Go beyond the picture; use it as a stimuls; don’t be constrained by it.
Start with a wide focus and then zoom in on specific details
Flashback and then jump forward if it fits your narrative to do so
Craft the way you start some of your sentences (e.g. triple-noun-colon)
Vary the length of some of your sentences (don’t overuse one-worders)
Proof-read your work; always be meticulous
Try to finish your narrative by refocusing on the image
Unsplash is a website offering free, high quality images for blogs and whatnot. Sometimes when I’m looking for something else, I linger on certain images, wondering about the context, wondering what else is going on outside the frame. These are the photos I want to save for creative writing prompts.
This story would (non-ironically) be horror or at least fantasy, though the writer could flip it and write comedy.
As it is, the coffee drinking guy seems unaware of what’s happening right outside the window, which puts the audience in superior position.
This is that old Hitchcockian trick of showing the audience there’s a bomb under the table, but not showing the character:
“There is a distinct difference between “suspense” and “surprise,” and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.
We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!”
In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.”
― Alfred Hitchcock
We are fascinated by chicken body parts, in general. At least in the West, we’re a little grossed out by their feet. This is an age-old attitude and has surely influenced stories such as the Baba Yaga category of folk tale.
The glass and chicken-leg photo could prompt a modern Baba Yaga story in which writers practise the Hitchcockian technique of writing suspense (rather than surprise).
This baby elephant looks sad to me. I’m thinking of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I’m also thinking of that 1980s tearjerker film about Bette Midler and her best friend — Beaches — specifically that harrowing, resonant scene in which the teenage girl invites other girls to her birthday party. All the frenemies bow out at the last minute, phoning her one after the other, each with a bogus excuse. They have gathered somewhere else.
What about your take?
I WOKE UP AND…
If you could wake up with a super power what would it be? The ability to fly has been part of wish fulfilment stories since forever. What would you actually do, though, if you could fly? Would you let everyone know about this newfound ability, or would you keep it under wraps? Are you scared of heights? Is there some way you could put this skill to good use, Super-man style? Or maybe it only gets you into trouble, Icarus style.
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead is ten years old now, published 2009. I’ve seen this middle grade novel described as magical realism, though for knotty political reasons we might prefer to call it fabulism. It is also science fiction and grounded in the real world. It packs a lot into 40k words.
There are many things to admire about When You Reach Me. But I’m not a fan of the title. I keep getting it wrong. (I keep thinking it’s When I Reach You.) It was originally called You Are Here, which I like better. (That would match the cover better, too.)
First, I admire the 12-year-old-ness of it. Take the following passage, which demonstrates the narrator is right there in a 12-year-old’s headspace.
“It’s okay.” I was so grateful that she had something to apologize for that it didn’t really occur to me to think about how it had actually made me feel. But I have thought about it since then. It didn’t make me feel good.
I’ve heard this style of narration was sort of invented by Katherine Paterson. I’ve seen it described as ‘third-person limited omniscient narrative’, which basically means the narrator is looking back on fairly recent incidents. A little time has passed, but not much. They’re still a kid telling the story. We know it’s not an adult looking back telling the story because ‘it didn’t make me feel good’ is a kind of emotionally naive thing to say. An adult would be more articulate about it.
Yet at the same time, the narrator is saying something universal and true.
REBECCA STEAD AND KATHERINE PATERSON
Speaking of Katherine Paterson, Bridge To Terabithia has The Chronicles of Narnia as a possible intertext and When You Reach Me has the very clear intertext of A Wrinkle In Time. Are young readers expected to be familiar with A Wrinkle In Time? A children’s story with a strong intertext must exist as complete in its own right. No knowledge of Madeleine L’Engle’s work is needed here, but those who’ve read it will get more out of this one.
I do think readers who haven’t read and enjoyed Madeleine L’Engle‘s A Wrinkle in Time can enjoy this book, but I would suggest reading L’Engle’s book before picking up this one; it will mean so much more.
Stead was inspired by Madeline L’Engle’s classic and initially only mentioned it briefly but her editor advised her to make more of it if she wanted to keep it in at all.
Stead was aware that she did not want A Wrinkle in Time to have too big an influence on When You Reach Me. Keeping this in mind, she reread A Wrinkle in Time through the perspective of different characters, which enabled her to develop new connections and ideas in her own work.
Even better than reading A Wrinkle In Time, I’d say it’s helpful for young readers to have considered the possibility of time travel. That is the most complex part of this novel. Time is presented as like a book with all the pages filled in. (Actually, the analogy used in the story is a ring with diamond chips around it.)
Butchering it badly, the idea is this: we simply move through time, but we exist on each page forever. This is a mind-bending concept to consider. Brian Greene, Marcus Chown and other popular science writers are fascinating on this topic. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6yMiUq7W_xI
(I see the potential for fascinating classroom discussions. linked to the science curriculum.)
I also love that Rebecca Stead sets up archetype characters and then subverts them. She doesn’t simply invert them — she properly subverts them. The Alpha Bitch turns out to be human and not that different from the main character. A bully character is set up then dismantled as a nerdy type.
Connected to these subversions: By the conclusion of the novel it is clear that sometime there’s no grand fatalistic reason behind certain actions. The inciting incident, in which Sal is punched in the head, had no good reason behind it. It had a stupid reason behind it. The message, therefore, is that violence is senseless. (Sometimes it really is.)
But here’s what most critics have admired the most: The way all the time travel fits together, and how one clue leads directly to the next in this mystery, science fiction plot. There must be something especially gratifying for readers about that flow-on feeling you get from some stories, even if it’s only subconscious.
CHARACTERS OF WHEN YOU REACH ME
Stead doesn’t introduce the main child character’s name right away. In fact, we’re several chapters in before we know it. This has the effect of turning the main character into the Every Child, in which the readers can easily map themselves onto the fictional proxy.
Eventually we learn her name, at the beginning of chapter three:
Miranda — so named because it stands for people’s rights. A standout quirk: Miranda reads and re-reads A Wrinkle In Time. She carries around a battered copy.
Mother — Uptight, small (suggesting a nervous disposition), with a large social conscience. She wanted to be a lawyer but works in a lawyer’s office. In this era (she had her daughter in the late 1960s) it was very hard for women to become lawyers. Women were infantalised by the dominant culture. This mother now works in a lawyer’s office. They are not super wealthy, because they do lots of legal work pro bono. (A Save the Cat set up.) Miranda having access to legal help comes in handy later. (If you’d like to ruin children’s books for yourself, take notice of the parents’ profession.) The mother has her own character arc. That she only fits children’s clothes is a telling detail — the mother is childlike. Her constant rejection of the perfectly good, very nice Richard is a sign that she is yet to grow up. By the end of the story the mother is wearing business attire. Richard comments how good she looks. This change of clothing is symbolic of the mother’s own coming-of-age. Both mother and daughter undergo a character arc. You see this in the film Lady Bird, in Pixar’s Frozen, Thirteen and Freaky Friday. (Mother and daughter double reversals are common.)
Richard — Mother’s boyfriend of two years, so basically Miranda’s step-father. German. A lawyer, also with a strong social conscience. Stead gives him the quirk of one leg shorter than the other, and a constant reference to this which marks him out as not actually perfect. He sits at the table reading the newspaper (like lots of children’s book fathers) and is more laid back than the mother (like most children’s book parents).
Robbie B. — kid at school who says Miranda was named after a kidnapper. (I looked it up — he means Ernesto Miranda.)
Belle — owns ‘Belle’s Market’ near Miranda’s house. The produce she sells there isn’t great. Belle is an older friend and mentor to Miranda. Rebecca Stead has populated Miranda’s life with a network of people across the age ranges — probably more age variety than would be typical for a twelve-year-old. But this helps to expand the time. Annie Proulx does the exact same trick in many of her short stories, especially the Wyoming ones. She’ll often open a story about one character by giving us backstory about how he’s the fourth generation to own this land, etc. This is very deliberate on Proulx’s part, as she’s said so in interviews. In short, children’s writers can also achieve this time-expansion thing by including a wide age-range of characters. This has been happening for a long time, with the inclusion of older mentors and grandparents, even as social networks in Western children’s real lives have, on average, shrunk.
Sal — Sal and his Mom Louisa live in the apartment below. Sal ‘used to be’ Miranda’s best friend.
Louisa — Louisa works in a nursing home.
Mr Nunzi — another resident in the apartment block. Smokes, is careless with it.
Mrs Bindocker — the neighbourhood busybody who talks a lot. (A Rachel Lynde character.) Even her name sounds like someone speaking quickly. (Maybe it also reminds me of the word ‘spin doctor’.)
