Teachers In Children’s Literature

Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes - School is Out

Teachers in children’s stories can be mentors, opponents, fake opponents, or very much background characters. In young adult literature, teachers can (problematically) be love opponents.

Why is it that English, drama and music teachers are most often recalled as our mentors and inspirations? Maybe because artists are rarely members of the popular crowd.

Roger Ebert

A BRIEF HISTORY OF TEACHERS IN CHILDREN’S STORIES

THE EARLIEST TEACHERS IN STORIES

The teacher archetype is related to the traditional ‘wise old man’ and ‘wise old woman’ archetype seen in many older stories. The teacher is the modern equivalent of these characters, dishing out advice to help the main character get through the story.

TEACHERS IN BOOKS FOR YOUNGER READERS

Most picture books are today published for preschoolers, and in stories which include schools, the function of the story is to reassure preschoolers that school will be a happy, welcoming and nurturing place, full of fun and joy, where new friends will be made. The teachers are most often smiling and welcoming, as almost all teachers of kindergarten children are in real life.

In books from the First Golden Age of Children’s Literature featuring girls, the main characters who become teachers learn to humanise their childhood images. (See Anne of Green Gables, Little House on the Prairie). The good teacher has no faults. The bad teacher has no redeeming qualities.

In the 1970s and 80s, fictional teachers who broke convention tended to leave their jobs/get dismissed at the end of the story, but today’s non-conformist teachers tend to be a bit more successful in staying in their jobs.

TEACHERS IN YOUNG ADULT FICTION

In young adult novels published before 1980 favourable treatment of teachers outnumbered the unfavourable.

Contemporary young adult literature sometimes juxtaposes a ‘good’ teacher against a ‘bad’ one, enforcing a good/bad binary view. Other young adult novels challenge this binary and achieve subversion, or even humanise the teacher.

Modern young adult novels feature more successful non-conformist teachers. Teachers who rebel against norms are seen as the most favourable.

Iconic teachers in films often leave their schools at the end of the movie, sometimes without wanting to go. But modern iconic film teachers are more likely to keep their jobs.

MCLAREN’S THREE TEACHER ARCHETYPES

Education theorist Peter McLaren said in 1988 that the ideal teacher plays the part of the ‘liminal servant’.  Less effective teachers fit the mould of the ‘hegemonic overlord’ or ‘entertainer’.

In the first two roles students are spectators and don’t participate. The knowledge they gain is outside lived experience. These classrooms will look like teachers pretending to teach and students pretending to learn.

The Entertainer Teacher

a propagandist or evangelist for dominant cultural, economic or ethical interests. Suppresses individuality and conditions students for sameness.

The Hegemonic Overlord Teacher

Information is transmitted perfunctorily, like it’s a bit of food pushed under a cell door. This teacher follows lessons strictly and mordantly by the book, and not interested in student empowerment. Standout example: The Trunchbull in Matilda by Roald Dahl

The Liminal Servant Teacher

The ideal. Empowers students to question domination and their own assigned places. Students respond with immediacy or purpose and are the primary actors within the ritual of instruction. This is student-based learning. Students will be involved, emphasis will be off the chalk-and-talk. Teachers remove obstacles to let students let through active questioning of dominant ideologies. Lessons will be in a flow state with students totally involved. These teachers are social activists and spiritual directors. The teacher is a co-participant or co-creator. Standout example: Mrs. Sauceda in The Jumping Tree by René Saldaña, Miss Honey in Matilda. (The self-sacrificing, inspirational teacher who almost martyrs herself for the sake of the students is heroic but not sustainable in a long-term teaching career.)

OTHER TEACHER ARCHETYPES

The Kindly But Frustrated Teacher
Ramona's teacher

Think of Ramona Quimby’s middle-aged teacher, who is obviously a kind-hearted person but who is regularly exasperated by Ramona’s failure to conform. This is usually a female teacher, perhaps in her 40s or 50s, who we are to imagine has been dealing with children over many, many years.

‘Mrs’ from the Junie B. Jones series is also a kindly but exasperated type.

The Kindly But Beginner Teacher
Ramona's young teacher
Miss Binney from Ramona The Pest

Ramona’s first teacher, however, is brand new to the school. Miss Binney. Miss Binney’s lack of experience leads to a different kind of comedy. The kindergarten children, most notably Ramona and Howie, misinterpret Miss Binney’s words which leads to chaos. Had Miss Binney been a more experienced teacher she would have made Ramona the wake-up-fairy, but instead she picked the goody-two-shoes who needed nothing in the way of encouragement to behave well.

For the dual audience we have Edna Krabapple who is a more cynical version again.

Bad Ass Teachers
  • Mad-Eye Moody would be the straightest example. Both, the real Moody, even though he never gets a chance to actually be a badass while a teacher, and the fake Moody, who manages to do a great job of impersonating a badass.
  • Dumbledore gets special mention, as the one and only time he rebuked Professor Umbridge was when she started physically attacking one of his students. And the one and only time he ever got angry with Harry Potter was when Harry thoughtlessly suggested that Dumbledore was leaving the school unprotected. There is also his Unstoppable Rage when a bunch of Dementors showed up at a Quidditch match.
  • As does McGonagall. Mess with her, and you get a disapproving glare. Mess with one of her students or colleagues, and she takes four Stunners to the chest at age seventy and bounces back with only a walking stick to show she was hospitalized for a month.
  • Then, for an encore, she and Slughorn help an Auror take on TOM RIDDLE HIMSELF and live to tell about it.
  • Let’s not forget Severus Snape. He was a spy for Dumbledore, could fly without a broom, and during his spying days he lied to Voldemort’s FACE for years. And he was an innovator, too. He is in fact the Half-Blood Prince who was behind a number of innovative—and sometimes nasty—spells. And when he actually does teach, once you get past his Jerkass-ness, he is focused; he teaches with a purpose.
  • Miss Wilson in the Chalet School series. Leading a group of kids to safety through a secret passageway, with a gang of angry Nazis in hot pursuit? I’d say that’s pretty Badass. Doubles as a Mama Bear moment.
  • Mr McCarthy in Me And Earl And The Dying Girl is covered in tatts and for part of the story we think he eats soup with drugs in it. He has the appearance of a badass teacher but is actually pretty conventional, just with a smart-alec comeback for whatever his students say to him.
The Stern Teacher

Minerva McGonagall from Harry Potter. So strict that she tends to subtract more points from her own students when they do wrong because she holds them to higher standards. Madame Hootch is another, mostly forgotten example from Harry Potter. Since her subject (broom-flying) is so dangerous, the penalty for breaking rules in her class is expulsion. Not point loss or detention. Expulsion.

(Subversion: Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie subverts the trope all to hell, specifically the “tough but fair” part. Miss Brodie deliberately designates one of her girls as a “stupid” victim, marking her for life. She’s a charming, intelligent, and vivacious fascist.)

In Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie (1974) we have Ms Desjardin. If you’ve seen either of the film adaptations you’ll notice the teacher from the book is more hardened than as played on screen.

She slapped Carrie smartly across the face. She hardly would have admitted the pleasure the act gave her, and she certainly would have denied that she regarded Carrie as a fat, whiny bag of lard. A first-year teacher, she still believed that she thought all children were good.

Downright Nasty Teachers

The teacher characters in the Captain Underpants series, however, are rarely nice. In fact, they’re downright nasty, with school principal Mr Krupp playing the role of villain (along with Professor Tinkletrousers and many others).

