows us the dark through Lazlo’s eyes, which at first is scary and menacing. But through the shadowy illustrations and the lovely one page monologue in the middle of the book, we realize that we need the dark, and by the end, we fall in love with the dark’s generosity.

Nerdy Book Club

New Equilibrium

‘The dark kept on living with Laszlo but it never bothered him again.’

We even have the very same image bookending the story — the one where he’s playing with his toys on the floor. But this time the sun is in a slightly different place and Laszlo doesn’t look worried. Also, he no longer feels the need to carry a torch everywhere. This small detail shows that he has now overcome his fear of darkness.

Symbolism

Darkness

Darkness is of course symbolic throughout the history of literature and folkore and everything that came before. Below is a  beautiful excerpt illustrating the dark in words by Joyce Carol Oates:

The house looked larger now in night than it did in day. A solid looming mass confused with the big oaks around it, immense as a mountain. The barns too were dark, heavy, hulking except where moonlight rippled over their tin roofs with a look like water because of the cloud shreds blowing through the sky. No horizon, solid dark dense-wooded ridges like the rim of a deep bowl, and me in the center of the bowl. The mountains were only visible by day. The tree lines. By night our white-painted fences and the barbed wire fences were invisible. In the barnyard, the humped haystack the manure pile, I wouldn’t have been able to identify if I didn’t know what they were. Glazed-brick silo shining with moonlight. Barns, chicken coop, the sheds for the storage of machinery, much of it old, broken-down and rusted machinery, the garage, carports–silent and mysterious in the night. On the far side of the driveway the orchard, mostly winesap apples, massed in the dark and the leaves quavering with wind and it came to me maybe I’m dead? a ghost? maybe I’m not here, at all?

—  from We Were The Mulvaneys

Fear of the dark is at its peak in early childhood, between the time we first learn of the daily dichotomy and the age at which we can logically comfort ourselves that the dark is simply the absence of light; no more, no less.

It’s that in-between period of literature that seeks to reassure rather than scare. There are no monsters here; just nothingness.

The House

As far as picture book houses go, this is a castle rather than an inviting, warm home. The floors are bare. Hard surfaces everywhere. It’s the oneiric house of Gaston Bachelard’s dreams (The Poetics of Space). Of course a house like this needs a cellar. A story like this needs a cellar, because cellars are always dark. From other stories we have learnt to be afraid of cellars — murders and criminals and all sorts can be found in a cellar, or at least suspected, and even when you take a torch down there, the place is still cast mainly in shadow.

(Interestingly, my version reads ‘flights of stairs’ rather than ‘sets of stairs’. Flights definitely feels nicer to me. Is ‘sets of stairs’ an Americanism?)

the dark house

 

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION

Illustrators have many different ways of illustrating the dark. For other examples, see my post Illustrating The Dark.

Geometry

Many modern books include plenty of white space — white is the neutral choice. But where black is chosen as a fill, the effect is dramatic. Here, of course, the black simply equals darkness. These areas of flat blackness emphasise the geometry of the pages. Here we have a rectangle and a couple of triangles, formed by the light from the torch. The triangles themselves almost form a monster’s mouth, with the bed-end resembling a grille of teeth. The effect of these strong, geometrical shapes is to complement the ‘cold windows’ and hard surfaces of this huge, unwelcoming house, which in real life might be nothing of the sort; this is the dream house of a little boy, and when you’re little, your house always seems much bigger in your mind.

thedark2

This kind of geometry really is well-suited to the horror genre in general.

by Levente Szabó
alternative film poster by Levente Szabó
Shadow

The verso image below includes a couple of interesting shadow. We can’t see what is casting the shadow in the foreground. Likewise, we don’t know exactly where that rectangle of light is coming from down the hallway. (We do know it’s from Lazlo’s bedroom, but we can’t see the bedroom.) All of this ‘off-the-page’ lighting lets us into Lazlo’s fear.

the dark hi he would say

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

It creeps all over the house.

I find it hovering in the dining-room, skulking in the parlor, hiding in the hall, lying in wait for me on the stairs.

The above is an excerpt from the feminist short story from 1892, The Yellow Wallpaper. Charlotte Perkins Gillman inverted the usual trope of the dark, gothic house and applied horror symbolism to yellow, a colour most often associated with sunshine and happiness. The attic at the top of this particular haunted house is an example of a well-lit room, which is quite unusual in horror. Then again, the author isn’t writing a straight horror story; she is writing an allegory for postpartum depression, pointing out how horrifying the condition can feel when you’re in it. She’s inverting the very hauntedness of the house, saying it’s not the house that’s haunted at all; it’s the people inside the house.