The Laughing Man — Quacker — Quack for short. Or ‘Kicker‘. The local scary guy. I listened to a true crime podcast once about a boy who went missing. One resonant observation: Police should always ask the kids for information. If there’s a weirdo hanging around, it’s likely the kids will know about it even if the adults don’t. When this guy is introduced we don’t know whether he’s going to be an opponent or an ally. Because this is middle grade, I’m going for false opponent who turns out to be an ally. As it turns out, The Laughing Man is a Jesus character in the same way that Leslie Burke is a Jesus character in Bridge to Terabithia, adding to the parallels I see between When You Reach Me and Bridge to Terabithia.
The boys by the garage — In a flash back, one of them beats Sal up. Clear bully opponents. The one in the green army coat punches Sal. Later we learn his name is Marcus and he goes to the same school as them.
MarcusHeilbruner is not your typical storybook bully. He likes to read books about maths. He believes time travel is possible. His bully characterisation is thereby subverted.
Julia — a rich classmate who goes on trips to Switzerland etc. The middle-grade equivalent of an alpha bitch trope. Julia describes her own colouring by referring to her skin and eyes in comparison to foods, which by 2019 is something many women of colour are wishing white people wouldn’t do. (Julia is a girl of colour but she’s been written by a white author.) But how woke were any of us back in the dark ages of 2009?
Annemarie — Annemarie’s longtime bestie. But in sixth grade Julia decides to punish Annemarie. Annemarie’s bedroom is covered in pictures of Julia, which reminds me of the Eleanor Estes story — The Hundred Dresses.
Alice Evans — the girl who gets picked on most. Gullible but book smart.
Dick Clark — the host of the gameshow Winner’s Circle. This is based on a real game show called The Pyramid Game.
Mr Tompkin — a teacher at school. Described by Miranda’s mother as a ‘frustrated architect’. The mother is herself a frustrated lawyer, so her thumbnail sketch says as much about her.
Wheelie — the school secretary. The students consider her the person who runs the school. She is nicknamed Wheelie because she never seems to get off her castor-wheeled office chair, but simply rolls around. Another quirk of Wheelie: She doesn’t take any shit and she’s precious about people using her stationery, and later, her phone. This adds tension after there’s a ticking clock set-up and Miranda really, really needs to use her notepad, then her phone.
Colin — a boy at school who follows Annemarie and Miranda around these days. He is the middle grade romantic interest of Miranda. Miranda wonders if Colin likes her. There’s some non-sexualised touching, like pressing foreheads together. Eventually the reader is rewarded when Colin kisses Miranda.
Jimmy — the guy who owns the sandwich place. He hires Colin, Annemarie and Miranda to work for him during their early lunch hour. He’s a schlubby guy but he provides the equivalent of a ‘cafe hub’ (seen in many TV series, especially) where the middle grade kids can legitimately, safely hang out. Well, I doubt this would ever happen in real life. Parents and teachers would be all about the child protection, though I don’t know what it’s like to grow up as a 12-year-old in New York City in the late 1970s. Maybe there really was that much freedom? See also: Lampshading Parental Absence In Children’s Literature. Stead herself has said: “[F]rom age nine, my friends and I were on the streets, walking home, going to each other’s houses, going to the store. I really wanted to write about that: the independence that’s a little bit scary but also a really positive thing in a lot of ways. And I’m not sure that most kids have that today”. This is a good reason why so many contemporary children’s books are set in a time before mobile phones and so-called helicopter parents.
Jay Stringer — a kid at school who doesn’t notice anything when he’s reading. Characters like this serve to populate the story authentically. This is why they’re given names, despite being part of the scenery.
STORY STRUCTURE OF WHEN YOU REACH ME
Possibly the best-plotted middle-grade book ever written.
There is, quite frankly, a lot of stuff out there to like. So what I have to do here is convey to you just how this book is, pretty much, one of the best children’s books I have ever read.
Each chapter is headed something like ‘Things That Smell’ or ‘Things You Keep Secret’, which is the structure of the gameshow Miranda’s mother is preparing for. In this way, the mother’s desire to win money at a gameshow is a subplot and structural guide to Miranda’s story — wanting to solve a mystery of notes which seem to come from the future.
The chapters are very short, more like micro chapters. There are advantages and disadvantages to doing this. The advantage is that you feel you’re making progress. Structurally, short chapters fit the theme of time as a series of individuated moments. But here’s what one of my Goodreads friends had to say:
I didn’t hate [When You Reach Me], just found it quite hard to read. The chapters are very short which seriously interrupted the flow of the story for me. I understand that this is probably aimed at keeping the interest and attention spans of the target audience (children) but I think it would have been better to extend the chapters and allow the reader the chance to get drawn into the story more.
Miranda herself is more of an observer than someone on a hero mission. People around her each have their own desires and plans and she regards her community as a mystery to be solved. Who is the laughing man? Why isn’t her best friend talking to her anymore? Is time travel possible? Why did the bully punch Sal? What is the Queen Bee mean girl planning for her beta? And so on.
For the final quarter of the book, the reader is in audience inferior position. We watch Miranda embark upon a mission. She’s in a 1970s assembly, helping Annemarie get to the toilet before she wets herself (a Save the Cat moment which endears her to us). She’s asking Wheelie for paper (we don’t know what for). Miranda has gone from being a fairly passive viewpoint character to being the hero of her own story. This is a subtle but satisfying switch and increases narrative drive as readers head for the climax.
Miranda is the Every Child so her shortcoming is that she has limited freedoms. These kids have quite a lot of freedom, to my mind, being New York City kids and living in a socially connected neighbourhood.
She’s a mimetic hero — not especially good at many things. She’s no good at cutting sandwiches, no matter how many times she does it. But she’s surprisingly good at making origami frogs. Like regular kids, she is still working out her strengths.
Because Miranda is narrating her own story from the near future, she has a little bit more emotional maturity than she had before, but not much. She is a typical twelve-year-old in all respects.
Miranda has her own minor moral shortcomings.
[Rebecca Stead] tied in parts of her childhood into the novel. Besides the laughing man, she included her primary school, her apartment and a sandwich store where she used to work. Stead also added memories of herself acting mean without reason.
Mystery desireline: Miranda wants to know who is sending her the postcards.
Romantic subplot: She wants to remain best friends with Sal, the boy in a neighbouring apartment. Unfortunately, he doesn’t feel the same way. This is therefore a story about learning to let go of your crushes.
Rebecca Stead wastes no time in setting up the mystery, which functions, structurally, identically to an opponent. (The unseen opponent is the person sending the postcards.)
The mystery element of this story has a strong visual motif — that of the knot. Richard likes to untangle knots when he’s working on a difficult lawyer problem. Miranda learns this trick from him. Knots as motif endure throughout the story, alongside keys. Miranda’s mother refuses to give Richard a key to their apartment. In the end she does — two keys — tied together with a knot. In a parallel plot thread, Miranda has solved ‘the key’ to the mystery of the Laughing Man, and the symbolism is (literally) tied up.
A bully hierarchy is set up by the author but eventually subverted.
Miranda is often at low key odds with her mother, who is still quite childlike. Richard, on the other hand, is her emotionally mature ally.
Jimmy is an opponent as well as an ally — he provides a safe space for the kids to hang out and work though there is the subplot of him thinking they stole his two dollar bills.
Here’s the thing about mimetic, childlike heroes. Paul Jennings does this too. Kids aren’t great at planning unless they have excellent executive functioning. Kids like Miranda don’t so much go about formulating a plan to solve a mystery. They tend to function as reactionaries. Others have the plans — they react. They are good observers, though, which makes them good storytellers.
So, Miranda gets a postcard, reacts. Gets another postcard, reacts. The plans she does make are not in service of solving the mystery. That’ll resolve itself eventually. Contrast a kid ‘hero’ like Miranda with a single-minded cop like Sarah Linden from The Killing.
Rebecca Stead uses an interesting technique to dilate the pacing of the death scene. She numbers the events sequentially.
I consider the truck death scene the first part of the Battle.
The Anagnorisis comes quite early, before the Battle sequence. Miranda has a developmental milestone by realising that she is part of something much bigger. This is achieved by use of what is called The Overview Effect:
Then I sat on the couch and closed my eyes. I pictured the world. I pictured the world millions of years ago, with crazy clouds of gas everywhere, and volcanoes, and the continents bumping into each other and then drifting apart. Okay. Now life begins. It starts in the water, with tiny things, microscopic, and then some get bigger. And one day something crawls out of the water onto land. There are animals, then humans, looking almost all alike. There are tiny differences in color, the shape of the face, the tone of the skin. But basically they are the same. They create shelters, grow food, experiment. They talk; they write things down.