‘Most of the teachers I had in elementary school, or primary school, and in high school were very vicious and cruel people,’ says Pilkey. ‘However, there are some good grownups in the Captain Underpants series and that’s the parental figures.’

Dave Pilkey, author of Captain Underpants, from interview at ABC

Principal Trunchbull of Matilda, reputedly used by Roald Dahl as a surrogate for all the cruel tutors he had over the years. Her treatment of children, as Matilda deduces, is deliberately so extreme and outlandish that no kid’s parents will believe the truth even on the off chance any child got up the courage to tell.

Captain Lancaster in Danny, the Champion of the World is a more realistic example. He’s obviously based on one of Roald Dahl’s actual teachers, Captain Hardcastle, described in his autobiography Boy.

It’s bad enough is you have a Sadist Teacher, but misery ensues if you have a Sadist (Vice) Principal who doesn’t just kick you around, but he kicks all the students. That’s right, meet Vice Principal Nero who runs a boarding school in A Series of Unfortunate Events. Not only he was generally mean to the students and tortured them with hours of awful violin playing, but he also had a bunch of outrageous and stupid punishments: For example, if you went to the office building and you weren’t an adult you’d have to eat your food without a fork and knife. And if you missed a class or got there late you weren’t allowed to have a glass from which to drink, you had to lick your milk from the tray. And if you didn’t go to see him play his violin, he’d force you to buy him candy and watch him eat it. I don’t want to even think what would happen if you’d skip a class.

Lucy Maud Montgomery’s heroines almost always fall victim to this teacher. Probably the worst offender was Miss Brownell, of Emily of New Moon. She takes Emily’s manuscripts in class and reads Emily’s poems to the rest of teh class in a mocking voice, with snide comments, occasionally accusing Emily of passing off other authors’ works as her own. When Emily refuses to apologise for writing poetry in class, Miss Brownell comes to New Moon and tries to convince Emily’s guardian to force the girl to kneel to Miss Brownell and apologize.

Mrs. Gorf in the first book of Louis Sachar’s Wayside School series turns her students into apples when they do anything wrong. This includes sneezing in class. The students manage to outsmart her by forcing her to turn them back into humans and tricking her into turning herself into an apple, which Louis then unknowingly eats.

Wendy Nogard in Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger is a more subtle (but even more insidious) example: while she appears to be a sweet, considerate teacher, she uses her mind-reading abilities to humiliate and turn her students against each other—all without ever compromising her “nice teacher” facade. An example of this is when, during a homework-checking session, she deliberately calls on the one student who has the incorrect answer for each question, and using the resulting slew of wrong answers to retract her promise of no homework for that day. Every student ends up hating all the others for being idiots who cheated him/her out of a homework-free afternoon, even though in reality none of them missed more than two questions on the assignment.

Sexual Interest Teacher

Though more common in YA, we also have teachers such as Miss Edmunds in Bridge To Terabithia by Katherine Paterson:

The somewhat unconventional and controversial music teacher, whom Jesse greatly admires. She invites Jess to go to the Smithsonian Museum, which leads Leslie to go to Terabithia by herself. As a result, Leslie is alone when she falls from the rope and drowns. She is played by Annette O’Toole in the 1985 film and Zooey Deschanel in the 2007 film. In the 1985 film, Mrs. Edmunds seems to take the role of Mrs. Myers. She tells Jess the story of a relative dying after Leslie dies instead of Mrs. Myers, and she, instead of Mrs. Myers, gives the homework assignment of watching a show on television.

Terabithia Teacher

Zooey Deschenel also plays the Hippie Teacher.

From Holes, we have Miss Katherine, whom many of the townfolk was after. (From the Hot Teacher page at All The Tropes) Another hippie teacher would be Barbara Finney from The Cat Ate My Gymsuit by Paula Danziger.

Falling in love with your teacher is a solid way for a writer to keep lovers apart for the entire length of a story. This is harder and harder these days, where in real life at least romance is permissible across cultural, socio-economic and geographic boundaries. People can sleep with each other without much in the way build up. The student-teacher relationship recreates the 1700s erotics of abstinence Jane Austen depicted so well (and which, more recently, Stephenie Meyer utilised in her vampire series.)

In Pretty Little Liars, a hot young teacher dates one of his students before he realises she’s one of his students. Somehow they continue this romance, meeting alone in his classroom, without anyone noticing.

TEACHERS IN REALISTIC NOVELS

The realistic novel “emphasises truthful representation of the actual”. ‘Realistic’ fiction supposedly corresponds closely with the real world. In a realistic novel, readers bring an expectation that representations of humanity will somewhat mimic real, rounded humans.

When teachers in realistic novels are presented in an unrealistic way, this undermines the realism of the story.

GOOD TEACHER/BAD TEACHER IN MODERN YOUNG ADULT LITERATURE

The more favourably depicted teachers help students develop their identities and resist dominant and oppressive educational paradigms; the less favourably perceived teachers often represent the authority against which the adolescents and good teachers rebel.

Beyond a Good Bad Binary

Mostly, teachers are adults who get in the way of adventure and independence, so the author uses teachers as background furniture then disappears them.

If you meet a bunch of teachers on your first day in the new school, only pay attention to the one who puts you in a group project with a handsome stranger. You’ll never see the rest again.

@broodingYAhero

YOUNG ADULT NOVELS MAKING USE OF THE GOOD/BAD BINARY

  • Anne of Green Gables — Miss Stacey replaces an ineffective, uninspiring, authoritarian male teacher who plays (inappropriate) favourites.
  • The Teacher’s Funeral by Richard Peck (2004) — set in 1904. Weaker teacher Myrt Arbuckle dies, succeeded by the more effective Tansy Culver.
  • Scat by Carl Hiaasen (2009) — Similar to The Petition, students assume teachers who mark hard must be bad teachers. Hiaasen inverts reader expectations of a good/bad dichotomy, in which the demanding teacher, Mrs Bunny Starch, is the effective one. In contrast, Dr Wendell Waxmo is a comedic caricature of an unqualified, eccentric substitute. He is basically an extreme Entertainer Teacher archetype.
  • The Sledding Hill by Chris Crutcher (2005) — English teacher Mr. Sanford Tarter represents the hegemonic overlord type. Mr. Tarter intrudes excessively in the life of Eddie. The other English teacher in The Sledding Hill, Ms. Ruth Lloyd gives students choice and power. Crutcher’s own ideology is no doubt influenced by the fact that his books have been widely banned by Mr Tarter types. Chris Crutcher’s coaches fall into good and bad categories. The good coaches let kids figure out what they need for themselves and provide them with backup to let them make their own discoveries.
  • Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (1999) — Mr Freeman is a shamanistic archetype and gifted artist who models what he expects of students and exposes the reality of the institutional power structure. But Mr Neck the social studies teacher is bigoted and unprofessional.
  • The Petition by Anne Schraff (2001) — Mr Pedroza is the best teacher and initially seems like a hegemonic overlord but turns out to be a false opponent ally and liminal servant. In contrast, Ms Corey is both Entertainer and Hegemonic Overlord. Schraff subverts archetypes by challenging the reader’s first impressions of these teachers. The young, relatable funny teacher who gives out easy grades is proven to be the less effective teacher. Superficial niceness covers bigotry.

The problem with the good/bad binary in a realistic novel is that teachers are dehumanised. Humans are more nuanced. Characters such as Matilda’s Trunchbull are clear comedic archetypes, but in a realistic novel, shouldn’t the characters be presented realistically to achieve the effect they’re going for?