Differences Between Writing For Children and Adults

AUTHORS AND CRITICS ON THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WRITING FOR ADULTS AND CHILDREN

Some authors resist the idea that they are writing for the mono-audience of children and say that they instead write for everyone:

“I do not believe that I have ever written a children’s book,” the great Maurice Sendak once said in an interviewI don’t write for children,” he told Colbert“I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’” This sentiment — the idea that designating certain types of literature as “children’s” is a choice entirely arbitrary and entirely made by adults — has since been eloquently echoed by Neil Gaiman, but isn’t, in fact, a new idea.

J.R.R. Tolkien On Fairy Tales, Language and a bunch of other things

Pet Sematary by Stephen King is a horror novel R.L. Stine has said he admires. He has also borrowed the plot several times over.

Diane Wynne Jones echoes this sentiment:

I think it’s quite important to give children as many pegs to hang things on as possible. This is the way you learn. -So I never worry about putting in things that are not within children’s capacities, because I don’t think this matters. I think it’s very good for children to notice that there’s something going on that they don’t quite understand. This is a good feeling because it pulls you on to find out.

— Wynne Jones, talking about her book Fire & Hemlock

I don’t see a clear difference between writing for children and writing for adults. It’s just that when I write for children, I’m writing for everyone; when I write for adults, I’m only writing for some people. In everything I write, I try to be ‘brief, clear, and rich’, to quote Andersen. The question ‘What is true?’ is fundamental to my life…I think of world literature as both shared and indivisible. Children’s literature is also world literature. All literature involves sharing and reciprocity, giving and receiving gifts. All works, whether they are written for children or adults, in whatever language and country, form one and same world literature, in which all works exist in relation to each other. Completely autonomous works don’t exist, and every book has many authors, both dead and alive. Literature is intellectual capital that is not used up or diminished through distribution.

Leena Krohn

I myself would hope that in my books there is no separation between comedy for children and comedy for adults. There’s just good comedy, humour in fact, because that’s a language that can speak to people of many different ages at the same time. I don’t fret over whether children can understand everything in my books. Perhaps the best situation is when they end up asking their parents and each other questions now and then – and hey presto, a literary discussion ensues.

– Timo Parvela

But other children’s authors, equally widely read, say they always write with the audience age in mind:

There was much that was exactly the same in writing for a younger audience, but there were also several marked differences. The biggest that comes to mind was the way I shifted in my use of language and vocabulary. Initially it seemed awkward.  In simplest terms, there were fewer words I felt I could choose from and this, in turn, presented the interesting problem of how to create a powerful story and fully realized characters without having all the tools I usually worked with.

Amy Herrick, author of The Time Fetch

 

I always know whether my reader is four or forty.

— Anne Fine in an interview with Nicolette Jones

In his Harpers essay, White mused, “It must be a lot of fun to write for children—reasonably easy work, perhaps even important work.” After Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) pointed White’s essay out to Anne Carroll Moore, she sent White a letter. If it’s so easy, why don’t you do it? “I wish to goodness you would do a real children’s book yourself,” she wrote. “I feel sure you could, if you would, and I assure you the Library Lions would roar with all their might in its praise.” (Moore often inscribed her letters with a return address of “Behind the Lions.”) White replied that he had started writing a children’s book, but was finding it difficult. “I really only go at it when I am laid up in bed, sick, and lately I have been enjoying fine health. My fears about writing for children are great—one can so easily slip into a cheap sort of whimsy or cuteness. I don’t trust myself in this treacherous field unless I am running a degree of fever.”

The Lion and the Mouse, The New Yorker

DOUBLE NARRATEES, DOUBLE IMPLIED READERS

Children’s literature academics have written about this ‘implied audience’:

… a text must “imply” a reader: that is, the subject-matter, language, allusion levels and so on clearly “write” the level of readership (it is no accident that the Pooh books, or several of Roald Dahl’s books, have proved popular with adults as well as children: the audience implied in the books is as much an adult one as a child one).

— Peter Hunt, 1991

As always when speaking of children’s fiction we are dealing with a double set of codes. Unlike adult fiction, in children’s fiction we have double narratees and double implied readers. An adult writer evoking an adult reader’s nostalgia is merely one aspect. Hopefully, the child reader is targeted as well, although in a different manner.

From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature by Maria Nikolajeva

Nikolajeva argues that the difference isn’t about style (“readability”) or subject matter at all, but mainly about ‘stage of initiation described in the text’.