Now fast-forward. The earth is still making loops around the sun. There are humans all over the place, driving in cars and flying in airplanes. And then one day one human tells another human that he doesn’t want to walk to school with her anymore.
I’m sure there’s probably a Heideggerian explanation for this particular developmental milestone, in which children realise they are a part of something bigger. I have previously looked at one of Heidegger’s more famous theories in relation to children’s stories — Being-toward-death. That’s what kids realise they are going to die someday. It’s a pretty common character arc in young adult literature. The magical age of 12 is a time for many such revelations, and Miranda is indeed 12. Now, I have a limited upper capacity for reading about Heidegger, but perhaps someone else can confirm, or write a doctoral thesis on how Rebecca Stead’s work is about children realising that they are a part of something bigger, a.k.a., Being-in-the-world. (I just Googled it. It ain’t been done.)
Back to talking about structure. After the Battle sequence in When You Reach Me we have the mystery part of the plot which comes together. We learn that The Laughing Man has been sent to save Sal from being run over by a bus.
The words ‘book bag pocket shoe’ are revealed as the places where Miranda finds the notes.
Then we learn the big reveal: Who The Laughing Man is, and you probably guessed it before it is revealed (or confirmed) and this makes us all feel very smart.
Just as well, because the time travel part of this book confuses the hell out of me.
Time travel! Romance! Japan! If you love the films out of Studio Ghibli you’ll love The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, too.
An arc word/phrase is also known as a ‘leitwort’, which literally means ‘lead word’. In order to be an arc phrase and not just a catch phrase the phrase must help define the tone of the entire work, or at least the plot arc.
‘Time Waits For No One’ is a fairly cliched English phrase, but perhaps a Japanese audience finds it a little more exotic, like we find Chinese characters exotic when we tattoo ourselves with them. This idiomatic expression is written across the black board, presumably after an English language lesson, and explains the basic message of this tale: Even if you had the ability to go back in time and change things, you wouldn’t be able to do anything about the basic nature of fate.
The magic in a very early Twilight Zone episode called One For The Angels (in fact this is the second episode ever) is such that even if you yourself manage to avoid death, the fate must be transferred to someone else.
Proud of having outsmarted Mr. Death and now virtually assured of immortality, Lou is informed by Mr. Death that “other arrangements” must now be made, that someone else will have to take his place. Mr. Death chooses a little girl, one of Lou’s good friends who lives in the same building. When she is hit by a truck Lou immediately offers to go with Mr. Death but is told it is too late.
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is a Japanese anime from 2006 directed by Mamoru Hosada, who is also known for my daughter’s favourite Wolf Children and the long but engrossing Summer Wars. This film based on the novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui, which was originally published way back in 1967. It has been adapted many times.
For example, there was another (non-anime) film adaptation of this novel made several years later in 2010, but reception wasn’t as good. (Yasutaka Tsutsui also wrote the book Paprika, another well-known anime adaptation.) After the novel The Girl Who Leapt Through Time was adapted into film, it was then adapted back into book form, this time as a graphic novel.
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time has elements of a portal fantasy.
What Is Portal Fantasy?
If the story takes place in a world other than our own, it is fantasy.
If the story starts in the real world but the characters enter a new one in the story, that is called a Portal Fantasy.
Classic fantasy takes a single main character from mundane world to fantasy world and back to the mundane. So, classic fantasy is also portal fantasy.
A passageway is normally used in a story only when two subworlds are extremely different. We see this most often in the fantasy genre when the character must pass from the mundane world to the fantastic.
The room into the science lab beside the classroom is treated as a kind of portal, with the camera lingering on the door, with a shadow forming a cross over the door. Inside there is a kind of witch’s lair. The mother has already mentioned a ‘witch’ in jest when saying goodbye to Makoto in the morning. She finds something magical on the floor. The colour scheme switches to blues as we accompany her through time, with images of mustangs running across plains and something like the inside of a computer.
This is also a coming-of-age story.
What Is A Coming-of-age Story?
A coming-of-age is film genre that focuses on psychological and moral growth of a protagonist who is growing from youth to adulthood. Personal growth is the most important characteristic in this genre; it relies on emotional responses and dialogue, rather than action.
After finding the time-leaping device Makoto visits her auntie witch who works at an art gallery. Auntie exists to explain the magic/science of time travel and it often happens to girls your age. This marks the motif of the time-leaping device as a metaphor for growing up and its confusion, as well as the almost universal desire to have do-overs after you’ve reflected on a mortifying scene in your teenage life and performed less well than you would’ve liked.
I would also argue that this story is an example of magical realism.
What Is Magical Realism?
Magical realist stories are basically set in the ordinary, everyday world we all share but there is a little bit of magic, unexplained to the audience. We just know that it’s there and accept it. In the case of this story, Makoto’s mother wishes her goodbye in the morning and makes a reference to her going to see her ‘Witch Auntie’. We don’t know exactly why this woman is a witch, but we accept that witches exist in this world.
If the mother had not mentioned the witch auntie I would be more confident in calling this magical realism, because ideally there should be some doubt in the reader’s mind about whether the fantastic elements are real or not. If they mother hadn’t been ‘in on it’ the visits to the witch auntie might well have taken place entirely in Makoto’s mind.
In the West it can be difficult to find good stories about girls who are friends, without being ‘frenemies’ or without fighting over a boy, or over who looks the prettiest. The abundance of mean girl tropes is frustrating because it’s simply not how female relationships work, and it paints girls out to be nothing but bitchy. To find some excellent stories about female relationships we can instead go to Japan, where we’ll find stories such as this one, with its more nuanced female character web.
IS THIS A FEMINIST STORY?
The film poster itself is a shot of a high school girl who seems to be dressed from the male gaze. By Western standards, the school skirt is far too short. I’ve yet to work out though if Japanese culture sexualises legs to the extent that Western culture does. Short skirts in Japanese schools — at least those that don’t rule otherwise — are very short, and I believe it comes from the fact that legs look longer if skirts are shorter. (An optical illusion as much as an expression of sexuality.) What I am quite sure of, though, is that this female main characters in Western animations are not designed with such short skirts unless that character is the designated hot mean girl.
There are a number of diehard tropes that come out of Japan. One of them is the sharing of the umbrella as a way of striking up a relationship with a stranger you meet on the street. Which is fine. It’s the classic ‘meet cute’ scene, and is common in the West as well.
Another is the ‘riding bitch’ trope, in which we see a boy give a girl a ride home on his bicycle, him leading the way.
This trope is popular in Studio Ghibli animations also.
Is there anything wrong with the riding bitch scene? When it happens over and over again it tells boys they must take the lead and girls that they must submit. The real problem is that we never see the gender reversed. That’s when you know it’s a problem.
There is a danger in ‘tomboy’ stories that they border on femme phobic. The empathetic female protagonist has short hair, a unisex name, likes to play baseball and hangs out with guys. She could easily become your classic ‘guy’s gal’, the kind who would say things like, “You know, I really just prefer guys over gals because gals are waaay too much drama.” (Internalised misogyny.) This film avoids that because Makoto doesn’t only have guy friends, she is also close to a girl, and she has a slightly dramatic but loving relationship with her sister, too.
Another thing I like about this story is that the girls are allowed to eat. Makoto works up a ravenous appetite by extending her days time-leaping. She raids the fridge in the way most often attributed to teenage boys.
THIS STORY AS AN INSIGHT INTO JAPANESE CULTURE
When Makoto falls asleep in class her teacher drops a book on her head. While unacceptable in the West, I have seen this sort of interaction happen in Japanese classrooms in this general era — male teachers in particular can sometimes slap students about the head and come down heavy with the ruler right next to someone’s hand. This sort of intimidation is no longer acceptable in many countries.
The ‘purin’ that Makoto’s little sister eats is a loanword from English ‘pudding’ but refers to a specific product. The purin is as much a part of Japanese childhood food culture as the Twinkie seems to be in America. It’s basically set custard that you eat cold out of the fridge in summer.
In the fridge you can also see cans of Asahi beer, almost certainly for the father’s consumption. They eat teppanyaki one night, which the more feminine younger sister has helped the mother to prepare. Japanese housewives spend a lot of time in the kitchen, as traditional Japanese meals require a lot of preparation time. (Similar to Indian food in that regard.)