MOVING BEYOND THE BINARY

The most interesting characters are not morally binary at all. To that end, some authors assign good and bad attributes to the same teacher.

  • Standing Up to Mr. O by Claudia Mills (1998) — the biology teacher Mr. O’Neill embodies all three of McLaren’s models depending on the moment.
  • No More Dead Dogs by Korman (2000) — The teacher changes from mixed good/bad to good, and has their own character arc alongside the students, with the effect of humanising teachers for readers. Everyone’s attitudes change for the better. This is achieved via narration from various perspectives including the teacher’s own journal entries and memos to himself.

AMERICAN TV TEACHERS

Many of the most memorable TV teachers are single women. There was a time only about 50 years ago when teachers were expected to give up work after getting married.

There have been fewer shows set in a tertiary institution but there is a lead woman lecturer in How To Get Away With Murder. There are even fewer women. Unlike most shows starring a teacher, this one isn’t a ‘family show’.

There are far more female high school teachers/administrators in real life than there are on screen.

Room 222 is from the 1960s. It was huge in America back then — a 30 minute sitcom. These were years where most houses only had one TV in them so everyone was watching it. It was made by the creator of the Mary Tyler Moore show, which is perhaps better remembered. Denise Nicholas was Liz McIntyre, an educated woman well-respected by her peers. She plays a counsellor. There’s also a student teacher who became a permanent character. Room 222 had a more diverse cast than many shows today.

Friday Night Lights stars Connie Britton. This is a sexist environment set in a football oriented community. She is the school counsellor and at times called actual counsellors to ask them how they’d advise on tricky issues. This show, like The Waltons, gives a family with young teens plenty to talk about.

There was a TV show in the 80s called Fame, based on the film, about a dance teacher and her students.

Square Pegs – a 1980s time capsule. Sarah Jessica Parker is in it.

Good Morning Miss Bliss — about a fictional high school in Indianapolis. The show was renamed Saved By The Bell and lost Miss Bliss. It just didn’t work.

DeGrassi Junior High morphed into DeGrassi High – teens don’t want to watch anything with ‘junior’ in the title. It focused pretty realistically on teen life. There is a teacher who is lesbian. This was breakthrough stuff in the late 80s.

In the 90s there weren’t as many female authority figures on TV.

Moesha was a quality sitcom which featured an African American cast. Her step mother played the principal.

The Bionic Woman — a teacher with supernatural powers. It aired in the 1970s and was a spin off from the Six Million Dollar Man, itself a breakthrough hit. Jamie Summers is the lead character – a tennis pro turned teacher who was injured in a sky-diving accident. Jamie is a government agent going undercover to complete all sorts of assignments to repay the favour of keeping her alive bionically. In her spare time she teaches classes on a military base in California.

Freaks and Geeks — Bill loves Bionic Woman and dresses up as her for Halloween. Freaks and Geeks features a number of teachers, though the memorable ones are all male. This was typical for the 1990s. There’s the male hippie counsellor, the jock P.E. teacher and the mean bald guy.

FURTHER READING

Header painting: Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes – School is Out

Father Tropes In Fiction

George Sheridan Knowles - Page and Monarch forth they went, Forth they went together, Through the rude wind’s wild lament, and the bitter weather 1898
Turn Out Like His Father – A character has charge of a child (usually her son) and is desperate to keep this child from imitating another relative (usually his father). This is a fear of history’s repeating itself for his fate, which may be turning evil and usually ends with being dead. Harry Potter isn’t allowed to find out about his parents in case he turns out like them.

Like Father Like Son – this one is called a ‘supertrope’ because of all its subcategories.

Like Father, Unlike Son – In How to Train Your Dragon, Stoick the Vast is a big bearded man who is every bit a typical Viking warrior whose main defining feature is his strength.

Luke, You Are My Father – when a character in a story finds out who their real parent is. An Arthurian trope. In some versions of Arthurian mythology, Mordred is the son of Arthur and his sister, who was sent away to die as an infant, as he was destined to kill Arthur later on. Which he did when he showed up as an adult. In Northern Lights, Lyra finds out that the man she thought was her uncle is actually her father.

I Am Not Your Father – There will be a reveal that a child’s parents are not the real parents after years of Oblivious Adoption. After a long time, the adoptive parents finally tell him.

Tell Me About My Father – We see the female version of this in Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo.

The father from Because Of Winn-Dixie

Sins Of Our Fathers – This describes the act of exacting revenge upon the descendants of the one who originally did the wrong.

Standard 50s Father – Mr Dursley from Harry Potter, the father from Freaks and Geeks (though it’s set in 1980). In Tom’s Midnight Garden we have a father figure rather than the father (Tom’s uncle) who is literally a 1950s father because this book was written in the early 1950s.

Mother Nature, Father Science – If a show has men and women both from an academic background, the man will typically have a degree in science, math, or engineering, while the woman will have one in arts or literature. (This may be why so many mad scientists are male.) Even if both characters are scientists, expect the man to research physics or mathematics and the woman to research psychology or biology. This reflects real life, but children’s literature both reflects real life AND influences it, so children do need to see more STEM mums and nurturing dads. (We are starting to see the nurturing dads, usually when the mother has been disappeared in some way.)

Lineage Comes From The Father – This can be a sexist trope: a great deal of the time characters in the Heir Club for Men who insist on having a boy are men, that when a character has a legacy of royalty, villainy or heroics it comes from the father. Even for female characters. The implicit assumption is that if a character is going to inherit something of relevance from their bloodline, it’s going to be from their father’s side, never their mother’s. However, writers can imbue a story with far more nuance than that. Children can turn out like their fathers even when it’s not a good thing. Bill of Big Love was kicked out of home as a young teen and has since appeared to make it okay in regular Utah, middle-class society. But he will never shake his background or his core beliefs learned while growing up within a cult of polygamy. He is more like his horrible birth father than he realises, and pays for it. It seems for a while that his eldest son is following in his footsteps. The audience realises that there is no real ‘supernatural’ type religious calling but that the son is instead influenced by an influx of teenage hormones, and that is the main reason he can see himself with multiple wives. A picture book example of this is Some Dogs Do by Jez Alborough. It’s out of print but you can listen to the author read it on YouTube.

Fantasy-Forbidding Father – A father, mother, or guardian (these last two are less common) disapproves of their child or ward reading “fairy stories”, playing fantasy or SF games, sports, and even such “useless” hobbies as astronomy, boxing and being literate. In extreme cases, anything the child likes that isn’t directly and concretely tied to whatever it is their dad does for a living (or that he wants them to do for a living) is seen as an utter waste. The dad may even break, burn or sell anything of this nature their child owns, possibly even punishing or locking them up. In Freaks and Geeks Nick Andopolis has one of these dads — a military Dad who does not approve of his son’s playing the drums. The audience may be able to see both sides in this case, because Nick is genuinely terrible at the drums and doesn’t practice. Many a heroine of a Pony Tale was saddled with parents like these, when they weren’t obstructive in some other way to her dream of becoming an equestrian.

Supernatural-Proof Father – Usually, when a household starts experiencing supernatural events the whole family experiences them.Well, almost everybody. The father, as the head of the family and the most “sensible and grounded” member, is the last person to encounter (or admit encountering) these bizarre events. We have this kind of father in the horror film Insidious, though it turns out that technically he was the first to see the ghosts and has simply repressed his trauma.

Disappeared Dad – Children’s literature is full of Dads who are absent, either because they have left the family unit or because they’re too busy with their work. Bella Swan’s father grants her sufficient space for her to get mixed up in all sorts of supernatural happenings.

