Child Moves House Trope In Middle Grade Fiction

Child moves house and starts at new school. This trope is hard to write well because it has been done so many times before.

child moves house

Some specific plot elements, or motifs, that we find in children’s novels are not as prominent in the mainstream fiction. The first is coming to a new home. Naturally, this element–connected to the basic motif of dislocation, inherent in all fiction–is present in quite a number of mainstream novels, such as Jane Eyre or Mansfield Park. However, I would state that the new home is more dominant in children’s fiction and also more significant, since the change of setting is a more dramatic event in a child’s life than in an adult’s. The character’s reaction to the change is very revealing.

The Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Fiction by Maria Nikolajeva

Maria Nikolajeva published that paragraph in 2002 and goes easy on the child moves house trope. Since then, despite every children’s author knowing full well that the child moves house trope — or motif — or whatever you’d like to call it had been done thousands of times before, we get to 2017 and Betsy Bird (librarian and reviewer for School Libarary Journal) has this to say about the state of middle grade literature:

If you read too many middle grade novels in a given year, you begin to sense patterns that no one else can see. In 2017 I’ve started down that path. I’ll give you an example of a particular pattern: The new kid in school. It’s not a new idea for a book (Joseph Campbell would probably tell you that it’s just a variation on the old “A Stranger Comes to Town” storytelling motif) but this year it’s gotten extreme. In book after book authors have hit the same notes. Kid is new. Kid is awkward in the lunchroom (seriously – if I never read another lunch room scene again it’ll be too soon). Kid makes friends with outcasts. Kid triumphs by being true to his or her own self. Simple, right? They blend together after a while, but it’s not the fault of the format. A good book, a really good book, transcends its format. Much of what I’ve read this year has already faded into a fuzzy haze in my brain.

Betsy Bird, SLJ

The contributors to TV Tropes have also noticed the moving house trope has become super popular in the last 10 years. The trope New House, New Problems refers specifically to a new family moving into a new home, whereupon strange happenings begin to reveal themselves. It’s not just a middle grade thing — it’s a horror thing.

Who knows what contributed to this trend, but I suspect big hits such as Neil Gaiman’s Coraline have something to do with it. The TV Tropes page also points out that every other Goosebumps book begins with a kid moving to a new house. In YA we have the huge successes of Twilight, 10 Things I Hate About You and Mean Girls, so audiences must love the trope. Writers love it too, because it allows a natural discovery of a new milieu, as our new student discovers how the new environment works, along with readers.

The question is, do young readers like it as much as writers do?

 

The Female Injures Male Trope In Children’s Stories

I have looked for this particular storytelling device on TV Tropes, where you can find most any trope under the sun, but haven’t yet found this particular romantic plot device. I’m not sure if I’m one of the only people to have noticed this is a thing — a relatively new thing, I might add — a sort of inverse of the Rescue Romance, which is very old indeed.

AN EXAMPLE FROM ADULT ROMANCE

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about in The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. This is the passage where Clare first meets Henry (the two romantic leads). Clare is 6 and Henry is 36, which is okay and not weird, because this book is about a time traveler and the real-time age difference is more respectable than that. Anyhow, Clare is in a field, and Henry has arrived naked, and is presently standing partially obscured behind shrubbery. This is written from Henry’s POV:

“Who’s there?” Clare hisses. She looks like a really pissed off goose, all neck and legs. I am thinking fast.

“Greetings, Earthling,” I intone kindly.

“Mark! You nimrod!” Clare is casting around for something to throw, and decides on her shoes, which have heavy, sharp heels. She whips them off and does throw them. I don’t think she can see me very well, but she lucks out and one of them catches me in the mouth. My lip starts to bleed.

The phrase ‘pissed off goose’ lends a comical tone to this passage; although this scene contains violence, it’s a comic, safe kind of injury that results.

AN EXAMPLE FROM CHILDREN’S ROMANCE

Here’s a version of the same thing from Tangled, which I find disturbingly violent given how realistic 3D animation is getting. The frying pan violence is a recurring gag, and the video below is a montage of each frying pan scene, although the scene in which Rapunzel meets Flynn is an extended female on male act of violence which somehow feels more disturbing than the video can portray:

AN EXAMPLE FROM A MIDDLE-GRADE MOUSE DETECTIVE STORY

From Geronimo Stilton The Mystery In Venice
From Geronimo Stilton The Mystery In Venice

AN EXAMPLE FROM A POPULAR YOUNG ADULT TV SERIES

I don’t watch Once Upon A Time, but an io9 headline reads: Watch two fairytale characters get turned on beating a man senseless.