Japanese high schools don’t employ cleaners. It’s up to the students to clean their own classrooms daily, and at the end of each term there is an entire afternoon spent on ‘Big Cleaning’, in which students scrub the corridors and toilet floors. It’s therefore quite normal that Makoto would be doing the errand of delivering the stack of books to the science lab, even though in my Western high school this room was full of dangerous chemicals and equipment, and therefore off-limits to all students unless a teacher was present.
22 Steps Breakdown
Anagnorisis, need, desire
Makoto Konno is the classic loveable heroine: clumsy and nondescript (like Bella Swan) who describes herself as average in ability. This is a story of an ordinary girl in an extraordinary situation. I mention above that she is a Japanese ‘tomboy’. Her body language is masculine. In Japan it’s frowned upon for girls to cross their legs while sitting on the couch. When laughing you cover your mouth. But Makoto’s body language is wide and expressive and when she laughs she throws her head back and her mouth becomes comically huge. If you listen to the original Japanese she speaks in a much more masculine manner than the English dub would lead us to believe, even referring to herself as ‘ore’, which is slang for the first person pronoun and generally used only by boys.
Even the name Makoto is more commonly given to boys in Japan (though it’s reasonably popular among girls, too).
Symbolic names work best in comedy and children’s literature.
真琴 is the kanji used for Makoto’s name in this story. When written like this it’s generally a given name for boys. The ‘koto’ refers to the traditional Japanese stringed instrument. ‘Ma’ means ‘truth’.
(The first name of the original 1967 novel was Kazuko is now an out-of-date sounding name, because it was very popular after WW2. In that era girls were given ‘peace’ names, and Kazuko is often written as ‘Peace Child’. It’s therefore reminiscent of grandmothers (and great grandmothers).
Makoto, phonetically, means ‘truth’, which makes this an allegorical name, or an ‘aptronym’ — Makoto must learn to be truthful rather than mucking people around, using time travel to play with their emotions.
Makoto is always leaving disaster in her wake, like setting fire to a pan in cooking class. She tells us via the storyteller narration that she has no real skill in anything and doesn’t even know if she’s going into arts or sciences in senior high school. This is a very important decision in her Japanese life in her third year of middle school because she’s about to enter the ‘study hard’ years. She jokes with her friends that she’ll be a media tycoon or maybe an oil baron. ‘You need to take life more seriously,’ she is told.
This is a specifically Japanese psychological need for a main character –- in Hollywood you’re more likely to find a main character who needs to lighten up a bit, especially when it comes to teenage girls, who often have their glasses removed as part of their character arc.
The ghost is something that happened to a character in the past that explains their motivations and reactions. The ghost will be revealed at some point in the story, often quite late.
Since Makoto is depicted as the ‘every girl’ (with a tomboyish nature to make her more endearing) there is nothing really unique about her. A Japanese audience (especially girls, perhaps) will be able to imagine themselves in her position, in this generic Japanese suburb. Therefore, Makoto doesn’t have her own ghost.
The ghost instead belongs to the mysterious Chiaki, who has a secret — where did he come from? Chiaki even gets a ghostlike sequence when he disappears in the ‘statue’ scene, where he and Makoto walk through the frozen crowd. First his body disappears, then Makoto can hear his voice, then he fades away to nothing as if slipping into death.
This story is set in a middle-class Japanese suburb and high school — Shitamachi in Tokyo, which is closely connected to the area of Yamanote. (Shitamachi means Under City.)
This is more like the residences you’ll find in Shitamachi these days. (Google street view.)
Any standalone house in Tokyo is very expensive. This is an affluent family and although Makoto needs to watch her purin to make sure her little sister doesn’t nab it first, things like money and starvation are never an issue. This is a Wind in the Willows type of utopia, where the necessities of life just are. All that’s left is to worry about the social aspect. Even the news announcer is talking about a day which has been designated as a celebration of nice. Makoto runs to school saying ‘Good morning!’ to everyone.
Japanese high school students spend long hours in school and more than in Hollywood high school dramas, this high school feels homelike, with the characters trusted to relax inside the classroom, gazing through windows as if from their own living rooms.
The house where the main character lives is ‘cottage-like’ insofar as a Japanese suburban house can be described as such – there are vines growing attractively across the front.
This suburb is almost a kind of utopia — people are basically kind to each other and there is no real feeling of physical danger.
Among this suburban utopia though, commuter trains running through suburbia present a vague threatening presence; there is just an inadequate safety bar between pedestrians and instant death. Trains are the opponent in nature, the forest equivalent would be a hungry wolf, leaping from behind bushes.
In the vicinity of the train line in the shopping district is a town clock featuring creepy elves. Childhood images equal horror symbols in Japan as in the West, with our clowns, night-time playgrounds and ice-cream van music.
The river running through the suburb is where Makoto goes to practise her time-leaping, and is also a universal metaphor for the inevitable passage of time — the message in this story is that, try as you might, you’ll never really alter the inevitability of getting older, and you can never truly go back. This is demonstrated when Makoto tries to replay things, but finds they are never exactly the same second time around.
The crossroads where Makoto meets with her two friends (time and again) have a sign which says ‘koko kara’, meaning ‘from here’. I haven’t seen this road sign in Japan so I don’t know if it’s a real thing, or a motif designed specifically for this movie. The sign seems to be asking the question: Which road will you choose from here?
The story is set in the modern era – the flip phones give us a guide as to exactly when. (That said, flip phones seem to be making a bit of a comeback.) Housewives put dinner on the table. Fathers go to work. Children are given full autonomy to conduct their own school lives during the day. This is no doubt partly due to the fact this is based on a 1967 novel, in which mothers almost always stayed at home and suburbs were almost always safe.
It is July – the height of summer, and they are in the middle of a heat wave. We hear lots of cicadas, which for mainland Japanese mean heat. Our story starts on July 13. Time is important to the plot so we’re told the exact dates and times of events. Clocks are everywhere, in every form — on phones, announced on the TV, digital and analogue clocks. The main characters are planning what they’ll do during their upcoming summer vacation – they discuss attending the fireworks festival together wearing yukata (summer kimono) or going to the beach.
Shortcoming & Need (Problem)
Makoto’s childhood is about to be left behind because she is preparing to enter senior high school, which in Japan is a really tough undertaking. Once Japanese students get into good universities they are permitted to slack off a bit, but those three years of senior high school definitely mark the end of childhood. (In the West I argue that the age of 12 marks the end of true childhood, at least in children’s stories.) This is symbolised by Makoto being required to choose either the arts or sciences track but having no idea. This is a big problem for her.
That said, high school — at least, the high school in this story — is a kind of utopia. High schools as depicted by Hollywood are so often cold, hard places, and always have the symbolic locker scene, and the running of the gauntlet down the hallway, planning routes to avoid bullies. Bleachers are scary places where bad things can happen. Locker rooms even more so. But this Japanese high school, which looks exactly like a fantasy-enhanced version of the Japanese high school I attended on exchange in the mid nineties, is utopian in nature.
Utopias in Young Adult Literature
It’s significant that this film is based on a YA novel from the 1960s because we have since entered an age (and I include Japan in this) of the ‘snail under the leaf setting’, in which everything seems hunky dory, but scratch the surface and you’ll see the horror and the rot.
In Sweden, a critic has coined the notion of idyllophobia, a fear of presenting the world of childhood as idyllic. Children’s and juvenile literature becomes more and more violent, not necessarily in actual depictions of violence, but in the general attitude toward the essence of childhood. The narrative strategies which writers use, most often the autodiegetic unreliable young narrator, amplify the tone of the novels as uncertain, insecure and chaotic. In many novels, notably Cormier’s I Am The Cheese, we see a total disintegration of character, narrative and structure. YA novel as a narrative which goes beyond the point of no return to idyll also transgresses all conventions which are normally ascribed to children’s fiction.
— Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature
So Makoto needs to make some big decisions in her life about her future but she is no good academically and has no idea what she wants to do. Most kids her age would at least know whether they are of a science or literature bent, but Makoto needs more time to grow up before facing these decisions. One way around that, of course, is to play around with time. Her days are about to become much longer and jam-packed, because she’ll be reliving the same day over and over until she gets it right, in a Japanese version of Groundhog Day.
Many high school aged protagonists are outsiders. I don’t get the feeling that Makoto is an outsider at the beginning of the story. Rather, her magical experiences turn her into a kind of outsider as the events progress.
At the beginning of a coming-of-age story, childhood has already been left behind, and the hero has concluded that the world is not a safe or blissful place. An event that occurred prior to the beginning of the story, or the hero’s overall situation, has made the hero feel lost or stuck in a world over which she has little or no control.