Action Dad – This is the father who realizes something is happening, and isn’t going to stand for it, particularly if it poses any kind of threat to his family. The father in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Papa Smurf.

Archnemesis Dad – aloof, remote, and offer scant praise for their children’s achievements. Some expect their kids to act like adults from an early age and offer no guidance. Lord Tywin Lannister, the dwarf’s dad from A Song of Fire and Ice.

Bumbling Dad – Born out of the Sitcom Dysfunctional Family, he’s a deliberate subversion of theStandard ’50s Father. Now so ubiquitous the older trope is nearly forgotten. Homer Simpson, Papa Bear of the Berenstain Bears, Frank Heffley from Diary of a Wimpy Kid, maybe Ron Weasley’s dad in Harry Potter.

Human Mother, Non-Human Dad – In the Japanese comic book (and movie) Wolf Children, the mother is fully human, but the father is a werewolf. His children inherit his werewolfishness.

Jock Dad, Nerd SonBill, from Freaks and Geeks (in relation to his mother’s boyfriend, who is also his P.E. teacher.

Overprotective Dad – Kat’s father from 10 Things I Hate About You.

Papa Wolf – when bumbling Dad turns into action Dad. The dad on The River Wild, in which the last line is given to the young son: something along the lines of “My mother is really brave but my father saved the day”, just to remind a conservative audience that the character arc really belongs to the man, even though the film ostensibly follows the path (“river”) of the mother.

Parent Ex Machina – This is when a mother or fatherly figure swoops in to save the day, much as a god did in old dramas. This is an absolute no-no in writing fiction for children. Cheryl Klein advises in her book Second Sight, if you find yourself with a plot that a child wouldn’t be able to solve because of their age, you can do something to fix it: Turn the unsolvable plot into a subplot while giving the child protagonist more autonomy in the main plot. Children must be the fully fledged protagonists of their own stories.

Team Dad – More often than not the disciplinarian, lead-by-example-kind of character in contrast to the warm, nurturing tendencies of a Team Mom. The Team Dad is almost always the oldest member of The Team and if he isn’t The Leader, then he’s definitely The Mentor, and in family-based teams, he is the father (or at least the big brother) of at least one member. This character doesn’t have to be an actual Dad and doesn’t actually have to be male — though usually is. A good example from kidlit is Julian from the Famous Five series, or Dick from The Faraway Tree series — Enid Blyton loved Team Dad boys. Open page one of The Wishing Chair and highlight the mansplaining dished out to Molly from her brother, who looks the same age as she is.

Veteran DadPark’s father from Eleanor & Park. The gay dad across the road in American Beauty.

The Three Little Pigs Illustrated by Leonard Leslie Brooke

The Three Little Pigs is one of the handful of classic tales audiences are expected to know. Pigs are handy characters: They can be adorable or they can be evil. You can strip them  butt naked and let the reader revel in their uncanny resemblance to humans. Or, you can dress them in jumpers and they’re as cute as kittens.

Brooke’s version of The Three Little Pigs, published January 1st 1905 by Frederick Warne and Company,  is freely available at Project Gutenberg.

No one knows who wrote it, but we do know it’s from England.

The Story Of The Three Little Pigs

This version is also part of the Mother Goose collection.

(Did you know that children’s books in general originally emerged from nursery rhymes and folk tale? And that William Godwin, husband of Mary Wollstonecraft and father of Mary Shelley, published the first Mother Goose Tales?)

In the edition below the Three Little Pigs are given names: Spotty, Curly-tail and Little Runt. By giving the pigs names, and also by dressing them in clothes, storytellers make the pigs more sympathetic to human readers.

Spotty, Curly-tail and Little Runt set off into the wide world to seek their fortune Three Little PIgs

Giving previously unnamed fairytale characters personal names is a trick normally employed by the Disney corporation. (The dwarves of Snow White didn’t have names until Disney named them.)

NAKED DANCING PIGS

Margaret Blount, in Animal Land, points out that in this version, the animals are not yet wearing clothes. It was only after Beatrix Potter that animals started to wear clothes in picturebooks.

There were several different versions of this tale in my house when we were coming up — this was my favourite. It has very 1970s art and as you can see the pigs are wearing clothes. Though it’s not obvious from the cover, one of the pigs is carrying a bundle tied with a pink kerchief. Although gendered male in the text, I asked my eight-year-old if this pig was a boy or a girl and she said, “I don’t know.” She’s grown up in the pinkification of femininity, and to her, one pink item normally signifies a girl.

There was also this version from my childhood, and notice these ones aren’t wearing clothes. It’s harder to find naked pigs in this century, however. The newer Ladybird editions feature clothed pigs.

I grew up with the 1973 Little Golden Book of The Three Little Pigs, illustrated by someone who went by “ROFry”. I have no idea who this person is, but they seem to have also illustrated My Home and This Little Pony. The illustrations are beautiful, non-Disneyfied, and I would like to have seen more from them.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE THREE LITTLE PIGS”

The story of the Three Little Pigs has a mythic Odyssean structure, with characters leaving home to embark upon a journey. Sometimes these heroes return home afterwards; in other variations they find new homes.

Picture books about journeys tend to feature a road (or river) in at least one spread. The illustration by Mary Evans is especially masterful in its composition, including all three houses in one frame. Of course readers aren’t supposed to take away that the pigs were building their house this close together — it’s a ‘fantasy map’, conceptual rather than GPS accurate, much like maps you find from the medieval era.

Three Little Pigs illustration by Mary Evans all houses in one frame

As much as any fairytale ever written, The Three Little Pigs makes full use of the Rule of Three in storytelling.

Who is the main character? The main character is the one who changes the most psychologically over the course of the story. That doesn’t include changes in circumstances, such as from living to being dead.

Still, I will argue that fairytales work slightly differently. We’re working with tropes here rather than fully-rounded individuals, and although the smart little pig doesn’t really evolve over the course of the story — starting smart and staying that way — the smart pig is nevertheless painted as the viewpoint character, which gives him the edge.

That said, the illustrations in Brooke’s version humorously depict the smart pig as more sociopathic than the hapless wolf. Readers may find their sympathies divided, and my wolf-loving eight-year-old refuses to read fairytales which vilify wolves. (Hence she prefers The Three Little Wolves And The Big Bad Pig.)

SHORTCOMING

The two stupid (or lazy) brothers are dealt with swiftly, and in this version they get eaten. There’s no running away or anything, more typical of modern adaptations for the preschool set. We don’t actually see a gory blood and guts scene but we do see a satisfied wolf with his guts full of bacon.

satisfied-wolf

The smart pig’s shortcoming is that he is delicious.

DESIRE

Surface desire: He wants to build a house.

Deeper desire: He wants to live a full life, safe from carnivorous wild animals.

OPPONENT

You could argue that the brothers are opponents to each other. In contrast to the goat brothers in The Three Billy Goats Gruff, these pig brothers are isolated from each other and show no cooperation.