Commonsense Media (a website I trust for its balanced written summaries) says that Once Upon A Time is for ages 12+.

Here’s a scene from Pretty Little Liars:

female injures male trope from pretty little liars

INVERSION DOES NOT EQUAL SUBVERSION

I have written about this before in a discussion of Pixar’s film Brave.

There is a long history of male on female violence, which is alive and kicking in comic book world, for starters. But if we want to change this culture (and I admit that this is a big ‘if’, since many feel they’re entitled to their fantasies no matter what kind of place they came from), the way to do it is not by simply reversing gender roles.

SO WHY THE FEMALE INJURES MALE INJURY TROPE?

In other words, why is it cute and sexy for a female to slightly (or significantly) injure a potential male love interest?

I have a few ideas, though nothing conclusive:

  • In an era where women hope for equality in relationships with men, part of that equality includes the illusion of equal strength.
  • Or perhaps the physicality involved in injuring a male love interest is simply a symbol for true emotional and psychological equality.
  • The important thing here is the male’s response. A female character is testing out a male character’s partnership potential by doing something to him which, in certain males, would result in a violent backlash. By responding with humour and kindness, a male character who has just been injured seems safe and attractive.
  • We seem to be firmly entrenched in the era of S&M. I’m going partly by the huge popularity of 50 Shades Of Grey. In a minor way, this trope is perhaps a prelude to kink.

When male to female violence occurs on screen, as well it should, as a reflection of many terrible real-world situations, then we don’t see such stories given a G rating. The male/female strength differential is such that female to male violence is comical, whereas the opposite is never so, yet nor can I accept that it is entirely harmless.

MORE ON TANGLED

I am not a huge fan of this film in general, frying pan violence aside. Others have written well on this topic so I don’t have to:

Feminist Film Review of Tangled from Bitch Flicks

Tangled Is A Celebration Of White Femininity from Womanist Musings

Inspector Gadget: How Children’s Media Has Changed

Inspector Gadget

When a children’s story gets a remake we see more clearly how storytelling has changed. Inspector Gadget makes for a case study.

Inspector Gadget
In which girl character and dog character have equal billing

Interestingly, Esquire calls this ‘the digital era’, under the idea that the use of computers has an integral impact on narrative. The medium is the message, and all that.

1. FASTER PACE

Steven DeNure, president and COO of DHX Media, was thrilled to acquire the rights to Gadget in 2012. But he worried the old Gadget wouldn’t appeal to its target audience of young children.

For starters, the pacing was painfully slow. Kids today are used to fast-moving commercials, quick cuts, and a thing called the Internet.

2. FEMALE CHARACTERS ARE STILL DEALING WITH A WORLD IN WHICH THEY’RE SO OFTEN RELEGATED TO SECONDARY ROLES UNDER BUMBLING MALE PROTAGONISTS

Gadget remains as clueless as ever, and Penny remains just as brainy.

This is related to what has been called The Hermione Trope. We see it in movies such as Monster House, too, and ParaNorman, in which the bossy brainy girl saves the day, but completely behind the scenes. 35 years later, girls are still swots, boys are still adventurous etc. Boys see that they don’t need to be such swots to get on in the world — they’ll be the stars of the story because of their gender.

3. CHILD CHARACTERS ARE MORE FREQUENTLY SEXUALISED

“What we wanted to do was make Penny a little older,” says Chalopin, who estimates she was between 10 and 12 before and is now in her mid-teens. She also has a new love interest: Dr. Claw’s spiky-haired nephew, Talon. “He’s more of a kid of today,” Chalopin says.

4. ‘GOOD LOOKS’ ARE EVER MORE IMPORTANT, FOR BOTH BOY AND GIRL CHARACTERS

[Talon] makes a great counterpart to Penny with his good looks and his charm.

5. MOBILE PHONES AND OTHER TECHNOLOGIES

“Penny had a smartphone way before it existed,” Chalopin says, so that wouldn’t impress children today. To get around the problem, he created “holographic protection” for Brain and a computer that appears out of thin air when Penny needs it.