After the hero’s introduction in the setup of the story, she is presented with an Opportunity that will either make life even worse, or will hold the promise of some escape from his pain. In response, these heroes’ outer motivations are declared, and their pursuit of those goals begins.
The Opportunity Makoto gets is the magical ability to leap through time and have do-overs. This is made possible by the discovery of the time-leaping device, and with practice she learns how to make use of it.
In the original novel, the protagonist is cleaning the science lab and is overcome with the overwhelming scent of lavender. She wakes up three days later, therefore spending significant time in the portal. In the film, too, the screenwriters make sure to linger on the science lab. First we have the door. (The portal is literally a door in this story.) The shadow moves to form a cross on the door knob, as if daring Makoto to enter. The lab is chock full of equipment which gleams in the shaft of light coming through a window — this is a beautiful depiction of a science lab and invites the eye to linger. It’s more like a witch’s lair than a school equipment room.
At the beginning of the story Makoto only desires to be left alone in her childlike state, playing baseball with her friends after school, planning fun things to do over the summer holidays, singing karaoke.
There is no oft-mentioned ‘Call to Adventure’. I don’t think many modern stories operate on that basis. It’s only ever young men pumped up on testosterone who have had the desire to go out and save the world of their own volitio n, and those stories now seem old-fashioned.
Chiaki has reddish hair to mark him out as distinct from Kousuke, in a classic red-devil, blue-devil trope. The coloured hair also makes Chiaki seem more alluring and mysterious. Kousuke, in his sexy glasses, is the brains while Chiaki is more brawn, but is later revealed to have a sensitive, artistic side when it is revealed he came back in time to see a painting.
Auntie Witch – This character understands what time leaps are, and in the narrative she functions as the character who explains to the viewers how the science works in this story. In fact, to a modern audience, this form of exposition feels like a bit of a hack once you’ve given it a bit of thought. But it’s far from unusual in film.Michael Caine functions this way in Interstellar and various other films by that filmmaker.
In the film it is not explained how Makoto even knows the Auntie Witch. This is where it helps to have some background on this classic Japanese story — the Auntie Witch is meant to be the protagonist of the original 1967 novel (though she does look a little young… She should be the age of a grandmother by 2006.)
If this were a Hollywood production I’ve no doubt the group of airhead junior girls — the volunteer club — would have been depicted as clearcut love rivals in the mean girls tradition. The Japanese dynamics are a lot more nuanced and, in my opinion, more realistic. The girls in this story are not outright rivals — they are interested in the same boys (for varying reasons) but they cheer each other on and take their share of ‘love hits’. Theirs is a spirit of sharing and caring for each other. In this story, Makoto finally declares her interest in Chiaki and her love rival backs off before her crush even begins. All of this is far more interesting than your usual mean girls crap.
But the writers of the Pixar film Inside Out, a hugely successful story, say that the most relatable villain is yourself, or nature:
I came on Inside Out, Pete [Docter] was not leaning towards any villains. I think at one point there was the idea floated that those Forgetters are villainous in trying to grab the core memories so Riley would forget them. But it just never really caught Pete’s imagination and it really wasn’t what he wanted to focus on. And as a storyteller, I love that more complex idea. And so Pete Sohn [the director of The Good Dinosaur] decided very early that you’ll have characters that Arlo will come into conflict with and challenge him for sure. The villain is, if there is one, you want it to be nature. The movement of nature and the idea that nature is something to be respected—that was the antagonist of this movie.
— Interview with Pixar writer
Who is the villain in a Japanese high school story, in which the bullies versus the good kids tends to be less stark? Could it be that the villain in this story is time itself, or the nature of the magic inside the time-leaping device?
In this film the romantic mystery is presented quite late. Until we overhear some speculation between students we have no idea that Chiaki is new to the school and that no one has any idea where he came from.
The magical part of the mystery is: What is this little device Makoto found in the science lab, how does it work and what can it do? We watch her figure it out.
Changed desire and motive
When the story began Makoto just wanted to remain childlike, but after almost being (almost?) killed by the train Makoto realises something weird is happening. She wants to find out what.
First revelation and decision
Her aunt who works at the art gallery clears everything up for her. Makoto can put this tool to good use and help her to arrange her life in such a way that she is ready to move on.
Makoto will use this time-leaping skill firstly for inconsequential things, like getting more time in the karaoke booth and avoiding embarrassing situations socially at school, and redoing maths quizzes. The Witch Auntie is glad that she’s only using her ability for inconsequential things, but asks Makoto — and therefore also asks the viewer — if the outcome of changing time is really as inconsequential as it seems.
Gazing out onto the river she realizes she can do anything with this trick. The setting of the river is a metaphorical juxtaposition — in fact, you can’t stop the flow of time. At least, you can’t stop things happening to people, even if the victim is not you.
If you keep track of the timeline, or even just the set pieces, you will realize that Makoto discovered her powers, got asked out by Chiaki, and had her heartfelt goodbye at the exact same spot at the river, at the exact same sunset. In fact, the entire movie never progressed beyond that last sunset until that last goodbye, which is when everyone finally moves on and the Airplane of Love beautifully tops off the ingenious Three Parts of the Story created by Makoto’s choices at this single junction in time.
The opponent is the magic itself, which does not always do what Makoto hopes it will.
When Makoto saves herself in cooking class, another boy gets into trouble instead, and this leads to a whole lot of bullying. Makoto can deflect disaster from herself, but it seems someone still needs to be sacrificed, according to the laws of this magic.
Makoto is determined to make the time-leaping work. Sometimes it means trying time-leaps again and again to get a situation right, and sometimes it means leaping back much further than she has energy for. This is basically a version of the very Japanese trait of trying again and again until you get it perfect (a la The Karate Kid).
Attack by ally
Auntie Witch continuously asks Makoto questions which lead to Makoto’s character arc. She’s talking to Auntie Witch, and tells her everything in her life has been fixed. Auntie, in her greater wisdom, asks if someone else may be suffering due to her good fortune.
After these trifling time leaps turn into something more serious — Chiaki’s declaration of love — Makoto talks to her witch auntie about her love life. The auntie advises her to be honest with Chiaki rather than ignore that he ever told her how he feels about her.
Later in the film auntie witch advises Makoto to go out with Kousuke, since he’s always the one helping her out. Auntie Witch points out that Makoto has ‘been playing all sorts of mind games with people.’
Auntie says, “I wonder who was able to create such a beautiful painting when it must have seemed like the world was coming to an end.”
I can’t be bothered putting them all in order, but each time Makoto has a revelation, it happens in Auntie Witch’s office, or as a direct result of her sage advice.
The crossroads/riding bitch scenes replayed over and over teach Makoto that she can’t change Chiaki’s feelings for her. She leaps back through time in order to give herself time to think of a good response and get out of the awkward romantic situation. To her disappointment it’s not as straightforward as she’d thought because the conversation is slightly different each run through. In the end, she leaps back to the crossroads and refuses to be dubbed home at all.
Things are going wrong now – Chiaki is blamed for the fire in food technology class and Makoto knows Chiaki likes her now, though Chiaki has no recollection of having told her he likes her (because he hasn’t). He wonders what’s up with her avoiding his gaze.
Now she avoids him entirely. (Montage sequence)
Chiaki looks for Makoto in vain and concludes he’s pissed her off.
Obsessive drive, changed drive, and motive
Makoto decides to use her time leaping for good.
Second revelation and decision
Magical revelation: She works out her time leaps are limited in number. That’s what the number on her flesh means.
Plans Never Go To Plan
The important thing about plans made by main characters in stories: The plan never works out the way they expected.
Chiaki reveals that he came from the future.
There is a series of montage stills with muted colours and lots of muted red, including a red balloon in the sky.
He explains that he had a device that let him time leap but he lost it. He eventually found it in the science lab but it was all used up.
He came back because there was a painting he desperately wanted to see “White Plum Two Camellias’. In his time the painting has already been destroyed. This is the only place he can find it.
Now he’s unable to go back to his future time. He used up all his time leaps stealing the bike Kousuke was supposed to ride.
Kousuke and the girl did die once at the train crossing. He had to come back because Makoto was sobbing and blaming herself for it.
Chiaki has decided to stay here because being with Kousuke and Makoto has been so much fun. He rode a bike for the first time, discovered how enormous the sky was, and has never seen a place with so many people.
Makoto asks about the painting and its connection to the future. As they walk through the statue crowd, Chiaki explains that the painting is getting restored and he’ll be able to see it soon. She wants to take him to see it, with Kousuke.
But he’s not meant to tell anyone in the past about time leaps.