The Big Bad Wolf

The Big Bad Wolf in this tale is really no such thing. The audience already knows that the house of bricks will survive any big struggle, and Francis Spufford links it back to Piaget:

The invariability of a story is what gives it a secure existence. It adds it to the expanding sphere of what is known for sure; and therefore to the dependable world, which is made up at the deepest level, for a small child, of patterns on which it is safe to rely. Piaget called the patterns in an infant’s head ‘schemes’. They begin very simple. There is one scheme of ‘everything that will go into my mouth’. Then it subdivides, and there are separate schemes for food and for not-food. Complexity mounts up. Another way of seeing it is to say that small children agree intuitively with Wittgenstein. “The world is the totality of facts, not of things.” It’s what you know to be true that constitutes the world. Objects are terrible important, but the things in the small child’s world that she or he can touch — the red brick that somehow encapsulates the nature of the whole box of bricks, the kitchen furniture nested at the centre of the whole geography of home — count just as one type of true fact. Objects are just a subset of a scheme that has already divided, the scheme of things-that-are-true. They’re the type of fact you can verify by prodding or biting, but they go together with other types, equally certain, such as the fact that morning always comes. Or that the third little pig’s house will never blow down in any retelling of the story, no matter how hard the wolf huffs and puffs. Stories are so.

The Child That Books Built, Frances Spufford

PLAN

The pig is smart enough to realise the wolf is a trickster, so the pig outwits him in turn by getting up earlier and earlier. This is clearly one of those stories which position early risers as morally more upright than people with a circadian rhythm that runs later!

Again we see the rule of threes, with three attempts by the wolf to lure the smart pig out of his house of bricks:

  1. the turnips
  2. the apple tree
  3. the fair

It is during this big struggle of wits that the audience sympathy is encouraged to switch from the pig to the wolf. In illustration this is achieved very simply by having the reader look over the wolf’s shoulder.

sympathy-switches-to-wolf

BIG STRUGGLE

The escalating struggle sequences contain a lot of humour, even in this gritty version. There’s something comical about the pig jumping from the tree. Is it partly because we have no idea how he get up there in the first place? Is it because the wolf is so oblivious to the jumping pig even though it’s happening right in front of him? Or could it simply be the sight of a naked anthropomorphised pig?

pig-jumping-from-tree

The pig in the butter churn is also funny — probably because his naked butt is showing, and the Big Bad Wolf is scared.

pig-in-a-churn

When I look at the video in the tweet below, I realise pigs might have a long history of being roly poly.

https://twitter.com/wannabekraze/status/1258129195802206209

In this gritty 1905 version, the wolf falls down the chimney straight into a pot of stew.

wolf-falling-into-pot

Modern editions for contemporary kids don’t make a meal out of this scene, but the Three Little Pigs story from Father Tuck’s “Mother Goose” series puts this image on the front cover. Sensibilities have changed. Not to mention, it’s normally an odd choice to ‘ruin the story’ by depicting the climactic scene on the front cover, which speaks, I think, to the fact everyone coming to this story already knows what happens.

Three Little PIgs from Father Tuck’s Mother Goose series
This Robert Lumley illustration from the 1965 Ladybird edition also makes the most of the death of the wolf.
This Robert Lumley illustration from the 1965 Ladybird edition also makes the most of the death of the wolf.

ANAGNORISIS

I’ve yet to see a pig actually eating the wolf but we come as close as we’re probably ever going to get with Brooke’s back view:

pig-eating-the-wolf

The revelation, perhaps, is that the pig is the genteel baddie and you should’ve been rooting for the wolf all along.

Or perhaps the young audience is simply reassured, having heard this same story many times before.

NEW SITUATION

The Wolf is cynical and worldly looking, and the last Pig sitting by the fire is like the satisfied man who has taken out a life-insurance policy — which, as the story is about prudence, is quite fitting.

Margaret Blount, Animal Land
wolf-skin-rug

Rats In Children’s Literature

close up of a rat
rat-attacks-cat

That’s a gif from Reddit.

I’m reminded of modern children’s literature, in which an underdog, much maligned character has his/her own back.

It’s pretty funny until you read the top commenter, pointing out that the rat probably has toxoplasmosis, a disorder of the brain. On the other hand, mice and rats alike aren’t timid at all when you consider how small and vulnerable they are compared to us, and how they hang around humans anyway.

THE LACK OF RATS IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

Sooo, compared to mice, rats are relatively uncommon in children’s literature.

There are a number of reasons for this:

First, mice are cute, and serve as stand-in children owing to their small, vulnerable size. Rats have long, worm-like tails and look at you as if they’re about to murder you. Their paws are large enough for us to notice they are uncannily like human hands.

Mice are widely represented in folktales, both as protagonists and as helpers. Apparently, there is a subconscious identification on the part of children’s writers of a small and helpless child with one of the smallest animals, also know–maybe without reason–for its lack of courage. While rats are in many children’s stories presented as ruthless enemies, mice–in reality similarly harmful–are portrayed as harmless and sympathetic. The emblematic meaning of animals in art and literature deserves special attention there is an enormous diversity between cultures. However, in most ancient mythologies, mice are chthonic animals, worshipped as powerful and benevolent towards humans.

Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in Children’s Literature

Second, there’s a long history of tropes depicting rats as baddies, and the antihero isn’t very well explored (yet) in literature for young children.

See also: A list of rodent tropes at TV Tropes

This gets dark real quick when you realise that the trope of rats as baddies extends to real life.

Characterizing people as vermin has historically been a precursor to murder and genocide. The Nazis built on centuries-old hatred of Jews as carriers of disease in a film titled “Der Ewige Jude,” or “The Eternal Jew.”

INFEST — The Ugly Nazi History of Trump’s Chosen Verb About Immigrants

Third, there’s no Aesopian precedent for personified rats. Aesop has a much bigger influence on modern children’s literature than we might think. Take a look at the following word cloud, from a site which catalogue’s Aesop’s fables and you’ll notice that rats are entirely absent. Even mice aren’t all that common.

aesops-characters

Rats are associated with different emotions, depending on the culture. Ancient Japan had a good relationship with rats, though I have no idea why — didn’t rats get into everyone’s food stocks… a life or death matter back then? It may be precisely the power of rats that affords them respect, and respect can be associated with good fortune, I guess. https://twitter.com/britishmuseum/status/1221003547376005120

RATS AS COCKNEY RAG AND BONE TYPES

The rats from Chicken Run speak Cockney English, are underworld petty criminal scavenger types and are used to deliver funny one-liners.

rats chicken run

If these guys were characters in a children’s story they would be rats.

Only Fools and Horses
from Only Fools and Horses

Charlotte’s Web was probably a heavy influence on the rat as rag and bone man today, via the character of Templeton.

Rats = Masculine, Mice = Feminine

The characters in Froggy Went A-Courtin (here we have the 1955 illustrations) are a good example of rodent gendering in children’s stories. The mice is infantalised in what today seems ridiculously old-fashioned, but which was no doubt representative of its time. No one knows exactly when the original song was first composed, but it was long before 1955.

Uncle Rat froggy went a courtin
Miss mouse will you marry me

That said, it wasn’t unusual for Americans to see pictures of women on men’s knees in popular culture, and it wasn’t always a loving dynamic such as this one.

Chase-Sanborn-Coffee

THE RAT TROPE SUBVERTED

Because the rat as baddie is so well established, an author can subvert audience expectations by creating a nice, kind, loving rat.

Andrew McDonald does this in Real Pigeons Splash Back, illustrated by Ben Wood. The pigeon crime fighters are scared of rats. This is established early as they prepare to head into the sewers. Eventually they come face to face with the dreaded rats… first a female rat who pulls them out of the water and dries them off nicely with towels.