6. CHILDREN’S CONTENT CAN’T JUST BE FOR CHILDREN

Financing remains an uphill battle. Much of what’s selected today, at least for content streaming services like Netflix, must not only reach a broad group of viewers but transcend countries and age groups as well. As Erik Barmack, Netflix’s vice president of global independent content, says, “The things we look for in general is if the shows transcend countries, have a new story to be told, or a new way of reimagining characters.” Gadget, he says, ticks off all three criteria.

This explains the increasingly sexualised teen characters over a pre-adolescent girl character.

– How Inspector Gadget Was Remade For A New Generation from Esquire

The Technique of Ticking Clocks in Storytelling

The very first episode of The Narrative Breakdown podcast is about a plot device which helps to amp up the tension in a story: Sometimes it even comes with a ticking clock sound effect — more often it doesn’t — and it describes a story which has time as a pressing issue. If there’s a bomb in the story you have an especially clear example of a Ticking Clock Plot Device e.g. the movie Speed.

The_Cat_in_the_Hat_Comes_Back_Dr_Seuss_Cover

(Here are many more tropes associated with Cat In The Hat, though ‘race against the clock’ isn’t one of them.)

 

A Trick Older Than The Hills

The ticking clock device has been used in storytelling to increase narrative drive for many generations. It is used in Cinderella, who must escape from the ball before midnight, before her carriage turns back into a pumpkin. Often, the device is implied rather than stated outright. In Hansel and Gretel, we know the witch will eventually eat the children. That could happen at any moment, though she’s waiting for them to fatten up.

Other Examples Of Ticking Clocks In Movies

  • Die Hard 2 — a plane running out of fuel
  • Speed — a bomb is set to go off if the bus goes under 50 miles per hour
  • Se7en — a cop must stop a serial killer before he kills his next victim
  • The Fugitive — an innocent man must prove his innocence before being caught again
  • Dumplin — Performances always give a story narrative drive because they provide a ticking clock. Without that, Dumplin would’ve been in great danger of losing momentum.

Ticking Clocks In Picture Books

Hilda Bewildered stars a petrified young princess, charged with the task of delivering a speech to open winter. As the live broadcast draws near, the princess concocts a story in her head to help her through the task.

 

TV Tropes refers to this as ‘Race Against The Clock’ and offers plenty of examples.

Variations of the ticking clock device can be found in a wide variety of genres — not just in thrillers — such as in Little Miss Sunshine (a road trip with a beauty pageant as deadline) and Planes, Trains and Automobiles, in which a man wants to make it home in time for Thanksgiving with his family in his warm, cosy house.

On the podcast, Cheryl’s first example of this device happens to be a children’s book: The Cat In The Hat, in which an unwelcome visitor makes a mess of the place, which must be cleaned up again by the time the mother gets home.

In picture books with ticking clocks, it is often the parent(s) who have made some rule, and it is universally understood that if the rule is broken there will be terrible consequences.

Aside from our own Hilda Bewildered, another picturebook that combines ticking-clock and the snowy, dreamy atmosphere of a mood piece is Home By Five, by Ruth Wallace-Brodeur, illustrated by Mark Graham.

Home By Five cover

As you can see, this is a gentle, dreamy book, beautifully illustrated in pastels.

But to contrast with the dreamy mood (and the dreamy Rosie), here on the first page a ticking-clock urgency is set up, as Papa instructs Rosie to be home by a certain time. He helps her to get ready for her ice-skating session. This is a handsome, nurturing dad who we don’t want to disappoint.

Home By Five setupHome by Five setup2

So we get a little antsy when we see Rosie dilly-dally along the way home, despite her best intentions. She stops to swing around the poll and to look inside the bakery window, and all the time the reader can see she’s not hurrying. But it’s a little frustrating because we aren’t given access to the time, either. This book sets out to be a mood piece, with evocation descriptions of the wintry landscape. But there’s that confounded ticking clock, ruining it for us as it’s ruined for Rosie…

Rosie dilly-dallies

We don’t know what time it is until Rosie arrives home. The clock tells us she’s pretty late. Her parents discuss what to do.

Home By Five clock

On the final page we see their decision: The 1992 option is to buy their daughter a wristwatch.

In two of our story apps I make use of the ticking clock device: In Midnight Feast we have Roya’s excitement of the lead up to Midnight, though I invert this device by drawing her evening out.

midnight feast ticking clocks

Jeff Kinney also makes use of the ticking clock in several of his Diary of a Wimpy Kid The Long Haul gags.