Third revelation and decision
Magical revelation: Makoto ponders this one at home then realizes one of her leaps has come back (from the number on her arm.)
She’s now convinced if she goes back far enough, Chiaki can get a leap back too. (I don’t quite understand this logic.)
We see a montage of times the three of them have spent together, with a staticky filter in muted colours. There’s a Japanese love song playing.
She’s back in the science lab with the notebooks and refinds the time leaping device. This time she doesn’t use up the device. This time she tells Yuri she really likes Chiaki a lot. Yuri is disappointed but says she thought so. She advises Chiaki to go see Chiaki and tells her, ‘Time waits for no one.’ This time she invites the volunteer club to play ball with them, so Kousuke can organically get to know the girl.
Plan to stop anyone from getting killed on her bike: She says he can’t borrow her bike unless he pays her five thousand yen. There is a scene where we see her running flat out. A lot of films show this scene when the main character has had a revelation. It’s meant to show that they’re resolving to do something, forming a plan, and that this plan is going to take a lot of effort to achieve.
Romantic revelation: She realises she likes Chiaki as more than a friend and if she doesn’t tell him, she’ll lose him.
“Why couldn’t I take what he said more seriously? He wanted to have a difficult conversation and I couldn’t handle it.” She goes to the roof and cries (a classic Moses scene) because big revelations in films often take place somewhere high.
Gate, gauntlet, visit to death
Makoto’s time leaps need to get really dangerous as she jumps from higher places in order to leap further back in time to change ever having used up the leaps in Chiaki’s device.
But the real visit to death is the near death experience of Kousuke and Yuri as Kousuke takes Yuri on his bike to get an X-ray after one of the horsing-around kids lands on her (instead of on Makoto, as happened earlier.)
Her number has changed to zero. She realizes she’s used up all her leaps. But just then he zooms past. She drops the phone. “I need to borrow your bike a bit longer!”
Now the situation is dire – she can’t catch the two of them. She falls over trying, and is covered in scratches and bruises. Kousuke and his new gf are thrown into the path of the train.
We see the image from the very beginning of the film, with the red numbers on black. (Symbolic colours — red = blood, black = death.)
Makoto yells ‘stop!’ and everything does freeze. The only two people who haven’t frozen are Makoto and Chiaki, who has her bike with its broken brake. It turns out Chiaki can time leap too.
I’ve noticed that although films always have a big struggle scene, the big struggle is often a transferred one. I mean, the big struggle Makoto faces is an inner psychological big struggle. But the literal fight the audience sees played out on the screen in front of us is actually the fight between the boy who ended up setting fire to his pan in food technology after Makoto changed her own fate, and the boys who have decided to taunt him because of it, taunting him with the fire hose. Finally this boy retaliates — goes off the edge — and in the first round of reality the bullied boy, Takase, who has a bowl of noodles on his head, throws the fire extinguisher at Makoto. Chiaki steps in front of her to save her. Makoto leaps back through time so the situation plays out differently, and Takase ends up throwing the extinguisher at Yuri, injuring her shoulder instead.
Makoto feels very bad that by changing fate she has lead to the injury of her best friend. Not only that, Chiaki is now going out with her best friend instead of her. She realises that this would never have happened had she accepted Chiaki’s declaration of love in the first place.
(Makoto promises Yuri if the incident leaves a scar she’ll fix things, but doesn’t explain how. Perhaps this is where Chiaki realises Makoto knows all about time leaping.)
Kousuke and Chiaki are playing baseball together. Makoto has told Kousuke Chiaki has gone to study abroad. We know this isn’t true because it was Makoto’s plan for herself.
Makoto has made a decision about her future. “It’s a secret.” She looks up at the towering cloud. I hope she’s not pinning her hopes and dreams on a future with a boy. (It’s possible that in the 1967 novel, that’s exactly the track the female protagonist will take, and in the setting of respected housewives, it’s not such a bad one, either.) But we never get told whether our young, modern Makoto chosen the arts or science track, or is just going to hang about waiting until she can reunite with the boy.
Makoto changes time until she can meet Chiaki in the baseball field. She hands Chiaki the device he dropped. She gives Chiaki back the device and when it explodes in the palm of his hand he gets an extra leap appear on his arm.
Makoto tells Chiaki she’ll work out a way to preserve the special painting he loves – “It’s not going to get lost or burned.”
Chiaki says goodbye. He tells her not to get herself hurt by jumping out in front of things. “The old look before leap thing definitely works.”
Chiaki disappears and by coincidence a couple who look very much like them on a bike sails past. She cries alone with the sunset in the background but then Chiaki rejoins her and gives her a hug. “I’ll be waiting for you.”
“Okay, I won’t be long. I’ll come running.”
A jet leaves a contrail across the sky in a long shot then fades to black, with red numbers.
Makoto is now playing baseball with the volunteer club juniors, and the audience surmises that she will be friends with them rather than almost-rivals. The audience knows that Kousuke will end up going out with Kaho (pronounced incorrectly as ‘Ka-who’ in the English dub), the girl with the crush on him, so he is sorted romantically for now.
A handful of children’s authors of the late nineteeth to early twentieth centuries were experiementing with innovative forms of story with radical content: Oscar Wilde, P.L. Travers, J.M. Barrie, Astrid Lindgren, John Masefield and E. Nesbit. These storytellers were pushing the boundaries of what people considered acceptable for children, and we have them partly to thank for the wonderful children’s literature we see on the shelves today.
Nesbit was especially influential. Even if you’ve never read any of Edith Nesbit’s actual books, you’ve read books in the Nesbit tradition — basically all modern children’s literature. That’s how influential she was.
Edith Nesbit (married name Edith Bland; 15 August 1858 – 4 May 1924) was an English author and poet; she published her books for children under the name of E. Nesbit.
E. Nesbit belonged firmly to the writers of the First Golden Age of Children’s Literature, marked by its stories about children who acted rather than thought. These were resourceful and resilient children, and they were proud of their class. They were patriotic. Children are wiser than adults in many respects. Nesbit was one of the first to create this dynamic (e.g. Story of the Amulet), which would not have been possible without the ‘romantic reevaluation of childhood‘.
At the age of 21 she had a shotgun wedding but her new husband’s business partner made off with all their money. This is why she took up writing and painting greeting cards. Her husband became a writer too, but Edith was the main breadwinner.
She was a bit of a Bohemian Dorothy Parker type. She smoked long before it was acceptable for women to do so. (This gave her bronchial problems and was eventually the death of her.) She bobbed her hair when women were meant to wear it long.
The economic realities of the time: families were often in trouble, as was hers. Nesbit wrote numerous times about families who were struggling with money. The father is ill or redundant or defrauded by a business partner or even in prison. The mother might be ill, or caring for a sick relative. The children often have to go and stay with unsympathetic strangers in horrible lodgings. Even when Edith keeps her fictional families together, it’s usually in slightly impoverished surroundings.
An important thing to know about E. Nesbit is that she co-founded the Fabian Society, which is now affiliated with The British Labour Party. So, E. Nesbit was very socialist. This of course comes across in her work. Her books recommend socialist solutions to problems. In the typical Victorian fairy tale class lines are sharply drawn. Aristocratic children are thought to be morally and intellectually and generally superior to everyone else. Most of Nesbit’s characters are middle class but every now and then she wrote a character like Mabel (The Enchanted Castle) from a lower economic rung. Dickie from Harding’s Luck is basically uneducated but is shown to be very smart, imaginative and courageous. The aristocratic child is mean, cowardly and pretty stupid. This is a common trope today — smart underdogs versus stupid rich kids, but Edith Nesbit started it.
Another common trope of the Victorian era: A rich child befriends a poor one and improves them. In The Mixed Mine Edith inverted it — the poor child improves the life of the rich one.
Many of her books suffer from having been written in serial stories. With Five Children And It, for example, the book is divided into the granting of wishes. Each chapter had to have a self-contained plot and climax, which is not ideal.
Nesbit didn’t really ‘get’ only children. She herself had a sister, a half sister and 3 brothers. The closest she got to an only child in fiction was Mabel of The Enchanted Castle.
Nesbit and her husband had an open marriage, though it was mostly the husband who slept with other people. Edith ended up taking in two of his illegitimate children and raising them alongside her own three. (Busy as she must have been, she formed a few romantic attachments of her own, the most famous with George Bernard Shaw. But that was just close friendship.)
Magic is used both as a comic device as well as a serious metaphor for the power of the imagination.
She loved to write about saurian monsters (monsters that look like big lizards). She usually called them megatheriums.