Mo Willems also subverts the stereotype of a rat by creating a lovable Naked Mole Rat — check out photos and the animal is about the least cute mammal I can think of.

naked-mole-rat-gets-dressed_500x340

MORE FAMOUS LITERARY RATS

Here are some of the better-known works.

mrsfrisbyandthe_ratsofnimhcover_huge_500x762
walter-the-story-of-a-rat_500x633
the_roly-poly_pudding_first_edition_cover_500x636
the-wind-in-the-willows_500x632
a-rats-tale-cover_500x670
hooway_500x500
i-was-a-rat-pullman_500x704

Header photo by Brett Jordan

A Squash And A Squeeze by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler

A Squash and a Squeeze is a picture book written by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Axel Sheffler.

A Squash and a Squeeze was published in 1993, when Donaldson was 44. It was not expected to be a big seller. For one thing, it was in rhyme, which publishers at the time largely avoided because of difficulties with translation. “In order for a picture book to be profitable, you more or less have to glue some foreign editions on, so you can do a bigger print run,” Donaldson said.

The Guardian

Donaldson’s great gift is two-fold: weaving old folktale tropes into contemporary stories, and with beautiful, read-aloud prose. This particular story is a retelling of an old Yiddish tale and, to be honest, I wish there were more acknowledgement of this heritage in editions and reviews of A Squash and a Squeeze. Even the tentpole authors are heavily reliant upon a long tradition of storyteller and storytellers.

There are other picture book retellings of this story. Too Much Noise by Ann McGovern, with illustrations by Simms Taback (1967) has fallen into obscurity, though I picked up a copy for free when our local library was having a throw out. (This sort of proves its obscurity.)

Too Much Noise by Ann McGovern
Too Much Noise by Ann McGovern

Another example is  A Big Quiet House by Heather Forest and illustrated by Susan Greenstein (1996).

You’ll find many folktale tropes here: Witches, chimeras, rats, mice, and here: a mentor archetype. Then there’s a trope most often found in fairytales and in picture books: an old woman who lives alone on a simple small plot of land in the country. This woman will probably have a close relationship with her animals (and if she doesn’t, she’ll be forced to, here!) The older Yiddish tales are about a man who lives alone in a house, so Donaldson has inverted the gender. (At first this may look like an act of feminism, but I don’t believe Donaldson is a feminist storyteller.) In the Yiddish tale the man goes to a woman for help; now we have a woman going to a man for help. This is an inversion, not a subversion. (There’s a difference.)

STORY STRUCTURE OF A SQUASH AND A SQUEEZE

PARATEXT

There have been various editions of A Squash And A Squeeze in its 20+ year history of reprints.

Here is a slightly more ominous sky:

a squash and a squeeze dark sky

With the help of an old man and all of her animals, an old lady realises that her house is not as small as she thought it was.

“a bit of a classic … A goat on the bed and a cow on the table tapping out a jig? My readers collapsed in heaps, and then had to have it read again. And again.”

Vivian French in The Guardian

SHORTCOMING

The old woman feels her little house is too small for her. The four walls make her feel ‘squashed and squeezed’. Donaldson brings the freshness of onomatopoeic/mimetic language to this revisioning.

DESIRE

She wants a bigger house, we guess.

OPPONENT

The Wise Old Man is a secret-ally opponent. He at first seems to be making her situation worse, but there’s method in his madness.

PLAN

She asks the local Wise Old Man what to do.

The word 'plan' is even used in the text. A SQUASH AND A SQUEEZE
The word ‘plan’ is even used in the text.

BIG STRUGGLE

The big struggle scenes are slap stick set pieces as the Wise Old Man tells her to bring her farm animals into the house. He starts her off on the smallest farm animals and ends with the cow.

SQUASH AND A SQUEEZE BIG STRUGGLE

ANAGNORISIS

Compared to having a house full of farm animals, a cottage with just her in it no longer seems so small.

NEW SITUATION

The animals live happily in the yard and the old woman lives happily in her cottage, no longer feeling it’s too small.

Charles Hunt – Paddy’s Darling
Frederick George Cotman - One of the Family
Frederick George Cotman – One of the Family
Belinda Lyon
Belinda Lyon

FURTHER READING

Picture books are easy to read – Donaldson’s usually run at just 32 pages, and under 1,000 words – which can give the mistaken impression that they are easy to write. This myth has been reinforced by the publishing industry’s penchant for indulging celebrity authors, who are seen as a guarantee of press coverage and sales, though the books themselves are often ghost-written or heavily edited, and few are unqualified successes. Donaldson has repeatedly complained that picture book authors do not receive “the recognition they deserve”, lamenting at the 2019 Hay festival that “everything has to be the next big thing or else just go out of print”.

Similar charges, meanwhile, have been levelled at Donaldson, whose dominance of the picture book genre is seen by some as crowding out the market for new titles. “Some authors are a bit sniffy about her, but I think that’s just pure and simple jealousy because she’s so successful and she gets all that shelf space,” the author and illustrator Rob Biddulph told me. “But there’s a reason for it: she’s a genius.”

The Guardian

Julia Donaldson is indeed a rhyming genius, and like many geniuses, Donaldson occasionally rewrites formerly published stories, sometimes without changing the plot at all. How many of us have a copy of A Squash And A Squeeze on our shelves, but have never heard of Too Much Noise or A Big Quiet House? Perhaps this is what the ‘sniffy’ authors are talking about.

The Symbolism of Stairs And Attics

C. Coles Phillips (American artist and illustrator, 1880-1927) stairs

STAIRS

Common-sense lives on the ground floor […] on the same level as the others, as the passers-by, who are never dreamers.

Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

See Symbolism of the Dream House for more on stairs and the places they connect.

stairs from Mango & Bambang- The Not-a-Pig by Polly Faber
Mango & Bambang- The Not-a-Pig by Polly Faber

Beauty and the Beast

Stairs = Ascent To Heaven

This image is from the 1986 version retold by Anne Carter,  illustrated by Binette Schroeder. Beauty and the Beast has a strong Christian message for young women: Do as you’re told and you’ll wind up in Heaven. Here we see her going up the stairs into the Beast’s castle, sure that she’s about to end up dead.

stairs

Stairs as Ascent into Terror and Imagination

I like drawing staircases, so it seems. There’s nothing like a steep staircase to add some tension and drama to an illustration.

Page 14 of The Artifacts with development notes
Page 14 of The Artifacts with development notes

Stairs As Eavesdropping Spaces

courage-cowardly-dog-tilted-staircase
The staircase in the horror comedy Courage The Cowardly Dog. A camera tilt makes an ominous staircase seem even more ominous.

A struggle scene in 101 Dalmatians (1963) features a chase and dodge sequence which takes place on the stairwell of a big, unwelcoming, aristocratic house. Staircases allow for a variety of angles.

Baddie ascends the stairs, where he is close to discovering the puppies.
The nice thing about stairs is, the space beneath offers shelter and hiding place.
A top down view of the baddie sprawled across the landing shows that he has been defeated.
From ‘When the Sky is like Lace’ 1975 Written by Elinor Lander Horowitz Illustrated by Barbara Cooney (1917 – 2000)
Angela Barrett, from the Walker Book of Ghost Stories
Angela Barrett. from the Walker Book of Ghost Stories

Speaking of ominous staircases, you may have seen this picture on the Internet:

stairstoheaven

Over at Messy Nessy is an explanation:

“The Stairway to Heaven, also known as the Haiku Stairs, is a series of 3,922 steps in Oahu, Hawaii on the Koolau Mountain Range. The staircase was built by in 1942 by the U.S. Navy and its scenic views made it a popular tourist attraction. The Stairway to Heaven was closed off in 1982, and scheduled to re-open in 2001 after an $875,000 renovation but local residents opposed access in a NIMBY (Not In My BackYard) move. Hikers ignored the signs placed by the city, the city hired security guards to block access, so hikers then accessed the Stairway to Heaven in the middle of the night.”