The fact that children’s novels seldom involve topics like sexuality, parenthood, or adultery does not depend on the subjects as such being unsuitable or tabooed, but exclusively on the problems not being relevant at the stage depicted. For young adult novels, on the contrary, sexual awakening is often the central motif. While sexual identity is relevant in idyllic fiction, it is all the more dominant at the stage of collapse.

On Amount Of Detail

It’s like a runner who’s used to doing sprints and then decides to do a marathon. When I write for kids it has to be kind of believable, but they also have to know it’s a fantasy. But when you write horror for adults, every detail has to be real. I actually had to do research on things like vegetation on the Outer Banks.

– R.L. Stine, from an interview with Businessweek

On Thematic Material

There are some themes, some subjects, too large for adult fiction: they can only be dealt with adequately in a children’s book.

Philip Pullman

Children … have the same emotions … They may be not as complex … but as primary colours, fear is fear, happiness is happiness, and love is the same sense for a child as it is for any other.

Lloyd Alexander

Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne. All these people wrote for children. They may have pretended not to, but they did.

Ray Bradbury, explaining how these writers write ‘in metaphors’, just like he does, and that’s why their work is popular in schools.

Different Life Experience

When you are writing for children, there are no cultural modifiers. No icons that you can quickly draw on for reference. You can only deal with the core emotions as that is what they recognise.

Mo Willems

The firmness of the setup must be adjusted to the target audience. We set up more prominently for youth audiences, because they’re not as story literate as middle-aged filmgoers. Bergman, for example, is difficult for the young–not because they couldn’t grasp his ideas if they were explained, but because Bergman never explains. He dramatizes his ideas subtly, using setups intended for the well-educated, socially experienced, and psychologically sophisticated.

– Robert McKee, Story

A Musical Metaphor

The craft is the same whether I’m writing children’s books or crime novels. Maybe if writing a book in the Harry Hole series, a crime novel, it may feel like conducting a symphony orchestra. Writing a children’s book is like jamming with your band. It’s more direct, but it doesn’t mean it’s easier, or less demanding. It is more enjoyable.

– Jo Nesbø

Difference In Audience Criticism

Literature for children and young people finds itself wrestling with the pressures of conflicting expectations: adults think a book is a good one if they themselves genuinely enjoy it, although children often have a much more uncomplicated, hands-on relationship to reading.

Books From Finland

Difference In Subject Matter And Humour

To be honest, I don’t think I change style, genre, concepts, no matter what audiences I’m writing for. There are some subjects children probably aren’t going to be interested in: The complexities of adult relationships. There are things like farts that probably very few adults want to read about. But by and large, all my books can be read from anyone from three to adult, and I suspect they are. Just about all my work is really not age specific. I do get annoyed when people advocate limiting language for children. That’s how children learn. Language. If a book is good enough a child needs only understand four words in six and they will keep on reading. And when they come across those words another three or four times they’ll know what they mean. That is how we acquire language and concepts and so often we totally underestimate kids. Kids are often more interested in the big questions: The good and the evil and how can we change the world. Adults will often read a book because it [conforms to] their image of being intellectual. They will be more preoccupied with how you pay the mortgage and is there going to be a train strike tomorrow. But the job of a kid is to understand the world. They are deeply, desperately interested in how the world works, why, and what is good and what is evil far more often than adults. For a writer writing about good and evil, you’ve probably got a very small readership. If you are doing that for kids you have got probably everyone out there, who is passionately in what is good, what is evil and where they meet. Don’t be cute. Don’t underestimate [kids]. Don’t write down. Forget about the books that you loved as a child; always remember though who you are writing for. Don’t think of a child as being a different species. Don’t equate the words that a child is able to read with what the child is able to understand. No adult ever says to a kid ‘Don’t watch that TV show because you won’t understand it’. We say ‘No, don’t watch that TV show’ because we know they are going to understand it!

Jackie French, Australian Writers’ Centre Podcast (episode 25/10/2013)

Difference In Plot Shape

Contemporary YA novels and even novels for younger readers often come very close to adult fiction, both in their general pessimistic worldview and their complex narrative strategies. However, we can still distinguish a children’s novel from an adult novel by its unaccomplished rite of passage and its possibility of return to circularity, if only through death.

— Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature

For more on plot shapes, some of which are more prevalent in children’s literature, see Shapes Of Plots In Children’s Literature.

Difference In Relationship With The Author

A child walks into a library asking for Wimpy Kid or Artemis Fowl, not Jeff Kinney or Eoin Colfer. However, every now and then a child reader will take an interest in their favourite author and these days will be able to find information about them on the net.

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