NESBIT’S INFLUENCE ON NARRATION
Nesbit’s voice seems unremarkable to contemporary readers because we see it everywhere. But at the time it was highly unusual. Nesbit spoke to children as if she were one of them, when everyone else was form, leisurely and didactic. Nesbit’s voice is inform, direct and that of a sensible child coolly commenting on the world. She adopts the child’s point of view whole-heartedly.
Nesbit wrote some magical stories and some realistic ones. In her non-magical stories — The Bastable series — she removes one parent (prison/death/faraway country) and interposes a surrogate (housekeeper/Great Southern Railway Company) between the children and the remaining parent. This surrogate can now be upset without emotional repercussions. The Bastable series has influenced all those books that have come since, in which children have autonomous adventures: e.g. Swallows and Amazons, and the Melendy series: The Saturdays, The Four-Story Mistake, Then There Were Five, and Spiderweb for Two. by Elizabeth Enright.
NESBIT’S INFLUENCE ON MODERN POPULAR AUTHORS
Nesbit has been hugely influential on authors from the Second Golden Age of children’s literature:
E Nesbit has perhaps been strongest of all. Her stories, whether magical or not, are firmly rooted in the real world and have been hugely influential on books of the Second Golden Age which people of my own generation loved – Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden, Diana Wynne-Jones’s Chrestomanci books, Lucy M Boston’s Green Knowe quartet, Peter Dickinson’s Changes trilogy, John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk, Joan Aiken’s Wolves of WIllighby Chase sequence and Eva Ibbotson’s hilarious witches and ghosts. Her dauntless brothers and sisters were echoed by Enid Blyton, Arthur Ransome, Noel Streatfeild and, more recently, a constellation of contemporary authors like Hilary McKay, Anne Fine, Fiona Dunbar, Cathy Cassidy, Anthony McGowan, Frank Cottrell Boyce, and Francesca Simon. Above all, she is acknowledged as the single greatest influence on Rowling, presumably because her conception of how the logical consequences of mixing the magical with the mundane is so comical. All have drawn from her faultless ear for family drama, her abundant sense of humour and her social conscience.
The works of Edith Nesbit aren’t perfect as works of art. The work Nesbit produced between the age of 20 and 40 is conventional and sentimental (by modern tastes). This all changed with The Story of the Treasure Seekers, about six London children who try to restore the family fortunes. In her character Oswald Bastable, it seems Edith was finally able to unleash the childhood version of herself.
Nesbit had an influence on another well-known children’s writer, C.S. Lewis:
The author’s voice in the Narnia’s books kindly explained things to the child reading…It was a gorgeously certain voice, which in itself lent a wonderful solidity to Narnia’s stars and sausages, so that they blazed in their spheres and swelled in their skins, but it never spoke from a position of adult detachment…He used the trick of uncondescending explanation, borrowed from E. Nesbit, only to involve you in perceptions you couldn’t have had on your own. Which made it doubly frustrating when the book was over, and you couldn’t invent any more of what you had taken part in.
Francis Spufford, The Child That Books Built
J.K. Rowling counts the books of E. Nesbit of some of her own childhood favourites:
I love E Nesbit—I think she is great and I identify with the way that she writes. Her children are very real children and she was quite a groundbreaker in her day.
E Nesbit has perhaps given us the strongest DNA of all. Her stories, whether magical or not, are firmly rooted in the real world and have been hugely influential on books of the Second Golden Age – Diana Wynne Jones’s Chrestomanci books, Lucy M Boston’s Green Knowe series, Joan Aiken’s Wolves of Willoughby Chase sequence and Eva Ibbotson’s hilarious witches and ghosts. Her quarrelsome, highly believable brothers and sisters were echoed by Enid Blyton, Arthur Ransome, Noel Streatfeild, Roald Dahl and, more recently, a constellation of contemporary authors like Hilary McKay, Anne Fine, Cathy Cassidy, Frank Cottrell Boyce, and Francesca Simon. Above all, she is acknowledged as the single greatest influence on JK Rowling, presumably because her conception of mixing the magical with the mundane is sharply satirical. The most recent winner of the Costa Prize for Children’s fiction, Kate Saunders, updated one of Nesbit’s most famous books with Five Children on the Western Front – having cleverly worked out that, in just a few years, her famous Edwardian family would have been embroiled in the First World War.
And so does Philip Pullman:
The books I read as a child shaped my deepest beliefs. When I was at university, my friends and I were thrilled to discover that our childhood favourites seemed even more powerful than we remembered. This was true of classic authors such as George MacDonald, Rudyard Kipling, E Nesbit and Tove Jansson; or 1960s writers like Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, Peter Dickinson and Ursula Le Guin.
However, it wasn’t until Nesbit came along that readers saw ‘real human souls in human bodies. Until that point, stories about animals had been about humans whose appearance has been changed by magic. Prevailing religious views would not have made such stories possible until Nesbit’s generation of writers came along.
Edith Nesbit’s The Cathood of Maurice was groundbreaking in this regard. It is the first short story in a collection of twelve, published in the anthology called The Magic World.
Another two stories of this tradition were The Sword in the Stone by T. H. White and Jennie by Paul Gallico.
Published in 1906, the very concept of time travel was very new at that time. In The Time Machine, H.G. Wells has to go to great lengths to explain the fourth dimension to the friends who have gathered in his drawing room. The modern reader may wonder why. That’s because the term ‘time travel’ was not familiar to anyone, and people learned in school that there were three dimensions. Einstein came along quite soon after and proved that time really is the fourth dimension. (In case you’re wondering, H.G. Wells didn’t have any special insight into astrophysics — the fact that he’d written fiction about what later turned out to be dead accurate is more of a commentary on ‘ideas that were in the air’ around the turn of the century.)
In any case, Nesbit had her finger on the pulse. Without the Internet, how did Edith Nesbit have access to these ideas? There can only be one answer: She was immersed in an interesting subculture of people and was having in depth conversations. Nesbit was a member of this intriguing organisation. She was no doubt also well-read. She had a special interest in ancient civilisations in general and in ancient Egypt in particular.
C.S. Lewis seemed to borrow the time travel ideas of Nesbit and used them in The Horse and His Boy (1954) and The Magician’s Nephew (1955). C.S. Lewis knew Nesbit’s work well and happily borrowed from her tone, her devices, and her effects.
As I read E. Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet, a tale of children’s magical adventures, a feeling of familiarity came over me. This 1906 book seemed to anticipate C. S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew, published almost exactly half a century later (1955) but, unlike the rest of the Narnia series, set back in the era when Nesbit herself was writing. It’s well known that Nesbit influenced Lewis’s Narnia series – he acknowledged it himself. His template – a group of sibling children having magical adventures – was inspired by Nesbit’s books, and scholars have identified various specific instances in the Narnia books that Lewis adapted from different Nesbit stories.
If you’re a socialist rather than a Christian and you enjoy the Narnia stories you might consider going back to read Nesbit.
NESBIT AND GENDER
E. Nesbit, Enid Blyton and Arthur Ransome wrote for both boys and girls in an era when books were gender bifurcated — domestic stories for girls; adventure stories for boys. They did this by including both boys and girls going off on adventures. There were no adventure stories for girls starring only girls. In Blyton and Ransome’s books, the males are generally more active, making the plans and decisions.
Nesbit was an early feminist (though didn’t necessarily use that term). At the time her girls were highly subversive. They are brave and adventurous, just like their brothers. They never sit round waiting for someone to rescue them.
“Father, darling, couldn’t we tie up one of the silly little princes for the dragon…? I fence much better than any of the princes we know.”
a girl’s dialogue from The Last Of The Dragons, more reminiscent of Pixar’s Brave than of anything else from that era.
As a child Nesbit would have been described as a ‘tomboy’. She declared that she never loved a doll in her life, she loved playing pirates with her big brothers during the holidays and was generally rebellious, both at school and at home.
Nesbit’s Phoenix is referred to as “It”, and is not described in terms of gender. The female children, Anthea and Jane, enjoy a range of activities, and do not appear to be limited by societal restrictions related to gender. Prior to these stories girls were treated to a whole lot of domestic dramas, whose main purpose was to persuade girls that being at home was fulfilling and the place to be.
What might the ‘inverse of a superhero story’ look like? What if superpowers are given to ordinary men who do nothing with them? You may know Christopher Isherwood’s name from the film A Single Man or Christopher and His Kind. I Am Waiting is one of two short stories Isherwood had published in The New Yorker. This one is very much of its era, and must have been written near the time it was published, in 1939 when Isherwood was in his mid-thirties. There are at least two ways of reading this short story: By imagining we are right there with Americans in 1939, or with the benefit of hindsight as readers of the 21st century.