Some stairs are fantastically long.

Some stairs are hidden, functioning as a labyrinth just beyond the familiar walls.

The Hidden Staircase

STAIRS AS LOVERS’ LANE

The stairs leading to the turret are narrow, which forces physical proximity.

Frederic William Burton - Hellelil and Hildebrand, the meeting on the turret stairs (1864)
Frederic William Burton – Hellelil and Hildebrand, the meeting on the turret stairs (1864)

Wolves In The Walls by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean

Does anyone else find it ironically hilarious that the steps are made of anti slip metal? I mean, it’s necessary and all, and probably better than nothing, but that, folks, is what you call a death trap. Safety tread or no safety tread.

wolves-in-the-walls-staircase

Wolves In The Walls is a contemporary story, but ‘living beings in the walls’ has a real-life history when we think back to the relatively recent Edwardian era, in which well-to-do houses kept a staff of services who lived, like rats, ‘behind the scenes’. Behind the green baize door. These servants had their own stairways, and were expected to keep apart from the owners and ‘proper residents’ of the house as much as humanly possible. If they were to ever meet their superior in the house, the most lowly of staff were expected to turn away, pretending not to have seen or heard a thing.

Behind the Green Baize Door

In order that the frenzied activity of the servants didn’t impinge on the peace and quiet of the household, there was a second staircase, unlit, between the attic where the maids lived and the basement where they worked. The servants’ stairs were behind the … green baize door, and led to a network of tunnels and passages few from the other side would ever need to see. The servants’ entrance was around the back of the house and, in town houses, was below ground level. It was considered a heinous impertinence for anyone of servant or tradesman class to call at the front door.

Along with the kitchen and scullery, the basement housed the sleeping quarters for the male members of staff as well as the butler’s pantry and the housekeeper’s room, where the preserves and pickles would be kept. If the housekeeper was lucky she would have enough room there.

Life Below Stairs: True Lives of Edwardian Servants by Alison Maloney

The Dark by Lemony Snickett and Jon Klassen

Stairs = Descent into terror

the dark stairs

Geronimo Stilton

In this humorous series we have a mouse who is terrified of entering an attic. This is a small inversion on the norm, which is to be terrified of entering a basement.

Geronimo Stilton staircase_600x911

Courage The Cowardly Dog: The Demon In The Mattress (1999)

high-angle-view-of-staircase
a great high angle view of a staircase

Midnight Feast by Slap Happy Larry (2013)

Stairs = descent into dreamlike other reality

midnight feast stairs

David’s Waiting Day by Bernadette Watts (1977)

At various other points in this picture book we see the young David gazing out at the reader from the second-storey bedroom window.

We don’t find out what it is David is waiting for until the end of the book (when we learn he has been waiting for his mother to come home with a new baby.) In the meantime, there is a deliberately ominous mood to this book, depicted here by the staircase in silhouette and backgrounded in black. David doesn’t know what’s going on. The mysteries of childbirth are kept from him. David is The Boy Upstairs.

David's Waiting Day staircase

Midnight Feast by Slap Happy Larry (2014)

I am a big fan of stairs in picture books — here, in the wider story, Stairs = economic hierarchy.

Page 15a of Midnight Feast
Page 15a of Midnight Feast
Angusine Jeanne (A. J.) MacGregor (Scottish-English, 1881-1961) stairs
Angusine Jeanne (A. J.) MacGregor (Scottish-English, 1881-1961) stairs
by Mary Petty (1899-1976) 1948
by Mary Petty (1899-1976) 1948

The Female Injures Male Trope In Children’s Stories

Italian writer, Waltz Molina (1915-1997) woman hitting man with roses

Female on male violence is often used for comedic effect in storytelling. This holds true even when male on female violence would never fly. Is this a double standard?

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.

This illustration is by Italian Waltz Molina.

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

TV tropes calls female on male violence a double standard. This is a double standard in that the same inverted would be worse. It would also likely be more damaging, as people who have been through male puberty are have, on average, about twice the upper body strength as people who’ve been through female puberty. (The difference in lower body strength is nowhere near as big.)

This graph shows that almost all men are stronger than almost all women.

In the TV show Everything’s Gonna Be Okay, one episode explores whether female on male violence really is a double standard, if the person who hits the other is tiny, weak and effects no actual physical harm. As audience we are left to decide for ourselves whether girls hitting boys does more harm to boys, and whether girls should be punished differently.

Genevieve, the diminutive character from Everything’s Gonna Be Okay. Genevieve hits a boy she believes raped her autistic sister.

Header illustration is by Italian artist Waltz Molina (1915-1997).

Fathers In Children’s Literature

Nils von Dardel (Swedish, 1888-1943), My daughter, 1923. Watercolor on paper, 45 x 28 cm. Private collection

THE FATHERLY IDEAL

Historian Bernard Wishy has noted that as paternal rule in the New England household faded in reality, it flourished a good while longer in story and myth. In popular advice books for parents of the 1830s written by Jacob Abbott, Samuel Goodrich, and others, “it was the mothers who were at the centre of home life, [but] in books for children written by the same authors, the father was clearly in control of the family. This difference,” according to Wishy, “is not surprising for it had not been decreed that the mother formally replace the father. She had, for the sake of practicality, stepped into roles in the nurture literature that the American father could not play well.” Under the new regime, not least of the mother’s primary duties was “to teach the child that he owed supreme respect, love and obedience to his father.”

Minders of Make-Believe by Leonard S. Marcus

The father who goes to work (during daylight), then comes home to protect his family overnight was the middle class ideal. The city in the background of the 1952 illustration below suggests the father commutes and earns a big wage, returning to the utopian suburb each evening.

“Daddy’s Home”, illustration by Jerome Rozen, 1952
N.C. Wyeth (American, 1882-1945), After The Day's Work, 1923
N.C. Wyeth (American, 1882-1945), After The Day’s Work, 1923
Illustration of 'The Father whose return is greeted by young voices' by Hugh Thomson, 1907 edition of Silas Marner
Illustration of ‘The Father whose return is greeted by young voices’ by Hugh Thomson, 1907 edition of Silas Marner
Austin Briggs 1949
Austin Briggs 1949
Eileen Alice Soper (Enfield, Middlesex, 26 March 1905 - 18 March 1990; England) window father
Eileen Alice Soper (Enfield, Middlesex, 26 March 1905 – 18 March 1990; England)

If anyone’s in any doubt about the image of father as protector, take the illustration below, which is selling insurance.

STAYING SAFE #1 NORMAN ROCKWELL (1894-1978) FATHER’S RETURN HOME 1973 American Mutual Insurance Company Christmas card
Hans Andersen Brendekilde (7 April 1857 – 30 March 1942) The Arrival Of The Christmas Tree (Danish)
Hans Andersen Brendekilde (7 April 1857 – 30 March 1942) The Arrival Of The Christmas Tree (Danish)

TERRIBLE FATHERS

A case could be made that there are already plenty of flawed parents in young adult literature. Richie, from Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park immediately comes to mind. Is there a more despised character in YA? For me, no.

Bryan Bliss

‘I hate him,’ Eleanor would say.
‘I hate him so much I wish he was dead,’ Maisie would answer.
‘I hope he falls off a ladder at work.’
‘I hope he gets hit by a truck.’
‘A garbage truck.’
‘Yeah,’ Maisie would say, gritting her teeth, ‘and all the garbage will fall on his dead body.’

from Eleanor and Park

Fathers In Picturebooks

It’s common for a young boy in a picture book to want to impress his father. This can even drive the plot, forming the ‘Desire’ part of the story structure (Desires to prove himself to his father).