It is October 17, 1939. A man in his late middle age reflects on his very ordinary life. But he does have one strange ability: He can jump forward in time. After doing this several times he jumps forward to 1944, where he finds a newspaper. Eagerly wanting to know how the war has panned out, he searches the newspaper for relevant information, but finds only information about chicken breeding.
Is Connecticut the default American city where we are to imagine the suburbs — a coathanger of normalcy where strange and disturbing things happen behind closed doors? I have never been to America, but that is my outsider’s view of Connecticut as a fictional setting. This is an upper-middle class household, with a drawing room, tennis court, garden and a maid. These are the sorts of families who holiday at the Cape.
In this particular story, the setting is even more vital to the plot than the setting, which could have taken place in any American suburb. If you go to a site such as History Orb, you can see exactly what was happening in history in any given month. When this story was published Poland had just been invaded by Germany. Americans — like anyone — would have been anxious to know how the war was going to pan out.
My mind shouted questions: “Had the United States jumped into the war? Had there been a revolution? What is happening in Europe? In China? In the Near East?”
The incidents which I am about to describe are true, but I can offer you no proof—at leat not for the next five years.
When a story opens with a first person narrator describing him or herself, the reader’s radar is up: Is this narrator reliable? How well does this narrator know himself? Even if he knows himself, why is he spinning this version of himself for the reader? In this case, though, we are not dealing with an unreliable narrator — this man has reached an age where he has a realistic handle on his own station in life. This story is one of regret rather than boast — perhaps a kind of ‘setting the record straight’ as he heads towards the grave.
We’re more sure of the veracity of his character description because Isherwood drops supporting details into the text. For example, we are told that the narrator keeps himself almost invisible, and this is backed up by the following detail (which is not to say that unreliable narrators can’t be reliably unreliable, but still):
The others had all driven into town to go to a movie, so I could enjoy the luxury of drawing my armchair into the very middle of the hearthrug, facing and monopolizing the fire.
Wilfred — 67 years old, bachelor, lives in a house owned by his more successful lawyer brother. A self-described semi-educated bore (though he reads Browning) who keeps to himself and pays his way in life with a small inherited income. This is significant because the narrator has even failed to make his mark in life by contributing something to the world in the form of work. His sister-in-law suggests he even wears one of her aprons to search for old photographs in the attic; Wilfred is obviously not considered an alpha male character.
Wilfred’s younger brother — serves as a contrast to the narrator as a ‘successful and energetic lawyer’. His three male sons only add to his aura of social success. But this is not a Cain and Abel archetype; most sibling relationships in real life are less dramatic than that:
From boyhood I have admired, though somewhat grudgingly, the extreme lucidity of my brother’s intelligence. Now, as I stood there baffled, I asked myself what would he, who was never at a loss, have done in my place.
Mabel — the younger brother’s wife, very kind to her brother-in-law ‘on the whole, as long as I am careful to be tidy and not unnecessarily visible’.
Three nephews — sons of the lawyer and Mabel. All grown with wives of their own; all have moved out of the natal home. These nephews are mentioned as a way of populating the story with a believable family network.
In late middle age we sometimes realise our extraordinary talents may come to nothing much after all.
Maria Nikolajeva writes of children’s literature specifically when she describes the general function of time travel in fiction, but if we can make any generalisations about the time travel in general fiction, the ability to travel through time is generally for some higher purpose:
Today we read that the whole purpose of time travel is to change history, either the private history of the character, as in Playing Beatie Bow (1980) by the Australian author Ruth Park, or The Root Cellar (1981) by Canadian Janet Lunn, or the history of the world, like A Swiftly Tilting Planet (1978) by Madeleine L’Engle. In this book the character changes the past so that the third world war does not break out in his own time. Time Travelers are no longer passive observers, but must take upon themselves responsibility for their actions in the past.
Children’s Literature Comes Of Age by Maria Nikolajeva
However, in Isherwood’s short story, the ability to time travel is remarkable, but because the man who has this ability is so very unremarkable, nothing comes of it. What if he had learned something about historical events? What could a retired bachelor living in his brother’s house in Connecticut really do about any of it? The war was so much bigger than one man, let alone this particular man.
Anyone who has seen/read A Single Man (starring Colin Firth) or Christopher And His Kind (the biography of Christopher Isherwood) may find it hard to put aside the knowledge that Isherwood was a gay icon. Though Isherwood embraced his sexuality, he lived at a time when many gay people could not. Is the bachelor of this story gay? If so, he has spent his entire life failing to live up to his potential. The following is from the initial paragraph of the story and otherwise feels apropos of nothing:
I have never married and I cannot truthfully say that I have ever been loved, though half a dozen people are, perhaps, mildly fond of me.
Reading from a modern perspective, if only men such as this narrator could have time traveled forward another few generations, their lives would have been much different. The benefit of modern hindsight aside, this is a story about a failed superhero. What if the powers of Superman had been gifted to a repressed character and come to nothing at all? How many Supermen are out there, hiding almost invisibly in suburban rooms?
The unknown future is scary, but there is absolutely nothing to do but wait and see.
Though this character is facing the challenges of old age, even the young are now faced with thoughts about their own mortality. In wartime, every age shares this in common.
And now here I am, waiting for whatever may come next. Sometimes I feel frightened, but in general I managed to regard the whole business quite philosophically. I am well aware that the next adventure—if there ever is another—may be my last…let the moment call for me when it will—at whatever time, in whatever place. I shall be ready.
TECHNIQUES OF NOTE
Realistic Character Memory Of Dates
When a first person narrator remembers a date, it helps to make that date somewhat significant. People don’t tend to naturally remember dates of events unless they happen on a holiday or anniversary:
On the evening of Friday, January 6th, of this year — I can be exact, for this was the day after the anniversary of my brother’s marriage—I was sitting in the drawing room of our house…
Two brothers: One successful, one a failure
This character ensemble is utilised to highlight the sad life of the narrator. One brother is heterosexual and therefore privileged, with a great job and three sons (the epitome of familial success), contrasted against the bachelor younger brother who is without valued achievements.
The drawing room clock is supported by a pair of china figurines. When Annie breaks the china boy’s left hand off at the wrist, this imagery would be familiar to those who saw men come back from the first world war with amputated limbs and disturbing disfigurements. The narrator refers to the broken figurine as ‘the mutilated boy’. In 1939, American readers would have been worried that this scenario would happen again, and no one could predict the extent of human damage.
When Wilfred stumbles upon a newspaper, it is significant that he has stumbled upon The Cage Bird Fancier. Wilfred himself is, at the time, locked in an attic in a house in the suburbs, in a country which may or may not go to war. Much like a caged bird, in fact.
The first time travel incident is astonishing; the second sets up a pattern; the third forms the meat of the story. This is such a commonly used narrative technique that it takes a brave writer to fiddle with it. Each incident is accompanied by an increasing amount of detail.
Fantasy lovers can avoid this term, preferring simple ‘fantasy’ to describe this kind of story — a realistic story with a little bit of impossible stuff going on. To make the concept of time travel believable within the world of the story, Isherwood has included a significant amount of detail: The characters, how they are related to each other, the snippets of dialogue from the tennis court, the weather. The book he is reading, where he is sitting in his chair. The direction he moves in (‘toward the bookcase’). A lot of this detail exists to provide verisimilitude. The author also relies upon the fact that at times of great stress or inner turmoil, people tend to remember details we may not otherwise:
I read on and on, learning all manner of highly relevant and unfruitful fact…These tiresome details are imprinted upon my memory forever.
Chickens are great for this purpose, and are used here to good effect. Though the whole world is entering a war, the newspaper reports on chicken breeding. Irony is a meaningful gap between expectation and outcome. Once understanding that this ordinary man has an extraordinary gift, we expect something to come of it, but nothing does. This is a form of ‘presentation irony’, and also may be considered ‘genre subversion’, since superheroes tend to save the world from disaster.
First published October 21, 1939 in The New Yorker
The perfect contrast is against Superman, which was new and popular at this exact time in American history. Everyone was wishing some superhero could swoop down from on high and save the world:
Superman is a fictional superhero appearing in American comic books published by DC Comics. Superman is widely considered an American cultural icon. The Superman character was created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, high school students living in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1933; the character was sold to Detective Comics, Inc. (later DC Comics) in 1938.
WRITE YOUR OWN
If you discovered you had a secret superpower, what might that be?
And given your life circumstances, what would you — in reality — be able to accomplish with it?
What would a duller, less successful version of yourself look like? And what if that character had the superpower instead of you?