Examples are the Spot books by Eric Hill and some of the Dr Seuss books — notably his first, And To Think I Saw It On Mulberry Street, in which a boy tries to impress his father by concocting an interesting story about what he saw on the way to school:

When I leave home to walk to school,
Dad always says to me,
“Marco, keep your eyelids up
And see what you can see.”

This desire line feels to me like a specifically masculine one; I can’t easily think of picture books (or even stories for older children) in which a boy or a girl must prove themselves to their mother. In storybook world, a mother’s unconditional love is taken for granted whereas that of a father must be hard won.

Fathers In Fairytales

Hänsel and Gretel, The Brothers Grimm. Illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger, 1979. I’ve always thought the father in this story (as retold today) gets off lightly. All the blame for child abandonment is heaped upon the (step-)mother, and no internal story blame is directed to the father, who stood by and let his own children be left to die in the woods… twice.

There is hardly a tale in the Grimms’ collection‘ — argued the Grimm scholar and fairy-tale activist Jack Zipes, in 1995 — ‘that does not raise the issue of parental oppression.‘ And yet, ‘we rarely talk about how the miller’s daughter is forced by her father into a terrible situation of spinning straw into gold, or how Rapunzel is locked up by her foster mother and maltreated just as children are often locked up in closets and abused today.’

Frances Spufford, The Child That Books Built
Satyr with his Son, Georg Jahn  1907
Satyr with his Son, Georg Jahn 1907

Fathers and Disney Fairytale Adaptations

“My Heart Belongs To Daddy”: Fathers, Bad Boys, and Disney Princesses

Fatherhood is a powerful force in Disney Princess films. Fathers bequeath nobility and exert influence over their daughters, whose marriages often effect the reproduction of economic capital. Even when the fathers of Princesses are absent, as in Snow White, Cinderella, and The Princess and the Frog, they instigate storylines: Snow White’s and Cinderella’s fathers marry cruel stepmothers, setting in train narratives in which the monstrous feminine is central. Angela Carter describes this scheme in her story “Ashputtle or The Mother’s Ghost,” where she reflects that in “Aschenputtel,” the Grimms’ version of the Cinderella story, the father is “the unmoved mover, the unseen organising principle, like God.” In The Princess and the Frog, Tiana’s father has died by the time the story begins, but not before impressing upon Tiana the imperative of hard work, which, he promises, will enable her to “do anything you set your mind to.” Disney’s Sleeping Beauty features two fathers: Aurora’s father King Stegan and his friend King Hubert, who arrange the betrothal of Aurora to Prince Phillip, Hubert’s son. While the Sleeping Beauty scenario comprises the most explicit reference to practices of dynastic marriage in aristocratic families, all the Princess films strenuously advocate heterosexual romance and (with the exception of Pocahontas) marriage, so arguing for the maintenance of “traditional” social and economic orders.

from The Disney Middle Ages: A Fairy-Tale and Fantasy Past by Tison Pugh, Susan Aronstein

Fathers And Domestic Work

There is much to be said about mothers in children’s literature. While authors try to get adult figures out of the way so children can solve their own problems, if there is a parent hanging around the house, it is usually the mother.

Although, arguably, social roles are changing and in more and more households domestic work, including food provisioning, is being shared, cultural change is slow. Vincent Duindam, citing the work of Dr. Morgan, confirms that most of the evidence shows that there are “very slow changes in the direction of men’s participation” in domestic duties and child care and this is supported by the lack of male figures performing these roles in children’s books. In the conservative world of children’s literature it is the female, rather than the male, in general, who is still linked to the domestic.

Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children

Absent Fathers

Where the father is absent from a children’s story, no matter how terrible he was, the child character often longs for him. (The same is true of absent mothers.) Examples include:

  • Lenny’s Book Of Everything by Karen Foxlee
  • Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak
  • Fly Me Home by Polly Ho-Yen
  • Furthermore by Tahereh Mafi
  • You May Already Be A Winner by Ann Dee Ellis
  • Dog-man: A tale of two kitties by Dav Pilkey
Thomas Benjamin Kennington - Widowed  and Fatherless
Thomas Benjamin Kennington – Widowed and Fatherless

In modern children’s stories the fathers are absent for a wide variety of reasons, sometimes those reasons are left unexplained. In 20th century children’s stories the fathers are often absent because they are at war.

Into The Forest by Anthony Browne is a stand-out example of a picture book about a child’s emotional landscape as the father is away at war.

Fathers Preparing and Serving Food

from David's Waiting Day by Bernadette Watts, 1977. The story looks progressive, until you realise the father may only be cooking because his wife is away giving birth.
from David’s Waiting Day by Bernadette Watts, 1977. The story looks progressive, until you realise the father may only be cooking because his wife is away giving birth.
Mr Gumpy's Outing table_700x380
Mr Gumpy seems to be a single father with two children and a farmyard full of slightly anthropomorphised animals. So I’m going to assume he made tea himself.

It is rare to find instances of males providing food in children’s literature. One such is Will in Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife. Will nurtures Lyra through food, cooking an omelet for her. He has knowledge of relevant food rules and domestic hygiene practices. It could be argued, however, that Will is feminized by the role he performs, especially given that he is also earlier seen to be caring for his sick mother. Pullman’s framing of the boy as having murdered a man may serve the purpose of counteracting the feminizing effect of his implicit domestication.

Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children

As Daniel points out, when dads serve food in children’s fiction they are often less ‘fussy’ about its presentation than the mothers. They’ll provide a meal, and sometimes the meal ends up really delicious and fun, but he’ll slap the knives and forks onto the table rather than expecting them to be laid out, as a mother might. Instead of acting in loco parentis, the dad in a story is often ‘babysitting’. In real life, too, you often hear men talking about ‘babysitting’ their own children, but women will almost never use this term when describing their own mothering duties.

Daniel does offer one example of a nurturing male who provides food in children’s literature, and that’s Michael from David Almond’s Skellig. He looks after an old man presumed to be a tramp, bringing him Chinese takeaway (but in a way that puts me right off Chinese takeaway, I must say).

Examples

  • King Arthur
  • Zeus
  • The Tempest
  • The Godfather
  • Rick in Casablanca
  • King Lear
  • Hamlet
  • Aragorn and Sauron in The Lord of the Rings
  • Agamemnon in the Iliad
  • Citizen Kane
  • Star Wars
  • Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire
  • American Beauty
  • Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman
  • Fort Apache
  • Meet Me In St. Louis
  • Mary Poppins
  • Tootsie
  • The Philadelphia Story
  • Othello
  • Red River
  • Howards End
  • Chinatown

To this end, it’s useful to take a look at various ‘King tropes’ when understanding the roles — the strengths and shortcomings — typical of fathers in fiction.

King Tropes

The Good King

The High King

Related Links

My Dad by Anthony Browne cover
My Dad by Anthony Browne cover

Header painting: Nils von Dardel (Swedish, 1888-1943), My daughter, 1923. Watercolor on paper, 45 x 28 cm. Private collection

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 big struggle. 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

Being late, Norman Rockwell (1894–1978)

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.)

Watchin The Clock by Gus Kahn and Seymour Simons, Art by Helen Van Doorn Morgan

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

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 setup
Home 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.

Header illustration: Being late, Norman Rockwell (1894–1978)